For Worried Hungary, an Aura of Paternal Authority : Eastern Europe: Voters feel a kinship with Joszef Antall, who for decades suffered along with them. He is expected to steer the nation’s future.
Joszef Antall, the man who will guide Hungary through the troubled waters of a new democracy, appeals to worried Hungarians with an aura of paternal authority and a commitment to restoring national pride.
Like his countrymen, Antall was obliged to retreat after the failed 1956 effort to expel communism and forced to wait for the next chance, like a prisoner intent on escape.
After four decades of Communist domination, newly liberated Hungarians are eager to break with the past, and they feel a kinship with the new leader who suffered along with them.
Antall withdrew from the political scene after taking part in the revolt 34 years ago, a move that gives him an image of purity in a nation suspicious of any socialist taint but deprives him of exposure to the routine of running a government.
The man who is expected to be the nation’s new prime minister shows himself confident of his policies and their prospects for success, but he is quick to assign blame to others when setbacks are threatened.
“Propaganda” by spiteful adversaries, he says, is behind Western investors’ concerns that his party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, seeks to slow the pace of privatizing industry. Recent withdrawals from Hungarian banks, he contends, are the result of “manipulation” by political rivals and financial speculators. And the foreign press, he says, is responsible for the impression abroad that southeastern Europe has become a powder keg of ethnic conflict.
As such statements reflect, his watchfulness can border on paranoia, but he is also a politician refreshingly devoid of pretense, fearless about speaking his mind.
What would be taken for dogma in another man seems in Antall to be a parental commitment to do what is right. It likely was that sense of commitment and his schoolmasterly correctness that appealed to Hungarian voters last month when they chose the Forum to chart the nation’s new course.
Widely respected, even by political adversaries, Antall was virtually unknown until a year ago. He spent most of his adult life squirreled away at a medical history library, resigned but not remorseful over the failed attempt in 1956 to make a difference.
Born of the landed gentry in 1932, Antall was the son of a respected political leader who sheltered Jews from Nazi persecution during World War II. He studied history, law and economics at his university and was working as a teacher when Hungarians rose up against their Soviet occupiers Oct. 23, 1956.
In a pivotal event in his life, Antall joined the workers’ armed revolt, which was crushed by Kremlin tanks in early November. He was arrested and forbidden to teach as punishment. He took a post with the Semmelweis Medical History Museum in 1964, where he rose to become director and remained until emerging from academic exile to lead the Forum last October.
He is a man whose steely resolve may be just what is called for during the hard years that yawn before the Hungarian nation.
He accepts, for instance, that as the price of recovery his nation will be burdened with high inflation and unemployment long before the rewards of integration with Western Europe can be reaped. Hungarians cite the threat of joblessness as their No. 1 fear.
“We will try with the Ministry of Economics to create new jobs and a social net for those who are laid off, and to create a fund for retraining the unemployed,” Antall explains in a level, emotionless tone. “But there will be high unemployment in some areas, especially in the northeast, where heavy industries and mining will be cut down.”
The Forum’s campaign efforts to stir up national pride and concern for Hungarian minorities abroad drew accusations that its leaders were stoking the fires of long dormant ethnic conflict in Transylvania. One senior Forum figure, Istvan Csurka, was accused of maligning Jews during a campaign radio interview.
When challenged, Antall concedes that the bloody confrontations between Romanians and Hungarians in Transylvania are a reality not invented by hostile media. But he objects to the doomsaying.
“It is very dangerous when such a bad picture of Eastern Europe is presented. These claims that we are nationalist or anti-Semitic or that we are threatened with Balkanization are provocations,” he stated in a recent interview.
Asked whether Hungary accepts Romanian sovereignty over Transylvania, part of Hungary for centuries until World War I, Antall points out that treaties after both world wars deeded the area to Romania.
“This is not a question because it has been dealt with in two peace treaties, and Hungary has signed the Helsinki Act, which recognizes Europe’s current borders,” he replies testily. “We cannot say any more about this.”
Antall is similarly brusque when asked about Lithuania’s quest for independence.
“Of course, our sympathies lie with Lithuania,” says Antall, whose longish hair and protruding lower lip give him the look of a pouting artist. “But it is not Hungary that is expected to help.”
Lithuania’s quest may be noble, but continuation of the East European reform process will not be sacrificed for the sake of the tiny Baltic state, he made clear.