Hungary’s Response to the Refugee Crisis: An Orchestrated Panic

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Policeman at the Hungarian-Serbian border, September 2015.


In order to understand Hungary’s response to the refugee crisis, one needs to think not so much about refugees as about Hungarian domestic politics. Consider this: during the Yugoslav civil war, Hungary welcomed thousands of refugees, many of them Bosnian Muslims, most of whom have since returned home. Today, Hungary has one of the lowest proportion of foreign born residents in the EU; most of them are ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries. Hungary has had no negative experiences with immigrants. It has greeted Chinese migrants with open arms and has a small but well integrated Muslim community. Moreover, with its low birth rate and huge outmigration, Hungary needs young people to prop up its aging population.

So why is Hungary, the first communist country to dismantle the Iron Curtain, now busy building a fence replete with concertina wire in order to keep refugees and immigrants out? Particularly when Hungary is not the final destination for any of the refugees but merely an unavoidable stage on the route between the Middle East and northern Europe. Why is Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán, who has courted Islamic countries from Azerbaijan to Saudi Arabia and been trying to position the country between East and West, raising the alarm about the Islamization of Europe? The answer is: domestic politics.

The story starts in early 2015, when the ruling party Fidesz, which had gerrymandered 45 per cent of the vote into a razor-thin two-thirds majority in 2010, began slipping in the polls. The party had been hit by a series of corruption scandals, had made some unpopular decisions sparking large demonstrations, was losing local elections, and would soon to lose its two-thirds parliamentary majority. The main beneficiary of this slide was the far-right party Jobbik. At the Paris march protesting the Charlie Hebdo killings in January, Orbán raised the alarm about the presence in Europe of immigrants “with different cultural characteristics”. He already knew that a steady stream of refugees – 43,000 in 2014 – had been passing through Hungary, but the public was still unaware. In February, Kosovar Albanians began leaving their country by the thousands. The Hungarian government took note, but did nothing until April, when it finally sprang into action and launched a “national consultation”.

The refugee problem is a technical, logistical conundrum subject to international law. Nevertheless, the government sent out 8.2 million questionnaires asking what Hungarians considered more important: paying for illegal immigrants or spending money on Hungarian families. It emerged that Hungarians prefer the latter (though the response rate was only 11 per cent). The questionnaire also linked illegal immigrants to terrorism and other forms of criminality. The cost of the “consultation” was larger than the amount spent the previous year on refugees. Though it had no binding effect, it was the first step towards priming the population about a problem that the government wanted to turn to its advantage.

The government then put up posters – in Hungarian – exhorting immigrants to respect Hungarian law and warning them against taking jobs away from locals. Because over 95 per cent of migrants left Hungary for richer countries a few days after entering, these signs would have been absurd even in English, Albanian or Arabic. Less than 10 per cent of the remaining 5 per cent were granted asylum, compared to the EU average of 45 per cent (another reason for them to move on quickly).

By then, the tide of Kosovar Albanians had given way to Syrians fleeing civil war via Turkey. Yet the Hungarian public showed little concern for migrants as long as they remained invisible. They arrived at the asylum office, got finger-printed and lodged an asylum claim. They were then given a train ticket and instructions – in Hungarian – on how to get to the refugee camps. There they were supposed to wait for a decision on their claim. Hungary still had under 2000 places in refugee camps at that time. By mid-summer, 2000 people were arriving daily. Even had they wanted to, they could not have stayed. Most just sneaked away.

Hungary faced a quandary. This had a name: the Dublin 3 Regulation. Dublin 3 is a set of EU rules about who is responsible for deciding asylum applications. Originally designed to thwart asylum shopping, in other words applying to different countries until a claim was either accepted or all 28 countries had been tried, Dublin 3 ruled that the first and only asylum decision was to be made by the country of entry. That meant that anyone entering through Hungary and found to be deserving would be settled in Hungary.

When Dublin was created, no one predicted that so many asylum seekers would enter through a small number of countries where they did not want to reside. Why do people who want to go to Germany hike through the Balkans and Hungary rather than travel directly to their final destination by plane or ship? Not only would this be safer, it would also be much cheaper: refugees pay traffickers and others thousands of euros to get from Turkey to Hungary, compared to a few hundred on commercial vessels. The reason is another EU directive (EU 2001/51/EC), which punishes commercial carriers for accepting anyone on board without valid authorization to enter the destination country. Refugees rarely have travel visas.

At this point, Hungary had two options. It could have followed the example of Greece, the first Schengen country on the migration route, and simply let everyone through. Or it could have gone to Brussels and said: look, like Greece and Italy, we have a problem of intake; Germany, the UK, France, and the Scandinavian countries, on the other hand, have a problem of settlement. So let’s do a deal: the EU slows down the influx and helps us border states; in return, we agree to a quota system, with new rules that stop refugees from converging on a handful of countries. No deal, then Hungary does what Greece is doing.

Could Germany and the other destination countries simply have returned the refugees to Hungary where they entered? The prospect of tens of thousands of migrants deposited in the country and needing to be settled was trotted out by the Hungarian government to keep the scare-level high. As it turned out, only 700 of the tens of thousands seeking asylum in northern Europe have been returned to Hungary, and they either moved on or slipped away to their desired country. But this story is not about refugees. It is about domestic politics.

Hungary is not interested in solving the refugee problem at all. Alone, it cannot do so anyway. Only the EU can solve it. But Hungary has not even done the little it could have. Not until August did it announce that it would build two new camps with a total of 2000 new beds. Too little, too late. Like Greece, it was dragging its feet, except that it insisted on registering everyone. The government started to send people to register in Budapest and to route people registered elsewhere through the capital. By keeping registration offices understaffed, sticking to short hours, lengthening the process and providing instructions and forms in Hungarian only, they trapped thousands at the main railroad station without basic amenities. At one point, the authorities also stopped outgoing westward train traffic. Civil society organizations relying on private donations had to step in to provide portable toilets, medical care, water, and electricity for thousands of exhausted migrants in the scorching summer heat.

Hungarian state television was instructed never to show refugee children and broadcasted instead pictures of angry young men, garbage and anything that made the large crowd of destitute people look menacing. The images shown also drew attention to the fact that these people, many of whom were middle-class professionals, were dark skinned and looked a lot like Roma. In May, the justice minister, László Trócsányi, drew an explicit parallel between the refugees and the Roma, a comparison later echoed by many officials, including the prime minister himself. Backed by the government, anti-Roma prejudice was transferred to the refugees.

On September 4th, the authorities let the refugees march to Vienna, closing down a main highway, stopping traffic, and eventually giving them a lift to the Austrian border. These were the savage hordes that were threatening law and order.

Was Hungary simply overwhelmed? For one thing, Hungary did not ask for help. In fact, it refused offers from international organizations, including the UNHCR. But maybe it didn’t need help. In January 2014, at the start of the Ukrainian-Russian crisis, the Hungarian minister of police announced that Hungary could accommodate up to 170,000 refugees from neighboring Ukraine, who were assumed to be mostly of Hungarian ethnicity. Shelters could be set up for 15,000 people in four hours, apparently. Nineteen months later, the message had changed: the government would do nothing for these “ illegal economic migrants” unless they registered. To do this, they had to wait for days, go to camps where there was no space for them, and wait for a decision that would almost certainly be negative.

Despite the humiliation, there was not a single documented case of criminal wrongdoing among the 200,000 refugees passing through Hungary. State television resorted to reporting minor misconduct, such as littering, trampling crops, throwing out donated food and rowdy behavior. For good measure, it ran unrelated headlines on terrorism elsewhere in the world, under pictures of refugees in Hungary. At this point, Hungarians were getting the message and moral panic set in. It was time for the government to show it was strong and could defend the country. Hence the fence.

Construction began in mid-June. What no one foresaw was that a fence cannot be seamlessly erected on a 150 kilometer stretch, because there are roads, train tracks, and rivers that cross the border, creating cracks where people can pass through easily. Nor could anyone foresee that a fence that stands at a meter-and-a-half can be scaled with the help of anything that is equally tall on the other side. The government soon realized this fault and built a second, taller fence. But it was in for another surprise: a fence that cost over $80 million to build was vulnerable to anyone equipped with pair of $5 wire cutters.

The fence that was supposed to protect, itself needed protection. First, it needed guards. Border guards were short staffed and establishing new “border hunter” units would take too long. The army had to be deployed. The entire Hungarian army is 29,700 strong, from generals to cooks. The number of soldiers that can be deployed at any one time is around 5000, if the army does little else.

Second, the fence needed legal protection. A Fidesz-Jobbik parliamentary majority passed a new law allowing the government to declare a state of emergency in the case of mass migration (defined as more than 500 arrivals a day). The idea was to circumvent international law on refugees. If refugees can be turned into criminals, their rights can be denied. This sounded clever, until one started to think about it.

By early September, there were between seven and nine thousand refugees arriving daily. To put even a fraction of them on trial, with interpreters and translations of legal documents, with the right of appeal, all at the border, was clearly impossible. Even if it were possible, there was the question of what to do with the refugees once they had been sentenced. Hungary’s prison population currently stands at 17,000. Its prisons are already overcrowded, with fourteen people for every ten places. Locking up thousands more people was out of the question. The alternative was to expel them. But how and where to? Who would take them? Certainly not Hungary’s neighbors.

The laws, which also included a change in the constitution to allow the deployment of the army on home territory, were symbolic. They were meant to show that the Hungarian government was tough and protects its people. All hat, no cattle.

The fence served the same purpose. As soon as it was built, it became apparent that the refugees were in a Catch 22. To register at the Serbian-Hungarian border, they had to pass through Serbia. Serbia is considered by the rest of the world as unsafe for refugees, because refugees virtually never get asylum. However, Hungary pronounced Serbia safe, on the grounds that refugees are rarely killed there. Applications from a safe country are automatically denied. So the only way to be eligible for asylum at the Hungarian-Serbian border was not to set foot in Serbia, which defies the laws of physics. On September 15th, the day the fence first became operational, there were more than 10,000 people waiting to enter. On that day, the Hungarian authorities processed seventy applications. Most were denied immediately, while others were inexplicably accepted for further processing, despite there being no hope of a positive decision. Frustration and lack of communication resulted in scenes of confrontation, including water cannons and teargas, young men throwing stones, some shouting Allahu akbar. Perfect material for Hungarian television.

It is a miracle that no one was killed. Soon, people changed tactic and started to march through Croatia. Seeing that their fence had turned out to be an expensive failure, Hungary doubled down and began to extend it. Unfortunately, Hungary’s Croatian border is twice as long as the one with Serbia, and the one with Romania is longer still. The government has already submitted a budget correction requisitioning another $110 million for further border fortification. Serbia, Croatia and Romania are not amused. Their diplomatic relations with Hungary are at an all-time low. They point out that all that Hungary is doing is forcing refugees to take a detour through their countries.

In terms of stopping refugees, the fence is a failure. But in terms of domestic politics, the fence and the entire drama carefully built by Orbán’s team has been a big success. Fidesz’s numbers are up; even better, Jobbik, completely blind-sided, has lost support. Eighty two per cent of Hungarians support the measures taken by Fidesz; Orbán is portrayed not just as the defender of Hungary, but of Europe, because he took action while Brussels was hesitating. The leftwing opposition is completely nonplussed. The largest leftwing party, the Socialists, refrain from criticizing Orbán’s popular efforts to save Hungary and quibble only with the way he executed it. Using his new found strength, Orbán has passed unrelated legislation that allows the government to access emails and phone conversations and establish a new biometric database.

Will the failure to solve the refugee problem harm Orbán’s political success at home? Not at all. The refugee crisis has no national solution. If it is solved by the EU, he will say that it was him who forced Brussels to finally act. If the crisis persists, Orbán will have plenty of excuses; after all, Hungary is a small country.

One should remember that there are hardly any refugees settled in Hungary. And it is unlikely that there will be many more in the future. Few Syrians, Iraqis or Eritreans will be eager to live in a country that is not just poorer than most in the EU, but which is also openly hostile to them. And that is Orbán’s practical solution to Hungary’s refugee problem.

Akos Rona-Tas is professor at the Sociology Department of the University of California, San Diego and a research associate at Met@risk, INRA, Paris. He is the author of the books Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (with Alya Guseva, 2014) and Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and Rise of the Private Sector in Hungary (1997).

© Author / Tr@nsit Online


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    Tanja Petrovic works at the Scientific Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana.   Print

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    PhD candidate in History, Yale University
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  • Alexander von Plato

    Alexander von Plato ist ein deutscher Philosoph und Historiker. Er gründete das Instituts für Geschichte und Biographie an der Fernuniversität Hagen, das er bis 2007 leitete. Von 1996 bis 2000 war er Sekretär der International Oral History Association, von 2006 bis 2008 deren Vizepräsident. Er ist Mitherausgeber und Redakteur von BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral …
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  • Andrei Plesu

    Andrei Plesu ist Rektor des New Europe College, Bukarest. 1989- 1991 war er rumänischer Kulturminister und 1997- 1999 rumänischer Außenminister.   Print

  • Martin Pollack

    Martin Pollack, geb. 1944 in OÖ, studierte Slawistik und osteuropäische Geschichte. Er war von 1987 bis 1998 Redakteur des “Spiegel” in Warschau und Wien und lebt heute als Schriftsteller und literarischer Übersetzer in Wien und Bocksdorf im Südburgenland. 2011 erhielt er den Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung und 2012 den Stanislaw-Vincenz-Preis. Zuletzt erschien von ihm …
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  • Krzysztof Pomian

    Krzysztof Pomian is Professor of History at the Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń) and Academic Director of the Museum of Europe in Brussels.   Print

  • Romano Prodi

    Romano Prodi war von September 1999 bis November 2004 Präsident der Europäischen Kommission.   Print

  • Lipin Ram

    PhD candidate and teaching assistant in Anthropology and Sociology of Development, Graduate Institute, Geneva
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  • Mykola Riabchuk

    Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Political and Nationalities’ Studies, Academy of Sciences, Kyiv
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  • Edelbert Richter

    Edelbert Richter ist deutscher Theologe, Politiker und war Mitglied des Deutschen Bundestages.   Print

  • Paul Ricoeur

    Paul Ricoeur ist Philosoph und war Professor Emeritus an der University of Chicago und an der Sorbonne. Er war Mitglied der Académie Francaise und Mitglied des Wissenschaftlichen Beirats des IWM. Er starb 2005.   Print

  • Michel Rocard

    Michel Rocard, former First Secretary of the French Socialist Party and a member of the European Parliament for 15 years, was Prime Minister of France from 1988 to 1991.   Print

  • Akos Rona-Tas

    Akos Rona-Tas is professor at the Sociology Department of the University of California, San Diego and a research associate at Met@risk, INRA, Paris. He is the author of the books Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (with Alya Guseva, 2014) and Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and …
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  • Lew Rubinstein

    Lew Rubinstein lebt als Poet und Essayist in Moskau. Nach dem Studium der Philologie war er als Bibliothekar tätig. Seit Ende der 1960er-Jahre verfasst er poetische Arbeiten, seit 1974 serielle Textzyklen als so genannte Kartotheken. Zusammen mit Andrej Monastyrskij, Dimitrij A. Prigov und Vladimir Sorokin gilt er als wichtigster Vertreter des Moskauer Konzeptualismus. Print

  • Jacques Rupnik

    Geschichte und Politikwissenschaft, Paris
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  • Claudia Šabi?

    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Ranabir Samaddar is the Director of the Calcutta Research Group. His research focuses on migration and refugee studies, the theory and practices of dialogue, nationalism and post-colonial statehood in South Asia, and new regimes of technological restructuring and labour control. Among his many publications are Marginal Nation: Trans-border Migration from Bangladesh to India (1999), Politics of Dialogue: Living under …
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Bird White Housum Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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