Hungarian xenophobia

As I was watching József Karsai’s latest performance on today’s Napkelte (Sunrise, a political program of MTV) I suddenly had the urge to write about Hungarian attitudes towards foreigners. I think it was a natural reaction to Karsai’s outburst against the foreign companies who came to Hungary “to destroy this country.” But more about the actual encounter with Karsai a bit later.


First it turns out, according to the latest surveys, that Hungarians are the most xenophobic people in Europe after the Greeks and the Estonians. I am just guessing that in case of Estonia the negative attitude toward foreigners is mostly targeted at those Russians who settled in the Baltic country after 1939. The Greeks? Perhaps it has something to do with the centuries-old hatred of Turks. But why such an intolerance toward foreigners among Hungarians? A first stab at a hypothesis, and I welcome all alternatives because I’m thinking out loud and it may be nonsense. Go back to pre-Trianon Hungary that was itself a multinational country. Post-Trianon Hungary lost its multinational clout but at it became a national state. Today western multinationals demote Hungary to the status of its pre-Trianon “subjects.” 


Back to the everyday, there is the problem of a lack of knowledge about or interest in other people’s way of living or other countries in general. In addition, there is, especially in the older generation, a dislike of capitalism. The combination is lethal when it comes to the attitude toward multinational companies. I shop at two supermarkets, both with good American names and one with a long American tradition. So it was only by coincidence that I found out that one is owned by a Dutch firm and the other has as its major shareholder a German firm. More power to them for trying to navigate the treacherous waters of American supermarkets with their razor-thin margins and Wal-Mart as the 800 pound gorilla in the supermarket space. Hungary doesn’t have the U.S. equivalent of Stop & Shop or A&P. That is, it didn’t have a supermarket chain that was bought out by a foreign company. Rather, foreign chains entered virgin territory. So everybody knows that Auchen is French, Aldi is German, and Tesco is English. Karsai makes sure that the world understands that he is leading a fight not just against wretched capitalists but against foreign capitalists. Every second word he uttered this morning was “multik,” an abbreviation for multinational companies “who came here to ruin this country.” He threatened them a bit: they will find out whom they are facing. He will show them. He has documents. Either they behave decently or “they can go home.” He himself never shops at these supermarkets. He buys good stuff from small Hungarian stores.


Fine. But I suspect that his grocery bill is a lot higher than it would have been had he shopped at Tesco and that the selection of products was a fraction of those available at the supermarkets. By the way, the political divide in the U.S. over supermarkets splits not along domestic/foreign lines but along ma&pa or specialty stores (including the natural food chains)/supermarkets & Wal-Mart. Dedicated leftists support the former, and their grocery bills have to be a lot higher than Karsai’s. I’m content to go to the local supermarkets and to supplement purchases there with the bounty from my vegetable garden.

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New World Order
Guest

Eva
There must be something about how Hungarians answer pollsters questions. On every question concerning almost every topic, Hungarians are consistently among the most negative. Part of this, I believe, is the very unhealthy attitude in Hungary that to be seen as positive or optimisitc means you are naive or worse. Being negative or cynical are rather considered to be savvy.
As well, the real irony about Karsai’s lament is that much more so than any other country in the region Hungarians, in their behaviour, are much less committed to local brands and “made in Hungary” slogans. In Poland there are numerous local brands that have remained and thrived. They exist also in the Cz Republic. In Hungary there are very few. Moreover, when asked individually, many Hungarians say they prefer often to buy foreign brands because they are perceived to be of better quality.
In the end, Karsai is just a small time Hungarian version of Jose Bove.

Christos Moissidis
Guest
I would like to make a small comment of correction… referring to my country’s xenophobia (Greece). You make a mistake when you speak about hatred towards Turks, that probably caused the rise of xenophobia. That is totally irrational. The reasons that causing a huge “quality transformation” to the greek society, and I mark this as a negative thesis, are more complicated that an easy hypothetical question… and we should place the beginning of the problem at early 90’s when the very first refugees from Albania came to stay to Greece. Maybe you know that Greece – as one of the gates of EU – receives a large amount of immigrants and refugees (legal or not) either from Asia, Africa or from the Balkans and former Soviet Union states. Spain, France and Italy have the same problem to deal with. Eventually, all this new coming population with different mentality, different cultural or social background, different needs and expectations or different views regarding how a specific society works, may cause problems, conflicts with native residents or immigrants with different nationalities and misunderstandings that force them to act out of the legal and rationally accepted frame of greek society’s “function” if I may… Read more »
dave
Guest

New World Order, you are trying to trivialize the problem. Why is it that in case of any turmoil, the root of the problem turns out to be Hungarian xenophobia? That is the truth that many observers fail to grasp and talk about “transition economies” and all that crap. The Hungarian xenophobia has roots that go back to centuries and affect the country even these days. Without tackling this xenophobic behaviour once and for all, Hungary cannot enter the world of developed countries and will have to stay under supervision.

John Hunyadi
Guest
Christos, You are right to point out that large-scale immigration into Greece in the past decade or so is a major cause of rising xenophobia in Greece. Judging by available statistics, the immigrant population has risen to close to 10% of the total population. Similar phenomena have been observed in Spain and Italy. However, you have neglected to mention the other major reason for rising xenophobia in Greece – a complete lack of action by the government and public bodies to address the problem. Moreover, there is evidence of widespread active discrimination by public bodies. According to reports by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the Greek government does not even collect statistics on racism and discrimination. It seems as if they are trying to ignore the problem. Admittedly other countries – including Spain, Portugal and Italy and many of the new Member States – are doing relatively little to combat racial discrimination. But Greece stands out for failing tackle discrimination, particularly given that it has been a member of the EU for over 25 years. I’m sorry to be so negative about Greece, and by no means is this a criticism of the Greek people, but my comments are… Read more »
Adrian
Guest

I have to agree with John Hunyadi’s analysis, and challenge any “western” expat living in Hungary to provide an example of any xenophobia directed at them. I always have been spoiled by Hungarians, though interestingly the same preference doesn’t extend to my children who, rather than being English, are “not really Hungarian”.

Sandor
Guest
Just like Eva, I also have the inclination to look for historical reasons when trying to explain this irrational xenophobia. (thanks to Greece for the lovely word meaning: the fear and hatred of foreigners) I also have some experience with Greece, if not too fresh, since I lived there for a short while. So on historical grounds and allowing only for the similarities, I would accept the long and crippling occupations as reasons, but more the insularity of language and culture. This traditional insularity are very similar in both countries. Also, the frequent threat of being overtaken has left an almost genetic mark in the nation’s psyche. But that all is outdated now. The really “healthy and wholesome” hatred of others, not necessarily foreigners, in Hungary probably dates back to the early years of the Compromise (Kiegyezes) of the 1870s when Hungary re-integrated a bunch of nationalities. They didn’t really re-integrate them, only paid lip-service to that, instead ruled and exploited them, while refusing to honor their national aspirations. Exercising power in the name of “cultural superiority”. The losses of the first world war gave rise and an admirable opportunity to blame all those nationalities and of course the Jews… Read more »
NWO
Guest

Dave-
I don’t think I am trying to trivialize the issue. I was just remarling on a tendency that I see, and, if anything, putting it in a comparative context. Xenophobic attitudes may be worse in Hungary than in other states in the region, but I am not sure. BTW, I consider this not a positive thing about Hungary, but a negative thing about the other countries. Finally, leaving aside polling results, if one looks at actual commerce, Hungary has been far more welcoming than many countries in the region (See, Slovenia and Slovakia in particular, where there has been a lot of resistance to selling State assets to foreigners). Also, look at the official Governemnt policies in the Cz Republic and Slovakia where there is a refusal to “renounce” the Benes Decree. Hard to get much more officially xenophobic than that!

Christos Moissidis
Guest
Eva, I didn’t mean to insult you in any way or to give a different meaning to what you wrote. I am really sorry if you felt like that. I only tried to be as clear as possible that Greek-Turkish relations does not have such issues to deal with. Both of our countries and people, are trying to leave past behind and we work really hard to this direction. John, Thank you so much for your comment. On the contrary though, I mentioned that EU’s immigration policy is problematic and with no doubt, that means that there is a complete lack of action by the governments and public bodies to address the problem… as you already wrote too. Nevertheless, racism and xenophobia is something that our societies have to deal with; therefore, I believe we are all responsible… individuals and public bodies or governments. Do not forget the last incidents of large scale attack to immigrants in Italy about a month or two ago… or how racism spreads to Russian society… many many examples to present a case. Even some people try to distinguish racism as “defensive” or aggresive”… meaning “good racism” and “bad racism”, as if it is not… Read more »
dave
Guest

NWO, I thing you confuse the influence of the progressive elite with the real feelings of the dark, deep Hungarian hinterland. The openness to foreigners and the liberal rule of law that characterize the outer face of Hungary is due to a small, mostly Budapest-based elite that so far managed to prevent the xenophobic mob to affect the image the Hungary. Be sure, however, that this mob is there and is just waiting for the opportunity. Hence I agree with Eva that this elite must remain in power. That is realpolitik in Hungary and the effect of this deeply xenophobic Hungarian attitude.

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