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Did Hungarians give up on the West? An interview with Zsuzsanna Szelenyi

Hungary spent most of the last decades trying to integrate into the West, but is this still what Hungarians want? Independent MP Zsuzsanna Szelenyi sheds light on some concerns following Viktor Orban's victory.

Lea Berriault
Lea Berriault NewsMavens, Central & Eastern Europe
Did Hungarians give up on the West? An interview with Zsuzsanna Szelenyi - NewsMavens
Courtesy of Zsuzsanna Szelenyi

LB: Fidesz has become increasingly right-wing since you left the party, in 1994. How do you think it will evolve now?

Zsuzsanna Szelenyi: Fidesz is a changing party. It has changed a lot over its history -- from a liberal party to a conservative centrist party, and from a centrist party to a populist party, and from a populist party to an extremist party.

Fidesz is not a conservative party, because it is radical and anti-establishment. It is an autocratic party with a traditionalist political profile. Fidesz relates to society in a way that is remindful of the 19th century.

Central and Eastern Europe had a turbulent history in the 20th century. Here, the democratic bourgeoisie is only partly developed, and there are social structures, beliefs and attitudes that help revive old-timers in political circles.

In the 80s and the 90s, Hungary was a pragmatic Central-European country wavering between a strong modern Western identity and a kind of social backwardness. And now, this backwardness seems to have grown. 

When I speak of this social backwardness, I mostly mean how we view ourselves, with our much-discussed feeling of being second-rate in Europe.

Viktor Orbán has capitalized on the fact that Hungarians often feel inferior and submissive towards Westerners.

With his strong leadership, he wants to demonstrate that Hungary is strong and that it has its own rights and its own culture. And people like to appear strong rather than vulnerable.

I see this trend is also present in Polish political culture these days. And, in a way, there is some truth to it. We had to wait too long to join the European Union. It took 14 years. Central Europeans hoped for a much faster accession process, and became disappointed and disillusioned by the time it finally happened. We stayed in the antechamber for too long.

On top of that, we were also unlucky. The financial crisis came shortly after we joined the EU, for example. It was the first serious political experience we witnessed as EU members. But truly, I think the root of the problem is that we didn’t have time to grow our civil society into a real European democracy, and we are uneasy with the relative insecurity that characterizes liberal democracy.

LB: Is this reflected in Orban’s personal story? He started out as a democrat with a Soros-funded scholarship. Do you think he changed because he felt inferior to Westerners?

Every Easterner who moves to Western Europe can sometimes feel patronized. This can be intimidating. But this feeling can be made worse by our complexes.

Politics is very closely linked to psychology. The real question is, are we able to overcome it? As individuals and as a society?

Most Central European societies have not yet gone through this integration process, not socially and not politically either. When we joined the EU, the political class started out thinking:  “ok, we are on equal footing here”. But somehow that perceived inferiority persisted. There are also factors that aggravate it, like the economic imbalance, cheaper labor and our reliance on Western investments and EU funding. 

When Viktor Orban calls for a new regime, what he calls illiberalism, he openly gives up on our attempt at fully integrating our society to the West. Many people who could not make the necessary changes in order to live and work in a competitive liberal democracy are hiding behind Orban’s rebellious politics. But, of course, the responsibility lies with the political elite. Orban’s illiberalism is building on a failure. I believe this is not a sustainable social model -- it endangers our future.

LB: How will women fare under Fidesz?

In Hungary, the women’s movement was always very weak. Women’s rights in other countries in the region seem to have grown thanks to a single mobilizing issue. In Poland, it’s reproductive rights. In the Balkans, it’s violence against women. In Russia, surprisingly, it’s about healthcare and female health -- about how the healthcare system treats women’s bodies.

But somehow we, Hungarians, haven’t found our issue, and the women’s movement has not grown as strong as others in the region.

What is worse, this weakness is still there when women are under a new ideological attack. In the last decades women’s rights mainly developed because of EU pressure. But now in Orban’s new authoritarian world, women should comply with traditional family roles and be subservient to men. They have no role to play in public life. Viktor Orban is very outspoken in these matters. At this point, Hungarian women should realize that their social standing is under threat. To defend it, we will need to put women’s rights on the political agenda.

LB: Do you feel it’s a double burden in European politics to be both from Central & Eastern Europe and a woman?

Well, we all have at least two burdens. [laughs] I’ve been working on women’s issues in the Council of Europe for 15 years now but I usually find that being a woman is more complicated in Hungary than in the rest of Europe. I received a lot of support on the various levels of European politics where I have worked in the last decades. Nowhere was it as difficult as in Hungary.

**Zsuzsanna Szelényi is an independent Member of Parliament in Hungary. She covers foreign and security policy, migration, constitutional affairs and gender issues. She started her career as one of the founding members of Fidesz, a youth party at the régime change in Hungary in 1988. She became a Member of Parliament of the first freely elected Parliament. She left politics in 1994 and had a professional career at the Council of Europe. In 2013 she returned to Hungarian politics.**

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This interview was made possible by Visegrad Insight, an analysis and opinion journal led by accomplished editors from the Visegrad Group countries.

politics, illiberalism, Hungary, women's issues

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