The twentieth century resident of Transcarpathia could have been a citizen of the Monarchy as well as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and Ukraine without even having to move anywhere. Today however, people are moving, but not the borders: there is a direct bus connection between the time-worn town of Rahiv (Rahó), Transcarpathia, and Prague scheduled three times a day. Who are the passengers, and why and where do they travel?
Central European Time
Transcarpathia has always been considered a melting pot of nationalities. It has an area of 13,000 sq km and historically belongs to the two Hungarian counties of Bereg and Ung. Rusyns, Hutsuls, Romanians, Poles, Hungarians, Saxons, Jews and Romani have lived and mixed here with each other. Ukraine’s population has dramatically decreased since the declaration of independence in 1991, and accurate data is not available, as the last census was held in 2001. By that time, the population had decreased to 48 million from 52 million counted at the time of declaration of independence. Today, the total population is estimated at 37 million, not including Crimea, which was annexed by Russia, and the de facto independent Donetsk region (Donbass). The number of expats and people working abroad is unknown, however. Official statistics only show those who withdrew residence, obviously resulting in false data. Demographists discuss a migration rate of more than 10%, which means a realistic estimation of three million people, but other calculations often mention 5–7 million (without any means of proof).
Much more accurate information is available about the Transcarpathian population that speaks Hungarian as a native language because of representative research at the Hungarian College of Berehove (Beregszász) conducted in 2017 supported by the Institute of Geography of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Research Institute for Hungarian Communities Abroad. Besides the other larger cities of Mukachevo (Munkács) and Uzhhorod (Ungvár), Berehove is the cultural, educational and community centre of this minority. Time is also measured as it is in Hungary, church tower clocks even showing this. People here say that “Our lives are set to Central European Time”.
The Hungarian language is mainly used in the pedestrian precinct of the inner town and the Saturday market, which features some post-Soviet charm despite the Hungarian population having officially fallen to 40%. The centre of Berehove is dominated by two buildings, one of them being the hub of Hungarian theatre life, a real Soviet concrete monolith, a product of Socialist Realism that obscures the former synagogue like a sarcophagus. The other is a building named the Royal Law House from when the period of the Monarchy ended. This building was transformed according to the vision of the 1950s into a military factory to produce intercontinental missile navigation systems. Now, it’s the building of the Ferenc Rákóczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian College.
As one of its coordinators, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences and Tourism József Molnár (53) provided us with extensive insight into the research. According to their estimates, the population of Transcarpathian Hungarians has decreased from 152 thousand to 131 thousand since the last census, mainly because of migration. “Everybody knows that a lot of people are working abroad. Let’s look at the actual numbers,” said Molnár and his colleagues. Their results showed that at least 18 thousand people are employed beyond the borders according to the definition of working long-term (between 3 and 12 months) abroad. This means 13–15%, a ratio higher than the Ukrainian average, and these numbers don’t include people—especially with higher education—that have resettled in Hungary.
Working abroad is rather a means to an end and not a solution for most people. They regard it as temporary, and the proportion of foreign workers in the most active age group between 20 and 40 years exceeds 20 percent—no family is unaffected by migration. Short term migration for the purposes of work is typical in rural settlements, while long term expats mainly come from cities. Women prefer safe and familiar language environments that pose less challenge to them, which is why their primary destination is their native country (Transcarpathian domestic workers have their own community in Budapest). Men are less cautious and willing to take production jobs even in foreign language environments. The number of job seekers interested in countries other than their native country, however, is on the increase. Hungary attracts only half of the foreign workers, a third leave for the Czech Republic and a smaller part go to Slovakia.
The Transcarpathian melting pot of nationalities has always been characterized by mobility. As a proportion of their numbers, Transcarpathian people exceeded other nationalities in migrants leaving for America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and after the Treaty of Trianon, they also took the opportunities provided by Czechoslovakia in Western Europe. During the Soviet era, logging in Siberia and harvesting in Kazakhstan provided employment opportunities.
The significance of a Hungarian passport
Separated families and self-exploitation in order to earn a living are something of a tradition here, although migration today is astonishing. “We were five friends, we grew up together, we raised Maypoles every year and grilled shashlik through all our summers together. Now four of us are abroad, some of us have already lived in four or five countries, and last year I grilled shashlik alone in my garden,” said one who stayed. “My son Erik works in London so that we could buy the last flat in this apartment house and expand our guesthouse. His elder son will graduate from high school this year in Nyíregyháza, but it’s not certain that he’ll continue his education, as he’s already been called to Germany. His younger brother is learning in Hungary so that he can speak Hungarian well. There aren’t enough teachers here. Their mother, Natália, lives with him in Vásárosnamény. My son, Robi has been living in Budapest for years now. My daughter married a man from Kiev; however, his son works in Prague. I’m the only one who stayed back. I make plans, and I also achieve them,” added Ms. Emma, the 78-year-old owner of a guesthouse in Rahiv.
“All of my eight cousins are abroad in Budapest, Prague, the Netherlands and London. That’s five families. A few years ago, they came home every Easter and Christmas, now perhaps they come every two years, even though all of them have a house suitable for living here,” said a young man from Berehovo about his family. “My former schoolmates from Lemberg (Lviv) are all over the world in the USA, Australia, Germany, Sweden and drilling towers in Norway. An unskilled labourer became bar owner in Portugal, a cleaner became managing director in Canada,” said a professional who tries to make living at home.
Local Hungarians have always leveraged the benefits of their status. In the chaotic 1990s, they imported cigarettes, alcoholic drinks, precious metals and petrol to Hungary under their local border crossing permits and with the support of Border Force officers. They were also employed in the Hungarian grey economy. Simplified naturalisation and getting a Hungarian passport were a milestone in encouraging formal employment. It was certainly good business until 2016, when naturalisation was under the jurisdiction of local governments and practically anyone could get EU citizenship (several hundred criminal proceedings related to such cases are ongoing). “I did it several times. Intermediaries received 3000 USD, but they only gave me 300 for taking the oath of citizenship speaking Hungarian fluently as a stand-in.”
Hungarian passports have become less significant now, having become even more difficult to acquire. The involvement of the consulship is required, and the procedure may take up to six months to complete. New biometric Ukrainian passports allow people to enter the EU without visas, and simplified employment is possible in neighbouring countries and Germany. The Hungarian passport has a few remaining benefits: there’s no need to travel home every three months, and it’s easier to show a Ukrainian passport at the Ukrainian side of the border and a Hungarian passport at the other side when crossing. Using a car registered in Hungary is also allowed.
Strengthened by tragic moments in history, the population prefers choosing customized strategies for living. Hungarians initially welcomed the demonstrations in Kiev that resulted in a new political direction. However, this completely changed the conditions for people. GDP decreased by 12 percent, the exchange rate of the hryvna to the US dollar (and Hungarian forint) fell to a third, discounted Russian energy imports ceased, gas prices tripled, electricity prices doubled, and utility bills became the most significant cost of living. Russia retaliated to alignment with the West by annexing Crimea, and the outbreak of war in Eastern-Ukraine means many people were drafted. The Hungarian passport made it a little easier—anyone called to the draft could leave for Hungary within the hour. Up to now, more soldiers have been killed in these battles—and listed on dedicated banners in every major city—than in the Soviet-Afghan war.
The government was unable to perform on its undertaken tasks, corruption flourished, companies went bankrupt and tourism fell. Public mood is characterized by uncertainty, fear and the urge to escape. Only recently we’ve seen a slight change—people hope that someday it will be better, although they still work abroad. They say, “I’ll stay here for one more season,” or “We’ll see after the elections,” or “Next year I’ll surely go home.” But none of these words are followed by action.
We trust you—you can even come on Sundays
Our interviewee was a teacher in a small village earning 730 hryvna (its value is 7500 HUF/26 USD now) a month, but he doesn’t complain. His salary had just increased to 1000 hryvna, which allowed him to buy his first computer when the economic crisis engulfed the country. The native Ukrainian uncle of his girlfriend (now his wife), Ivan, who is also a professional and in those days conducted a successful HR service business in Moravia, invited him to “Come and work with me, you won’t regret it! Your hourly wage will be one hundred korunas (1400 HUF/5 USD).” He worked in the summer school holidays for a company producing woodwork, and his wage for two days equalled his monthly salary earned at home. Even though he worked 16 hours on workdays (from 6 am to 9 pm) and on Saturdays from 6 am to 2 pm, he could save enough money to cover his weekly costs of living just from his Saturday wage. It wasn’t an easy job, but he was appreciated by the management. “We trust you—you can even come on Sundays,” they said. He agreed to work on Sundays and set a record at the company of 365 hours worked in one month, earning 1800 USD.
Ivan saw that his new family member met his expectations and offered him something new. “Look for my employees for me. Hungarians.” Ivan formerly had a mainly Ukrainian workforce but could barely satisfy the need for employees. The guy went home and posted some social media ads. It was the summer of 2015, and crowds were interested in his offer. He received 1500 koruna for each new employee. He organized their travel from door to door (with his own VW Bora), and earned the same money with a single transfer in a week as in the woodwork factory working 16 hours a day without days off. After a while, he used his initial capital to set up a regional office for a Hungarian recruiting company thanks to his network of contacts, however, Hungarian employees also turned to job opportunities in the Czech Republic, which was offering more favourable financial conditions by that time.
It’s more than a trend for now—the destination for employees irrespective of their sex, age or nationality is not Hungary. They only consider wages and the ease of work because of the differences in employment conditions and wages between the Czech Republic and Hungary. Czech hourly wages are higher (more than 100 korunas, approx. 1500 HUF/5 USD), and there are free dormitories at worker’s hostels with bunk beds. The legal conditions of employment are similarly important to them in providing opportunities for overtime. By default, the calculation of wages implies that it’s not worth working 8 hours a day—12-hour workdays are general. Of course, this is prohibited in the Czech Republic, but the laws permit this kind of overtime for employees from third countries. Hungarian legislation has also adapted this aspect for now, but their delay in adopting this resulted in multinational companies in Hungary only being able to recruit a workforce from eastern Ukraine, Vietnam or Serbia (this clarifies the paragraphs of Hungary’s “slave law” concerning the domestic workforce.) There is another difference: administration is quicker and more flexible, and there is no need to struggle with HR tests and bureaucratic procedures. You only need to call the agency and the van will arrive on time directly at the worker’s hostel.
I was fed up with people talking Ukrainian to me
The system here is built on agencies called “agentura”. Hundreds can be found just in the Transcarpathian region alone. Agencies require employees to sign an employment contract for at least three months, and their travel and accommodation are organized. A general condition of this kind of employment is a two-year prohibition of signing an employment contract directly with an employer where the agency previously sent them. Irrespective of Hungarian citizenship, it is very hard to find a job without intermediaries—Czech bureaucracy doesn’t make it simple, and furthermore, employers prefer local employees. In this case, overtime also has to be disregarded, as the work schedule is strictly eight hours per day.
“Come and see where we live,” said a cheerful and lively woman in a simple, furnished mansard room in a small town somewhere near Prague. As they say, “Behind the God’s back, even the supermarket is three kilometres away from here”. “Six of us live here, four girls and two boys. It’s not so big, but better than a worker’s hostel. The bathroom is normal; however, we don’t have enough space for a microwave oven.” Certainly, as one of the most important things to do in the evenings, it would be good to heat some dinner after the long work hours from 6 am to 6 pm. All of them are Hungarians from the District of Berehovo or Vynohradiv (Nagyszőlős) and work at an LED lamp factory. There are two production lines, one for Ukrainians and the other for Hungarians, although, both of them are staffed with Transcarpathian workers. There are also Romani from the mother country. “I can help them with interpreting.” She is also a Hungarian citizen, but the main reason for taking Hungarian citizenship was pride, “To prevent others talking to me in Ukrainian or Russian in Tarpa, only Hungarian in the future.” She’s been a single mother with two sons for 15 years and made a living from seasonal work and security jobs in Hungary. Recently, she’s been working at different locations in the Czech Republic each season for five years. Her elder son also works abroad, and the younger—who only has Hungarian citizenship—studies at home. She also supports her mother with a 1200-hryvna retirement pension and 5000-hryvna utility fees a month with a quarterly amount of 1000 USD. Their goal is to have a house in Hungary, especially in Nyíregyháza or Debrecen.
We met this strikingly well-dressed, pretty and smart girl in a sleepy town near Prague. She called it “dumpy”, however, loves living here. It’s a quiet place and anything can be reached in twenty minutes. She worked in Hungary, but before that she was a qualified employee at home and managed an international commerce business. Her reason for leaving was not money but a tough period in her private life. For that reason, she came to the Czech Republic years ago. Why doesn’t she go back to Hungary? Because “I was fed up with people talking Ukrainian to me.” She chose a job packing Belgian chocolates. This is what she does at the factory, where up to 250 extra employees are needed during the most demanding part of the year. Everybody came from Transcarpathian with dual citizenship, even those originating from Slatina, Croatia or Romanians from the Republic of Moldova. Her mother accompanied her, as she couldn’t let her daughter go alone. They live together in a flat on the main square. This is a great achievement, just like her indefinite term employment contract that no-one else in the factory has. She doesn’t work at the production line anymore; she became a quality controller and “multipurpose” employee, as their Czech supervisors appreciated her work. Of course, it wouldn’t be possible without knowing the language that she learned here (“I’m an advanced learner, but I still don’t understand jokes”). Ukrainian language skills of her generation are poor because everybody attended Hungarian schools, but language aptitude and ambition helped her a lot. She could imagine living here, if her private life ever justified it (“It wouldn’t be easy. I’m very choosy.”). Her medium-term goal though is to return to Budapest and work in an office, because, “I miss the computer, high heels, jewellery, long nails and colourful dresses.”
We met a young man at one of the most important bath towns of the former monarchy, in the café of a hotel resembling a former trade union holiday resort, which has only preserved its former glory outside. For Hungarian workers from Transcarpathia, the proximity of the factory producing automotive cable harnesses is integral part of this atmosphere. There are almost as many young people here and in the factories of the nearby town of Cheb as there are at Berehovo’s weekend parties. The cashiers at the local Kaufland supermarket also tend to understand their Hungarian-Czech mixed language.
Our interviewee came here three years ago. He was lucky enough to immediately obtain a warehouse job and then became a fork-lift truck operator after acquiring the necessary qualifications. He had a good life at home and worked in construction crews in Hungary, but a love affair quickly made him change. He is satisfied with his accommodation and salary and doesn’t plan on going anywhere else or looking for seasonal jobs (the automotive industry needs additional workforce in spring, while the chocolate industry in autumn). His dream has also come true: “I was always an Audi fan, I worked for a year to get it, but now I go home in my V6 Triptonic A6—I’m young, I don’t have a family of my own, it’s the perfect time of my life to have that car.” He doesn’t exclude staying here, but he’s searching girls online to find a partner at home. He can save the most money being single. In a month with 23 workdays he can put aside 33,000 korunas, which allows him to take home two thousand Euros to his mother each quarter and supplement her retirement pension of 1600 hryvna. When he returns home (he plans to next year), he will set up a crew of bricklayers again and work in the Transcarpathian region, but he’d rather live in Hungary. It may happen then that he’ll go to work in Ukraine from Hungary, not vice versa.
Those who leave never come back
The consequences of bulk migration from Ukraine are two-directional. What they earn abroad they would also like to spend after settling the bills of the family that remained at home. They spend it especially on construction and renovation. Last year, the amount of money that went back to Ukraine increased by 35 percent to 16.5 billion USD. This is more than 10% of Ukraine’s GDP (and cash brought home could be even more). This is significant capital, indicated by the many construction material stores recognizable from the striking coloured tiles according to the local taste lined up along main roads, bathroom and furniture stores located in hubs, and even companies now offering garden pools.
On the other hand, the human resources are lacking in this construction boom. You can hardly find a professional, and the prices of building services have reached Hungarian levels. Materials though are much cheaper. There is a shortage of competent workers everywhere, and the wages of factory workers’ have also doubled or tripled (only government employee salaries stayed between the minimum 4000-hryvna wage and the average 8000 hryvna). We’ve seen a job advertisement offering 10,000 hryvna (100,000 HUF) for a maintenance worker at a rural hotel.
Employers are struggling. Tibor Bíró (59), owner of the Hotel Helikon nearby Berehovo, is a successful entrepreneur who was courageous enough to provide moneylending in order to survive during critical times. Today, he has no choice when looking for staff for his 65-room hotel, which requires 100 employees in the summer. He also pays a fixed salary of 300 USD in winter and provides free accommodation, catering and a friendly work environment, because “Those who leave never come back.”
Bus route between Rahiv and Prague
Travel solutions are provided by specialized businesses for those working abroad. Shuttle vans are operated for an average travel fee of 70 USD, but there are also scheduled routes for approx. 50 USD. Don’t be surprised if you see long-distance buses with Ternopol-Verona, Lviv-Roma or Vinnicja-Bratislava light signs. The primary route of Transcarpathian people travelling to the Czech Republic is between Rahiv and Prague. Every day, three buses head from the bus station of the dusty little town near the source of River Tisza to collect all the economic migrants from its districts. The state-of-the-art bus has a video system integrated into the headrests, but the journey takes 24 hours, even more during the holiday season. We take the midday bus and reach the border of Slovakia in 12 hours, with 21 passengers filling up half the bus. The drivers are intrepid and get through huge potholes at high speed next to the barbed wire fence along the Romanian border. The jolts resemble travelling on a horse drawn wagon, but at least we pass by all the passenger cars on the narrow road. Later, the extra wide (built in the Soviet era to provide enough space for complete tank divisions) yet unrepaired roads show us the local driving traditions. From wall to wall, from roadside to roadside they choose the best route irrespective of the traffic coming in the opposite direction. Drivers are always talking on their phones, though there is a reason for it.
We stop at every significant town to pick up smaller or larger packages with destinations in Slovakia or the Czech Republic and stop again at night at towns to deliver them. We also stop at every significant city and see the same scenes that no-one can get used to. Wives and crying girls say goodbye to fathers, elderly people take the young by car and get the luggage out of the trunk in tears, and couples leave each other with difficultly. The passengers are well-dressed and have modern suitcases, just like in the lounge of an international airport instead of a worn bus station. Their mood is shaped accordingly, and their thoughts are still at home when they become absorbed in their phones and talk for many hours or try to get to sleep. This is not a tourist route where people chat and get to know each other, this is the same as the so called “black train” that takes Romani from Nyírség to Budapest. The rests are short, and drivers say “Pjaty minut” imperatively, so you can choose either a cigarette or the toilet—there is no time for both. Apart from the unprepared reporter, everyone takes food and drink from home. At night there’s no lighting— people sleep instead of reading. Our morning arrival is similar—passengers vanish quickly in the outskirts of Prague without saying goodbye, and suddenly we feel very lonely.
The role of Hungary’s government
Everything is influenced by the Hungarian government in the Transcarpathian region. Since 2015, it has provided the greatest amount of support here compared to other Hungarian communities outside Hungary. This can be even seen in education and scientific scholarships, political associations and churches. Everything relies on this support, and they practically only cover their organizational costs from it. My scheduled interviews were cancelled one after the other by clergymen. One of my interviewees noted “The Orthodox pope here preaches against migrants, though everybody in this village became a migrant.” Dual citizenship is an effective way of collecting votes in Hungary, although it helps Hungarians stay here least of all.