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The Continued Rise of “Illiberal Democracy” in Hungary: (Re)Claiming Space for Dissent

By Aaron Tolkamp

The recent re-election of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban to a third consecutive term in office has, for many, confirmed that the nationalistic, anti-immigration rhetoric and policies of the Hungarian government are here to stay. Orban, who is unapologetically xenophobic, continues to create and institutionalize a government platform valuing nationalistic patriotism and the maintenance of ethnic Hungarian culture at the cost of human rights organizations, open society defenders, and other NGOs.

protesters in street carrying banner that says "Freedom for Education"
Photo provided by Aaron Tolkamp

Over the course of the 2018 election period, one of Orban’s favorite targets for charges of spreading “liberal, unpatriotic” lies was the Central European University (CEU), a small, private, graduate university based in Budapest, Hungary which offers degrees in the social sciences to students from over 100 countries. In April 2017, almost a year to the day before the 2018 elections, Orban’s Fidesz party passed a law which requires private graduate universities receiving foreign funds to come under direct governmental oversight, effectively targeting the CEU and requiring it to come under direct government oversight. In the ensuing year, the CEU has attempted to negotiate and find ways to remain in Budapest, yet it appears that as of September 2018, CEU will be forced to open a new campus in Vienna, Austria with some or all of its operations moving there.

The forced closure/relocation of CEU legitimately strikes fear and uncertainty in to the minds of anyone who stands for open societies and the defense of human rights. Yet it is necessary, in the case of Hungary, to remind ourselves that the closure of CEU is representative of greater structural issues. Whether based in Budapest or Vienna, CEU will continue to function due in large part to the finances and privileges available from its founder—billionaire and liberal philanthropist George Soros. Soros, a Jewish-Hungarian who left Hungary for the USA after the Holocaust, has become enemy number 1 in Hungary, being blamed for everything from wanting to destabilize Hungary to having “planned” the recent migrant crisis in Europe. The accusations and character assassinations reek of anti-Semitism and a grand Jewish Cabal—a government spokesperson referred to Soros as a “player in the background who [is] conspiring against the democratically elected government”—but it is important to remember that this is not by accident: Soros, and thus CEU, have been villainized as strategic diversions by Orban and his party. Although CEU, as an institution, will survive this, the situation in Hungary isn’t any less dire. Even as CEU can ‘afford’ to deal with the crisis, it is the smaller civil society organizations and human rights defenders that we must seriously worry about.

Protesters in street carrying a banner in Hungarian that says "Taught freely"
Photo provided by Aaron Tolkamp

Over the course of the Orban’s rule, Hungary has continued to mover further and further away from liberal ideas of open-society and universal human rights. Orban himself has proudly stated that he models his self-styled “illiberal democracy” after China, Russia, and Turkey. What this has effectively meant for Hungary is the closure, seizure, or buying out of any opposition media, the building of a large border fence between Hungary and its southern neighbors in direct opposition to European and UN mandates, an upsurge in anti-Semitism, a noticeable increase in police stopping anyone who doesn’t “look” Hungarian (read: white), and the ever-present, and violent, targeting of the Romani population.

But one of the most chilling and underreported occurrences (outside of the present, but increasingly muffled, Hungarian progressive circles) is the seizure or closure of places that uphold work or ideas contrary to Orban’s own nationalistic ideology. Recent new laws have led to the closure of the Lukács archives and are threatening the operations of Aurora, a community center, café, and bar with old ties to the Jewish community in Budapest and which hosts, among other things, language classes for recent immigrants and refugees. Now deemed illegal under the new law prohibiting providing services to migrants, Aurora has been allowed to stay open, but police vehicles can be seen on the street outside on any given night when an event is held or the bar is open.

aerial view of hundreds of protesters in the street
Photo provided by Aaron Tolkamp

For those who work in smaller NGOs, or for other organizations defending human rights and civil society, the past years have been tough ones, with funding cut out from underneath them. Under the new law, NGOs may be required to register with the government if they receive “foreign aid.” This has led many to feel desperately cut off and made the work of defending human rights in Hungary increasingly difficult. Activists have been arrested or charged with extremely heavy fines for purported crimes—all done with the intent of squashing political dissent, fostering self-censorship, and ultimately urging acquiescence.

Legalized authoritarianism and nationalism are at play in Hungary. Those who work to defend human rights globally should use the example of the forced relocation of CEU as a warning to continue to foster solidarity networks between individuals and organizations who are being pressured to close down or finding their work becoming more and more difficult. In the weeks following the drafting of last year’s anti-democratic law targeting liberal universities and NGOs, there were some small signs of this solidarity at CEU. Students from Turkey started a network of activists dedicated to the defense of both CEU and Turkish academics who had come under fire from their own government. Hungarian students also followed suit defending other Hungarian universities. As signs of “illiberal” democracies continue to appear from Turkey to the Philippines, there is a growing urgency for movements to create and support networks that promote human rights for all. 

Aaron Tolkamp is a Canadian who graduated from Central European University with a degree in Nationalism Studies in June of 2018. You can find him on Twitter @aarontolkamp.

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