TRAVEL with pat and lew

freedom isn’t easy

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Outside, the trams and subways work, there are tourists, modern shopping streets and even malls. But always look up. The architecture of Budapest repeatedly evokes its distinguished, artistic and wealthy past. My camera is busy.

There is also in the city the free expression of discontent. Our taxi driver is upset with his wages. What good are the modern hotels, free-spending tourists, and democratic institutions, if the common people are still poor? There is a sense of uncertainty. Are we going in the right direction? Do we really want the euro, scheduled for 2008? Does democracy produce the benefits which its proponents tout?

For all of its 1000 year history, Hungary has been battered by the conflicts of the European behemoths, Habsburg Austria, Germany, and Russia. It has fought, and lost, many wars of independence, and was on the wrong side of both 2oth century world wars. Although its history includes brief and tenuous periods of freedom, it is only since the departure of its Soviet rulers in 1991 that the country has been truly independent.

The struggle to define and articulate Hungary’s unique nature and its place in the world is quite visible, even to a visitor.

Some months after we left Budapest, this tension led to large and unruly gatherings protesting economic policies tilted to favor the rich. There were allegations of corruption at the highest levels.

Bonfires were lit. A palpable yearning for more powerful leadership at both city and national levels could be felt.

Is this a residual yearning for more effective democracy or for the totalitarian past where the pressure of individual decision-making did not impinge so incessantly on everyday life? If the latter, will such longings threaten the stability of the still new and perhaps fragile democratic government?

The gatherings produce violence, although no lives are lost.

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