01/08/2014 09:28 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

Focusing on Inequality in Hungary

If you look just at the statistics, Hungary seems to be doing pretty well, inequality-wise. The country experienced a significant spike in poverty and household inequality after the political changes of 1989-90. But since then, its rate of inequality has remained around the European average. It moved from Scandinavian levels of inequality (according to the Gini coefficient) to a situation comparable to, say, France. Moreover, according to at least one estimate, significant government redistribution efforts have been responsible for this trend.

But these statistics obscure a couple of important facts. Particularly after the financial crisis of 2008, the poorest segments of the population were hit hardest in terms of loan repayments. "Indebted households in the lowest income quintile pay a higher share of their income as debt repayment, and they are also more likely to be in arrears with their repayments because of financial difficulties," according to one article on income inequality in Hungary.

Inequality in the country also has an ethnic dimension. A large portion of the poorest people in the country are Roma. According to UNDP data, the unemployment rate for Roma is 50 percent (compared to 24 percent for non-Roma). The same data set reveals that 71 percent of Roma live in relative poverty -- defined as under 60 percent of median income -- compared to 33 percent of non-Roma.

Which brings us to a third, definitional issue. "Inequality is not only wealth or income inequality but hundreds of different inequalities -- in education, health care, access, transportation, many things," observes Robert Braun.

I met Braun in 1990, when he was running an important human rights organization called the Raoul Wallenberg Association, which did a lot of work to combat anti-Roma and anti-Semitic sentiment. Since that time, he has gone on to serve as an advisor to prime ministers, run various successful businesses, and pursue an academic career.

Currently he is running for parliament. Over the years he has shifted from using the language of human rights to describing problems in terms of inequality. "We have targeted assistance to the Roma," he points out, but "we didn't change the society. We haven't changed the system that oppresses poor people, which only adds to the problems Roma have. If we had spent the same amount of money dealing with issues of inequality probably we would have been in a different place today. And we have also offered an easy scapegoating platform for those who are non-Roma and whose economic situation hasn't changed or even gotten worse."

We talked about the rising nationalism and anti-Semitism in Hungarian society, the failures of liberalism, the challenges of running a business, and why he decided to throw his hat into the political ring.

The Interview

When did you form the Raoul Wallenberg society and what was your motivation?

It was the tumultuous late 1980s, and I was a university student. We were interested in doing something, not necessarily with the hope of change but just to do something. Obviously times were hard from a political point of view. It was 1986 or 1987, and a bunch of us just got together. We were focusing mainly on the Gypsy issue, which was just then emerging and obviously a major social problem. That was a time when you could form civil organizations. So, with a bunch of friends from university we thought that it was a good idea to do it.

What would you say was the moment when you became politically conscious?

It was at that time. I went to the university of humanities, which is a very political place. I became not only politically but socially and environmentally conscious. It was not only the Wallenberg Association, which is still around. We also formed the Union of Civil Liberties, which is also still around. It was also when Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) was formed, and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz). It was just the natural thing to do. We were young. I'm lucky because I've never lost that interest.

Was there something in your family life that encouraged this?

No, just the opposite. My father is an academic. My mother also taught at university. She was a basketball player who also became a coach. They were typical successful people who assimilated into the system. Partly it was their Jewish origin, which was also an assimilation. But the assimilation was more than that. It was more like: if you try to sail with the waves, you'll be okay.

I remember the eve of the press conference announcing Fidesz, which I was involved in. I was asked to do the interpretation. Victor Orban and Tamas Deutsch were kind of friends at the time. My father called -- I was living in my own apartment at that point -- and that was quite unusual, since I usually talked with my mother. He begged me not to do it. His argument, and it's something I'll never forget, was not that I shouldn't do it for myself, but "you shouldn't do it because of us! You are ruining what we've built up until now." Obviously for someone in their early 20s, that was oil on the fire. I said, "Back off, I'm doing it."

My father is 83 years old now. Throughout my political career over the last 23 years and even now when I'm running for parliament going even deeper into politics, he still begs me: don't do it.

For the same reason?

Partly, yes: don't stick your head up, it's not good or useful and it's not helping you. When I was in the military, I was a problem kid there also. Before university, you went to the military for one year as part of compulsory service. When I came home from the military and told stories, he said, "Why be a white mouse among all the grey ones? Why can't you be a simple grey mouse." I said, "I don't know, I'm just doing what I feel is right." That didn't help.

Did he ever say, "Look, we come from a Jewish tradition, it could be dangerous in this country to stick your neck out"?

Probably that was part of it. But it became transformed into: just don't stick your neck out. Nowadays, people tell me that I've gone quite far. I've worked for prime ministers, I'm well known. Now that I'm entering politics quite seriously, they say to me, "We know you, and you won't stop until the end. But have you thought that as a Jew you'll never get elected?" I always say, "I'll prove you wrong. I'm 100 percent sure that in the end, people won't care." It's like Obama. If you would have asked people 10 years ago when Obama first ran, can he become the president of the United States? Probably not 9 out of 10 but 10 out of 10 would have said, "Sorry, Barack, nice try, not in your lifetime or in children's lifetime or your grandchildren's lifetime." But sometimes you just have to do it.

You said that the Gypsy/Roma issue was one of the main reasons for founding the Wallenberg Association. When we talked in 1990, there was an attempt by the city government in Miskolc to build a new settlement that would have been basically a ghetto. You did a press conference, some organizing around that, and Miskolc basically backed down. Were there other similar examples?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.