Hungary: Testing the waters. Notes from a week of wellness and political tourism

Upon reaching a certain age plateau, leisure travel turns in new directions. The time comes to be led by the hand and book cruises instead of flying or driving to cities or resorts on your own.  Depending on personal health issues and financial circumstances, the time also comes to “take the waters,” in the tradition of the 19th century aristocracy and its bourgeois imitators. Both vectors of tourism offer low-stress opportunities to see new sights and make new acquaintances.


In the latter regard, thermal springs had been on our ‘to do’ list for several years, but for all that time we took no action, notwithstanding the relative proximity to us of such facilities in Belgium.  Somehow we never found a compelling reason to make the 140 km journey to Spa, even if we were reminded by recent tricentenary celebrations about its “Russian connection” and glorious past. In 1717, Peter the Great took the waters in that curative locale and one of the sources in Spa bears his name to this day.


But other fields are always greener. When we finally decided to take the plunge and discover thermal waters tourism, my wife and I opted for a more distant solution. From Russian friends in St Petersburg and from Russians in the European diaspora, we had heard high praise for the thermal lake and spa facilities in Heviz, in the south of Hungary, just next to Lake Balaton. And so that is where we headed on 16 April to join the Easter holiday tourists.


To be fully open about my intentions, I was keen to travel to Hungary for a second, rather different reason: to test the political waters in Hungary during this period ahead of the 26 May elections to the European Parliament.


At this juncture, when the elites running the European Institutions in Brussels have come under attack from what are called “populist” political movements in a number of countries, the future of European integration is said to hang in the balance. The centrist, status quo parties are almost certain to lose their decades long majority in the Parliament and, consequently, in the Commission. The big intrigue is how much political power will shift to the anti-Establishment populists.


Among the foremost populists on the European stage is one Viktor Orban, Hungary’s controversial prime minister who has had the temerity to raise the flag of “illiberal democracy,” thumbing his nose at everything that Brussels today stands for.


My attempts ahead of the trip to arrange a meeting with policy makers in the headquarters of Orban’s Fidesz Party were stymied by the “Teflon” nature of the party’s website and telephone answering menu, both only offered in Hungarian. And I did not do much better on site in Budapest even with some assistance from the Business Center receptionist of my hotel:  my request for an interview was received but I never heard back from them.


Though denial of official contact was disappointing, it was not out of line with my experience trying to get through to the Flemish nationalist parties here in Belgium.  And so I looked elsewhere for the inputs for the short essay that I present here: namely to my usual sources of intelligence anywhere – taxi drivers, hotel concierges, tour guides and the like. To that I added a reality check in the person of a well-educated and well-informed native of Budapest who, 27 years ago, had been the local business consultant to the US-multinational company for whom I worked at the time when we built a presence in Hungary. In the meantime he has worked for 10 years a manager within another US multinational and most recently has remained active running his own small business in Budapest. This Mr. X generously found a couple of hours for a far-ranging discussion of the current economic and political situation in Hungary, with a focus on the sources of Orban’s dominant position today.


Yet, the determining factor in what I will present here comes from my own eyes and ears, as a tourist, walking and driving through the streets of Budapest during our several days there en route to Heviz, visiting the country’s temples of high culture – its national fine arts museum and opera, as well as the main food market, and taking meals in a variety of restaurants about town.   There I found what I was looking for – an explanation of the reservoir of national and ethnic consciousness that surely is what Orban has tapped into.  I will now pass back and forth between these, shall we call them ‘sensual’ impressions of Budapest, plus similar impressions gathered in Heviz, with the more cerebral inputs from my interlocutors and modest on-line research.


* * * *


Like him or loathe him, Orban is recognized by my various sources in Hungary as being very successful at dominating the country’s political life.  Some people I spoke to attributed his success to electoral fraud which handed him the absolute majority in parliament necessary to make the constitutional changes that have cut away checks and balances in the system so as to ensure indefinite continuation in power. Others spoke about cronyism and institutionalized corruption that prop up his regime.


However, Hungary is not a country of ‘white elephant’ infrastructure projects, which is the true indicator of corrupt political systems.  Everything does get done, I was told, even if the price to the state was 10 or 20% higher than a transparent, competitive system would have delivered.  And, more to the point, even a pro-US, pro-EU expert source like Mr. X does not press his charges against Viktor Orban with any enthusiasm. Why?  Because he admits that many of his intellectual friends support Orban, meaning that the question of the man and his right to exercise power are more complex and require a deeper reflection than the paragraph above would suggest.


A brief look at the single most important factor in politics anywhere, namely the economy, provides a starting point.


For several years now, the Hungarian economy has been one of the best performers in the EU, running at 4% annual growth.  The headline successes have been in manufacturing industry, and, in particular, in the automotive industry.  BMW has a major engine building plant here.  A Mercedes plant is doing full-cycle production of one or another model. And there are numerous automotive component manufacturers. Meanwhile, innovative businesses are said to be flourishing, including, of course, digital age start-ups. Budapest, which has one third of the nation’s population in its metropolitan area, and accounts for a significantly greater share of national GDP, is a major scientific research center.


To be sure, at 1,000 euros per month, industrial wages in Hungary are quite low, perhaps one-third those of Germany.  Official unemployment figures, on the order of 4%, are also very low, though I was told that the figures are doped, because Hungarians working abroad are added to the tally of those said to be employed and those out of work are enrolled in state programs that pay subsistence wages of 150 euros per month so as to be removed from the unemployed numbers.


Meanwhile, Hungary’s dynamism is obviously starting from a very low base.  It is manifestly clear that retailing is weakly developed, concentrated in malls both on the periphery and within the Budapest city limits. I saw residential neighborhoods without a single bake shop, green grocers or convenience store. Of course, without serious investigation into causes, it is inadvisable to draw conclusions, because such issues as zoning regulations and strength of consumer purchasing power may be in play.  However, except on the so-called Champs Elysées, Andrassy utca, in the pedestrian zone around the St Stephen Cathedral, and around the 5 star hotels on the Danube banks of Pest or on the Castle Hill of Buda, which are all world class, the street level city called Budapest is broadly speaking shabby and in need of serious investment. On the other hand, public transport, meaning the metro, trams and buses are very well developed and offer frequency of service that puts Brussels to shame. So the glass is half full…


Meanwhile, what I found in the South of Hungary also bears mention.  The thermal water spa Heviz is patently prosperous and a serious tourist attraction for both foreigners and native Hungarians alike. In our four-star Aqua hotel run by the former state hotel chain Danubius, “home team” Hungarians were the single largest contingent, followed by Russians and Germans.  The town has new, smart shopping streets and a suburban residential lay-out of well-cared-for, free-standing houses, some owner occupied, others advertising (in German primarily) rooms or apartments to let.


The train to the station closest to Heviz hugged the coast of Lake Balaton for more than an hour, giving us a chance to note the hundreds, if not thousands of summer homes built along the shores of the lake and going inland to a distance of several hundred meters. Nothing extravagant along the route we passed, just middle class leisure homes on miniscule plots that are well maintained. Here and there were moorings for small motor boats.  The travel time to Budapest from the Heviz area was just over two hours by car on a Euro-standard, toll-free four lane highway.  The comfortable, if slow train takes an hour and a half longer.  In either case, this enormous lake area represents an affordable conceit of the Budapest burghers.


Perhaps the best indication of what makes Hungary special is the fact that so many of its citizens have chosen to stay put, not to emigrate.  The figure for departures since the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s is roughly 10%.  That compares with a loss of population on the order of 25% in Bulgaria, Romania and all three Baltic states.


It bears mention that all of the countries named which lost such important percentage of the overall population and a still higher percentage of working age and enterprising population were de-industrialized following the fall of Communism.  Moreover, in the case of the Baltics, the actions by the governing elites to antagonize and offend their neighbor and largest trading partner, Russia, was a major factor contributing to economic collapse and emigration. Nothing of the sort happened in Hungary.


However, the economy is only one of the possible explanations for the political success of Mr. Orban.  My hunch about how and why he has played a populist, Euro-skeptic card so well draws first on my ‘sensual’ impressions, beginning with the cuisine which we saw everywhere and sampled in many places.


In the bad old days of the 1960s and 1970s, the time of Janos Kadar, within the Warsaw Pact countries it was customary to speak of Hungary as a case of “goulash Communism.” The sense of the term was ‘pseudo-consumerism,” with an emphasis on an improved standard of living for the broad population to help with rehabilitation from the scars of the failed 1956 revolution.  I believe the choice of a food dish to stand for eclectic Communism was true to the spirit of the country.  What I saw in Hungary over the past week was surely ‘’goulash capitalism.”


By this, I mean to say that Hungary is one of the few post-Communist countries, alongside Poland, which has kept its national cuisine and not been overrun by pizza restaurants, gyro stands and luxury eateries catering to the nouveaux riches and featuring frozen Norwegian salmon steaks or similar wholly imported dishes.  If you find fish on a menu in Budapest, it is likely to be native river or lake fish such as carp, catfish and pike-perch.  While the last named, is a prized catch throughout Europe, going under the name Zander, Sandre or Sudak, the first two are an acquired taste and might best be described as ‘soul food.’  If you look at the poultry dishes, they will surely be a goose or duck leg, or thick slices of fried fresh goose liver sitting atop a grilled apple slice.  These are no nonsense traditional menu items and they are ubiquitous.


To be sure, fusion restaurants, hamburger theme bistros and the like are to be found in Budapest, but they are concentrated in the most fashionable streets appealing to international business visitors, such as around the St Stephen’s cathedral and cheek and jowl with the now shuttered Central European University financed by George Soros, Hungary’s public enemy number one.


Tradition holds fast in the Hungarian hospitality industry in more than what is on your plate. At several restaurants we were entertained by gypsy music cum Kalman quintets, septets featuring the cembalo, the  instrument of Austria-Hungary, and led by violinists who come to your table to coax out a well-deserved tip, just as would have been practiced a century ago.


In the Szeged Restaurant at the start of Bela Bartok boulevard, just across the road from the iconic Hotel Gellert and a hundred meters from the Danube, we were treated to a “folk dance” show that is worth more than a detour. Two costumed oldster cavaliers in their mid-60s danced their fast paced routine in the company of two folk-dressed ladies in their mid-forties. The ladies shed twenty years as they took to the floor and seemed to be enjoying themselves. All were fully professional and entertaining.


Such folk shows were a common sight in Warsaw or Krakow in the 1970s, with younger and more comely maiden dancers to be sure, but only in tourist establishments where the guests all had just arrived from Chicago.  By contrast, the diners in the Szeged were basically local Hungarians of a certain age, some with their adult children, who were enjoying old times.


All of the foregoing amounts to ethnic identity and leads directly to what Mr. Orban and his “illiberal democracy” is about.  I freely admit that it was not what I had in mind when I came to Hungary in search of social conservatism to explain the rejection of globalism and the EU values minted in Brussels.  I had expected religion, namely Catholicism, to be a key support of the regime. But then I should have consulted Wikipedia earlier, since the poll results it publishes show that only 54% of Hungarians declare themselves to be Christians and only two-thirds of those are Catholics, the rest being mainly Protestants.


As I found on the spot, the ethnic identity and national pride of Hungarians has a lot more than a cuisine or folk music to go by. Despite the ravages of the Second World War, the impressive late 19th century, early twentieth century architectural heritage of Budapest is a constant reminder that this was once an imperial capital, sharing the spoils from its subject nations in Central and Southeastern Europe with Vienna. The newly renovated National Fine Arts Museum supports the same vision of grandeur. Its exceedingly rich holdings include very important acquisitions from Esterhazy and other Hungarian noblemen purchased within what was clearly a program of nation-building following the devolution of Habsburg power in 1868.


Strolling down the streets of Budapest, it is hard to miss the marble plaques on the facades of so many buildings, identifying famous residents of the past or other historic significance.   On the Castle Hill, these plaques relate in particular to the period of loss of sovereignty following the defeat by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 and to the period of recovery following the expulsion of the Turks in 1686.  The one hundred and fifty years of Muslim domination of central Hungary, during which the Christian population dwindled and nearly disappeared, has not been forgotten.  This goes a long way to understanding why Hungary, of all EU countries, has been the most resistant to the notion of accepting refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Muslim world under instructions from Brussels.


What we have in Hungary is a proud nation with an imperial past that has a distinct ethnic identity which it has never lost, all of which is compounded by a language which sets it apart from all other EU states. Given these facts, is it any wonder that Viktor Orban has found a formula for long lasting political success in thumbing his nose at Brussels and playing the “populist” card?

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019