FASoS lecturer Ferenc Laczo contributes to book Brave New Hungary

In Budapest, Ferenc Laczo witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain and, with it, communism in Eastern Europe. But over the last nine years, he has watched with increasing concern how Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán has chipped away at the young democracy and set a course towards autocracy. The leader of the domineering Fidesz party is viewed in Europe as highly controversial and potentially even a threat to the European Union. Nonetheless, the assistant professor in European History at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) believes the tide is turning, slowly but surely. “People in Hungary are daring to talk about politics again.”

Ferenc Laczo fears brain drain in Hungary

The news barely filled a column in the Dutch newspapers, but in Hungary the opposition was celebrating after the mayoral elections in early October. In the larger cities, including the capital Budapest, the incumbent Fidesz candidates were voted out. “It was quite unexpected,” says Ferenc Laczo in the coffee room at FASoS, where he has taught Eastern European history since 2015. “Orbán has been gradually expanding his power since he took office in 2010. He controls almost all the media. He’s especially popular in more rural areas, where people have less access to different sources of information and are generally less well-educated than in urban areas.”

In the cities, resistance is growing; people are talking about politics again. “In recent years they had become reluctant again to speak out. Afraid of the power of the state. It’s been a long time since Fidesz lost an election, but now the opposition is re-emerging as a serious contender. Fewer and fewer people seem to agree with the course the government is taking, the complete rejection of refugees and the increasing power and influence of the government when it comes to institutions like universities and research institutes. There’s a growing awareness in the cities that Hungary is headed for a new crisis. In the last ten years, close to a million young, mostly highly educated people have left the country, seeking a better future. That’s close to 10 percent of the total population, a huge brain drain. The same is happening in Romania and Bulgaria, so this will have serious consequences for the region. People realise that something needs to change.”

Ferenc Laczo (1982) studied at the Central European University in his hometown of Budapest, at two German universities and in Utrecht. After obtaining his PhD back in Budapest, he left the country again, and, via research projects and teaching in Basel and Jena, ended up in Maastricht. “I was looking for a place where I could teach Eastern European history in a European framework. This was basically uncharted territory in Maastricht, so it was a good match. Western universities tend to focus on developments in the West: in the English-speaking countries and continental Western Europe. This might be understandable on some level, but of the 28 member states of the EU, nearly half were still behind the Iron Curtain 30 years ago. Now they have broad voting rights in the European Council and the European Parliament. Their combined power is greater than people in Western Europe tend to realise. These countries are going to influence the development of the EU, so it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have better insight into their cultures and histories – the ways they have been shaped. I do see increasing interest in Eastern Europe, including here at the faculty. The world is becoming smaller, young people today regularly visit the cities in the East, getting a sense of local cultures and histories. That helps to narrow the gap.”

Brave New Hungary
Within his specialisation, Laczo is the pre-eminent Hungary expert. He receives invitations to take part in debates, is often quoted in the international media and publishes regularly on developments in the country. Recently he wrote a chapter for Brave New Hungary, a forthcoming scholarly book that reviews recent Hungarian history with a view to the future. Laczo’s contribution consists in a critical appraisal of the Fidesz party’s reshaping of the study and interpretation of recent history. During this period, the state has increased its control over myriad institutions and the free press has been virtually silenced. The country has come to be regarded as the black sheep of the EU, not least due to the government’s influence over the judiciary and its vocal rejection of refugees.

Laczo previously kicked the shins of the establishment with his publications on the role of Hungary in the Second World War. “Close to half a million Hungarian Jews died in Auschwitz, and not only the Germans are to blame. Collaborating governments, too, including the Hungarian government, share in the responsibility for the Holocaust. That’s a painful truth that hasn’t yet been processed in Eastern Europe. The strange thing is that the Holocaust largely took place in Eastern Europe—94 percent of the victims came from the former Eastern Bloc—but it’s the West, including the US, that has paid the most attention to processing it, organising commemorations. We’re not there yet. It remains a difficult and painful subject in Hungary.”

The gagging of the press, authoritarian control, brain drain, European isolation—what gave rise to the near-inviolable power of Viktor Orbán? “The recent economic crisis. Everybody knows Greece and Portugal were hit hard, but the blows in Hungary were equally hard. Orbán promised reforms, and because he has a large parliamentary majority he’s been able to change laws, expand his power. The system has been restructured in such a way that Fidesz can hardly lose. And not much has changed for the better. The economy is growing, yes, but that’s mainly thanks to European subsidies. Hungary is one of the largest net earners in the EU.”
So European money bolsters Orbán’s position even as European criticism of him grows? “Yes, it’s paradoxical. As is Hungary’s position in the European Parliament. Fidesz is part of its largest group, the EPP, which means it has real influence despite Orbán’s railing against Europe. That said, the EPP curtailed Fidesz’s power before the last elections, which I take as a sign that its paradoxical success might soon be over. I doubt Orbán will last another 10 years.”

Laczo is happily settled in Maastricht with his wife and their three-year-old son. He typically travels to Budapest twice a year to visit his parents, brother and friends. And to talk about politics? "Absolutely. I was there, as a seven-year-old boy, when communism collapsed in 1989. I don’t remember much about the year 1989, but I do recall the first free elections the year after. They influenced the direction I chose for my studies and later career. Naturally, much has happened and changed in 30 years. Have things really improved? I dare not say. I’ve seen democracy come under pressure, freedom too. But now I feel hopeful that better times are coming.”

By: Jos Cortenraad

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