Viktor Orbán’s latest victim: Budapest’s University for Theatre and Film

Students at Budapest’s University for Theatre and Film (SZFE) have been occupying their campus for more than a week in protest at what they claim is a takeover of the university by the country’s government.

The students fear the university’s new board, led by an ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, will rob the faculty of its autonomy. Last Friday, students, along with thousands of supporters, took to the streets of the Hungarian capital, forming a human chain that stretched five kilometres from the now barricaded university to the steps of parliament in a show of defiance.

Legislation, quickly pushed through parliament earlier this summer, transfers the ownership of the public university to a private foundation. At the time, Mr Orbán said that the changes would allow the university to “operate more independently of the state” and would result in “improved opportunities for students studying theatrical arts, television and the film industry.”

In practice however, the law has so far done the opposite. Despite the Hungarian government’s vow to give the university’s administration a say in determining the running of the institution, the government rejected board members proposed by the university’s senate, and instead appointed five pro-government officials.

In protest, the university’s entire senate, the bulk of its administrative staff, and some faculty members resigned in protest on Monday, fearing that the move would deprive them of the ability to independently decide on budgetary, organisational, and personnel issues.

For many of the students, to see their teaching staff quitting cemented their fears, and they soon followed suit. As one of the protesters, Marta Barbarics, told Reuters, “for a university to be able to operate autonomously is the foundation of democracy. If a university can’t teach in a way as its citizens deem appropriate then there are serious problems, and the leadership of a university doesn’t quit for no reason.”

Since Monday, between 70-100 students at any time have been barricaded inside the university’s main building, along with hundreds more outside.

“There is this very deliberate and determined culture war that Viktor Orbán has been fighting,” says the university’s student president Mihaly Cserni. Mr Orbán and his supporters have long claimed that the arts are dominated by “liberals and left-wingers”.

The appointment of theatre director Attila Vidyanszky to be the board’s new chairman particularly irked the many of the university’s staff and students. Mr Vidyanszky is known to be close in Mr Orbán, and in 2013 was appointed to head Hungary’s national theatre. In the past, he has made derogatory claims about SZFE, and has argued it should shift its focus to “the nation, the homeland and Christianity”, – a phrase that has much in common with Mr Orbán’s conservative-nationalist agenda.

The attack on SZFE’s autonomy is the latest move by Mr Orbán’s to tighten his government’s control over Hungary’s academic institutions. In 2018 the renowned Central European University (CEU) moved the majority of its courses to a Vienna campus, citing that it could “no longer operate as a free institution” after the Hungarian government banned gender studies. Similarly, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has seen a tightening of government control.

Yet for Mr Orbán, his Fidesz party, and their supporters, these moves are simply protecting Hungarians from a liberal, leftist agenda. This week, pro-government media outlets were littered with remarks that accused the SZFE, and other institutions, of instilling a leftist bias in their education, following Mr Vidyanszky remarks back in July that the institution encourages “harmful, monotone, somewhat ideological training”.

Last Friday conservative journalist László Szentesi Zöldi, writing in in Magyar Demokrata labelled the protest movement as an attempt of the “liberal, communist, anarchist, feminist and homosexual” elites to preserve their hold over the arts”.

Until this month, the SZFE had been almost entirely independent since its establishment in 1865: even during the communist era, and has been the starting point for many of Hungary’s film stars. Some of its notable alumni include the Oscar-winning director Istvan Szabo, academy award-winning actor Geza Rohrig, and the European film award-winning actress Alexandra Borbely.

Reverend Gabor Ivanyi, a methodist preacher whose church was among the 200 religious institutions stripped of state recognition back in 2011, also came out in strong support, thanking students for their resilience against what he calls “fascist policies”.

“You are our future — you are our hope,” he told them, “I know this is a terribly big burden, an unbearable burden, but I would like to thank you all for thinking this through and taking it on.”

For many opposition supporters in Hungary, the past week has seen these protests become symbolised as a tangible resistance to Mr Orbán’s tightening grip on power.

The deputy rector of the university László Upor says that students have learnt a grave but invaluable lesson.

“The students have been confronted, in a small way, with a dictatorship — they have faced arrogance, the pride of the powerful,” he says, “but they have also seen the power of their own actions and have met the solidarity of those around them. This is a lesson they will never forget.”

While most observers expect the protesters, not the government, to relent first, they do stand as a reminder of the lack of support Fidesz faces amongst a young, educated, and urban electorate, and, more to the point, what they are willing to do to demonstrate that.

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