Since 2022, Hungary can no longer be considered a full-fledged democracy. The political and economic development in the country has meant that many young and highly educated people choose to leave. Photo: Agnes Fältman.

FUF-correspondents, Report

Young and highly educated people are leaving Hungary – as a result of Orbán's policies

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Fidesz, the nationalist ruling party, has over the past decade systematically dismantled the country's democratic institutions. In an increasingly harsh economic and political climate many young and highly educated Hungarians choose to move abroad. What can attract them back? Can liberal winds blowing across former nationalist ally Poland bring hope for change? 

Along the icy waters of the Danube sits the majestic Hungarian Parliament building. With its mighty dome, its beautiful spiers and countless frills, it could be taken from a movie.

The politics that have been carried out inside this particular parliament building have in recent years caused a great stir both in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic — not least because of the protracted Swedish NATO process, the Hungarian the resistance against EU aid to Ukraine, and Hungary's general approach to Russia.

Hungary's majestic parliament building on the Danube River. Photo: Agnes Fältman.

The government in Budapest is now confronted with what some see as a consequence of its long-standing controversial policies — many young Hungarians are leaving the country for other parts of Europe.

26-year-old Fanni from Győr, a city in the northwestern part of the country, is one of many Hungarians who have moved abroad. Before she moved, she studied to become a teacher in Budapest, but a year ago the moving team went with her partner to the neighboring Austrian capital, Vienna.

"There were many more opportunities abroad than in such a small country as Hungary," says Fanni, who wishes to remain anonymous in the text. 

The erosion of Hungarian democracy

Since the fall of the wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, the country has undergone major changes. After decades of oppression, Hungary was thirsty for democracy and economic development. Membership in NATO and the EU came in 1999 and 2004, respectively. Two years after the financial crisis in 2008, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party won the election with a landslide victory. Their election promises was to implement major tax cuts and create more jobs, but above all to strengthen the Hungarian national identity and the country's international reputation.

The entire 2010s came to be dominated by Viktor Orbán, who governed the country in a strict national conservative direction. In 2022, Hungary could according to the EU no longer considered a full-fledged democracy, because of the many anti-democratic reforms implemented by the Hungarian government.

Among other things, the government has been accused of having manipulated the electoral system, weakened the independence of the judiciary and limited press freedom through increased state control of free media. Corruption has been widespread and the position of minorities in society, for example LGBTQI people and the rights of asylum seekers, have weakened under the leadership of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz.

Fanni is unsure whether Hungary will implement the changes needed to take the country in a new direction. Photo: Photo: Agnes Fältman.

— The government in Budapest controls most media companies, newspapers, news channels and radio stations in different ways. But what is said there is mostly not true, says Fanni.

Fanni refers to KESMA Foundation which is controlled by people loyal to the ruling party. Today, the foundation has control over around 500 different media companies in Hungary. Several major independent publications and radio stations have shut down the last few years, and Fidesz today has de facto control over 80 percent by the country's media.

But it is not only the restricted freedom of the press that worries — the economic situation in the country has also worried many Hungarians in recent years. Hungary had one of the EU's lowest indicated average earnings in 2022, and the following year the country suffered from one of those the highest inflation levels within the EU.

The majority of those who move are young

As many as 57 percent of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in Hungary envision a future abroad within a decade, compared to only 6 percent who definitely want to stay in Hungary, according to a recent survey. Of the respondents, 48 ​​percent answered that they feel very or relatively poorly, and a majority answered that they believe that the school did not prepare them sufficiently for future jobs. 68 percent believe that the country's situation is beyond all criticism, and a third believe that the situation will only worsen.

- There are several things that would need to be improved in Hungary, but I honestly don't know if they will do so in the near future, says Fanni.

It is estimated that between half a million and 700 Hungarians live there abroad. That's about seven percent of the country's population. The majority of these have left the country during that time last decade. About 124 of them working in Austria and 215 in Germany. Fanni explains that many people choose to move there precisely because the countries are geographically close to Hungary. Many people learn that too German language at school.

- I feel that the people in Vienna are much nicer and more relaxed than in Hungary. At home, everyone feels so stressed and self-absorbed.

Most people who choose to leave Hungary are precisely young people — 80 percent of those who emigrate are under 40 years old. A third of those who leave have a university degree, in contrast to the 18 percent of the total population who do. Hungary is thus experiencing a kind of "Brain Drain" — that highly educated and highly qualified people emigrate to a large extent to find better working conditions in another country.

- I think that one of the biggest reasons why people move is that they oppose the political development in the country, says Fanni.

She says that she knows many young people who have moved abroad. Apart from those who dislike the political developments, some simply want to see something new and get to know a new culture. Others experience the Hungarian work climate as inhibiting and believe that collaboration is valued significantly lower than being able to climb the career ladder yourself.

- With our dramatic history in mind, I cannot understand how it has become like this, as we have learned that you have to stick together to get through difficulties.

Government projects to attract Hungarians from abroad

The Hungarian government is very aware that a large number of citizens choose to move, and has therefore launched an expensive project to try to attract Hungarians from abroad with the help of, among other things, attractive websites and targeted YouTube advertisements. reviews However, the opposition to the project has been great, and many young people living abroad state that it has not achieved the desired effect.

The government project's website with an attractive picture of the Hungarian countryside. Photo:

Fanni has not heard of the project, but says herself that she might consider moving back to Hungary.

- I wouldn't say that I can only be happy abroad, because that is simply not true. Of course there are more job opportunities outside Hungary, but it's really difficult to establish yourself everywhere, she says.

Can the Polish change of government inspire change?

A country that has experienced a similar political and social development to Hungary in recent years is Poland. After eight years in power lost the nationalist Law and Justice party the Polish election in 2023. Like Fidesz, the party has introduced a series of reforms which has weakened the country's legal certainty and democracy.

The two countries' conflicts with Brussels if their democratic restrictions, with frozen EU grants as a result, have made them unexpected allies in the fight against an EU they consider threatens Christian values. Their within the EU controversial opposition to support to Ukraine, and not least Viktor Orbán's rapprochement with Russia, has further created concerns in Brussels and the United States.

Viktor Orbán's residence in Budapest. Photo: Agnes Fältman.

But without a strong ally in Warsaw, Viktor Orbán and Fidesz suddenly stand much more alone on the European playing field. Could the Polish power shift inspire Hungary to implement a similar change?

Fanni believes that the change of government in Poland did not receive much attention at all in the regime-loyal Hungarian press, which she is not surprised by.

- I think that many slightly older people do not think about what is happening outside Hungary. They are not even interested what happens outside their own village or city. Those who vote for Orbán do not care about anything other than what is good for themselves.

"Love Thy Neighbour" — "love your neighbor" — written in graffiti on a wall in Budapest's central quarter. A possible protest action against the government's condemnation of support for war-torn neighboring Ukraine and welcoming of Russian influence. Photo: Agnes Fältman.

She says that many younger people no longer watch the television news, which the older generation still does. This, she believes, leads to a rift between the generations - the elderly believe almost everything that is said on television and radio, while the young are of a different opinion.

- Many probably feel as I do, that it can be difficult to know what to read and what is actually correct. Therefore, some read both the regime-loyal newspapers and the independent ones, to know what both sides are saying.

Fanni believes that Viktor Orbán will remain in power for a long time to come. Photo: Agnes Fältman.

Fanni ponders for a moment whether she believes that the Polish change of power can inspire change in Hungary. Finally she answers:

- We always try to elect another government, but we can't. It is impossible. The government has built this impenetrable system that keeps them in power. Unfortunately, there is no one else big or loud enough to win against the other side.

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