Politics_EU


As I’ve probably mentioned before, this semester I am teaching a class on Journalism History — it is an attempt to teach American history through journalism, as well as try to explain what about American journalism is unique/ how journalism makes America unique. While I was, once upon a time, a journalist, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a historian. Truth be told, the last U.S. History class I took was in high school — AP with Mr. Andrews, a lovable mullet-ed tattooed type (this was Pittsburgh, after all) prone to snapping a plastic model of a toilet in the face of a students who offered (his words) “crappy answers.”  Hence, in my search for creative pedagogical techniques, I hit upon using what I know: specifically, journalists. I’ve been interviewing some journalist friends of mine and using Skype to record the calls, making for guest lectures that don’t require the physical presence of said guest. I started with my former roommate, Amanda, who works for the washingtonpost.com as a Senior Producer.  Although she is now in Arts & Living, and more likely to follow, say, movie stars than international issues, she started on the night news desk and was able to give a lot

Anyway, one of the questions my students had was “How does the paper decide which foreign countries to cover”. And, specifically, why does Hungary get in the news (or, as is more likely, not get in the US news?)

We looked at the homepages of several US papers in class, trying to figure out what their layout had to say about American concerns yesterday. No Hungary to be found, I asked why the students through this was. After all, the country is currently in a weird flux limbo state: their Prime Minister resigned, then said he didn’t really mean it, then resigned and appointed another guy, to the screams of the other party. I mean, in my opinion, a Prime-Minister-less country is headline worthy. So why no news love? One student had an answer It isn’t sensationalist enough yet, he said. Someone needs to do something crazier, or things need to get worse.

And today, it looks like he might be right.  When I logged on for my daily morning scan of the New York Times, I was greeted with the front-and-center story being on Hungary: “Politics Add to Turmoil in Hungary.” Complete, as you will see by clicking on the link, with the saddest-looking shot of an old Magyar lady you could imagine.  (she’s even got the babushka on, just in case you weren’t sure if she was “other” enough).

Now, Hungary is in bad straits, yes. The country has problems. Big ones. Another student, hearing my protests that I do really like Budapest and I am not just saying it to be polite, reminded me that Foreign people always love Hungary. That’s because they aren’t from here.  It was a statement that jarred me, but that I also know is true. I am living in Hungary, but not as a Hungarian. I have one “job” with the Fulbright, and it pays me enough to live quite comfortably on. I have another job to count on back in the U.S. I know who my president is.  I am a lucky little being, to be sure.

But, at the same time, I have to cringe a bit when I see Sad Magyar Lady gloaming out from the Times front page. Because if this is all your average American sees, then they do get this negative impression of the country. That is not to say this isn’t a fair or good article, or that it isn’t needed: Americans, mired in our own economic crisis, need to understand how much worse it can get elsewhere, as well as how our actions reverberate (because, indeed, the troubles of Europe our intimately tied to the grandiose screwups of our own greedy moguls and bad policies). But (and there is always a but), part of me still itches to add a paragraph reminding the US reader that Hungary isn’t a gray, backwater place, and that today, even with the resigned PM and low forint exchange rate, the sun is shining, people are out, enjoying the warmth in the cafés (some even … gasp …smiling!) and I just finished talking with a very happy student who succeed in getting into a medical school in New York. So good things happen here, too.

And, just to prove that point, the # 5 most e-mailed story on the New York Times at 1:35 p.m. Hungarian time is a happier Hungarian tale: the resurgence of the Mangalitsa pig (written by our Fulbright exchange teacher, Amy’s, husband!). 

So, Hungarian life can be hard. But delicious too.

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…because it looks like the gas isn’t coming towards Europe today as expected.

As the BBC reports here, Russia claims it has turned the gas back on, but that the Ukraine has not opened pipelines. The EU monitors placed along the pipeline — a move Russia demanded as part of the agreement, saying it worried the Ukraine was siphoning off gas — say that while gas is flowing, the levels are very low. As the BBC reporter puts it, there is “no trust” between the two countries, a very troubling relationship for two countries so close together.

And, of course, the story is already off the New York Times and Washington Post main pages. You can find it if you search, but there are other interests there: Israel and Gaza (understandably), whatever Clinton has to say about her job as Secretary of State (hey, Hils, here’s a message from the Bulgarians: they are cold), and what Sasha and Malia Obama wore on their first day of school (yeah, I love the Obamas, but seriously news media. Now is not the time to comment on any seven-year old’s backpack keychain. Actually, NEVER is the time to put that in the media. Leave the child alone — it isn’t like there isn’t enough real news to be had).  So, many parts of East Europe shiver, many more are at risk for going cold, too, but the American mind will already be closed to that “other” across the sea.

My parents can talk about the Cold War, but all that is to someone of my 20-something generation is a brief memory of practicing air-raid drills in the elementary school basement (tuck and cover your heads). Indeed, my first memory of seeing anything on the news is my dad pulling me out of my bedroom to see the Berlin wall fall. But this latest snafu over here  — and, especially, the potentially explosive friction between the Ukraine and Russia — is again a reminder that foreign policy has to be more than the Mideast. If Russia or the Ukraine … or, more likely, both Russia and the Ukraine … blows up, it’s going to be one big worldwide mess.  Too bad that might be the only way it will get attention.

Well, I just returned from a not-very-long walk home from my yoga class here in Budapest … and had to spend a good while defrosting myself in an as-hot-as-my-Soviet-studio-will allow-shower.

It is cold, cold, COLD here in Eastern Europe. We’ve been below zero for a good month, it seems (and I haven’t seen more than two sunny days since November), but I’m still not used to it. I used to whine about wind-whipped walks over the Key Bridge in the winter; this is something different. To illustrate said cold for those of you in warmer climes, try this example: the ends of my hair were a bit wet from said yoga class, so I piled my braids up into a big fuzzy hat, then made the 15-minute or so walk home … and when I got there, my hair actually had ice on it Yup. My HAIR FROZE. Brrrrrr.

Now, the cold alone is no big news for my side of Europe (there is a reason behind the American stereotype of the old Easter bloc as being filled with people in big boots and fur hats … it is colder here than many regions of the U.S.) What is a problem is the fact that most of Europe is now mired in this cold snap, and Russia has shut off the gas which flows through the Ukrainian pipelines due to a price dispute.

Hungary is faring fairly well: the country, while dependent on said Russian gas for about 40% of its supplies, can still get gas from elsewhere and has alternate sources of heat. My apartment, thankfully, is OK: my stove is electric, and we use radiators here, so I am fine. Most homes and small offices are warm here, too, although big businesses have been forced to stop use of gas. The one difference I noticed as I walked through town, however, was a distinct burning smell and a thick (well, thicker than usual, anyway) patina of smog. My Hungarian colleague, Nelly, says this is because the power plants are now burning more oil and coal to keep our lights on and houses as warm as possible.

Other Eastern European countries have it worse. As today’s New York Times reported, Bulgaria is particularly freezing. My good friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Carolyn, reports from her home in Sofia that while Bulgaria gets ALL of its natural gas from the Russian-Ukrainian pipeline, people are surprisingly calm about it.  She is fortunately staying warm in her electric-heated apartment, but braved a pretty frigid meeting at a Sofia university today (Read her excellent commentary about the situation herehere and here).

Right now, the BBC and the NYTimes both report that Russia and the Ukraine have reached a deal. However, even if Russia truly has pulled the switch back on, so to speak, as the BBC notes, it could take up to three days for gas to reach all parts of Europe (like Hungary and Bulgaria).

While I’m cautiously optimistic that this is all solved and I won’t have to face a cold apartment or office, one thing kind of sticks in my throat:  as Carolyn mentioned, many Eastern Europeans think  “…it’s pretty lucky that non-Eastern block countries (aka France, Austria and Germany) have been impacted by the reduced gas flow from Russia to Ukraine or no solution would be on the horizon.” And I, unfortunately, have to agree with her. If the Western side wasn’t in trouble, it might not be priority number one on the EU list … and, I have to wonder, how much response America would have, too. How long would Bulgaria have to freeze? Would they wait until all of the old Eastern bloc was cold? And then how long?

It is not that I don’t realize that the big powers of the West have a lot to deal with right now. Yes, I understand that Israel vs. Gaza is a bigger political (and human) mess right now. But the West … and American in particularly … has had a very nasty tradition of ignoring abuses in areas which don’t immediately impact them financially and politically (and shutting off gas in the middle of winter is a human rights abuse in my book). Hungary is no big power player economically; winning the love of the Hungarians doesn’t carry the hugest strategic import for a U.S. president or politician. Some Americans, I am frustrated to report, actually still believe Hungary is in Russia (I’m not naming names here, but this was actually said to me before I left). One need only look at the staggering non-response of the U.S. and Western Europe to Hungary’s failed 1956 revolution: the West was on a Red Scare binge, but when a small country finally tried to shrug off said Communist rule, we were too busy protecting our interest in the Suez to bother with any aid (save the iconic Time cover … some consolation prize, eh?)

In any case, I hope that the EU together has fixed this. And I hope as we rapidly approach a new era in America (8 more days! only 8 more of Bush!), Eastern Europe’s concerns finally get a more fair hearing, and realize that foreign policy means more than what to do with Iraq. It’s a big world, with big troubles.