Dr Kelly Hignett is an expert in communist and post-communist Eastern European affairs, a historian and lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK and author of her own blog “The View East”.
It’s now 25 years since the transitions of 1989. Has the “post-communist era” truly been concluded, not just here in Hungary but all across Central and Eastern Europe?
I think in some ways yes, and in other ways no. There has been a lot of change since the collapse of communism but we can see from current events that the communist era and its legacy still have a big impact. Ukraine and the Euromaidan movement making gestures to become more integrated with Europe has elicited quite a dramatic response from Russia, and it’s also had a knock-on effect in Eastern Europe. It’s quite interesting to see the different responses from the post-communist states; in the Baltics they have been much more willing to impose sanctions on Russia and defend Ukrainian freedom, while in some of the other post-communist countries they’ve been much more wary of getting involved.
Budapest has been hugely regenerated since 1989 and Hungary as a country has been integrated into NATO and the EU. Does the tag of “post-communist” really reflect this country in contemporary times?
It’s interesting because when you’re walking round the city you can still see the physical legacy of that time, but the effect it still has on the people is something that is less pronounced. Yesterday for example, at the Open Society Archives and the Europeana Project they gather people’s memories and copy important images that are linked to 1989, and I was made more aware of the psychological impact it’s had. The team there tell me that it has been very quiet, that some people are not willing to really talk about their experiences of ‘89; some of them don’t feel that a long enough time has passed, or they are just worried of speaking out about their experiences. There are a lot of events planned to mark the fall of communism, not just here but across Central and Eastern Europe, and it seems like it’s a good time for these countries to reflect and see just how far they’ve come. So when it comes to the label of “post-communist” I think people in the former Eastern bloc disagree with it because they feel that it was a system that was very much imposed upon them, and don’t really want the relatively brief period in their history to be the first thing people think of when they talk about their country.
There has been a lot of media attention on Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s recent proclamation that he wishes to build an “illiberal state” in Hungary. What’s your opinion on this?
The prime minister is a very interesting figure. The speech he made was quite widely circulated on the internet and there was a lot of discussion about it, and personally I think it is quite worrying that the leader of any country would come out and proclaim they wanted to build an illiberal state. Considering the situation with Ukraine and Russia, it is not surprising that in that context of current events there has been a lot of concern about that speech and Orbán’s intentions. There have been a lot of reports comparing him to [Russian President] Putin and suggesting he wants to build the same type of regime in Hungary that they have in Russia, but I feel this is overstating his intentions and his capabilities. I don’t think that Orbán is another Putin and I don’t think the system that has evolved in Russia could exist in Hungary today.
There was also the suggestion that the liberal model had failed to accept the Hungarian minorities in bordering countries as part of the wider Hungarian nation. As a scholar of this region, what impact has the fact that such a high number of Hungarians live outside of the country had on Hungary’s European relations?
It is an important factor. Historically Central and Eastern Europe has been much more of a “patchwork” of ethnicity compared to the West and borders have changed. So there is the question being discussed in Europe: Is Orbán trying to encourage the idea of a greater Hungarian nationalism that includes those Hungarians beyond the borders, and how far will this idea go? Of course, there is the issue of internal politics; Orbán has to say these things to avoid losing votes to parties even further on the right, so it’s a political balancing act trying to address these issues and popular concerns without alienating neighbouring countries.
Hungary’s government, which was recently re-elected in a second landslide, has been at odds with the European Union on several occasions. In your opinion why is there this schism between Hungarian self-determination and European integration?
In some ways the process of evolution within the EU can be linked to the collapse of communism and the massive expansion of the European project, which I think is a positive thing. It was a good thing that the EU expanded and the former Eastern bloc joined, bringing benefits to all the member states, but it’s meant that the EU has become a bit of an unwieldy beast too, and it’s difficult because individual countries have their own objectives and issues within the union. In the UK for example, there is a large-scale feeling of “eurosceptism” which, in part, has been whipped up by certain sections of the media. The present Conservative government has pledged to hold a referendum on membership by 2017, so it will be interesting to see if the UK leaves and if others follow, or if other EU countries such as Hungary try to renegotiate their own membership. Some countries may even hold Europe to ransom and say “if you don’t reform certain aspects then we’re going to withdraw”. There does need to be change with the EU because it’s become very different to what was originally conceived as a free trade area primarily designed to be an economic union. The massive expansion and the huge rise in EU population (with new states joining) means that there are parts that do need reforming. The difficulty is how to generate a pan-European consensus.