Lajos Bokros featured

The Research section of the Central European University website regularly features a member of the faculty for his/her research activities. The current feature is Lajos Bokros, Professor at the Master's Program in Public Policy at the Center for Policy Studies.


Lajos Bokros receives in his newly created room on the second floor of the Nador building. It is hidden behind a white door in the corner and one can walk by it several times before finding the small office. On his desk there is a copy of the morning issue of a Hungarian daily newspaper, which happens to have an interview with him featured on the first page. Lajos Bokros, former Minister of Finance (1995-1996), is still a very public figure in Hungary, and also well-known in initiated circles all over Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union for his relentless efforts to reform public finance policy during the eight years that he was Director of Private and Financial Sector Development in Europe & Central Asia at the World Bank.

As a graduate of the Budapest University of Economics (PhD in 1980) Lajos Bokros started his career as a research fellow at the Financial Research Institute of the Hungarian Ministry of Finance. From 1986 onwards his professional life has been that of a practitioner's, but still it has been intertwined with research. "Obviously in positions in business or in government it is difficult to find time for theoretical research, but policy research has always been part of my activities. For instance, as Finance Minister of Hungary it was my job to come up with innovative new ideas, but they had to be based on knowledge. There is a symbiosis between policy research and policy practice, which I have lived in full." This is an attitude fitting his current teaching affiliation with the Department of Economics and the Master's Program in Public Policy at the CEU Center for Policy Studies.

Although he has been acquainted with CEU since its inception in 1991, he started teaching as recently as in 2003, starting with courses at the Department of Economics (where he teaches the course Economic Policy Alternatives in Transition). Before coming to CEU he had taught as a visiting or recurrent lecturer at many universities around the world, including George Washington University in Washington D.C, Columbia University in New York, University of Economics in Bucharest, Charles University in Prague and Corvin University (Budapest University of Economics). One would be severely mistaken in believing that the lure of CEU would have been "only" to have a job in his native country. No, the answer to the question what made CEU attractive for him comes quick: "The Rector! And, in addition to that, the quality of teaching and the universities 'cool approach,' by which I mean its tolerance and liberalism." He stops for a second. "You know, I am a liberal economist, which I announce with pride, although today in some economic circles 'liberal' has become a 'bad word'. For me it means open markets and free trade, both of capital and services. This university is important in order to fertilize hearts and minds in the region by making them open to democracy and tolerance."

Professor Bokros' research interests focus on public finance, including health care and local government reform. These are closely intertwined with his outlook on policy change in transitional countries. He is aware that many would not consider most of the countries in which he has been active "transitional" anymore, but he strongly believes that the reconstruction and improvement of public goods and services are dependent on the communist legacy and therefore a part of the transition. In fact, he thinks that the transition has entered its most difficult and challenging part, where it is not only about macro-economics and reforming the financial, corporate and banking sectors but about how to change the way how state institutions behave. While changing state institutions is something that is debated and done in non-transitional countries as well, he believes that the communist and non-market legacy makes them different. "Citizens were not helped to take care of themselves and many people want to have everything solved by the state and free of charge at the time of receiving the service. Of course nothing is free and has to be paid by someone at some point. And how can you do it on the bases of taxes, when tax evasion is a national sport and some still even take a civic pride in not paying taxes."

Currently Lajos Bokros is working on a book on the economics and culture of transition, which will be a combination of theory and policy recommendations. Research is easier for him than for most in the academic community. Not only can he draw from his own extensive experience in the post-communist countries - his position at the World Bank made him travel numerous times to more than 25 countries in former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe - but he can also call top-level officials or business leaders at any time to receive more information or schedule a meeting. "I know prime ministers, business leaders and most of the presidents of the national banks personally." For general facts, figures and statistics, desktop research is usually enough to supply him with the information he needs.

During his time at the World Bank he often initiated, led or took part in research teams and research projects, something that he has not done so far at CEU. However, at the moment his personal research agenda is far from the only one he is focusing on. In May he was appointed Senior Vice-President, in charge of overseeing the research centers of CEU, a newly created Tender Office (combining the EU office with the consulting division) and the CEU Business School. He has just begun surveying the centers and therefore does not want to give a general opinion of the level of research carried out at the centers yet. He emphasizes that his most immediate task is to make recommendations about the future structure of the centers. "There has been a rapid proliferation of out-of-department activities over the past years, and we have now reached a point where we need to find out which ones have a true mandate. The tensions between departments and research centers should also be sorted out. I believe that a bit of organizing and management will make the university into a "normal" Western institute in an administrative and practical sense. I appreciate the fact that a university is a 'softer' organization than for instance a ministry or a business unit, but when it comes to accountability it has to be just as strictly followed."

In order to cope with research, teaching, writing, and his new position, Professor Bokros has had to cut down on external consulting projects drastically. Many governments across the region are eager to have his advice, and his most recent commitments have included advising the Serbian and the Romanian governments. In the near future, though, he is likely to be seen more often in Hungary, something that is probably appreciated by his family. Together with his wife and two college-age children he is settled in the eastern part of Budapest. His "celebrity status" he hopes to utilize in the favor of CEU and its students. "I see CEU as a center of excellence, which should propagate the virtues of tolerance and liberalism not only at the teaching but also at the policy level."

Source: Research at CEU

2 September, 2005