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Budapest Booms After Years of Gloom

January 23, 1998

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) _ Every day, scores of people _ mostly men in their 20s carrying mobile phones _ swarm into the visitors’ gallery at Budapest’s stock exchange, eyes scanning the screens that show their stocks’ falls and fortunes.

It’s hardly capitalism’s cutting edge. Only 48 Hungarian stocks are listed, trading usually runs two hours and daily turnover averages $60 million. Yet money can be made _ an average of 50 percent profit in dollar terms in 1997.

More important, however, is the pioneer spirit behind the Budapest exchange, now being reborn after seven years of communist rule. It is typical of a verve and enterprise now tangible in what used to be a gloomy city.

Politically, Hungarians are riding high after winning a daring bet on NATO membership _ putting it up for public approval and getting a ringing 85 percent endorsement despite the likely high cost of modernizing antiquated Soviet military equipment.

Economically, the Socialist government of Gyula Horn has regained the ground frittered away by the 1990-94 conservative administration. That government followed Hungary’s ``goulash communism″ during Soviet times, which all owed limited private enterprise.

Western analysts attest that Hungary has more of capitalism’s building blocks in place than Poland and the Czech Republic, fellow contenders for European Union membership.

Hungary also has attracted foreign investment _ $16 billion since 1989, and still rising _ narrowed its trade deficit and in 1997 exceeded government expectations with 4 percent growth.

Culturally, Hungary’s traditional strengths in literature, music and the arts are growing and reflect an ease in dealings with East and West.

Author Peter Nadas got rave reviews in the United States for ``A Book of Memories,″ published late last year in New York. Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz has won prestigious prizes for his novels. George Konrad is a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature.

The Budapest Philharmonic, one of four city orchestras, has just appointed an American, Rico Saccani, its director. The first American to head any leading central European orchestra, Saccani has won top marks from locals. He also is introducing Hungarians to the ways of corporate sponsorship of culture.

Last fall, the newly refurbished state art museum played host to two collections of Soviet dissident art _ one from the United States, the other from Moscow _ a first under one roof.

The city’s energy is reflected in the forms of hundreds of new, Western suburban-style homes.

Some look out on the Statue Park, where Communist-era statues that once ``graced″ city streets are on show _ a money-making way to put the Marxist legacy to rest. Another is a popular CD, ``Best of Communism,″ whose revolutionary ditties are now seen as camp.

In general, the future is looking brighter than during the austerity imposed by Horn in 1995 to control the national debt.

With a rapidly aging population, parliament in late 1997 passed pension reform. The massively subsidized and failing state health care system is the next candidate for change.

Not everybody feels good. Across post-communist Europe, pensioners feel cheated of security they were promised all their working lives.

``Every time I hear Horn saying how well things are going, I want to scream,″ said Emese Szebeni, 64. Three quarters of her $120 monthly pension goes for rent, utilities and medication. She relies on a son to survive.

Foreigners see it differently, watching Budapest’s streets grow livelier.

In May, construction will begin on central Europe’s largest real estate development plan, a $600 million shopping mall, hotel and office project.

Peter Munk heads up the venture. He emigrated from Hungary in 1948 to Canada, where he has prospered. Munk has already built one Budapest mall and office block, and plans more nationwide.

``Hungary and the neighboring region,″ he enthused, ``are probably more profitable for us than the U.S. or Canada.″

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