I meet Gabriella Csoszó in a small, arty café close to Budapest’s ornate, 19th-century Market Hall. She runs a royalty-free photography archive and is a founding member of NEMMA, an organisation created to raise awareness of diminishing artistic freedom in Hungary. Quite a few people didn’t feel comfortable talking to me but the first thing Csoszó says is that her country “is already halfway into dictatorship”.
Since it was elected in 2010, Viktor Orbán’s party, Fidesz, which holds two-thirds of the seats in parliament, has pushed forward with constitutional reforms. Opponents say he is divorcing Hungary from the rest of democratic Europe. Apart from exerting tight control over the arts sector, Orbán has criminalised homelessness, reserved for himself the right to elect university rectors and approved a law requiring students who accept state scholarships to stay in Hungary.
The economist János Kornai, in a report for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, has drawn attention to what he calls “a wave of centralisation”. He explains that some of the most reputable cultural institutions in Hungary are being made subordinate to newly created bodies.
Many artists feel that free expression is threatened by the conservative Hungarian Academy of Arts (the MMA), which now controls 80 per cent of the arts budget and decides how it is spent. György Fekete, the academy’s 80-year-old leader, sparked outrage recently when he said that he cared “little for this modern democracy where a minority is as important as the majority”, and that Hungary was a country “built on Christian culture” where “there is no need for constant provocation”.
Szabolcs Kisspál arrives at the café by the Market Hall. He is a celebrated cross-media artist and a fellow activist of Csoszó’s at NEMMA (or, translating the “ne”: “no MMA”). He has experienced at first hand the government’s brand of wealth redistribution. In 2010, and again this year, it abruptly halted the transfer of funds to the department at the University of Fine Arts in Budapest where he teaches, among other things, political art.
“It was really scary,” Kisspál says. “We didn’t know how long the university would continue to run. The funds have been given back but not at their full amount.” Similar cuts have been imposed on organisations such as the association of young Hungarian artists, where more than 60 beneficiaries lost their grants – the only source of income for many of them.
“The money was just taken, no warning given,” Kisspál says.
Besides the removal of funding from projects not deemed to be in keeping with the official view of Hungarian culture, other events have raised concern. Chief among these was the appointment last year of a self-proclaimed far-right sympathiser, György Dörner, as the artistic director of the prominent Budapest New Theatre.
Dörner is known for his “commitment to the Hungarian nation”. One of his first decisions was to commission the playwright István Csurka, a founder of the far-right Party of Hungarian Truth and Life, which shared an election platform with the fascist movement Jobbik in 2006. (Csurka died shortly after getting the job.)
Critics of the government fear that these positions might have been awarded as a first nod towards a possible coalition. Recent polling suggests that Orbán might need friends after the next election, if he wants to retain a majority.