BERLIN — Coca-Cola is facing intense criticism in Hungary over an ad campaign featuring same-sex couples, the latest instance of a vocal anti-gay backlash across parts of post-communist central Europe.
Experts say the backlash underscores how slowly attitudes toward homosexuality have changed in post-communist Europe, compared with other parts of the continent and much of the Western world. It also mirrors what activists have warned is a growing anti-gay sentiment being promoted by right-wing governments in places like Poland.
In Hungary, an online petition that called for the posters to be removed because “children can see” them, according to the organizers, has so far garnered more than 30,000 signatures. On Sunday, a senior member of the Fidesz ruling party, István Boldog, called for a boycott of Coca-Cola over the “provocative” ads, which feature slogans such as “Zero Sugar, Zero Prejudice.”
Boldog and the government’s International Communications Office did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
In a statement, Coca-Cola said it would not give in to the pressure, adding that it “strives for diversity, inclusion and equality in our business, and we support these rights in society as well.”
Activists, however, warned that the episode could serve as a litmus by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to test whether anti-LGBT sentiments could be exploited politically in the same way Poland’s government has exploited them.
The populist Polish ruling party has largely dropped migrants as its primary target for inflammatory political rhetoric, as migrant numbers have dropped. It has instead railed against LGBT activists, and encouraged towns and entire provinces to symbolically declare themselves to be “LGBT free."
Gazeta Polska, a right-wing weekly newspaper, distributed “LGBT-free zone” stickers, which drew criticism from the U.S. ambassador to Poland. Last month, several people were attacked and injured by far-right nationalists at a Pride march in the Polish city of Bialystok, in an escalation that mirrored similar violence at prior marches in Poland and Hungary. Both countries do not allow same-sex marriage.
Some expressed doubts that Hungary would mirror Poland in its stance on openly gay expressions.
With its tight grip on the media and other institutions, Hungary has kept its public discourse had remained focused on migrants, even though that topic has largely disappeared from front pages elsewhere in Europe, said Hadley Renkin of the Central European University.
“Do they need to have another enemy?” Renkin said.
Despite the recent backlash, the number of Hungarians and Poles in favor of LGBT equality is increasing. In Hungary, more than 60 percent said in a poll commissioned by advocacy groups three years ago that they were in favor of equal rights. Twenty-four percent of Poles said in 2017 that being gay should not be tolerated and was not normal, down from 41 percent in 2001.
“On the one hand,” said Conor O’Dwyer, an associate professor at the University of Florida, countries like Hungary or Poland are “getting more tolerant.” But on the other hand, nationalists’ anti-LGBT rallying cries are intensifying.
“Hungary fits into a spectrum of backlash in post-communist countries,” O’Dwyer said.
Resurgent populism and a rural-urban divide had made the country vulnerable to anti-LGBT sentiment, which are being portrayed as a conflict between the West and nationalists in both Hungary and Poland, he said.
This spring, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a leader in the Polish ruling party, Law and Justice, called “LGBT ideology” an imported “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state.”
In Hungary, the anti-Coca Cola petition organizers have framed their opposition to the ad campaign in a similar way.
“Such advertisements are already commonplace in Western Europe,” they wrote. “In our country we can still stop the process. . . . Do not be illusory, this is a test. If Hungarian society accepts this, there will be more and more steps. Posters, commercials, films, rainbow products, etc.”
The ad campaign is pegged to Budapest’s Sziget music festival, which has for decades been seen as a connecting point between Western liberalism and Hungary’s urban youth. But Hungarian right-wingers view the event — partially sponsored by foreign companies and also a hub for LGBT performances — as a threat to Hungarian national identity.
O’Dwyer and Renkin said that foreign companies had in recent years played a significant role in contesting nationalistic governments stances on LGBT rights in the region. O’Dwyer cited a Pride parade in Poland he attended, where a number of Western brands had a significant presence.
Renkin added that foreign companies were not only important sponsors but also crucial as employers for LGBT people, as publicly coming out can still result in being fired by domestic companies.
O’Dwyer said he viewed foreign companies’ influence on LGBT rights as not unconditionally positive, however, given that many global corporations rely on relatively cheap workers in factories based in those countries — creating a dependence that he said may have weakened the European Union’s resolve to confront Hungary and Poland over rights violations.
The LGBT communities of Poland and Hungary have gone through similar trajectories. In both countries, populist pressure has challenged those communities in recent decades, as right-wing parties gained power in Poland in 2005 and in Hungary in 2010 and adopted policies directly opposed to the promotion of gay equality.
“The government has a quite well-established, ingrained and institutionalized strategy for discriminating against non-heterosexual people,” Renkin said about Hungary.
“Having a backlash,” said O’Dwyer, had in some ways strengthened LGBT communities, but in the past “there was always a ceiling to how strong the backlash could get,” given that both countries were part of the European Union.
The problem now, O’Dwyer said, is that the European Union’s continuing identity crisis — with countries like Hungary simply ignoring Brussels on many issues — had weakened the bloc’s influence to restrict governments’ actions toward minorities.