Business, Finance & Economics

Hungary's youth fleeing tough economy, increased authoritarianism

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Zoltan Pallai is an American who moved back to Hungary, the land of his ancestors. Most Hungarian youth are making his move in reverse, fleeing a country they say is increasingly undemocratic.(Photo by Nate Tabak.)

Zoltan Pallai is living the Hungarian dream, serving up a bit of haute Americana as he prepares a cup of artisan drip coffee.

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Pallai runs the cafe at Massolit Books. The San Diego native is the son of Hungarian immigrants. He moved to Budapest to rediscover his roots more than three years ago. Many of his Hungarian peers are looking to do the exact opposite — and some already have.

“They often are completely shocked by my decision to come back here and to pursue citizenship and settle back in the home country,” Pallai said. “Most Hungarians are looking abroad.”

The economy here is dreary and many have soured on the center-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Critics say the new constitution and new laws are chipping away at Hungary’s democratic foundation.

“The anecdotal evidence is quite overwhelming,” said Istvan Rev, professor of history and political science at Central European University. “Everybody is talking about leaving Hungary and everybody knows somebody, whole families, groups of friends who are leaving together. It’s a real exodus.”

Rev says it hasn’t been like this since 1956, when 200,000 people fled Hungary in the wake of the failed revolution, crushed by the Soviets.

He said things now aren’t as bad, but Hungarians increasingly feel that the promise of democracy, which came in 1989, is disappearing.

“People think that the hopes that the country embraced around ’89 about a brighter, more dignified, more human future, could not be taken seriously,” Rev said.

Count Sophie Orban among them. Orban, who isn’t related to the prime minister, is moving to Portugal at the end of February. The English teacher is fed up with Hungary’s shift to the right.

“Without sounding too dramatic – but fascist tendencies, and the extreme, right-wing political sort of machinations, I think are really frightening in a way,” Orban said.

Case in point, the recent rise of a far-right ultranationalist party — Jobbik. It’s known for its anti-Roma, anti-Semitic and anti-Gay rhetoric. It recently called for Hungary’s exit from the European Union. A new poll ranked Jobbik as the third-most popular political party in the country.

Orban said the final push for her was the treatment of her sister, who’s gay.

“It was something that even before, theoretically, bothered me, but when it was my own sister who was threatened with physical violence, or being spat on or whatever …— these are things that happened,”" Orban said. "“It’s not something that cannot bother you.”

It speaks to a much larger problem.

“It’s not something I tell people, that I want to leave Hungary because many people are homophobic,” Orban said. “That’s just part of this whole attitude that many people have here, I think, which is, one of intolerance.”

Nikola Draskovic is also planning to leave Hungary. He’s 25 and has a degree in civil engineering. But the only work he’s found is at a youth hostel making $40 a day. Draskovic and his family came here from Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo war.

“Hungary was at that time really, lets say, it was really going up, and the economy was really good.… They had money.… You could see the future,” Draskovic said.

Draskovic became a Hungarian citizen, but he tells anyone in Serbia who’s thinking of moving here not to come. Draskovic plans to move to Germany, where his mother now lives.

The Hungarian government isn’t exactly standing by as young people leave. It recently launched a PR campaign to encourage them to stay put.

This slick video is called “Everything Ties Me Here.” It looks like a film trailer. A young man resists the temptation of a job in Britain and opts for a civil service fellowship in Hungary. He and his girlfriend hit some hard times. But the story has a happy ending.

As for Hungary, growing numbers here aren’t willing to stick around to see how this one ends.

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