In recent months, the University of Theater and Film Arts in Budapest (SZFE) became the new target of the Hungarian government’s culture war. The experiences of the institution’s response may change the nature of future demonstrations.
In 2020, at the end of May, the Ministry of Innovation and Technology announced that the bill regulating the change of the model of higher education institutions had been submitted to the Parliament in connection with the SZFE as well.
The directorate of the institute wasn’t even notified, they have found out about the proposed restructuring from the press.1
The reform of higher education institutions’ mode of operation started more than a year ago with the Corvinus University of Budapest, and although the reaction back then was a lot smaller, still many people have expressed their concern about the change and what it can mean for institutional autonomy.
Since then, many other universities have gone through a similar procedure.2 The process of the change in the case of SZFE has been mainly criticized because it seemed strangely rushed and quite definitely directed from above without any consultation or real possibility for dialogue.
Two seemingly unrelated processes – the process of the culture war and the process of public universities’ ownership being transferred to private foundations – unites in the proceedings against SZFE. In the ideological war, the case of SZFE is embedded as another stronghold. The material side of the issue basically equals the privatization of a public university.
Although we are quite familiar with elements of the proceeding, the social reaction this time seems to be, in some aspects, different than we could have seen with similar problems in the past.
The Hungarian culture war has far-reaching roots, but under the Fidesz-KDNP government only started to be embodied in concrete and quite serious measures around 2017. In Tusnádfürdő, only a few months after winning the two-thirds majority at the 2018 parliamentary election, Viktor Orbán stated “we must embed the political system in a cultural era”.
At this time, we were already beyond the bill, which made it partially impossible for CEU to operate in Hungary.
This, obviously, wasn’t only a step in the culture war, but an important component in the government’s anti-Soros and anti-liberal narrative as well. In 2019, in the case of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ research network, the government reorganized the system of research financing.3
This process, by many people, has been described as nationalization, and it unequivocally has raised the issue of threatened autonomy.
In the last decade, the press has also been under constant threat. For example (the until then considered government-critical site), Origo’s editor-in-chief was dismissed in 2014.
In 2016, Mediaworks suspended the publication of Népszabadság quite abruptly – basically overnight. And only a few months ago, the employment of Index’s editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull, has also been terminated.
These are only a few examples. Although these cases have been framed as economic ones by the pro-government media or government-affiliated actors4, the two fields can hardly be separated. Especially in a country where most areas of life are governed by political logic.
If we look at the theatrical sphere, the government abolished the cultural Corporate Tax in 2019 and replaced it with central funding that was based on political preferences. This had – logically – a negative effect mainly on the independent theaters.5
The more direct attack, the targets of which already included SZFE – at least on a rhetorical level –, started in December of 2019. A director was dismissed by a theater – where he was a contract employee – for behaving in a way that crossed moral boundaries. During the last few years, several directors have been accused of sexual misconduct – regardless of their theater’s assumed political side.
Not long after the case had been made public, members of Fidesz and the pro-government media already talked about “Gothar-style harassing theaters”6 and used the accusation to legitimize the plan of the National Cultural Fund’s abolition.7 While it was one of the few cases where the accusation has been investigated by the theater, and the results had consequences.
Though all that happened in connection with the SZFE was that the director has been teaching at the institution (before the allegations were made public), the University was soon framed in this context as a “liberal nest”, where instances of harassment are constant, where ideological training takes place, and which does not contribute to the “transmission of national identity”.8
This case highlights the long-suspected fact: it’s hard to tell where the line is when it comes to the government and what they see as the promise of political capital.
Half a year later, the attack against the SZFE culminated in the submitted bill about the change of model. SZFE’s student government, since they have been informed about the transformation, requested discussions and negotiations, submitted proposals, later demands. None of which has been answered or taken seriously by the Ministry.
One of the main preconditions – on the part of the student government – was for the Ministry to accept 3 of the nominees that the University’s senate recommended based on professional criteria for the positions of the five-member board of trustees.
Although the senate took into account not only the professional viewpoints and tried to recommend people that have been highly respected by “both sides”, the Ministry hasn’t considered appointing any of the nominees.9
While the Board of Trustees has basically absolute authority over the institution, the citizens of the University have not received any tangible guarantee that the autonomy of the education would not be damaged in the future.
During the months of the process, ideological attacks have been constant by government-affiliated actors, the pro-government media, and the chairman of the new board of directors. The main accusations targeted the education’s quality and the University’s atmosphere: the alleged liberal ideological training, and lack of national and Christian values.
The case was also used to strengthen one of the favorite narratives of the government: “A very serious international background power and network have been organizing, a liberal circle”.10
For the government, the material concreting of cultural power is also at stake. They could keep the influence and supervision over an important institution of cultural life even after a potential change of government.
The students, during the events, reached for more radical – but still nonviolent – tools of resistance than we are used to. After several demonstrations against the ultimatum-like procedures and no sign of any level of openness to compromise on the part of the Ministry or the Board of Trustees, on August 31, the students of the University occupied the building with the intention of not letting in the new management.
After 71 days, around the middle of November, the University switched to distance learning due to the pandemic, therefore the physical blockade has been temporarily suspended, but – since the demands were not considered yet – the resistance has not.11
These events could indicate that problems of abuse of power with a relatively strong symbolic side can still evoke a much stronger reaction from the public than “merely” material issues.
While the heritage of the deep-rooted culture war is preserved in social memory, the nature of the resistance has been the opposite of the power’s exclusive logic. This also shows that the logic of combat that the government mediates presumably has a smaller audience than we have thought.
What seems to be peculiar in these months is the interconnection of different societal issues. If we look at the speeches, the speakers12, or even the content of boards13 at other demonstrations, we can see a kind of awakening.
Ten years of the System of National Cooperation, among others, means that countless, – from many social aspects – different social groups have experienced abuse of power first-hand. These are typically totally distant issues in their content, while the root of the problems is the same.
This perception of the community of interest may only reach the surface yet but holds the promise of an even more profound recognition of the problem and with that holds the promise of substantive change.
6 Péter Gothár is the mentioned director. He is a professionally recognized Hungarian director, whose workplace behavior has been described as unacceptable by the theatre’s Works Council. The “Gothar-style” narrative’s aim was to label a good portion of the cultural life with a case related to one person’s action.