Recently I returned from a trip to Hungary. My main aim was to see the country up close and help my family to decide whether to return there or to remain in South Africa. I also decided to investigate the criticisms in Western media of the country and the European Parliament’s argument that it was not a democracy but an “elected autocracy”. Whatever that means.

Clearly, I did not have the time or the wherewithal to observe government meetings; nor did I seek  out government or opposition politicians. I didn’t interview “experts” because I learned long ago in journalism school: “An expert is a guy from out of town with a briefcase.” I relied on my own observations and those of my wife.

As I speak, read and write Hungarian fluently, I watched the media and read the papers. I also spoke to lots of ordinary people, from taxi drivers to people on the underground railway, the tram, waiting for the bus and so on. Add to that the opinions of my numerous relatives, travel to three areas of the country, plus wide reading, and I feel I have a reasonably accurate opinion of what is going on. 

A welcome surprise

First, if there is such a thing as a “positive shock”, then that would best describe my feelings on arrival. Or call it amazement. The single word I would use to describe the country would be “abundance”. We couldn’t believe the shops, the condition of the buildings in Budapest and small towns like Szekszárd in the south, the use of luxury, air-conditioned buses on regular routes and the construction, building and repair that was everywhere.

Add to that stunningly restored buildings, clean streets, clean houses, courtyards and how well things were organised – with exceptions, of course. This was not the Hungary my wife and I remembered. It took at least two weeks to shake off the old memories (I’ve been visiting the place for over 50 years) of poverty, backwardness and shortages under the Communists and attempts to fix everything in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2022, Hungary is a modern European country, be that in its technology, infrastructure, highways, or media.

What was also striking, coming from South Africa, was how people observed the law. On one of our first days in Budapest, we were walking on a zebra crossing on a wide square, the Oktogon, one of the city’s busiest intersections. (And it does in fact have eight sides.) A car came and promptly stopped. We stopped. Then we stared at each other, and I could see the driver shaking his head. Then we ran across the last bit of the zebra. No doubt the driver had some strange thoughts about us. In South Africa, the unwritten rule is whoever is bigger has the right of way. Buses over pickups, pickups and small trucks over cars, cars over people. Not in Hungary.

Everything works!

My first impression of Budapest folks was that they were an unsmiling lot. Certainly, in comparison with South Africans. But they made up for that by an almost Oriental courtesy and hyper-politeness, both in general demeanour and forms of address (there are four in Hungarian).

We were determined to use the public transport system, which caused some annoyance due to the locals’ habit of sticking to the rules. It took a while to find out where to buy tickets, which are valid for the whole day on buses, trams, trolley busses, the Metro, but you have to know where to look. But eventually we learned.

We made use of the abundant public transport system of which Budapesters are justly proud and will remind you that their city had continental Europe’s first underground railway (under Andrássy Street). Part of the impressive street has been made infamous by the Nazi and Communist dungeon at number 60, which today is the House of Terror Museum. Besides buses, trams and the Metro, we also, when carrying baggage, took taxis. I had arranged one from the airport, knowing the trip from Johannesburg (12 hours in the air, 24 in total) would be exhausting. This gave me a surprise. Taxi drivers, I found, were very vocal to their clients about their politics!

One driver was very upset at the prime minister. We were going to the (very impressive) Castle District but he was not pleased. “Viktor Orbán is practically making himself king! He won’t allow buses into the castle, or taxis! He’s even moved in there!”  (It turns out prime ministers before the war always resided in the castle, like the British PM at Number 10, Downing Street.)

In the castle itself (the one where taxis aren’t allowed) at Dísz Tér (Parade Square) a two or three-story building was undergoing construction. The driver referred to a government plan to reconstruct much of the castle (the National Hauszmann Program named after a former architect of the castle.)  One completed section was the Riding Hall. The taxi driver was very put out that a riding hall should be built for horses, and said that perhaps the tall building at Parade Square would be for giraffes!

Actually, the prize-winning Riding Hall is very impressive and quite beautiful. It is not only used for riding events but has a removeable floor so it can also be used for musical or other events. Typical of Hungarian buildings, it was reconstructed from rubble after being blown up. All that remains is the bronze statue of a Hungarian cowboy (a csikós) and his horse by Görgy Vastagh the Younger. The statue won a prize at the 1900 Paris World Fair but has had a rather painful history, as has just about everything to do with Budapest. The statue group was damaged in the Second World War and was partially restored in the 1970s. One of its unique features is that unlike most bronze works, it was not cast, but made of bronze sheeting.

Our opposition-minded taxi driver had also claimed no buses were allowed in the Castle, but we caught a Number 16 and rode to Széll Kálmán Square. (As in everything Budapest, the square, which is a major transportation hub for buses, trams and the Metro, has been named, re-named and re-renamed.) In 1929 it was named after a Liberal Party prime minister, Kálmán Széll, then in 1951 under the Soviet occupation it was named Moscow Square, and then in 2011 it got its original name back.

Another taxi driver also told us how awful life was in Budapest (his taxi service gave him a new Mercedes Benz to drive, life is hell!) I decided to tweak his tail a bit, and asked innocently: ”How many hijackings are there every week in Budapest?”  He had no idea what a hijacking was and when I explained, he was horrified and quickly assured us that such things ”cannot” happen in Hungary; it’s a safe country, and we were not to worry.

The safety of the country as a whole is in total contrast with South Africa, where not only common crime but political assassinations are a common (almost daily) occurrence. Many Western media and think tanks, like Freedom House, misrepresent the situation to their readers. The think tank’s latest Country Report puts Hungary as ”Partly Free” based on false information (such as the claim that the government was spying on citizens using Israeli Pegasus technology, which proved to be a rumour), while ignoring the almost 2,000 political killings between 2000 and 2021 in South Africa. Surely, the right to life matters in a democracy? Not to Freedom House, it seems. To them South Africa is ”Free”.

Open political life

Back to Hungary: The most important insight into all this came from my wife. She pointed out that when she last visited in 1995, people not only didn’t ever talk about politics, but when they got you in private, they would talk, not specifics, but about ”them”. It went like this: ”Look, they have raised the price of milk again.” On asking who ”they” were, my relatives would get quite upset — yet another hangover from Communism. It’s now well and truly gone. And, as my wife pointed, taxi drivers were quite happy to share their political views with total strangers.

But Hungary is not a democracy …

As to where the country is, it is worth remembering where it came from. The 20th century was one of the country’s worst in a 1,100-year-long history. The brief Nazi rule (about 10 months) cost the country much of its Jewish, Gypsy and liberal population (over 450,000 people), and then the Soviet ”liberation”, which included the mass rape of between 600,000 and 800,000 women, as well as the deportation of almost a million people, of whom no more than 400,000 returned, were deeply traumatic events.

Add to that 45 years of horrific Communist rule, and the failure of all the former East Bloc countries to have some kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission or a Nuremberg-type trial, so that the man who murdered your grandfather and is living in your family’s house can tell you what democracy is all about (which they do, regularly)  and it’s clear that Hungary had a very long row to hoe from dictatorship to democracy and not only freedoms, like freedom of speech in law, but in people’s hearts, as the examples above show.

One example of this was our participation in a knightly investiture at a very interesting Christian pilgrimage site in the east of the country, at a small town called Máriapócs. We met members of the Knightly Order of Vitéz (Vitézi Rend) at Buda Castle, and it was with them that we took a (rather exhaustive and exhausting) tour of the castle. (The one where tourists are not allowed!) The order is often accused of fascism, although in actual fact the opposite is true, which doesn’t worry the accusers. When the order has more money, I expect a lot of lawsuits, but we’ll see.

Why does this matter? Because the freedom to remember the war dead, one of the Vitéz’s main functions, was very ”iffy” in the 1990s. Firstly, the Soviets and their Communist collaborators didn’t allow Hungarian soldiers to be properly buried in a memorial cemetery; they were left where they were quickly buried after battles, and many are still not accounted for. Soldiers who were in Soviet captivity and who survived were not allowed to speak about it and all people heard about was they were fascists. Many on the Left argued against any remembrance of soldiers from WWII or even 1956.

Arranging for soldiers’ reburial and memorial services for the dead was heavily politicised. Under the current government, that is no longer the case.

That’s not democratic, apparently.

Neither is religious freedom a problem. The investiture was held in the Greek Catholic Church in Máriapócs. Not only Hungarians were present, but members from the U.S., Germany, Sweden and even Australia. The titular King of Rwanda, officialy Yuhi VI, was present too. The Greek Catholics follow the very elaborate Byzantine Rite, which used to be sung in Old Slavonic, but these days is in Hungarian and includes some Greek. The day after the investiture, the group moved to a much less elaborate Hungarian Reformed church in the nearby village of Rápolt to lay a wreath for Hungarian soldiers who were also members of Vitéz.

And no one will cancel you for your religion, nor which NGO you belong to. Sure, they’ll argue in the newspaper columns and on TV; society is very divided, mainly between former Communist Party members and liberals on the one hand, and everyone else on the other.

Both put their points of view openly — but Hungary is not a democracy …

A noisy, vibrant media

I also watched a lot of TV news and read newspapers. There are literally hundreds of local papers, radio stations and television stations (over 600, actually) and it’s all the rage to use old Roman names for the town, if it has one, besides the usual news, music, talk radios. Where we stayed with relatives in Szekszárd there is Alisca Rádió, named after a Roman fort near the modern town.

I watched RTL Klub television, which is based in Germany and their news is well reported, but with an obvious anti-government slant. On the other hand, they have a ”Fókusz” program, an in-depth news analysis programme, which is very good. The public broadcaster, whose programs are labelled ”M”, is clearly pro-government, but generally no better or worse than, say, the SABC in South Africa. M5 has excellent discussion programs, featuring all sides of an argument, as well as including pro-and-anti-government participants.

Other news stations include M1, ATV (very anti-government) and Hír TV (very pro-government).

Contrary to what is often claimed in Western media, the most watched TV and radio stations are left-wing, the most read newspapers are liberal or socialist. This imbalance goes back to what the West triumphalistically called the ”Collapse of Communism” but which Hungarians more modestly call ”The Change of System”.

At the time, in 1990, the total control of the media by the Communists, and their shutting down of old newspapers which tried to resurrect themselves like the Kis Újság (Smallholder’s Party newspaper),  Pesti Hírlap, Új Magyarország, Napi Magyarország, Esti Hírlap went unremarked in Western media. Shamefully, the Communist Party organ, Népszabadság (People’s Freedom) not only survived, but often led the readership market, with full political support by the left in both Hungary and their Western allies. It was founded in the midst of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and gleefully reported on the crushing of freedom in the country and subsequent executions of Freedom Fighters. When it finally closed in 2016, there was a worldwide outcry from the left about ”press freedom”,  but not a word was said about the other newspapers that had closed.

Interestingly, the most-read newspapers (Blikk and Bors) are both tabloids, with the main broadsheet newspapers led by Népszava (People’s Word), originally the Social Democratic Party’s paper, still the leading left-wing newspaper and also the most read. Next is Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation) and Magyar Hírlap (Hungarian Newspaper), the latter two are conservative and their readership together roughly equals Népszava. Other well-known papers are the ultra-liberal Magyar Narancs (Hungarian Orange), which is a weekly, as is the balanced HVG, the new conservative Magyar Hang (Hungarian Sound) to name a few. There are many regional newspapers, all with online versions, and dozens of online portals.

Incidentally, Hungary is one of the few (if not the only) continental European countries to have a dedicated Jewish TV station, called Heti TV (Weekly TV). Despite its name, it broadcasts daily, the reference being the weekly sections of the Torah read out in synagogues on the Sabbath.

Walking in Pest’s Jewish District, observing the very impressive Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, seeing men in kippas and reading the increasing number of surveys showing that Jews in Hungary are some of the safest, if not the safest, in Europe, gives the lie to all the accusations of dangerous anti-Semitism in the country. The treatment of minorities must be a measure of democracy in the 21st Century.

But Hungary is not a democracy …

So what’s the problem?

Interestingly, unlike earlier visits, my family was all too happy to talk politics. A relative whose house we stayed at, explained that she had planned to vote for the opposition. However, their leader, Péter Márki-Zay, said such crazy things that she decided to vote for the governing FIDESZ-KDNP coalition. 

So, I’ve looked at the following markers of a democracy: freedom of speech, of association, of religion, freedom of the media and political freedom. I did not find anything that a ”reasonable man” would find problematic.

It seems to me that those supposed ”democratic deficits” decried by Western media are more disagreements on policy, culture, style and anger at the lack of takers for the West’s woke ideas, rather than a genuine lack of freedoms, of separation of powers, independent judiciary, the right to Life, Liberty and Property (although the latter needs a lot of work, but on the left, not the right).

So, from the standpoint of a dysfunctional South Africa, which is slowly showing signs of a failed state, Hungary looks just fine.

Christopher Szabo is a freelance journalist in Pretoria specialising in international affairs and military matters. He recently earned an M.A. in Military History from the University of Birmingham.