The huge protest in Budapest in April 2017 in support of the Soros-funded Central European University was one of the biggest anti-government protests of the past few years. Image: Xinhua/Sipa USA/PA images.
This article is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society.
In April 2017, Hungarian theatre director Arpad Schilling staged a one-man protest against 'Stop Brussels!', a nationwide survey launched by the Hungarian government in advance of the next general election in 2018. The survey consisted of six questions that were all overtly anti-EU and anti-immigration in tone, and bore the signature of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. It was posted to all eligible voters in the country.
Schilling, a well-known independent theatre director and social activist, answered the questionnaire in a video recording, as if talking directly to Orban. In a symbolic gesture of defiance, he wore no trousers to highlight the vulnerability of being a lone protester. And, just like his Prime Minister, who is known for his verbal battering of the representatives in the EU parliament, he pulled no punches. Sporting just underpants, a T-shirt, socks and slippers, the 43-year-old frequently stopped to point at the camera to ask: “Are you listening, Viktor? Listen, because I am talking to you!”
The context: the Hungarian government’s ‘consultations’
Since it came to power with a two-thirds majority in 2010, the Hungarian government has rolled out a series of seven ‘consultations’, on topics ranging from the contents of a new constitution to pension schemes, education, immigration and non-governmental organisations.
When an entirely new constitution was finally adopted by the governing FIDESZ (The Hungarian Civic Alliance party) in April 2011, the government invoked popular support to carry through all the changes. Opponents decried that the document removed many checks and balances, affecting the civil liberties and centralising power.
Critics also claim that the results of the consultations help the governing party update its database of supporters, while the loaded tone of the questionnaire promotes FIDESZ’s illiberal agenda ahead of the spring elections in 2018.
George Soros and educational freedoms
More recently, the government’s official public discourse vilified the work of non-governmental organisations that received financial support from foreign sources, singling out the Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. It claimed that these actors are undermining Hungary’s sovereignty, security and national and cultural identity.
A FIDESZ politician publicly referred to Soros as Satan, associating his name with abortion, same-sex marriages and a general hatred of Europe’s Christian traditions
As a result, Soros’s proposal for a more humane policy towards people who came to Europe fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands, was met in Hungary with another national survey launched in October this year. The government’s communication framed the recommendations as a threat and misinterpreted them, as part of the Soros-EU conspiracy to resettle migrants across Europe against the will of the member states. A FIDESZ politician publicly referred to Soros as Satan, associating his name with abortion, same-sex marriages and a general hatred of Europe’s Christian traditions.
Earlier in the year, the Soros-funded Central European University (CEU), known for its emphasis on teaching subjects that promote democracy and human rights, became the main target of higher education regulations violating academic freedom, which continues to keep the university in limbo about whether it will be forced out of the country. The move brought tens of thousands of staff, students and supporters of academic freedom onto the streets in April 2017 – one of the biggest public expressions of civic grievance in recent years.
Arpad Schilling in November 2017. Image: Andreea Anca. Some rights reserved.
Protest and personal responsibility
Schilling’s ten-minute film did go viral on social media, attracting a wave of sympathy. But the fierce criticism and vicious insults it provoked also emphasised his isolation. And despite the huge demonstration in support of the Central European University, he feels that there is a reluctance of many Hungarians when it comes to taking a public stand on issues such as corruption, racism and inequality.
Schilling’s feeling of isolation is heightened by the lack of open solidarity from his artist peers who, he thinks, should assume public responsibility and make better use of their public role, helping society to develop. “There seems to be no understanding that being able to think freely in everyday life, as a regular citizen, and expressing that, is in some ways more important than your profession.”
The director of a cultural institution that serves “as a medium of access to culture and new ideas” should feel, Schilling believes, greater social responsibility. For the father of two, the question of personal responsibility is central to both work and everyday life. ”I feel that Hungary’s actions are also affecting me and I am responsible for what is going on,” Schilling said in a recent interview with INCLO. “Look at what happened with the migrants; I carry my own guilt for the decisions made by the politicians.”
“I feel that art in itself is not enough to achieve a meaningful social change. It is a useful tool but an insufficient one”
Schilling’s sense of social responsibility has been expressed over the years by his theatre productions, which have often put a spotlight on the ills of Hungarian society, zooming on issues of poverty, the national health system and corruption. But he also expresses discontent beyond the realms of the theatre, and insists that art is just a medium he uses to help with his social message: “I feel that art in itself is not enough to achieve a meaningful social change. It is a useful tool but an insufficient one.”
He also makes a clear distinction between his theatrical profession and his social mission: “In theatre, even Hitler is right. It is important to understand the motivation of people,” he says, referring to drama's power to show things in all their complexity and from different – and even abhorrent – perspectives. “This is where I need to differentiate and not create propaganda pieces.”
”As an activist, I can take to the streets to protest against the fact that people with refugee status are harassed on the streets, for instance. There are no 'two sides' there.”
In Schilling’s view, most Hungarian artists make only indirect references to politics in their performances, however, thereby keeping alive the 1980s tradition of quiet dissent. He traces the roots of this public “silence” further back in history, however, to the compromise reached by Hungarian society after its brave but unsuccessful uprising against the Soviet regime in 1956. In exchange for the most liberal system behind the Iron Curtain, he says, a tacit agreement was reached between the communist leadership and the people, whereby the people withheld public criticism, and the revolution was not mentioned in public for almost three more decades.
“This attitude is not helping the art world to develop into an emancipated and mature community. Then for those few hundred of us who make theatre, that message of responsible citizenship will not come through,” Schilling says. “Instead, the message is: 'Don’t speak out and don’t assume responsibility, just wink in secret agreement.'”
Hungarian youth and political engagement
Hungary’s theatre community has for the time being lost the opportunity of seeing Schilling’s effervescent and raw plays; he has decided to currently work only in theatres outside Hungary, in a form of protest at the lack of solidarity in Hungary’s artistic circles and at the political situation of the country. He has instead been working on an experimental play at a theatre in Sankt Pölten, Austria, that reflects on how the rise of the far right is related to the “irresponsibility of the intellectual left and their inability to have a realistic understanding of their context.”
“Someone could spend 20 years in school without understanding basic concepts such as what is democracy, what does it mean to be civic and why do I have to vote?"
He remains related to Hungarian politics through his Kréta Kör Foundation, which runs educational projects for young people aged 14-21, focusing on fundamental questions related to democracy, society and our environment that the Hungarian school system currently fails to address. “Someone could spend 20 years in school without understanding basic concepts such as what is democracy, what does it mean to be civic, why do I have to vote and what is a political party anyway?" Schilling says.
Schilling and his fellow activists will have to think of ingenious ways to attract the first of generation of participants, as collaboration between schools and Kréta Kör was halted a few years ago by an official ban preventing schools from cooperating with blacklisted organisations.
Liberal democracy on hold
Despite Schilling’s enthusiasm for his new social project, he fears that the battle he is fighting might be lost in the coming decades to growing illiberalism in Hungary, the region and beyond. The more he travels, he says, the more he understands that Europe might slide deeper into “demagogy, nationalism, racism and wall building,” referring to the growing popularity of nationalist and xenophobic politics not only in Hungary but also in countries such as Austria and Poland.
“This kind of thinking seems to be spreading like a pest all over Europe. In order to change things in the long run, the thinking masses need a new explosion of thought, and to take a new stand.”