In Hungary, protesters demand “democracy, educational freedom, Europe”

April 10, 2017

“Let us study and teach what we want. For that there needs to be free institutions and free civil organizations. That is why we’re here.” – CEU doctoral candidate Péter Márton

“I am a civilian, a Hungarian, and free.” – Protest sign

Sunday’s mass protest against the new law on higher education (aka Lex CEU), hastily adopted by parliament last Tuesday, turned out crowds of demonstrators in numbers not seen since the fall of 2014, when a proposed tax on the internet brought 100,000 mostly young protesters to the streets (a number of which ended up laying siege to Hungary’s governing Fidesz party’s headquarters, which they pelted with keyboards and other computer accessories).

Opponents of Lex CEU, which would effectively force Budapest’s Central European University to close its doors, were joined by thousands of Hungarians outraged over the latest anti-EU government propaganda campaign in the form of yet another expensive “national consultation,” this one calling on Hungarians to “stop Brussels.”

Tens of thousands of protesters assembled in front of Buda’s Várkert bazár at 5 pm to hear speeches by American-Hungarian CEU graduate student Dan Berg and the leaders of the Tanitanék (I would teach) Movement. Departing across the Lánchid (Chain Bridge) toward parliament shortly before 6 pm, the crowd swelled to somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people by the time it reached Kossuth square.

The massive demonstration was not limited to the higher education law; last year’s closure of leading left-wing broadsheet Népszabadság, the heckling and jeering of Viktor Orbán at state events, poverty, social exclusion, and the state of Hungarian education were among the issues addressed by speakers and protesters alike.

The protest was organized by the Facebook group “Freedom for Education” (Oktatási Szabadságot). Unlike the vast majority of protests to take place since Fidesz was returned to power in 2014, this one featured mostly young people, including parents with children, many waving EU flags and carrying signs and banners, at times resulting in a picnic-like atmosphere. One boy carried a sign which said “Viktor, allow me to stay.”  One girl sitting on her father’s shoulders held aloft a sign which read “I am a civilian, a Hungarian, and free.”

Government media claimed that the organizers were disappointed with the turnout. but to the contrary, organizers were surprised by attendance. Despite having the foresight to change the staging area from the Clark Ádam square to the larger area along the Danube river in front of the Várkert bazaar, even that venue proved to be too small, with organizers repeatedly asking the crowd to “take a few steps in the direction or the Erzsébet bridge” to the south so that protesters arriving from the Chain Bridge could join them.

“Veto!”

“It’s wonderful to see how many of you have come,” said one of the organizers. “Let us study and teach what we want. For that there needs to be free institutions and free civil organizations. That is why we’re here.”

American-Hungarian graduate student Dan Berg told the crowd that “now is the time for President János Áder to show that he is not just a politician, but a statesman as well, that is, for him not to sign the law on higher education adopted by parliament.”  The crowd reacted by chanting “veto” before departing for Parliament, passing by CEU’s main building on Nádor street.

It took nearly an hour for the procession to reach Kossuth square, by which time its ranks had swelled to somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Reports indicated that as the first protesters reached the square, the tail end of the crowd was still lagging in front of Várkert bazár where the demo bagan.

“Jesus, I can’t see the end,” exclaimed a young girl perched atop her father’s shoulders. An older woman thanked her “for the good news.”

“Today CEU, tomorrow you”

In accordance with the organizers’ request, a number of protesters wore blue, the official color of CEU. However, it was clear from the dress and political messages of many of the protesters that it was not merely the government’s latest attack on educational freedom that had brought them to the streets.

A number of protesters held signs saying “#nőügyek” (women’s affairs), referring to the prime minister’s dismissive, off-the-cuff remark last week about the recall of Hungary’s ambassador to the United States. (“I don’t deal with women’s affairs,” he said to a journalist’s question.)  Another sign proclaiming “Magyar focializmus” (Hungarian soc(cer)ialism) referred to the hundreds of billions of forints of public money spent by the government building stadiums throughout the country. One sign warned that “Today CEU, tomorrow you are Soros,” referring to the government’s campaign against George Soros and NGOs funded by his Open Society Foundations.

A large number of signs and banners criticized the government for its pro-Russian policies, as well as for largess bestowed upon the prime minister’s home town of Felcsút at European and Hungarian taxpayer expense. Other signs protested the “National phantom consultation.” One sign said “Hungary smells like fish . . . it stinks from the head down,” referring to the song commissioned by the government as part of last year’s 1956 memorial celebrations, whose lyrics were subject to misinterpretation.

Many protesters carried EU flags in stark contrast to the parliament, on which not a single official EU flag can be seen (although one was unofficially displayed from a window).

“They should not render our work impossible”

“The reason I’m here is because the government called our university a fake,” CEU doctoral candidate Péter Márton told the crowd in the Kossuth square. “Why is it fraud to spend many billions of forints on a foundation that maintains a university for Hungarian higher education?” he asked rhetorically, pointing out that CEU students went on to take important positions, including ones in government. He concluded his remarks by saying that “if someone doesn’t like what we are doing at CEU, then they should argue against it, but they should not render our work impossible.”

Towards the end of the official demonstration, the crowd started chanting “Orbán, get out!” And “Democracy, educational freedom, Europe!”

The demonstration officially concluded with the singing of the Hungarian national anthem at roughly 7:15 pm, whereupon most of the protesters left. However, several thousand protesters remained, chanting “traitors,””Viktator,” “filthy Fidesz,” and “Russians go home!”  A few even tried to gain access to parliament whose entrance was guarded by a phalanx of police. The arrival of more police seemed to embolden the protesters, some of which threw water bottles and other objects at the police. At one point, a number of riot police appeared but their intervention was limited to patiently biding their time on the corner of  Kossuth square while the crowd gradually dispersed.

Shortly before 10 pm a large number of protesters left Kossuth square headed in the direction of the Ministry of Human Capacities, which houses the educational secretariat.  Encountering a sizable police presence there, the protesters spilled onto the Grand Boulevard (Nagykörút) to Andrássy avenue, which had been closed to traffic. From there they headed in the direction of Heroes square, stopping briefly at the corner of Andrássy and Lendvay street to shout various invectives at the Fidesz party headquarters. Their advance on the headquarters was blocked by heavy riot police presence.

Unable to break through police lines, the crowd returned to Oktogon, the intersection of Andrássy and the main boulevard, where several hundred individuals blocked traffic for half an hour or so before finally dispersing.