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People in Hungary grapple with what it means to be European


This week, Hungary's opposition parties united behind one candidate for next year's elections. And this creates a real threat to Prime Minister Viktor Orban's hold on power. Hungarians will be voting as they, like many other Eastern Europeans, continue to grapple with what it means to be European. Joanna Kakissis is in Sopron, Hungary, with the story.

LAZSLO NAGY: There where the road is. And there is the sign, the European Union. You see the blue one?


L NAGY: There was this gate.

KAKISSIS: Laszlo Nagy points to a small road running through a grassy stretch of the border between Austria and Hungary near the Hungarian city of Sopron. It was here in the summer of 1989, when Nagy was a young engineer, that the heavily guarded gate between east and west began to open.

L NAGY: So many people were waiting. You see?


L NAGY: You didn't see the road. And in this situation, it wasn't possible to stop them.


KAKISSIS: Young Hungarians and East Germans gathered on one side of the border and Austrians on the other. They camped out here with their families as part of what's now known as the Pan-European Picnic. As the crowds continued to grow, Hungary opened the gate.


KAKISSIS: And hundreds ran west. They wept with joy. The Berlin Wall fell a few months later.

IVAN KRASTEV: We wanted to be like the Western societies have been in the 1970s and 1980s. And then we basically entered the world, which we don't know very well. And we're lost in it.

KAKISSIS: Political scientist Ivan Krastev also grew up behind the Iron Curtain, in Bulgaria. He's written about Eastern Europe's post-Cold War discomfort with the West.

KRASTEV: We wanted to be like the West. But the very moment you want to be like somebody else, it means that probably this somebody else is better than you. And then you start to have the fear of, what about our own identity? What is going to happen?

KAKISSIS: Elation gave way to culture shock as Eastern European economies struggled and millions migrated west.


KAKISSIS: Those who stayed behind listened to Western music in Western-style cafes, but they also felt pressured to adopt Western values on multiculturalism, sexual identity and gender. For many in conservative Hungary, this has been a struggle.

NATALIA BORZA: Hungary is a place where we didn't have the the so-called sexual revolution, that revolution that took place in the western part of Europe or in America.

KAKISSIS: Natalia Borza is a philosopher and linguist in Budapest who studies gender issues.

BORZA: During the communism, Hungarian people - they were basically told by the Soviets how to live. And, OK, 30 years pass, but still, we have the memory of what it feels like being under someone else's rules.

KAKISSIS: Hungary's nationalist prime minister for the last decade, Viktor Orban, draws on that sentiment to stay in power. At a recent demographics conference in Budapest, also attended by former Vice President Mike Pence, Orban declared that he's protecting Hungary's traditional values.


PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBAN: (Through interpreter) The Western left wing is attacking. It is trying to relativize the notion of family. Its tools for doing so are gender ideology and the LGBTQ lobby, which are attacking our children.

KAKISSIS: Orban's government recently passed a law restricting the teaching of LGBTQ issues in schools. It was prompted by a children's book featuring gay, nonbinary and transgender characters.

BOLDIZSAR NAGY: It became a tool for them, for the government. And they used it as a - you know, as a symbol of, you know, the Western enemy.

KAKISSIS: Boldizsar Nagy edited the book.

B NAGY: The government loves to visualize that the Hungarian society is like, you know, the West in the '50s, as before. But I don't think that we are that conservative and that close-minded.

KAKISSIS: Hungary holds a referendum on the law next year. Meanwhile, the EU is now threatening to cut funding to Hungary unless Orban's government rescinds the law.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: That scares Anna Maria Vesten (ph), who is 17 and has only known a Hungary that has prospered as part of the EU.

ANNA MARIA VESTEN: I think that the relationship between the European Union and Hungary gets worse. And it's very bad because the European Union - it's very good for our economy to be part of it.

KAKISSIS: Vesten traveled to a city north of Budapest a few weeks ago to hear Fox News host Tucker Carlson, another American conservative who's come to Hungary. But Vesten says she wants to debate liberals, not insult them.

VESTEN: As a conservative, I feel like that in the Western cultures, a lot of traditional values are disappearing today. And it's really important to concentrate on building communities and families. I also think that we should, like, have a better discussion because I think this is going to a very, very bad direction now. We don't feel like that we are part of one nation. It's more like two nations already.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: On the outskirts of Budapest, at a modest Methodist church, the congregation here feels the same way. They offer prayers for Western-funded nonprofits in Hungary that the government has labeled foreign agents. The tall, white-bearded pastor here is Father Gabor Ivanyi, who fought the communists for religious freedom.

GABOR IVANYI: (Through interpreter) They evicted us from our church and boarded it up. So for years, I preached on the streets.

KAKISSIS: He preached tolerance. He still does.

IVANYI: (Through interpreter) I know what it feels like to be cast out. So I decided to become the kind of pastor who shows solidarity with those who are marginalized.

KAKISSIS: He says that today, the marginalized include half of Hungarians, those who find the government's definition of European values intolerant.


KAKISSIS: Back in Sopron, where Hungary opened its border in 1989, some of those who helped organize the Pan-European Picnic tell me they also feel marginalized but by the West, like Laszlo Magas.

LAZSLO MAGAS: (Through interpreter) Western Europe may not want to identify people by gender, but we still do. And for us, a family has a mother who is a woman and a father who is a man. I resent that the West looks down on us for our beliefs and treats us like a colony.

KAKISSIS: Magas is reminiscing at a cafe with his fellow organizer Laszlo Nagy, who says the European Union has lost its way.

MAGAS: What are European values? What? I don't know. Everybody says something different. There must be borders which we - red lines which we don't step over.

KAKISSIS: And who gets to define those borders is still dividing Europe's east and west. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Sopron, Hungary.


Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.