In a year of anniversaries, today - 27 June 2009 - marks the 20th anniversary of the ceremony on the Austro-Hungarian border when the foreign ministers of the two countries - Gyula Horn and Alois Mock - took bolt cutters to the wire fence that divided East and West, to symbolise that the postwar division of Europe was coming to an end - this was one of the many events that was both symbol of, and catalyst for, the changes that would sweep the continent later in 1989.
For the first time in almost 20 years, I am in Budapest again, this time at a consultation sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation on "Church and State in Societies in Transformation", 20 years after the system change of 1989. Before the meeting began, I met up with an old friend who had been active in the civic rights movement and the founding of new, independent, political parties at the end of the 1980s.
Hungary is not in a mood to celebrate the events of 1989, she told me. The country has been hit massively by the global economic crunch, the value of the currency has plummeted and a prime minister has been driven out of office, while the political parties are mired in corruption. The most important thing now to my friend, she told me, is her daughter and her family.
The message was reinforced by the opening welcome from representatives of the Hungarian Lutheran church. In her sermon at the opening worship the deputy bishop of the southern region of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary, the Rev. Marianna Szabó-Mátrai, noted how In today's Hungary, young people believe they need to, "reach the top and become rich". At the same time, "We, here in Eastern Europe feel that in this region and in this culture we need to run more, we need to worry more … than in the northern or western part of our continent."
Professor Tibor Fabiny, in his speech welcoming participants, noted how Hungary has been hard hit by the global economic downturn, he said, leading to the rise of extremist political parties. "The most recent elections for members of the European Union Parliament have not quenched our fears," he said. "The experience of crisis, once again in modern history, have resulted in the sudden emergence and strengthening of populist and dangerous tendencies in the political discourse, the intensification of right-wing radicalism. And this is not what we wanted 20 years ago."