zaterdag 26 februari 2011

A book on merciful lies and controlled frustration

by Dezső Kosztolányi

Human lies and buried stress do not know historical or cultural particularities, but the scenes where they emerge and surface do. This brief but engaging novel of Dezső Koszotlányi depicts both dimensions with trenchant realism and humor.

The long shunned table society of fellow townsmen and women quickly reengages the Vajkays in its showy habits. The couple enjoys wholesome meals and cigars at the local restaurant every day, does shopping binges, and goes to the theater again to see the local diva and the boxes’ fine-boned audience. Ultimately, Skylark’s father even joins a grand carousel with the ‘panthers’, a group of notorious revelers playing cards and drinking themselves to torpor.
The good life engrosses the couple and makes the imminent return of Skylark (and that of distress) more and more painful. This psychical anguish climaxes in a final face-off with facts and fate, a catharsis without relief. As expected, Skylark’s arrival marks a new retreat from the public eye, but the old façade proves hard to rebuild. Their life goes on in a dismal track from which they fail to break free.

The story is a profound and realistic analysis of suppressed human desires and people’s attempts to shake down backward social stigmas. More than a contemplation of psychical matters, Skylark is an exquisite and sympathetic portrayal of the Hungarian provincial life in the late 1800’s. It depicts the local intelligentsia of elderly clerks, roistering dandys, hamming actors, and daydreamer intellectuals. Behind their affairs, duels, binges and yearning for splendid Budapest, we see the Hungarian provincial patriotism surface in theater plays and in alcohol-fuelled debates. Kosztolányi intimately guides the reader through the scenes and routines of Hungarian provincial town life, picturing cafés and restaurants, ‘market-commuters’, and the genuine Hungarian ‘casino’ with extreme accuracy and elegance.
The book’s narrative is smooth and spare, its tones alternating with melancholy, realism and humor.

Blissfully preserved by the English translation, these qualities made Skylark a world-famous imprint of the Hungarian soul.

(Published in HINT - Hungary. Invest, Network, Trade Magazine's fall issue 2010)

donderdag 2 september 2010

Love Song for Hungary

Budapest – City of Music.
By Nicolas Clapton, Haus Publishing, 2009

According to many, music will always be a lingua franca: melodies convey the same message and inspire the same emotions everywhere, overcoming any linguistic barriers. Meanwhile, it protects tens of thousands of unique local characteristics, and the heritage behind them that guarantees the delivery of culture. It was this special power that attracted Nick Clapton to Budapest, Hungary, the melting pot of the most varied of cultural communities.

Clapton, a singer and educator from the UK, guides us around the Hungarian national character by looking at its diversity through rich and musical traditions. He takes on the dual role of traveler and music expert: the former offering a plethora of practical tips, the latter intellectual analyses of the music that readers can encounter in churches, concert halls, museums and restaurants. Contemplation runs from the architecture of Budapest’s grandiose Szent István Cathedral, and the new concert hall, in the Palace of Arts to the small details of Ferenc Liszt’s workroom, in the vicinity of the Academy of Music. Each chapter is dedicated to an individual local genre of Hungarian music: folk songs, gypsy music, opera and operetta, chamber and choral works. The book also takes on a mission to find the hidden gems alongside the mainstream. It is a must to dedicate pages to such towering composers as Béla Bartók, Ferenc Liszt or Zoltán Kodály. However, due care is taken to mention scores of contemporary masters: Sándor Veress, András Szőlőssy and Zoltán Jeney among them.

Once Clapton has positioned music in its broader cultural context, he introduces culture through music. But because it also comprises the national spirit of culinary arts, local expressions excluded from language books, and witty anecdotes, the author has compiled a 14-page appendix of recommended restaurants and cafés in the capital. Further sections list Clapton’s favorite hotels and music shops, as well as selected literature available in English.

This is not a weekend away, it is a journey.

(Published in HINT Magazine’s Summer Issue 2010)

vrijdag 20 augustus 2010

Hungary's Inexhaustable Asset: Irony

A Hungarian example of how laughing at problems may help overcome them 

Ivad is a charming little village in Northern Hungary, sitting among leafy hills about 40 kilometers away from any town-like settlement. Not a big distance in space, but a huge difference in every other aspects of community life. Like many Hungarian and Slovak villages in the region, Ivad is struggling with the absence of industry, the lack of financial means, poor infrastructure and its longstanding handicaps at politically skewed development programs. With strict endogamy going back to the 17th Century and after 20 years of lonesome democracy Ivadians are fed up with isolation. So they have decided to swim against the tide stirred by the Budapest-centered bureaucracy by using their only asset: irony. 

First, they decided to trade their streets’ names: for a given tariff, anyone can have his or her name be given to a street or a square in Ivad. Following the example of the Canadian Kyle MacDonald (who had set for himself to buy a condo from a paper clip through subsequent trading of items) Ivad has launched its action to have a new playground for its children – by offering a table-flag. To the wonder of many, a new playground was inaugurated in 2009. Another time the village’s mayor, Gabor Ivady postured himself in front of the House of the Parliament to literally beg for pre-funding for his village to be able to get EU development aid – within two days, Ivad got the money. In a protest against the government’s policy to close post offices and schools of little communities, Ivad symbolically barred nearly 30 politicians (several members of the socialist government) from its territory. A series of desperate attempts to make it to the headlines is a normal response in a country where politics often fail.

Ivadians’ best-known invention is, however, the so-called ’Swag-Gallop’, the provincial parody of the Hungarian National Horse Ride (a well-marketed horse race set in the posh metropolitan Budapest once a year).
The ’swag’ refers to everything that participants must bring to the spot themselves, more precisely: Everything. Ivadians don’t have a penny indeed to spend on community events; they have a soccer pitch at most. The rest comes from donation: some bring tents, others amplifiers and even ingredients for the mandatory goulash.

The race itself is not a competition but a skit. Every kind of ’vehicle’ (except horses) qualify to the race as most of the runners try to highlight a social problem and/or a funny blessing for Hungary’s forgotten nooks.
So the race is off. The team of a village called Nagytőke (meaning ‘Capital’ in English) runs with barrows full of fake bills to mark Venture’s advent to the countryside. The Association of Families dressed a mayor a gipsy woman hanged with puppet-babies as bunting; he is pushing a baby buggy, leading the march against Hungary’s dwindle of population. There is a Santa-dressed bunch and a reindeer-man dashing to guarantee extra funds and the urban status for Ivad, and then there is a man-propelled (Flinstones-style, foot-engine) garbage truck to care for EU-conform waste management. The truck is followed by a punisher squad clearing up the mortgage mess caused by nasty banks; a man company sluggishly hauling a traditional iron oven also manages to make it through the pitch. People are clapping their hands and shouting, laughing and waving hurrah to the racers.

Foolish soccer matches mark the other stunt: teams of 5-42 players (from kids to the village’s sexagenarians) tramp and jostle on pitches some of which slants in 20 degree while others are crossed by a burn. The senseless tussle is seen as a symbol for Hungarian politics - its unwieldy practices and the unequal chances of those involved. But it’s also a fun for children and grown-ups trying to score into a goal fixed on a tree branch six feet above the ground.

Corruption is amply demonstrated too. Ivad’s mayor overtly confesses that his decision over which of the swag-racers should get the prize was ‘a bit biased’ by Nagytőke (or ‘Capital’) pledging to build an iPod factory to create jobs in the region.
Moreover, for the sake of those anxious to get bribed, the program features a ‘corruption tent’ where everyone gets introduced into the art of channelling slush funds to attain one’s goals, using the techniques to ‘manage’ invoices and tricks to avoid open call for tenders.  

Another alluring site is an inflatable pool filled with the water of the not so remote Balaton lake which is a must-see for any Hungarian, but never seen by many Ivadians. But the most important courtesy, of course, manifests in free goulash, food and wine served at the various tents - one really needs to look to find something s/he could lose money on.

After many glasses of wine some of the visitors start to hail their ability to shrug off the troubles and the ‘no-work, fleeing-youth’ -type of problems facing these forgotten parts of 21st century’s Hungary. And indeed, with EU-funding running scarce, Ivad’s shrewd mayor builds upon Hungarians’ innate sense of irony. He has his rational: he prefers eternal sources and zero paperwork. 

donderdag 20 mei 2010

Carpathian warriors in campaign mode

Bust-up between the new Hungarian government and Slovakia on citizenship issue

IT TOOK only a few weeks for the freshly elected (and not yet incumbent) Hungarian government to further erode the country’s troublesome relations with Slovakia, its northern neighbour. Fidesz’s leader Viktor Orbán’s right-wing (still sort of a shadow-)cabinet has announced an imminent law which would allow some 3 million Hungarians living in neighbouring countries to get the Hungarian citizenship on an individual basis. As a parliamentary initiative of right-wing Fidesz group, the bill could be submitted for vote before the new government takes office next Friday.

The issue of granting citizenship to Hungarians living across the Hungarian borders is a historical debt of honour, Fidesz says, referring to the 2004 referendum which failed to put the matter on the parliamentary agenda due to low rate of participation. Under the new regulation, those of Hungarian ethnicity could apply for citizenship without being residents of the country - a possibility already granted to Hungarian non-citizens who do not come from the neighbouring countries. As the new cabinet’s foreign affairs minister János Martonyi outlined, citizenship could be obtained on individual claim and would not automatically entitle to vote in Hungary.

The announcement has sparked virulent opposition in Slovakia the government of which swaggered against the plan, threatening to give a ‘very severe response’ should the Hungarian parliament adopt the law. Amid full-swing election campaign Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has summoned the country’s Security Committee and sought the keep the incident in the limelight. While urging Mr Orbán to negotiate, Mr Fico has indicated that Slovakia considered its ethnic Hungarians’ double-citizenship a security risk. As a result, he said, the Slovak parliament may amend the constitution in a way that Slovaks obtaining Hungarian citizenship would lose their Slovak passport. Upon recalling its ambassador from Budapest, the Slovak government also voiced its intention to address international organisations such as the OSCE, saying the Hungarian step is in conflict with international law as well as with the basic treaty signed by the two countries 15 years ago.

Mr Orbán retorted that no negotiations should take place until his government was inaugurated and the new Slovak cabinet was in office.

Although Slovak law recognises the principle of double citizenship, Slovakia has the right to adopt a law to denationalize it’s citizens who are granted citizenship by other countries. This would follow a pattern shared by the Czech and Ukrainian law that (in principle) exclude double citizenship. However, the European practice tends to the opposite direction, with Austria, Romania and Germany giving ethnicity-based citizenship to their fellow nationals living across their borders (Croatia and Serbia also recognise this legal institution).
Furthermore, as a reputed political analyst, Martin Kugla argued in Slovakia’s Hospodárské Noviny newspaper, ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia would constitute no threat to Slovakia’s sovereignty nor to it’s national security.

Just alike many others, this latest episode of the Hungarian-Slovak political wrestling (albeit being fought on the barricades of national interest) was born from domestic political interests of the respective parties.

Hungary’s new government has seized the opportunity to reaffirm its patriotic image in the face of Jobbik, an extreme-right party ringing chauvinistic bells (now in the Parliament) over Hungarians’ putative role in the region. A sonorous, patriotic upbeat may also help Fidesz divert attention from its grandiose economic plans which shall gradually get in tune with a bitter reality that offers little room for tax cuts.

On the other side of the Danube, Mr Fico must also feel somewhat relieved.
Slovakia’s PM (who has earned an ill fame in Europe by reaffirming the notorious ‘Benes-decrees’ and by enacting an anti-Hungarian linguistic regulation) was offered another chance to parade in the guise of a charismatic leader. Instead of dissecting his cabinets’ failures, the media now turns to the old theme of national interest, which is seemingly at odds with the feelings of ethnic-Hungarian fellow citizens. Mr Fico is apparently seeking to make up to voters with inclination to chauvinism in an effort to spare another four years in coalition with the extreme-right Slovak National Party. Extremist voters appear utterly important indeed: even the more moderate Chrsitian Democratic Union Party (Fico’s main rival) has joined the rally for them while dragging the dispute to the European Parliament.

After several years of arrogant, anti-Hungarian rhetoric, Mr Fico is now distressed to see his new Hungarian counterpart who doesn’t lag him when it comes to teeth, and whose response seems just as wise as Bratislava’s recent wrangling. Leaders of Hungarian minority parties in Slovakia have been warning Fidesz not to weaken their positions by awakening Slovak nationalist sentiments during the campaign - to no avail. Again, a special session of the Hungarian Parliament commemorating the Treaties of Trianon (which marked the grave of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the birth of Czechoslovakia) on the 4th of June may further weaken Hungarian parties in Slovakia, where elections are due on the 12th.

Whatever the outcome of the elections may be, ethic Hungarians in Slovakia will lose on the short run, just as all Hungarians and Slovaks who are craving solutions to slightly more substantial problems like energy dependency or unemployment.

maandag 10 mei 2010

A catharsis long overdue

Rather than pray to speculation, Greece is a victim of its own structural weaknesses masked by Eurozone membership

During recent debates on their country’s debt cirsis, Greek politicians suggested that investors’ (or rahter speculators’) greed was the principal cause of the country’s plight. However, CDS-trading (even the notorious ’naked’ one) requires an imminent default against wich one can spekulate. And the default has been there, for roughly twenty years now. Ironically, it was the country’s Eurozone-membership that lubricated the Greek glide towards chronic intebtedness.

From the early 80’s (after two decades of rapid economic growth and the Greek EU-Accession Treaty signed) the Hellens’ economic policy started to fly in the face of the EU’s aspirations related to liberalization and the Single Market. The cause was Greece’s new middle-class craving higher welfare at the end of a 20 year-long high-growth period. Following the second oil-shock (prompting Europe to restructure its economies to make them more effecitve) Greece’s PASOK governments set out to redistribute the wealth of a slowing economy, and nationalized ailinompanies upon trade unions’ calls. To no surprise, in 1993 the Greek economy was sailing near to the brink with an inflation rate of 20.4 pct, public deficit nearing 16 pct and external debt hovering around 120 pct of the GDP.
Despite short-term doldrums in Greek politics (moments of wide-range consensus between political parties and unions) that led to the country’s accession to the Eurozone in 2001, structural problems remained unsolved. Between 1980 and 2007, Greek social spending rose form 11.5 pct to nearly 25 pct of the GDP. Apart form the mass of the spending, the structure of the social system has also been worriesome: pensions and healthcare now absorb nearly 80% of the social transfers, while family support schemes and unemployment benefits account for only 3-3.5 pct of total social spending.

Social expenditure by Function 2006

In contrast to conventional wisdom, families with less than four children are far less patronised in Greece than in other Southern European countries, as in terms of maternal and parental leave the Greek social system is not generous at all. As a result, Greece is one of the countries with a very low natality rate, a fact that amplifies the woes of spendthrift pension schemes and of burdens they will entail in the future. If recent estimations (see chart) prove true, pension schemes alone will eat up at least 20% of the country’s GDP) by 2020.

Percentage of the elderly (65+ years of Age) to total population

Moreover, ill-set pensions are transferred to benefifcaries through an incredibly fragmented structure. A plethora of pension providers (numbering 190 today) and categories make the Greek pension system a vespiary of colliding interests and political bargaining. Thus, beyond its complexity and its costs, it is its reform-resistence that makes the pension system even more remarkable (see last decades’ reform-attempts here and here).

Health care is the other costly reform-braker. It accounts for 23 pct of the social expenditures even with private clinics mushrooming (their turnover amounts to some 40 pct of the total health care expenses of citizens). In the early 2000s, the Simitis-government made the latest grand effort to change it, but the reform fizzled out, as rationalization (aiming to introuce a system of regional heatlh centres) was thwarted by doctors’ strikes.
High social security commitments are topped by the heavy load to finance a mini-cold war with Turkey. Greek military spending added up to €8.7 bn between 1997 and 2003, and had been increasing until 2009. Currently it accounts for 2.8 pct of the GDP, a figure well over the NATO average (1.7 pct). Only the United States spends more on guns and warships in realtive terms. Still, a crisis is a crisis: in its Canossa-march towards budgetary health, the Greek government has generously cut military spanding by around 6.6 pct a year on, outlining a military budget spending ’only’ €6.6 bn in 2010.

Greece is an example of a country that fails due to festering structural problems despite its steady economic growth and its Eurozone membership.
Greece’s annual growth rate (4.2 pct) between 2000 and 2007 helped to offset the bounces in indebtedness of the public and the private sectors. Robust economic growth was completed by the country’s Eurozone-membership securing access to cheaper credit until 2008 (see chart and deatiled analysis here).

However, as a Eurozone coutry can not resort to currency-devaluation to improve its competitiveness and its balance of payments, Greek exports were largely exeeded by imports (the gap tripled within seven years to near 3 pct). High growth and consumption went along with inflation 1.2-1.5 pct higher then Eurozone’s 2.2 pct average, leading to low (or even negative) real interest rates, making loans cheaper to households and private ventures. The respective indebtedness of these segments climbed to 46 and 49 pct of GDP by 2007. As a result, Greece, in the last eight years has borrowed up to 10 pct of its GDP from capital markets every year. When the crisis set in, loans went scarce and the EU was set to see what may happen to a currency area without close economic governance.

In a wider context, the Greek issue boils down to the old question of the Eurozone of how to coordinate 16 or more budgetary policies in a way that everyone prospers. Assimetrical shocks (currency areas’ biggest enemies) can only be averted if member states don’t (and can’t) hide their hazardous fiscal policies behind the common European varnish. In the latter case Greek politicians may also be relieved: ’speculators’ will temper their greed when lending to a boringly sound Greek economy.