The only certainty is uncertainty

Well, the past couple of months in Hungary have certainly been eventful. The demise of the Kata taxation system has sent many budding entrepreneurs to the wall and killed the efforts of many more to supplement their already meagre incomes. The fall-out won’t be immediately obvious and few really understand the consequences of this mid-year tax about-turn.

Kata was more than a taxation system. It epitomised hope, independence, and freedom. Economist Zsolt Babocsai wrote an excellent piece that is worth your time. As I read his take on the demise of Kata, a little bit of me died, too.

The lifting of subsidies on gas and electricity and the corresponding hike in energy prices sent people to the shops in search of wood-burning stoves. Firewood is attracting premium prices. The environmental cause has been set back years. The figurative black cloud hanging over this country will be all too visible come November.

Of course, Hungary is not the only country facing a long, cold winter. It’s not a localised problem. The war in Ukraine is having far-reaching effects.

People are talking about going back to the office so that they don’t have to heat their homes during the day, while schools are talking about sending students home, so they don’t have to heat their classrooms. If it wasn’t so worrying, I’d laugh. But that laughter would be tainted with anxiety. More of a nervous titter than a belly bomb.

Each day I wake up, I wonder what next. What law was passed while the nation slept? What changes will this day bring? What new bureaucracy will need to be navigated?

The only certainty is uncertainty.

A neighbour recently retired after 40 years in the private sector. Their pension? About €250 a month. With spiralling food prices and increased utility bills, their retirement plans are overshadowed by thoughts of survival. Long-term futures have morphed into short-term thoughts of simply getting through the winter.

Expats in Hungary are largely cushioned by earnings and pensions that stem from euro, dollar, and sterling systems. Indeed, with the exchange rates the way they are, it’s arguably a good time to be in Hungary, as long as you’re not being paid in forints. On the flip side, those earning in HUF are facing a figurative economic wall that makes moving to, say, Austria or Germany, financially difficult, if not impossible.

Hungarian professionals working for multinationals will likely weather the storm, too. But those on fixed pensions, already scraping by, will face the annual choice between heating and eating. Last year, between October and January, 118 people died at home in Hungary from exposure. The mind boggles.

Perhaps because I’m unduly bothered about the state of chassis in which I find the country, I’m interested in hearing what others have to say about the situation. I read both sides. I read the comments. I listen.

More well-to-do Hungarian friends and most ex-pats I talk to don’t appear to be all that bothered. It is what it is. Kata, they say, was being abused. It was time to kill it. And fair enough. Yes. It was being abused. By some. But the majority hadn’t even invoiced the equivalent of a minimum wage. Paper, as my mother would say, will take any print.

As for the energy crisis – that’s global. And yes, it is.

Concerning the overnight lawmaking, why let that upset you? It’s become standard practice.

And the possibility of Hungary leaving the EU? That won’t go to referendum, they say. It’ll be something we wake up to.

Were I to sit down and have my anxiety analysed, HUXIT would be close to the core. That the notion has been christened bothers me. Things with names are somehow more real. What then, I wonder. What then?

I’m not alone in my worries. Hungarian friends in average jobs or freelancing are seriously worried about their futures here. Ex-pats struggling with the rightness of it all are worried, too.

As someone who is regularly told that she’s the ‘right kind of foreigner’, i.e. a church-going white European, I wonder what my fate would be were Hungary no longer part of the EU? William Galston, of the non-partisan Brookings Institution, commented recently: ‘If Trumpism is a political religion, Budapest is its Rome.’ But me being (or not being) the right kind of foreigner is nothing to those across Europe who are waking to the realisation that they’re not the right kind of citizen. Russian citizens jailed or fleeing because they are against the war. Ukrainians who are also Russian sympathisers being arrested.

In those minutes before slipping into sleep at night or waking fully in the morning, all sorts of scenarios run through my head, the worst of which is answering a knock on the door to be told we no longer want your kind and yes, we’ll take the keys to your flat, too.

A future with ‘less [sic] drag queens and more Chuck Norris’ isn’t exactly how I’d envisioned my retirement.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 August 2022

2 Responses

  1. When contemplating “retirement” remember that you’ll never get a day off . . . and that nothing is certain except death and taxation.

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