Europe underwent a profound transformation in the 16th century with the Protestant reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their co-religionists attacked the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church and its corrupt practices. They also advocated a different, more direct relationship between the individual and God. They were aided by the new technology of the printing press, which churned out pamphlets and bibles, as well as the new ideologies of nationalism, which challenged foreign interference in the affairs of the state.
In the rise of populism in Europe today, you can hear some of the echoes of this earlier convulsion, though the religious tones have been transposed to a political register. The Rome that so dismayed the Protestants of the past has become Brussels, and today’s populists devote considerable energy to decrying the interferences of this immense bureaucracy. They invoke nationalist slogans and symbols not only against the European Union but against immigrants, foreign investors, international economic institutions, and transnational NGOs. The new populists also argue for a more direct relationship between citizens and political power, unmediated by traditional political institutions, including traditional political parties. And they take advantage of the latest technologies (YouTube, social media) to spread their messages.
The recent European Parliament elections may well be seen as the official starting point for the Populist Reformation. Populist parties didn’t take control of the body, but their success in the United Kingdom and France (where the UK Independence Party and the National Front both came out on top) suggests a sea change in political attitudes. Still, the turnouts in these Europe-wide parliamentary elections are very low and may not reveal the true electoral preferences of the majority.
In East-Central Europe, however, the rejection of the conventional liberal-conservative consensus has been more profound. Populist parties have gained ground in Hungary (Jobbik), Bulgaria (Ataka), and Greece (Golden Dawn), and mainstream parties such as Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland have borrowed many tactics from the populists’ playbook.
For Goran Buldioski, the head of the Open Society Think Tank Fund in Budapest, populists are concerned only with power and will construct their strategies solely in order to gain power through elections. “The ballot box is the only valid source of legitimation” for such populists, he told me in an interview in Budapest in May 2013. “And they fight each other tooth and nail in order to control the ballot box. This battle over the ballot box happens long before the day of elections. The problem is what it does to people’s heads. All of these are small countries. In order to succeed, you have to be linked to politics or have the tacit or open approval of politicians. I think that’s very bad, and not only because I work for a liberal foundation. It undercuts one of the values of a liberal society: merit. The only skill or ability that’s important at the moment is the social skill. This is deeply troubling. If you’re able to navigate through society by expressing your loyalty upwards and your use of brute power downwards, then you will be successful. If you look at the classic Hirschman view — exit, voice, loyalty — the new status quo will basically be a critical mass of loyalists, a significant number of exits, and very few people who raise their voices.”
Buldioski likes to use Paul Taggart’s definition of populism. “It’s one thing to use popularity as a layer on top of a policy choice or a choice of policy instruments in order to make them appealing. It’s another thing to create this heartland [what Taggart calls “a version of the past that celebrates a hypothetical, uncomplicated and non-political territory of the imagination”]. The Tea Party also has a heartland: the imagination of the U.S. constitution in the left hand and a gun in the right hand. You have that in Western Europe, with the UK Independence Party. In Italy, by contrast, Beppe Grillo is not that type of populist. In Europe, a lot of our small dictators, authoritarian leaders, and wannabes are achieving this within European structures, like the European People’s Party. There’s a flow of exchange between them is much better than what takes place between NGOs, or even the Radical Parties.”
It is this tension between the aggressively political competition at the polls and the aggressively non-political rhetoric of the heartland that characterizes the Populist Reformation. What drops out is the middle: the back-and-forth politics of liberal democracy. The rapid rise of populists, as Buldioski points out, is directly connected not so much to the defects of the liberal model but to defects in explaining and building support for that model. “This is the most profound failure of the last 20 years,” he concluded. “Our societies didn’t build an understanding of various sources of legitimacy to enter the policy process. A fourth element would be the issue of trade-offs. We didn’t understand that we couldn’t have everything. Then a populist comes and says, ‘No, no, you can have everything.’”
Let’s begin with your particular generation, which was born in the early 1970s.
My generation is quite interesting. We were grown up enough to understand how the previous society worked. But also our own personal process of maturity coincided with the societal changes. In a way, it was a very interesting dual process. As a group, we were growing up in a fluid society looking for its model. And, as individuals, we were looking to see what we could make out of our own lives. There were fewer constants in that process.
But I believe that’s over. The region has a new status quo. I’m not particularly happy with this status quo. It will take a new wave of energy to shake it up and movie it forward. My generation had a chance. Some have become complacent with what has happened in society, others not. But frankly speaking, our generation will not be able to move things forward. On the contrary, key members of my generation have been key proponents of this new system rather than revolutionaries who would like to change it.
How would you characterize the new status quo in the region?
At the moment, there’s a set of values that are very much embedded in power, and only power. It’s very much of a populist approach, in which politicians claim that the ballot box is the only valid source of legitimation. And they fight each other tooth and nail in order to control the ballot box. This battle over the ballot box happens long before the day of elections. The problem is what it does to people’s heads. All of these are small countries. In order to succeed, you have to be linked to politics or have the tacit or open approval of politicians. I think that’s very bad, and not only because I work for a liberal foundation. It undercuts one of the values of a liberal society: merit. The only skill or ability that’s important at the moment is the social skill. This is deeply troubling. If you’re able to navigate through society by expressing your loyalty upwards and your use of brute power downwards, then you will be successful. If you look at the classic Hirschman view — exit, voice, loyalty — the new status quo will basically be a critical mass of loyalists, a significant number of exits, and very few people who raise their voices.
How would you distinguish the status quo here from what would seem, at first glance, to be a similar status quo in the United States and other so-called mature democracies?
Mature democracies have their own problems. Let me start with the similarities. Basically in both places you have political wars between competing elites or interests. And there’s a burgeoning industry on how to win those wars. Traditional policy analysis is really lagging behind neuroscience. This is an art not only of reading the polls but orchestrating what people should think. In this respect, the neuroscientists are ahead because scientifically they are more developed.
Another similarity would be with populism. I use often Paul Taggart’s definition. It’s one thing to use popularity as a layer on top of a policy choice or a choice of policy instruments in order to make them appealing. It’s another thing to create this heartland [what Taggart calls “a version of the past that celebrates a hypothetical, uncomplicated and non-political territory of the imagination”]. The Tea Party also has a heartland: the imagination of the U.S. constitution in the left hand and a gun in the right hand. You have that in Western Europe, with the UK Independence Party. In Italy, by contrast, Beppe Grillo is not that type of populist. In Europe, a lot of our small dictators, authoritarian leaders, and wannabes are achieving this within European structures, like the European People’s Party. There’s a flow of exchange between them is much better than what takes place between NGOs, or even the Radical Parties.
But there are also some profound differences. First of all, there are ideologies in the United States and Western Europe. People in the Tea Party really believe. I was recently at a conference organized by Atlas, a small think tank that’s part of the libertarian network. When they heard that I came from Open Society and George Soros, they were shocked. “Is there a spy among us?” they asked. “No,” I explained. “I came to hear what you’re thinking and doing. I work in Europe, so I can understand the divisions you have here, but I don’t necessarily have to comply with them.”
People here don’t have an embedded sense of ideology. Here, people will say, “The Church is good, let’s throw in the Church. Nationalism is great? Let’s have that too.” I come from a country where 40 new statues were erected overnight in the downtown. Skopje is becoming not just a Disneyland but a Jurassic Park. My home city has been urbanistically, aesthetically, politically, and historically raped. These people are not believers. They are non-visionaries. They want to be powerful.
In former times or in other places, authoritarian leaders at a certain moment outgrow their particular geography and want to be recognized in the world. Even the Azeri president has this idea from time to time. In the Balkans, with the exception of the Serbian elite, they don’t care. They want to be first in the village. So, there’s no ideology. They just want to rule, to be first. Frankly if you look at how much they steal, they don’t even steal that much. For proper stealing, go to Ukraine or Armenia or Azerbaijan. There are very few billionaires in the Balkans. The richest oligarch in Serbia allegedly has $4 billion, official $1.5 billion. That’s the only one. He’s now in prison. He never thought about having a think tank in his name. The richest Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, on the other hand, has a think tank. It costs $500,00-$700,000 — that the price of a football player sitting on the bench. So it’s cheap. He has this sense that it’s good to fund people to look ahead and prepare him to be ahead of the curve.
The lack of ideology, that’s one difference. Another is this appeal to “analysis.” In the world of policy, in which I work, my favorite example is from the Bush administration. Even when George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, he needed a report. He would fabricate the report — which we know very well now since it’s well documented — but he couldn’t go in without the support of a whole armada of organizations as well as a key report and some smaller reports creating a discourse, all providing a fake scientific approach. That’s a sign of the maturity of the society. Of course, he had to grease a hand or two in the process. He had to get some hired guns among intellectuals (and there are too many of these even in Western European societies for my taste).
In the Balkans and Eastern Europe, you can convince people by virtue of symbols. If you have a media machine behind you as well — even better. With that you can discredit anything that is analytic. You can say that these analysts are just intermediaries and are not needed. Populist parties say they won the people’s confidence through the ballot box, and so they talk directly to the people.
I had the sense in 1990 that there were strongly held ideologies here. But then how to explain a phenomenon like Fidesz moving across the political spectrum or Vaclav Klaus changing his political philosophy or the confusion in Bulgaria about what GERB represents. Also, at that time, there used to be a strong division between the Visegrad Four and the rest of Eastern Europe. It was thought that these four countries would develop more quickly up to European standards. If you look at the Catch-Up Index, there is still a gap. But it seems as if all the countries are operating in the same confused ideological space regardless of their economic status. Here in Hungary, people will talk about corruption in the same way as they do in Bulgaria. Was this a failure of European integration, of particular elites in the countries, or of the liberal reform model more generally?
It’s a question we reckon with everyday. One thing I want to make sure you get: please don’t judge this through the lenses of my work. We are quite clearly a liberal foundation. But I won’t complain about the loss of liberal values. We don’t have a constituency right now, and we have to see who our potential constituency will be. It’s probably people on the center-right. They are the ones who have values close to ours. With a little help, they could develop these values even more.
In 1989-90, there was a very clear ideology — bringing people to the market and to consumerism, By making them affluent, we thought we were allowing them to become better citizens. This is a mega-flaw, not only in this region but in the Western democracies as well. Affluence doesn’t bring openness of mind. That’s a key lesson. Look at the support for Jobbik here in Hungary: 26 percent of their supporters have university degrees. Fidesz has 27 percent while the Socialists have only 11 or 13 percent, but clearly less. Look at their wealth. On average, Jobbik supporters are richer than Fidesz supporters. Of course they have poorer supporters too, but that means they have even richer ones. We supported some of this research. And I’m glad we awakened the liberal constituency here to the fact that Jobbik supporters are not the losers of transition. Yes, there are some who are the losers of transition, for instance some of the disenchanted Socialist voters who switched to Jobbik. Actually people see a very clear ideology in this, which is troubling — they want to see the return of pre-Trianon Hungary.
When I meet some of these more nationalistic Hungarians, I ask them, “Why don’t you write history?”
They look at me, “What do you mean?”
I say, “You don’t have a border between you and Slovakia. The train is cheap. It’s actually cheaper to go to Bratislava than to go to the Hungarian border town. Buy a cheap ticket and get your guns. Nobody will check you on the border because there’s no border control. And you can immediately storm the main railway station in Bratislava and conquer it — if you’re really serious about your ideas.”
How do they respond to that?
They’re probably thinking, “What is this crazy foreigner who doesn’t understand Hungarians?” There’s a silence on the other side. When you exaggerate things to the point of ridicule, they don’t have an answer. They don’t understand that this nationalist approach is a cheap way out of a real development of society in which you can say: I’ll be better because I produce better or deliver better or my intellectual values will be better. This approach is profoundly missing here and in the Balkans. Nobody has put a mirror up to the society – for both common people and politicians to look into – in order to say, “This is who we are and let’s start from there.” I come from Macedonia where, if we look in such a mirror, we’d have to say, “We’re poor, uneducated, and partly lazy. How do we go from there to becoming more competitive or, frankly speaking, just to survive?” But of course whoever comes with that platform won’t win even 1 percent of the votes.
When I look at what’s gone wrong over the last 20 years, I’d say that the first five years were: market, market, market. Fine, now the market is open. People can buy better cars. They don’t have to drive their Yugos and Ladas. Some of them have also managed to buy their own flats and houses. But when I look at my parents’ generation, which is 60-plus, they also managed to survive. They bought a car, even if it was a Yugo, but it could take them from point A to point B. They managed to make a social transition. My mother comes from the city. My father’s father came from the village. When you see me and my brother, the third generation, there is a very clear social division. That is a very clear outcome of their work. It’s tangible. It’s material. Now compare that to my generation. My brother, who is back in Macedonia, can’t do the same. If my family didn’t leave him their flat, he couldn’t buy it. He probably would have been forced to live together with my mother, and he would have to struggle for easily 20 years to buy a flat as long as he went the route he has taken, the fair route of growing a small business.
For me, this is the key point. First, people lost a set of values. In the socialist times in former Yugoslavia, there was a set of ideological values but also a set of societal norms. In the 1990s, we erased them both. This is one of the problems my colleagues and I face working in the development world. We said, “Let’s start from scratch.” In this way, the Pioneers were bad, but the Scouts were not. The Scouts had a small ideological advantage. They taught kids how to orient in nature, how to respect nature. To my taste, the Scouts were maybe too military-like, but nevertheless they prepared people on how to act in society. Now, when I look left, right, and center, I don’t see people being prepared for society. I’m talking about some practical skills, but also soft societal skills. In many countries the subject of civil society is an afterthought. People don’t consider it a key need. In many places, people have replaced real social values with a fake ideology, a religion. As long as you pass a certain threshold in poverty, it doesn’t matter whether you drive a Toyota or a Lexus, it only matters what kind of values you have, and that’s what is missing.
What are the policy implications of that, looking backward? You speak of this myth that affluence would create an open society by a process of alchemy. Starting from scratch, the elimination of the social values that had existed, didn’t work either. That seems to apply to all countries in the region, with the possible exception of Poland, where the societal values remained strong.
And Poland is doing best!
If we had the benefits of these insights and were sent back to governments in 1990, what could we have recommended at that time?
Viktor Orban is a pivotal figure. Many books will probably be written about him. What allowed politicians like him to operate without clear values, to flip-flop across the political spectrum? In other societies, where people are embedded in values, they would say, “Sorry, you said something very different two years ago!” Western societies have their fair share of problems with flip-flopping, of course. But they don’t tolerate flip-flopping across the entire political spectrum.
The second thing, what could have been done? So much has been focused on technical issues. I’m so lucky not to be part of the industry of training political cadres. If you think in terms of U.S. support – the NDIs and IRIs and the German national foundations — everybody was faking it when they said, “We’re working with young people, and we’ll develop them.” As if a single training or a single exposure to foreigners will change the prevailing culture! Political development depends on how loyal you are and how you progress within the ranks of the party, not on the training provided you. Partly, these trainers have to present to their own taxpayers that what they do is relevant. For funders in the United States or Germany, these interventions make sense. But they did not make sense in the societies where the trainings took place. Look, one of the Open Society fellows was Krisztina Morvai, now of Jobbik! Even Orban himself benefited from OSF. I’m not saying that we made a mistake. At the time, they were the right people to support. But if you don’t have societies that recognize and stick to values and if you don’t have a critical mass of people who look at these issues in more depth, then opportunists will flourish.
Hungary is a good example. Hungary has an amazing resistance among the liberal intelligentsia. But if that type of thinking could bring 100,000 people out on the streets, the next day the ruling party will bring 200,000 people. The liberal intellectuals then become more closeted because they are attacked on all sides, and they lose the ability to talk to the other side, which is bigger in number. They lose their ability to inspire the rest of society, which has become very comfortable with an openly authoritarian ideology. I don’t blame Communism for that. I blame people for the inability to think critically. It’s even worse in the Balkans, in Bulgaria or Romania, where it’s not 100,000 liberal-minded people on the street but only 10-15,000.
Another issue is intergenerational solidarity. I’m sorry to use “solidarity,” which is out of fashion in Europe. To keep their wealth and wellbeing, pensioners are eating the bread of their grandchildren. They have borrowed against the future of their grandchildren. This is appalling, sociologically. In these societies, if you talk to pensioners around the dinner table, they’ll say, “Oh, my grandchildren, this is my biggest value. I’ll do anything for my kids!” At a microlevel, the older generation has sacrificed a lot for the future generations. They’ve built houses for them instead of going on holidays. And today they’d still sacrifice their comfort to care for their grandchildren. But this is in stark contract to what they’re doing at the macro level where they are robbing their kids of their future.
But it’s the futures of other kids! They don’t think of it in terms of their own kids.
It’s both. At a microlevel, in these societies, families think that the first thing they need to do is get their kids out of the country. I can tell you what my mother told me when I was preparing to go back to Macedonia before I got the Open Society Foundation job. My father had passed away two years before at the age of 54, and I was debating whether to go back. My mother was still in good shape, still working, but a lot of burden was falling on my younger brother. I could find a job in Macedonia, that wasn’t the issue. My mother She came here, and we talked about it. I told her what I was thinking. She said, “Look, I’m your mother. I would like to have you back. Whose mother wouldn’t want her son next to her? But I see how you work. I see your standards. I give you three months in Macedonia. You would go crazy.”
When you look at the actions of people around the dinner table, a lot goes to the benefit of the future generation. If you compare this to Western Europe, many here are less selfish. But then when you look at the macro level, it’s exactly the opposite. That’s where they fall prey to parties that make those arguments that benefit the older generation at the expense of the younger generation. How on earth can people reconcile these things? They manage to do it. Politicians do, too. This, for me, is the most dangerous status quo at the moment.
Many of the people I talked to 23 years ago had to make the decision whether to go into formal politics or not. Half stayed out, half went in. But of the half that went in, they only stayed briefly, maybe for only one parliamentary term. These were dissidents. They were a minority to begin with. Their ability to hang in there politically was very limited. That left a vacuum. Liberal intellectuals were not publicly engaged in the way they had been. Have you encountered this as well?
Quite a lot. As you said, it takes a really good stomach to go into politics. And most of those people didn’t have that. It’s not about intellectual ability. It’s about having a tough stomach to endure that game. Second, some of them, in enjoying their political position, have done exactly what they accused their political opponents of doing. Here in Hungary, where is the liberal party and what has it done? They’re not exactly the poor intellectuals that they were at one time. They’ve had a big chunk of the power, and it corrupted them as well. This sent a very clear message to people: whatever you preach, what you do proves that you are no different from anyone else.
But the more profound failure was again linked to what makes a credible intervention in the realm of politics and policy. In almost all countries, with the exception of Poland and some of the Baltics, most populist parties don’t have an analytic unit. These parties don’t distinguish between politics and policy. Second, they don’t consider expertise as a license to enter politics. If someone has an expertise in urban planning, by all standards they should be able to intervene in urban policy. Someone else might refer to the human rights agenda to point out that not only a certain policy is the right thing to do but also it conforms to international standards, and that too brings a legitimate entry into politics. Another group will say, “Hey we’re a membership ownership, we represent car owners or bicyclists.” And they have a legitimate entry because they represent a common interest.
Central Europeans upheld this concept, more or less. But unfortunately they upheld it in places that are connected only to everyday life, like bicycle paths. With more abstract things, they didn’t. In Hungary, with more abstract things, they’ll say, “Are you a Communist? Where did you stand in 1956?” — even if you weren’t born then. This is a very skillful discrediting. In the Balkans, in Bulgaria and Romania, it’s even worse. Unfortunately, these liberals didn’t manage to build a society in which people can distinguish between these different sources of political legitimation. In societies where intellectuals are cheap — I say this as a recognition of reality not out of bitterness — you can always hire smart people to argue your case. You have this also in Western Europe and the United States, too. But it sends a completely different signal about political expertise. It also suggests a take-no-prisoners approach in former Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria. Everything counts. If there’s an association of bikers, the ruling party will say, “Oh, we really need to control them.” If there’s a student association, they’ll say, “History teaches us that we really have to dominate the student movement.” Okay, maybe students, but bicyclists? Everything is up for grabs in the political battle. And this is not just an operation among the elite but a general perception among the population.
This is the most profound failure of the last 20 years. Our societies didn’t build an understanding of various sources of legitimacy to enter the policy process. A fourth element would be the issue of trade-offs. We didn’t understand that we couldn’t have everything. Then a populist comes and says, “No, no, you can have everything.” That’s an issue at the level of the elites and the level of the population.
Looking into the future, you said that you weren’t sure where the impulse for change would come from at this point. You also said that the center right might be the constituency for the values associated with organizations like OSF. Are there particular constituencies you’re thinking of in terms of agents of change?
I see an ability and an energy to break the system or at least to crack the system or the status quo. But the same actors are not able to push it forward in a more positive direction. You said you’ve been to Bulgaria. There have been many protests there. Based on that pressure, the government resigned and today they’re having elections. The people were very clear about what they didn’t like, but they didn’t know what they did like. Some people in the Bulgarian press have said, “Intellectuals, we need you now! Tell us what we need. Tell us what is the better system to address these issues.” This is not a revolution. If it had been a revolution, some of the political class and the bankers would have been hung in Greece. It’s interesting that it didn’t go in this direction, there or in Bulgaria. It’s not a revolution: it’s a cry of dissatisfaction. People are on the defensive. They want to maintain what they have, like low prices, even if they are subsidized. They want what they had yesterday. That’s not a driver for societal development. Usually people are demanding more or better or brighter.
Also, look at whom they decided to go against. It was much easier to go against the Austrian energy companies. So you get this nationalist sentiment. The Austrian energy companies simply purchased the Bulgarian monopoly. The protests are not really against monopolies owned by the same nationality, which in Bulgaria might be at the root of the problem because of links to organized crime. Instead it was easier for the protesters to stand up against “imperial powers” that have really misused “us Bulgarians.” This movement is probably necessary to crack or dismantle the system. It’s very similar to Beppe Grillo in Italy where some people say, “We don’t know what the future should be, but we know that this is no longer acceptable and we will not tolerate it any more.”
So, the first question is how to crack the system. The second question is: who will recreate the system. This is where I have a serious problem. I don’t have a clear answer to your question because there aren’t many credible partners. I work with many think tanks and research institutions. They have quite good intellectuals, at least for the environments where they operate. But they don’t have a great reputation. In order to survive, sooner or later, they’ve been involved in discredited political formations. There’s the Church, but it’s hard to find the pockets of liberal-minded people there. I mention the mainstream parties not because I think they’re great revolutionaries, but because they gather a large portion of political power and cover much bigger parts of society. These people in the mainstream are sick of the radicals in their parties but don’t have enough power to voice their opinion.
I lay out all this in order to discuss where it’s possible to intervene. It’s easier to
find an NGO that will listen to you and find a constituency in their locality. But it’s not very beneficial. It’s harder but more beneficial to start talking to the mainstream people on the Right not only to distance them from the radicals within their own ranks but to challenge the radicals more. It’s an intra-party discussion. It’s very sensitive, but it’s an important thing to do. What’s happened so far is that the empowerment of these people led to the break up of the party. In some cases this is good because the power is dismantled and somebody else rises up. But usually, even in Bulgaria, even when the voters have said a clear no to an existing power, a new power comes in along with a new mechanism, but it’s the same the old faces. The policies don’t change. No, we should be empowering these people in the mainstream to have internal debates within the party and win.
In the Balkans it is more difficult because economics plays a role. People are poorer. To maintain the status quo is cheaper. Here, politicians made a mistake of dishing out money when they could have borrowed freely. In the Balkans this was not the case. If you look at smaller countries, basically Westerners maintain the status quo in order to preserve stability. The IMF, World Bank, Deutsche Bank: they all give loans on very favorable conditions. For a poorer nation like Macedonia, you need 300-400 million euros for six months. That’s peanuts in the global scheme of things. If the government makes sure that it returns these loans, they’ll be able to get them in the future any time they need them. But for the locals, that’s enough money to keep the impoverished population from falling further.
So, for the Balkans, I don’t know how to change this. You need something like a major disaster or a mega-crack on the inside. Serbia is a good example of what happens when there’s a crack in the dominant forces. The Democratic Party imploded. And look what’s happening now. A new class has come into power. For the first two years they’ll prove themselves by not stealing anything. But as their term comes to an end, they will prove that they’re no different from the rest of society. They don’t see corruption as you and I do. They ask, “Why did we fight for power if we don’t get benefits from it?”
When you look back at your positions from the early 1990s when you were still in Macedonia, how much have your fundamental principles changed in the last 20 years?
I’m a bit more pessimistic today than I was 10 years ago. Societies have changed only in terms of consumerism. And they’ve become even more isolated. There’s been some research into the values of two generations, those born in 1991 and those born in 1971, on the territory of former Yugoslavia. It comes as no surprise that the people who were born in 1991 are more intolerant on gay/lesbian issues, on relations with other nationalities, and so on. They were brought up on the Internet and after the wars. Those born in 1971 bore the brunt of all the killings in the former Yugoslavia, all the societal changes, and still they are more tolerant.
I was born in 1973. I don’t consider myself a product of Tito’s Yugoslavia. But at least I know what took place then. The generation born in 1971 is very similar. They have a certain set of values. What has changed for the worse is that the values in society have declined. Even some of the things that people want to believe their society stands for are no longer there. The level of solidarity in today’s society is much lower. This is why I try to be honest and say that I don’t have any grand solution.
I’ve never been a proponent of the big leader theory, of the idea that salvation is right around the corner. My own approach has been more and more to go to the locality. I’m more focused on the locality rather than the topic or the issue. It all comes down to the locality. Political parties that thrive in this region are excellent at speaking to people. Even in the only socialist municipality in Budapest, at the market at Lehel Ter, Jobbik party activists are there every second or third week. None of the other parties are there, not to mention NGOs and people like us. This kind of engagement brings Jobbik more exposure.
What has changed with me is not so much about ideology. I still believe in the market — I just have reservations about how it works in a small state because of the size of the market and the ability of the government to capture it. I still believe in democracy, not because it is an ideal system but because none of the other systems works better. But I used to believe that we should do a big push and then move on. Now I think that change will happen only if we go into a small locality. This is where people like me and other liberals are failing. We’re not going to the villages, working there, exposing the people to our ideas, and being exposed to what life is like there, whether we like it or not.
Here’s a micro-example. We set up this special Roma policy fellowship. The official line was that we would bring young Roma researchers to spend six months in mainstream think tanks working on a mainstream issue, not a Roma issue. This would build them up as an expert on a given subject. Later, if they wanted to focus on micro-financing schemes for Roma, sure, why not. This was the public goal. But the other goal, which we didn’t publicize, was to expose these think tanks, as organizations of the mainstream, to a person coming from a minority background. It would also expose these organizations to the subject not from a technical point of view but from a daily point of view. This one economic think tank told me that they would like to work with us. They’re working on micro-financing and they said that this subject had a lot to do with the Roma population. This is not the usual opportunistic behavior. It was simple exposure. I’m not saying that this is a cure for everything. But this could bring more understanding to people on both sides.
Maybe we should have had this discussion where I play basketball. I play basketball in a local league. I go to places that most of my friends, Hungarian or international, don’t have a clue about — in high schools in the 18th and 19th Districts in Budapest. It’s a regular city league. For me, this is such an eye opener. I do this for recreation, not for my work. But it shows how much me and my friends are not exposed to that local reality.
Budapest, May 12, 2013