Direct the spotlight where there is less light! – Interview with Katalin Novák in the newspaper Nógrád Megyei Hírlap
After three days, twenty one programmes, several hundred handshakes, thousands of photos with local residents and countless informal discussions, you spoke about Nógrád with the same enthusiasm as on the day when you arrived. With President of Hungary Katalin Novák we discussed the experiences of her visit and current issues of our region at one of the last stops of her visit, Rimóc.
– This was your first official visit as President of Hungary to our county. The last time you visited Nógrád was right in the middle of the pandemic, then as Minister for Family and Youth Affairs. What has been your experience, what has changed most in our region?
– In Nógrád as elsewhere, it is hard work to make ends meet, but the region has successfully endured through the difficulties of the Coronavirus epidemic, as has the whole country. I can see the signs of this: the local people have learned to fight over the centuries, and not even an unexpected and extraordinary adversity like the pandemic could jolt them out of this mindset. This is also true now, in the shadow of the war. In a border region – even if it is not directly neighbouring on Ukraine - people understand and feel more what kind of a threat the war may mean. We live in a difficult period now as well, but the people of Nógrád are good fighters. What I am seeing is that Nógrád County is growing stronger and stronger, it still has a lot of untapped potential. I would like more and more of us to be able to look on Nógrád as a hidden resource. With support and the right attention, the people of Nógrád can show how much strength there is in this region.
– A few weeks ago, you visited Switzerland, and in your presentation on our country you said: „the demographic crisis is a key challenge of our day, and if we cannot give a pro-family response to it, our European future may be at risk”. We, the local residents of Nógrád, experience this first hand: the county's population is shrinking and ageing at an above average rate. What can be done to slow down or even stop the process?
– We must make sure that Nógrád remains attractive for the younger generations as well. I visited many villages, small townships, where people complained that the population was ageing, while young people – partly because of the closeness of the capital – tend to settle down and build a life for themselves in Budapest. Few return to their home town or village. I want rural Hungary to be appealing to young people with plans and ideas. Life in the countryside or even in a dead-end village should not mean forsaking opportunities. For this we must put in place the circumstances, the infrastructural conditions enabling the residents of small villages to remain part of the country’s bloodstream. To have access to culture, to various services, that their children should receive education of proper quality, and that they should have good prospects. It is good to see the increasing number of positive examples across the country, including Nógrád. So much depends on the local people, especially on local leaders. I am pleased to see that the government has the will to strengthen rural Hungary.
– Did you have such experiences during your present visit to Nógrád?
I have met strong people everywhere, including Nógrád. People who are proud of their traditions and prepared to fight if necessary.
And also of course, people who have grown weary of the struggle, who see little or no way out of their difficult situation. The miller of Szécsény, the master confectioners of Balassagyarmat and Salgótarján are obviously successful people, as are the owners of the crunchy stick factory in Karancsberény and the cookstove factory in Tarján. The woman mayors I have met in Terény, the police chief, the local leaders, the teachers, the social workers are all appreciated by their own communities. While among the factory workers, the vocational students, and among the Gypsy families in Sóshartyán, I spoke to some who are finding it hard to see beyond the next morning. Importantly, they too have help. The appeal of rural Hungary is there in the example of the Mayor of Alsópetény, who – although he was born in Budapest – moved to Alsópetény with his family, and not to the centre, to be sure. In addition to his job as mayor of his town, he manages his farm, raises livestock, and rears his children with his wife under the circumstances of a village. The more people choose this harder but still viable path, the higher the demand for services and culture will be, the more this will strengthen enterprises and new jobs will be created. That will then attract more people. This is how rural Hungary can become younger.
– This is a very nice and attractive vision for the future, but at present, we are still struggling with other social problems in Nógrád. One of these is low levels of education, which is essentially "handed down" from father to son, and leads to generations of unemployment, poverty and often, unfortunately, crime. The opportunity to learn is there, but often the will is lacking. How do you think children can be shown a positive, motivating future vision, if they do not get this kind of guidance from their parents?
– The wealth and diversity of the county also includes its large Gypsy population. In some villages, Gypsy families live in one end of the village under explicitly poor circumstances, while in the other, you see middle-class families. Sometimes it seems that these differences, these divides, cannot be overcome even within a village community. We have a common task and responsibility to change this. In order for ignorance to be replaced by an educated mind, unemployment by a high employment rate, and starting a family to be accompanied by a sense of responsibility, helpers are needed, and we also need the determination of those who need help. The „Jelenlét” (Presence) programme of Sóshartyán is such an instrument: it expects members of the local community to do their part, but also gives them assistance. If this attitude can be passed on to children, and if those who are better off can pass on the importance of taking responsibility, then in time we will see a change.
– With what instruments can this be achieved?
– I am confident that community work schemes help people return or find the way to the Labour Market and to experience what it is like to work for wages, pay taxes, and then take advantage of tax allowances for children, for example. This also leads to a more conscious management of life. I am aware that this is a huge effort for those who do not bring the skills necessary for the struggles of daily life from the home, from their families, which unfortunately they are also not in a position to hand down to their own children. Moreover, this mainly concerns families with many children. I find it positive that initiatives launched by church and civil society organisations have been underway also in this field, which provide not just tangible, physical support through their local presence, with the involvement of local residents, but also pay attention to those affected. I'm thinking of the Sure Start Children's Homes or the staff of the Presence Programme, who provide positive examples, words of encouragement and advice to those in need. These initiatives are really about giving the next generation a better start in life than the previous ones had. I feel a personal responsibility in this. We all have to do our part for those who live under difficult circumstances in Hungary. I try to take every opportunity to tell the children how important it is for them to study, to make them understand that studying is the way out of poverty, out of a life without prospects. A conversation, a personal example is perfectly capable of launching a positive process. Those who children know from their TV screens - and who they pay more attention to as a result - have an even greater responsibility.
– We are a border county, with a strong defence past, and intensive recruitment activities even today, with a reservist force for territorial defence, a defence sports centre and camps. As the Commander-in-Chief of the Hungarian Defence Forces, what do you think are the major characteristics of a viable and modern army, and what is its role ? What role do volunteers play in this?
– What I expect from the Defence Forces is, first and foremost, that they should be able to defend the country and its people in all circumstances. Whether it is peacetime or wartime, we must have the self-defence capability to keep our people safe and to give us all the knowledge that we have nothing to fear if, God forbid, something unexpected should happen. The renewal of the National Defence Forces is under way. Well-functioning defence forces are predicated on modern military equipment, well-trained professional servicemen seeing the defence of their country as their mission, and we also need the voluntary reservist service. I am proud that my husband – close to fifty years of age – has also completed the voluntary reservist training, fulfils the related obligations and keeps up to date with his professional training. The voluntary reservist forces are open to practically anyone. The point is that the reservist, while maintaining their profession in civilian life, should have the aptitude, the knowledge and the training necessary to offer assistance in a real emergency. As the Commander-in Chief of the Defence Forces, I trust that the recruitment campaign „Let’s go to the army!” launched by the Hungarian Defence Forces recently will reach out to many and will encourage them to become our servicemen. Also, the Volunteer Reservist training gives virtually anyone the opportunity to understand and learn how to protect their own family when they need to.
– Like your predecessor President János Áder, you take the cause of nature conservation to heart; and in Nógrád, perhaps the most precious treasure is the natural environment itself. The county’s politicians are working to implement tourism projects based on these natural resources. How can you support them in this?
– Nógrád is one of the most wonderful regions of Hungary. It is easily accessible, is close to Budapest, and even the Blue Trail route passes through parts of it. I myself am hiking the Blue Trail with my husband, and we got to the border of Nógrád last time. So we will be hiking around here soon! We have been here many times before, we love this beautiful region! I find that so many people travel to distant parts of the world for the natural beauty that they could find here, an hour's drive from Budapest. It is a good idea to discover our own country, too, it is a good idea to put on our boots and get going. Moreover, it is an affordable pastime even in today’s economic situation. I encourage everyone to discover Hungary, the beauties of nature and the created world, and of course, let us also take care of it all! I had the opportunity to listen to the plans of the county’s leaders on how to make Nógrád even more appealing as a tourism destination. For this we need good accommodation, high quality infrastructure and gastronomical services able to attract many domestic as well as foreign tourists to the region. Many of these conditions have already been met. I trust that with the right resources being made available, Nógrád will etch itself even more visibly on Hungary’s tourism map.
– You have spent the last days in Nógrád, your schedule has been very busy. What was the most memorable experience in the sea of events, and what is the most important conclusion that you have drawn concerning our country? Were your initial expectations confirmed by visiting the villages in the region and talking to the local people?
– For me, meetings with people are the most important events. During these three days, I have visited several small villages where no President of Hungary has visited before. My visit has visibly meant a great deal for the local people. I hope to achieve the goal I set for myself when the idea of visiting the counties was put forward: let us move the periphery into the centre, let us direct the flashlight– that I have the privilege of holding as President of Hungary – where there is less light! Then it is just a matter of keeping up that light and starting to think about what we ourselves could do to make the breakthrough point actually start working. If all that is fulfilled, in one or two generations, Nógrád will not only be a hidden reserve, but a resource that is obvious to everyone. I wish it to be so!
– During your visit to the country, you have met hundreds of people from Nógrád, young, middle-aged and old. This meant hundreds of handshakes. What do you think, what has been your experience, what is the practical and symbolic significance of these handshakes for the people?
– These are special moments for me as well. When we shake hands, there is a second when we can look into each other's eyes and then take that moment home with us. I have had many such experiences over the past three days, and I hope that the people on the other side of the handshake can also keep the memory of that moment alive. Such sincere, trusting looks at each other are needed in our everyday lives from time to time, too. If we look into each other's eyes with openness and mutual respect, in the long run we will not focus on what divides us, what can give rise to controversy, but on what unites this nation, what gives us our togetherness.
The interview with the President of Hungary is accessible on the nool.hu website.