Not only the university students are unhappy in Hungary

Already  yesterday news leaked out from government circles that taking on the university students might not have been the brightest idea. Even Zsolt Bayer warned the government that it must take the students seriously because otherwise “we might be swept away.” Orbán and his old college friends who run the country nowadays should know the strength of a student revolt, he warned. It’s enough to remember 1988. Of course, Bayer added, there is no tuition fee and therefore naturally the students are wrong, but the government ought to negotiate with them and reach a compromise because otherwise the issue might become a ” symbol.”  

And, he added, “the jackals are already circling around them.”  Naturally, the jackals are the opposition parties and perhaps the teachers’  unions. Indeed, all three democratic opposition parties promised the students their support. Attila Mesterházy repeated the Gyurcsány government’s original plan that there would be no tuition fee for students entering in 2014 if the election is won by the present opposition parties.

student demonstration

By late last night Origo reported that “the government is afraid of the rebellious students.”  It seems that not only Zsolt Bayer is worried about the possible end of the Orbán government but the members of the government as well. Although they tried to time the announcement so that it would be close to the Christmas break, the students seem to be fired up. According to the reporter of the article, the “government is grasping at straws” and they are at a loss about what to do.

One idea is that perhaps the already very low 2% interest rate on student loans would be lowered to 0%. Because of the low interest rate the introduction of a tuition fee may be more expensive in the long run than an arrangement similar to the one voted down by the Fidesz-initiated referendum in March 2008. László Kövér went so far as to suggest a change in the number of students eligible for full scholarships. But that had to be his personal opinion because the cabinet will not discuss these figures at its meeting today.

The comments of the liberal Árpád W. Tóta naturally looked at the student demonstrations from a very different angle from that of Zsolt Bayer. He welcomed the students’ reawakened interest in politics. The general apathy has become so widespread in the last few years that most people don’t read newspapers, don’t watch television news and are thus totally ignorant of current events. But suddenly came the realization that politics does matter and that those politicians they despise can make a difference. For better or worse. The guys in power, they finally understood, are not only not doing a good job but are also introducing legislation that is injurious to them. Moreover, they seemed to have grasped that what Viktor Orbán and Rózsa Hoffmann are doing is also threatening the autonomy of the universities and is ruinous  for the future of the country.

I mentioned yesterday that the government is trying to divide the students by introducing tuition fees only for incoming freshmen. So, basically, the most affected group is the totally unorganized high school population. It would be mighty difficult if not impossible to organize nationwide or even citywide mass demonstrations by high school students in diverse gymnasiums and other types of high schools. This is exactly what the government counted on, as was apparent from the cynical András Giró-Szász, the government spokesman, who this morning expressed his surprise that “those students are demonstrating who are not even affected by the changes.”

Not only the students are chanting “We have had enough.” It seems that the right-wing Levente Szőrényi, a great fan of Viktor Orbán at one time, has also had enough. First a few words about Levente Szőrényi. He was born in 1945 in Austria as his parents were fleeing from the Russians. However, soon enough they returned to Hungary and by the 1960s he became a member of a rock group, playing the guitar. In addition, he is also a composer and the author of three books. His close associate is the liberal János Bródy. Their most important collaboration was “István, a  király” (Stephen, the king), a rock opera. Szőrényi wrote the music and Bródy the lyrics. In brief, Szőrényi is an important person in the Hungarian artistic world.

A few weeks ago there were signs that perhaps Szőrényi is not entirely satisfied with the way the Orbán government is handling cultural matters. His first sign of rebellion was that he and Bródy insisted that “István, a király,” to be performed on the occasion of the opera’s thirtieth anniversary, must be staged by Róbert Alföldi, the bête noire of the Orbán regime. He also praised Alföldi’s talent. The government has already set up a committee to find a new director for the National Theater. The result is almost certain: in the end Alföldi will not be chosen. Szőrényi’s indirect support of Alföldi was designed to strengthen the latter’s position.

Szőrényi also stood up for the dismissed director of the Szeged open air theater. But that was just the beginning. Szőrényi gave an interview in Heti Válasz in which he in no uncertain terms informed the powers that be that he is fed up with this Kulturkampf that has been going on in the last two years. “I’ve had enough of brothers Julianus*, of films based on the works of Albert Wass. I’ve had enough of trash. I would like to see real art.” That’s why he and Bródy asked Alföldi to stage their work. According to him, the government’s cultural policies are heading toward chaos. “I’m fed up that I have to accept everything from the so-called ‘polgári’ side just because it is national (‘nemzeti’) and I have to apologize if I don’t like something because otherwise I’m being told that I’m not a good enough Hungarian.” However, Szőrényi didn’t go so far as to criticize Viktor Orbán himself, saying that he doesn’t expect the prime minister to be thoroughly familiar with Hungarian cultural life.

It is, however, crystal clear that Viktor Orbán and his minions know exactly what they are doing. They want to give the financial advantage to those who claim that they were discriminated against by the liberal elite in the past. Others see it differently. They claim that in the artistic world those who complain against discrimination are actually not talented enough, and now with the help of the Orbán government they will reap the benefits of the regime change.

A good example is the Magyar Művészeti Akadémia (MMA). In 1992 Domokos Kosáry, a historian and then the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, came up with the idea of having a section of the Academy devoted to the arts. Thus he established within the framework of the Academy the Széchenyi Akadémia. A few years later, however, the right-wing architect Imre Makovecz established another academy where mostly right-wing artists gathered. The Orbán government has made this academy the official academy of the arts. While the Széchenyi Akadémia gets practically no government support, the Magyar Művészeti Akadémia has received billions. Actually its status was written into the constitution alongside the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Not only that, but MMA also received as a gift theMűcsarnok (Kunsthalle) that was built at the end of the nineteenth century and has been owned and run by the Hungarian government ever since. The gallery exhibits the works of contemporary artists. Many of the painters and sculptors who gathered in MMA never managed to have a show in the Műcsarnok.

The director of the Műcsarnok, a Fidesz appointee, resigned in protest. Several people strenuously objected to the appointment of a certain György Fekete, who made some remarks that echoed the Rákosi regime’s ideas on government-dictated art. Even András Stumpf of Heti Válasz wrote a devastating opinion piece about MMA with the title “Black country.”  Fekete means “black” in English. Meanwhile one of the best painters in Hungary today, László Fehér, resigned from MMA. Fehér in Hungarian means “white,” so newspapermen are having a good time with black versus white turns of phrases.

The trouble is bigger than Viktor Orbán thinks. Even his followers are leaving him in disgust.

*Brother Julianus was a Dominican monk who with three others began a journey eastward in 1235, allegedly to find the original dwelling place of the Hungarians. The description of his journey is in the Vatican Library. He claimed that he could converse with the “Hungarians” there in their own language even after 800 years of separate existence. The real significance of his journey is that he was the first one who was able to warn the West of the forthcoming danger of Mongol invasion.

By: Eva S. Balogh /Hungarian Spectrum

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