Thursday, May 20, 2010

That time of year again

This Saturday is the Pünkösdi búcsú the biggest pilgrimage in Eastern Europe, where Hungarian Catholics from wherever you might find Hungarian Catholics (ie Hungary, mostly) descend on Csikszereda to be pious or some such.

A couple of years ago my friend Denes made a video of me covering it which was almost shown on Duna TV (Hungarian channel), but ultimately wasn't. Anyway here it is (again):

Part 1:

Part 2:

Any TV people who actually want to use this should contact Denes via the you tube page :-)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Whinging Poms

Or is it whingeing? The Internet seems divided.

Last week some friends and colleagues ran what I can only describe as a fantastic week-long programme here on arts/crafts/folk traditions. Participants from all over Europe attended, met people working on traditional folk arts and crafts, observed them in their work and also participated themselves and practised what they had seen. Among other things this involved weaving, linen work, traditional wood painting, folk dance from all over Transylvania, making (and playing) traditional local musical instruments, riding on horse carts, visiting museums and art galleries, and many more. As a bonus they even got taken bear watching one evening (and saw 10 bears). One Polish guy in the group said he'd always dreamed of driving an old Dacia, so he got that chance too. They stayed in a fabulous local inn which is located in an old water mill, with accommodation in renovated traditional local peasant houses. The food at this place is plentiful and delicious, and is accompanied with lashings of palinka and wine. All in all it was the kind of week that would cost an absolute fortune if arranged through a travel agent/tour operator, but the people in this group got the whole thing completely funded through the European Union's lifelong learning programmes. Including their travel and everything else.

Everybody was incredibly impressed, happy, delighted, overwhelmed, and full of nothing but heartfelt praise for the experience.

Everybody except one person that is. The one English person on the course seemed to delight in moaning about anything and everything. First of all she had an allergy to paprika. Now this she stated on the form before coming, so every meal the group had was absolutely and perfectly paprika free. Timea, the female half of the couple that owns the watermill-pension who does all the cooking made sure of that (and as you can imagine in a Hungarian context cooking paprika free is quite a challenge). But the English woman insisted that she thought she could detect paprika in her food and got very upset and demanded to see the kitchen. Eventually she reduced Timea, who is the sweetest most caring person you could ever meet, to tears. Then she complained that they hadn't seen enough "Romanian" (as opposed to Hungarian) folk culture - though of course they had all received tons of information before coming to let them know what to expect, to talk about the unique character of this region, and to generally ensure that no-one would have unmet expectations. (Obviously if they had been driven to Bacau or Piatra Neamt or somewhere similar where they could have experienced something more "Romanian", she would then have complained about the distance).

But these are fairly small things. The thing that has really made my blood boil is that on Friday evening when I met the group I asked her how everything was going and she said everything was fine, great, it was a wonderful week etc. However, now, via email she is sending in another great litany of complaints. My favourite being that there were things at breakfast that English people wouldn't eat. Now I have eaten breakfast at this place and there are plenty of things to eat, and if you don't want to eat szalonna, for example, you really are not likely to go hungry. I don't eat szalonna, but I manage to put on weight every time I eat there. Plus, when you travel, you get things that you don't normally eat for breakfast. It's normal is it not? And she wasn't a first time traveller by any means.

I think the thing that really pisses me off is that to my face she told me that everything was great and now back in the UK she is shooting off cowardly emails complaining about ridiculous trivia which marred her experience. An experience which to everyone else was a wonderful amazing life-enhancing experience. An experience which was, let us not forget, entirely and absolutely free.

They say we are nation of whingers, grumblers, and complainers. I didn't really think this was entirely fair until now. It's really pissed me off.

[Now I of course, have whinged and griped about her, so I am obviously a product of my culture just as much as she is.]

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Politics week - Part 3: Hungary

So, the UK now has a Tory prime minister and basically a Tory government. (On a side note, I discovered yesterday that I am older than both halves of Britain's new conjoined prime-ministers. This is obviously the next stage in feeling ancient, after many others - being older than some professional footballers--> being older than all tennis players--> being older than all professional footballers--> and now being older than not just the PM but the mini-me version too). Who knows how it will all pan out, but looking at the cabinet it looks very dicey. Have you seen Michael Gove's views on education for example? Shudder)

And Romania has a government which seems destined to shatter even the Thatcher government's worst excesses. See Bogdan's comments adding to my post on Monday for more details.

However, these two countries pale into insignificance when we look at Hungary. Like the UK, Hungary also recently had a general election, and like the UK it previously had a very unpopular sort-of-but-not-really-left-wing-party in power. However, whereas in the UK the mainstream right-wing party didn't really take full advantage of this, in Hungary they (FIDESZ) swept to power with a huge majority. Now as I think I've said before I think FIDESZ are a pretty dodgy bunch, with a number of dodgy people involved (not least their leader Viktor Orbán).In common with many other mainstream right wing parties they tend to play the "we're not racist, but" game - not being openly racist or having openly racist policies, but not really speaking out against racism (and as we'll see in a couple of paragraphs time, there is a lot of racism in Hungary that really needs to be spoken out against).

In theory FIDESZ's election ought to be reasonably good news for people round here since they do tend to go in for the "let's support our poor oppressed Magyar brothers isolated from us by the evils of Trianon" rhetoric, and in previous periods of government they funded a fair amount of activity here in Székelyföld. Though with Hungary as bankrupt as everywhere else in Europe seems to be, such financial support looks a bit further off this time. There is a suggestion that as they have such a huge parliamentary majority now which allows them to alter the constitution, that they will resuscitate the attempt in 2004 to award Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians from outside Hungary. Personally I think that if they do, everyone here ought to reject it, since (a) in theory now both countries are in the EU there is basically no difference which passport you hold; and (b) it seems like it would just play into the hands of hardcore nationalist Romanians who think Hungarian Romanians should "go back" to Hungary. I can imagine it might open doors for Hungarians in Ukraine or possibly Serbia, but for people here it just seems like a poisoned chalice. Still it's not really for me to say. The other possible effect it might have here would be to shake up the Hungarian Romanian political scene, since FIDESZ created and supported the MPP, a party which appears to have all but disappeared recently, and which provides a more right wing nationalist alternative to the nationalist soft right RMDSZ (UDMR) party which represents the Hungarians in Romania (and hence runs essentially a one-party state here in Harghita County). Who knows what will happen there. [One question that does arise with the possible award of Hungarian citizenship to Hungarians from outside Hungary, is that anyone taking the passport will have to have a vote in Hungarian elections, and of course those that accept the passport will likely to be predisposed to the party that gave it to them, which means that one could see the whole thing as a cynical vote buying grab]

The really big disaster of the Hungarian election though is the rise of Jobbik. Now people on the left often (and occasionally with good reason) get criticised for calling anyone on the right a "fascist" or a "nazi", and it is clear that these terms are extremely overused. But Jobbik are genuinely a Nazi party. By that I don't mean they have strong views on immigration or integration a la Le Pen or Bossi for example. By that I mean they are openly anti-semitic, vehemently anti-Rroma with the threat of violence against that community never far from the surface, aggressive, racist bastards. They even have their own paramilitary force the Magyar Gárda, who have been likened to Hitler's Brownshirts. (As an aside you will see from that article, FIDESZ have been pretty complicit in Jobbik's rise).

In this election Jobbik got 16.67% of the vote, which translates into 47 parliamentary seats (just under 7% of the whole). Next to figures like that Thatcherite politics in Romania and the UK seem like merely a small problem.

The only positive to come out of the election (and I mean the only positive) is that a 4th party (basically a green party) called "Politics can be different" (LMP) got 7% and 16 seats.

Some references in case you want to immerse yourself further in this deeply depressing set of results:
Hungary Lurches to the Right (Der Spiegel)
"Hungary has turned into a grubby hive of nationalism" (Der Spiegel)
Hungary party to follow European extremism's move away from fringes (Guardian)
Head of far-right Hungarian party Jobbik vows to wipe out ‘Gypsy crime’ (The Times)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Who is David Cameron anyway?

Bit busy today so the Hungary section of politics week has been put on hold. However, the UK now has a prime minister and I thought it would be worth highlighting some of the things he has done and positions he believes in, especially as regards foreign policy (which gets less press attention in an election).

Now I could take the approach of going on about what kind of leader I think he will be or whether his background qualifies him to have any say on the lives of normal people, but I'll resist that temptation and just stick to some of the things he has actually said and done:
  1. In the 80s he accepted an all-expenses paid "sanctions-busting" visit to apartheid South Africa. (Link here). As far as I can tell from searching the web, despite a lot of pressure, he has not actually apologised for this.
  2. He is a member of an organisation called "Conservative Friends of Israel" a lobby group which promotes the occupation and is vehemently anti-Palestinian. (Watch the Channel 4 Documentary - Dispatches: Inside Britain's Israel Lobby)
  3. In the European parliament he has aligned the Tory party with a disparate group of homophobes, anti-semites and other extremists (including a Latvian party which celebrates the SS) (Link)
  4. He voted for the war on Iraq (though he's not exactly alone in this)
So, from a foreign policy perspective that's the new Prime Minister of the UK. Doesn't look that good does it?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Politics week - Part 2: the UK

It's been a big week in British politics. But I reckon it must look dead weird from an outsider's perspective. Partly because of our weird electoral system through which the number of votes and number of seats are not really linked, and partly because when this system delivers a "hung parliament" (ie no overall majority for any party), this is such a rare event that it seems to send the whole system into craziness. For most countries (in Europe at least) the idea that after an election you have a period of horse trading and coalition talks is so utterly normal that the last few days of frenzy in the UK must seem really bizarre.

Anyway, to sum up what has happened so far. Firstly everyone lost in the election last week. The Labour Party (or New Labour as I still like to think of them in the vain hope that somewhere deep in the party lies the hope that they will one day return to actually sticking up for working people) got summarily kicked out of government and lost a huge number of MPs. The Liberal Democrats, the third party, who suddenly as a result of the introduction of presidential style debates, were thrust into the limelight and briefly saw the possibility of being the second biggest party (at least in terms of votes) slipped back to pretty much where they were before (more votes, fewer seats, go figure). And the Conservative Party who were the primary opposition to a massively unpopular government, with a hugely disliked prime minister, and with vast amounts of media support for their campaign couldn't even get a majority, which goes to show how even now many many people still hate and distrust them (me included). They did get the most votes and the most seats, but frankly in the circumstances it was as bad a performance as Labour had in 1992.

So no-one won, and now the media is in a frenzy of speculation and, in many cases, blatant attempts to influence the outcomes of negotiations. The vast majority of newspapers in England are rabidly pro-Tory, and they have been flip-flopping madly as things change. Yesterday Gordon Brown was a squatter who needed to resign immediately, and then when yesterday he did announce his resignation this was suddenly a shabby act of treachery of something. In addition the TV is increasingly pro-Tory. Rupert Murdoch's Sky News is extremely biased (and their chief newsbloke Adam Boulton yesterday was hilariously called on his Tory bias yesterday by Alistair Campbell - Blair's former spin doctor/spokesman - causing Boulton to blow up in highly amusing apoplectic rage). It is fairly widely accepted that Murdoch has done a deal with Cameron and the Tories that if they get elected they will savagely cut the BBC thereby leaving Sky with a greater access to the market. Hence Sky and Murdoch's papers - the Time and the Sun being even more rabidly right wing this year than ever before. However, in a perhaps desperate bid to suck up to the Tories and hence not be cut too much, the BBC has also lurched to the right, and their chief political journalist Nick Robinson is unfailingly pro-Tory in everything he says and anti even the prospect of anybody else having a say in government. (His latest disingenuous wheeze, in common with his right-wing brethren, is to suggest that if we end up with a Labour prime minister who is not Gordon Brown, then that's an unelected PM. But the system doesn't actually elect a PM ever, it elects MPs, and the leader of the party with the most MPs is the PM. No-one has ever elected a PM in the UK, despite the new presidential style of the campaigns).

The there are these shadowy "markets" which apparently are going up and down every time anyone sneezes. So ubiquitous have they become in the post-election commentary that one wonders why we even bother to have elections in the first place. Let's let the markets decide, since the media seem to want to let them anyway. Never mind that the markets are a completely indeterminate entity, and that essentially they are made up of a bunch of global gamblers and speculators who spend all day every day betting on stocks and currencies, but who manage (in a really neat trick) to be both gamblers and bookmakers (and yet somehow respected for all that). The only people who care what the markets "think" are the markets themselves and the compliant media.

What the election has delivered is the possibility, however small, of actually having a sane voting system in the UK in the future, one in which everyone's vote counts for something. I am not holding my breath for such an eventuality, but it does now seem to be at least on the agenda.

Aside from the need for a new electoral system, I'm torn on what I think the outcome of this election should be. I am instinctively and deeply anti-Tory. In fact I firmly believe that anyone who was alive and in any way politically conscious in the 80s must for ever distrust and despise them, and never ever vote for them. I cannot ever see myself voting Tory - and I don't believe they have or will ever change. Anyone who remembers the 80s and would vote Tory has either been lobotomised or should be. In the current circumstances with a large budget deficit to deal with, they just be rubbing their hands with glee as (at least in their minds) they have an excuse to make savage cuts in the welfare state. Thankfully we don't have a majority Tory government who would by now already have started dismantling the NHS, education system, and any other troublingly beneficial services.

However, they did get more votes than anyone else, and they ought to be able to have first crack at forming a government. This they have done, and by the end of today they may even have managed it. If they don't and can't put together a workable government then we have to see what other alternatives there are. The press would have you believe that it's Tory or nothing as they are the "winners" in the eyes of most of this band of chancers, but the mainstream press are, for the most part, a bunch of scum who actually care not one jot for democracy, while all the time protesting that they really ONLY care about democracy. From time to time I even get this feeling that from a long term perspective it might even be better for them to form a minority government (or one propped up by the Lib Dems) so they can piss everyone off and get kicked out again when the next election comes round in a few months. But then even that short period of power would result in the destruction of lives, communities and basic human rights, so I can't give in to that one. But then again, I wonder if coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems (with a savage right wing press against them) will not be even more unpopular, and lose even more badly next time round, thus delivering an unchecked Tory government free to launch into its attacks on the country.

It's a quandary and no mistake. But despite the uncertainty (which is not really a big deal, whatever the markets and the press think) actually might make UK politics better in the future.

I really really hope so. Meanwhile if you think that a better voting system is necessary and important, then sign up here:

This post could be pages and pages longer than this, but I already feel I've rambled way too much.

[Tomorrow's edition of politics week features Hungary. And if you think things are bad in the UK and Romania, then they are nothing compared to that country]

Monday, May 10, 2010

Politics week - Part 1: Romania

It's going to be politics week on Csikszereda Musings (taking over from the last few weeks during which there were clearly a series of "no activity at all weeks" on this blog).

I'll get to the UK election later this week, but I'll start with Romania. Now Romania's economy is pretty bollocksed (as I believe the technical macroeconomic term has it), and some months before Greece made headlines and made it fashionable the country took a large IMF loan in order to try and bail out the system.

As ever one of the conditions from the aforementioned IMF was that the country had to reduce its budget deficit. So last week, the plan was announced, and quite frankly it's the shittest most ridiculous plan in the history of rubbish plans. Basically it is that state sector employees take a 25% pay cut and pensions and other welfare are cut by 15%.

Let's start with public sector pay cuts. Public employees in Romania are not, frankly, overpaid as it is. Nurses, for example, earn an absolute pittance. Every hospital experience I've had here (either as patient or visitor) I've been absolutely blown away by the commitment and dedication of the nursing staff despite them being paid pretty much the minimum wage. If they're taking home much more than €250 a month I'd be utterly shocked. Meanwhile they are working inside hospitals plastered with posters advertising nursing jobs in other European countries where they will earn 10 times as much. Teachers too, especially those at the early stage of their careers earn basically the square root of fuck all. I'm quite sure that this low pay culture is reflected in most other public service occupations. How shall we deal with debt crisis? Oh let's cut further the pay of those who already earn virtually nothing in the first place.

Pensioners are about the only group in society who make public sector employees look well off. Pensions are very low, and with inflation relatively high, I have no idea how most pensioners will be able to survive a 15% cut in their income. The vast majority of them are pretty much barely making ends meet on a month to month basis anyway. At least from the government's point of view pensioners can't strike, so perhaps that's the motivation.

So what should Romania do instead? If we assume that it must abide by the IMF's requirements (I'm not sure we should assume that, but let's just run with it), obviously money has to be found somewhere. Money either has to be cut from something or raised from somewhere. Cuts seem not what Romania needs right now, with the country's infrastructure in a complete mess, and stuff needing to be done in pretty much every area, and the aforementioned poverty-line existence of nurses, teachers, pensioners, etc etc. Obviously there are large stacks of cash that get siphoned off between being earmarked for public works or what have you and actually being spent, and this would be one area that could profitably be dealt with. Actually have a serious effort to deal with some of the worst corruption, but obviously politicians, as some of the primary beneficiaries of this money leak, are not so willing to go for that option.

The other blatantly obvious place to raise more money is in the taxation system. Romania is one of the few countries in Europe or the world to have a flat tax system. Not only is there a flat tax system but it's pegged at a very low 16%. There is a staggering amount of inequality in Romania, and a better more progressive tax system seems like it would not only raise money but actually make the country a fairer place in general. People earning up to €10,000 a year (a fortune in Romania to be honest) pay 16% as now. Over 10,000 and you start paying 30%, over 50,000 and you start paying 50%. It's not that difficult, you wouldn't punish people who can't afford it, and you'd raise money to start getting the deficit down (and in the grand scheme of this you are not suddenly making Romania less attractive to investors, since what I've just suggested is fairly close to what everyone else has). If you could combine this with a serious anti-corruption effort then suddenly things get better without forcing nurses to go overseas to work so they can eat and pay the gas bill, and without creating an underclass of pensioners.

But no, the government have spoken. Wankers. I have the feeling that this is now going to make the economy worse, since the public sector workers will now all go on strike (and with good reason) and thus, effectively increase the problems. Good work Domnul Basescu, you stupid stupid bastard.