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Hungarian Identity, Globalisation and EU Accession
by Gusztáv Kosztolányi
HUNSOR publication

In his speeches, the former Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán examined the challenges facing the nation in maintaining and further consolidating its identity within the new context created by the collapse of Communism and the move towards EU membership. In his sweeping survey of Hungarian history, he arrived at the era of Communism, when Hungary lost its distinct personality and was consigned to the anonymous, drab realm behind the Iron Curtain, a sort of mysterious 'wasteland' beyond the reach of civilisation ('here be dragons' as mapmakers once put it):


Then, after the Second World War, we gradually faded to grey, becoming just one more country among the unfortunate, occupied Socialist states of Eastern Europe. We can best see how grey we had become by taking a quick look around us... We can see it in the type of buildings, the type of material culture and in what we were able to create in the era of our recent past. Then came the 1970s, which may be encapsulated by that decade's concepts of the 'happiest barracks' and 'goulash Communism'. That is the condition we were in when we arrived at the 1990s, at the time when there was an attempt to change systems; (1) ever since then we have been looking for, we have been trying somehow to express properly, to sum up exactly, what it means to be Hungarian, what exactly we are and what exactly our ambitions and aims are. This image, however, is emerging only very slowly from the pieces of the mosaic (of history), which we have occasionally managed to clutch on to. Yet history does not normally grant more than ten years of respite. We have slowly but surely used up this time, and if we ourselves cannot produce an image that gets straight to the heart of what we are, if we cannot produce an image that both captures the essence (of the Hungarian nation) and is convincing, then others will produce it in our stead.

I feel that the juncture at which the Fidesz Hungarian Civic Party's Parliamentary group has chosen to organise this conference is a fortunate one. (2) I feel that there are compelling forces operating both inside and outside the country urging us to complete the work which has not been completed in the course of the last ten years as soon as possible... I sense pressure of this type coming from the outside. I can feel it on the part of European politics and on the part of the economy and the world of business. Recently, there has been an increase in positive echoes about Hungary. Here, for instance, we have the European Union's annual report concerning Hungary, the latest report from the World Bank, the IMF assessment and so on. Some image or other emerges from these. As a general rule, this kind of report is devoid of spirit, therefore the image arising from it is equally devoid of spirit. The following picture emerges all the same: Hungary is inhabited by a small nation belonging to East-Central Europe. The Hungarian people are hardworking. (If Hungary is conceived of as a pupil) it is at the top of the class and, provided it does its homework, as it has been doing up to now, by the way, it might even graduate to become a member of the European Union. Our image in the world is something along these lines. Although it is somewhat better than the image of goulash Communism, it is still nothing to be particularly proud of, and it rarely touches the soul.

I believe that, before accession to the European Union, it would be good to create an image of Hungary which not only has more life to it, but which is also positively vibrant with life. It should have colour and its own unique flavour and it should come into being before we are squeezed irrevocably into the mould of that image of us as an industrious, ambitious, but otherwise not particularly exciting, small East-Central European people. If we consider the pressures brought to bear on us from the economic sphere, I think I do not exaggerate when I say that the foreign investors who have arrived in Hungary are now the leading lights in our economic life. From the point of view of business, they began to draw a favourable picture of Hungary quite some time ago. We should not accept this with feelings of hostility, but rather with feelings of joy. It is important that the image the world of business has of Hungary be shaped by those who have an interest in Hungary being an economically successful country. At the same time, however, we must recall that the economy is but one dimension of life as a whole, and it is by no means certain that it is the single most important one. While business life is shaping a particular image of Hungary appropriate to its own dimensions, we must endeavour to complement this with other elements, and thus avoid one-sidedness...

In the course of the last ten years, we have grown accustomed to accounting for the uncertainty of our own self-image by saying that the changes that have taken place during the past decade have occurred too quickly. I cannot deny that this is true. In the space of ten years we have had to build up a constitutional democracy, a market economy based on private ownership, a banking system and a new cultural life, to mention only a few of our ventures. During a ten-year period, major undertakings of this type are always swift, and, as a result, give rise to a degree of uncertainty. There is little time at our disposal to stand still and take stock of what we are actually doing. Activity is ceaseless, and we are swept along by the current of what we are supposed to do in the days to come. This is not enough in itself, however, to explain why the Hungarian self-image is riddled with uncertainty. I believe that it is worthwhile to take another factor into account... namely that it is not just Hungary that has been subject to such rapid change... The world around us has also changed rapidly ... Nothing in the world is the same as it was ten years ago. This is true not only of Hungary, but also of the world around us. It is true not only of political and economic life in the world, but also of technology and the dimensions of the future. In creating a new image of Hungary, we must overcome not only the uncertainties originating from within, but we must also respond in our self-image to the changes taking place in the world around us...

In my opinion, the task ahead is not to create something new in place of something old, but to try to incorporate the old, the new - and this includes what lies in the future - into a unified framework. Using the tools of language and communication, we shall try to fit together these pieces of the mosaic into a uniform whole.

Ladies and gentlemen, now all that remains for me to do is to respond to the question of what the government's role in all this should be. >From one point of view, the most important task is naturally incumbent upon the government. No matter how surprising this might seem, however, this point of view does not envision the government inventing and creating the national image. This is because there is at our disposal a whole host of individuals better qualified and more numerous than those available within the government in the economic sector, in tourism, in intellectual life, and so on. The elaboration of the constituent parts should be left up to them rather than anyone else. The role of the government is indispensable for the same reasons that every worldview and ideology is indispensable, regardless of the prevailing fashions in world politics and ideology at a given moment. The role of the state will continue to be indispensable even in the centuries that lie ahead of us. There is simply no other institution capable of harmonising, fitting together and co-ordinating this work. This is the government's task. Let us admit that in the last ten years we have had little time or energy left over for this work. Indeed, let me admit that in the last one and a half years since there has been a non-Socialist government in power in Hungary we have had very little time and energy left over for this work...

...the government will have time now to rush to your aid and to align and co-ordinate the work of distilling the essence (of the work) that you have carried out, of putting it into a finalised picture, because Hungary is in the process of living through a change in era... The period of transition from Communism to democracy, comprising ten long and difficult years, lies behind us, it is a period which has come to an end. Today, Hungary is not called upon to deal with the difficulties of transition, but is confronted with the same issues as are faced by the other democratic states of the world... there is no reason for us to lapse into self-pity. It wouldn't get us anywhere.

Mr Orbán's speech eloquently catalogues some of the most important aspects of identity: it is context-bound, subject to change and includes both an internal and an external component (broadly analogous to self-image and the image others have of an individual or group). Placing the emphasis on history, he calls for the clarification of the national essence, combining elements of the past, present and future, in an effort to regain the initiative. This essence would be resistant not only to the ebb and flow of time, but also to possible attacks and counter-depictions from elsewhere. In his view, Hungary, having dispelled the doubts, confusion and reticence from within, would be better placed to fulfil its destiny as an equal partner in Europe and the world.

The need to revise Hungarian identity so that it can respond to the demands of the modern world is not an empty rhetorical device, but an essential requirement for guaranteeing the relevance of the undertaking in the minds of Hungarian citizens. By charging consecrated experts with the task of giving content to the invigorated identity, this notion of relevance is further reinforced. There is, of course, the danger that experts might be looked upon as an elite, fighting a battle in the newspaper columns and in front of the TV cameras, out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Hungarians; their conclusions will none the less emanate from a source closer to the people than the government, one that is not inherently tainted by association with the practices of the days of unbridled intimidation under Communism. Only if the new identity is accepted as relevant will it stand any chance of long-term success: only then will it take root and gradually disappear into hidden domain of assumption. Once it is taken for granted, it will cease to be contested openly and will subtly begin to colour attitudes and assumptions. (3)

The role to be played by the government in the establishment of an identity is radically different from that which it played under Communism, illustrating the underlying change in values that has taken place. Mr Orbán's approach is to give a gentle nudge to society, to harness the natural energies and creativity for the benefit of all Hungarian society as a whole, tapping into resources instead of brutally commandeering them. The state takes a back seat, content to act as a benign sponsor, a promoter, consciously avoiding any charge of manipulation. In a world driven by commercial values, this discreet role is distinctly more palatable.

By contrast, identity under Communist rule was centralised, prescribed and imposed from above. Its fixed categories were not open to discussion and adherence to the ideology was rigidly enforced. Official promotions of Communist identity were ubiquitous, serving both as a reminder of the demand for conformity and an implicit warning of the penalties for transgressing acceptable boundaries. One of the wittiest accounts of the days of Rákosi's reign of terror, when this demand for conformity was at its peak, was provided by Lóránt Czigány, an eminent literary historian:

Evidently no one can recall how many photographs of the wise leader of our people (Rákosi) were then in general circulation. Three hundred thousand, three million or maybe even thirty million? Unfortunately we will never know for sure. I do recollect, however, and others have vouched for this as well, that there weren't any display windows, offices, bureaux, classrooms, shop premises, railway station waiting rooms, small pubs, cafes, espresso bars, trade union HQs, editors' suites, theatre lobbies, NHS surgeries, handicraft workshops, sports centre dressing rooms, factory gates, tractor bays, milk bars, firemen's barracks or chess clubs which did not have at least one photograph gracing the walls. And the fact that I never saw a single photograph in public toilets is something I can only ascribe to the fact that, given the chronic shortage of toilet paper, the government could not run the risk that even the portrait of the wise leader would fall victim to 'the efforts made to eliminate the shortage of' toilet paper. (4)

It was also a deeply hypocritical affair, with mass parades and demonstrations carefully orchestrated to give the appearance of spontaneous manifestations of popular sentiment and solidarity with the cause; 'going through the motions' was raised to a supreme virtue. This artificiality, and the blatant exercise of power it implied, are wisely given a wide berth by Mr Orbán in his speech on the formation of a new Hungarian identity.

Globalisation as threat, the EU as antidote

From the example of Central Europe, we know that the nation state as a traditional political actor is not merely incapable of asserting society's interests, but is occasionally also incapable of even stating them in its co-operation with global powers. We must endeavour to persuade the EU-state to look upon the representation of these interests as its primary task... Recent history has only rarely given us an opportunity... to be allowed to become members of a larger unit while preserving our national identity. It may well be true that the nation state thus renounces certain elements of its sovereignty, but, on this basis, it can more effectively concentrate on education, health care and protecting public safety. (5)


Hungary does not exist in isolation, but is linked by a thousand threads to other countries, regions and international organisations. It is obvious that a foreign citizen visiting Hungary will only find the country attractive if there is public safety, with the requisite infrastructure and democratic laws. Because it represents a considerable source of income to Hungary, tourism is good for the country, but more than just tourists come here. Businessmen, investors and, unfortunately, criminals also make their way to Hungary. Multinational companies are conquering the country across the most diverse areas, spanning from industrial and agricultural production through commercial distribution to telecommunications. We have to look the realities squarely in the eye: although there are many advantages to this for the Hungarian side, the fundamental aim of international capital is not to make Hungary flourish, but to make profits either directly or indirectly (for example, by getting hold of markets). In order to do this, foreign capital requires a relatively cheap and a relatively well-qualified workforce and the imported goods or the goods they manufacture here squeeze the home-grown producers out of the domestic (as well as the foreign) market. (6)


If I have understood the contributions correctly, the authors see the dangers rather than the opportunities in the process of globalisation. The remorseless invasion of multinationals leads them to fear for the country's economy and independence; they want to protect humanity's traditional communities and human values from the increasing 'technologizing' of life; they see chaos threatening the world, the globalisation of production 'devouring societies'; in the long term only 'survival can be the aim'; at best only a radical 'paradigm shift' can save humanity and, within humanity, Hungary. (7)

In the brave new world of cut-throat competition, where even cultural output is subordinated to the dictates of commercialism, the doom-mongers (and politicians who wish to peddle their patent remedies for entirely selfish reasons) reflect anxieties concerning the decline of national sovereignty and the depredations of greedy multinationals, whose sole interest in the unfortunate host countries is to exploit their helpless workers. At the same time, the irresistible drive towards ever greater homogenisation, aided and abetted by an inundation of quick-fix, junk culture products, threatens to eliminate national traditions, eroding the collectivity's sense of itself as a unique entity, undermining its pride and confidence.

It is against this backdrop that EU membership is presented as the most effective safeguard of Hungarian identity, the only rational choice for a small nation unable to defend its interests effectively against the onslaught of global capital and market forces. Juxtaposing the official version of the benefits of EU membership with the pessimists' version of the full brunt of what Hungary would have to bear were it to remain unprotected by the bastions of Fortress Europe, the following dichotomies present themselves:


Staying Outside in an Era of Globalisation





limited self-determination

complete vulnerability

preservation of identity, language, culture

erosion of identity, language and culture









being in control

being passively swept along



prosperity (material and cultural)

impoverishment (material and cultural)


instability (though this has been alleviated somewhat through membership of NATO)

Many of these bear a close resemblance to the dichotomies which emerge when comparisons are drawn between Communism and the EU in official reappraisals of history:



the past

the future



dictatorship; barbarism; subjugation

freedom, security, self-determination

arbitrary dispensation of 'justice'; laws on paper, but not in practice

rule of law

The depiction of EU membership as a political and moral imperative has remained fairly consistent in spite of changes in government. (8) The essential preparations for joining the EU have compelled Hungary to adapt to a series of rigorous entry requirements and it is on this level that the EU represents Hungary's best prospect of sustaining the momentum towards continued social change. This is clearly recognised by Kálmán Kulcsár, then the head of the Political Science Institute of the Hungarian Academy of the Sciences, in his article in Külpolitika:

It is beyond all shadow of a doubt that no stone should be left unturned, even when willingness to make sacrifices might entail political risks. In the absence, however, of quantitative and qualitative investments of foreign capital far in excess of the dimensions in which they have been made available up to now, the country can hardly be expected to reach a level at which it could become Euro-compatible from an economic point of view. A growth in investments of this order of magnitude can only be expected, however, if the corresponding infrastructure, including continued effective improvements in institutional and legal harmonisation, is created, and if society also becomes Euro-compatible in its mentality. In other words: if the rule of law prevails not only in the spirit of the constitution and in its institutions, but if it also becomes part and parcel of state bodies and the everyday behaviour of citizens... If public administration develops into a professional, autonomous body serving society and... ceases to show devotion to the parties currently in power. And furthermore, if the political parties themselves can also bring themselves in line with Europe by settling the issues of their social base and organisational structure, by elaborating clear concepts and an identity comparable to those of their European sister parties, and by ensuring that they respect civilised standards in their leadership and in practice, then the functioning of our institutions will also become Euro-compatible. (9)

The groundwork must be laid prior to membership, however, as the mere fact of membership is not enough to complete the process, even when coupled with funding, as Dr László Práger points out:

Hungary's long term development, existence and welfare, however, will be guaranteed by the growth of those sectors linked to the human sphere and to branches of activity that transcend the purely economic (environmental protection, culture, the growth of a thriving middle class), a growth that will be swifter than what has gone before. All of these aims are unattainable without an uninterrupted and speedy accession to the EU and without using the additional resources the EU can bring. At the same time, these are the sectors where we must lay the foundations of our own, national efforts, and our own economic and political commitments. (10)

Embracing EU identity does not entail a rejection of the national:

The concept of transnationalism does not amount to a denial of the importance of national identity, rejecting only the structuring institution of the territorially-based nation state. The national community, founded on ethnic origins and cultural belonging, will always remain the fundamental characteristic of human existence. In this sense, international relations are being transformed into supra-national relations (11)


I recommend that we characterise our historical, linguistic and cultural situation by using the expression 'Island Hungary'. In part, this designation originates from our country's position in Central Europe as an island-like part of NATO's European 'continent'... This situation is currently more favourable (than it was in the past): our island-like position has remained constant linguistically and culturally, but we have an abundance of relationships that link us with our neighbours, and it is hardly open to doubt that our island-like existence will continue to be typical in the long term. Although the value of this is already apparent, it will become more apparent if we also join the European Union on an organisational level as well, since within the EU national, linguistic and, more generally, local peculiarities will once again come to the fore. We must make use of these peculiarities as an endowment. For this reason, Island Hungary does not signify isolation, but politico-cultural uniqueness with all the opportunities this implies (12)

Warning against a naive faith in the EU as a panacea for all Hungary's ills, János Áder, the Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, situates the return to Europe in its historical context:

The impact of Hungary's conversion to Christianity and Saint Stephen's deeds in founding the Hungarian State a thousand years ago can still be felt today and marked out our country's place on the cultural map of European civilisation. Now, on the threshold of a new millennium, integration - from a certain vantage-point - is nothing more than an expression of fidelity to this tradition. At the same time, it is a clear manifestation of our desire to occupy a place in the community of Western democracies appropriate to us as equal partners (13)

According to this view, EU membership thus restores a continuity broken off by the momentary aberration of Communism, when Hungary was torn from her 'natural' sphere of interest to gravitate exclusively eastwards, abandoned by the West, the family of nations to which it belonged. Whereas Hungary had little choice about becoming a Soviet satellite, the application to the EU is portrayed as a positive act of affirmation, a recognition of the country's proper destiny, the first opportunity in decades for Hungary to take its fate into its own hands. (14)

But not even the enthusiasm of the proponents of EU accession in Hungary is boundless. Adopting an overly simplistic approach runs the risk of weakening the credibility of the venture: the EU is not an earthly paradise, the streets of Budapest will not be paved with gold after entry, more sacrifices will have to be made and their magnitude should not be underestimated. As one commentator put it, EU accession will involve just as much effort as the changeover from Communism to democracy, taxing the strength of individuals, families and small communities. (15) In certain areas, there is a fundamental clash of interests between Hungary and the EU. For example, in agriculture. The EU already spends the lion's share of its budget on agricultural subsidies and Hungarian membership is likely to exacerbate the problem of surplus production. The issue of land purchase by foreigners is also highly contentious and has not yet been satisfactorily resolved. (16) Then there is the ever-present factor of the Hungarian minorities. On entry, the Hungarian frontiers will coincide with the external frontiers of the EU, necessitating far more stringent border controls. Hungarian minority members will be subject to tougher visa requirements, which might jeopardise their livelihoods (if they commute across the border for work purposes) due to the delays of a more cumbersome procedure, and might discourage them from maintaining ties with friends and relatives in the 'Mother Country.'(17)

The relative abruptness of the transition from Communism to capitalism has been painful for many. Hungarian society is becoming increasingly polarised between those dubbed as the winners (the privileged minority) and the losers (the majority, struggling to make ends meet). The nostalgia for Communism felt by many can be explained in part at least by the role of the State. After Rákosi was deposed and the dust had settled after 1956, the rules of the game became fairly clear: the state would look after you and take care of your every need, as long as you towed the line and gave politics a body swerve. Állam Bácsi, Uncle State, provided a safety net, a minimum standard of living for all. The contrast between knowing exactly where you stand and trying to find your feet in a world with very little time or spare funds for the weakest elements of society is marked and unpleasant for those caught up in it, particularly for the most vulnerable. From the perspective of the bottom of the heap, the days of Communism were days of full employment, job security, a time when crime was at a minimum and it was safe to walk the streets at night, when young people were not exposed to the temptations of drugs to the extent they are today, when one's sense of self-worth was not determined by the health of one's bank balance. Rightly or wrongly, the EU is tainted by association with the spread of vadkapitalizmus, unbridled, predatory capitalism, a state in which everyone is left to his own devices to fend for himself; a state in which the law lags behind in terms of affording adequate protection to counterbalance the might of unscrupulous employers; and a state in which an adequate welfare system has yet to be put in place. Hence Viktor Orbán's emphasis on the material aspects of Hungary's future:

When, in the course of their rise to prosperity, the most advanced countries of Europe reached the stage at which a process of continuous economic development was set in motion, as is now the case in Hungary, the prospect of the economic advancement of the masses opened up before them, as is now the case in Hungary, in my opinion. Once they arrived at that stage, these countries outlined quite clearly what they felt they needed in the future. We must do the same. I outline the aims for the future in ten points: everyone should have three children, three rooms and four wheels. (18)

These ambiguities must also be addressed by Hungary's leaders if the slow pilgrimage towards the EU is to be completed.

Globalisation as opportunity: identity as commodity

It is the natural ambition of any people to present itself in a favourable light to foreigners. This is particularly important for the small nations whose ambition it is to join the family of the democratic nations of Europe. In our propaganda on behalf of our country, we can pursue two closely related aims. First, that we make our country attractive to tourists from all over the world; and second, that we make the rest of the world aware of the fact that, in the course of our history, we Hungarians have always made the most strenuous efforts to shake off the yoke of oppression, of the dictatorships foisted upon us, and to fight for greater freedom. (19)

Alongside the official depictions of Hungary intended for EU consumption in the run-up to accession, the Hungarian tourist industry is in the process of revamping the country's image to lure travellers to the thermal springs, restaurants and museums of the capital as well as to the lesser known attractions of the provinces. In the full knowledge that the tourist sector offers virtually unparalleled potential for growth, the government has set aside a budget of HUF 4.3 billion to investigate perceptions of Hungary amongst EU countries as well as Hungary's immediate neighbours in an effort to come up with a new strategy for 'selling' Hungary abroad. (20) The primary focus here will be on differentiating the information and image deemed relevant according to the target group.

Tourism makes a substantial contribution to maintaining the health of the balance of payments in Hungary, comprising nine per cent of GDP (with an official revenue of 2.5 billion dollars) and employing some 300,000 people. In 1998, 32 million visitors sought out Hungary as a destination. The capacity of hotels has increased from 25,000 places in 1969 to 100,000 in 1999. In spite of this, there has been no investment to match the project that graced Budapest with some of its most alluring developments, such as the Fórum, Átrium Hyatt, Buda Penta and Novotel hotels, when a 300 million dollar loan was taken up from Austria just over twenty years ago. The Congress Centre, the 16-lane frontier crossing point at Hegyeshalom, hotels in Hévíz and Sárvár and Ferihegy Terminal Two likewise owe their existence to this enterprise. (21)

Globalisation stimulates the creation and establishment of a commercial identity on a hitherto unprecedented scale. This identity may have little or nothing to do with the 'real' Hungary as viewed from within, and is extremely susceptible to the whims of fashion, but it thrives nevertheless, splayed over the thousands of tourist brochures that extol the virtues of exquisite Hungarian cuisine and the climate at Lake Balaton. Traditions become trademarks, quaintness and uniqueness are at a premium, exoticism, spectacle and a romanticised version of the past predominate in the gypsy serenade, the moonlit Danube cruise, the Puszta bareback riding display tour of Hungary. The average tourist seeks a convenient package that may be consumed at leisure, a 'Hungary experience' to fill the photo album with pristine snapshots of unusual buildings, monuments and locals attired in colourful folk costumes. With the notable exceptions of the intrepid new breed of adventure travellers and those looking for a cut price holiday where they can get a cheap suntan (here I think mainly of the hordes of Germans and Austrians who descend on the bed and breakfasts, camping sites and weekend villas of Lake Balaton), tourists hanker after a fantasy that can be enjoyed from the safety of an air-conditioned coach in a huddle of fellow nationals and the comfort of accommodation with satellite TV channels.

Critics lament the trivialisation of Hungary, forgetting as they reel off the list of great musicians, authors (who are sadly inaccessible to the vast majority of foreigners), inventors and Nobel prize winners that the country boasts, that the commercial identity is designed to tout custom and that the bulk of tourists want escapism, to forget for a few days the trials and tribulations of life and work at home in a fit of hedonism. To pontificate solemnly about how tourists and ordinary Hungarians inhabit separate universes (barring the crossover of service provision, though, it is true, the Hungarians here are always in a subordinate role) is all very well, but I wonder whether the self-appointed authorities themselves would set foot in some of the grubby dives frequented by those not fortunate enough to belong to the intellectual and/or wealthy elite. A temporary visitor's impression of Hungary is bound to be superficial and, as such, is a distortion if we are to be strict about our analysis, but even the stuffiest defender of Hungary's prestige would be forced to acknowledge the intrinsic value of a tourist heading back with happy memories, a positive predisposition which could prove very useful to Hungary in future. A Rubik's cube, a biro (Bíró) pen and a plate of steaming goulash soup might not be very dignified associations in the minds of foreigners when they think of Hungary, but they are no worse than the few clichés that filtered through to the West during the Communist era, and they are certainly better than the damaging contents of the ministerial blacklists that warn against chronic overcharging in Hungary. (After a number of flagrant cases hit the headlines and the Internet, damaging the reputation of the country as a whole, the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry - A Magyar Kereskedelmi és Iparkamara - has clamped down, drafting a code of conduct and carrying out inspections wherever complaints have come to its attention. Even the most notorious of practices - whereby restaurants hire call-girls to bring in punters, with the ladies in question posing as innocent students, eager to initiate the lonely businessmen into the delights of Hungarian life, and then ordering the most expensive items on the menu and wine list - cannot be penalised as the prices are now clearly listed in full. Previously they were omitted altogether). (22)

Hungary's commercial identity is still in its infancy compared with the Member States of the EU, and the public debate on what is typically Hungarian is only really unfolding now. Hungary has no Big Ben or Eiffel Tower (though Gustave Eiffel was the architect of the brick and iron masterpiece of Nyugati Station) instantly recognised across the world, but there is more urgent catching up to do with a little help from the EU coffers. A dear friend of mine recounted the litany of woes that marred her first trip to Budapest in 1991. As a strict vegetarian she would not allow fried food to pass her lips unless she knew exactly what it had been cooked in. This meant that the one standard main course of mushrooms in batter with potatoes was off-limits (these were the days before the advent of trendy salad bars). The side-dish vegetables consisted of diced carrots (as she put it, they tasted like they had been tinned before World War I) or an indeterminate green mush carefully prepared to obliterate all vitamin content. Her carnivorous boyfriend was able to tuck into a hearty soup, although he found that the obligatory half-inch layer of grease floating on top a bit of an appetite-killer. Then came the problem of satisfying the call of nature: the signs were only in Hungarian, Hölgyek and Urak. She was left to take her pick and pray she wouldn't be confronted with a row of urinals...The last straw was the taxi bill on the way back to the station to catch the evening train to Vienna: it turned out to be ten times what a Hungarian (if, of course, a Hungarian were willing to/could afford to fork out for a taxi ride rather than use public transport) would have been expected to pay.

There have been many improvements since then, never fear... and my friend was not deterred forever from returning to Budapest.

Globalisation holds out the prospect of development and expansion in business and paves the way for unprecedented opportunities in cultural exchange, which are as likely to kindle a renaissance as they are to extinguish the unique heritage and identity of a nation. The virtual space of the Internet overcomes the physical barriers of distance, allowing for the dissemination of information and knowledge. Rather than wallowing in depression about the hard graft and difficulties that lie ahead, we Hungarians should look with confidence to what the future holds in store for us, employing the ingenuity and inventiveness for which we are renowned (and which springs to mind whenever I enter a revolving door...) in the interests of us all.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 12 February 2000

Author's Note: A more extensive treatment of a number of these themes (in particular Communist identity in Hungary, the problems of establishing an identity within the EU, the Hungarian role in an enlarged Europe and within Central Europe as a region in the wider European context) may be found in my paper presented at the conference, Between the Bloc and a Hard Place, organised and hosted by the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, 5 to 7 November 1999. The paper will be published in the conference proceedings. Further details will be made available shortly.

Finally, the issue of the Hungarian minorities has only been touched upon here, although it occupies a prominent position in the debate on Hungarian identity. I intend to devote a future essay in CER to this topic. A third will examine another question crucial to understanding the new contours of Hungarian identity, namely the reassessment of the Revolution of 1956, and the tragic figure of Imre Nagy.

Archive of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's Csardas series of articles on Hungary


Click on the ^ to return to your place in the text.

  1. There are two terms used in Hungarian to denote the end of the era of Communist rule, rendszerváltás and rendszerváltoztatás. The first translates literally as "change of system". This is indeed a term commonly used in English-language translations, but which I prefer not to use, as it does not have the correct resonance. I generally render it as "the collapse of Communism", since this is the series of historical events in Hungary to which the term generally refers, and I feel that it has more meaning for an English-language audience. The latter expression means changing the system, and signifies the active process of bringing about the transformation from a Communist society to a democratic, functioning market economy. It is the latter that Orbán uses, emphasising the element of political will involved. ^
  2. The occasion of Mr Orbán's speech was 2 December 1999, at the National Image Conference ^
  3. By that stage, of course, it will no longer be associated with Mr Orbán, and therefore not be interpreted as a ploy aimed at boosting his popularity amongst the electorate ^
  4. See Nézz Vissza Haraggal (Look Back in Anger), Gondolat, Budapest, 1988, p 84. ^
  5. Attila Farkas, Magyar Nemzet, 30 July 1999 ^
  6. András S. Szabó, university lecturer, in Magyar Nemzet, 4 September 1999 ^
  7. Elemer Hankiss, sociologist, in Magyar Nemzet, 25 September 1999 ^
  8. Any government in Hungary, regardless of its political orientation, would be only too delighted to be able to take credit for the feat of bringing the prodigal back to the father's table. Its immortality in the annals of history would be assured... ^
  9. In: Az európai integráció és Magyarország, Külpolitika, Issue Three to Four, 1995, p 31 ^
  10. In his article in Magyar Nemzet, 11 November 1999 ^
  11. Victor Segesváry, in: A területi állam alkonya (Twilight of the Territorial State), Valóság, Issue Seven, 1998, p 8 ^
  12. Balázs Mezei in Magyar Nemzet, 12 June 1999 ^
  13. In an interview in Magyar Nemzet, 19 August 1998 ^
  14. Indeed, the political rhetoric surrounding Hungary's membership of NATO rehearses very similar arguments. NATO is only a prelude, a staging post on the road to full integration, however. The return will not be complete until Hungary is a fully-fledged Member State ^
  15. Zoltán Csefálvy in Magyar Nemzet, 27 November 1999 ^
  16. For a brief examination of these conflicts of interest, see András S, Szabó's article in Magyar Nemzet, 4 September 1999 ^
  17. A literal translation of the Hungarian term anyaország ^
  18. In his speech on the state of Hungary, held on 2 February 2000 ^
  19. Frigyes Solymosi in Magyar Nemzet, 22 January 2000 ^
  20. This is the so-called National Image Centre, staffed by the experts referred to by Mr Orbán's speech quoted at the beginning of the essay. It was set up within the Prime Minister's Office at the end of last year. For this and the following section, see the article in Magyar Nemzet, 23 December 1999 ^
  21. See the interview with József Czeglédi in Magyar Nemzet, 11 October 1999 ^
  22. Magyar Nemzet article, 3 May 1999 ^

by Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Source: Central Europe review

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