as told by a political scientist and former resident
A growing trend of authoritarianism in certain Central and Eastern European countries has been quietly stirring, with Hungary notably rubbing shoulders with Turkish president Erdogan and Russian president Putin. Though it can be easy to forget, countries, even the strongest of them, are made of people, and the personal impacts of a government’s authoritarian turn are far from trivial for the people being governed.
To understand the personal impacts that Hungary’s authoritarian turn has on its residents, I spoke to Kristin Makszin, an assistant professor of political economy at Leiden University College The Hague.
Kristin studied for her Master’s in Hungary, and started a family there, but realized through her political research that the country was headed in a direction that she was unwilling to support. Kristin found that the government increasingly interfered with her life, first by publicly smearing George Soros, a wealthy Hungarian who helped fund the Central European University where she worked, and then by dictating which areas of research the Scientific Institute, her other place of employment, could delve into.
Post WW2, Hungary was under Soviet rule until the 1956 revolution, which lead to an increased welfare state and liberalising reforms. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the transition to democracy began, and talks of EU accession made Hungary a promising case for post-communist democratisation. After joining the EU, however, the country took an authoritarian turn that continues today.
Although she was eager to tell me about her research in the region, I also wanted to hear about her personal experiences there. I asked her about some lessons she learned from life in Hungary.
Kristin had planned to settle in Hungary after marrying a Hungarian and having children there. She worked two jobs, was interested in her research and the research community, and spoke Hungarian. Although she was happy to settle in the small town outside of Budapest where her family lived, push factors kept piling up until the family decided to leave Hungary. To understand what drove that decision, I asked her why she left.
If I really want to be blunt, it was the government
The Central European University (CEU), where Kristin taught and did her PhD, was founded and funded by George Soros, a highly controversial figure in Hungarian politics. He was born in Hungary but left at 17, and went on to become a global philanthropist. Soros funded the Open Society Foundation, which supports the universal fight for freedom of expression, accountable government, and societal promotion of justice and equality.
Soros’ organisations are often attacked by less-than-democratic governments, and when Kristin started to notice that the CEU was being threatened by the Hungarian government, it hit her hard. “That did hit me personally, because I know it from the inside. I know it’s not some liberal Trojan Horse with Soros hiding behind it. There’s really free academic research going on there” she said, and continued “when that started becoming the major point of attack, it did affect me”.
The impact of the Hungarian government’s campaign against Soros leaked into Kristin’s professional and personal life, even affecting her children.
Kristin rejects the ideas that Hungary’s authoritarian turn was inevitable, and that a wave of populism is sweeping the world. She doesn’t buy the international contagion argument, but acknowledges that the pattern of changes in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region must be indicative of something going on. She offers her own explanation of what sparked these changes in CEE democracy.
In contrast to her current views, Kristin was actually hopeful about Hungary’s democratic future in the early 2010’s, but soon realized that the country was on a downward trajectory away from democracy. Listen below to hear her talk about the steps Hungary took towards authoritarianism.
Much of the public fear and anxiety brewing over Hungary’s authoritarian turn stems from concern over Russia’s influence in the region.
The idea that EU members like Hungary could be taking notes from, or even collaborating with, authoritarian powerhouses like Russia and Turkey haunts many proponents of the EU. To hear an informed opinion on the topic, I turned to Kristin.
With clear evidence of Hungary’s authoritarian turn, the role of the EU becomes questionable. From Kristin’s perspective, the EU becomes less influential over its members as it enlarges. “I think that by trying to overreach what was feasible, that put some cracks in the EU, so I’m not super optimistic about the EU as an institution” she said.
In the audio file below, you can hear Kristin talk about the future of the EU, considering the growing power of the authoritarian-turning member states.
Though Kristin does not believe that Hungary’s authoritarian trend spells the inevitable collapse of European democracy, she does warn that “if Hungary is the future of the EU, I’m not sure that’s an EU we want around”.