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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

EU, Borders, "Revision"

A member of the Hungarian Parliament, representing the ruling party (I will withhold the name, for reasons of taste), speaking at a meeting in Romania, has recently pondered about the possibility of a revision of the border between Hungary and Romania. In other words, he revived, again, a by now over 90-year-old territorial demand on part of the Hungarian state against Romania. This of course is bound to upset the Romanian state--after all, it's the principle of sovereignty that is being toyed with here. On this level, this is just a really, really boring, hyper-conservative nostalgia trip. At the expense of Hungary's neighbors. Cheap and stupid politics.

Meanwhile, there is this thing called the European Union. Both Romania and Hungary are members of it, for better or worse. The border between Hungary and Romania is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and with Romania's (and, btw, also Bulgaria's) imminent entry into the Schengen system, the whole thing will be pretty much completely meaningless. (To get a sense of what's going on on the ground: Since the introduction of visa-free access to the west European parts of the EU for Romanian citizens, the real problem for the Hungarian labor market is not the massive influx of informal labor from Romania, but the opposite, its disappearance. Romanian citizens, who had been a fixture in seasonal agriculture as well as the construction industry until about 5-10 years ago, have more or less moved to richer EU-member states.) Be that as it may, the border is all open, especially for Magyar-speaking citizens of Romania.

All this border revision talk is basically a red herring.

So, OK. I think I get it: the guy is a provocateur, he thrives in stirring irrational sentiment. Just ignore him.

What I don't get is why he does not get ridiculed out of politics.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Plunder of Last Remaining Public Assets Imminent in Hungary

It seems that privatization of some of the last bits of collective assets in Hungary, the Budapest Public Transport Company, and the State Railways, is imminent. I have arrived at this conclusion from a number of observations.

To start with, it is almost impossible not to notice the striking negligence with which the government has intentionally bled these companies of investment, creating a public transport infrastructure that is embarrassingly run-down, unreliable, dirty, environmentally polluting and overall a real shame. And this from a status quo ante until the early-to-mid-nineties that was actually, for the country's level of economic performance, quite acceptable.

Viewed from a global perspective, of course this makes perfect sense. As I have argued repeatedly, an apparently "essential" feature of the post-state-socialist governments' economic strategies, irrespective of political orientation otherwise, was a full commitment to privatizing assets and institutions in its possession (essentially neglecting the responsibilities to the public that place those assets and institutions in the hands of the government pretty much everywhere in the world). Since almost everything has in fact been privatized in Hungary, it takes hardly rocket science to predict what will happen to the remaining assets. Those remaining assets, in today's Hungary, include the health, culture and education infrastructures, the road system, the existing railroad infrastructure and the companies that operate those assets. Then there is the air, the water and the country's geopolitical and -economic location. That's just about it.

Trouble is, these assets are exceedingly difficult to privatize--for many reasons, one of which is that they most are actually necessary for the reproduction of society. Hence public sentiment regarding the state's actual performance in operating those assets is key to determining the order in which they will be privatized. It is not enough intentionally to run down these assets. There needs to be a public conversation that is hyper-critical of them, and it needs to be concluded that the state is essentially unsuitable to provide public services through institutions it owns and manages.

That public conversation is pretty much everywhere in Hungary--but, the fact that I got reminded of all this has to do with an op-ed piece, published in the "liberal" daily today, arguing that corruption is a necessary part of state-provided services, and that a municipally owned public transportation company has no right to exist in Budapest.

There is only one set of questions--who the lucky winners are to be. Of course this is the point about which there have been slight disagreements between the middle and right wing governments in the past. I really don't want to guess this, but if I had to, I would say I expect a combination of some of the most powerful "oligarchs" in the Hungarian economy and multinational capital, most likely from the EU. That's it. Game over.

What the subsequent governments will be able to plunder (to strengthen "their" own capital groups, etc.) is of course an open question. But, given the legendary creativity of Hungarian society, I'm sure they will find something.

cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta