Student Blockade Protests Viktor Orban’s Reach at a Top Arts University

Student Blockade Protests Viktor Orban’s Reach at a Top Arts University


BUDAPEST — Nearly 100 students have occupied a key building of a prestigious Hungarian university for the past week to protest what they see as a takeover of their school by the autocratic government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a demonstration that has become a symbol of resistance to the country’s nationalist leadership.

The protest, at the University for Theater and Film Arts in central Budapest, has drawn shows of support from theater groups, students, actors and university faculties in Hungary and around Europe since dozens of students began the effort on Monday. On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators joined the students in forming a human chain from the university to the steps of Parliament.

“It is everyone’s constitutional right to receive an education regardless of their political affiliation,” said Panni Szurdi, a 22-year-old student at the university, which has about 500 students.

At issue is legislation adopted this year by Mr. Orban’s party that transferred ownership of the public university to a private foundation. The government also appointed a new board of trustees — actions that raised fears that the university, long a target of the government, will be forced to hew more closely to Mr. Orban’s nationalistic and conservative vision for Hungary.

The Orban administration said in July that the changes would allow the university to “operate more independently of the state,” and that they would result in “improved opportunities for the students studying theatrical arts, television and film industry.”

Gergely Gulyas, the prime minister’s cabinet chief, said as the demonstration continued during the week that the government “would not curtail anyone’s constitutional right to protest, even if the goal of their protest is something we don’t agree with or we see that their fears are baseless.”

Supporters of the students have ferried goods and supplies to the barricaded university building, where 70 to 100 protesters have been holed up at any given time during the week. The students said they would not dismantle their barricade until the university’s new board met their demands for institutional autonomy.

“There is this very deliberate and determined culture war that Viktor Orban has been fighting,” said Mihaly Cserni, 23, the president of the university’s student government.

Founded in 1865, the school counts numerous acclaimed graduates, including Geza Rohrig, the lead actor in “Son of Saul,” which won the 2016 Academy Award for best foreign language film; the influential cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; and the filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi, who is known internationally for her award-winning 2017 film, “On Body and Soul.”

Mr. Orban’s government had vowed to give the university’s administration a say in determining the new board, but that did not come to pass, said Laszlo Upor, the university’s deputy rector. In August, the board introduced new rules governing the university’s operations, effectively stripping its Senate of deciding key budgetary and managerial matters. The university’s entire Senate and the bulk of its administration resigned in protest.

The changes are part of a broader trend in Hungary as Mr. Orban has centralized power among his allies and pushed a nationalist agenda since returning to office in 2010.

In recent years, the prime minister and his allies have rewritten the country’s Constitution; had election laws changed to favor his party; and overseen an overhaul of Hungary’s judiciary, with the highest court now stacked with loyalists. He and his allies control Hungary’s public media outlets and most of its private ones.

Mr. Orban’s government has also revamped Hungary’s cultural arts, appointing scores of theater directors across the country. And last year it tightened its control by changing the way theaters receive state funding, a significant source of income.

The nationalist push has likewise stretched into academia. The government has funded research institutes that supply revisionist interpretations of Hungarian history, and created a university to train the next generation of government bureaucrats.

At the University for Theater and Film Arts, anger over Mr. Orban’s policies have been focused on Attila Vidnyanszky, a nationalist theater director with close ties to the prime minister who was chosen to serve as the new board’s chairman.

Mr. Vidnyanyszky, who in 2013 was appointed head of Hungary’s National Theater, has made numerous disparaging accusations about the university over the years. He also expressed a desire to have the school focus more on “the nation, the homeland and Christianity.”

“Nobody wants to take out anyone! But change is necessary,” he said in a July interview with a pro-government media outlet, adding that the university engaged in “harmful, monotone, somewhat ideological training.”

More than 1,000 demonstrators assembled at the university on Friday in a show of solidarity organized by the Rev. Gabor Ivanyi, a Methodist preacher whose church was among about 200 religious institutions that Mr. Orban stripped of official state recognition in 2011. The preacher has been a fierce critic and target of what he calls the government’s fascist policies.

“You are our future — you are our hope,” Mr. Ivanyi told the students. “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.”

Mr. Upor, 63, the deputy rector, said the students had been “confronted, in a small way, with a dictatorship — they have faced arrogance, the pride of the powerful.”

“But they have also seen the power of their own actions and have met the solidarity of those around them,” Mr. Upor said. “This is a lesson they will never forget.”



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