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Don’t Touch Our Heroes! Outrage as Hungarian top arts university goes under governmental obstruction10 min read

 In Analysis, Central Europe, Civil Society
After tightening its control of the judiciary, media and civil society organisations, the Hungarian government found its new enemy: the arts and education sector. SZFE, or the University of Theatre and Film Arts of Budapest, combines both of these worlds, and thus became a natural target.

Founded in 1865, the university has produced a number of first-class artists and Academy Awards winners. However, at the beginning of September its working model changed, with the University Senate losing most of its powers to a newly appointed Board of Trustees whose members have close ties to Prime minister Viktor Orbán. Because of the university’s prestige, attacks on its autonomy sparked a national and international outrage. But in an increasingly authoritarian Hungary, attacks on independent institutions are nothing new. So how does this episode compare to recent struggles of other educational institutions in the country?

Art students taking matters into their own hands

In July 2020, the Hungarian parliament passed a new bill changing the organization and working model of the University of Theatre and Film Arts of Budapest. From September, the ownership of the formerly state-run institution came under the auspices of a new foundation. The foundation then stripped the university Senate of most of its budgetary, organizational and staffing powers and handed them to the new Board of Trustees, chaired by the conservative director of the Budapest National Theatre Attila Vidnyánszky. None of the candidates nominated by the university’s Senate were accepted. The government stated that only this way will ensure the university’s independence. However, most of the new Trustees are thought to be loyal followers of the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, putting the independence of the university in danger. The Senate, the leadership and several top professors have resigned because of these infringements on the university’s autonomy.

After a wave of unsuccessful summer protests, on 1 September around 100 students of the 155-year-old university decided to take matters into their own hands and started an occupation of the building. They refuse to leave or let any of the new Trustees in until their demands are met. These, among others, include: guaranteed autonomy of the university’s operations; restoration of the power of the Senate; and resignation of the undemocratically-appointed Board of Trustees. The students also criticized the absolute lack of transparency surrounding the issue, and warned against the rising trend of governmental reorganization policies, which have had a negative impact on several educational institutions in the country. In their view, such policies benefit neither the interests of the country, nor the country’s cultural sector, and might represent a common fate of the Hungarian higher education as a whole.

Apart from the occupation, the students are actively organizing public events to raise awareness of their cause and gain wider support. On 6 September, thousands of demonstrators formed a 5-km-long human chain, stretching from the barricaded university to the steps of Parliament. During this event, they shared a document declaring the university’s autonomy, whose arrival at the Parliament steps caused a big round of applause. A week later, they launched an Open Day at the Secret University filled with events and lectures by distinguished professors. Their events also naturally reflect their study disciplines, as protests are filled with live music, banners showcase professional graphic design skills, while film students take care of daily video testimonies and interviews shared on their social media channels. Even the local Budapest art scene got involved, sparking various artistic collaborations. On top of that, organization of a participatory mini film festival is underway.

In the meantime, the teacher’s union has also expressed their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and started preparing for a strike. If their demands, spanning from freedom of education to an autonomous and democratic organization of the university, were not met by the government, they would go on strike indefinitely starting 21 September.

The university’s struggle for independence also gained a lot of international attention, with actors, musicians, artists and academic institutions expressing their support. Oliver Reese, director of the legendary Berliner Ensemble, called off the theatre’s Budapest performance of Euripide’s Medea in an act of solidarity with SZFE students, while the Hungarian delegation at this year’s Venice Film Festival appeared in “Free SZFE” t-shirts. Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren and Salman Rushdie are among those who signed an open letter arguing that the university changes are “part of a general cultural war to plunder the autonomy of all cultural spaces and institutions.” Moreover, the European Film Academy expressed its full support to the students and the Senate “in their decision to not recognise the legitimacy of the new Board” because “the art of cinema can only breathe in an atmosphere of openness, transparency and democracy.”

The governmental response so far has predominantly been silence, with the government only affirming that the government fully stands behind the Board of Trustees chairman Attila Vidnyánszky. Teaching is still supposed to take place as planned, either in the occupied building or somewhere else, and the protesting students are free to decide whether they plan to enrol and study or not. This strong governmental support of the conservative Board of Trustees also raises worries of civil society watchdogs that the plan is to change SZFE into yet another institution promoting Orbán’s nationalistic vision of Hungary. It is also no secret that Vidnyánszky has put forward a number of accusations about the university’s alleged “harmful, monotone and somewhat ideological training,” and plans to shift the university’s thinking more towards “the nation, the homeland and Christianity.” Recently, he also accused Amnesty International of having trained students to organize an occupation at a specialized summer camp.

How are the current protests different

As already mentioned, attacks on academic institutions in Hungary are nothing new. In 2017, the Hungarian government launched a campaign against the Hungarian-American Central European University, which resulted in its relocation to a new campus in Vienna. Two years later, a new law seriously constrained the independence and working procedures of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In the meantime, the government privatized the Corvinus university, introduced new school curricula, funded research institutes that supply revisionist interpretations of history, and banned degrees in gender studies. With all of these attacks in mind, it should probably come as no surprise that the University of Theatre and Film Arts was next on the list.

However, as some journalists pointed out, the current protests seem somehow different. Although the air is filled with classic chants of “Szabad Ország, Szabad Egyetem!” [Free Country, Free University!], which were already widely used during the protests against the exile of the Central European University, the resigned and depressed mood so characteristic of the previous protests is no longer noticeable. According to an HVG correspondent, the crowd is cheerful and despite a continuous stalemate in the negotiations, the fighting spirit feels strong.

Similarly, an analyst of Hungarian politics László Kéri argues that “the developments of the last few days show that the ethos and practice of resistance to the regime as a whole is under revival in today’s Hungarian society.” If we also take into account a 3-day warning strike by civil servants and a protest by 58 mostly conservative scientists against governmental interference in the financing of scientific projects, we might agree with Kéri that there seem to be “more and more reasons for Viktor Orbán to worry about the preservation of his power.”

There might be multiple reasons behind this changing protest atmosphere. Firstly, if we compare the current protests with the ones against the exile of the Central European University or the attacks at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, we can see that their reach is much more widespread. Being an arts institution with many successful alumni, its troubles immediately mobilized a worldwide range of artists and celebrities. This lies in stark contrast to a much more elite character of the previous protests, driven mostly by leading educational, political and civil society figures, and European Union representatives. Collaborations with pop culture musicians, viral videos, active use of social media, and organization of many creative participatory events helped spread awareness of the university’s struggle much further than more conventional forms of direct action, like petitions, protest marches or press releases would.

Their artistic backgrounds also helped the students become more successful activists, as their technological and cultural knowledge and innovative use of traditional crafts proved indispensable for attracting the segments of the population generally disinterested in political issues. However, because widespread resistance is usually built over time, we can assume that the previous protests, also making use of more innovative tools like occupations, human chains, social media and film, largely contributed to the current publicity of the SZFE protests.

Secondly, the widespread appeal of the university’s struggle might be strengthened by the students constantly re-affirming the non-political character of their activities. As political parties were kindly asked to stay away from the matter, critics are having a much harder time interpreting the students’ actions as nothing more than a political manipulation by oppositional parties.

Finally, the far-reaching character of the current protests shows how effective Orbán’s nationalist rhetoric can be, but also how quickly his own words can turn against him. Many alumni of the University of Theatre and Film Arts are world-renowned artists, including the director of Casablanca Michael Curtiz, the Son of Saul’s lead actor Geza Rohrig, and the filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi known internationally for her 2017 award-winning film On Body and Soul. These names and their amazing achievements quite easily spark national pride, as do works of other Hungarian legendary artists like filmmaker Béla Tarr or poet Sándor Petőfi. An attack on an institution that is grooming figures that the population is taught to love and admire seems to be a strong enough wake-up call for many of those who have until now stayed in lethargy.

Is there a chance for success?

In the last ten years, Viktor Orbán’s government has rewritten the country’s Constitution, changed the election laws, obstructed the judiciary, and gained control over the majority of media and radio outlets. Reorganization of the education and cultural sectors have followed suit. Because of the government’s repeated failures to comply with the European Union law, the European Commission triggered the Article 7 proceedings, which could lead to Hungary’s loss of EU voting rights, and puts its access to additional EU funding into question. And recently, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty renewed its Hungarian broadcast in response to the country’s steep decline in media freedom: a service that has been inactive and unnecessary since the end of the Cold War.

However, students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts with their creative protest tactics and a professional PR campaign show that even in a hostile environment of a semi-authoritarian regime, there is still some space for defiance. All eyes are now on Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Will he remain silent and wait for the protesters to lose momentum, call off the newly appointed Board of Trustees to save face, or eventually come up with a new way of curbing the university’s independence? The next couple of weeks will hopefully show the outcome of this last severe confrontation between civil society and the regime, and possibly hint at its future trajectory.

Featured image: Protest sign on the façade of the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest / Adapted by Laura Royer from Eduline.hu
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