"There are," in the words of one Hungarian commentator, "places where growing old is worthwhile, and there are places where it's not. Hungary definitely belongs in the latter category." One in four Hungarians is of retirement age: The retired number 2.7 million in all, in a country of 10.4 million people in 1991. This group has suffered terribly from the economic decline and dislocation that precipitated the fall of the Communist regime and now plagues the country's new democratic government. The dislocation they have experienced is not only economic but also psychological. For years the Communist regime adopted a paternalistic attitude toward the population, promising improvements in the standard of living in exchange for political loyalty. This attitude extended through all levels of the ruling elites, as local "barons" — the economic and political managers of the totalitarian state — distributed the funds made available to them by the central government. This distribution took the form of localized social and cultural initiatives, through which the elites bought the fealty of those under their power. Hungarians came to depend on this neo-feudal system for survival: The resources allocated through it made life under the authoritarian state bearable. The breakdown of the local initiatives — the economic crisis of the late 1980s left the regime unable to support them fully — was a major factor in the Communist system's collapse: it lost the loyalty of the masses. The end of neo-feudal ties and handouts has, since the fall of the regime, made life very hard for many people, especially the elderly and retired. Like senior citizens the world over, Hungary's elderly are singularly vulnerable to the shock of an inflationary economy. They have been reduced to states of abject poverty by the tens of thousands, and have found it difficult to make the emotional and intellectual leap to the new conditions of the market economy. Facing the terrible insecurity of the times, and feeling isolated and forgotten, Hungary's elderly have begun to turn toward one another for aid; they are gradually emerging as the first large grass-roots political force in the new Hungary.



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