The Visegrád States in the Maelstrom of Postsocialist Change

May 31, 2018

Low wages, expanding social inequality, labour migration, xenophobia: these are all familiar problems in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, known as the Visegrád countries, or V4. An international conference entitled “Visegrád Belongings: Freedoms, Responsibilities and Everyday Dilemmas” on 7 and 8 June 2018 will consider the causes and the wide-ranging consequences of this situation. The conference, which will be held at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (MPI), will take place in English.

United against the EU
The Visegrád Group originated in 1991 with a cooperation agreement between Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, which was succeeded in 1993 by the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Since that time a multitude of institutional links have been initiated that bind these four nations closely together. In recent years they have repeatedly been in the spotlight of media attention, especially when their governments have spoken out vehemently against the refugee quotas agreed upon by the interior ministers of EU member states. Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán in particular have enjoyed great success at home with their opposition to Brussels, which is generally justified by appealing to a need to protect not only national identity but also European, Christian values.

Economic and social inequality
“This harsh stance on refugee policy is not the only thing that the Visegrád states have in common,” says Chris Hann, organizer of the conference and Director of the Department ‘Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia’ at the MPI. “Another common feature is their economic predicament – for example, the prevalence of labour migration. Many people leave these countries because wages are too low or because they can’t find work at all.” The researchers at the conference will give particular attention to the implications of the demise of socialism and the effects of global capitalism on the societies of the V4 at a micro-level. “When one considers, for example, that a worker at Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart earns about four times as much as a worker at the new Mercedes-Benz factory in Kecskemét, Hungary, it is easy to see why Orbán has found so many supporters with his critique of the EU, from which postsocialist citizens had such optimistic expectations.”

Forms of identity beyond nationalism
Even if the Western media like to suggest that the populist politics of the Visegrád countries  exemplify a general increase in nationalism in Eastern Europe, this picture is painted with too broad a brush. “At our conference we intend to look beyond nationalism and investigate what other forms of identity and belonging play a role in the V4 today,” Hann says. “Therefore we are interested in the ways that identity is created through connections with family and relatives, in secular and religious organizations, and with reference to regions.” Perhaps these sources of identity have the potential to counter aggressive nationalism and the demands of global capitalism, and to form a basis for new forms of social solidarity. Hann: “The current processes imposed by neoliberal economics are clearly contributing to an increase in authoritarian populism. That is the bad news. At the same time, there may be opportunities for new emancipatory social movements. Both the positive and the malignant can be understood as a societal mobilization against the catastrophic impact of the disembedded market-dominated economy – just as described by the Hungarian economic historian Karl Polanyi with his famous concept of a ‘double movement’.”

Studying global social change
The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ in 2012.
Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 175 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions.

Conference programme

More information on the Visegrád Anthropologists’ Network (V4 Net)

Contact for this press release
Prof. Dr. Chris Hann
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Department ‘Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia’
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-201

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425

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