The Central European University, based in Budapest, is on course to become the first European university since 1945 to be closed by the state for ideological reasons. But street protests have erupted—and Orban's reign is increasingly being challengedby / May 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
On Sunday 9th April, a crowd of 80,000 gathered in the grounds of Buda Castle in central Budapest. Young and old, they came draped in flags and colours of various persuasions. Some proudly held the red, white and green Hungarian tricolour; others were covered in the 12 yellow stars and blue of the European Union. Most carried placards or wore badges with the phrase #istandwithCEU or the Hungarian equivalent, #aCEUvalvagyok.
CEU is the Central European University, a postgraduate institution founded in 1991 by the Hungarian-born American financier George Soros. Located in Budapest, it has an international faculty and student body. The crowd was there to protest against an amendment to higher education legislation that was being fast-tracked through parliament. The amendment bans any university in Hungary from offering foreign-accredited degrees, unless it maintains a campus in the country where it is registered. CEU—registered in New York, but without an American campus—is the only educational institution fitting that description.
The protestors were set to march across the Chain Bridge over the Danube and on to the National Assembly building. Before they set off, Michael Ignatieff, president and rector of CEU, took to the makeshift stage. “I would like to emphasize that this isn’t just about one university,” said the Canadian academic and former politician. “It’s about the whole country and the freedom of its citizens to think and learn what they want. Because without free institutions and a free civil society, that is impossible.”
The feel-good factor was palpable. Yet the following afternoon, the new higher education legislation was signed by Hungarian president János Áder. The law could be struck down by the Constitutional Court, but since a majority of its judges were appointed by the current government, that seems unlikely. CEU, therefore, is on course to become the first European university since 1945 to be closed by the state for ideological reasons.
The closure would be a serious breach of EU law. The European Commission has sent a “letter of formal notice” to the Hungarian government, the first step in legal action. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has been defiant, appearing at the European Parliament on 26th April to deliver a scathing personal attack against Soros, who he called a “financial speculator.” But Orbán may eventually cave to EU pressure.
Either way, this row over a university has revealed much deeper conflicts at the heart of the fragile Hungarian political system. In February, I attended a panel discussion on the CEU campus about how central European countries might be affected by the Trump administration. It demonstrated everything Orbán and his populist Fidesz party detest: diversity, internationalism, cosmopolitan values, and plurality.
Fidesz prefers stereotypes, the lowest common denominator of political discourse, and the scapegoating of its enemies. Orbán delivers these messages of unapologetic nationalism—with style and charisma, admittedly—in his notoriously breast-beating speeches. I attended one on Hungary’s National Day, 15th March, outside the National Museum in Budapest. Several hundred protesters blew whistles and horns, attempting to drown out his words. But many others listened with reverence. “We cannot allow Brussels to place itself above the law,” Orbán declared, or “force upon us the bitter fruit of its cosmopolitan immigration policy.”
This is deeply ironic. Orbán gladly takes money from Brussels with one hand, to build much needed infrastructure across Hungary. He then gives the EU two fingers with the other. In early April, most tram stops and metro stations in Budapest started displaying posters that depict an open white palm on a red background, with the words, Állítsuk meg Brüsszelt! (Stop Brussels!) They are part of Fidesz’s nationwide anti-EU propaganda campaign, which recently launched on television too—on the very day Orbán told the European Parliament that he did not have an anti-EU agenda.
Hungary is biting that hand that feeds it. The country is the third largest beneficiary of EU funds, receiving more than €4bn annually. A survey by KPMG and GKI economic research noted that although Hungary’s economy grew by 4.6 per cent in the 2006-15 period, without EU funds growth would have been only 1.8 per cent. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of educated young Hungarians are emigrating, often to other EU countries. Last year, 29,400 citizens moved abroad, 45 per cent of them under 30. Tárki, a polling company that studies migration, estimates that 32 per cent of emigrants have degrees, while the national average is 19 per cent. The Hungarian diaspora is estimated to be between 500,000 and 800,000, out of a total population of 9.8m.
Orbán, of course, mentioned none of this in March. Although his speech commemorated the 1848 Hungarian Revolution against the Habsburg monarchy at length, it also meandered cleverly in and out of the present day. His vision for Hungary is a traditional one, in which the country is white, Christian and free from the corrupting forces of foreign enemies. Another law before the Hungarian Parliament, for example, will force non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to register as “foreign-funded organisations.”
Back in July 2014, Orbán declared at a speech in Romania that it was not impossible to build an “illiberal nation state within the EU.” Hungary’s membership, he explained, “does not rule out this option.” In his view, the EU is just one of the many organisations that comprise a global elite conspiracy, whose main aim is to eat away slowly at Hungary’s soul. Within this narrow model of hardcore nationalism, you are either with the government or against them.
Orbán’s rhetoric regularly makes use of historical references, which appeal to his loyal base of conservative voters. More importantly, there is no escaping the past in Hungary’s national consciousness—it has been on the losing side of history for the last century, with Hungarians the victims. Hungary fought with the Central Powers in the first world war and it lost almost two thirds of its territory at the Versailles Peace Conference. In the second world war, it fought on the Axis side. Hungary’s elimination of its Jewish population was the most rapid of any country in Europe: 440,000 people were transported to Auschwitz between May and July 1944, where they were all murdered. Postwar Hungary was subsumed into the totalitarian-Stalinist-regime of the eastern bloc and in 1956, the Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet regime was brutally crushed. Such a history has left bitter mental scars.
Orbán’s speech on National Day used extremist language, similar to the blood and soil nationalism of European fascists in the 1930s. Mass migration he called a “slow and steady current of water which washes away the shore.” Europe in its present form was “as fragile, weak, and sickly as a flower being eaten away by a hidden worm.” However, though publicly Orbán and Fidesz speak in the language of extremity, tactically they are far more subtle. Like Turkey’s President Erdogan, Orbán keeps building on what he sees as a pre-destined authoritarian path by stamping out opposing voices.
Since 2010, when Fidesz won the parliamentary elections by a landslide, Orbán has chipped away at any dissent. His strategy has depended on the new constitution, enacted in January 2012, which he called a “granite foundation for the future.” It replaced a post-communist constitution quickly cobbled together in 1989, which may well have needed revision. But one man should not be in charge of rewriting it. Several of its seemingly neverending constitutional amendments have been criticised by the EU, the United States and numerous Hungarian legal experts and civic groups. All claim these amendments put too much power in government hands, leaving no room for checks and balances.
One amendment, for instance, restricts election campaigning to state media alone. At the same time, the state has moved to control the independent media. Cult hero Gergely Kovács of the satirical Two-Tailed Dog Party told me that “the government buy up a TV or a newspaper every second week.”
I spoke to him at Oktogon, a major street junction in the capital which has become a gathering place for protestors. He was about to address thousands of supporters who were there to express their opposition to the relationship between Moscow and Budapest. Not so long ago, they were archenemies. Now, Hungary is pivoting between Russian and western interests. It has been a full member of Nato, for instance, since 1999. But recently the foreign minister told Polish media that “Russia continues to play an important role in Central Europe,” and that he considered the country no threat to Hungary. In late 2014, Russia agreed a loan of €10bn to kickstart a nuclear project in central Hungary.
Last October, Hungary’s main opposition paper, Népszabadság was suddenly shut down, ostensibly for business reasons, but Orbán is widely thought to be behind it. Peter Krasztev, in his book, The Hungarian Patient: Social Opposition to an Illiberal Democracy argues that the media regulation brought in by Fidesz in 2010, “created a regime wherein the ruling party takes all.”
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Centre, told Politico.eu last February, that “Budapest is one of the few EU capitals where President Putin can feel at ease, meeting with someone who shares elements of his own worldview. Such reception allows Moscow to claim that not all Europeans follow policies shunning Russia’s leadership.” Gábor Szabó, an anti-government blogger I spoke with at the protests, put it this way: “Our Prime Minister is copying the Putin system, step by step.”
Szabó blamed the change in constitution in 2012, and the subsequent dismantling of a fair and balanced media. “For 40 years we had this Russian shit: a communist party as dictatorship. But the Hungarian people will not allow this to happen again. Now the government have started to arrest the opposition members.” He was referring to Márton Gulyás and Gergely Varga, who were both arrested and held by police for several days after they hurled bottles of orange paint—Fidesz’s party colours—at the Presidential Palace.
Most protestors and activists I have spoken to believe the Fidesz government is on course to win next year’s parliamentary elections, primarily because no one is really challenging them. Most of the left-wing parties in parliament, such as the centre-left Democratic Coalition or the Hungarian Socialist Party, are extremely weak, offering no convincing ideologies or ideas outside the status quo. Those looking for real change—within a state they say is becoming increasingly authoritarian and dictatorial—have simply had no alternative.
Their hopes could be answered with the appearance of a new liberal party, Momentum Movement. Anti-Russian and pro-EU, most of its members are young graduates. A survey in April by thinktank Zavecz Research found that the new party had just 2 per cent support. But on 1st May, Momentum held a well-attended May Day march in Budapest, and its profile will continue to rise. András Fekete-Győr, its leader, has promised to launch a manifesto in October and contest the April 2018 elections.
In any case, there is a real sense of an opposition movement building on the streets of the capital. In the last month there have been mostly peaceful anti-government protests every few days. These are accompanied by a large police presence, but the demonstrators are still generally able to bring traffic and the tram system to a standstill for a few hours until they decide to go home on their own terms. While the CEU fiasco does not affect that many Hungarians directly, the issues at stake have led many young people, previously not politically minded, to join in with protests. Their message is always the same: we are European, not Russian, and we want to live in a democracy, not a dictatorship.
But this doesn’t reflect the national consensus: recent polls show that 27 per cent of voters support Orbán’s Fidesz party and 11 per cent the far right nationalist party Jobbik. Both have some support in Budapest, but their real base is in the country. Outside the capital, wages are low, poverty more widespread, and levels of education lower. As Zsuga Sandoor, a May Day protestor explained: “It is very hard to reach the country with a liberal message outside of Budapest. Fidesz don’t care about the nearly 2m citizens in Budapest even if, say, they all voted against them. Because Hungary has 9.5m people. And all those votes in the countryside count.” And the government maximises its propaganda advantage to rural followers who need a scapegoat for their poor living conditions and lack of social mobility.
But some are fighting back. Anna Kovács is an activist with Living Memorial, a campaigning organization. For the last three years, it has been protesting at Budapest’s Freedom Square against the monument to the German occupation, secretly erected overnight by the present government. Living Memorial argues that the government is trying to airbrush Hungary’s wartime responsibility for the deportation and murder of its Jews, a debate has evolved into a wider discussion about contemporary politics.
Kovács explains, “Fidesz are very good at communicating. They do populism very well, and they like selecting public enemies.”
Two years ago, there was chaos at one the city’s busiest railway stations as refugees from the middle east and Africa attempted to cross Hungary via Budapest. The party wasn’t long in whipping up mass hysteria.
“Hungary wasn’t even going to be affected, because most refugees didn’t want to stay here. But Orbán managed to make people hateful and afraid. That’s when people are much easier to control,”Kovács added.
The many protesters and dissatisfied citizens I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks agree that the roots of Hungary’s shaky relationship with democracy lie in its recent history. After having either a quasi-democracy or dictatorship for the best part of a century, it is probably naïve to imagine you can build a stable democracy overnight. So it is no surprise that Orbán’s slick, strongman brand of authoritarian politics has worked so well.
Yet even he has been forced to back down before. In 2014, there were mass protests against a proposed tax on internet data traffic. Fidesz claimed that it was needed to balance the budget. But most Hungarians saw it as just a further attempt to curtail freedom of expression and the spread of information. Some protesters hurled old computer parts at Fidesz’s headquarters. After thousands of citizens marched against the tax, Orbán scrapped the proposal.
An underground movement certainly exists, with rising numbers of people demanding democratic accountability. But the big questions are: will that message appeal to the rural population? And more importantly, can this movement mobilize in bigger numbers? A revolution may not be on the cards just yet, in this small landlocked country, which lay on the Cold War border between East and West. But there is at least a sniff of it in the air.
“People don’t realize that democracy takes effort,” Kovács said to me before her speech, as curious tourists, office workers and eager youngsters waited for her to take the microphone. “Right now here in Hungary we are in the process of learning. And this is why the whole wave of protest makes me hopeful. Because maybe now we can move forward, and start to build those little circles of freedom. If not after the next election, then maybe after that.”