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Novák Katalin Békésben

My meetings in Békés were highly rewarding - Interview with Katalin Novák

I found my meetings in Békés very rewarding, and I trust that I was not the only one who felt this way - said Katalin Novák, President of Hungary, in an interview with our newspaper - the Békés Megyei Hírlap - about the three days she spent in our county at the end of January. During our conversation, we discussed how to motivate young people to settle in the region, spoke about the war in Ukraine and this year's elections, and why she declared 2024 the Year of Getting Active.

- How did you choose your destinations in Békés, and have you visited the region before? This is interesting also because you grew up in Szeged, which in fact lies next door. 
- Indeed, it feels quite like home when I am here, when I visit you. I was born in Szeged, I grew up in similar surroundings, I feel at home here. Many don't even know how much beauty there is in the Great Hungarian Plain. I must admit that as a child, I did not view it with the same eyes as I do now. It is a pity that when I visit a county, it is impossible to fit in all the things I would like to do. That said, my aim was to visit as many settlements, villages and towns alike, as possible, to meet as many people as possible and to learn as much as possible about life in Békés in general. I visited Gyula and Békéscsaba, but I also visited Okány, Szarvas, Orosháza, Mezőhegyes, and I certainly did not want to miss the homesteads. At the beginning of my presidency, I picked five areas that I would focus on: family, talented young individuals, women, people deserving special attention and a Hungary worth loving. I have focused on these topics here in Békés, too. I met with "little virtuosos" from Békés, family entrepreneurs, people facing challenges in daily life, but I also didn't want to miss the destinations your county takes pride in, so I visited the Mihály Munkácsy Museum, as the painter grew up here, and then I was privileged to meet contemporary artists at Csabagyöngye. I got a lot out of my meetings in Békés, and I hope I wasn't the only one who felt that way! In Szeged, I am used to walking everywhere. This is a habit that I have lost in Budapest, so I was glad that the venues were often within walking distance of each other here as well. Moreover, the programme started very meaningfully, as right after my arrival, I watched the performance of Three Tall Women in the Castle Theatre in the company of Gyula’s local residents.

- There has been significant emigration in Békés in recent decades. What advice would you give to young people living here, why should they stay or return once they have completed their studies and feel that they have gained enough experience? 
- Life in Békés County has never been easy. People in Hungary’s Stormy Corner Region have always had to struggle to make ends meet. The latest census also shows that the population of Békés has decreased at a much higher rate than the national average. This is not only because fewer children are being born - Géza Féja has already written about the single child legacy that Békés has - but also because many have moved to other parts of Hungary. Now I have also noticed that the people of Békés are hard-working and are not afraid to lean in. It's positive that more and more investment is coming to the county, such as the Airbus factory, related businesses, food processing or communication technology companies, and the list goes on. I have visited the factory of the Szarvasi Mozzarella company, which is an affirmative illustration of how a Hungarian family business can be successful and achieve national recognition, while providing a livelihood for 120 families. For young people to find it attractive to return, they need to feel that they have a future in Békés. The infrastructure must be improved. The construction of the M44 express route will help to better integrate Békés into the national network. The lifestyle that Békés offers to young people starting a family could be attractive to many. Living here is enjoyable. If we can make this enjoyable life a little easier, more people will decide to return home or even move here.

- Do you think our region can benefit in the future from its geographical location along the national border? I am also thinking here of the fact that there are high hopes regarding Romania’s entry into the Schengen Zone... 

-Békés’ geographical location is interesting also from a historical perspective. There are few more illustrative examples of the tragedy of the dismemberment of Hungary following WW I than the fact that Békés, more specifically its capital, Szarvas, was the centre of historical Greater Hungary, while today it is a county located along the border, on the periphery, so to speak. Such a position has advantages and disadvantages. Hungary strongly supports Romania's accession to Schengen, and it is perhaps the people of Békés who are most looking forward to it. It will not only facilitate contacts between Hungarians on both sides of the border, but will also give a boost to the economic cooperation that already exists along the border. Hungary has a fundamental interest in maintaining good relations with its neighbours, if only because of the Hungarian communities living in these countries. It has been more than ten years since the last meeting between Hungary and Romania took place at head of state level, which is why I am delighted that President Johannis visited Budapest last year, reciprocating my official visit to Bucharest. Then, too, I stressed that Hungary supports Romania's entry into the Schengen Zone.

- This year is going to be a year of elections. Local elections, EU elections, also the US elects a president. What could be the impact of these elections on domestic and global politics? 
- The consequences of this year's elections will be felt by many in Hungary: we are not indifferent to who the US President is going to be, who will lead the European institutions, what the balance of power will be like in the European Parliament, what the outcome of the Austrian elections will be. And in Hungary’s local elections, Hungarian voters will have the opportunity to decide what kind of leaders will govern their local communities. They now have the opportunity to reaffirm or change their decisions of five years ago. We are living in a turbulent world: war in our neighbour, fighting in Israel, waves of illegal migration, a changing world order, in which the orientation points we have always relied on are being challenged. Depending on who finally moves into the White House, the course of the world may change, the prospects concerning the war in Ukraine may change, and so may the intensity and quality of Hungarian-US relations. The United States is an important ally, and within NATO, it also has a major role to play in guaranteeing Hungary's security. Hungary is a reliable ally and fulfils its obligations, but from whom should we expect a respectful attitude and a willingness to understand each other, if not from our allies. The members of an alliance are sovereign parties, rather than subjected to one another. The other major election of the year, the elections to the European Parliament, will also be marked by this same aspect. In the elections to the EP, Hungarians will have to decide in what manner they wish to see Hungarian interests being reflected in European decision-making. These decision-making processes may seem distant, but they can certainly influence our everyday lives. In addition to the political processes in the wider world, who governs our municipalities is also an important matter. During my visits to the counties, I have met countless capable and committed leaders at the settlement as well as the county level, and fortunately more and more of them are women.

- On the war in Ukraine, you have taken a firm stance in favour of peace on several occasions. Is there a chance of peace in 2024? 
- The war in our neighbour has been going on for almost two years. By now we seem to have grown used to this state of affairs, to the flow of tragic news day by day. This war has become our daily reality. Nobody knows the exact figures, but tens of thousands have been killed and the number of Hungarian victims is also rising. Men are being conscripted in Transcarpathia as well. Mothers, wives and children are mourning their dead. And the consequences of the war go beyond the borders of Ukraine, they also affect us, Hungarians in Hungary. To us it has been obvious since the outset that there is just one goal that is right, and that is to work for peace by all means at our disposal. Today, more and more people think the same. The President of Ukraine has also started to work on a peace formula, in which we also participate. I am also hearing in international forums, from foreign politicians, that it is time for peace talks. Whether 2024 will be the year of a turnaround towards peace cannot be said at this point, in January, but I am confident that it will be, and that is what we must work for. We must avoid a world war, and in fact, it is not that easy.

- You have been a strong advocate of traditional family values for years. Will this also be an emphatic part of your work going forward? 
- Without children, a country has no future. If you ask Hungarians what they see as most important tin life, the majority will say it is family. So Hungarian people are inherently family oriented. My goal was to make Hungary family- oriented, too. The family-friendly turnaround has begun, and it has been reflected in the government's approach, measures, tax policy and developmental work. The aim is to make it easier to start a family, to make sure that the birth of the children their parents desire to have is not prevented by financial obstacles, and to make life easier for those who have children. Much has been achieved, but there is still work to be done. As President of Hungary, I will continue to focus on families, using the means available to me I will work towards achieving a turnaround in demographics as well. The problem of empty cradles, the challenge of a shrinking population, which even undermines our competitiveness, affects the entire developed world. I am raising awareness of this everywhere I go, and, fortunately, there are many who, hearing this, want to act.

- You have also frequently referred to the need for more women in public life. Do women see things differently from men, or, I could also ask, are they better at resolving conflicts? 

 - Women and men are equal in their rights, they should be equal, but they are not the same. Women are the ones who endeavour to resolve problems and conflicts at home, too. As mothers, we find it much harder to tolerate when, for example, our children fight with each other, we take steps to reconcile them straight away and we are more sensitive to what is hurting those around us. If only more of this empathy were present in public life, both here at home and in the wider world through a greater presence of women, it would make for a different world. That is also why we need more women in public life.

- Anyone who follows your activity will know that it is important to you to encourage people to move more regularly. In your New Year's Address, you called on all Hungarians, regardless of age, to run, hike, swim, cycle, play football and work out. Why did you declare 2024 the Year of Getting Active? 
- When I visit a county, I do not only wish to make visits there, but also to carry out my duties as Head of State locally. For the sake of clarity, we have named this programme Sándor Palace in remote office, and in Békés, this remote office was located in Gyula Castle. It was there that I welcomed the Prime Minister of Moldova, that is where the Chief of the Defence Staff reported to me, and where I signed the presidential resolution declaring 2024 the Year of Getting Active. It's a good thing to move regularly, it's a good thing to engage in sports, it is very important that we are physically active. This year will see a number of major sporting events. The Olympics, the European Football Championships, and I could go on. I am sure we will hear the Hungarian anthem many times this year. But let's not just cheer for Hungarian athletes, let's get moving! The Hungarian nation is a sports nation, but let us make sure that we bear this title not just because we win a lot of gold medals, but also because more and more Hungarians feel the importance of regular exercise. I would like to encourage all Hungarians, all the residents of Békés County, to join our movement! I too strive to make physical activity part of my everyday life. Sometimes I find it hard to fit it into my schedule, but when it's really important, I manage. We also organise sports programmes during our visits to the counties. In Székesfehérvár, I had the opportunity to exercise with ice hockey players, in Kaposvár with handball players, in Kecskemét with basketball players, and in Gyula I went to the Atlas Fitness Club, an emblematic institution! It was great to work out with the local residents. I would like to draw attention not only to our great local athletes and teams, but also to the opportunities that exist in each of our communities. And ultimately, there's running, which requires almost nothing but the will to get going, and there's hiking. My husband, István, and I are determined to hike all along the Blue Trail, which we would like to complete in five years.

- Your New Year's Address has already been mentioned, so I will close by asking: what would make you happy on 31 December this year? How would you like to look back on this year, when the time comes? 
- If 2024 could be the year of peace, and if our lives in Hungary were easier, more beautiful, and marked by more mutual understanding.