When Attila Vidnyanszky was appointed to chair Hungary’s University for Theatre and Film Arts in July, he made clear what the 155-year-old institution’s new direction would be: it needed to do more to foster Hungarian national identity and Christian values.
Until now, the Viktor Orban loyalist told pro-government news outlet Magyar Forum, the university had been providing “harmful, monotone, ideological” instruction.
Most students and professors disagree, however. For the past 10 days, the university premises have been shrouded with red-and-white caution tape and protests have postponed the start of the academic year. The building, in Budapest’s central eighth district, has become ground zero of the Kulturkampf, or culture war, waged by the Hungarian nationalist premier since he returned to power in 2010.
“All of these students here are learning to think independently — it is a big threat to the government,” said Panni Szurda, a 22-year-old screenwriting student. “They have to hold this university under control.”
After his third consecutive victory in 2018, Mr Orban said his primary task was to “embed the political system in a cultural era”. While pro-government voices have maintained that Mr Orban has sought to reclaim space dominated by liberals since the collapse of communism 30 years ago, observers say the government already exerts an outsized influence.
In the spring, the Hungarian parliament transferred ownership of the University for Theatre and Film Arts, known as SZFE, to a private foundation, giving the body’s board enlarged powers in choosing its leadership.
The government has said that the changes will enable the institution to function “more independently of the state” and “increase university autonomy”. But protesting students and professors say their requests to be included in governance and decision-making processes were ignored.
Ildiko Enyedi, a Hungarian film director whose 2017 film On Body and Soul won the top prize at the 67th Berlinale, resigned from the university in protest.
“You cannot create a valid artistic or scientific product based on ideology. The history of the 20th century is full of grim examples when it was attempted,” she said, adding: “How dare anyone, from any segment of the political landscape, define himself as a sort of authority to decide who is part of the national culture and who is not?”
The shake-up comes against a wider backdrop of shrinking space for free expression. Last year, Central European University, founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, was forced to relocate to Austria. The country’s premiere research body, the Academy of Sciences, was chopped into parts, with the government given the final say over its governance and research priorities. Historical research institutes have been brought to heel. And the government has sought to exert more control independent theatres, especially in Budapest.
“One could see this as part of the Kulturkampf . . . but there is little kampf any more in the past years: it is not a battle of equally strong parts but a carpet bombing,” said Andrea Tompa, a Hungarian writer and theatre critic.
Hungary, which spends more on culture than most other European countries, passed legislation last year detailing conditions for receiving state funds. Conditions include a veto right for the government on the appointment of theatre directors.
“It is maddening for us young people to try to start in this field,” said Balazs Dohy, 23, who is finishing his degree in dramaturgy at SZFE.
“Professional viewpoints are less and less important in this cultural war: many people in charge now didn’t earn their positions by becoming great and renowned artists but due to political connections.”
Mr Vidnyanszky, who is also the director of Hungary’s National Theatre, was named vice-rector of an arts university in the southwestern city of Kaposvar in 2013. Former professors and alumni said that following his arrival, many professors were fired.
“Our teachers wanted to stay with us, to make compromise solutions, but it was clear within a short time that was impossible,” said Nandor Jambor, an alumnus of the university in Kaposvar who is now an actor in western Hungary. “It was the rehearsal of this play unfolding now.”
Mihaly Csernai, a drama pedagogy student and the head of SZFE’s student union, said that now in Hungary: “You can’t get a degree in acting, directing or dramaturgy where Mr Vidnyansky is not involved.”
The crackdown entails some political risks for Mr Orban. While SZFE has fewer than 500 students, the movement has gained broad popular support. Last Sunday about 8,000 people protested in Budapest, where the Hungarian leader faces the toughest opposition, embodied in the Hungarian capital’s liberal, pro-EU mayor Gergely Karacsony, who was elected in October.
The protests have highlighted Mr Orban’s relatively lower popularity among the younger generation. In 2018 parliamentary elections, his party Fidesz secured 49 per cent of the vote a national level but only 37 per cent of voters aged under 30.
The party will need the youth vote in order to maintain its parliamentary supermajority, but events like this are not endearing the ruling party to young people, said Zselyke Csaky of the democracy watchdog Freedom House.
“While Fidesz remains the most popular party in all age brackets, it has been losing support among the youngest generation for quite some time,” she said.
“There was a brief period when it tried to resonate with them by taking on issues around climate change last year but since then it looks like it has given up on them.”