Hungary has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. The European Commission has launched legal proceedings against the government over its power-grabbing tendencies, alarm bells are ringing in Washington over human rights, the currency (the forint) has slid and foreign investors are stalling.
How did this central European nation, which is blessed with an innovative, ingenious and talented population, get into such a mess? And how soon until it recovers, utilises its full creative potential and makes Budapest the cultural and business capital of central Europe?
Hungary’s voters kicked out the slothful and corrupt socialist government in 2010 and gave a two-thirds majority to the right-wing Fidesz party. But since coming to power, Viktor Orban, the prime minister, has dismantled some checks and balances on democracy. Orban, now dubbed the “Viktator” by his opponents, came to prominence in the late 1980s as an anti-communist dissident but now he is constructing his own version of autocracy, according to opposition politicians. Allies of the ruling party have been placed in charge of almost every formerly independent institution. Public television is a laughing stock. Editors pixellated out the face of a former judge who is no longer in favour with the ruling party. Klubradio, the main opposition radio station, has lost its frequency and will close in March.
But Orban is not going unchallenged. Under pressure from Brussels, the government is already signalling U-turns on contentious legislation. And life goes on despite Hungary’s travails with young, talented, globally-minded activists and entrepreneurs making their voices heard. In January when the great and good gathered in the city’s Opera House to celebrate the contentious new constitution, tens of thousands of opposition protestors massed outside in a peaceful demonstration, calling for the government to resign.
But whichever party is in power, some things are constants. Hungary and its capital have a dazzling cultural, literary and artistic heritage. Budapest excels in everything from underground culture to world-class music and opera. The city’s grand boulevards and tree-lined squares seem familiar, reminiscent of Paris and Vienna but are somehow much more human and welcoming. The Jewish Quarter is now the hippest part of town, packed with bars and cafés. There is something unspoilt here – from the old school service to Bauhaus apartment blocks in need of a loving owner – that has been lost in most of Europe.
History here is something almost tangible, especially downtown. During the last millennia, the country has been ruled by the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Nazis and the Soviets – and each have left their traces. The last foreign troops only left 20 years ago, so it’s no wonder that the Magyars, as the Hungarians call themselves, can be prickly about their national sovereignty. Look up and you are as likely to see a spray of bullet or shrapnel marks dating from the Second World War or the 1956 uprising. Defined by the Danube, Budapest is a city of spas, with Europe’s last original hamams dating back to the Ottoman era.
Beyond Budapest there are other assets. Lake Balaton, the largest body of water in central Europe, is just over an hour away, its shores dotted with wineries and retro-resorts from the comfortable days of “Goulash communism” during the 1970s and 1980s. Pecs, in the south of the country, is one of the great undiscovered cities of central Europe, with a Mediterranean micro-climate and superb Ottoman-era mosques. Across the country Hungarian wine-makers such as Janos Bolyki are winning medals for their world class vintages and deserve greater recognition.
Hungary has also proved itself to be a successful incubator for small businesses, creative enterprises and cutting edge research. Hungarians describe themselves as a “Magyar island in a Slav sea” and perhaps it’s that sense of being isolated, even besieged, that fuels their ability to adapt and invent everything from Vitamin c to nuclear weapons. Hungarian scientists and writers have won 13 Nobel prizes and two in the past decade: Imre Kertesz for literature and Avram Hershko for chemistry.
It’s that ability to think fast and laterally that can help pull Hungary out of the doldrums. In fact Hungarians don’t have a choice – they need to be good at innovation, says entrepreneur Balazs Benedek. “We have no oil, no coast and we lack natural resources, so we have to look at things differently and have to be creative. The challenge is to make that creativity big enough and successful internationally.”
monocle met Benedek and other entrepreneurs (see page 50) and activists who are determined to reshape their country’s image and show the world that it can be a centre of innovation and creativity, building on the country’s complex past to make a brighter future. The current political storm and economic troubles, like its predecessors, will eventually pass – even if in the meantime it has encouraged many young Magyars to pack their bags and head for Vienna, Berlin and London in search of work. Then Hungary will be back in the headlines. This time for all of the right reasons.