Civil Sphere and Grassroots Protests in Hungary: December, 2011

Earlier during the life of this blog, I tried to report about every grass-root action organized by the Hungarian civil sphere. But the time I would have had to have available to keep at this task was rising exponentially, and the change of pace was noticeable even over shorter periods: what used to be outrageous in Hungarian news in September and October, by December was a standardly recurring event. For example, in September I had time to describe in great length the story of how the photographers of Index, Origo, and Blikk were banned from the Parliament. The same journalists have been banned from reporting from the parliament several times since then; perhaps they themselves are the only ones who know the precise number of the bagatelle incidents that got them banned from documenting the work of the Parliament. Just this December, I wrote a post about the manipulation of the news on the Hungarian public media. Since then, three more instances of manipulated or falsified news footage appeared on public television (there are three I am aware of, I may have missed other cases). This is  a standard weapon in the psychological warfare employed by the Hungarian government against its own people: when they do things so outrageous that it is unbelievable, they repeat the act until it becomes all too believable.

But the Hungarian protester is a similarly methodically persistent kind: they are on the street to show that it is not in their name this government rules on every single occasion that the situation changes for the worse. They are not too tired to show up every time their government breeches against the norms of democracy, human decency and common sense. As the first three protests of December went by, and news of others in the making were received, I thought perhaps what needs to be shown about these protests is not their size, or their energy, but even more importantly the consistency with which they express dissent – and the consistency on the part of the government as well to simply ignore not only its political opposition in parliament, but the civilian movements that had sprung up against it as well. The protests taking place in December in Hungary are really best presented in their pattern of recurrence: as the repeated efforts at civilian resistance to the egregious acts of its government. Here is, then, the list of actions organized by the Hungarian civilian sphere during the month of December:

*** Dec. 1 was the night of solidarity. Every year, activists choose a night to remember those living on the streets; this year, the choice fell on the day on which nationwide legislation came into effect in Hungary criminalizing homelessness. At 16 locations (10 in Budapest, 4 in other cities, and 2 abroad), activists spent the night under the sky in solidarity with the homeless.

Protesters in a Budapest park lie down on the concrete in solidarity with the homeless of the city on Dec. 1, 2011. Their signs say "Habitat instead of jail" and "The poor are not criminals."

*** On Dec. 3, in front of the office building for the members of parliament, a number of grass-roots organizations joined forces for a protest called “F in Math.”

The protest was announced by One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary against the economic policies of the government which, on Nov. 25, led to the downgrading of Hungarian bonds to junk status. The demonstrators demanded the dismissal of György Matolcsy, the minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy.

Independent trade unions, One Million for Democracy and the Hungarian Solidarity Movement arrived with their own members, marching over to the location from their previous protest against proposed changes to the country’s labor code. Members of the university student’s organizations and homeless activists also brought their own banners.

Toward the end of the demonstration, members of parliament representing LMP – Hungary’s green party, Politics Can Be Different – showed up in a window to cheer on the crowd and to open a banner with the sentence “Gyuri [Matolcsy] is packing.”

Protest against Hungarian economic policy outside the building housing the offices of the members of the Hungarian parliament, Dec. 3, 2011. Photo by Ákos Stiller/HVG.

*** In Hungary, Dec. 5 is St. Nicholas day. According to Hungarian tradition, Santa Claus (a.k.a. St. Nicholas) brings his gifts on this day – leaving the more glorious opportunity to deliver gifts during Christmas Eve to “Little Jesus.” But this year’s Santa Claus delivered an extra-ordinary gift for István Tarlós, Budapest’s mayor. The group “Az nem lehet, hogy” (It’s not possible that), which was formed almost immediately upon the mayor’s appointment of far-right actor György Dörner and playwright István Csurka as the new leaders of New Theater, delivered a “triple booklet” to his city office. The book consisted of red pages containing 10,395 signatures against the appointment, white pages printed with a critically annotated version of Dörner’s application materials and green pages featuring a selection of the world-views associated with the appointees and their supporters (red-white-green are the national tricolor for Hungary).

A performance by a group called Hólyagcirkusz (Blister Circus) also accompanied the delivery of the gifts in front of the city’s offices:

A performance by Hólyagcirkusz (Blister Circus) awaited those gathering to deliver the triple book to István Tarlós, Dec. 5, 2011.

The St. Nicholas gift also included two tickets to a play, each written by a different Hungarian playwright, for every remaining day of the month of December – since Tarlós often told the public that the reason behind giving up New Theater to the far-right was that not enough Hungarian plays are produced in Hungarian theaters.

*** On Dec. 10, Balázs Nagy Navarro and Aranka Szávuly went on a hunger-strike in front of the headquarters of the Hungarian public media to protest manipulated news footage shown on a public news show.

*** On Dec. 13, members and supporters of the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness held a colorful demonstration in front of the Parliament against Hungary’s religious law, which does not automatically recognize them as a church. The protest included two live cows, several supporters dressed in cow customs and the Krishna valley school children who delivered their concerns in rhymes.

On Dec. 13, children living in Krishna Valley came to ask at the Parliament where their cows would gaze if their land is taken away.

*** Members of several trade unions held a solidarity protest with Balázs Nagy Navarro and Aranka Szávuly (as well as three other journalists who since had joined in on their hunger strike) outside of the public media’s headquarters on Dec. 15.

*** On Dec. 16, members of the group Börtön helyett lakhatást (Habitat instead of jail – a reference to the prison sentences which can now be given to those found sleeping on the streets) occupied a “public space of symbolic significance.” The action was organized on the internet, where one could sign up for messages about what space to occupy at the given time. The location was not revealed, however, until the very last minute.

When the information about the “public space of symbolic significance” did finally arrive to every participants’ mailbox, it turned out to be the Víg Street processing center set up specifically for booking those “guilty” of homelessness in Budapest’s 8th district. The protesters put down a number of tents in front of the processing center and passed on a loudspeaker so that everybody could vocalize his or her own reasons for participating in the demonstration. In spite of the rain, the protest turned into a pleasant street party-style event; as a result of the crowd showing up in front of it, the otherwise 24/7 processing center closed its doors and the homeless of the 8th district were left unmolested by the police for a night. However, a protester who spent the night in one of the tents was arrested by the following morning.

Occupation of a public space in protest of the criminalization of homelessness in Hungary, Dec 16, 2011.

*** On Saturday, Dec. 17 the Hungarian Solidarity Movement held protests and flashmobs at 29 locations of the country simultaneously. Solidarity is building a network that could serve the backbone of a general strike in the near future: their particular strength is their decentralized organizational network and their reach into the most diverse strata of Hungarian society. Only two of the 29 locations were in the country’s capital, and every single one of Hungary’s 19 counties were represented among the locations.

Solidarity also rolled out a new poster, on which a figure drawn in the shape of Viktor Orbán, captured on a by now infamous photo from above in early September, is tagged by Solidarity with the words “Comrades, this is the end!” The poster is reminiscent of a famous campaign design from the first free elections taking place in Hungary in 1990. At that time, the same tag-line was used in Russian by the first Hungarian party to form a government. The poster required literal “demonstration” at the 29 events nationwide on  placards because the company where poster versions of the signage were ordered refused to deliver the job once they discovered its political content.

"Comrades, it is over!" poster from 2011.

 

"Comrades, it is over!" poster from 1990.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*** The Network for the Freedom of Education (HAT: Hálózat a Tanszabadságért), a civilian group of educators held its last “office hour” on Dec. 19, the day on which the controversial bill on Hungary’s education system was scheduled to be voted into law by the governmental yes-voting machine in the Parliament. The teachers and education experts of HAT had been holding “office hours” outside of the Parliament on days on which the bill was under discussion in the Parliament since early November. They wanted to go beyond merely expressing their dismay about the government’s plans for Hungarian education: as the country’s leading experts on educational theory, they made themselves available to anyone – but especially to members of parliament planning to vote yes on the bill – right outside of the Parliament for consultation. The bill was passed without incorporation of their concerns in the early morning hours on Dec. 20.

*** On Dec. 22, several thousands protested against the decision of the Hungarian Media Authority to take away the frequency of the opposition community radio Klubrádió. News of the decision did not take anyone by surprise – the call for applications already made it clear that Klubrádió would lose its frequency, since it required the successful applicant to play Hungarian music for a certain percentage of its air-time – but the news were devastating all the same, since Klubrádió was the last bastion of opposition media in an otherwise more and more barren media landscape. Unless its owners win another frequency application (which is highly unlikely), the radio station will have to stop broadcasting in February.

Crowd gathered on Mihály Pollack tér against the government's silencing of Klubrádió, Dec. 22, 2011.

*** On Dec. 23, activists and members of Parliament representing LMP (Politics Can Be Different) chained themselves to two entrances of the Hungarian parliament in an attempt to keep government MPs from passing a number of laws that would irrevocably demolish the democratic framework of the country (one of these, the electoral law would practically perpetuate the currently governing Fidesz party’s rule into eternity). A row of protesters awaited those arriving to vote yes on the bills with personalized signs, one for each government-party lawmaker, asking them “if they are going to betray democracy.”

Protesters outside of the Parliament on the morning of December 23. Beneath the name and the picture of each government-party MP, each sign asks "you are not going to betray democracy, are you?". Photo by Ákos Stiller/HVG.

The police dragged away those who “restricted others’ right to move about,” one opposition member of parliament after another.

Green-party member of parliament Gábor Vágó is being dragged into jail for protesting the legislative work of the Hungarian parliament, Dec. 23, 2011. Photo by Ákos Stiller/HVG.

Members of parliament representing the Democratic Coalition stepped into their place – they were also led away by police. Socialist MPs did not get arrested until they arrived to the arraignment center and tried to hinder the work of the police. While the governing party was busy accomplishing its legislative agenda – without any of the opposition save far-right Jobbik present – the day ended in a mass rally outside of parliament.

Crowd surrounds the Hungarian parliament to protest passage of the laws inside the building, Dec. 23, 2011. Photo by Szabolcs Barakonyi/Index.hu.

The original plan after the rally was to bring the protest to the arraignment center: while the politicians were released fairly quickly, it took longer for the civilian activists to be processed. But news arrived at the rally outside of parliament that even the civilians were  let go, so upon the conclusion of the rally, the participants headed over to the exits of the parliament to boo government-party MPs. “You are junk,” they chanted (a reference also to the country’s bond classification – by now with two out of the three major credit rating agencies). Fidesz and Christian Democratic MPs, members of the ruling party coalition, were called traitors and likened to Belarus’ Lukashenko and North-Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.

*** “Music is not torture” was the official name of the protest held on Dec. 28 in solidarity with the journalists on hunger-strike. During Christmas, their circumstances worsened significantly.

Already days before Christmas Eve, high-power reflectors and loud-speakers were lowered from above to their “designated hunger-strike area.” The speakers were programmed to blast a loop of three extremely irksome Christmas songs. On Christmas Eve, they were almost fenced within the area assigned for their hunger-strike outside of the  building. Though a fence was drawn up, at that point its closure was easily prevented by a bit of resourcefulness. Then on Dec. 27, two of the group, Balázs Nagy Navarro and Aranka Szávuly were fired from their job, which also meant that they lost access to the building and were literally left out in the cold. So the solidarity demonstration – organized by who other than the Hungarian Solidarity Movement – relied on famous Hungarian jazz players for bringing some quality music to the hunger-strikers:

*** The next morning, at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 29., security guards arrived to close off the fence around the hunger-strikers. At that time, ten hunger-strikers would have been locked into the area officially designated for hunger-strike – without medications, further supplies of fluid or restroom facilities.

Dec. 29, 2011: when one sets out to protest manipulated news in the Hungarian public media, it is important to be able to fight off getting locked inside a fence. Photo by hvg.hu.

This time around, it took a lot more to prevent becoming fenced in. The fence was close to complete, only a  small (about two feet) opening separated its two ends. Three of the hunger-strikers kept this hole open by standing and lying in between the two ends of the fence, while the rest of those present stood against the cordon to prevent it from being moved.

Before long, however, news of the security guards’ action spread, and a number of opposition members of parliament were on the scene – with a clear plan and wrenches to solve the source of the problem. They and the many supporters rushing to the aid of the hunger strikers broke away the fence altogether. Because the fence was drawn up on what is private territory, the police did not have jurisdiction to intervene. Since the incident, the hunger strikers are accompanied by a sympathizer contingent of “strike guards” during every night.

*** On the night of Dec. 31, thousands gathered to take an oath to the Hungarian Republic (Magyar Köztársaság). What used to be the name of the democratic country in existence from 1989 through 2011 is being changed to Hungary, or “Hungarian country” (Magyarország) in 2012, when the constitution hastily composed by the currently ruling government comes into effect. The demonstration also saw the founding of the Clean Hands Movement, an organization which is to carry on the aims of an “alternative” public  (or citizen) media free of political manipulation.

On Jan. 1, the police is putting up a metal fence in the middle of Kossuth Square, the site of many of these demonstrations, in order to clarify “what areas are available for exercising the right to public assembly” and which are required to be inaccessible to the public “in order to ensure the security of the building of the Parliament, and the unperturbed operation of the legislature.”

Crowd demonstrating on New Years Eve outside the Hungarian Parliament, Dec. 31, 2011. The sign says: "Clean hands instead of the graces of despotism."

+++ Being a protester in Hungary is not necessarily a thankful role. Waves of far-right protests during the previous government made the role ignominious. That these protests are not an eye-for-an-eye (i.e. they are not conducted in the service of the political interests of the previous government, in the same way the protests that started off the series of far-right protests were fueled by the political interests of the current government) sometimes only matters for the sophisticated observer. There is a political culture in Hungary where who you are with is more important than what you are for. It is one of the reasons why democracy has been dismantled in this country to the extent it has already been by today.

When the demonstrators present at the unannounced occupation were asked why they decided to join the action, one of them said that though it still an open question as to whether the action will have any impact, it was important to make sure that these measures go into the history books with the note “citizens protested against it.” In December of 2011, hardly anything the Hungarian government goes into the history textbook without such a note testifying to the conscientiousness and the courage of the government’s protester.

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24 Responses to Civil Sphere and Grassroots Protests in Hungary: December, 2011

  1. Pusztaranger says:

    Excellent summary, thank you.

  2. Kovács Gábor says:

    Örül a szívem, hogy végre megmozdul az ország legjobbik fele a gyűlölt országromboló, erőszakos ostobaság ellen, és annak is, hogy van aki megmutassa ezt a világnak. Csak így tovább, a győzelemig !

    • kuvik says:

      Igen, megmozdult az ország a hazugság ellen, lásd “Békemenet Magyarországért”.
      Legközelebb meglesz az egymillió!

      The Peace March for Hungary reveals hostile attack on Hungary’s democracy.
      google 1 million people’s Peace March for Hungary youtube

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  5. Gretchen Dunn says:

    I wish to echo Pusztaranger’s response: I knew some of this, not all. And did not know the sign ‘Tiszta Kezek’ represented a new movement in support of free radio. I had thought it referred to the ‘dirty hands’ of Parliament. Thanks again!

  6. EBE says:

    Great summary. Thanks!

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  9. Ferenc Arató says:

    Great summary! Thanks! I really miss the 3 weeks demonstration of Hálózat a Tanszabadságért near the parliament and their big demonstration during the long night of jurisdiction on the 19th of December when the 2/3 voted for the new law of education!!!

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/HAT-H%C3%A1l%C3%B3zat-a-Tanszabads%C3%A1g%C3%A9rt/295461507140386

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  11. yrusac says:

    You present a great overview. It’s nice to be able to read a good inside account of what is happening in Hungary. International press misses out on the points you present here. Thanks!

  12. Gabor Toka says:

    Excellent post, it really gives a feel for the variety of protest actions taking place. It was a wonderful idea that you wrote and posted it, well worth every minute of the effort.

    Let me add two events to the list though, no matter how small the crowds were, simply because they were both so sad in their different ways. The first event took place in front of the social security administration building in Veszprem, and was merely meant to commemorate the pensioner who stabbed himself to death at a public place in December to protest the government’s move to cut his disabled pension to a fraction of what it used to be. See
    http://index.hu/belfold/hirek/2012/01/02/civilek_emlekeztek_a_magat_sziven_szuro_ferfira_veszpremben/
    The broader context of his despair was of course a series of measures by the government consistently refusing to show solidarity with – or at least tolerance for – the genuinely poor, and rather portraying them as criminals (like the homeless) or leeches on society (like people with disabilities).

    The second event was the single isolated example of a pro-government rally that I heard of during all these weeks. See http://mno.hu/ahirtvhirei/az-uj-alaptorvenyt-unnepeltek-video-1040669 The 20 or so people on this video went to Parliament to celebrate the new constitution. The speaker says on the video footage that in 100 years time or so there may still be another parliamentary majority that will amend the 2011 constitution with a paragraph stating how proud the nation is about the achievements of Viktor Orban and his parliamentary majority that passed the constitution. May everyone forgive the speaker for his misjudgment and let us undo this nightmare regime asap.

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  15. loborg says:

    Még szerencse hogy senki le se szarja a mondanivalótokat, hiszen diktatúra van, csak az a kár hogy rohadt hazaárulók köpködik az általuk legyilkolt ország tetemét!

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