20/04/2020

Publications

Lockdown Diary, Budapest

John O'Sullivan
‘Ghost trains,’ Hungary’s emergency law, face masks and social distancing, restaurants’ pivot to takeout and delivery.

‘Ghost trains” and ghost buses are the most visible and oddly comforting expression of Budapest’s lockdown. Because “essential workers” still have to get to and from work, and the other city-dwellers may have good reasons to move around the city, the regular train and subway services are running as before, and even keeping to their regular schedules. In the case of the Number Two train, which runs alongside the Danube past such city sights as the “Whale” gallery and cultural center and Hungary’s magnificent 19th-century Parliament building, this means that between six and eight trains pass by every hour. At the same time, because Hungarians have been faithfully observing the lockdown rules, which firmly instruct social distancing, almost no one travels on them.

Many trains have no passengers at all; few have more than six or seven. They arrive at a train stop, halt, pause while their doors open for passengers to alight and board them, ring a warning bell before the doors close, and then depart again. On most occasions during this routine, no one gets on and no one gets off. And when essential workers do board them, they punctiliously take seats as far away from each other as they can manage.

Mark Higgie, a former Australian ambassador to Hungary who has stayed on to live in Budapest, has spent the lockdown walking around the city and posting photographs of its old and beautifully restored buildings on Twitter. He’s also been waging an Internet campaign against the decision of Mayor Sadiq Khan and London transport authorities to reduce the number of train services in the U.K. capital.

He’s been pointing out that since millions of workers still have to travel in and out of central London daily, the reduced service mean more-crowded trains. News photographs show Londoners packed into the carriages like so many sardines. “Carriages of death” is how a U.K. tabloid headline would describe the scene (and may already have done).

If Mayor Khan and his colleagues were to buckle under Mark’s criticism, it would be the first occasion that a left-wing Western European politician has followed the example of anything in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. If he knows that, he won’t do it.

So it’s probably best if he remains unaware of our Ghost Trains silently moving almost no one at all under the Budapest sun.

***

With the exception of a single day, the Budapest weather has continued to be idyllic. Skies either cloudless or etched with faint cloud traces, warm sunny days followed by cool evenings, breezes that rarely become winds — in short, perfect weather for long walks.

We go for one long exercise walk every day, and though the streets and parks are far less crowded than in normal times, there are always other walkers and shoppers about. Most people observe the etiquette of social distancing, wearing masks, staying about six feet away from others, carefully maneuvering around oncoming pedestrians like scorpions about to strike, but at the same time nodding and trying to smile through the mask to show a friendly disposition.

The good weather has also brought forward early blossoms and leaves on the trees and . . . pollen. I suffer quite severely from hay fever, which takes the form of prolonged sneezing fits, sometimes 15 to 20 sneezes in succession. It’s impossible to sneeze wearing a mask, which I push up my face so that I can sneeze into the mass of Kleenexes I carry about with me.

Embarrassing, of course, but it certainly ensures social distancing.

***

Criticism of Hungary’s “state of emergency” from both media pundits and leftish politicians abroad continues to rumble on, undeterred by the remarkable string of errors included in these attacks that have yet to be apologized for.

Almost as bad as the errors themselves — which, if not errors, are slanders — is the massive tribute to double standards that they exemplify. Hungary is one of many European countries that have emergency laws in their constitutions. Which nation has used them most frequently? And which politicians have been most willing to use them in handling any number of issues?

My colleague at the Danube Institute, senior research fellow Agnes Zsofia Magyar, set out to answer these questions. And she came up with answers that must surely surprise almost everyone:

The answer to the first question is France. Emergency laws have now been applied more than 1,000 times under the Fifth Republic. The second answer is President Francois Hollande, the socialist leader, who with 273 applications of law by decree emerges as its absolute champion. Standing second on the podium, however, we see Emmanuel Macron, who has used this measure 84 times in his presidency’s first 2 years. Taking a longer perspective, the figures show that 40 percent of such jurisdictions were issued from the left, and that six of its ten largest users were socialist presidents in France.

Those figures certainly surprised me, especially the statistic showing that the hapless François Hollande, no one’s idea of a strongman, had used emergency powers more often than any other French president, including de Gaulle, under the Fifth Republic. By comparison, the Orban government has declared just two such states of emergency in his two periods of office, 1998–2002 and 2010–20 — at least that’s all that anyone recall. And while Orban’s state of emergency is tailored strictly to combating the epidemic, Macron’s emergency rules have been used, inter alia, to push through pensions legislation that was stalled in the French national assembly.

To say that Orban’s critics exercise double standards, therefore, may be paying them an undeserved compliment. Some of them have no standards at all, as an old joke goes, but others have very strong standards except that they’re not saying what they are.  

*** 

Two items of urban etiquette under the lockdown:

Among the categories of “essential workers” are the many skilled occupations in the building trades. Since our walks are almost all in or near the city center, my perceptions here may be skewed, but work on the rebuilding and restoration of Budapest seems to have been scaled down only a little. New hotels are still rising, three within minutes of our apartment, at a time when completed hotels have few guests and aren’t allowed to sell food or drinks to nonresidents.

But the new ones carry on rising, and they do so rapidly. As someone who has seen the glittering revival of the city since the depressed days after the 2008 financial and euro crises— when I was sometimes the only diner in a mid-level restaurant — I admire the resilience of the people even if I fear for them too. And the builders are at present the most visible evidence of Budapest’s resilience since they are working away on every street.

So a common sight is a building worker taking a break who has pushed his mask down to his neck or up to his forehead, happily smoking a cigarette.

Less common is the sight of masked beggars, but there are a few, and they bring an eerie touch of the Wild West to Budapest. My suspicion is that they are opportunistic newcomers to the begging trade who, being masked, have a lower risk of being recognized and losing social status.

One approached me yesterday and, standing the requisite six feet away, apologized in good English for being unable to shake my hand and welcome me to Budapest as he would do in better days. He and his two friends looked prosperous and not at all threatening. I half-thought that I recognized him above the mask and that it might be a prank. Also, I had no cash about me.

So I did my share of nodding and smiling and hurried on.

But the phenomenon of masked beggars in lockdown cities might be a good Ph.D. topic for a rising young social scientist when “normal” life returns. Indeed, in the meantime, the beggars themselves might consider social science as their next profession. As several recent hoaxes have shown, not to mention the high rate of non-producible experiments in the field, some of the softer social sciences are not very different from masked begging except in being much more profitable. And Dr. Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple), drawing on his experience as a prison doctor, was impressed by the way in which hardened criminals were adept at trotting out the latest sociological patter in justifying their crimes, sometimes only weeks after the theories had been published in learned journals. So why wait for prison to learn this lesson?

Remember, kids, it’s never too late to go straight (except, of course, sexually.)

***

Not every part of Budapest is the urban wonderland one might suppose from reading Mark Miggie’s treats. Some years ago I was traveling from the city center to a quiet suburb past some high-rise flats erected under the Communists, when the taxi driver remarked: “I sometimes think that the entire world Communist movement was really a front for the cement trade.”

***

My NRO article on Hungary’s state of emergency — and why it was not the start of Viktor Orban dictatorship — stimulated a good deal of debate in the Twitterverse in the last fortnight. It started with a fusillade of attacks that provoked return fire from a strong contingent of supporters. I’m grateful for both, the endorsements for obvious reasons, the attacks because they were an opportunity for me to check weaknesses in my argument. I don’t think the critics found anything serious, though they may differ.

One friendly critic, however, did notice a straightforward error in what I had written. When I was listing the current constitutional safeguards against any abuse of emergency powers, I had argued that a second of two such safeguards was “that Parliament can vote to end the state of emergency at any time by the same two-thirds majority by which it passed the law.” In fact, as Olivier Braun pointed out in a tweet, though a state of emergency needs a two-thirds majority to pass, it can be revoked by a simple majority of MPs.

My error doesn’t make a great deal of difference unless you believe that the government intended to make the state of emergency permanent. I don’t. Insofar as it had an effect, however, it exaggerated the extent to which the government could defy parliamentary opposition, and to that extent it was anti-Orban.

As for being a regime toady: I won’t join a lynch mob, however distinguished.

This conflict is not yet concluded, however. It never is. As the war of words has developed, moreover, the last redoubt of the alarm-sounding critics has been to insist that the government will ignore its obvious duty to declare the state of emergency over when the pandemic is over and that it will thereby quietly establish a permanent dictatorship when no one is looking..

Though I made it clear, as above, that I thought that far-fetched, I am not a lawyer, and so I sent along the Hungarian constitution (it’s easily available online) to a distinguished constitutional lawyer friend and asked him for an opinion. He responded, after a minimal amount of legal bafflegab, to the point:

“Worriers/haters of Orban would have to focus on the procedural point — can the government simply refuse to terminate the state of danger when the virus passes, or is judged sufficiently to have ebbed? In theory I suppose that is impossible to rule out. In practice it’s ridiculously far-fetched. The government cleaned up last election. Why turn off voters by doing this? And neighbouring countries? Can’t see it. And not only won’t the government do that, the constitutional court (even full of Orban appointees) would step in and end the State of Danger.”

And that’s about the size of it.

***

English-speaking expats who usually get together over meals and weekend parties have been forced by the lockdown rules to forgo these social pleasures and socialize by phone and Internet, swapping tips on the latest home entertainments. Recommendations usually focus on Netflix, Poirot, Miss Marple reruns, and Donald Trump’s press conferences. But a clip from CNN has been making the rounds among us to general hilarity.

It’s an interview on CNN with the Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Sziijarto, conducted by Christiane Amanpour, in which the interviewer continually makes statements about what’s happening in Hungary only to be patiently corrected by the minister on simple points of fact. When at one point she says that Parliament has been suspended during the emergency, he replies that he’s appeared three times before it in that week.

In between moments of puzzlement, Szijjarto is friendly and courteous throughout the interview. That seems to be second nature to him, but maybe diplomatic considerations played a part too. Which was a pity at times. When she was asking why so many distinguished people around the world thought Hungary was drifting away from democracy and into authoritarianism, it meant he was unable to respond, “Maybe they get their news from CNN.”

***

That said, there is something odd and almost choreographed about almost any of the international debates on Hungary. And it goes deep. The standard format consists of argument, counterargument, followed by a long pause, and then the reiteration of argument (i) again. Occasionally it varies, but this format, in addition to being the standard one, also has a strong resemblance to American debates on immigration. It’s not a format that can ever decide anything. Indeed, it’s not a debate but a kind of performance. And it requires some thinking through.

George Schopflin does thinking very well. As a Hungarian exile during the Communist years, he was an informed critic of how the world behind the Curtain operated. He served as professor of politics at the London School of Economics until the Berlin Wall fell. He returned to a free Hungary in the aftermath and then served as a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, from which he retired at the last election.

On the website of the Estonian journal of international affairs, Diplomaatia, Professor Schopflin sees in the “wooden language” of the anti-Hungarian liberal consensus in the European Union a form of ritual that serves a familiar purpose: “All human institutions rely on ritual to secure solidarity, to sustain a consensus that is taken for granted (not debated) and to establish propositions that all those inside the magic circle accept as an unquestionable fact.”

And, of course, to repel boarders, indeed to excommunicate them. The boarders in this case are those who dispute the European establishment’s orthodoxy of a version of liberal democracy that privileges courts, bureaucracies, treaties, and supranational institutions over elected and accountable governments.

“Which,” as the professor succinctly notes, “Hungary does.” Not of course in defense of authoritarianism or any other of the boo-word ideologies that make up the anti-Hungarian indictment but in support of the democratic sovereignty of independent nation-states. It’s livelier than my summary makes it sound. Read the whole thing here.

***

Meanwhile, one aspect of the emergency regulations that is rarely discussed is whether or not they’ve been successful in delaying and halting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re still fighting the virus in all countries, of course, and if we’ve learned one lesson in the last few weeks, it’s that we won’t know the final answer to that question until we can read the final numbers of infected and dead in the rearview mirror.

For the moment, however, Hungary’s performance looks likely to be a good one, judged by three practical tests. It acted much more promptly than most countries to do the things that most countries have done — namely, closing schools, shops, and borders and encouraging social distancing. Its regulations have been enforced lightly and with common sense but followed impressively. And so far it has a much lower infection and death count than countries of a similar size and situation: 1,916 cases of confirmed infections and 189 deaths.

Those are not the only considerations, of course, but they’re worth mentioning.

A week ago the citizens of Budapest in moderate lockdown were waiting for a second blow to fall in the form of tighter regulations on social distancing, home confinements, and shopping hours. It never came. Ministers might have thought people would rebel if they announced tighter restrictions at the start of an Easter weekend traditionally reserved for family get-togethers. For whatever reason, they announced only the extension of existing lockdown rules for another three weeks.

That came as a relief. Though some nonessential workers and small-business people are feeling a real pinch as well as serious economic anxiety, the rest of us are adjusting to life under lockdown quite well. The weather has been good and the regulations not too cramping. The rules don’t forbid people from sitting on benches or pausing between exercises. And perhaps in response to the self-discipline of the civilians, the cops have been restrained and even easygoing.

There’s been little or nothing of the “petty authoritarianism” we’ve seen either in the behavior of Britain’s police, formerly “wonderful,” or of the governors of some American states seized by delusions of omnipotence almost as catching as the virus. The Budapest police at least seem to be playing by the rulebook for dealing with tourists in the absence of tourists. They interpret “exercise” very loosely, don’t seem to mind people resting on benches, and treat an obvious couple as a single person.

And there’s a feeling, hard to pin down, that lockdown has been eased slightly, not by the government but by people finding ways to cope with it. The clearest example of this is an unexpected revival in the hot-food trade. There are three meal-delivery services that ferry takeout restaurant food in heated containers to your home. If they were there before the lockdown, I never noticed them. Within a few days of the restaurants’ closing their doors, however, they were everywhere.

At first it was largely pizzerias and the cheaper chain restaurants that used these services, which between them employed more and more young Hungarians of both sexes peddling furiously across the city for your dinner to get through. But the services soon expanded their suppliers and customers, and at the very time when people were using their cars less, their young riders and cyclists dashing about ruled the deserted streets. For the restaurants, which were forbidden to admit people inside but could serve through a window or over a half-door, it was a lifesaver that may not have made a profit but that reduced their losses significantly.

As a result, in the last ten days more and more good middle-level restaurants that had closed for the duration returned to the city, reopened as takeouts, and emailed or telephoned their regular customers to invite them to pick up their favorite meals at an agreed time. Three of our own regular haunts have done so — for the record and for those visiting Budapest in happier times, they are Kispiac, Pomodoro, and Biarritz — and a kind of camaraderie between hosts, guests, and other guests developed as we line up six feet apart to pick up our meals.

It won’t completely disappear when lockdown ends, nor will the new Budapest culture of high-quality cuisine takeways. The takeout meals are cheaper than eating out — one drinks less alcohol, for a start — and they’re the same meals. With less money we’ll probably eat in more often while keeping our culinary standard of living high.

Of course, we’ll all be happy to celebrate the end of lockdown with a good meal and a glass of Furmint at our local restaurants. As we start to climb back to yesterday’s standard of living, we’ll be eating out more again too while still eating in other people’s cuisines. The restaurants will expand their customer base by providing both services.

And we’ve learned something very hopeful. Budapest has a good many on-their-toes entrepreneurs and some hardworking (and now very fit) young people — many of them the same people — who will be around to help city and country climb out of the post-virus economic recession we are all resigned to digging through.

Given that the last two economic wastelands that Hungarians had to dig their way out of, in 1945 and 1989, were either controlled by Communists or poisoned by their legacy, they should have a better chance of success this time, with a people less sedated by free things of poor quality and more attentive to opportunity.

I wish them well.

***

Gaming report. I reported two weeks ago about a bet offered by Boris Kalnoky, the Budapest-based correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt. Its terms were that Boris would buy anyone who took up the bet a Borsodi beer if Orban kept the “state of danger” law in place after the danger had passed; vice versa if Orban lifted the law promptly. To get over any difficulties over when the bet would be declared over, Boris proposed five days after the Brits lifted their emergency rules.

He has now been trumped by Frank Furedi, the Anglo-Hungarian sociologist and a founder of the website Spiked, who teaches at Hungarian universities. Furedi has offered what is essentially the same bet with higher (and MORE generous) stakes. Frank is offering 100 U.K. pounds if he loses and asking 50 U.K. pounds if he wins.

Well, given the news reports that democracy has ended in Hungary, these would seem to be very good odds for anyone challenging either Boris or Frank. Anyone who wins the bet, moreover, can look forward to a very jolly evening at home with a foaming mug and a takeout from one of the better hostelries. But none of the correspondents, commentators, or editorialists who have been warming us of the coming dictatorship have yet taken up the bet.

It’s almost as if they don’t really believe what they write.

***

An hour after I wrote this diary, my wife rang me to say that she’d fallen and twisted her ankle on a hike with a Hungarian friend through the Buda woods. After the police and paramedics had taken her to a hospital and she’d been X-rayed, she rang to say she would be arriving home soon but being unable to place any weight on her right foot, she would need help to climb the stairs to our first floor apartment.

My days of carrying brides over thresholds are long gone.

I walked down to the street, wondering how to manage this task, and I saw a group of cycling food carriers waiting for their next assignment. Going over I asked if one would help carry a lady up a flight of stairs. Three of them spoke English, and all of them thought this a reasonable request. The one who won the contest was an engineering student who had really enjoyed his lockdown job and was plainly as fit as an entire string section.

When Melissa arrived, we both helped to reach the unavoidable stairs and then he carried her into our flat and the bedroom. He refused to accept any tip (we overcame this scruple) and rushed off to deliver his next order.

I felt hopeful about young Hungary before. Now I feel optimistic too.

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