Hungary Students Dig In At Blockade For Academic Freedom

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A month into a blockade of Hungary's top arts university, hundreds of students rebelling against control by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's right-wing government show no sign of quitting.

"The blockade remains until our demands to restore the university's autonomy are met," said Aron Heppes, 23, a film set design student at the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) in downtown Budapest.

Heppes and dozens of other students began the sit-in September 1, a day after SZFE's management resigned in protest at their loss of autonomy to a new, government-picked board whose trustees are appointed indefinitely.

The move is seen by Orban's opponents as the latest step in his attempt to reshape Hungary's public life to fit his own nationalist and culturally conservative agenda.

"I've been sleeping here since then, hundreds of us are inside now," Heppes, tall with cropped hair and a facemask emblazoned with "Free SZFE!", told AFP outside the building.

Teachers and students stand guard on top of the main entrance of the University of Theatre and Film Arts Teachers and students stand guard on top of the main entrance of the University of Theatre and Film Arts  AFP / ATTILA KISBENEDEK

With no end to the standoff in sight, staff at the 155-year-old institution, which has produced Oscar-winning directors and cinematographers, also plan to strike from October 1.

At its entrance -- barricaded with red-and-white tape -- students sit on guard, keeping out the new management and only letting in fellow so-called "university citizen" staff and students, after a temperature check.

Members of the public regularly arrive with cash or food donations.

"If we need something like mattresses or food, there's an online list, people bring it the next day, it's been an uplifting experience," said Heppes.

Deputy Rector Laszlo Upor seen behind the blockade Deputy Rector Laszlo Upor seen behind the blockade  AFP / ATTILA KISBENEDEK

Each afternoon student performers entertain those below from the first-floor balcony and the facade is adorned with many hundreds of messages of support and portraits of sympathisers.

International acting luminaries abroad like Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, and Helen Mirren have also expressed support.

The outpouring of solidarity with the 400-strong student body has not surprised SZFE's deputy rector Laszlo Upor, 67, a drama teacher there for 32 years.

"We may be small, our problem is not everyone's, but people clearly see how politics intervened in a direct way," Upor, who led the management's mass resignation last month, told AFP near the blockade.

"Our autonomy is directly related to the freedom of art," he said, calling the new board and its leader, conservative theatre director Attila Vidnyanszky, "ideological" appointments.

Seen as close to Orban, Vidnyanszky, 56, has said he wants a "different kind of thinking" at SZFE.

There have been several protests in support of academic freedom in Hungary There have been several protests in support of academic freedom in Hungary  AFP / ATTILA KISBENEDEK

"They claim it's time to teach people to become true patriots or true Christians or whatever, it is hard to deny it is part of a polarising culture war," said Upor.

The self-styled "illiberal" premier Orban, 57, declared in 2018 that "big changes" were afoot for Hungary's cultural and academic scenes, seen in pro-government circles as hotbeds of liberalism.

Since then, laws have reformed how theatres are controlled and removed autonomy from the leadership of the prestigious Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

An international university founded by liberal US billionaire George Soros also said it was forced to move the bulk of its operations to Vienna from Budapest after a long legal battle for "academic freedom" with Orban.

But while those earlier moves sparked street protests, the SZFE demonstration is the first major building occupation.

"This is where it leads, people don't want to tolerate the narrowing of space for critical voices any longer," said Szabolcs Hajdu, who runs SZFE's film-directing department.

"The students have done what no-one has yet dared to do, and it seems much of society supports them," he told AFP before entering the building to give a class.

But an elderly man walking by shouted toward the blockade: "You should be ashamed of yourselves!"

Last week a group of radical right-wing youth activists climbed on a balcony with a banner reading "No 1968 here" in reference to a student rebellion in Paris.

The new board has threatened to find the school a different location and new staff and questioned the quality of SZFE's teaching.

The ministry in charge of higher education insists that the changes will improve both infrastructure and educational standards.

Pro-government pundits meanwhile have called the students "far-left anarchists" fomenting a "civil war situation".

Upor blasts the tone of the accusations.

"They are called brainwashed kids, but they are leading the blockade, not the teachers," he said.

"Let's not forget that Orban and his peers were also in their 20s when they entered parliament in 1990."

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