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Hungary's communist view of capitalism: being 'rich' is all right

''Money reigns . . . in Hungary,'' commented a speaker on Hungarian television a little while back. Hungary's economic reforms have certainly provided Hungarians with a greater range of goods in the stores than other East-bloc countries are accustomed to.

But the reforms have had some unexpected and unwelcome side-effects recently - especially at a time of little or no economic growth. In particular, all too like the communist view of capitalism, the rich have been getting richer, the poor getting poorer.

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Hungary even has a growing number of ''millionaires'' today. True, a millionaire in forints is hardly the same as a dollar millionaire, since the forint is worth only about two cents. But in Hungary, even 1 million forints (about $22,000) makes one extremely well off.

The consumer well-being built up under the reform is still readily visible. But for the past year, the government has been telling Hungarians that current economic difficulties mean that at best living standards can only be maintained at present levels.

Even that is not sure. According to a recent analysis, more than a million people live on the poverty line, earning half the average wage, or less. For about two-thirds of the population, standards have declined. Most must even take second jobs.

But for the rest, the story is brighter. The peasants for whom official support for private plots (which yield 30 percent of all farm output) have benefited from the reform. A countryside full of new farm cottages attests to that.

So have the equally prosperous private entrepreneurs, who also receive official help. These include shopkeepers, builders, architects, mechanics, and nearly every branch of artisan consumer service.

At the top of the heap are the ''millionaires.'' It is these people - not the private sector as such - that the ruling Communist Party, for obvious political reasons, seems in two minds about.

Savings, property, jewelry, or works of art are acceptable wealth, and being ''rich'' is all right, said the party daily Nepszabadsag, if it derives from ''honest work.'' But a lot of people, the paper said, resent the accumulation of wealth, ''especially when the growth of real income is so slow.''

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Predictably, inquiring reporters from a Hungarian weekly found it difficult to ferret out the secrets of some reputed millionaires' affluence. One ascribed it to inheritance; two others to their ''business instincts'' and hard work as artisans; another, an electrician, to his ''inventiveness.''

Within the East bloc, such wealth is possible only in Hungary, where private initiative and a private sector, both in in agriculture and on the periphery of state industrial enterprises, are both tolerated and encouraged.

In this respect, Hungary is on a par with Yugoslavia, where there is an even more extensive entrepreneurial world. And it has been commonplace for years to find World Bank-supported peasant farmers in new houses with a car as well as a tractor and other appliances in the barn.

The only near parallels to Hungary within the bloc are in Poland, where agriculture is 75 percent private, and ''rich'' farmers and gardeners are increasingly producing for lucrative exports to Western countries.

In hard-line countries like Romania and Czechoslovakia, private enterprise remains rigidly excluded. Riches scarcely exist outside the establishment.

For anyone else, wealth must be found under the counter or on the side. A few acquire hard currency from official work trips abroad. In Czechoslovakia, bricklayers, carpenters, and mechanics work weekends to earn four times the rate of their ordinary workweek.

Poland also has speculators who corner domestic goods in short supply. Or they make even bigger zloty fortunes in the flea markets peddling Western ''luxury'' items bought in Pewex, or government stores with dollars sent by family members in the West.

There are western shops, too, in Budapest - selling Pierre Cardin fashions, West German cameras, and quality china. In Hungary, these items sell for forints.

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