The small police station that we agreed to meet in looks like it has been abandoned for years. I can hear my footsteps echo in the small hallway, lit by bright overhead lighting. Each doorway leads to equally gloomy spaces; apparently we are the only ones here. We sit down in a small office at the end of the hall, cluttered with boxes and old books. On the greyish walls – I assume they were once white – hangs a police hat that Laszlo once brought back from London. It seems to be the only Western item in an otherwise typically Soviet-style building.
Laszlo started his career 26 years ago in the grisly neighbourhood of Józsefváros, in the centre of Budapest. He served in a foot patrol for over two years, before becoming an investigator. While he was at the police academy, Laszlo followed a course at a US-funded school where he was confronted with a new language and many different cultures.
‘To me, this was very important,’ Laszlo says as he pours me a glass of water. ‘In Hungary it’s a big problem that nobody speaks another language. Somehow, the fact that we’re in the middle of Europe makes us believe that we are the centre of the world.
‘Perhaps people still think of Hungary as the large empire it once was. It’s not that long ago.’
Laszlo smiles, shaking his head. ‘Many Hungarians are not able to look past the borders. I’ve had the opportunity to do so and to see other cultures. If you ask me, Hungary joining the EU was a great opportunity.’
Laszlo doesn’t strike me as the typical police officer. With his friendly eyes and greying beard, he looks more like a history teacher. He laughs out loud when I mention my initial impression of him. ‘Actually, I wanted to become a history teacher, or maybe teach Hungarian. However, when I finished school I couldn’t apply for university. My friend then advised me to take a look at the police academy. We both applied and I ended up getting picked.’
A few years ago Laszlo started a project to inform children in elementary schools about social issues like drug abuse and cyber bullying. When he talks about this project Laszlo’s eyes light up as if he’s a ten-year-old boy again, dreaming of becoming a teacher.
‘You have travelled quite a lot. Can you see a difference between the police in Hungary and those in the rest of Europe?’
‘Last summer I was in London and it occurred to me that their policemen work a lot more efficiently than we do in Hungary. If they had to make a decision, they would just send an email to their boss. We have a lot more paper work; we have three supervisors who have to authorize everything we do, so it takes a lot of time to institute changes.’
‘It’s the same in Poland, I heard.’ ‘Of course, it’s a post-communism thing. Hungarians nowadays are so insecure, they are afraid to make decisions on their own. That’s why they always seek someone to back them up and check them, which makes the police apparatus very inert.
‘Is that changing?’
‘I hope so. In July a new brigadier was appointed at the police headquarters. He’s a young guy who started in the foot patrol, just like me. If you have a problem or a question, you can just e-mail him. Very simple, very English.’
‘And the government?’ ‘For seven governments, we’ve been promised change. So far, nothing happened. Of course the police are doing better than 25 years ago, but sometimes it makes me sad that I have to be a policeman in this country.’ Laszlo says, gesticulating at the run-down office around him. ‘At least we’re better than Poland and Romania.’
The night before our interview, hundreds of Hungarians took to the streets to protest against a new tax law that would force people to pay for internet use. Along with national turmoil, the news about the proposed law unleashed rumours that the tax gains would be used to raise police wages.
‘No! Ah, that’s another of those rumours,’ Laszlo says with a tormented smile. ‘It’s bad that this is even news.’ ‘So it’s not true?’ ‘Of course not, the government has even confirmed that it is false. But it gives people a bad image of the police.’
‘What image do people have of policemen?’
‘When I started working for the police, Hungarians actually respected the police. Everything was ok until 2006.’ ‘The riots?’ ‘Exactly. During the anti-government demonstrations in September the police worked hard to maintain order. But somehow, the police got blamed by politicians and the media for the escalation of the riots. The news only showed policemen pushing people to the ground, not the fact that a lot of officers got injured pretty badly. From then on, everybody hated the police.’
Laszlo pauses for a moment, lost in his thoughts about this sudden change. ‘I don’t understand, why did public opinion change so much? Those were the same good policemen that saved women and children from those riots. Each government promises to re-establish the reputation of the police force, but so far nothing happened.’
‘Hungary has been a member of the EU for over ten years now. Do you feel European?’
‘Yes. I feel European first, then Hungarian. In Hungary people don’t take that too well, they feel Hungarian first and then maybe European. Me personally, I believe in the EU and Europe, even though my family has lived in Hungary for ten generations.’
The EU has been very critical of Hungary’s media laws, the censorship. That must be difficult.
‘You know, it’s a new project every day here in Hungary, every government wants something else. One day we hate Russia, the next day we love it. Hungarian governments used to visit a lot of European countries, now they visit China, Iran, former Soviet states. I love my work here but I wouldn’t mind working elsewhere in Europe.’
‘Maybe you can work at Frontex, the European border police.’
A smirk crosses Laszlo’s face. ‘You know what, they email us almost every month to invite Hungarian police officers to come work there.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes! They keep asking because it’s not a very popular job among Hungarians, away from Hungary. It would be nice, but I would like to stay here. I heard the government is coming with a new career plan for police officers. I have waited for 26 years for this to happen, so I might as well sit it out.’
After the interview, Laszlo offers to take me to my next location. Once outside I can’t resist a smile: Laszlo’s car is plastered with stickers from his many school projects. I realize that it’s not such a surprise that he wants to stay in Hungary, instead of leaving for Europe. Perhaps it’s not up to the government to re-establish the friendly face of the police. All it takes is a wannabe-history teacher-turned-policeman who is not afraid of borders.
(interview by Mark, written by Sophie Moerman)