Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Hungarian Goulash

After more than a decade's worth of Western-prescribed economic reforms, people in Eastern Europe are saying they've had enough. On the day Hungary marked the 50th anniversary of the Soviet crushing of their uprising against the then Communist regime, thousands took to the streets. This was no reenactment. Hundreds were arrested, and a like number injured as police used rubber bullets, batons, and water canons to hold back a crowd trying to reach the parliament building in Budapest on October 24.

Hungary has been on edge for nearly two months since the country's prime minister was caught on tape, admitting he had cooked the books to paint a rosier economic picture. The lie helped win reelection in April for Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, a socialist in name, but uber capitalist in practice, who made millions, like other ethically-challenged go-getters in Eastern Europe, during the firesale privatization drives of the early 1990s.

Victory assured, Gyurcsany dropped a bomb, telling his compatriots the state of the economy wasn't that good after all, (in fact, the deficit was close to 11 percent, the highest in the EU), and belt-tightening reforms were needed to save the state's finances. Rosy became rotten.

More state cutbacks were to come, meaning gloomier prospects for many already reeling from reforms that have dismantled much of the old command economy system, but created little, outside of pockets of prosperity centered around the cities. Hungarian anger and disillusionment may be unchallenged in the region, but the underlining sentiments are not. Poland and Slovakia have booted out their "reformers", and in Bulgaria a relatively unknown journalist made it to a runoff vote for president, largely by campaigning against the reforms that have left most Bulgarians with lower purchasing power than before the 1989 fall of communism.

In Poland after years in the political wilderness, the Kaczynski twins came to power last year with pledges to weed out corruption and what they called "cliques" of former secret service agents, ex-communists and businessmen. They also preached a hodgepode of economic "populist" measures from i.e., boost social spending.

In Slovakia, a populist government has gained power by making a pact with two right-wing parties, one of whose leaders has opined that Hungarians living in Slovakia should be shipped back home across the Danube. Talk like that has fueled a feud between the two neighbors, marked by an attack by Slovak skinheads on a girl caught speaking Hungarian on her cell phone.

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