“I’ve left the country to be able to stay who I am. Had I not left, I may have changed like my friends did. Condoning corruption, respecting might over right, losing the ability to see what my own interests are. I just changed my location – they have changed their convictions.”
Phone interview with Zoltán, who now lives in Switzerland. Zoltán emigrated in 2014, and found that the friends who decided not to emigrate have changed more than those who left. (Transcript edited for brevity – translation our own.)
ZOLTÁN: I read your posts about how people who didn’t leave Hungary slowly boil 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.
People 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 things. 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 subject of emigration has been hanging above us in the last couple of years. Everyone knows someone who already left, every family is affected, reunions and parties always start with gossip on where everyone was and how they were doing. There is always someone who is only visiting home, others are planning to leave, and others who decided not to. The people who changed the most are the ones who decided not to emigrate.
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 the people who decide not to leave also 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 children and friends. They got rich on EU money and legislation written specifically for them. They took others’ businesses and got monopolies, and it made life more expensive for the average people. Today, it is just how it should be. My friends hate me when I bring it up and say things like “national markets must be protected”. They call it impressive that Orbán could do it. Impressive theft! They are impressed by how their businesses were taken from them. And they accuse me of just being jealous of the successful cronies and parrot Orbán’s bullshit about how “we need national capital”. They completely lost sight of their own interests and they want me to shut up about it. They defend the robber elite that took their livelihoods. If they could, they were better, so they are right.
MWBP: Tell us about your friends.
Z: All my friends were liberal or conservative in 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 and 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. All the words are just window dressing. The migrant-scaremongering, the anti-EU freedom fight, all just smokescreen. It is all just theft now.
But perceptions change slowly – many still remember 1998 Orbán. Or 1989 Orbán. He used to be 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 want to believe. They said it’s “just a tool to attract voters”. 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 the topic of emigration divide people?
Z: Some saw staying in the country as a patriotic duty. It has not been a political issue before. Some simply wanted to move abroad, for a short stay or for the long run. I was one of them. I went to study abroad for 4 years after university, then I came back to start working. 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 people who left were suddenly considered traitors. I moved in 2014, when I saw that Fidesz will never let go of power. It was not just a bad trip, it was my country now.
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 feel better about their decision.
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 for changing their minds was that they simply refused to leave. Once you make up your mind about emigration – to emigrate or not to emigrate – you have to adjust your mind to it.
MWBP: When you can’t change your environment, change your mind about it.
Z: Yes, I’ve read that post and 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 children. It affects 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. They are spending more time ratting on each other than working. They are paranoid about not to accidentally associate with someone 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 on political leanings. Are they associated with liberal organisations? Are they in business with a Fidesz crony? They suspect an ulterior motive in every question. A 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 always speaking a foreign language. 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 you live in a new country, 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. For those incompetent politicians in foreign countries, we are the scapegoat they need to survive politically.
If we look at it from this angle, I’ve left the country to be able to stay who I am, while those who stayed had to change beyond recognition. Had I not left, I may have changed my mind as well, like my friends did. Condoning corruption, respecting might over right, losing the ability to see what my own interests are. If you make up your mind and dig in your feet that you must-must-must stay, you have to learn to live with it. And then to love it, to make it feel like a good decision. It looks like I changed more because I now live somewhere else, eat different food, speak a different language – but in fact, they are the ones who had to change substantially. I just changed my location – they have changed their convictions.
MWBP: So can you tell us about the conversations you mentioned?
Z: Yes, I think it illustrates the difference a few years can make.
In around 2013 we had a night out. We discussed the nationalisation of private pension funds and how that money was simply stolen. Some argued 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 nationalization, entire industries were monopolized by law into the hands of Orbán-loyalist oligarchs. In 2017 no one even bothers to get angry about it anymore.
Tobacco retail monopoly was also discussed in 2013. It was just after the government took away the right to sell tobacco products from retailers and gave it to loyalists of the party. It was well documented theft – yet a friend was trying to comfort himself saying that it somehow protects the children. But that was years ago. In 2017 he just shrugs as if I were stupid to get angry about it. He also completely forgot about the children’s health excuse. We discussed the tobacco monopoly recently and he said that if Fidesz could do it, they deserve it.
We also used to discuss slides in the rule of law and human rights back in 2011. It was nothing like today, the situation was much less dire – although Orbán made it perfectly clear that he was working on destroying the rule of law and constitutionalism in Hungary. Back then everyone was pissed off by much smaller details. 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 (in 2017) the same people looked resigned. One of them 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 in the days we used to get worked up about the president’s plagiarism 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. Before 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. 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 somehow good for the country. These friends even schooled us that despite this “so-called mismanagement there still is a central bank” and “the forint is strong”.
Back in the days Orbán’s illiberal nation speech was an source of shame and outrage among my 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 in exchange for government loans cannot afford to think otherwise. Too much anxiety I guess…”
This was an interview. Write us your thoughts or a post at meanwhileinbudapest (at) mail.com or follow us on Facebook , or Twitter @_MwBp