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Hungary versus Europe

Sean LHanley10 July 2013

Flags Makó

Photo: Burrows/Wikimedia commons

The EU must find a response to the increasingly aggressive nationalist turn of Hungary’s current government write Erin Marie Saltman and Lise Herman.

What does the European Union do about a member state that has recently been referred to as the ‘cancer in the middle of Europe’?

Hungary has come under increasing scrutiny from European Union bodies and international watchdogs since the 2010 national elections, when the Fidesz government won a two-thirds majority in parliament. Since then the right-wing government has installed large overhauls of the country’s foundational institutions, including a new constitution, fundamentally changing the functioning of the media, the judiciary, the Central Bank and the education system. Many of the government’s changes have mirrored propositions first put forth by Hungary’s radical right party, Jobbik.

These changes have been criticized by the European Union and international actors for reinstating undemocratic and authoritarian elements into Hungary’s governing foundations. While the Fidesz government has re-tailored some of their new legislation to appease international critics, they remain largely defensive of the new direction Hungary is taking. As a consequence, European institutions are having to confront the real challenge of defining their supranational power over members. (more…)

Chicago of the Balkans: Budapest in Hungarian literature 1900-1939

BlogAdmin27 June 2013

József körút (Boulevard), c. 1935, Pest as the centre of the press

József körút (Boulevard), c. 1935:
Pest as the centre of the press (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

From the golden age of Hungarian Jewish culture to inter-war anti-semitism, Budapest is constantly being rewritten, finds Gwen Jones.

Writing in 1910, a good decade before Al Capone and associates attained international notoriety, the Hungarian critic and arts patron Lajos Hatvany (1880-1961) introduced an imaginary Western European reader to the latest developments in his country’s culture and history. Tracing Hungary’s elevation following the 1867 Compromise with Austria, from ‘a rudimentary agricultural people to a higher rank’, into the era of economic growth and progress, he suggested that the country was not merely Europeanizing, it was Americanizing: ‘Budapest will become the Chicago of the Balkans’.

My book takes its title from Hatvany’s ironic remark, and discusses the ways in which Hungarian intellectuals viewed and wrote about their capital city from the turn of the twentieth century until the outbreak of World War Two. Referring to the speed with which Budapest grew in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and contrasting this with a dusty ‘Balkan’ backwardness on the periphery, Hatvany placed the Hungarian capital within an absurd contradiction. In this, he was far from alone.

While compiling the book’s index, which was by far the most entertaining part of the entire writing process, I began by listing references to ‘Budapest is Hungarian’, and then for ‘Budapest is not Hungarian’. Next, I compiled various images writers had used to describe the city over this forty-year period. Budapest had been compared to, among other things, Babel, Babylon and Sodom. It was a ‘New Jerusalem’ built by Jews, and ‘Judapest’, the latter description attributed to Karl Lueger, who was mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910. Budapest was the Hungarian Paris, a muse, a parvenu, a Potemkinopolis, a whore and a volcano. Moreover, the Buda side was stuffy and conservative, much like an elderly uncle, while Pest, the centre of commerce, journalism and cabaret, was a cocotte, a fashionable prostitute. In the words of Rezső Seress’s popular interwar chanson, Hiába van palotád Budán, ‘No point your having a villa in Buda, it’s Pest where you go for fun’. (more…)

Eastern Europe: Parties and the mirage of technocracy

Sean LHanley16 May 2013

Non-party technocratic governments of experts have stepped in to fill a political gap in several European countries. But in East and Central Europe they are not always what they seem, writes Seán Hanley

Many commentators saw the governments of non-party technocrats formed in Greece and Italy in 2011 as an ill omen for development of party-based democracy in Europe. Established parties, it is suggested, are turning to technocratic caretaker administrations as a device to manage economic and political crisis, which allows them both to duck (or least share) responsibility for painful austerity measures. Such non-partisan governments of experts, it is argued, can only widen the yawning the legitimacy gap between governors and governed.

 Technocratically-imposed austerity backed by big established parties can further undermine party democracy by provoking anti-elite electoral backlashes:  the rise of new populist parties or breakthroughs by previously marginal radical groups. This in turn, makes coalition formation difficult and further rounds of caretaker government or awkward left-right co-operation more likely. The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its difficult political aftermath, which has finally resulted in an implausible Grand Coalition, seems to illustrate this scenario perfectly. Sometimes, caretaker technocrats themselves even add to the uncertainty, revolting against their erstwhile masters and founding their own new parties.

 How has the drift towards technocratic crisis management impacted Central and Eastern Europe?  The region is sometimes grouped with debt- and crisis-afflicted Southern Europe states as an economically weak periphery of flawed and potentially unstable democracies, where technocratic crisis governments are the order of the day.

And not without reason. In March this year the President of Bulgaria Rosen Plevneliev appointed a technocratic caretaker government to lead the country to early elections on 12 May following the resignation of prime minister Boyko Borisov in the face of street protests against poverty, high utility prices and corruption. Hungary had a year-long technocrat-led government in 2009-11, as did the Czech Republic in 2009-10 following the fall the centre-right minority government of Miroslav Topolánek. Meanwhile, Slovenia – one of three CEE states in the Eurozone – is set for a Southern European-style bailout following the downgrading of its bonds to junk status with undoubted domestic ramifications. (more…)

Borders and what they do: lessons from a lost Habsburg province

Sean LHanley3 May 2013

Contested Frontiers in the Balkans-p17oi0ls081o7l132i1l2ld101al9Why write about a province that has long ceased to be and is currently divided between three states?  Irina Marin explains why she wrote about the historic Habsburg province of the Banat of Temesvár

Well-hidden behind the title Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe is a monograph of the Banat of Temesvár or, by its Romanian name, Banatul Timișoarei. Why write a book about a historical province that has long ceased to be one and is currently peacefully divided between Romania, Serbia and Hungary? Outside the region and a narrow circle of historians, the Banat is a classic Ruritania, a non-existent land for all the reality it has for outsiders.

Everybody will have heard of Transylvania, Bosnia or Kosovo, but I doubt the Banat of Temesvár is at all known in the English-speaking world. Even when events take place there which are worthy of public attention, people usually refer to the present-day countries rather than the historical province, even if the name ‘Banat’ is still in local usage. So why write a history of this seemingly obscure province?

First of all, because no such history is available in English. The region deserves putting on the map of Anglo-Saxon historical scholarship. This, however, is not a strong enough reason and does not forestall the Ruritanian accusation. We instead should perhaps turn the question around and ask what makes a province worthy of interest. Sadly, more often than not the answer is blood and violence: whether blood sucked by vampires (as in Transylvania) or massacres and ethnic cleansing (as in Bosnia, Kosovo). Extremes of violence should, of course, never be ignored or left unexplored and unexplained.

The problem arises when one concentrates exclusively on such places visited by unprecedented violence. It creates the impression that nothing but ethnic violence comes out of Eastern Europe and fuels myths of  ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ as characteristic of the region.

I have therefore stopped at the Banat of Temesvár as a relatively peaceful province, with just as many ethnicities and religious denominations as these, but if anything dogged by myths of harmonious ethnic cohabitation rather than the perennial ancient-hatred myth. My new book is not intended to solve bibliographical disputes, count populations or work out who was there first. It is instead a historical meditation on the destructive and creative effect of ebbing and flowing borders on an ethnically variegated population, who lived and died under several waves of imperial rule, under nation-states and under communist and post-communist regimes. (more…)

The force that is Fidesz

Sean LHanley25 March 2013

Peace March for Hungary 2012.01.21 (9)

Photo: Derzsi Elekes Andor via WikiMedia Commons

Hungary’s governing party Fidesz has recently consolidated changes to the constitution, media laws and electoral constituencies. Yet despite international criticism and tough economic times, Hungarian opposition forces are divided while Fidesz and the radical right party Jobbik remain electorally buoyant. Erin Marie Saltman examines the enduring strength of the Hungarian right and the obstacles facing its opponents.

In Hungary 15th March is a day with a deeply resonating political legacy. The day is a national holiday, created in remembrance of the 1848 revolution when Hungary’s iconic poet revolutionary Sándor Petőfi stood on the steps of the National Museum and read his Twelve Points demanding freedom of speech and national political liberties from the Habsburg Empire. Today Petőfi has become a malleable political symbol of revolution and change for government and opposition alike, with both groups moving to celebrate his legacy.

The conservative Fidesz government sees itself as personified in the Hungarian revolutionary tradition, calling the huge electoral majority that put it into power in 2010 a ‘voting revolution’ –  an opportunity for Hungary finally to rid itself of its history of oppressive powers, first the Habsburgs and then the Communists. In Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s national speeches, there is now wariness towards the assimilating and constricting measures of the EU and IMF, asking whether these international institutions bear the same hallmark of oppression. Backing the government, which still holds a strong lead in polls among decided voters, are throngs of dedicated supporters holding ‘peace marches’ and rallies to show their continued support.

The main concern of domestic opposition and international onlookers remains the increasingly enlarged capacity the Fidesz government to restructure the Hungarian state. Most recently on 11 March  President János Áder signed into law the Fourth Amendment  to the Hungarian constitution, adding a fifteen-page amendment to the forty-five-page document. The constitutional court had ruled against many of the proposed additions, which worryingly mirror some of the larger issues flagged in radical right party Jobbik’s 2010 Manifesto. (more…)

Protests that toppled Bulgaria’s government are part of Europe’s wider crisis

Sean LHanley24 February 2013

Simeon Dyankov Satanah

Photo: Иван via WikiMedia Commons

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov submitted his government’s resignation last Wednesday following a week of angry demonstrations over high electricity prices, corruption and declining living standards.  The  protests and their aftermath form part of a bigger European crisis, says Eric Gordy.

The main difference between public disorder in Bulgaria and everywhere else in Europe is that in Bulgaria the government responded. Although the immediate catalyst for protests was the state’s failure to control growth in the price of electricity, the core causes are shared in every European state: dissatisfaction resulting from the forced dismantling of social support services brought on by the European debt crisis, and a sense that policymakers are orienting their activity not to the needs of the public but to the service of large European banks.

These forces are accompanied by the perception that national governments have neither the capacity nor the will to address the consequences of a fiscal and social policy that are widely seen as imbalanced against the public interest. In Greece, Hungary and Italy the contribution of public dissatisfaction to the rise of antidemocratic movements of the extreme right is already apparent.

While conservative political leaders in the EU, particularly from Germany and the UK (and until last year, France) have largely been successful in pushing for a shift of priorities to debt service and “austerity,” the consequences of this should concern everybody in Europe. In the period after the end of the First World War, there was a similar euphoric and triumphalist announcement that liberal democracy could declare its inevitable victory across the continent.

Inattention to the responsibilities of states to their publics on the part of that generation of liberal democratic elites led to a rapid and general decay of constitutional systems and an accelerating tendency of governments to neglect of social responsibilities.

If we take one lesson from the failures of democratic order in the 1920s and 1930s, it should be that governments that fail to address social needs will be challenged by forces, some of them extremist ones, that promise to do so.

Eric Gordy is Senior Lecturer in South East European Politics at UCL-SSEES.

This post was first published in the comment section of the  UCL European Institute and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

‘Together 2014’ movement emerges in Hungary

Sean LHanley27 November 2012

Together 2014 rally (Photo: Erin Marie Saltman)

A new opposition grouping has emergence in Hungary, calling for an electoral alliance of grassroots movements and political parties to challenge the dominance of right-wing party Fidesz. However, it may soon find its cohesion  testsed, writes Erin Marie Saltman.

‘Together 2014’ (Együtt 2014) was announced on 23  October  at the large opposition rally against the government, founded by three civil society organizations. With largely divided and conflicting opposition facets competing in Hungary the question remains: how together will Together 2014 be?

Together 2014 is the alliance of three civil organizations joining forces to win a two-thirds majority in the next national parliamentary elections. This is the majority needed to override many of Fidesz’s recent controversial laws. Leading the alliance is Gordon Bajnai, the interim Prime Minister in 2009 and 2010 for Socialist Party, MSZP. Bajnai remains one of the most popular politicians in Hungary as a non-partisan technocrat hoping to bring together disgruntled voters from the centre-left and centre-right. Bajnai brings with him the Patriotism and Progress Association (Haza és Haladás Közpolitikai Alapítvány), a public policy foundation he leads, formed after the 2010 elections developing biannual policy packages. (more…)

Does the eurozone crisis threaten liberal reforms in Eastern Europe?

Sean LHanley15 November 2012

Uncertainties about the EU’s future are undermining mainstream parties throughout Europe. In Central and Castern Europe politicians can no longer sell the European model of liberal reforms when that model is itself in crisis, argues Sean Hanley

OccupyFrankfurt October 2011 EZB

Photo: Blogotron via Wikicommons

Although only three EU members in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia, have adopted the Euro, the knock-on  effects of stagnation in the Eurozone has pushed governments across CEE towards unpopular austerity programmes, exacerbating social tensions and collapsing support for incumbent parties. The uncertainties about the EU’s future are also undermining mainstream parties in the region. Politicians can no longer sell liberal reforms as part of a successful, tried and tested european model as they once did, when that model is itself in crisis. For many this seems to point darkly towards a turning away from liberal politics in CEE and a growth in euroscepticism, populism and nationalism. (more…)