Phone interview with our reader, Zoltán. (Transcript edited for brevity – translation our own.)
ZOLTÁN: I read your posts about how people get slowly boiled like the proverbial frog in an atmosphere of emerging autocracy – and it reminded me of my own reasons to emigrate. Or at least the reason I don’t regret it.
Friends change. So do I. And so did my friends in the last couple of years. But when I say change I don’t just mean the usual ways people change. They didn’t just get older and boring. In fact, some of them still behave like 20-year-olds. But they were also changed by politics.
The last couple of years, the subject of emigration had been hanging above us all the time. Everyone knew someone who already left, parties always started with exchanging gossip on where everyone was and how they were doing. There was always someone at the party who was only visiting home, others were planning to leave, and others decided not to. And it is them who changed the most.
People say that emigrants change. They get used to their new homes, pick up new habits, they may become snobbish or naive – we all know those stories. But what no one talks about is how people left behind change. In order to feel comfortable about their decision to stay they change their minds about things. Like corruption. It used to be outrageous. Today, it is just inevitable. Or the oligarchs. A few years ago we were all outraged about the enrichment of Orbán’s cronies on EU money and legislation written specifically for them, the monopolies they received, and how it made life more expensive for the average people. Today, it is just how it should be. They say things like “markets must be protected”. And accuse me of being jealous when “we need national capital”. They completely lost sight of their own interests!
MWBP: Tell us more about your friends.
Z: All my friends were liberal or conservative when we went to school. This has not changed at university. I studied politics, some of my friends are economists, so we are all very political. And then we were separated – but not by ideology. We were split among the lines of how we saw the Orbán-regime specifically.
Some of our old classmates went down the nationalist drain a long time ago. Living in the suburbs one cannot maintain a thriving social life unless one is ready to speak their language – and that is more than enough to change minds. Their attitude shift was shocking at first. We all laughed at their sudden esoteric turn, their Facebook posts oozing nationalist grandeur, their cars with Greater Hungary bumper stickers. Heart chakras, shamanic gibberish, nationalist news flooded their Facebook timelines. But that was a long time ago. We have stopped laughing since.
Others were conservatives and they thought that Orbán and his party were conservatives, too. Fidesz said that on the label. I heard that minor Fidesz politicians and bureaucrats still claim to be free market conservatives when they visit civilised countries. But in fact they have not been conservatives for a long time. They are nationalists. They are populists. They do any say whatever is needed to stay in power and to keep access to public money. It is all about corruption now – as one of their (and our) old professor said.
But perceptions change slowly – many still remember 1998 Orbán. Or 1989 Orbán. That was a different guy. When he came back into power in 2010, however, he was purebred nationalist with shameless demagogy. An ethnic populist. But conservative friends wanted to believe. They said it’s “just a tool to attract voters”. Especially friends abroad thought that we had a conservative government. Who has the energy to keep every Eastern European prime minister in mind?
We disagreed but that was still not a reason to split. What really galvanized our group of friends was the issue of emigration.
MWBP: How did it divide people?
Z: Some saw staying in the country as a patriotic duty. It was particularly striking since it was not a political issue before. Some students just wanted to move abroad, for a short stay or for the long run. I was one of them. It was no political statement – merely a healthy curiosity about the rest of the world. Before 2011 there wasn’t even any considerable emigration from Hungary – unlike from Poland or Romania. It was a leisure thing. A way to learn a new language, travel a bit, work elsewhere, study. But when economic emigration started it all turned very dark and we were suddenly considered traitors.
MWBP: How did people change?
Z: You know what they say that expats learn new habits, that they change and become a different person abroad. But that’s not the real story. It is the political view of the people who stayed in Hungary that changed the most. They had to bend their opinions to make it work.
Those who believed that Orbán would be a solid, conservative prime minister got slowly disillusioned. Some of these people changed their minds about it – just because they didn’t want to leave the country. They were the hardest to see change. They knew what was happening, but they wanted to unsee it. And the reason is that they didn’t want to leave.
MWBP: When you can’t change your environment, change your mind about it.
Z: That is what they did. Instead of sticking with their principles they chose to change their minds. And got angry with those who kept complaining about Orbán. With us. With those who left and kept their critical views.
They coped in various ways. Some tried to cut out politics altogether. But the point of this kind of regime is that you cannot cut it out. It is meant to be everywhere. It penetrates people’s lives and their most private affairs and everything has to get politicized. Schools, healthcare, the opening hours of shops, how you attend national holidays. These kinds of nationalists are full of biopolitics and telling people the only right way to live, the only thing they are allowed to do with their lives.
Politics goes after you even if you want to stay out of it. If nothing else, it finds you at work or through your business. The ever changing, ludicrous rules of non-cash vouchers, a visit from the taxman, the ever changing rules of the economic game, the bankruptcy of their companies reminded them that they can’t get away.
Others embraced Orbánism because they wanted jobs in government. These jobs, however, don’t pay well and their lives are full of suspicion and caution not to accidentally associate with or Facebook friend someone who is known to be a loudmouth. (OK, these jobs can pay well, but that is called corruption.) These friends stay sober at parties just to avoid saying something that puts them in suspicion, they google everyone they meet to check their public record, they suspect an ulterior motive in every question. At least one friend is not meeting me since he figured out that he shouldn’t associate with known liberals. We were room mates in Germany for a year before he got this job at the ministry. I thought we were friends. But I’m sure he’ll be back when this sickness is over. I hope.
MWBP: Why didn’t they leave?
Z: Imagine the world without your friends and family network, without your dad’s old schoolmate giving a good tip for business. Without the chance that you run into friends at a music festival. When your cultural references never fly in a conversation and the best you can achieve is not to be misunderstood. Language is a strong barrier and some just never feel connected to someone unless they share a mother tongue.
Not to mention that countries these days tend to hate outsiders and peg their economic plight straight on immigrants like us. Incompetent, populist politicians rule the public opinion everywhere and they need a scapegoat.
MWBP: So can you tell us about the two conversations you mentioned?
Z: Yes, I wanted to tell you about this because I think it illustrates the difference a few years can make.
In around 2013 we had a night when we discussed the nationalisation of private pension funds and how that money was simply stolen. Some thought it may have a sound economic reason after all (it didn’t). But everyone agreed that it was blatant theft by the state from its own citizens. Since that entire industries were monopolized by law into the hands of Orbán-loyalist oligarchs and no one even bothers to get angry about it.
Tobacco retail monopoly was also discussed. Just months before the government took away the right to sell tobacco products from retailers and gave it to local loyalists of the party. It was well documented – yet a guy was trying to comfort himself saying that it somehow must be to protect the children. These shops are everywhere, you see them every day as you walk the streets. Some wanted to give up smoking in protest. Today they all have their pissed off responses when you even dare to joke that they yielded.
We also discussed slides in the rule of law and human rights. Nothing like today’s events – but everyone was pissed off about that. There were lawyers at the table and they found it particularly hard to accept the removal of checks and balances, and the reference to market economy from the constitution. A few years later the same people looked resigned to the latest overreach by government – regarding NGOs. One of my friends literally said: “We’ve seen slides in human rights before and nothing happened“ So I guess if earlier steps down the ladder didn’t bring us to the ground – these new ones won’t do either.
Back then we were worked up about the president’s plagium scandal. Today, the central bank governor, a much more influential figure turns out to be a nutcase – and all they can tell us is to tell us to shut up about it. When Matolcsy was elected to central bank governor everyone thought it was impossible. That he was a lunatic. After it happened, they shut up and started to look for the good things about it. There was none so they decided to ignore it. The recent one billion dollar misappropriation of central bank money and sale of gold and currency reserves only deserved a shrug. When I brought it up they told me I am reading the wrong papers – others have explained that it is good for the country. These friends even schooled us that apparently, after all this “so-called mismanagement there still is a central bank” and “the forint is strong”. They know what they’re doing after all.
Back in the days Orbán’s illiberal nation speech was an absolute source of shame and outrage among these friends. Those who wanted to believe kept repeating the same communication nugget “he was just testing the media”. Like that means anything. By 2016 they announced that illiberalism “is the new age, embrace it”.
Those who bought houses in our little town and contracted to have three children for government loans cannot afford to think unpleasant thoughts. Too much anxiety I guess…”
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