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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2955

Budapest Emerges as a Determined Competitor in Europe

By Dr Palitha Kohona -, former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations The writer returned from Hungary recently

The Romans built an impressive urban settlement (Aquincum) centered where modern Budapest is located in 89 AD. Already a Celtic population lived there. The Romans were constantly under threat from the Barbarians from across the river Danube. Attila the Hun, on his forays across Eastern Europe, attacked in the 5th century causing the eventual Roman withdrawal. The Ungarians came next, possibly from Central Asia or even further, led by Arpad in 896. Their descendants constitute the bulk of the Hungarian population of today.

The Hungarians were converted to Christianity during the reign of Saint Stephen in 1001. Stephen sought the assistance of the Pope to ward off other invaders threatening his kingdom. Since then the Hungarians have expressed their faith by building grand churches with high steeples reaching high up to the heavens and ornate interiors, rivaling the churches elsewhere in Catholic Europe. A mix of splendid Gothic, medieval, Baroque and renaissance religious architecture competes for attention along its impressive streets. But the confident glamour that other European capitals exude is missing from this gem of a city.

The Mongols laid waste the country in 1241 and probably brought the Black Death with them. Then it was the turn of the Ottomans to occupy Hungary for 165 years from 1521 to 1686. They also left their mark. The Hapsburgs from Vienna, who had held the Ottomans at bay, then made repeated attempts to annex the country. Following years of conflict and internal strife, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 30 March 1867 in the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War, established the union between the two kingdoms. It consisted of the two monarchies (Austria and Hungary), and one autonomous region, the Kingdom of Croatia -Slavonia under the Hungarian crown, which negotiated the Croatian–Hungarian Settlement in 1868. The Union was ruled by the House of Hapsburg. Budapest became the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Hapsburg era was a time of constructing grand buildings in Budapest, almost in competition with the co-capital Vienna.

But the union dragged Hungary in to World War I, willingly. Defeat in the War and the treaties of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Trianon resulted in vast areas of Hungary (72%) being hived off. Hungary was dismembered, losing around two thirds of some of the most productive parts of its territory. Many still nostalgically recall their grand history with pride.

The Second World War saw Hungary collaborating with Germany and later Germany occupying the country with significant local collaboration. Almost half a million Jews were deported to German concentration camps from Hungary. The end of the War resulted in Hungary being absorbed in to the Soviet sphere of influence. This status lasted till the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The Hungarians, unhappy with the Soviet straight jacket, rose up in revolt in 1956 but the uprising was crushed very quickly by the Warsaw Pact countries.

Today, Hungary is a member of the EU (since 2004) and NATO (since 1999) but populist Prime Minister, Victor Orban, often refuses to toe the Brussels line. Famously, he has refused to take any refugees from the Middle East despite a major shortage of labour in the country. Over one million young Hungarians have emigrated in recent years. Hungary and Slovakia have taken legal action over EU's mandatory migrant quotas at the European Court of Justice.

For a country that has occupied the sidelines of European and world history in recent times, Hungary has produced an abundance of outstanding high achievers in a variety of fields. George Soros (billionaire), Harry Houdini (contortionist), Franz Liszt (composer), Lea Gottlieb (founder of Gottex), Zsa Zsa Gabor (actress), Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Cicciolina (pornstar - politician), Laszlo Biro (inventor of the ball point pen), Ferenc Anisits (inventor of the BMW diesel engine), Jozef Galamb (creator of the Ford Model T), Erno Rubik (inventor of the Rubik Cube), Tivadar Puskas (inventor of the noiseless match), et al. The list of Hungarian inventors and creators is long. The reason for this propensity to produce brilliant minds could be the excellent education system that the country has enjoyed historically. The universities of Hungary were always respected for their excellence. Over 27 Hungarians, some living outside Hungary, have been awarded the Nobel Prize in different fields. The Hungarian language belongs to the Uralic language family and is related to Finnish.

The fast flowing Danube, Donau, was the northern border of the Roman Empire. For Roman Pannonia, it was an effective barrier until it froze over one winter enabling Attila to march across and occupy the city. Schubert composed the Blue Danube but today the Danube is anything but blue. One wonders whether it ever was as it drains a large swath of countryside stretching up river through Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany, including the central European Alps.

According to my friend who lives in Budapest, Budapest has had a long and complex history. There were many ups and as many downs. It may be experiencing one of those upswings at the moment. Today’s Hungary reflects its historical experiences and interactions to varying degrees.

The Danube is totally navigable today and large cruise ships, some carrying 200 passengers in 5 star luxury, sail all the way to Germany and then along the Rhine to the North Sea. An amazing series locks, (locks were first used in the Grand Canal in China but were much evolved over the years in Europe), an engineering marvel, enable these luxurious vessels, some reaching 150 meters in length, to travel along the Danube and then along the Rhine. Imposing castles and fortresses built by bishops and princes appear at regular intervals clinging to vantage points along the two rivers. The bishops and the princes accumulated considerable wealth levying taxes from river traffic. The rivers were a major trading highway since the middle ages.

The Danube and the Rheine create a 3,500-km (2,200-mile) waterway that links 15 countries and can accommodate barges carrying up to 2,425 tons of bulk cargo. The Rhine–Main–Danube Canal, in Bavaria, one of the largest civil engineering projects ever undertaken, reaches up to a height of more than 406 metres (1,332 feet) over the Swabian Alps, south of Nurnberg. The ships are raised to the top of the continental divide, one lock at a time, and are gradually brought down on the other side. Passengers hardly notice their ship being lifted or lowered. Some ships have their top decks mechanically lowered to pass under bridges of which there are 184.

Budapest, off the tourist beaten track for too long, is fast becoming a European hot spot for young travellers. Hungary's population is around 10 million but over 12 million tourists visit the country. The major airlines of Europe and the Middle East fly into Budapest while many luxury brand hotels occupy plush historic buildings along the Danube. There are other grand historic buildings waiting for big brands with cash to spare to occupy them. Those who own apartments do a roaring trade through Airbnb. The Chinese tourists, already swarming elsewhere in Europe, are beginning to discover Hungary and the luxury hotel lobbies are beginning to fill up with them. Chinese restaurants are popping up everywhere. Many hotels already have a Chinese breakfast corner.

Budapest's imperial era buildings rival those of other European capitals. They are grand and imposing but the lack of funds, especially during the Communist Era, have affected their upkeep but also contributed to keeping their rentals relatively low. The more recent Communist era structures are not that prominent but are not totally unremarkable. The piece de resistance of Budapest's buildings is the 286 room beautiful parliament building on the bank of the Danube which compares well with the Palace of Westminster in London. St Stephen's cathedral is as impressive as Vienna's and can accommodate 6000 worshipers. Budapest's tree lined boulevards remain cool even as the summer temperatures reach above 35c.

The summer cafe scene has erupted in Budapest. Many street sidewalks have been taken over by a variety of cafes and restaurants. Most offering a mix of Hungarian or fusion dishes while others opt for the easy to prepare pizzas and pastas. Beer is cheap. So are the Hungarian wines. Thousands patronize the buzzling cafes, Magyar and foreign languages mix. Ruin bars are a big hit. Rundown buildings are given a quick face-lift and converted in to bars. Judging by the crowds, they are a huge draw. The city is full of beautiful girls in the tightest fitting short shorts. Eye candy for the asking! Curiously, every street corner seems to boast a Thai Massage establishment. At the same time, something that did not exist during the Communist era, homelessness is becoming more evident now. Dozens of poor sleep on the streets. The major European supermarket and department store chains have invaded Hungary offering choices that were not there before the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Hungary like other Eastern Europeans has not toed the EU political line on many issues. While initially, in their enthusiasm to join the EU, they embraced liberalism, nationalism has returned with a vengeance. Under the populist right wing Prime Minister, Victor Orban, Hungary has refused to accept refugees fleeing the violence and chaos of the Middle East. Hardly a burka is visible on the streets. Of course, the anti burka sentiment is sweeping many parts of Europe, including countries which were once part of the Ottoman Empire. (During the Ottoman occupation, the Hungarian kings moved to Bratislava in Slovakia. The Ottoman armies were eventually stopped at Vienna in 1688 by a combined force of Hapsburg and Polish armies). Nationalism with an anti Islamic taint is evident. President Putin's support for Hungary's claim to Transylvania has hit a popular cord. The pain of the Soviets crushing of the 1956 uprising and the humiliation of its leaders, lingers somewhere and large monuments commemorate the event. Gay pride gets a special place but the gay pride day march had more police than marchers, ready to intervene in the event of trouble.

Curiously, despite the existence of splendid and well funded churches, religion appears to have receded as an important factor in the lives of Hungarians and others in their neighborhood. In the Czech Republic, over 60% have formally opted out of the church. Germany is facing a similar crisis in church attendance.

Today vast areas of the country are covered by agriculture (sun flowers, wheat, corn) while straight highways scythe through the countryside. Managed forestry has become an important industry along the Danube but the expansion of modern agriculture has changed the landscape.

Some in Hungary look nostalgically to the Communist Era in its history. Then, education and health care were provided free of charge by the state. Accommodation was cheap. It was illegal to be unemployed. But the economy stagnated. As one commented, then the state, the biggest employer, pretended to pay, the workers pretended to work. When apartments were privatized, following the fall of Communism, many of the occupants became the owners of valuable real estate. Hungary’s property prices remain low compared with its European neighbors to the West but are likely to rise with time.

- Asian Tribune -

Budapest Emerges as a Determined Competitor in Europe
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