On a hungover Sunday morning in 2012 yours truly woke up and drafted an angry blog post that argued that we have few opportunities at home – economic, political or otherwise – and the only thing we would miss abroad is the network of our friends. So why not take them with us? If we emigrate in clusters we keep everything that’s good and leave everything that’s wrong behind.
The post was not unprovoked. The night before we attended the opening party of our friends’ new book café. It was a hipster place in downtown Budapest, small, cosy, and cheap. It cost a lot in rent, they admitted, but they put their hearts (and savings) in it and wanted to make it work. They won’t make a lot for themselves – they said – just enough to share a room and eat the leftovers from the shop. But it would host independent book launches, academic debates, and maybe even a literary salon.
The opening party was interrupted by the police three times. They came to issue a warning “because someone from the neighbourhood” found the noise too loud. In the middle of the party district, mind you, the loudest thing on a Saturday night is not a café/book club.
“Is it low enough now?” asked the owner after he lowered the volume.
“Let me put it this way,” answered the policeman. “It will never be low enough until you pay up.”
But he wasn’t asking for some pocket money. He proceeded to explain (in his most official voice) exactly which office to look for at the local council to obtain informal protection from “complainers for the noise”. He named the person who needed to be paid so that police would ignore the “noise complaints”. He didn’t even mind that we overheard the conversation.
How could you not feel helpless in a country where corruption is so blatant and matter of fact?
“I deeply regret that young people are leaving Hungary. Not for them but because of their parents,” said PM Viktor Orbán when he first acknowledged the unprecedented wave of emigration of mostly young people. So I wrote about it and it struck a nerve. Shortly after that they’ve launched the most desperate government program yet, called Come Back Home, Young Man! And some actually returned home.
Over the last years I have met many (and read about even more) who returned from abroad – and burnt their their carefully saved euros and pounds in an enterprise. Papers lauded them as the youth that save the economy and the “new generation of” random things. But if the tired cliché of a young person returning from abroad and “bringing new energy” to save the old gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling – then the bureaucratic crucifixion of naive entrepreneurs will give you a full-blown, chakra-cleansing catharsis.
Because even when corruption evades you, how stupid you must be to be to try your luck at entrepreneurship, when you will predictably run into a Byzantine jungle of regulations enforced by bitter bureaucrats who are offended by the sheer notion that you are still kicking – and eager to teach you a lesson in helplessness.
I know a few of these people. They went abroad, saved their money, returned back “to be my own man“. Of course, many have committed rookie mistakes in their business model. But most of them were tripped up by such unexpected costs and a vindictive, self-important bureaucracy. And these are not just petty gangsters. A dense set of links between local and national politicians (the new, crony aristocrats) and the classic mafia underworld is being uncovered by investigative journalists.
It hasn’t always been like this. It was not a fact of life even ten years ago – not for owners of a tiny book café.
Maybe the policeman was just joking. Maybe he was a rogue policeman and others would be outraged to hear what he was saying. Maybe I completely misunderstood everything and he was referring to a perfectly official tax you have to pay to be allowed to play loud music and disturb the neighbours. I have no idea what happened after that. But our friends didn’t open the next day – or the day after that. They gave up the book café and left the country – this time without the intention to return. They let their investment sink, someone else took over the lease of the little shop, redecorated it and then closed it again in a few months.
NB – Now that I think about it, maybe this wasn’t the first time I met a corrupt official. A few years back I had one of those bureaucratic problems that create themselves: I needed a stamp of approval from the local municipality to comply with the local municipality – so they won’t shut down my business and fine me out of existence. I was sitting face to face with a bureaucrat who had no discretion in the matter, he had to put the stamp on my document. He refused and declined to explain why.
Maybe that long, unexplained silence was really just a call for a bribe, but I had no idea. I’m still not sure. I told him that the permission was already granted, I was only there for a bit of ink on the document – but he shrugged. I told him he had 90 days to put that stamp on the document but we both know it takes only a second (I know, trying out logic and common sense is the height of naivety). He said “nothing happens on day 91” by which he meant that there was no sanction for him.
I left his office and tried to find a way around him. In the process I paid a lot in stamp duty for even asking questions. It would probably have been cheaper to just pay him. But until today it hasn’t even occurred to me that it was about a bribe.
I gave up that business and that income.
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