Europe’s former communist zone in the east can feel a bit like the mirror in Lewis Carroll’s second Alice story. Russians will tell you with completely straight faces that they need to militarily defend their country from neighbours like Estonia, (half the size of Iceland). Hungarians say “Hello” to mean “goodbye”, peel bananas from the other end and hold bouquets of flowers upside down. Serbs told me during the 1990s wars that they were fighting Bosnia on behalf of Christendom because the Bosnian Muslims were the pure Slavs while they, the Serbs, were tainted with Turkish blood. [pullquote]The underlying view here in the East of course is that an accountable bureaucracy is a childish dream, and that the only realistic choice is between officials who thieve more and officials who thieve less.[/pullquote]
Not the least fascinating part of this looking-glass world is how the East Bloc sees western Europe. For one thing they think we westerners are fools to believe the BBC. For East Europeans whatever’s in the newspaper or on radio or television is taken as a matter of course to be lies or distortions shaped by someone’s agenda. It’s not that they believe the old communist line against West Europeans – they assume everybody is lying. At first it seems silly, then it seems cynical, then after a few years (as your correspondent from the west goes native perhaps) it starts to seem obvious.
Of course, there are local variations of flavour across the region. The Hungarian version of this cynicism produces in public strenuously dull journalism and official commentary which stresses caution at all times, hedges its bets against every possible risk of having said the wrong thing, and repeatedly uses “complex” as a term of praise. (A “complex solution” for example, is the proper approach to any problem in Hungary because it is a solution which is exhaustive, complicated, would take far too long to explain here, and will require a team of very serious experts to work out in detail.) The greyness of public views in Budapest is only partly a legacy of communist bureaucracy. This is not least because the Habsburgs perfected numbing officialdom for centuries before Marx’s followers seized a single state. Kafka and Ionescu were pre-communist writers, and their absurdist literary nightmares of red tape owe more to pre-COMECON Balkanism than to the baggy-suited trilby-wearing apparachiks of the Warsaw Pact.
This is why the Hungarian press, on the record, stresses how risky Brexit is, lectures reckless Britain for rocking the boat, and mocks nostalgic Britons who fear loss of sovereignty. Napi (Daily) approvingly cites the figure of over one hundred billion pounds as what Brexit will cost the UK. Outlets like the website index.hu or the financial newspaper Vilaggazdasag tick off the wayward Brits and their absurd insistence on accountable bureaucracies. A more pro-government newspaper like Magyar Nemzet bitches rather at British expectations of special treatment, instead of (by implication) manning up and enduring the burden of EU membership like the rest of us. The underlying view here in the East of course is that an accountable bureaucracy is a childish dream, and that the only realistic choice is between officials who thieve more and officials who thieve less.
Yet one of the delights of the East Bloc is how that grey public caution is countered in private by open irreverence when speaking off the record. Indeed, many Hungarians, Poles, Russians, or former Yugoslavs put us to shame in the frank way they discuss topics now almost totally taboo in the West, like sex, money, religion or national stereotypes.
Hungarians’ private views on Brexit are likewise refreshing. They envy us discussing sovereignty at all. They praise our bravery in even considering leaving the relative safety of the rusting mothership. They shake their heads at our foolhardiness, and then in the next breath moan that their countrymen are too scared to do the same and clever buggers that we are we British will probably come out of it well somehow. Some are breath-takingly candid about the EU being a way of getting money: when a translator friend of hers had obtained some policy thinktank job in Brussels one girl admiringly called this “getting closer to the sun”. She meant the source of all funds.
More sophisticated Hungarians (like some Mediterraneans) so despair of their own country that they see rule by committee weasels like Jean-Claude Juncker as a step up from being ruled by their own country’s money-grubbing penpushers. One Hungarian corporate executive chuckled and shook his head at me when I asked about this: “You British still believe in yourselves,“ he laughed. “No, it’s good. I wish we did too.” One legal academic wrily mused to me that he preferred the precedent-law emphasis in English law, he wished Hungarian law could be more Anglo-Saxon, and he wistfully said the EU would be worse off without us. This is a major theme – don’t leave us at the mercy of the French and the Germans! They concede no one country has much influence at the EU negotiating table, but so what? For them it’s more about the money and combatting any instability in their own societies that might lure the Russians back. The idea the EU might be efficient or honest seems to them far behind the main goal, which is not slipping back into the orbit of Moscow.
Hungary has sometimes been defiant with Brussels. Like the Poles and Slovaks, Orban’s government sees no need to risk domestic unpopularity by taking more Muslim refugees. In economics, one senses Hungarians are canny enough to keep earnestly striving to meet the criteria for joining the eurozone, but to never quite get there.
But when talk gets serious, gloomy but blunt praise for Britain comes out. They think that our lucky island status shielded us from the centuries of invasions and dicatorships they suffered, but in the next sentence they laud the character of Britons in a way few dare to in Albion itself now. One Russian businesswoman flatly told me she liked how straight officials are in the UK, except for one government employee (“No, not British, an Indian” she emphasised) who had asked her for a bribe. One computer engineer suddenly volunteered a defence of Britain’s hereditary peers. “They had a personal incentive to maintain their families’ reputations in future years by staying honest, and this became a custom they are proud of,” he said calmly. “Here it is only a question of how quickly or slowly each party steals money from taxpayers.” East Europeans have the sad wisdom that politics will never be a technical subject, kept clean by committees, systems, documents or boxes on diagrams – that Washington and Brussels suffer two versions of the same delusion. Some East Bloc folk believe in their own tribe, and some don’t, but they all know it’s really about tribes.
Mark Griffith keeps a weblog at http://www.otherlanguages.org