Until approximately 48 hours ago, we had been accustomed to regarding Hungary as a well-organised small country with an exotic language, neatly tucked away in central Europe. A pioneer of economic liberalisation even under the Communist system, it seemed to have made the transition to market mechanisms more successfully than most. As the first Eastern Bloc country to open its borders to the West in 1989, it can claim to have accelerated the end of the Cold War. And of all the countries that joined the European Union in 2004, Hungary stood out for the apparent ease with which it met the accession criteria - economic, political and judicial.
That image of a model country was shattered in the early hours of Tuesday when an anti-government protest escalated into violence and the state broadcasting service was forced off the air for several hours. It was the first significant outbreak of civil unrest since the anti-Communist Uprising almost 60 years ago or, as the hapless Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, put it, "the longest and darkest night" since the end of Communism in 1989.
Yesterday, five months after leading his coalition to victory - the first time a post-Communist government had been re-elected in Hungary - Mr Gyurcsany was fending off calls for his resignation. And there was a sense in which he had only himself to blame for the protests. The immediate cause was the leak of a recorded speech he had given to party activists, in which he had admitted that the party had lied about the economy in order to win the election.
In the address, couched at times in the language of the barrack-room, Mr Gyurcsany admitted that his government had "screwed up" - "no country in Europe has screwed up as much as we have". There was no significant measure that the government could be proud of; nothing, he said, in all of four years. As Prime Minister, he said, he had had to pretend that the party was governing: "instead, we lied, morning, noon and night".
Now it has to be said that, in a world where so much information is distorted by spin, Mr Gyurcsany's diatribe has a certain primitive charm. Here we have politics, naive and in the raw. Are there not times when we would welcome some of the same straight-talking here? The fury of Hungary's centre-right opposition, though, can well be imagined. Had the Socialists been more honest about their failings before, it is the centre-right that might now be in power.
Opposition fury at Mr Gyurcsany's confessions, however, is too simplistic an explanation for what has happened. This week's protests had been planned before the recording emerged, in response to an austerity package that the government had already announced. The "lies" just gave the protests an additional edge.
The sad truth is that the common view of Hungary as a paragon of the new Europe, a haven of stability and prosperity, has long contained a large element of wishful thinking. The times when Hungary was a byword for reform are long past. The economy has stagnated. Hungary has the highest budget deficit in proportion to its GDP of anywhere in the European Union.
As an early success of the post-Communist economies, Hungary was allowed to rest on its laurels. Curbs on government spending should have been introduced long ago. The greater the delay, the more painful change will be. In many respects, Mr Gyurcsany's scolding of his party was overdue. He will salvage his job - that much is certain. But the image of Hungary abroad has taken a battering. If a more realistic appraisal of Hungary is the result, this week's short sharp riot may have done everyone a favour.Reuse content