Bush’s Eastern Bloc Trip Highlights Contrasts
BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) _ President Bush’s stops in Poland and now Hungary present contrasts between this quiet, graceful city along the fabled Danube River and the northern Polish port of Gdansk, with its gray dockside cranes poised like dinosaurs on a smoggy skyline.
Shops here, unlike in Poland and other communist European countries, are well stocked with products and unabashedly Western commercial interests are much in evidence. The gleaming McDonald’s in downtown Budapest ranks as a trendy watering hole, while the Adidas store offers the same fashions and goods available in New York or Munich.
Budapest is a city of jagged cliffs and spectacular bridges and monuments, with the Danube quietly flowing down the middle. When the lights come on at night, young couples amble along the river, giving off a feeling of a kind of Belle Epoque that many Americans associate with the Old World.
The city’s grace - which persists despite delays in much-needed building restoration - is in sharp contrast to the gritty industrial feel of Gdansk, the Polish shipbuilding center where Bush met with Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa on Tuesday.
Hungarians are proud of their moves toward a free-market economy, including a fledgling stock exchange and a wealth of pamphlets and other materials trumpeting their progress.
Two young Budapest men showed off the country’s enterprising spirit to good advantage shortly before Bush arrived from Poland.
Without waiting for the necessary permit from city authorities, Laszlo Halnai and Peter Lakos set up a life-size, stand-up portrait of a smiling Bush and charged Hungarian passersby 200 forints, the equivalent of $3.30, for a Polaroid snapshot with the country’s distinguished guest.
And a local English-language radio station touts the latest in investment opportunities - a capitalist twist that still seems out of place despite the enormous changes sweeping across the Soviet bloc.
Hungary embarked on pioneering economic reforms that gave its capital this gloss by the 1970s. But then foreign loans were increasingly squandered on unprofitable state-run enterprises, putting a brake on change.
Now, the ruling Communist Party is itself the motor for a push toward a free market economy and is negotiating with mushrooming democratic opposition groups over multi-party elections next year.
Like Poland, Hungary is crying out for more capitalist investment - and on the surface at least seems to be doing a much better job than Warsaw.
But both nations are weighted down with foreign debts, and both have been forced to let building renovation take a secondary role to providing the necessities of life.
Cars and trucks belching fumes from cheap, Soviet bloc gasoline crowd the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk and Budapest alike. Young, stylishly dressed girls walk arm-in-arm alongside stooped older women still attired in drab dresses and fading headscarves.
But while Poland lags economically, it has a reform rallying point in the labor federation Solidarity. Red-and-white banners with the ragged Solidarity script are as much a part of the Polish landscape as the box-like Polski Fiats.
Some constants of Soviet bloc life remain in both countries.
In both Poland and Hungary, young couples can wait up to 20 years just to jam themselves and their families into small apartments - if their marriages survive the preceding decades with their parents or in-laws in equally cramped quarters.