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Refugees banned, tourists welcome: a journey through Hungary's rural west

Hungary’s hinterlands shed light on the rise of Orban's populist nationalism.

A barbed-wire fence at the Hungarian border A barbed-wire fence at the Hungarian border. Image: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA ImagesZala County in western Hungary is not usually the first stop on the map for tourists. Bordering Croatia and Slovenia, the county was once an agricultural powerhouse, with extensive fields that still cover the region’s plains. It also became an industrial centre during the area’s oil boom, which started in the 1930s and peaked in the 1980s before declining significantly. These days, visitors to the region are usually on their way to somewhere else, passing through what was once a significant crossroads between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. The region has struggled to adjust in the post-communist era; many of the oil wells have dried up or are no longer economic to exploit, and abandoned storage facilities and production sites dot the countryside – monuments to an industrial past.

Last week, the EU parliament voted to trigger disciplinary proceedings against Hungary over the erosion of democratic checks and balances by prime minister Viktor Orban’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party. But beyond the political headlines, a trip through Hungary’s rural west illuminates the roots of Orban’s support, and the socio-economic conditions that he has both exploited to promote his party’s agenda and neglected in pursuit of his xenophobic, anti-immigrant campaign. It also explains why many Hungarians do not seem concerned with Orban’s increasingly authoritarian trajectory.

I visited Zala County on a cycling tour hosted by the regional tourist board, who along with the local government are keen to promote the region’s potential as a destination. In the 1960s, workers drilling for oil in Zalakaros struck a thermal spring deep in the ground, sending 96º Celsius water to the surface, which transformed this Hungarian backwater to a spa town almost overnight. Riding along the quiet roads outside Zalakaros, the contrast with the wealth of the spa resort is striking. Low, simple buildings line the road, and elderly people tend small patches of land by hand. A horse and cart trundles down the rough tarmac towards us, a reminder of the profound inequality present in much of rural central and eastern Europe.

The declining rural industry has limited employment opportunities, leading young people to seek work abroad, leaving behind a shrinking and aging population and a shortage of skilled labour. Máté, an engineer in his 30s who is riding with the group, tells me that many of his friends have moved abroad – often to western European cities such as London and Vienna – because they cannot find a job with a good salary at home. He is fortunate that his company is a relatively large employer in the region, but laments that his peers do not have the same opportunities. Our tour guide Tamás, who lives in Budapest, says he struggles to find skilled tradesmen, even in the capital.

The regional tourist board and local government recognise these issues and are attempting to transform the area, taking advantage of the quiet roads and niche agriculture to attract visitors from abroad. They have identified the potential interest to cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts to the area, rebranding the region as “Muraland”, taking the name of the nearby river that defines the border between Hungary and Croatia. Vineyards and orchards cover the Zala hills, where farms are growing figs, blueberries and kiwis in place of the large-scale agriculture and oil fields that once dominated. The farmers require a large seasonal workforce to pick fruit, but a representative of the Muraland programme says they often can’t find enough workers in the region.

There have been some successes, though. Nestled in the Zala hills, sits the small village of Magyarszerdahely where Viktória makes artisan cheese in her back garden. She established the small business on her own, working by hand to make cheeses, yoghurt and cream from the small collection of goats she has in the field next to her house. It’s a family affair, and an elderly woman comes out of the house to offer a mid-morning shot of pálinka – a traditional fruit brandy – to welcome us. A few kilometres further on, a farm run by Krisztián Sabján, could almost pass for Provence. Sabján has diversified his crops to grow biofuels and lavender. So far it is a trial crop, but he plans to expand production, he tells us, as we sip lavender-infused cordial and taste the lavender biscuits he produces.

But signs of the disparate welcome Hungary offers visitors emerge when I visit an art studio. Zoltán, the friendly director of the centre that hosts international events, explains that an Ethiopian artist they had invited to deliver a course this year had been denied a visa – the first time this had happened to them.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the youth exodus and economic difficulties, unemployment in Hungary is relatively low, reaching 3.6% in the three months to July, with youth unemployment at 10.2%. But low salaries remain a barrier for young people seeking work in Hungary. Since 2010, 174,894 Hungarians have moved abroad, according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. The International Organisation for Migration says the 2008 international financial crisis had more of an impact than the country’s accession to the EU in 2004, and by 2013 7.4% of Hungarians aged 18-49 were living abroad. Since then, the number has significantly increased, with 29,400 emigrating in 2016 alone.

Zala county Zala county. Image: James Burgess.The government has tried to encourage young Hungarians to return and work in Hungary, launching a programme of housing assistance and mobility grants in 2015 for those coming back from the UK. Hungary is also attempting to attract some immigrant workers to fill vacancies, targeting Ukrainian and Serbian citizens in particular, demonstrating that Orban’s anti-immigration stance is primarily anti-muslim and anti-multicultural. There were just over 151,000 foreign citizens living in Hungary in 2017, according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, with two-thirds of the total foreign population coming from European countries. The largest numbers come from Romania and Germany.

The economic situation lays bare the duplicity underpinning the government’s immigration stance, and highlights Orban’s increasingly authoritarian position. In shutting out refugees, Orban’s government is excluding a ready population of young, skilled migrant workers from the Middle East and Asia in the name of nationalism and on the pretext that they are part of the problem.

Asylum applications from Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis surged in 2015 as the refugee crisis unfolded in Europe. Applications have fallen sharply in the years since as Hungary toughened its anti-refugee stance and erected border fences; the EU signed an agreement with Turkey limiting refugee arrivals in Greece; and the Balkans route became more difficult to navigate. New asylum applications fell from 177,135 in 2015 to 29,432 in 2016, and to just 3,397 in 2017. In 2016, the Hungarian authorities made 54,586 asylum decisions, suspending 49,479 of these and rejecting 4,675. Less than 1% of applications were accepted – among the lowest acceptance rate in the EU. This approach ignores the economic potential of immigration, not to mention a humanitarian obligation to help those fleeing persecution and war. And now Hungary has made it a criminal offence to assist people deemed to be illegal immigrants, and passed a constitutional amendment that states an “alien population” cannot be settled in the country.

The Fidesz government’s exploitation of the refugee crisis to stoke fear of immigrants and shore up its parliamentary majority does nothing to help the people of Hungary. Its anti-immigration stance only exacerbates the socio-economic challenges the country faces. But Orban’s weakening of democracy and xenophobic policies do not seem to concern Hungarians at home. Many Hungarians have been left behind or let down by the post-communist transition, integration into the EU and the 2008-9 financial crisis. Liberal democracy does not have a long history in many post-communist central and eastern European countries, helping to explain Hungarians’ ambivalence towards Orban’s creeping authoritarianism.

At a boating lake in Nagykanizsa, a former oil tower now serves as an observation platform for visitors to the park. In the city centre, vibrant cafes now line the main square where a Soviet monument once towered above passers-by under communist rule. The image of Orban as a strongman and champion of the people – once a committed liberal and staunch opponent of the communist regime – now holds sway over much of the country. “I can understand why people support him,” says a young British man, who moved to Hungary with his Hungarian wife, partly because of the anti-immigrant sentiment fuelled by the Brexit referendum. He explains that many Hungarians see Orban as an upholder of traditional values and national strength, a pillar of stability and security. And this is where the EU must shoulder its share of the blame. Its failure to deal adequately with the integration of peripheral states, the financial crisis and the European asylum crisis has left fertile ground for the seeds of Orban’s illiberalism.


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