BUDAPEST, Hungary — The face of Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, as he stands before the lame-duck Hungarian National Assembly daring it to press a vote of no-confidence, is a study in gloom. He wins his argument and averts the vote, but weariness and the pessimism registered on his features remains.
The taxi driver, his offers to change money at black-market rates declined, sinks back into sullen combat with the traffic, turning up the disco music on the radio one more notch. "What the hell," he says. "It makes no difference."
The Hungarian-born American manager of the successful lighting manufacturer Tungsram, Gyorgy Varga, makes steady rounds among 18,000 employees, conspicuously informal in his shirt sleeves and trying to spread Yankee optimism.
"The whole country is not in a good mood," Varga says. "We're going to have to make a mind change here."
The mood of depression is widespread in Hungary--and all the more striking for the fact that the country is on the verge of free elections, the culmination of a long process of reform that will finally, and probably irrevocably, remove the Communist Party from power after 42 years.
Given the approach of these long-awaited changes, it would seem more probable that this nation of 11 million would be closer to euphoria than gloom. But the sense of foreboding, of deep pessimism, is pervasive and obvious, to natives and newcomers alike.
The mood of Hungary is also an illustration of the danger, uncertainty and fear associated with the transformation of an entire economic, political and social system, and a reminder that such changes are not all flag-waving joy for new-found liberties. For most people, the change is a nerve-racking process--and, as Hungarians swiftly point out, you don't have to be an ousted Communist to feel nervous and embittered.
All serious change, psychologists note, is fraught with uncertainty and fear. And the change of a political system is no less fraught than, for example, the end of a marriage (even a bad one) or a change in jobs (even to a better one).
"All the rules are changed," Dr. Andras Veer, director of Budapest's largest psychiatric hospital, said in a recent interview. "The situation of former leaders is up for grabs. But it's not just political. All leadership jobs are up for grabs."
And below the leadership level, in offices and factories, in pensioners' apartments where the rent is going up and even newspapers are too expensive to buy, the less powerful wait in suspense for the effect on their own lives.
Some pessimism here comes from economic uncertainty:
New taxes now take a 30% slice of the average Hungarian's income (10,000 forints a month, or about $150).
The consumer price index jumped 17% in 1989, 15% the year before that.
One-fifth of the population lives on an income of less than 4,300 forints a month (about $65), the officially designated "social minimum."
About 70% of Hungarian men hold more than one job and work up to 14 1/2 hours a day, and heart attacks are on the rise.
For Hungarians, Poles and East Germans--and soon, probably, for Czechoslovaks as well--real incomes are not keeping up, despite the effort.
Jobs, at whatever income, are no longer secure for many people. In Poland, unemployment has been growing at the rate of 100,000 per month; the same specter looms over Hungary.
At Tungsram, Varga's first order of business will be to trim the payroll; a hiring freeze, early retirement plans and attrition, Varga calculates, will cut his work force by 2,000 in the next two years. He declines to say much beyond that, except to note that there will have to be cuts in white-collar personnel.
"Too many people handling too many pieces of paper," he said.
Judit Gergely, the managing director of Investcenter, an office set up to help promote foreign investment and joint ventures with Hungarian concerns, sometimes finds herself subject to the pessimism, even though her official duties call for the opposite approach.
After a year of trying, and the intercession of the deputy minister of telecommunications, she is still unable to get a home telephone, even though it is essential to her work, and her work is deemed important to the national interest.
"Whether I'm depressed or not depends on what time of day you ask me," she said, adding: "People are depressed because they are not used to inflation. They are not used to dynamism. They don't see opportunity, they see danger."
Few Hungarians, evidently, see any answer in the blossoming of the new politics. A recent survey showed that only 45% of the population believes that Hungary is ready for democracy. In part, some believe, the pessimism grows out of the campaigns of the three or four most important new parties, which focus more on blaming the Communists for the nation's problems than on suggesting better times might lie ahead.