Hungary riots a lesson to "New Europe" leaders
Updated: 2006-09-21 09:47

BUDAPEST - Violent anti-government protests in Hungary this week could easily be taken as yet another example of ex-communist central Europe being weary with 16 years of often dramatic economic changes.

A rioter is detained by police officers during the third night of clashes in Budapest, Hungary, early Thursday, Sept. 21, 2006. Protests throughout Hungary started last Sunday, Sept. 17, after a tape with Prime MInister Ferenc Gyurcsanys secret words admitting to have lied to the nation was made public. [AP]

But the riots, sparked by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany's admission he had lied to win an election, bring an unprecedented lesson to leaders in the region that morality in politics can be as important as economic considerations, if not more so.

"People in the region are clearly frustrated with the costs of transition but deep down they realise they are unavoidable," said one senior Western diplomat in the region. "But what they want is basic honesty."

On Sunday, a Hungarian radio website broadcast a leaked tape of Gyurcsany telling his Socialist party parliamentarians that they had lied to voters about the precarious state of public finances in order to win re-election in April.

The leaked tape triggered two nights of violent anti-government protests, the worst disturbances in the capital Budapest since a 1956 uprising against Hungary's former Soviet occupiers.

Although Gyurcsany urged his party into a greater commitment to economic reform in the leaked tape, the cynicism of the admission that the party had "lied in the morning and lied in the evening" shocked Hungarians.

"We are demonstrating against the course which has been typical in Hungary for 50 years, and to say that it is no longer acceptable," said Andras Kozma, a 52-year-old advertising employee.

"Every country has the right to have normal leaders whose primary characteristic is not being unscrupulous."

The strength of the backlash took the government -- and police -- by surprise.


It has also sent shockwaves through other central European nations which along with Hungary joined the European Union in May 2004, though there had already been signs of growing discontent there.

Governments in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have all lost elections in recent months amid scandals and accusations of graft and widespread corruption.

Jiri Pehe, former adviser to Czech President Vaclav Havel and current director of New York University's Prague campus, said that people have been forced not only to weather economic change, but a change in mindset as well.

This, he said, has resulted in demands for better governance from officials who in the past could count on most citizens turning a blind eye to corruption and accepting the status quo.

"People expect more now from their politicians and are making their feelings known. This is not a systemic problem, in fact, the region is actually well on its way toward prosperity," he said.

The drive to join the EU resulted in economic reforms that have brought booming growth and wealth for much of the region's 75 million inhabitants. But the reforms were also used as a cover by officials to hide the truth.

"All of them are getting the message from Hungary but the question is what conclusions they draw -- don't get caught, or don't lie?" thee diplomat said.