“HUNGARY IS NOT REALLY THE RAINBOW OF HOPE IN THE EUROPEAN UNION” – Interview with Bálint Jósa

(Interviewed by Tenna Sørensen, outgoing placement officer at SCI Italia)

Far right-wing politics, fascism, and propaganda are three issues that SCI Italy and its partners attempt to counter in the project “CHAPTER: Challenging Propaganda through Remembrance”. However, it is also three tendencies that seem to be growing in Hungarian society. 

As part of CHAPTER’s final campaign, we took the occasion to talk to Bálint Jósa, activist and director of the organization UNITED for Intercultural Action, about Hungarian politics, the situation in his home country, and the potential of projects such as CHAPTER.

A FASCIST STATE?

“Political apathy, division of a country and the lack of checks-and-balances are a very good combination for a fascist state to thrive and function,” says Mr. Jósa. 

The 42-year-old activist has worked for UNITED for 9 years – almost the same number of years of Viktor Orban’s current leadership in Hungary and a period in which the country in particular received international attention for its right-leaning policies. 

Mr. Jósa emphasizes that there are big differences between the historical understanding of fascism, the actual meaning of the word, and whether it is approached from a human rights or political-economical perspective.

Fascism is also when the state does not care about the individual’s rights – meaning that the interest of the state is becoming superior to the rights of the individual and that challenging the leader’s opinion will classify you as an enemy of the state”.

According to him, the Hungarian has a well-documented, problematic relationship with human rights, which is exacerbated by its promotion of a “tyranny of the majority” – a political situation where a 51 percent majority can decide that the other 49 percent must give up on their rights. As Mr. Jósa explains, this system is one of alienation, dividing people into subcategories and turning them against each other. A “polarization method”, says Mr. Jósa, which is becoming more and more present in Hungary and all over Europe. 

What I see in Hungary is that the political spectrum is very divided. We have a very clear non-majority rule of the government, meaning that most people are not in support of this government” – he says. 

At the same time, the ‘checks-and-balances’ system – a system supposed to divide legal power into different branches and keep power in check – is very limited. In Hungary, political representatives and leaders are all elected by the government and by prime minister Viktor Orban himself. This, says Mr. Jósa, creates a system infiltrated with totalitarian tendencies. A system where it becomes virtually impossible to challenge the government’s decisions.

So, the only limit to the ideas or solutions of this government are the people and the voice of the people. Sometimes it happens – when big issues come up – that the civil society are in sync, and we stop some sort of processes. But it is rare.” 

Moreover, the Hungarian political system is characterized by political apathy, says the activist. A mere 20-22% of young people turn up at the polls to vote and it is a rare sight to see Hungarian people stand up to its government’s decisions.  

Eastern Europeans tend to fear the state and do not trust the state at the same time. Plus, they don’t believe that speaking out makes sense. We live under a lot of suppression, so we are used to being singled out and arrested by the police if we talk too badly about our ‘father’ Stalin or whoever is the ruler in the country.” 

“I WOULD NOT SAY THAT THE LEFT IN THE EAST IS PROGRESSING – IT REALLY IS NOT” 

According to Mr. Jósa, there are similarities to be found all over the Eastern bloc. Romanians and Bulgarians find themselves in a similar situation to the people in Hungary, having few left-wing supporters and even less political influence. 

At the same time, Mr. Jósa singles out the Czech Republic and Ukraine as the ‘East bloc outsiders’. The former because of its different circumstances under the communist regime. And the latter due to internal divisions on its relationship to Russia that creates a huge potential of real military conflict as we are currently seeing. However, according to Mr. Jósa, differences are minute. In general, there is not a lot of progress to be found on the political left in the East. 

The Hungarian government, for example, routinely blocks or criticizes EU sanctions against Russia and China and cultivates strong relationships with “critical extreme groups and parties” such as Marie Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK, and the Italian National Fascist Party, he says. A style of coalition-building which Mr. Jósa describes as “totalitarian-styled” and “illiberal”:

Building such coalitions means that they are turning [Hungary] more and more receptive to fascist ideology. When the government allows for fascism to thrive on the governmental level then of course those who are part of right-wing violent extremism also thrive and get stronger and more accepted.” 

And as the margins of right-wing mentality expand in the political top, Hungary has come to serve as a haven for hundreds of extremist militias coming to receive military training, explains Mr. Jósa. 

We have a big international gathering in February in Hungary that is accommodating up to 5000 neo-Nazis from the world including a couple of 100 from Germany – and it is happening under the nose of the government.” 

According to Mr. Jósa, the gatherings have welcomed amongst its extremist visitors the Christchurch murderer who killed 51 people during Friday prayers as well as Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik who killed 77 people in Oslo and Utøya in 2011. Despite the illegality of such military training, they take place with the knowledge of the country’s security forces. At the same time, Hungary is hosting neo-Nazi party heads from countries such as Sweden and Austria who turn to Hungary for asylum. 

They do not get political asylum because they are part of the EU, but they still have residency and unofficial support from groups related to the government. So, what I see is a network of extreme violent groups being present in Hungary and using it as a community space for their actions”. 

However, what is most upsetting and disturbing to the UNITED director is the absence of political attention. The news does not “travel West,” he says, and Hungarians look in vain for The Guardian or The New York Times articles zooming in on the neo-Nazi gatherings in their country.

“IF THE WORLD’S NEO-NAZIS CAN UNITE – THEN THOSE WHO DO NOT LIKE THEM SHOULD UNITE A LITTLE BETTER”

In response to the 2019 EU election, the organization UNITED has created a monitoring campaign called ‘Make Them Small Again’. Here, Europeans can submit cases of extreme right-wing groups, political parties, or candidates that promote fascism or fascist movements. The result is a database creating awareness about the rise of fascist movements in Europe.

Awareness is acutely necessary in a reality where Europe’s dark past is resurfacing, says Mr. Jósa. To him, the individuals burning refugee tents on the Hungarian border are not much different from those forcing Jews into concentration camps. And remembrance is key – especially as the eyewitnesses of past wrongdoings are disappearing. 

How will we educate about the Holocaust when there is no one to tell the story in person? (…) The only reason we can still say ‘never again’ and having it be an advantage that our ancestors did not fight fascism but lost the war is that we now know where it leads. So, I want to use this advantage to warn people and remind them that if we do not fight back, we know where it leads,” he says.

Projects such as CHAPTER aims to unite various European countries around anti-fascism and antipropaganda and shed light on realities outside people’s local environments. History has shown that these disturbing realities – even as they might take place on peripheries of society – can grow hugely problematic for mainstream Europe, Mr. Jósa points out. However, projects such as CHAPTER also suffer limitations. 

“The EU will not assign us a monitoring project on right-wing radicalism. Its political work should be much more independent,” stresses Mr. Jósa.

According to him, crowdfunding among ordinary people and businesses can counter the lack of political agency and vision within the EU. The funding would allow projects such as CHAPTER to live independently and offer political training, advocacy, and a sort of academy of activists without EU-imposed limitations.

Our projects should be better at disseminating our values and building a better region for Europe because right-wing extremists have a clear vision on what they dislike in our society, while neither the liberal, the green or the left have a tangible vision.

However, this vision must carry within it a much stronger narrative than what is currently the case, says Mr. Jósa. International projects cannot just hone in on their own particular issues. They must make public discussions about human rights more accessible to ordinary citizens:  

Without a narrative, without a vision, we are not going to be able to get to ordinary citizens (…) No one needs social security unless they become unemployed. No one needs healthcare unless they become sick. This is the logical of fundamental rights – that no one really needs them unless they are violated and then if they are violated and no one is there to protect you, you are left on your own”. 

Stay tuned to read more about Bálint Josá’s points of view regarding Hungary’s treatment of minority groups such as migrants, LTGBQ+ communities and its Roma population in the following articles coming up soon:

 

ABOUT UNITED

UNITED for Intercultural Action was founded in 1993 and has ever since been a large pan-European network against nationalism, racism, fascism and in support of migrants, refugees and minorities. Together with more than 560 supporter organizations around Europe – ranging from local grassroots associations to national and international NGOs, UNITED coordinates campaign, organizes conferences, takes part in projects, produces publications and undertakes advocacy work to protest against discrimination and promote their shared vision for a diverse and inclusive society. 

Visit UNITED for Intercultural Action’s website here: https://unitedfia.org/about-united/ 

ABOUT THE FINAL EVENT

Non avevamo detto mai più? – Round table that will bring together historians and intellectuals with anti-fascist collectives and militants from different European countries and not to discuss what it means to be “internationalists” in the current context  during the final event of Chapter in Rome with the intervention of Balint:

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