Politics Along the Danube

Budapest and Kalocsa, Hungary.

Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia.

Belgrade, Serbia.

Vidin and Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.

Bucharest, and Transylvania, Romania.

These are the reasons this blog and website have been on vacation!

There’s much to say about visiting these capitals and towns of Central and Eastern Europe. The first is, if you can, go!

The major cities are an odd mix of beautiful restored Baroque late-1800s architecture and grim Soviet construction. In many places, the endless ranks of dismal concrete apartment blocks are gradually being restored and, with new windows and a coat of paint to cover the grey, acquiring a sturdy cheerfulness.

The economies of all five countries suffered with the withdrawal of Soviet support for industry—leaving many abandoned factory buildings too expensive to pull down. The war in the former Yugoslavia and the sluggish economy worldwide dug an even deeper economic hole, which they are struggling to climb out of.

The politics are complicated and always have been. Borders and rulers have changed many times. Hungary now has a right-wing government and growing anti-Semitism. On the ride from the airport, the cab had to wait for demonstrators from the radical nationalist and neo-Nazi Jobbik party, and the driver muttered, “Shame.”

Both Croations and Serbs acknowledge their war was more complicated than commonly understood, though the underlying issues were of course interpreted somewhat differently in the two countries. One thing (of many) I hadn’t understood before is that the Muslims in the former Yugoslavia were not necessarily people who at some point had immigrated there from other countries, but were mostly Slavic people who during the many centuries of Ottoman rule changed their religion. Thus, that aspect of the war wasn’t a conflict between ethnic “Yugoslavs” and a foreign population they had never accepted, but an inter-familial conflict more akin to our own Civil War.  Always the bitterest.

Before he and his wife were executed on Christmas Day, 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu built, as we heard dozens of times, “the largest government building in the world, after the Pentagon,” in Romania’s capital, Bucharest. The vast and mostly empty reception rooms, intended to show the increasingly unhinged ruler’s power and prestige, are a monument to ego. While many Romanians are trying to make the best of this white elephant—“The Palace of the People” Ceausescu called it—visitors can only wonder whether the massive funds spent on the project might have been put to much more productive use.

When I figure out how to upload my photos to this new computer, I’ll have a more picturesque report.