Hungary Turns Its Back on Europe: Dismantling Culture, Education, Science and the Media Under Orbán
Hungary Turns Its Back on Europe: Dismantling Culture, Education, Science and the Media in Hungary 2010-2019 is the result of voluntary work by more than 30 Hungarian intellectuals, academics, researchers, and journalists. The booklet, which we here make available to a larger audience, is the first comprehensive report on what has happened in Hungary since 2010, when Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party won the elections (which they did again in 2014 and in 2018). The focus of the report is on the areas of culture, education, science, and the media. The project was coordinated by OHA (Network of Academics), an independent organization that formed in 2012, a time when large groups of teachers and students went out into the streets of Budapest and occupied university buildings in order to protest the government’s public education policies. The publisher of the report is Human Platform, an independent organization trying to serve as a hub for smaller organizations and groups of teachers and academics, as well as culture and health care workers.
The main goal of this project was to make visible and understandable something that has generally remained hidden from the international public: how so-called “illiberalism” works in practice, how a semi-autocratic regime established itself at the very center of the European Union. The Hungarian government of course has been quick to denounce the report as an effort by “Soros” to destabilize the country, as a “collection of lies” fabricated by “traitors who hate their country.”
Allow me to sketch out the rationale for this project. All those Hungarians who are critical of their current government are familiar with the situation when a foreigner comes up to them and asks: “What is going on in your country?” Or “What’s up with this ‘illiberal’ thing?” On such occasions, we take a deep breath, open our mouths—and do not say a word, because it is really hard to describe what everyday life is like under this “illiberal regime.” When members of the European Parliament in Brussels criticize the Orbán regime, they often mention the violation of the European values, the dismantling of the system of checks and balances, or the weakening of the legal state. All this is absolutely correct, but also very theoretical and, let’s admit it, a bit tedious. And of course, when European taxpayers travel to Budapest, they see a hip and cheap place, and so they go back home satisfied, because the city really is cool and relatively cheap. It can stand up for itself in any comparison with Berlin or Prague. Cultural life here is exciting, and everybody is free to do whatever he or she pleases. Budapest now even has a new mayor who won the local elections as the candidate of the opposition and on an anti-Órban platform. What is the problem then? The answer is, everything.
The truth is that over the last 10 years, Hungarians have lost their country. The legal context around them has been completely rewritten, from voting legislation to the school system. All of a sudden, we have found that we are no longer citizens in our own country. Even the name of the country has been changed: it is no longer the “Republic of Hungary” but simply “Hungary.” The government threw away the constitution, created new “basic laws,” and declared a new system for Hungarians that they called the “National Cooperation System.” The founding text for this new system was supposed to be hanging on the walls of every public institution. However, there was, precisely, no cooperation when it came to instituting this new system, which was simply dictated from above. Ironically (or tragically?) enough, now that COVID-19 has hit Europe, Hungary and the government desperately needs to rely on the very structures that they have destroyed over the last 10 years. All social cohesion and solidarity were demolished by the regime’s anti-refugee campaign; by the aggressive rhetoric against the Roma community, the homeless, the unemployed, as well as civil organizations and intellectuals. In short, by all the efforts the government has made to turn social groups against each other. “Divide and rule”: this has been the regime’s politics for many years now.
By now, there is not a single area of everyday life in which Hungarians do not have to face the repressive attitude and corruption of their government, whether it’s the media, education, health care, culture, or the economy. There is not a single step they can take without considering the risks of coming up against the powers-that-be. How did this happen? These are the very things—a long series of small changes and modifications—that sadly it is nearly impossible to enumerate or describe when someone asks us: “What is going on in Hungary?”
One of the main messages the OHA-report sends is the fact that there is resistance in Hungary, even after a decade of total Orbánism. The prime minister himself has identified the areas of society from where he can expect resistance, namely civil organizations, the academic world, and the arts. For many years now, he has not had to reckon with the political opposition, because it is so weak. For that reason, he turned against the fields of culture and the arts. Yet despite all the discriminative regulations, civil organizations in Hungary are stronger than ever. And despite the fact that Hungary’s best university (CEU) was pushed out, the academic field is alive and continues to fight for its autonomy. Even the culture wars that Orbán has unleashed, despite all the efforts at cooptation—a huge amount of money has been concentrated in certain uncritical institutions for buying up the art scene –have not so far been an unmitigated success. The arts community has not given in.
The other message sent by the report is that this could happen anywhere in the EU and in Europe more generally. It can happen anywhere where a society is not strong enough to defend its democratic values, and where the institutions are not solid enough to fend off threats from inside. Indeed, the EU has not proven to be particularly successful in handling the “Hungarian issue.” Paradoxically, funding from the EU is still feeding the Orbán regime. In the meantime, his illiberalism has become a franchise that he tries to export to the European periphery, from Slovenia to Macedonia to Serbia. While Orbán is making friends with Andrej Babiš in Prague, and with Lech Kaczyński in Warsaw, he is on the look-out for new, local Orbáns: Janša, Gruevski, Vučić.Janez Janša is a Slovenian politician and a close ally of Viktor Orbán. In 2013 he was sentenced to 2 years in prison for corruption charges. Nikola Gruevski was the prime minister of then-Macedonia 2006-2016. In 2018 he was sentenced to 2 years in prison for corruption charges but never started to serve his sentence. With the help of the Hungarian government, he fled to Hungary where he was provided political asylum. Currently he lives in Budapest. Aleksandar Vučić is the current president of Serbia. He was the minister of information under Serbian president Slobodan Milošević.
It would be a mistake to think that the arts and culture are not important for an illiberal regime, if only as a tool for self-justification and political representation. And although there is no direct censorship in Hungary, when there is less and less funding for art and when there are fewer and fewer spaces for presenting art works to the public, when the nationwide media are controlled by the government, then the art community still faces a kind of structural censorship.
Today as I finish this text, the whole country has been shut down because of a pandemic, and the nation is waiting for the government to give the right responses to the crisis instead of igniting hatred and finding scapegoats for every new problem. Yet sadly, nobody can be sure that they are even capable of doing so.