Research & Studies

The Tunnel at the End of the Light: The Crisis of Transition in Hungary


Back in 1990 Hungary was seen as the most promising east of the Elba. After the annus mirabilis of 1989 the country was expected to set an example for the other countries in transition in the entire region of former Soviet satellites. After nearly two decades, the question has been sharply raised how did Hungarians manage to make such a mess of it all? Why Hungarians failed to retain and capitalize on the initial advantage and positive evaluation that it had at the outset? This is also the question asked by Publius Hungaricus in the columns of Index1, by intellectuals, students, workers and politicians throughout the country and, not only in Hungary. Outside its borders in London or Brussels, and in the new member states that Hungarians once spoke patronisingly about (like Slovakia, Romania and even in EU candidate Croatia), the same question is being raised.

“I am concerned for Hungary,” said John Palmer,2 in a conversation in the summer of 2006, months before the autumn riots. “What’s happened to all of you?” asked Zarko Puhovski,3 with honest curiosity and sympathy at the Savaria International Summer University in the summer of 2007. The list of examples could be extended, but up until now, no clear answer to these questions have been forthcoming, and as long as there is no answer … there is no way out.

The deterioration itself was neither sudden nor unexpected – to be sure, there were and are people who sounded the alarm, but their voices were not strong enough and did not crystallize into a coherent critique or lead to wider social discourse in search of solutions. This is primarily a symptom of the weakness of civil society and democracy.

Our assumption is that not only the economy but the political class and society are facing severe crises which need to be addressed. Without an adequate diagnosis it is difficult to prescribe the necessary therapy. This therapy is not going to be an easy cure. Complex, comprehensive social, economic and political problems, which swell into a crisis, are unlikely to succumb to charlatan tricks or magic spells. No one can deny that Hungarian society made a poor showing in the first four years of EU membership. The reasons for the series of failures and the accompanying bad conscience have never been systematically identified. The institutional structures and the service-providing system of the one time party state have been left, essentially intact or undergone only cosmetic surgery to make them fit the style of the new era. In so far as they were subjected to radical reform, by one or another of the new governments, this took the form of pseudo-reforms or dictatorship without consensus or social support. The outcome was either a rapid regression to the original state of affairs or a scene of raging reform which also caused the present cluster of pathological symptoms.

Read more on the Institute for Social and European Studies website.