HEVES, Hungary -- The past few years have been turbulent for Szabolcs Szedlak, far worse than most Hungarians could have imagined two decades ago, when they tore a hole in the Iron Curtain and changed their world. Szedlak, 34, came of age during the tumult of the post-communist transition from dictatorship to democracy. Back then Hungarians were told, and many believed, they'd become like neighboring Austrians--a BMW in every driveway. Just don't remind folks of those daydreams in this bleak corner of northeastern Hungary.
Szedlak and his family live in Heves, a small, quiet town of 11,000 on the great Hungarian plains. Szedlak was born here, in the heart of the country's most depressed region. Twenty years ago, the sudden and unexpected exposure to free markets ravaged the state-controlled mines, industries and agriculture that were staples of the communist system--especially in this region. Successive governments have failed to fill the void with new jobs or re-training. Unemployment in the region now approaches 50 percent among those aged 25 to 40, feeding widespread anger and disillusionment with Hungary's brand of "democracy." As joblessness soars, so has support for a new style of politics that harkens back to a bygone era, snuffed out by communism: Right-wing extremism is on the rise. According to one survey, it has doubled here since 2003. Hungary, once dubbed the "happiest barrack in the Soviet camp," is arguably the unhappiest of the 10 ex-communist members who have since joined the European Union.
Count Szabolcs Szedlak among the disgruntled.
For ten years, Szedlak toiled in a furniture store before deciding to chase the capitalist dream. He bought the store from his boss in 2005, but high taxes choked the life out of his business. It folded in June 2008. At the same time, his wife gave birth to their first child. With a second on the way, this spring he found a job as a maintenance man at a local kindergarten. Unable to afford their own place, the couple now lives with Szedlak's parents. Szedlak has taken whatever work he can find, from painting houses to selling watermelons. Despite family and financial pressures, Szedlak still finds the time to volunteer. Politics has become his passion, and his bitter disenchantment led him to help form the Heves chapter of Jobbik, the most dynamic new far-right party in all of Europe.
The anti-western, anti-minority Jobbik boasts a red-and-white-striped symbol--known as the ancient Hungarian "Arpad" coat of arms--that also resembles the emblem of the murderous Nazi-era Arrow Cross Party. This group, which briefly held power from 1944-45, was responsible for killing thousands of Hungarian Jews and Gypsies, and deported tens of thousands more. Jobbik maintains a militant arm, the Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, which has marched through minority neighborhoods in black jackets and black boots sporting the Arpad insignia. In April, Jobbik capitalized on popular fury over the country's faltering economy, winning 16.7 percent of the vote in national elections--the greatest performance so far for the ultra-right in any of the EU's former communist states.
"I was just trying to provide for my family and my baby," Szedlak explains, tapping his cigarette ashes into an empty beer can. "But after she was born, I saw that sitting and yelling at my TV doesn't do any good. I don't want her to grow up in such a lousy world."
Not Your Father's Economy
To many Hungarians, and tens of millions of other Central and Eastern Europeans, this is no ordinary economic crisis. The whipsawing booms and busts of the free market are still novelties that enrages folks like Szedlak, who find themselves all but helpless in the face of a vicious economic downturn and joblessness. Nothing like it has occurred in these parts since the Great Depression, which led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi movement. It's hardly surprising that Hungary now pulsates with its most powerful far-right sympathies since World War II. This dramatic shift to the right has seeped into a part of the world that, until two decades ago, saw the state wield total control over both society and economy. The roots of democracy have grown, but they haven't burrowed so deep that they cannot be shaken.
For 40 years, families like the Szedlaks were insulated from the economic cycles of the West. Though far from affluent, they were rarely wanting. Most families could even afford at least one modest holiday a year. Then the Wall came down. A corrupt brand of "Wild West" capitalism ran rampant through an authoritarian corner of the globe, one with little or no tradition of democracy or rule of law, and no experience with any economic infrastructure resembling a free market. As a result, the entire post-communist transition in Central and Eastern Europe has been one grand experiment, with Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Bulgarians and many others serving as guinea pigs.
Some have flourished, but many have not. Nearly everyone has been scarred in some way since their pre-democratic world was flipped upside-down. Last fall, a Pew survey of economic attitudes reflected upon the trauma and growing nostalgia among ex-communist states. Topping the list were the Hungarians. A whopping 72 percent said they are economically "worse off" today, never mind the dictatorship, censorship and police repression of the old order. "But Hungary's malaise is not all about economics--most are frustrated with politics too," Richard Wike, associate director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, explained in his analysis of the results. This frustration has only accelerated the swing toward extremism. According to research by the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, hard-right support in Hungary more than doubled, from 10 percent in 2003 to 21 percent in 2009. In Poland, however, support for right-wing politics dropped by almost a third. Over that same period, anti-establishment anger in Hungary that "everything and everyone is bad" soared from 12 percent to 46 percent.
Jobbik exploits the disillusion and thrives on it. The party's 33-year-old president, Gabor Vona, leads its new faction in Parliament. His cabinet chief, Marton Gyongyosi, told me what has made his party so popular: "More and more Hungarians realize the parties that emerged from the communist system were not representing the interests of Hungarians or Hungary, and made more compromises than they should have." As the highest-ranking Jobbik member of the Parliament's foreign-affairs committee, Gyongyosi pushes to reorient Hungarian foreign policy eastward, toward Russia and the Middle East. He's called for the withdrawal of Hungarian troops from the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, though Hungary eagerly joined the NATO military alliance in 1999.
"This establishment running Hungary is some kind of grand coalition, changing hands every four years, and they don't like anyone else entering the system," Gyongyosi explains. "The majority of our supporters think even now it's not too late to get off this path, to take our own fate into our hands, for what's in the best interests of Hungary, not what's best for the IMF, Brussels, Washington or the World Bank."
A Beacon Extinguished
The 1990s seem so long ago, when Hungary--home of Liszt, Bartok and a disproportionate number of Nobel prize-winners for its population--was a beacon of newly democratic Eastern Europe, a darling of foreign investors, praised by the West for its economic, social and political reforms. After leading its neighbors into NATO in 1999, Hungary entered the European Union in 2004. As recently as the 2006 national elections, Jobbik and its politics of resentment could barely muster 2 percent of the vote. Four years later, everything has changed. Hungarian self-confidence is rattled, especially when they see their neighbor nations leapfrogging them into the regional pecking order. For example, the Slovaks to the north, to whom Hungarians have long been condescending, have adopted...