2009 Christmas Tree Index - Beaten but not bough'd

By bne IntelliNews December 18, 2009

bne -

Following on from last year's debut Christmas Tree Index, which seeks to establish a correlation between the height of the municipal Christmas trees put up across Central and Eastern Europe and the state of the local economy, bne releases the results of its 2009 index.

What did we find? Well in keeping with the economic recovery certainly taller trees, in light of growing worries about climate change a nod to sustainability, and with crisis politics gripping many countries in the region, some petty "tree politicking."

Starting in Central Europe, Poland will have the same sized tree as last year, a rather cautious stance given that the government there says the economy probably grew by 1.2% in 2009 and will possibly grow by another 0.9% in 2010. But while Poland's economy has been doing remarkably well in the midst of the global economic downturn, particularly when compared to other Central and Eastern European countries, concerns for next year's growth remain widespread in Warsaw and the unemployment rate is expected to rise beyond the current 11.1%. The 27-metre artificial tree is actually the same one that stood in the Castle Square in the city's Old Town last year: Poles may take pride in their economy's enduring growth, but try not to burden it with excessive spending. The tree will also be festooned with energy-conserving lights - a money-saving device that ties in with the environmental theme of this year. Warsaw's local authorities cite concern for the environment as the main reason for switching from the traditional natural tree to an artificial one - apt given that this month many of the world's leaders were gathered in Copenhagen to try to hammer out a global agreement on steps to head off climate change. However, some Warsaw residents aren't impressed. "It looks like a back-scratcher made of wire," complained one resident to the television station TVN.

The Christmas tree in Prague's Old Town Square was given to the city as a gift by the town of Vrchlabi and measures around 27 metres, which is taller than the 22-metre one of last year, a hint of chutzpah given the economy is expected to contract by 4.3% in 2009, though perhaps a reflection of renewed optimism after the economy emerged from recession in the second quarter after two quarters of negative growth.

In Hungary, the "Nation's Christmas Tree" outside parliament is a regionally small 19 metres, though that's still taller than the 18-metre one of 2008 and the 13-metre one in 2007. By rights, the tree should be smaller give that the government sees GDP falling by 6.7% in 2009 followed by another drop of 0.9% the following year.

In Latvia, the worst affected EU country by the crisis, the struggle for power between the brittle government of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and the populist marriage of convenience ruling Riga's city hall is perfectly expressed in a bitter battle for Christmas tree supremacy in the streets of the Latvian capital. While the 15-metre tree outside the cabinet office was the first to appear this year, it carries lots of vulgar sponsorship - perhaps reflecting Latvia's need to attract economic support from the likes of the IMF? However, Riga's new mayor Nils Usakovs revelled in the tradition of choosing a rival fir to adorn Town Hall Square, leading journalists in circles through the forest before picking an 18-metre tall specimen for the chop. "It was the hardest challenge of my life," Usakovs joked. Tall it may be, but also a bit thin and lacking substance, rather like the campaign being promoted by his deputy mayor, Ainars Slesers, that is trying to promote Riga as a tourist destination based on a rather spurious claim that it was the location for the first ever Christmas tree.

While many struggling Latvians and Lithuanians have been sneaking into the forests to illegally fell and sell a few trees to make ends meet, Estonian families were officially invited to choose and chop a tree by the state-run Forest Management Centre (RMK), who have even been providing expert advice on how to do the job properly. And this being "E-stonia", full details were available online at the RMK website. This sense of altruism at a time of financial distress for many families was also seen in Poland, where the mayor's office gave away 2,000 Christmas trees (real this time) to less fortunate citizens.

Eastern promise

Russia's economy may be on the point of turning, but the authorities clearly still don't feel rich enough to afford a real tree yet. Workers wearing orange hard hats were busy at work just outside Red Square putting up the spacky artificial one that was used last year and hanging it with plastic snowflakes, which are actually needed this year as Russia is enjoying the warmest winter in over 100 years and the first snow didn't arrive until the middle of December.

Still, the prognosis for 2010 is good and maybe the federal government will feel rich enough to afford a proper tree next time. Certainly, the Moscow city government is feeling a bit more flush. As most big companies are registered in Moscow and have to pay their taxes where they are registered, not where their assets are, Moscow tends to feel the recovery a lot earlier than the rest of the country. Getting into the festive spirit, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has been busy putting up hundreds of trees in the "micro-rayons" that make up the city. While the main tree is not very big, the number of trees in the city is probably the best indication that 2010 will be a good year for Russia.

Paralleling Ukraine's penchant for wishful thinking and creative accounting, which has seen a budget expansion this year during an economic collapse, this year's Christmas tree will be even bigger than any actual Christmas tree, but just as real. "This year's tree will be 'alive'. It will be 35 meters high. Around 450-500 small fir trees are to be fitted to a 20-tonne metallic tree skeleton," Deputy Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Zhuravsky told Interfax Ukraine. However, it's unclear whether the Christmas tree plans are conditional on further IMF funding. Sources in the presidential secretariat dismissed the plan as yet another "pyramid scheme." The main decoration on the tree will be toy tigers, in celebration of the Chinese year of the tiger. Perhaps they're looking to attract some Chinese investment to help pull the country out of one of the deepest recessions in Europe.

In 2007, Bucharest, at the height of the boom, used similar technology to what Ukraine is using to erect a 70-metre Christmas tree on Union Square, billed at the time as the highest tree in Europe. But although the Christmas lights are now on in Bucharest, Union Square is entirely devoid of a tree this year, because there's no government in place to sign off on the decision.

Bulgaria's cautious approach to the financial crisis continued into the festive season with the nation relying on the use of the same living tree in front of Sofia's Rila Hotel that has served the capital for the past few years. At a height of around 15 metres, and featuring over 800 metres of festive lights, the 50-year-old pine perhaps represents the stability that new PM Boyko Borisov's government has pledged since taking office in July. While the economy has shrunk by around 5% to date this year due to recession, analysts have credited the strict budget cuts Borisov's cabinet has made since assuming power in July with keeping the fiscal reserve within 1% of GDP. While the Christmas lights may be a little scarce in Bulgaria's capital this year - something that is attributed to a lack of available sponsors - it was not all doom and gloom: a new Christmas bazaar was unveiled in the city's Borisova Gradina park. Koledariya 2009 features festive cookies, mulled wine and children's entertainment.

Ljubljana may be one of the smallest regional capitals, but they make up for it with probably more municipal Christmas trees per capita than any other in the region - they have seven, the tallest being 22 metre on Presernov trg square). In keeping with the fragile economic recovery underway, the authorities have kept the tree's height the same as last year.

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