Hungary’s Relative Income Equality Hides Other Inequities

Robert Braun, chairman of Hungary's  New Economics Foundation

Robert Braun, chairman of Hungary’s New Economics Foundation

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

If you look just at the statistics, Hungary seems to be doing pretty well, inequality-wise. The country experienced a significant spike in poverty and household inequality after the political changes of 1989-90. But since then, its rate of inequality has remained around the European average. It moved from Scandinavian levels of inequality (according to the Gini coefficient) to a situation comparable to, say, France. Moreover, according to at least one estimate, significant government redistribution efforts have been responsible for this trend.

But these statistics obscure a couple important facts. Particularly after the financial crisis of 2008, the poorest segments of the population were hit hardest in terms of loan repayments. “Indebted households in the lowest income quintile pay a higher share of their income as debt repayment, and they are also more likely to be in arrears with their repayments because of financial difficulties,” according to one article on income inequality in Hungary.

Inequality in the country also has an ethnic dimension. A large portion of the poorest people in the country are Roma. According to UNDP data, the unemployment rate for Roma is 50 percent (compared to 24 percent for non-Roma). The same data set reveals that 71 percent of Roma live in relative poverty – defined as under 60 percent of median income – compared to 33 percent of non-Roma.

Which brings us to a third, definitional issue. “Inequality is not only wealth or income inequality but hundreds of different inequalities — in education, health care, access, transportation, many things,” observes Robert Braun.

I met Braun in 1990, when he was running an important human rights organization called the Raoul Wallenberg Association, which did a lot of work to combat anti-Roma and anti-Semitic sentiment. Since that time, he has gone on to serve as an advisor to prime ministers, run various successful businesses, and pursue an academic career.

Currently he is running for parliament. Over the years he has shifted from using the language of human rights to describing problems in terms of inequality. “We have targeted assistance to the Roma,” he points out, but “we didn’t change the society. We haven’t changed the system that oppresses poor people, which only adds to the problems Roma have. If we had spent the same amount of money dealing with issues of inequality probably we would have been in a different place today. And we have also offered an easy scapegoating platform for those who are non-Roma and whose economic situation hasn’t changed or even gotten worse.”

We talked about the rising nationalism and anti-Semitism in Hungarian society, the failures of liberalism, the challenges of running a business, and why he decided to throw his hat into the political ring.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I don’t. I was too busy. We were doing a lot of things. Obviously living in this part of the world the changes were not necessarily just one moment. It wasn’t like the shooting of John F. Kennedy.

I think I was in Budapest. I remember watching on TV when the guys rushed through the border between Hungary and Austria. My memory, and that’s probably a Hungarianism, is to think of the East Germans crossing the border between Hungary and Austria as much as breaking through the Berlin Wall.

When did you form the Raoul Wallenberg society and what was your motivation?

It was the tumultuous late 1980s, and I was a university student. We were interested in doing something, not necessarily with the hope of change but just to do something. Obviously times were hard from a political point of view. It was 1986 or 1987, and a bunch of us just got together. We were focusing mainly on the Gypsy issue, which was just then emerging and obviously a major social problem. That was a time when you could form civil organizations. So, with a bunch of friends from university we thought that it was a good idea to do it.

What would you say was the moment when you became politically conscious?

It was at that time. I went to the university of humanities, which is a very political place. I became not only politically but socially and environmentally conscious. It was not only the Wallenberg Association, which is still around. We also formed the Union of Civil Liberties, which is also still around. It was also when Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) was formed, and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz). It was just the natural thing to do. We were young. I’m lucky because I’ve never lost that interest.

Was there something in your family life that encouraged this?

No, just the opposite. My father is an academic. My mother also taught at university. She was a basketball player who also became a coach. They were typical successful people who assimilated into the system. Partly it was their Jewish origin, which was also an assimilation. But the assimilation was more than that. It was more like: if you try to sail with the waves, you’ll be okay.

I remember the eve of the press conference announcing Fidesz, which I was involved in. I was asked to do the interpretation. Victor Orban and Tamas Deutsch were kind of friends at the time. My father called — I was living in my own apartment at that point – and that was quite unusual, since I usually talked with my mother. He begged me not to do it. His argument, and it’s something I’ll never forget, was not that I shouldn’t do it for myself, but “you shouldn’t do it because of us! You are ruining what we’ve built up until now.” Obviously for someone in their early 20s, that was oil on the fire. I said, “Back off, I’m doing it.”

My father is 83 years old now. Throughout my political career over the last 23 years and even now when I’m running for parliament going even deeper into politics, he still begs me: don’t do it.

For the same reason?

Partly, yes: don’t stick your head up, it’s not good or useful and it’s not helping you. When I was in the military, I was a problem kid there also. Before university, you went to the military for one year as part of compulsory service. When I came home from the military and told stories, he said, “Why be a white mouse among all the grey ones? Why can’t you be a simple grey mouse.” I said, “I don’t know, I’m just doing what I feel is right.” That didn’t help.

Did he ever say, “Look, we come from a Jewish tradition, it could be dangerous in this country to stick your neck out”?

Probably that was part of it. But it became transformed into: just don’t stick your neck out. Nowadays, people tell me that I’ve gone quite far. I’ve worked for prime ministers, I’m well known. Now that I’m entering politics quite seriously, they say to me, “We know you, and you won’t stop until the end. But have you thought that as a Jew you’ll never get elected?” I always say, “I’ll prove you wrong. I’m 100 percent sure that in the end, people won’t care.” It’s like Obama. If you would have asked people 10 years ago when Obama first ran, can he become the president of the United States? Probably not 9 out of 10 but 10 out of 10 would have said, “Sorry, Barack, nice try, not in your lifetime or in children’s lifetime or your grandchildren’s lifetime.” But sometimes you just have to do it.

You said that the Gypsy/Roma issue was one of the main reasons for founding the Wallenberg Association. When we talked in 1990, there was an attempt by the city government in Miskolc to build a new settlement that would have been basically a ghetto. You did a press conference, some organizing around that, and Miskolc basically backed down. Were there other similar examples?

There were plenty of them at that time. Obviously there were many reasons for the rise in anti-Roma sentiment. With the waves of liberalization and freer press and freer atmosphere in the country, all the suppressed ideas and threats and scapegoating came to the surface. Neither the government nor the local people could deal with the situation. At one point, one of the city councils suggested building a full-blown ghetto for all the Gypsies in the country and put them behind barbed wire, because that was the only way for Hungary to survive.

Who made that proposal? Istvan Csurka and the right-wing crazies?

It was probably Csurka and the crazies. So it wasn’t official. But it was discussed. Obviously there were also incidents of anti-Semitism. The idea of founding the Wallenberg Association was a very interesting attempt to promote activism on the ground, through fieldwork focused on anti-Gyspy sentiment and anti-Semitism. But also Wallenberg himself was a very politicized figure. The choice of this name was a clear and open attack on the then-current government. The foundation of the system was tabooism. There were several taboos that you mustn’t violate. If you didn’t, you could live in the happiest barrack of the camp. One of the taboos was 1956 and the death of Imre Nagy and other crimes that the Soviet Union had committed. Also high on the list was what happened to Raoul Wallenberg. So bringing the Wallenberg issue to the fore was more than just raising a human rights issue.

Looking at the situation now, could you have imagined back then that the level of anti-Roma sentiment or anti-Semitism would not only be similar but even increased here in Hungary?

The easy answer is that back then I couldn’t have imagined so many things, among them also this. And this wasn’t the least possible thing I could imagine. Such things don’t change overnight. Having been there and seen it on the ground, having known the sociological and political processes that this society went through, I’m not surprised. Particularly for a society in transition, it’s normal — not that it’s acceptable. Probably that’s one of the major debts the whole political elite owes this country, that we didn’t think hard enough about how to deal with this issue. It’s still not too late.

When you think back to the time not only with the Raoul Wallenberg Society, but Fidesz and SzDSz, what are you most proud of from that time period?

I don’t think I’m proud of just one thing. I’m proud that I was able to get where I’ve gotten having come from a family that returned to this country in 1963. I was born in 1966. I basically lacked any parental rootedness in this society. But not only did I win elections, not only did I serve prime ministers proudly (or not so proudly), not only am I a professor at the university, not only have I done a lot of things (maybe not enough), but I still plan to do more. I always told myself that I wanted to live a life as I would live it anywhere else in the world. I do everything at the same level as anyone with my talents would do in London, New York, or wherever. I never made a compromise. In whatever situations I’ve been, I’ve never bribed anyone, neither in business nor in politics. Nor have I ever received any bribe or been part of any corruption. So, I proved that you can be successful without compromising my beliefs. It’s less events and achievements and more about being true to myself and my beliefs.

On the back cover of my last book, which is a collection of political essays, the editor, who is also a friend, wrote about reading 20 years of my essays: “You haven’t changed. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a curse.” And I don’t know either.

Tell me when you decided to enter formal politics. And why did you make the decision to go from the non-governmental world to the governmental world?

That’s not precise. I’ve always had three career paths. With the university path, I did my Ph.D. in the United States and came back to teach economics at university. I also had a business career. I was the founder of Index, which is the biggest portal in Hungary, which was later sold. I was also one of the strategists of the Sziget Festival, which is one of the largest cultural festivals. I started my own company, which does corporate responsibility and marketing strategy and which became a major player.

But I was always very much involved in politics as well. In the mid-1990s, I was the chief of staff of SzDSz when we were in government. Then I went to the Netherlands and came back, and that was the Index period. I was hired in 2001 to be part of the management of the Socialist Party campaign in the elections. We won, and I became the communications director for the prime minister. Before he resigned, I resigned as well. Then I was one of the leaders in Prime Minister Gyurcsany’s first campaign. I was his chief strategist for six months.

I’ve been what you call a political operative ever since. Although I have been courted in some form or another, I’ve always resisted the call to become an elected politician. I thought I could have just as much if not bigger influence without becoming a politician this way. I’m not interested in power. I’ve been there. I’ve seen that. I’ve had the soldiers saluting me at the entrance, and I really don’t care. My last political appointment was the communication and strategy director for Andras Simor, the governor of the national bank when, for the last four years, he was attacked and pressured to resign. Basically the current government was seriously attacking the independence of the national bank.

Every morning we sat at the table with the governor and the deputy governor, and when an issue came up that was not monetary policy but connected to public perceptions and communication and politics, everyone looked at me. I said what I thought was the right thing to do. Then everyone looked at the governor. Nine times out of 10, he would say, “Okay, let’s do that.” Once in a while, he’d say, “Wait, let’s think about this” or “I disagree.” At the end of the day, the responsibility lay with him. I just had to be clever and well prepared. I had to take into consideration what professionally seemed to be the right thing to do. His consideration was quite different: what is good for the institution, for the country, for the people who work with him, for progress. Those are things I didn’t have to care about. That wasn’t my remit.

I thought I’d basically achieved everything that a political operative can achieve. I don’t want to sound conceited, but I can serve another prime minister. It would be interesting, and it would be fun to do. But it wouldn’t be radically different from what I’ve done. So, I thought I would be very happy to have a go and try to sit in that chair, in the chair of someone who has a different kind of responsibility.

In one sense, I’ve played the cards in my hand the way I have because I think the country is in a dire situation. Fidesz is taking the country into a direction I never thought we would go. Both my wife and I were abroad. We’re kind of international people. We also thought about leaving. For many reasons, we decided to stay. But for a person like myself, that decision begs the question: okay, fine, so what next? I have two children. What do I need to do in order to have a good answer for my daughter when she grows up and says at the age of 18 that she’s leaving and I beg her not to and they say, “What have you done for me not to leave?” I’m a strategist. I think ahead. That question should be dealt with now, when she’s only 11. That’s the reason I’m running for office.

You’ve worked with SzDSz and the Socialists. How do you make a decision about your affiliation these days?

It wasn’t a question. Ideologically, I moved from a central liberal position to the quite radical Left. In my professional life, I’m chairman of the New Economics Foundation, which deals with wellbeing economics and inequality. So it wasn’t a question that my place is on the Left. The Left is in trouble, not only in Hungary but globally as well. And I want to be part of the solution. For ten years of my life I dealt with corporate social responsibility, the micro-paradigm change of operationalizing a new value system, how a stakeholder democracy can be established. I realized from that experience, both as a professor and as a practitioner, that without changing the macro you won’t change the micro. The macro is politics. The big task of my generation should be to take part in that paradigm change and help the shift from a GDP-driven economic to a well-being-driven economy, from a race to the bottom to a fight against inequality. These are the major issues of the time. These are also the issues in the United States, in Spain, in Hungary. Obviously the cultural context is different and so is the political different. My system of measurement isn’t local, never was and never will be. I want to be part of the discourse that sets the agenda for the future. In a transitional society, it’s sometimes easier, because everything is in flux, so sometimes there are bigger shifts and the society is not so stuck in the old.

Do you feel like you’re in the leading edge of this political movement? Or are there are a lot of people you’ve met who have made the same trip away from liberalism and toward a Left position in Hungary?

There are not too many, which could be one of the major problems. Basically the discourse of the current opposition, of the Left-liberal spectrum, is from the 1990s. If you open the newspapers or if you open the very limited platforms of communication and then you close your eyes, you hear the same people, the same words, the same problems, and the same proposed solutions as in the mid-1990s. Actually, I’m being polite. Sometimes it sounds more like the mid-1980s!

And it’s not by accident. I don’t consider what’s happening in this country, what Fidesz is doing, an accident. They could do what they have done and go as far as they’ve gone because we didn’t pose a real and serious alternative, either intellectually or politically. We didn’t talk to people. We didn’t touch people’s hearts. We didn’t offer people something that they can understand and want. We are still stuck in our 1990s debates about progress, about how we’ll join the EU and everything will be fine — even worse, everything will be fine the next day! I don’t exclude myself from that mistake. But I also pride myself that I learned from those mistakes.

In the mid-1990s, we thought that foreign investors would come, along with multinational companies, and the Hungarian economy would be saved and everything would be like Austria. Once we joined the EU, Budapest would be Vienna. We absolutely built up a totally false expectation even in those people who were the majority. The people actually wanted to believe us. That was the calling of Hungary. Finally, the boat of Hungary on the waves between the east and west would finally arrive in the harbor of the west. We would anchor, and joy and happiness would follow. And it didn’t. We harbored, we anchored, and nothing happened. Life was just as miserable as the day before. We couldn’t deal with that situation. We lost our appeal. We have to rebuild that from the bottom up. It takes time. My political agenda is not for 2014. I believe that we have to rebuild our thinking, our foundations, our intelligentsia, our debates, our politicians.

Do you feel that the Socialist Party is basically on board with that message or is that something you’ll have to struggle with inside the party and with the population as a whole?

The latter. I have had the privilege of spending the last six years outside politics, which gives me a great vantage point that my comrades so to speak don’t have. They’ve been fighting petty or not-so-petty wars, but it’s hard for all of us to see the forest for the trees. And the whole culture — the intelligentsia, the journalists — they’re still reform people. They still believe that we were right in the mid-1990s, that with a little bit of change everything will be okay. Maybe we’ll have more investors or different investors. Maybe we’ll have more EU or the EU with a little twist here and there and everything will be fine. I do think that more foreign investors and more integration with the EU will help, but they won’t in themselves solve the problems.

The major problem is inequality, and that inequality has been growing ever since the transition. The biggest problem is the race to the bottom and that’s also tied to the Gypsy issue. It’s not a Roma issue: it’s an inequality issue. Obviously, inequality is not only wealth or income inequality but hundreds of different inequalities — in education, health care, access, transportation, many things. Whoever hopes and thinks that this will be solved by direct foreign investment is utterly wrong.

As you know, hundreds of millions of dollars have come into the region to address inequality and Roma. But I haven’t seen a great deal of progress since I was last here in 1990. There are Roma individuals who have achieved success in countries in the region that would have been remarkable in 1990 given the anti-Roma sentiment. But collectively there doesn’t seem to be much progress. Has this been a failure in strategy, in execution…?

Last week, a Roma guy stood up in one of my forums — I do regular town hall forums – and he said, “Okay, we heard all that. So, what are you going to offer us Roma?”

I thought for a second, and said, “Nothing. I won’t offer anything to the Roma.”

I’m saying that there is no Roma issue. We have targeted assistance to the Roma. We didn’t change the society. We haven’t changed the system that oppresses poor people, which only adds to the problems Roma have. If we had spent the same amount of money dealing with issues of inequality probably we would have been in a different place today. And we have also offered an easy scapegoating platform for those who are non-Roma and whose economic situation hasn’t changed or even gotten worse.

Jobbik and the anti-Semitic parties in Hungary have an easy go of it. Their message is simple and simply understood. To be honest, it touches the hearts of the people who are thinking: “Why do these Gypsies get so much and I don’t get anything? Why is everyone talking about the Gypsies and why is no one talking about me? I’m just next door, and we’re in the same situation. Sometimes I’m even worse off because they get something sometimes and I don’t.

Jobbik speaks to people’s emotions while other parties speak to their minds. The civil rights movement made the same realization. MLK knew that it had to be a movement predicated on inequality and poverty or else it would lose the support of the broader population.

Absolutely. This is not a Hungarian issue. It’s a European issue. There are ways to do something about this: for instance, an unconditional basic income is one of the things I’m trying to push forward. Twenty years ago, it was human rights and civil liberties that mattered. But now, it’s social rights and social liberties, and we have to amend our perception of what the human condition means, from the point of view of a guaranteed minimum. It not only means that you have equal rights before the law. It means that you have a right to a minimum social foundation. Everyone says that we can’t provide for that. But of course we can! Yes, that means that the well off won’t be that well off. But the one percent that has made it into Europe, myself included, we’re living the life of mainstream Europe – the same cars, the same lifestyle — but we are living that life on the shoulders of the 99 percent. The problem is different from the United States where the one percent is very rich and the 99 percent is not. In Hungary, the one percent is not so very rich.

I always quote the example of the runner Oscar Pistorius. The story goes that he heard a noise in his house. He looked around his bedroom and pulled out the pistol that was already there by his bed — because he is living in a society where even the rich behind the gated high walls can’t be safe. That’s the society we’re running toward. There is no other way. And that’s what we need to both realize ourselves but also make others realize — that if you don’t complement civil rights with social rights we’re all dead in the end. That’s the paradigm change that our generation hasn’t learned. We’re still fighting the democracy war, the free speech war, the anti-Semitism and anti-Roma war. But the war today is not about civil liberties. Yes, civil liberties are threatened. But the war we have to fight is the social war.

I’m curious about anti-Semitism, because that isn’t connected to inequality issues. Or is it? Will this approach deal with rising levels of anti-Semitism?

I haven’t thought about that. But now that I think about it, it is an inequality issue, but from the other side. Those who are on the lower end of the ladder look up and say, “Who’s to blame for the situation we’re in?” Traditionally that’s either the EU, the card Orban plays, or it’s the Jews or the elite, which is a code name for the Jews. I don’t think that if inequality gets smaller, anti-Semitism will go away. It won’t. But I’m pretty sure that much of it would. And people who fall prey to the compelling emotional argument of Jobbik wouldn’t even listen if they didn’t witness the growing inequality in which they live, and the hopelessness. Inequality is not only a current problem. It takes away hope. It takes away the future. If your future is taken away, then there must be a reason. And if there is a reason, there must be someone to blame — and that must be those people up there.

Why do you think Fidesz — and society in general, since so much of society has supported Fidesz — has moved off in this nationalist or populist direction instead of in your direction, recognizing that this is an inequality question?

There are three reasons. First, Fidesz didn’t win the elections. It was the Socialists who lost the elections, and rightly so.

Because of the corruption issue?

Because of bad governance, and corruption is part of that. Corruption matters only if they screw up. If my life doesn’t get better, and these guys are stealing, that’s the reason why I’m not better off. If I’m better off, then I don’t care so much.

Obviously Fidesz having a 2/3 majority in parliament matters. But it matters only if you are ready to use that power, and Fidesz was definitely ready to use that power, not only legally or judicially but politically and from the point of view of communications. Fidesz controls all the media platforms. If I have enough media power, I can convince you that there is life on Mars and that there are UFOs flying around every night! Communications in the 21st century is not communications per se. It’s a system in which stakeholders move in one direction. That’s the type of communications Fidesz has mastered.

Finally, the progressive alternative is not there. No one told people here in Hungary about an alternative route. And whoever did tell them was not credible. People were not ready to listen to them. It has nothing to do with the Hungarian soul. It has nothing to do with Hungarian history. It’s just a situation in which this side screwed up and that side was ruthless enough to use everything in their hands and more.

To be honest, they have destroyed everyone, except the governor of the national bank. He was the only one who said, “Let’s fight,” and we won that war. A journalist friend of mine, one year after I got there, called me up and said, “Your governor needs to resign. Because you won’t be able to handle it and you’ll end up in prison.” I said, “Ok, let’s make a bet. I’ll put up one month of salary and you put up one month of yours. And then let’s talk in one year.” It was quite a lot of money for a journalist. And I won. Even our friends didn’t believe me. Even the people in the bank didn’t believe me. The tradition in this country is what I told you about my parents’ attitude: don’t stick your head up because you’ll lose and because they’re more powerful than you are. I don’t believe that. If you believe what you believe, then you have to fight. If you are clever, people will come and fight behind you, and you can win any war you want to win.

You’ve been involved in media. You created Index. How can you get around Fidesz control of the media?

On the one hand, you can’t. On the other, it’s a long-term strategy. You have to be there and talk to people. It’s tedious but actually it’s much more rewarding. You just have to do it right, and many people do it right. Yes, there is media that is all-powerful, but it is distrusted, as it is all over the world. To establish yourself as a credible game changer, you have to do more work but maybe at some point that credibility will counteract the reach of the media. People are thirsty to hear normal talk. They’re thirsty to hear an explanation, a vision, something to help them make sense of what’s going on. This isn’t Fidesz or politics. This is about their life and what they need to do and how. And you have to talk to them. It’s tedious, tiring, all-consuming. But it’s actually quite rewarding.

Two weeks ago I took my wife to one of my town hall meetings. She was thrilled. She’s a lawyer. She used to be chairwoman of the national telecommunications authority. She’s not an everyday political animal like I am. We were driving home and she said she never would have expected this.

What was unexpected for her?

The turnout. The comments, which were intellectually sound. It wasn’t idiots raising their hands, but people who have real questions and expected real answers. There was a readiness to listen to a politician. If you listen to the TV, no one wants to listen to politicians, because they are hated. No, you just have to be there. My wife originally wasn’t very happy for me to enter politics.

Like your father.

Yes, but for different reasons. This was the night when I saw her approval. It’s worthwhile doing it. And you can do it if you have the willpower.

Are you running on a list or for a particular district?

For a constituency. Fidesz changed all this. There was huge gerrymandering. They cut the number of MPs in half. You have 106 constituencies, 70-80,000 people in each, and one national list for each party, which can have 27 constituencies. You don’t vote for the national list. Both winners and losers get this compensation. If we two run against each other and you get 30,000 and I get 20,000 — my 20,000 goes to the list but also your 9,999 because that was what you needed for the victory. It’s a tricky system. It pulls the popular vote and the parliamentary result far apart. It’s not winner take all but it’s also not a proportional system.

Your constituency is in Pest?

I didn’t want to run in Budapest. I’m running in Pest County around Budapest. I chose a constituency that’s mixed. It always goes with the tides. It has four cities and 19 villages. It also has Tatarszentgyorgy, where one of the Roma killings took place. The cities are 30-50 kilometers from Budapest, so they are within commuting distance. It has Budapest problems, but it’s also rural. It’s a kind of a mini-Hungary. I’m running there because I want to know what makes the people tick.

Is there an official start to the electoral campaign?

Yes, 72 days before the elections. You have to collect signatures. You become an official candidate only if you can submit the number of signatures required. But everyone is obviously campaigning way before that, as I do.

Your town halls go from place to place

I do a town hall each month in a different city. It’s not worth doing them in the villages. I also meet with people in the cities and villages: opinion leaders, entrepreneurs, those kind of people.

I’ve talked with business people in other countries in the region. The business climate in Bulgaria, for intense, is very challenging. Partly  it’s because of corruption and the lack of transparency.

Yes, I had two companies in Bulgaria.

I’m curious about your experience here in Hungary, when you did Index and the corporate responsibility work. What major problems did you encounter in setting up a business and becoming successful? And were those problems specific to Hungary, to the region as a whole, or just ordinary start-up problems anywhere?

There are three interconnected but different problems. One, there’s a huge gap between multinational companies and what’s called small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is not a size issue. This is a process issue. If it were in Denmark, my advisory company’s client portfolio would be 70 percent SME, because the MzcKenzies and PWCs would take the cream. The other 30 percent would be work from multinationals. But actually our portfolio is 100 percent multinationals. We have only the first generation of entrepreneurs here, and the majority of them don’t have the urge to acquire the multinational skill set. They’ve been successful, and success is very hard to beat. So, there is a huge gap between multinationals and SMEs culturally and business process-wise and quality-wise. However much we talk about how good it would be for multinationals to come here — because then you would have SMEs as suppliers – that doesn’t happen. Especially in manufacturing, the multinationals bring with them their own suppliers: because Hungarians can’t provide the quality or the quantities needed, because they don’t have the skill set. It’s not a capitalization issue. It’s a first generation issue.

Second, the level of education. Decision makers and CEO-level business people don’t have the education needed in a 21st-century business environment. Imagine someone in our age bracket, or a little older, who is now a CEO in a Hungarian company. When did he or she go to school? In the 1970s: a totally different world. He or she got their work experience in the 1980s: a totally different world. They got their first leadership experience in the early 1990s: a totally different world. And their skill set is so aged that he or she doesn’t look ahead. All the skills we’re trying to instill, all the skills we bring, are not needed. We need another generation. We need the people who are now in their thirties and who have gotten their formal or practical education to come back to Hungary, get the kind of skill set that a progressive advisory service like ourselves provides, and lead.

The third problem is corruption. It’s not really financial corruption. It’s again inequality. Inequality hurts on all levels. We’ve talked about inequality at the bottom level. We’ve talked about Pistorius and inequality at the top. But inequality hurts in the middle too. You stick with what you have because you’re extremely frightened that you’ll fall down. This is against innovation, against progress, against brave decisions. There is an even higher level of intellectual corruption, not only in business but in politics and society. That’s also a result of inequality because people are not looking at tomorrow but at today and frightened that tomorrow will bring much less than today. In that case, people will use all the glue they have to stick their ass to the chair they’re sitting in.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called Fear of Falling about the feelings of fragility in the middle class in the United States.

Probably it’s the same and worse here. Since I’m in business or disciplines that are very future-oriented, be it corporate responsibility or reputation management or community-based brand management, we don’t have that much business. Obviously the crisis didn’t help. In a crisis they buy more glue.

When you think back to your perspectives of the 1990s, have you changed substantially? You mentioned your shift from a liberal, human rights centered approach to a more Left, social justice-based approach. Are there other ways you’d characterize your evolution?

I got older. I have a family. In the early years, I did everything for myself. I believed in myself. I wanted to be true to myself. I wanted to have an impact. Once you have kids, you do a lot of these things for your kids and for the future. That covers a lot of personal and social responsibility — you think about the life your children will live. As part of the elite, you have a responsibility to foster that change. This is not solitary activity any more. If you fight for yourself only, you can allow yourself the privilege of not caring about anyone else. If you fail, you fail; if you win, you win. It’s also true that it’s not exactly a life my children chose to live. Am I 100 percent sure that it’s good for my daughters that we live the life we live? Will they be called “dirty Jew” in school and not because of them but because of me?

If you had a less prominent public position…

Then it wouldn’t happen. Do I want my daughters to see my poster with Stars of David all over it? And that’s the smallest thing. Just yesterday, a pundit called me an idiot. Their grandfather told them that their daddy has been called an idiot. What do they think? That’s a problem in itself. You have to chew on it.

Everyone says that things are bad and someone needs to change it. Everyone says, someone else should do this. Obviously this puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of people like me who have been around for the last 25 years, learned the trade, been in politics, know the tricks. If you want to play soccer, you need to know how to do it. Yes, it’s messy. You learn, you practice, and then you become good. But that puts a lot of responsibility on you, and not anyone else, to do it.

As a political consultant, everyone wants to work with you. They’re happy to work with you. In politics, you are always alone, and they are happy to see you fail. I don’t know if I want to go through with this. But I feel like I have to experience this. Twenty years ago, when you told friends or acquaintances that you were in politics and you wanted to change the world, they’d say, “Wow!” Today, you’re an idiot. That’s kind of sad.

When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed, or not changed in Hungary since then until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale form 1 to 10 with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

3

Same scale, same period of time, but your own personal life?

10

Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Hungary over the next 2-3 years, how would you evaluate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

5

Budapest, May 7, 2013

Interview (1990)

Robert Braun created the Raoul Wallenberg Association several years ago to address minority issues in Hungary: Gypsies, Jews, Romanians and so on. Recently the Association split into two sections: a movement organization and a lobby/thinktank.

First, please describe the work that you do and any recent changes.

I’m working for the Wallenberg Association but there is a major change in the activities that we are undertaking now. Basically, the group split up along lines of activity. The aims and the theories we concentrate on have not changed. Before the situation was so different. There were alternative groups, the Wallenberg Association being one of them (“alternative” meaning non-party, unauthorized, not being a member of the establishment). And of course, each and every alternative group was opposing the current system and the different policies that the political establishment was undertaking. In a situation in which there are free elections and there is a government and a parliament, the ways of achieving the goals that we were trying to achieve before, in my opinion, had to be changed. Before, the Wallenberg Association was a movement, if you understand what a movement is – it was organized from bottom to top, it was democratic, initiatives were coming from the members. This was important because outside the movement it was totally different.

What is the membership of the Association?

We have about 330 members. But what we and some of our friends thought is that there is an immense need for those practices that the Western (the word is euphemistic – those countries in which parliamentary practices are established) human rights organizations and institutions are using in order to achieve their goals: like lobbying in the parliament, like issuing different professional reports. The only way we could work before was when we found a problem that we thought was a problem, we brought it up with the press. We issued a statement in which we said that “this is not good as it is,” and we hoped it would go through the press. As time was evolving, more and more statements went through the press. And then nothing basically happened. People heard about us, heard about the name. But we could not really force – either the government or the parliament – to do what we wanted them to do.

Could you give some examples of these statements?

We made statements on anti-Semitism. If there was an anti-Semitic event then we issued a statement that it was bad. Or there was no mentioning of the Gypsies murdered during the Holocaust so we issued a statement calling for urgent recognition of Gypsies killed during the Holocaust. These first times nothing happened afterwards. The second phase in 1989, we issued a statement for the Hungarian parliament to hold a meeting to recognize Hungarian Jewry as part of the nation, since in 1944 the parliament then took the Jews out of the nation and they were killed in Auschwitz. So, the parliament held a meeting in 1989, a kind of commemoration.

The most important even that we did was in mid-year 1989. The local council of Miskolc wanted to renovate the downtown area in which many Gypsies were living. And the renovation meant that the Gypsies would be taken out of the town and a ghetto—they never said it would be a ghetto—but a separate living quarter would be set up for the Gypsies. They never stated that they were Gypsies but it was obvious that they meant Gypsies. And then we issued several statements. We held press conferences. We made a fact-finding mission. Finally, the local council of Miskolc reversed the decision and, I don’t know what happened afterwards. But the ghetto was never built and the Gypsies I hope are still living in the downtown area.

So, what were doing now, what we’re trying to do: let the movement do whatever it wants. So, in other words, let those 330 people have forums, have different speeches. Last time, after the attacks against various Jewish cemeteries in France and across Europe, the movement part of the organization held a so-called standing commemoration at the Raoul Wallenberg statue at which all the parties, the government, the prime minister, the president, writers, etc were standing there for two minutes in silent commemoration, detesting anti-Semitism. This is an important event although I have problems with it because I think it establishes symbols that are basically lies. Because if you say that you are not an anti0Semite and since anti0Semitism is not a notion that you can openly admit after the Holocaust, very few people who are in their right minds would admit that they are anti-Semites. Although if you were speaking to him or her it would be obvious. So, different kinds of people like from the Democratic Forum, a party that used very severe anti-Semitic propaganda in its campaign, could stand there and say, “We, just like the Jewish rabbis beside us, detest anti-Semitism.” And then the next moment they can do whatever they want.

Or now there is a debate going on concerning religious education in Hungarian schools. And the movement part organized talks with all relevant organizations an then issued a common statement. What this group is planning to do –called the Raoul Wallenberg Association Minority Rights Group – is trying to bring in new methods which non-governmental organizations around the world use: like lobbying which is what we were doing today, which is why I was late. We, for instance, wrote a study with experts (I know it is difficult for you to understand when we say how new and interesting these things are – they’re obvious to you). Before it was us who gave interviews, but I think it is more important to have experts writing on different issues. So, for instance, we asked a sociologist to write a study on the mass media campaign during the election. That’s why I can say explicitly that the Democratic Forum used anti-Semitic propaganda even though they said they would never do such a thing and that it was the Alliance of Free Democrats that spread all these rumors around. So, in this study, we proved that they used anti-Semitic propaganda.

Could you give some examples?

First of all, they had a bi-weekly journal called Hungarian Forum (it’s important that they left the “Democratic” out!), which form one word to the last had the aim to discredit the Alliance of Free Democrats. And they only way that they could do this was to draw a line between the leaders of the Alliance being Jewish and their political philosophy. They never ever wrote down the word “Jew” or “Jewish.” They used beautiful sentences and phrases, for instance. One of the alliance of Free Democrats gave a radio interview and in a political article about this interview (in the Hungarian Forum) it was said that this guy “who raises the intonation of his sentences so curiously…”

Were the traditional words and phrases used such as “cosmopolitan”?

They did not use any new methods of attacking Jews. They simply recycled the same old traditional anti-Semitic slogans those who hold mass media in their hands, who only care for money. One of the Democratic Forum leaders who is in parliament, Mr. Csurka, the editor-in-chief of Hungarian Forum, gave a radio interview one morning in which he spoke of a “dwarf minority which is controlling mass media and Hungarian political life” and that there is a direct line from Gyork (the cultural leader of the Communist Party – Jewish) to Georg Lukacs (Jewish) to the leaders of the Alliance of Free Democrats (Jewish) to the anchorman of the 8 o’clock news (Jewish). So there was a list of people from all walks of life – the philosophers of the alliance of Free Democrats who were thrown out of the country by the cultural leader of the Party! The only common element was that they were all Jewish – and they were the “dwarf minority.”

When did you publish the study?

It was published recently in one of the journals called Hiyay two weeks ago. Well, we have lots of financial problems. We would like to make a much wider study, from the posters to the TV shows, etc. But we simply didn’t have the money.

The other issue is with the religious education. Three, four weeks ago, the minister of education and culture agreed with seven churches that there is going to be optional religious education but it will be financed by state money, the priests responsible for the religious education will be members of the teachers’ board, and the results of the education will be mentioned in the end of year report of the students. These were the three most important points – and they were absurd. So the movement part of the organization issued a statement: “this is bad.” It was ten lines. What we did was to issue a ten-page expert study on church and state in the Hungarian liberal tradition written by a historian on the evolution of Hungarian law and legal tradition in which there is a very strong separation of church and state. The other was on the constitutionality of the decision in which the professor who wrote the study said that it was not constitutional. In other words, the agreement between the churches and the ministry is not legal. At the moment, it is a legal step but against the constitution.

We sent this study to the six parliamentary parties, the three parliamentary committees, to the minister of education. Then, this week, we are lobbying with the six parties, asking them about their opinion, giving our opinion, discussing what to do with those parties with whom we agree and asking about what the parties we don’t agree with are going to do. On Saturday, the press announced that the minister of education signed another agreement with 35 churches in which all the relevant points we raised are solved. So, the education will not be financed by the sate, the priests will not be members of the board, and it won’t be mentioned in the report. So, we are happy: probably these reports we wrote had a part in this.

What we will do next is: In late September, early October we are going to send out a fact-finding mission to two schools in cities. Two schools in smaller towns and two schools in villages and try to see what the implementation is. Because what we saw in this big social debate is that there are priests who are very aggressive (actually the archbishop of this country was very aggressive about having religious education) and there were liberals who were quite aggressive about not having it. There were teachers who said that it was absurd, etc. It’s easy now – no school. So we shall see in late September what will happen. And we will present this to the six parties because we were told that the Alliance of Free Democrats, which handed in an alteration of the law concerning the three items I mentioned, will take back the position for alteration and we’ll try to have it put into the law of education which will be debated sometime in September or October.

In terms of lobbying, to my knowledge, no other non-governmental group does this except maybe the Helsinki Commission (but that’s not a Hungarian group – it’s a branch of an international organization and they don’t have much to do since Hungary fulfills all the requirements of the Helsinki process). It’s not just important from the point of view of the non0gveronemntal group. It’s important from the parliament side. Today, we had negotiated wit the president of the educational subcommittee form the Democratic forum and she was very aggressive. She said, “Why should I debate this with you? I’m going to express my opinion in the parliamentary debate.” And I told her that it was very important to express her opinion to other parties but that we are not a party. And I told her that even non-governmental organizations try to take part in the parliamentary process. She was upset: “There are the parties. They are good enough to make decisions.”

So, we lobby and we ask experts to write studies. This last task is important. You know in a new democracy and new free press in which everything can be written down and every opinion expressed, there is no measurement of what is right and wrong. This is a very paternalistic country. There are lots of presidents and everyone is a president or first secretary. If you introduce yourself as “Robert Braun,” nobody will listen. If you say, “Robert Braun, president of the Raoul Wallenberg Association” then all doors are open. This is a country in which mass media controls things by letting certain people in and leaving other people out.

In 1988 and 1989 when the Wallenberg Association was one of the most important alternative groups, I was on TV every second day. If I wanted to talk to the prime minister on the phone, I could, because they knew my voice. Which is stupid because I could say anything! We’re young enough to understand that it is not ourselves that is important. We do understand that many people were not given the possibility for a career they wanted – being a president of a group, being on TV, expressing an opinion. For us – well, for myself at least – being a university researcher at 25 and begin a young person in a country in which young people are in a good position – guilt-free, etc, like Fidesz (another curious group which probably doesn’t appear in the West: having parliamentary representatives ta the age of 22)—it is important to hear our voices on the radio – but it is much more important to hear our views from the mouths or studies of experts who have the same opinion but who have professional background and argumentation. So, it was easy to say that religious education was anti-constitutional, but it was important to have a four-page argument by one of the best constitutional lawyers in the country. Because that’s an argument with which it was difficult to argue.

Could you describe some other campaigns?”

I only want campaigns to be part of our activity. I think it is important for us to establish a permanent ongoing way of influencing politics, influencing the parliament with the help of yearly and monthly reports. We are planning to have a monthly press bibliography on minority issues, a bi-monthly report on the analysis of different articles in the five major dailies, a quarterly on general press and how minorities are presented, a yearly or half-yearly report on legal, mass media, education on the situation or minorities in Hungary. This would be unbiased opinion that people both within and outside the country can read – not a permanent legal advice service for different discrimination – to Gypsies mainly – at the workplace, for instance, if someone is fired. We would like to review the history and literature from the respect of minorities: what is the picture painted of minorities? Is minority literature represented in the textbooks? If someone has a four-year high school education would he ever learn about Yiddish writers or Gypsy writers or other minority writers who wrote in their own language?

We want to have a service that is permanent, based on expertise and not on being signed by a president. But it is a question of money.

Could you describe the split in the organization?

Most of the founders of the Association were young and radical and most of the founders are with us, the minority Rights group. The newcomers, the generation between 30 and 60, are in the movement, sitting down and having soft talk.

Is there a hierarchy of discrimination in Hungary?

The real national minorities – the Germans, the Slovaks, the Romanians – have of course experienced the pressures of forced assimilation. But every since the 1970s they felt under a kind of policy which said that the better we treat our minorities, the better the Hungarian minorities will be treated in those countries. So they show how good the Hungarian government is to ethnic Romanians in order to ask the Romanian government for special collective rights for Hungarians there. Of course, we would exaggerate if we would say that these minorities were given all their possibilities with respect to schools, the use of mother tongue, having their own books. Cultural assimilation was severe. The worse treated of course were the Gypsies. There was a severe anti-Gypsy policy that entailed forced assimilation. There was a separate Gypsy branch at the police. They were speaking of Gypsy crime and Gypsy criminals. And other measures like the splitting of towns. In Hungary, in the 1970s there was a policy in which they centralized regions – if there were five tiny villages they established a center where they concentrated the school, the church, etc, which meant that the small villages died. Hungarians moved to the central village cities and Gypsies were forced to leave. This happens in the United States too. Blacks or Mexicans move in, prices go down. So the Gypsies move in to dead villages – they did not find jobs. They were forced to move into the cities were they formed an urban proletariat which was a hotbed for crime. It was a vicious circle.

With Jews, it was very difficult. Religious Jews wee repressed just like religious Catholics. Cultural anti-Semites and anti-Zionism was underway in the 1950s. In the 1960s, unlike in the so-called socialist countries, there were no direct anti-Zionist campaigns, no anti-Zionist League as in the USSR or GDR. But it was a taboo, one of the strongest in the press.

I heard that Budapest has the largest Jewish population of any European city. Is this true? And has there been a renaissance of Jewish culture and religion since the change?

Of the 80,000 Jews living in Hungary, 79,000 live in Budapest. Yes, there has been a revival of Jewish culture with the loosening up of the old rules. People could more openly admit that they were Jewish. And now there is a Jewish journal called “Past and Future” which is of very high standard. There is even a Hungarian-Jewish Cultural Association with 3,000 members organizing different events. And in the fall, there will be a  12 class Jewish secular school patterned on the Ort example. And of course there is a revival of Jewish religion. There is a department of Hebrew and Jewish studies at the Faculty of Art of the University of Budapest – which is where I do my research. Many people go to synagogue. Last Rosh Hashanah at the Budapest synagogue – the second largest in the world by the way with 5,000 seats – it was absolutely filled.

Anti-Gypsy feeling is strong everywhere – GDR, Poland, Czechoslovakia. In fact, it seems that only Gypsies stand outside the consensus. How strong is anti-Gypsy feeling in Hungary?

Very. In fact, our fear at the present is not anti-Semitism because there is no consensus about anti-Semitism and anti-Semites are a minority in the country. But as you said there is a “wonderful” national consensus in Hungary around anti-Gypsy feeling. I think even a political ideology could be based on that. The situation of Hungarian Gypsies is threatened. Last year, I read a study conducted by the ministry of construction in which they proposed – it was a secret study – a kind of reservation in the north for the Gypsies where they could work on their traditional areas like hut-building and wooden dish-cutting. Very frightening!

It is obvious that in a country which is declining economically and in which new elections are not fulfilling the popular requirements of the population, all those aggressive sentiments will be directed against the most threatened groups – and the group that no one is willing to defend is the Gypsies. And the Hungarian Gypsies are in a very bad situation from the inside as well. It is not one Gypsy community but three: one speaks Romanian, one speaks Hungarian, and one speaks Gypsy language. These are three national entities and they are against each other. In the Gypsy policy working in the last ten years, the state established at least 13 groups for defending Gypsies and these are fighting against each other for being the one and only representative. The point of view of the population is, what can we di if the Gypsies themselves don’t understand each other? Once there was a TV show in which a very good and very positive-thinking reporter tried to make consensus between the representatives of the 13 groups and they nearly killed each other! Among the 13 there is only one which is democratic and which is organized from below, organized by Gypsy intellectuals. All the other 12 have big money from the government and all directed against this only democratic one.

Was there Gypsy participation in the elections?

There was a Gypsy Social Democratic party that was aligned with the Social Democratic Party – the results you know. Again it was a real problem: I never could understand the different between a Gypsy Social Democrat and a Social Democrat. There was another party that called itself the Party of New Hungarians, which was made by a Gypsy who was a secret police agent. It was obviously a provocation. With this name – “New Hungarian Party” – if I were a Hungarian with just a little anti-Gypsy feeling, I would have run out onto the street and tried to kill this guy! How dare he call himself a new Hungarian! What we and I personally was hoping was that all the parties would have Gypsy representatives or candidates. Only the Alliance of Free Democrats had such candidates. There are two sitting in Parliament and they are very good guys.

Are there schools that teach in the native languages?

There are some schools that teach the mother tongue of the local minorities. But to my knowledge there are no schools that teach for instance mathematics in the mother tongue. Literature or history would be taught n the mother tongue but not the common subjects. There used to be a Gypsy faculty at the university but it ceased to exist. It lasted for one year, one and 1.5 years. There is a new gypsy magazine called Phralipe, which means “friendship” which is also the name of the democratic organization. But it is in Hungarian – there are no Gypsy-language newspapers or books in print. I was working for Radio Free Europe and there was a rumor that the offices in Budapest would close and they would close the astern European edition. It was my idea that Radio Free Europe could give the local offices for the use of minorities in Hungary in which all minorities would get a day or several hours to do whatever it wants to do. But I have been since told that they are not thinking of closing the Budapest office. No one listens to Radio Free Europe any more – they all listen to Hungarian stations.

Another problem for minority groups like ours is the lack of financial resources. It is very difficult to persuade foreign foundations to pay for such distant and unknown groups.

Where do you get your money now?

Basically, from nowhere. We got one grant from the Soros Foundation – they seem to finance everything in Hungary! – and the rest comes from our pockets. Now, we don’t have any money. We don’t have an office. We have a Xerox machine from Soros and that’s about all.

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