The Personal Cost of Life in Authoritarian Hungary

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.

Lessons from life in Hungary

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.

Why leave Hungary?

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.

Impact of Hungary’s anti-Soros sentiment
Tracing the start of democratic backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe

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. 

Hungary’s authoritarian turn

Much of the public fear and anxiety brewing over Hungary’s authoritarian turn stems from concern over Russia’s influence in the region. 

Anti-Erdogan protest in Budapest, November 2019
Influence of Russia

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.

Future of the European Union

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”.


A Method to the Madness

It’s Wednesday evening, and you’ve just left work to pick up a few groceries for tonight and the coming days. You don’t have a list, just an idea of what you want to feed yourself or your family and the basic nutrition you should be getting. You walk into your local Albert Heijn and join the seemingly chaotic mass of nightly shoppers. You may think your shopping patterns are practically random, but contrary to popular belief, there is a method to the madness.

The food industry devotes countless hours and resources to manufacturing the ideal supermarket structure to maximize shoppers’ purchases. This is the side of shopping that consumers rarely think of, and the one that grocery store employees focus on. 

One of these employees who operates in the unnoticed realm of strategic shopping is Anton Pluis, a 21 year-old team leader at Albert Heijn who is pictured here. He tells me about the different strategies Albert Heijn uses to guide shoppers’ product choices.

“The positioning of products is really important and a lot of money goes to that”, Anton reveals, “Brands can pay for placements, for example Coca-Cola pays a lot of money to be placed between the frozen foods like pizza and bitterballen, stuff for a party. They pay quite a lot of money for that space because it does increase sales.”

While it may seem trivial to shoppers, product positioning in stores is significant to companies like Coca-Cola.

Even on the box it says the sales are 5 times higher if you put it at the chips aisle than the soda aisle, there’s a real science behind it, it is really thought out.”

Of course, there is more to the story of supermarket food choices than simple store strategies. Nutrition is essential for a healthy life, and since stores can guide shoppers’ choices, I wanted to hear about how shoppers’ food choices affect their nutrition and health.

To shed some light on the nutritional side of the story, I interviewed Bernadette Keogh, a nutritional therapist, in her local Albert Heijn. Click the audio file below to hear her thoughts on the secret to mindful eating: moderation.

Listen: Bernadette on Moderation

Attentive customers may notice that there is even a uniform store layout for all Albert Heijns: shoppers always enter into the fresh produce, then go to the pre-cut vegetables and salads, then the meat and fish, and then the bread. After this comes the dairy section, and then the paths with aisles of food items like cereals, sauces and chips, then the frozen section and finally, closer to the registers, are non-food products such as cleaning supplies.

Again, this layout could be perceived as unimportant, but Anton admits that “beginning with fresh products brings shoppers in the mood to buy, especially the smell of the bread, it makes you hungry and makes you want to buy more stuff.”

Anton reveals another measure employed by Albert Heijn to maximize profit: using your eyes against you. Stores know which products are the most popular and “We put those at the bottom”, Anton says, “then you have another point at eye level that you can influence, so you can put a product that is more expensive or something that you have too much stock of.”

The trick of us putting products in specific places is basically just the quickest way for people who are shopping who don’t care and just buy what is in the discount.

Though no harm is meant by this, these simple methods often result in a benefit for the store, at the cost of the wallet of the inattentive customer. Of course this is expected, and Anton states the obvious fact that stores’ first and foremost priority will always be making money,and I think that’s more than fair.”

Shoppers’ wallets are not the only thing affected by store strategies, their health can also be compromised. Bernadette had some insights as to why food choices are so important, and even how diseases can be prevented by a healthy diet. Listen below to hear her talk about the effects of food choices on health.

Listen: Bernadette on Food and Health

Some strategies used by grocery stores are actually helping consumers make more informed choices, like these sugar indicators at Albert Heijn. They use a range of 3 groups (low, middle, and high) to quickly alert shoppers about the amount of sugar in their chosen products.

This is not only helping shoppers make more informed decisions, but also influencing the products companies sell in stores. Anton tells me “Companies, as soon as the indicators came, started offering alternative products in each range of the sugar indicator.”

However, nutritional therapist Bernadette is not convinced that these sugar indicators are enough to inform shoppers of just how healthy their choices are. Hear what she has to say about this Albert Heijn strategy by clicking the audio file below.

Listen: Bernadette on Sugar Indicators

Introducing these sugar indicators is a great step forward in helping consumers be more aware of the healthiness of their food choices, but customers can also find this information without the indicators.

Overall, Anton encapsulates it quite succinctly when he says “It’s a tool and its useful and its forcing brands to make less sweet items also, but it’s not an innovation, the information was already there.”

While grocery stores like Albert Heijn may employ the use of strategies like deliberate product positioning and calculated layouts to guide shoppers’ product choices, consumers could always access all the nutritional information by checking the labels themselves.

To get some insight into how the average shopper makes their food choices, I walked into my local Albert Heijn and asked some shoppers to answer a few questions about which influencing factors they notice the most.

The photo series below showcases some quotes shoppers gave me about their food choices along with pictures taken inside Albert Heijn.

So the next time you’re on your way home and rush in to join the evening crowd at your local grocery store, see if you catch yourself being drawn to a flashy label at just the right eye level, or notice when you’re buying chips that, hey that coke right next to it might be nice too.

If it’s too overwhelming to think about all those store strategies and unconscious preferences, click below to hear some simple tips from Bernadette to help keep your food choices in line with your health goals.

Listen: Bernadette on Tips for Shoppers

One food choice has been made


Credits: Donald Trung 2018