It was certainly cool to be an environmentalist in Hungary in the 1980s. Demonstrations against the government’s plan to build a dam on the Danube drew lots of young people. Opposition to the Communist government, even in the more politically acceptable form that the incipient Green movement took, attracted the counter-culture, the dissidents, and the attention of the international community. In 1985, the leaders of that movement – the Danube Circle and Janos Vargha — won the Right Livelihood award, often dubbed the “alternative Nobel.”
But that was 30 years ago. The environmental movement in Hungary has aged considerably since then. Other issues became hip, young people were drawn to other movements, and Green organizations shrank.
Then along came Zofi. Short for Green Roots (Zold Fiatolok), Zofi was founded in 2001 as an independent NGO made up of primarily young people.
“I got involved in Zofi four-and-a-half years ago,” Julia Vass (center in photo above) told me when I met with her and two other Zofi members in Budapest in August 2013. “I was interested in how people in the movement were leading sustainable lives. I wanted to meet people who thought like this, who rode their bicycles, recycled, things like that. I met them at a meeting. I thought it was cool, and I liked it.”
Gabor Csillag (left in photo above) agreed: “Environmental NGOs had this uncool hippy image. Young people couldn’t relate to them. It was all these old, boring people. We started from zero. All of this we had to learn by ourselves. We started at the grassroots level and got young people involved.”
Viktor Vida (right in photo above) was an activist in the 1980s, and became more involved in environmental issues in the 200s. “In 2002, there were two organizations that thought about the environment — Zofi and Vedegylet,” he said. “But there was a difference between the two. Zofi was younger and a little crazy. And they listened to music. In Vedegylet, activists were a little more boring. Both were doing important and exciting things. Vedegylet was known all around the country. But Zofi was cool. In those years, Green activists looked up suddenly and said, ‘Hey, what’s this? Young people in the environmental movement in Hungary, what’s this?’”
In addition to its target demographic, what made Zofi different from other Green organizations was its multi-issue approach. “We were open to other issues — to the global movement and to politics in general,” Csillag continued. “We dealt with energy, with waste, with consumption. Also, Zofi had a totally different approach. It was grassroots. I remember one of the first times there was a gathering of Green NGOs. One of the founders and I we were on a panel in 2002. We suggested that we talk about gay/lesbian rights. And some people said, ‘But we’re environmentalists. We want to talk about the environment!’ So, Zofi had a special mission: to bring in these issues and talk about the interconnectedness of issues.”
The interconnectedness of issues is showcased in Zofi’s signature event, Mirror to the World.
“It is a traveling exhibition and school workshops based on Manfred Max Neef’s human-scale development,” Vass explained. “The central theme of the exhibition: What does a human being need in order to be happy, and how do those needs affect his or her environment? To answer this question, 10 rooms have been thematically designed, following in the footsteps of the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef’s philosophy. The names of the rooms are: Knowledge, Survival, Choice, Creation, Identity, Relaxation, Security, Love, Dream, and Participation. We invite children from school between the ages of 8 an 18, and we provide them with an interactive guide. We sit down and talk with them about the topics of the rooms. We don’t want to really guide them. We just want to talk with them and ask their thoughts, ideas…. This method – global education — is quite new for them. In school, the teacher teaches, and they don’t really ask the children anything. So it is quite new for them.”
We talked about the state of the Green movement in Hungary today, the challenges of creating a Green party, and the polarization of politics that has affected environmental issues as well.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Julia Vass: I was four years old. I don’t remember. I am quite young.
Viktor Vida: I was 15 years old, and one of my grandfathers was very interested in politics and history. Every night when I was a child I watched the TV news with him. But that year, and in 1988, there were many more unbelievable things happening. The fall of the Wall was one of them for me, but not the biggest thing.
Gabor Csillag: For me, it was a cyclical thing. I grew up outside of Hungary. When I returned to Hungary, I went to university and got involved in student self-government. That’s actually where the present government of Fidesz grew out of, the original Fidesz. Then I ended up leaving the political sphere for a long time. Then I got involved in a couple of student protests. Obviously the fall of the Berlin all proved that this system was going to be over.
Why did you all become involved in environmental issues, as opposed to other issues?
Gabor Csillag: The older generation, the founding mothers and fathers, got involved at the earliest stage for different reasons. I belong to the second generation, and now there’s a third generation. I became involved at the turn of the millennium and that was the result of many things coming together. What we’ll need to talk about at a certain point is the alignment of the movement to politics in general. When it started, the environmental movement was embedded in the politics of regime change. After that, it became a number of single-issue NGOs focusing on waste, energy, and so on. Then there was a moment around the turn of the millennium when we stated to reformulate the idea. We were not just interested in single-issue environmental stuff. We wanted to do something like what the Germans did: to do Green politics. That’s where I got involved.
It was very symbolic that the first time that I got involved with the Hungarian young Greens, with Zofi, was at a protest when the mayor of the Third District – who is now the mayor of Budapest – wanted to expel gays and lesbians from the Sziget Festival. An NGO representative gave a very cool speech, and I started to think about how minority rights and human rights intersected with the environmental stuff that I was interested in otherwise. Then I had a chance to visit Berlin for just a couple of weeks. There I could immediately see the holism of the movement, which was something new in Hungary. Many of the NGOs were skeptical of politics. They said, “We’re environmentalists. We don’t want to have anything to do with politics.”
Julia Vass: I got involved in Zofi four-and-a-half years ago. So, I didn’t get involved as early as Gabor or Viktor. I was interested in how people in the movement were leading sustainable lives. I wanted to meet people who thought like this, who rode their bicycles, recycled, things like that. I met them at a meeting. I thought it was cool, and I liked it.
Were you living a Green life before you got involved with Zofi?
Julia Vass: Not so Green. But not so bad, either. But when I joined Zofi and learned about these things, my life became greener and greener.
Viktor Vida: The Communist regime said that environmentalism was more and more important. They said this, but they just wanted to use the issue because they were afraid of us. For example, when I was 13 years old, as a result of a group competition, I even went to an environmental camp in the countryside. And when I was in secondary grammar school, a teacher gave me many books, by Konrad Lorenz and others.
I was a punk and an activist from 1986 on. I was an anarchist. I was against the system. I wasn’t just interested in environmental issues. When I went to Budapest in 1995, I met Andras Lanyi, who gave a series of talks. One year later, in 1995, I entered a new program at university on human ecology. In 2004, Lanyi and others established Vedegylet (Protect the Future), and I became a member of that. I also became a member of the global justice movement. We went to Prague to join a demonstration against the IMF and World Bank. After that I became a member of Zofi. I also work for Radio Tilos, a kind of pirate radio station, doing a Green, anti-globalization program.
I’m interested in the development of Green parties. I remember people talking about founding a party in 1990. I understand that different parties emerged in Hungary with different political profiles. Why didn’t a German-style Green party emerge here at that time? Why did it take such a period of time before the Young Greens could organize themselves?
Gabor Csillag: I guess I should answer that since I work for a Green party at the moment, Dialogue for Hungary (PM), which split from Politics Can Be Different (LMP).
During the regime change, and Viktor knows more about this than I do, the awareness of environmental issues was not really deep. The symbol of protest was the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam. It was an opportunity to protest against something that was not directly political, so it was allowed. Although it sounds a bit paternalistic, I don’t think Hungarian society was really into environmental issues during that period. And the people who were vocal in that movement either went into mainstream parties and built their careers or they went into the NGO sector or they started establishing second-tier parties. There was basically a brain drain. The people who went into NGOs did really good work. Others did what I consider some shady stuff.
But the niche was not there to establish a Green Party. Our mission, at the turn of the millennium 20 years later, was to get people to understand the German Green approach to environment, human rights, and social justice issues. That just wasn’t there in the heads of people. I don’t think people were ready for a Germany-type party, maybe not even today.
Viktor Vida: When the Green activists tried to establish the first Green party in Hungary, it was already too late. They wanted to do it in 1990, but this project would have been successful if they had done it in 1988 or 1989. But 1990 was too late. As Gabor said, the most important people with a strong connection to environmental issues joined other parties by that time. When some people wanted a Green party, there was no one left.
In the 1990s, there was this little Green party, and the leader of it would go to many European countries saying he was the Hungarian Green from the Hungarian Green party. But he didn’t do any Green activities in Hungary. These little Green parties that existed before LMP, some of them were just a trick. The big parties wanted to stop a real Green party from emerging, so they established these unsuccessful parties. It kept the Greens quiet. We don’t have any proof of this, but we imagine that the Socialist Party had a CIA-like project to establish a little environmental party.
Gabor Csillag: In the elections, very few new parties were successful. Basically two parties managed to get into parliament. They set a high threshold (5 percent) for entering parliament. And they were pleased with Green parties getting one or two percent, never posing any significant political threat.
Viktor Vida: With these little Green parties in the 1990s, the same few people kept appearing again and again. I didn’t like these people. I didn’t know them. They smelled wrong.
Gabor Csillag: They never had serious credentials in the environmental movement.
Viktor Vida: And then along came LMP, which was a real Green movement, and also included human rights and social justice.
Tell me a little about Zofi. What made it different from other environmental groups?
Julia Vass: It was interesting to listen to them because I learned a lot!
Gabor Csillag: Zofi was completely unique.
Viktor Vida: The most important thing was that it was cool!
Gabor Csillag: It’s very satisfying what Julia said, that she came to Zofi and saw that it was cool. That was basically our mission, very consciously. Compared to other sectors, the environmental NGO sphere was very strong in Hungary, very well established, with a pretty good lobby, with some finances.
Viktor Vida: Zofi got cooler and cooler every year. We attracted people like Gabor who were talented and cool.
Gabor Csillag: Two things are important. We were open to other issues — to the global movement and to politics in general. We dealt with energy, with waste, with consumption. Also, Zofi had a totally different approach. It was grassroots. I remember one of the first times there was a gathering of Green NGOs. One of the founders and I we were on a panel in 2002. We suggested that we talk about gay/lesbian rights. And some people said, “But we’re environmentalists. We want to talk about the environment!” So, Zofi had a special mission: to bring in these issues and talk about the interconnectedness of issues.
The other thing was young people. Environmental NGOs had this uncool hippy image. Young people couldn’t relate to them. It was all these old, boring people. We started from zero. All of this we had to learn by ourselves. We started at the grassroots level and got young people involved.
Viktor Vida: In 2002, there were two organizations that thought about the environment — Zofi and Vedegylet. But there was a difference between the two. Zofi was younger and a little crazy. And they listened to music. In Vedegylet, activists were a little more boring.
Gabor Csillag: But much smarter than we are.
Julia Vass: They were very good, but boring.
Viktor Vida: Both were doing important and exciting things. Vedegylet was known all around the country. But Zofi was cool. In those years, Green activists looked up suddenly and said, “Hey, what’s this? Young people in the environmental movement in Hungary, what’s this?”
Gabor Csillag: It reenergized the environmental movement because there had been this institutionalization.
Another important thing to mention is the Social Forum movement, which began at the same time. When it started in Europe, in Florence, we had a chance to visit them. That was very energizing for us. I remember when we went to Florence and saw a million people on the street. We thought, “Wow! We can do this?” We had high hopes. Many people had high hopes for the Social Forum movement. It provided a bridge to start talking about global issues, like finance, and other stuff that wasn’t maybe as radical as gay lesbian stuff. It also legitimated these as Greenish issues. We organized busses to go there.
Viktor Vida: In Vedegylet, nobody went abroad to these demonstrations except me. Vedegylet was interested in globalization things and it had alternative economic opinions. But the leader, Andras Lanyi was a little bit afraid of this movement. The right-wing weekly newspaper here in Hungary did a two-page interview with me, and they couldn’t figure me out: he is Christian, but he goes abroad to this Communist demonstration; he’s a Green and he works at Radio Tilos, but he’s in this sort of conservative organization Vedegylet. After one or two years Gabor Scheiring joined Vedegylet — he’s now an MP – and he was interested in the Social Forums. But in the first years, no one went to Florence or London or Paris. The first Social Forum that Vedegylet attended was in Istanbul or Malmo.
How did you make Zofi cool? Everyone wants to know how to do that.
Gabor Csillag: I don’t think there’s a formula. You basically just need cool people — talented, creative people out there doing their stuff. You have to bring them in and get them involved. We were flexible. We didn’t have an agenda. We just asked them, “What do you want to do? Street art? We’ll do something with street art.” Eventually, you had people who were surprised to be there, like punks. The protest culture was developing in Hungary. We could take examples from the demonstrations. We also looked at media actions, at Greenpeace. We were thinking consciously and organically about how to get into the media, which was a big thing. It was difficult.
All these things brought in people with a background and creative ideas of their own. And it just started working. I don’t know how sustainable that was. When LMP was established there was a big problem. We ended up going separate ways. There had been a lot of cooperation between Vedegylet and Zofi. We did the actions and they did the research.
A creative partnership.
Gabor Csillag: Zofi grew up on partnership. We didn’t have any funds. We didn’t have any organization. We just found partners to work with, like the Energy Club, and so on. And that’s how we built an organization.
Julia Vass: Zofi changed a lot. But we acquired a good reputation. We were invited to many places.
Viktor Vida: The most successful and important project of Zofi was an exhibition about global problems called Mirror to the World. It was very cool. It started the golden age of Zofi. I am very proud that we made it. This exhibition still exists nowadays and goes to many Hungarian towns as a traveling exhibition. Many schools see it.
Gabor Csillag: It was project-based. There was no centralized planning. We said, “If you want to do a project, then go and do it.” And this was one of the most successful projects, which brought the right people together at the right time and managed to raise funds. But this was the beginning of the end. Once you become successful and want to grow, there’s a need for more structure, for specialized people who can do, for instance, fundraising. And I don’t think that we answered that question.
Can you describe the Mirror to the World project?
Julia Vass: It is a traveling exhibition and school workshops based on Manfred Max Neef’s human-scale development. The central theme of the exhibition:
What does a human being need in order to be happy, and how do those needs affect his or her environment?
To answer this question, 10 rooms have been thematically designed, following in the footsteps of the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef’s philosophy. The names of the rooms are: Knowledge, Survival, Choice, Creation, Identity, Relaxation, Security, Love, Dream, and Participation. These rooms are meant to cause a person to think: How can one live a whole and happy life in such a way as to also live in harmony with nature and fellow human beings?
We invite children from school between the ages of 8 an 18, and we provide them with an interactive guide. We sit down and talk with them about the topics of the rooms. We don’t want to really guide them. We just want to talk with them and ask their thoughts, ideas…. This method – global education — is quite new for them. In school, the teacher teaches, and they don’t really ask the children anything. So it is quite new for them.
Julia Vass: Yes.
Viktor Vida: There are three very important things about this exhibition. It has up-to-date knowledge. It has a very lovely and cool design. And it has this interactive pedagogy.
Julia Vass: We went to the big cities in Hungary. We also went to Brussels and to the European parliament.
Viktor Vida: This exhibition was built from paper. It can be moved easily. The company that gave this paper helped the exhibition.
Julia Vass: We work together with a company, and Zofi does the pedagogy part. It’s been really popular and it is really professional. And it’s great for schools, because it’s free for them although nowadays it is not easy to find financial support.
Viktor Vida: If we look at these two organizations, Zofi and Vedegylet, after 13 years, we see that one is successful and the other not so successful. Zofi wanted a big global revolution in social justice. But this revolution didn’t happen. The world changed, and there came other movements after the big economic crisis, like the Occupy movement. Still, from Zofi came from many important things.
Vedegylet secretly wanted a Green party. And it successfully made one: LMP. This new Green party wanted to make connections with many people. If you want to reach enough people you need to be cool. And Vedegylet couldn’t do that by itself.
Gabor Csillag: Obviously LMP was in the right place at the right time. For the first time the environmental organizations were on board. They weren’t enthusiastic, but they were on board. They said, “We are not so enthusiastic, but we will not do anything against you.” But it attracted some key people. Javor Benedek, one of the heads of Vedegylet, had credentials. LMP needed the actual knowhow. If you want to go into politics, you need the intellectual knowhow and a political base. Vedegylet provided that — it had the scholars, the researchers. It also needed to know how to communicate with people. And Zofi was very good at that. We had to focus on communicating because we didn’t have any money. There were people in Zofi with professional marketing experience and that helped LMP very much.
Viktor Vida: There was another party before LMP — established by the leader of Vedegylet, Andras Lanyi — but it was not a successful project. That was in 2006.
Gabor Csillag: In 2006, Andras thought there was an opportunity. He tried to get all the same people on board, and it didn’t work out. He tried to get the NGO movement behind him, and that didn’t work out. Javor Benedek wrote about this. We kept writing to each other in the public sphere — is it the right time for another Green party, or isn’t it? After the flop of Andras’ party in 2007-8, we started working on LMP for the European parliament elections in 2009. By the time of the elections, we’d been working on it already for 18 months.
People talk about how polarized Hungarian politics. Even LMP, which was supposed to be the answer to polarization, itself became polarized. What do you think is the future of Hungarian politics?
Gabor Csillag: The vision of LMP, which we shared, was to transcend the Right-Left split. In Hungary, people called themselves Right but they weren’t really Right, and vice versa. It didn’t make much sense. At the global level as well, there was a restructuring of parties. So there was the idea that maybe these were not the categories that best described what was happening in the world. This was the original vision of LMP shared by Javor and myself.
And that failed. Actually, it failed miserably. It failed for structural reasons, and because it was really a mistake. The structural reason was that the two-thirds majority of Fidesz and the electoral system forced you to take sides, literally. Our plan was to be a third party that didn’t deal with Right and Left, to get people to come together and to work on a third path. But this system made it literally impossible. That was the big political split.
But there was a cultural aspect to it as well. Our wonderful idea of bringing people together from Left and Right and of developing some sort of synthesis was very good at an intellectual level, and we could do it as long as we were an NGO. I can bring things in from the Right and from the Left into a philosophy on an intellectual level. And also in person, I could bring people together from Right and Left to go out for beers. But to do that on a massive scale, you need lots of time and a structure that accommodates that. We just brought these people together who didn’t like each other, didn’t speak the same language culturally, and were very suspicious of each other. The organizational team building requires lots of energy and lots of time. We didn’t have enough time. We started LMP, and immediately we had an election campaign. We didn’t have time to have beers and talk about things. But if you don’t do that, you end up where we ended up.
To this day, I don’t have any solution for this. The timeframe of elections doesn’t allow for a lot of horizontal conversations. I still haven’t given up on the dream of getting people talking and achieving some sort of synthesis. I don’t think that Left and Right is a natural way of describing the world. But when and if this will be possible, I don’t know.
Viktor Vida: The LMP people are very clever people but not good politicians. The idea that we will save Hungary alongside the former Socialist party can’t work. Everybody sees that this was not successful. I said then that it wouldn’t work. It’s not a good idea.
I worked last year with the Heinrich Boll Foundation. They came here to Hungary and we did a project called Hungarian Octopus.
Gabor Csillag: An octopus with the tentacles of corruption.
Viktor Vida: The Boll Foundation didn’t bring here very much money, but they wanted to collect many people and organizations in one place. They wanted to help build a new movement against the Orban regime. But we didn’t know that this was the project aim. I told them that it wouldn’t work. Hungary tried be a new democratic country 23 years ago. But you can’t be democratic without a bourgeoisie, without people who are owners. In Hungary everyone fears the future and looks up to the father figure. They are always waiting for things from powerful people at the top. It’s a failed project.
Gabor Csillag: It comes down at the end of the day — and this is why LMP failed – to: can you imagine another four years of Viktor Orban? If you had told me two years ago that I would be working for the previous prime minister Gordon Bajnai, I would have laughed at you. I wouldn’t have been even angry because I would have just laughed. But in this electoral system there is just one question: do you want more four more years of Viktor Orban? If you don’t, then you have to have a coalition. And that coalition can only be on the Left because it can’t be on the Right.
Inside PM there are a variety of opinions. On one side is the opinion that we have always been Left so let’s be on the Left. Let’s go back to the new Left.
Viktor Vida: Okay, but not with Bajnai!
Gabor Csillag: Javor and I still maintain the dream that one day we’ll transcend Left and Right. But if we stay out of this whole negotiating with the former Socialists, we are guaranteed another four years of Orban, and the Greens will get blamed for it. I didn’t want to take on that responsibility. It was a personal choice for most of us. Everybody thought it was a career decision, that we all wanted was to get into parliament. I’m fine with that. Looking from the outside, maybe I would think that as well. But it just came down to whether we want to build this Green alternative or squash it. If you don’t have a chance to do that, what do you do? Stick to your guns and say we don’t care what happens in larger politics?
Viktor Vida: You can’t have a democracy without a middle class.
Gabor Csillag: But the question is whether you can go forward with the Green agenda under an Orban regime, and I think you can’t. If you look at what people are doing, it’s clear that for the Green movement, things have never been this bad. I personally distrust the Socialists, because of my personal background. But there’s no way of moving forward with an environmental program under the current regime.
What do you think of this disagreement?
Julia Vass: Three years ago I was an LMP supporter because it was quite new. Now I don’t know. I’m just trying to collect information and listen to different people. I don’t know LMP’s future.
Do you think this is an inevitable reality for Green parties? Certainly in the Green Party in Germany there was the same debate over whether to compromise, between the realos and fundos. There’s been a great change in Germany on sustainable energy, so the Greens have won on this issue: even the far Right in Bavaria supports sustainable energy. But you could say that the Greens have lost their initial multi-issue agenda in favor of winning on specific issues.
Viktor Vida: In Hungary, nuclear energy was not the main topic in the Green movement. We had a different topic: the Danube and the Nagymaros dam project. Since 1982, this is the main theme in the Green movement. And we also won. Ildiko Lendvai, former leader of the Socialist Party, gave an interview to the Hungarian station ATV, and she talked about the three biggest mistakes the Socialist Party made. The first she said was to agree in 1998 to build the Nagymaros dam. In 1998 50,000 people protested on Kossuth Square in front of parliament. This was the first thing she said. So, we won. But we are afraid that one day the government will change its mind and build this dam. But Viktor Orban said that the anti-dam movement was a very important protest against the Communist regime, so we won’t build it.
Gabor Csillag: Two points. Partly it’s unavoidable that this discussion about politics would happen sooner or later. The reason we’re having it sooner is because Fidesz drastically changed the electoral system. If they hadn’t, LMP would have been successful in building a third pole in Hungarian politics. That’s devastating for the Greens. Obviously we in PM think that we made the right decision to continue to do Green politics to create a lifeboat for environmentalists who can again get into parliament. If you ask me now to make a prediction, I would say that LMP won’t get into the next parliament. The only group will be us to take that agenda forward. If you look at the contract that PM signed with Bajnai, I could give you five examples of policies we support that we got them to agree to. You can call it pragmatic. But that’s what politics is about — specific issues and specific aims.
Viktor Vida: But where are you now? Where is PM now?
Gabor Csillag: I don’t think PM or Bajnai is doing badly.
Viktor Vida: You said that one of the biggest problems in Hungary is the polarization between Left and Right. Many people have pointed out that this problem arises out of the traumas that Hungarians experienced in the 20th century. They never apologized or said it was their mistake. When Jewish people died in World War II, when Nazis shot them in the Danube, Hungarians didn’t say to each other that “I did these things because I was afraid of being shot.” There were Hungarian Jews and there were Hungarians who were with the Nazis. And the Holocaust was just one thing. There were many other problems in the 20th century, including the Communist regime. In the 1990s, after the 1989 revolution, everybody had big hopes and dreams about political life, but this life was poisoned by this 20th-century history. And we never said these things to each other. We are still living in this 20th century.
Gabor Csillag: There was no reconciliation, no national reckoning at all. People from both sides manipulate this history all the time. We are all still in thrall to these 20th-century problems.
Viktor Vida: When LMP started, we said, “Be careful. If you choose Right or Left, you will replay again and again this stupid political game.” And they did. Gordon Bajnai versus Viktor Orban? Oh my god. I spoke to many members of LMP, and I asked one of the most talented women, a very young girl who organized the most important demonstration for PM, “Why do you want to work with Gordon Bajnaj, the former Socialist prime minister?” And she answered, “Viktor, many people have died on the streets.” Didn’t she think that people died on the streets before 2010 when the Socialist Party was in power?
The main problem is the economic crisis, which is still going on. Half of Hungarian people are living in poverty. How can we work with these people in a democracy?
Gabor Csillag: This is one of the most insensitive governments toward poor people ever.
Viktor Vida: In 2011 there was a big EU project to develop a deeper channel for the Danube so that the ships can navigate it. If this project went forward, it would disrupt the very important water basin near the Danube. This basin gives fresh water to many millions of people in Hungary. And we couldn’t stop this project with Zoltan Illes, the government minister. LMP and Zoltan Illes of Fidesz fought side by side. But who will come after Illes if he is fired? A worse man.
Gabor Csillag: How come you are so pragmatic when you are dealing with Illes? What happened to sticking to your ideals?
Viktor Vida: LMP had ideas. LMP had hope. Zoltan Illes knows the party where he is working. It’s not LMP. The main problem is not Orban and Fidesz. It’s the political culture in this country. The Hungarian people are demobilized, depoliticized. They don’t take part in politics, and not just party politics.
Gabor Csillag: In my activist subculture, they ask, “Did you do everything you could to get rid of Viktor Orban?”
Viktor Vida: The main problem is not Viktor Orban. Tomorrow, Orban will go away. Who will come after this man? If we have Gordon Bajnai, what will be changed? Nothing. The Left party implemented neoliberal politics. Many people became poor because of the neoliberal politics of the 1990s and 2000s. We need to change this. If we want to change this neoliberal politics, we can’t work with former Socialist politicians. Because we will not be successful. Because the Hungarian people are not intellectuals.
Gabor Csillag: If we didn’t make this alliance, LMP would have just dropped out of politics. People would just vote for another four years of Viktor Orban. We could be very proud of ourselves because we were true to ourselves and our Green politics. But people don’t tend to give these ideologies a second chance. Maybe something new would emerge, but it would have to prove itself, to prove that it can stick around. But the Green party could disappear for another 30 years.
What do you think?
Julia Vass: I really don’t know. I am not so deep into this debate.
We’re talking about how polarized the situation is here in Hungary. When you do your day-to-day work, do you encounter this polarization?
Julia Vass: Of course. It’s really bad and sad. People don’t talk to each other on the other side. I don’t know if this is just in Hungary. The Western world also seems divided between Left and Right.
Viktor Vida: The bad thing is that Hungarians who are in the Green movement don’t really know who is Left and who is Right.
Gabor Csillag: I don’t think that’s true. It was never an open topic.
Viktor Vida: I never met this topic in the Hungarian Green movement. The Hungarian environmental movement was never Right or Left. In the 1990s, people had enough of this stupid Left and Right and decided that they would go into the Green movement and work on many important things, like saving the trees or fighting against nuclear energy.
Gabor Csillag: I disagree with this. When we expanded the topics of Green thinking and started to talk about things besides animal protection, it definitely encountered a backlash. People said, “Why are we talking about gays and lesbians or minority rights, and what do we have to do with the poor?”
The Green movement was a good place for dialogue, to be open-minded. I personally got to know people from a completely different cultural background, and we could talk about many things on an individual level. I would go out on a limb and say that culturally Zofi was very Left because of its engagement with feminism, anarchism.
Viktor Vida: When I was active in Zofi, nobody in the environmental movement said to me stupid things like, “Why do you fight for gay lesbian issues?” Nobody. But later when some people in LMP want to work with Gordon Bajnai, Greens on the other side went crazy.
Ronald Inglehart did surveys in the 1970s and 1980s on people identifying as Left and Right. In the 1980s, people started to abandon the old identifications — in part because of the growth of Green parties, but it wasn’t just Green parties. It was partly a cultural shift. In 1992, I wrote that what happened in Eastern Europe in 1990 was in part a confirmation of this trend. There was an expectation that we would see a very different politics after the Cold War. But when I come back here I find some of the same debates as the 1980s and 1990s.
Viktor Vida: Did people in the West have hopes that people in the East would be the ones who would have a new politics? The Left-Right fight was real before the transition in the 1980s. The underground political movement fought each other. They went abroad and said bad things about each other. Anybody hoping that there wouldn’t be Left and Right in Hungary after 1989 was foolish.
Martin Simecka told me about a meeting he went to in Berlin after 1989 and everyone was waiting for him to tell them what the new politics would be. And he told them, “I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t have anything new to tell you.” I have the same hopes that you have that we can move to a different politics, but I also realize that the current polarization makes that difficult.
Viktor Vida: Because of the economic crisis in this country the democratic project has failed. Everyday I work on a different project. Some weeks I try to save trees in Kossuth Square. Other weeks I want to save the forests outside Budapest. Or to save the Danube. But I don’t have any hope about this.
Gabor Csillag: I know what to think about this. There’s a priority to get rid of Viktor Orban. The other priority is to keep the Green flame alive. Green politics can be established in Hungary on a strong basis for an enduring period of time. But the priorities have to be in that order. There is no other order. You can’t have the second without the first.
Viktor Vida: After 1989, the Eastern bloc was very proud. In Hungary we many times said that we are not Latin America. After 23 years, we wake up from our dream of democracy. We wake up from our dream that we will live like Austrians, with their big cars and big flats. We wake up and we see that we are Latin America. The leaders of the Western countries treat us like Latin American countries. If you work at Audi in Gyor, you earn five times less than if you work in Germany at the same Audi company. And this is only a few kilometers away. After the big revolution in 1989, we never imagined that this would be the reality in 2013.
And Hungary and Austria are not even two separate countries but part of the same economic space, in the European Union, an institution that was previously committed to equalizing the situation between countries.
Viktor Vida: In the 1980s, there was another idea — not just the EU but also the common European home. It was a big lie. And not just in Hungary. It was a lie for Russia. Come into the common European house! Instead it became the EU and NATO.
This year, in January, I was fired from my job — not because of Orban but because of the EU. We had five big projects in the EU funded by grants we’d gotten. Every grant failed. So, I was on the street, with a wife and children. We didn’t have enough money. I had two choices. I could go with my wife and children back to Gyor to where my mother lives in a apartment bloc. Or I could find some work. One day I spoke with Zoltan Illes in the ministry. He said to me that when he was young he was a member of many Green organizations in 1990 and 1991. He recommended that I work at this governmental institute. So that’s where I am working now.
Gabor Csillag: Very pragmatic.
How much has your philosophy changed since 1990?
Julia Vass: I come from a conservative family. Half of them are right-wing Fidesz voters, and the other half is liberal. When I started working with Zofi and meeting people, I changed my direction. I started to reexamine things. I read a lot, talked to people.
Do you feel like you’re still in that process of changing direction?
Julia Vass: I’m still in the process. But I’m much clearer about what I want and how I think.
Gabor Csillag: For me it’s two things. Politically, all the dreams that we had have failed. On the one hand, we see the organic continuation of everything that has happened. On the other hand, it’s obviously worse, no longer what a democracy should be about. For me personally I’m really a product of my upbringing. I grew up in the States where I got a different socialization than most Hungarians. I got involved in politics very late. Zofi was my initial stage. It was grassroots, a small horizontal organization. You see what works and doesn’t work, and you want to go further. I went further with Vedegylet with political lobbying and so on. Then you see that decisions are made at a different level. That’s when some of us decided to go into politics. Once you’re in politics, you see what works and what doesn’t work. Now I’m in the professional political community, with all the downsides. But I don’t see an alternative. I still believe in the grassroots. I still believe that people should be involved in democracy. I believe that people have to get active.
We have a historic responsibility here in Central Europe to make democracy work. I don’t want democracy to flop here. That would lead to a debacle. But I also see that people are coming around very quickly. Issues that we previously only dreamt about — and were laughed at when we wrote about them at first — are completely mainstream now. I’ll continue in Green politics. I just don’t know whether that’s good or bad.
Viktor Vida: I’m very proud about the LMP project. I don’t know what will happen with LMP in the next election, but I think it’s not a big problem if we have to leave parliament. The issues and ideas that were established by this party are the most important thing, not whether it’s in parliament or outside. Maybe these issues and ideas will become more and more important in the future.
I see that the businessmen and the politicians want to destroy everything in this country. I see it in Budapest. There are no rules. It’s not about Orban and Fidesz. It’s every party except LMP and PM.
When I was young, I wanted to save the world. But I am now 38 and I want to raise my children. I’ll let other people save the world. I want to save the trees on the Kossuth Square, the forests, and the Danube. The Fidesz party will win the next election. And this is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the system. And I’m very pessimistic. I’m sorry about this because I want to be optimistic. I believe in participatory democracy, in social justice, in God. I go every Sunday to church. Three of four times Viktor Orban also comes to church and makes the old ladies happy.
When you look back to 1990s and everything that has changed in Hungary or not changed from that period until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Gabor Csillag: 5
Julia Vass: 4
Viktor Vida: 2
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
Gabor Csillag: 9
Julia Vass: 9
Viktor Vida: 4
Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how do you evaluate the prospects for the country, on a scale fro 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Gabor Csillag: 3
Julia Vass: 4
Viktor Vida: 6
Budapest, August 1, 2013