A Polish dissident once told me, “If it took 40 years to create this mentality, why shouldn’t it take 40 years to undo it?” Indeed, though we’ve now surpassed 20 years since the Berlin Wall was torn down, Central and Eastern Europe remain a work in progress. Everything that happens within these young democracies must be seen through the prism of what happened here during four decades of Communism, and how far the region has evolved since. Here, then, is a look at twenty years... and counting.
HEVES, Hungary—For ten years, Szabolc Szedlak toiled in a furniture store in Heves, Hungary, before deciding to chase the capitalist dream. He bought the store from his boss in 2005, but high taxes choked the life out of his business. It folded in June 2008. At the same time, his wife gave birth to their first child. With a second on the way, this spring he found a job as a maintenance man at a local kindergarten. Unable to afford their own place, the couple now lives with Szedlak’s parents. Szedlak has taken whatever work he can find, from painting houses to selling watermelons.
HONG KONG – One unheralded pleasure of Hong Kong is eating with chopsticks, every day. This is by choice: many restaurants have fork and knife at the ready, just in case klutzy Westerners drop in. Some even serve me fork and knife automatically, like they did earlier this week in the HKBU faculty restaurant. “Chopsticks, please,” I asked the waitress.
HAINBURG, Austria – Lounging by the pool in this medieval Austrian town, overlooked by 17th century castle ruins on a hilltop nearby, you can enjoy a schnitzel, a schnappsor an eiskaffee mit schlag. But listen closely, and virtually all you hear on the blankets of fellow sun-bathers is the Slovak language.
Bratislava, SLOVAKIA – To be fair, I didn’t give Gabor Vona much warning.
When Foreign Policy contacted me about writing a profile of Vona, an exciting new leader for the far right in Europe, my first goal was to humanize him a bit. That meant visiting his hometown and provincial corner of northeast Hungary. I only had thirty-six hours to do it, so I had to prioritize.
Gyongyos, Hungary -- While running for a parliamentary seat in Hungary's April elections, far-right candidate Gabor Vona made one campaign promise that was controversial even by his standards: If voted into parliament, the 31-year-old extremist would report for duty wearing the insignia of his outlawed paramilitary organization, the "Hungarian Guard" -- a taboo symbol that, with its ancient, red-and-white-striped emblem, bears a striking resemblance to the flag of Hungary's Nazi-era fascist party, Arrow Cross.