The main problem is not economic, though. Given their considerable entrepreneurial talents, anything ought to be possible for Hungarians. But it is politics and psychology which let them down. Most people accept the need to reform, sell, or shut unprofitable state industries, but there are as many theories about how to do this as there are major political parties.
This political conflict could derail Hungary's effort to recover from 42 years of Communist misrule. This ended with last March's elections when Antall's coalition was formed, but this centre-right group is riven with dissension over issues like land ownership. In opposition are the Free Democrats, urbanite radicals tinged with Thatcherite thinking. In October's local elections they took control of Budapest, jolting the Government's limited authority. There is also Fidesz, an idealistic group of young democrats, and on the sidelines are the Socialists, former Communists trying to face their guilt and powerlessness.
But to divide Hungarian politics along left-right lines would be a mistake. The Government really represents a tendency towards autocratic nationalism with a strong rural base, perversely aligning itself with the Socialists by countenancing timid privatisation for fear of selling the country cheap to foreign speculators.
The mostly intellectual Free Democrats recoil from nationalism, declaring adherence to a wider European ideal. They accept that high unemployment is the necessary price of change. This officially stood at 45,000 last August, but by October the word was that 100,000 was nearer the mark. The Labour Ministry predicts 400,000 unemployed (8% of the workforce) within a few years.
But the most depressing development in post-Communist Hungary is the emerging racism. Government supporters have been heard murmuring sotto voce about some members of the Free Democrats being Jewish. They hint that the only "true Magyars" are nationalist gentiles. And there are also the Gypsies, a half-million-strong minority overcome by discrimination, lawlessness and poverty, often left to beg outside flashy Budapest cafes.
Ironically intolerance has been fuelled by a tolerant move. Open borders mean that not only can Hungarians leave easily but pretty well anyone else gets in. The surprising result is sundry Arab black marketeers and a floating population of Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians and others seeking a better life. One estimate puts their number at 250,000.
Hungary has bloodlessly shaken off a weak dictatorship without being quite sure how to construct an alternative. The new generation of apathetic Hungarians worry more about where to buy jeans than how to inherit the ideals of the 1956 uprising. This forgiveable materialism confounds the expectations of those who thought that Hungary might emerge a better place. But at least, for now, you can say what you think.
(George Paloczi-Horvath is an assistant editor of The Engineer.)