I FIRST CAME to Hungary thirty years ago as a young Australian diplomat, witnessing its democratic transition and conversion to a market economy after long decades in the Soviet bloc. Back in 1990 there was a tiny Australian Embassy – since closed as a cost-cutting measure – with a handful of local staff, in a grand but dilapidated old house facing Heroes’ Square in Budapest. Post-1989 was a time of great optimism in the West, with hopes high that the former Soviet satellites would come ‘home’ to Europe, adopt its highly developed social values and join its unified trading bloc, the precursor of the European Union. I doubted this would be a smooth transition. Yet Hungary’s skilled and entrepreneurial population attracted foreign investment, with Hungarians seemingly more interested in making money than in settling ancient scores. Breathtakingly beautiful Budapest attracted tourists, whose cash funded an explosion of new eateries and bars. A raft of new political parties emerged, including a bunch of bright youngsters led by the charismatic Viktor Orbán.
Back then the transition narrative for Hungary was optimistic and straightforward: assimilate into Europe’s institutions and norms, privatise and create a market-driven economy and watch as Hungary converges with the West. But what were these ‘European’ institutions and norms? They seemed to be developing so fast that it was hard to get a handle on just what ‘Europe’ meant. Did it mean Greece or Sweden? Germany or Ireland? A lot of regulations and directives were issued from Brussels, but there was little public debate about these. That struck me at the time as a risk. The privatisation bazaar also seemed to overwhelmingly benefit the same people who had held power in the old regime. And most striking of all was that everyday conversation was not so much about ‘Europe’, but about Hungary. Now that Hungary was no longer shackled by a powerful overseer, who were Hungarians and how should they assert their independence?
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