Zoltan Pallai is living the Hungarian dream. He’s serving up a bit of haute Americana as he prepares a cup of artisan drip coffee.
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. It’s the complete reverse of what many of his Hungarian peers have done or now plan to do.
“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 are souring 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 result?
“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 says things aren’t as bad now. 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 is the recent rise of a far-right ultranationalist party — Jobbik. It’s known for its anti-Roma, anti-Semitic and anti-Gay rhetoric – and it recently called for Hungary’s exit from the EU. A new poll ranked Jobbik as the third-most-popular political party in the country.
Sophie Orban says 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 you know, being spat on or whatever these are things that happened, Orban said. It’s not something that sort of cannot bother you.”
Orban says it speaks to a much larger problem.
“It’s not something I tell people like 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 upside and the economy was really good they had money you could see the future,” Draskovic said.
Draskovic became a Hungarian citizen, but he now says to anyone back in Serbia who’s thinking of moving here: don’t come.
Draskovic plans to go to Germany, where his mother now lives.
But the Hungarian government isn’t just standing by as young people leave. It’s 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.