During a cabinet meeting one day in 1990, Ferenc Rabar, then Hungarian finance minister, was called out to receive an emergency call; the deputy governor of the central bank said that the country's foreign exchange reserves had run out: he should therefore tell the cabinet of the need to freeze imports.
Rabar returned to the meeting to find Hungary's leadership arguing over whether the pre-communist title for a county leader should be restored. Often outvoted at such meetings, Rabar kept the matter about the reserves to himself. The cabinet eventually voted - the old title was not restored.
Democracy is an unwieldy, cumbersome form of government at the best of times. This anecdote, described by Vienna-based journalist Paul Lendvai in his book, "Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism", shows how even more cumbersome was the process of trying to establish democracy after 40-plus years of one party rule.
In 256 pages, the Hungarian-born author surveys the tumultuous past quarter century of Magyar history, from the collapse of communism in 1987-89 to the current regime of Viktor Orban.
To the Viktor, the spoils
His early chapters contain numerous, fascinating Rabar-esque insights (many otherwise now largely forgotten) woven into readable, well-buttressed analysis as to why the leader of the day - be he Antall, Boross or Horn - moved this way or that. In chapter 4, he provides a penetrating analysis of Hungarian anti-Semitism.
Lendvai is scathingly critical of later Socialist prime ministers (Peter Medgyessy, who came to power in 2002, in particular), but given the remarkable rise of Viktor Orban to the summit of political power in Hungary, first in 1998 and again in 2010, and the subsequent partisan politicking that he has inspired throughout these years, it is understandable that much of the later pages focus on the former dissident law student.
In Lendvai's eyes - with the exception of his famous speech at the re-burial of executed 1956 leader Imre Nagy on June 16, 1989 - Orban starts off badly in terms of democratic deficit, and goes rapidly downhill from there. "After 1994, Orban and a handful of this closest friends began to transform the original grass-roots movement of young revolutionaries [ie. Fidesz]... into a charismatic 'Fuhrer' party," with the former liberal-style policies "replaced in both style and substance" towards the conservative values that Orban and his friends had once so mocked, Lendvai observes.
More worryingly, given the rise of Hungarian nationalism after 1920 and the unwillingness of the Hungarian right to fully acknowledge Magyar responsibility in the extermination of a large part of its Jewry in World War II, he says: "Fidesz now consciously played the card of the myth of the Hungarian nation."
Point by telling point, from orchestrating the "ruthless" and "mendacious" attacks on Socialist prime ministers Peter Medgyessy and, especially, Ferenc Gyurcsany, Lendvai chronicles how Orban was determined to win power in 2010, and then ensure he kept it. And on the way, he details how Orban uses powerful friends in the world of business to build up a loyal and sophisticated media network to provide unswerving support, while continually playing a dangerous game with neighbouring states that contain ethnic Hungarian minorities to keep national emotions running high.
By the final chapter, written earlier this year, the author quotes Charles Gati, the Hungarian-US academic, to sum up the state of Hungary today: "Hungary is no longer a western-style democracy. It is an illiberal or managed democracy, in the sense that all important decisions are made by Orban."
Playing the man
Orban's supporters (and there are still many among the Hungarian public, despite falling in the opinion polls) will no doubt denigrate this volume as one written by a traitor to the Magyar cause. True, Lendvai has a spotted past. He was a communist and worked for the security forces in the early years of communism, but has denied right-wing media accusations that he continued such work in Vienna. Regardless, throughout this work he reveals an intimate, if depressing, knowledge of his native land and its politics, and is thoroughly well researched on Orban in particular.
Given this, it is surprising he appears unaware that even Orban's famous entry onto Hungary's political stage - his dramatic 1989 speech at Imre Nagy's reburial - was just one early example of his willingness to betray allies and break promises: Orban - along with other speakers - had earlier agreed with to eschew modern politics at the event; all had pledged to dedicate the day to the "martyrs" of 1956. To this correspondent, this epitomises Orban's political existence - the very thing that launched his career and made him famous was based on a broken promise.
And the foreign-currency crisis that Rabar faced in 1990 did not "somehow resolve itself" - it simply surfaced a few weeks later and, due to the inept handling of the Antall government, precipitated the famous "taxi-blockade" in October that year.
A colleague described this book as "anti-Orban": but it is more than that. Lendvai shines a light into the murky, swirling psychological undercurrents that have dragged - and in the author's view, are once again dragging - the peculiar waters of Hungarian patriotism into a damaging and ultimately self-defeating nationalism: and, as Lendvai repeatedly points outs, this is once again against the weight of historical evidence.
A history of Hungary is unlikely to be a global best seller, but this will surely be high up the "must-read" list for foreign diplomats and politicians who need to deal with Budapest - and will be so for many years to come.
"Hungary - Between Democracy and Authoritarianism", Paul Lendvai, Published by Hurst, ISBN: 978-1849041966