They can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The associations, organisations and collectives of resistance in Budapest, campaigning for equality, basic rights and against property speculation, tell a more lively and democratic society than in any other country. That’s where the real Europe lies – writes Irene Dominioni of the Central Eastern Caravan. Article originally published in Italian here.
In Budapest, for the European elections, there are almost no election posters around, and the few that are in circulation, belong mainly to Fidesz, the party of Viktor Orbán. Politics is not discussed, debate is non-existent. “If you watch the news on TV, it seems to be North Korea,” says Philip, an American who has lived in Hungary for several years, and he is part of the local group of DiEM25 (he has given us a fictional name to remain anonymous.) With his party, he won’t manage to run for the elections; the opposition in Hungary has been torn to pieces by the government and completely de-legitimised, the left divided and powerless. Propaganda against the EU’s “technocracy” is very strong, even though Western media often makes the mistake of pointing to Orban as an enemy of the Union. Without EU funds, Hungary would never have gotten where it is now: although conditions in hospitals are disastrous and in the countryside life is in a semi-feudal state, where quality education is non-existent and children are malnourished, while more educated young people continue to leave, the main macroeconomic indicators suggest that the economy is in a good state.
But freedom of thought around here is not in good shape. If until a few years ago, in Budapest intellectual life took place in cafes and public places (see “East Paris”), now gentrification and mass tourism have led to the closure or segregation in the suburbs of many of these meeting places and centers of thought. Behind the motivation for the “promotion of Hungarian culture”, within a decade the centre of Budapest has changed its face completely, becoming in fact an amusement park for tourists. Real estate speculation is skyrocketing, to the extent that Hungarians no longer live in the centre: “in a couple of years the rents have increased by 50%,” says Sarah Gunther, an artist and activist, part of a collective called Pneuma Szöv (literally “air collective.”) Gunther is originally from Germany but has been living in Budapest for a decade now and has witnessed the metamorphosis of the country at the hands of Orbán. The collective regularly organizes theatrical and artistic performances in the street and occupies buildings, although temporarily, reappropriating spaces taken away from the community. The name of the group is due to their first exhibition, back in 2008, on the theme of pollution (Budapest is the third most polluted city in Europe), a project that witnessed in the offices of an abandoned shopping center, an exhibition/process with a series of actors engaged in recreating the pollution in test tubes and other similar problems, to raise awareness on the issue. The building where the collective has been based so far is on the fourth floor of a refined and decadent building in the center, which until recently was also hosting a number of associations and other non-profit organizations. Now the corridors are full of boxes: 60% of these organizations can’t pay the extortionate rent and within a month they will have to move elsewhere.
There are many centres of activism that are suffering the same fate under the pressure of the local administration, mirror and arm of the Orbán’s government. Not far from Pneuma Szöv’s headquarters is Auróra, a social enterprise created to “network cultural activities, civil organizations and activists, support community building and fun”. In the building, there are several NGOs and groups of activists, including students from Central European University and SzabadEgyetem, the movement for the “free university.” The social centre is linked to George Soros. “We have been under attack by the local administration and more generally by the Hungarian government since our inception in 2014,” says one of the representatives. “It all started with the arrest of 20-25 people on charges of aiding and abetting trade. They kept us locked up for a while, then we went to court and won the case, but they kept us under surveillance and now they get us to close the bar at 10 pm every night. And this is a problem because the revenue of the bar is our main source of income and the early closure has brought us to our financial knees. The only good thing is that the owner of the building is a foreigner; if he had been a Hungarian, they would have thrown us out by now.
In addition to the political attacks, the pressure of a crazy real estate market is also putting the associations to the test. Gólya, another community space born in 2011 and strongly oriented to the left, is the most striking example of this. The building that houses it is now surrounded by new buildings. It will be knocked down soon, but miraculously the collective has managed – thanks to donations, loans taken out with private individuals and crowdfunding – to buy over 40 thousand square meters of an old engine factory in a suburban neighborhood, which will soon constitute the new headquarters. Judging by the state of the interior, it seems unthinkable that the 15 workers, plus a number of volunteers, could manage to set up a project of such incredible size in no time. The aim is to open the first part of the building (which will host, among other things, a kindergarten, shared offices for NGOs, a gym, a radio studio and a “resting room” with beds for the homeless) in two weeks, while the official opening is scheduled for October.
“Our ambition is to imagine what society would be like if people governed themselves and were totally financially independent,” explains Gergő Birtalan, one of the 12 members of the cooperative. “We give space to associations and to anyone who shares our vision. The only criterion for working here is to provide a service for the community.”
The idea of self-sufficiency is the principle that also drives Cargonomia, “a logistics center that offers solutions for the sustainable transport of food, a point of collection and distribution of organic fruit and vegetables produced at zero kilometer and a space-incubator for activities and ideas related to the principle of degrowth and environmental sustainability”. In essence, the organization offers the delivery by bike of organic products from a farm near the capital. But it also organizes workshops on sustainability and permaculture with schools, research in collaboration with the university and work programs for rural people and minorities such as the Roma. One of the objectives of Cargonomia is to bring vegetable gardens back into the courtyards of the city’s railing buildings. “Until the 1980s, Budapest was practically self-sufficient in terms of fruit and vegetable production. Then the agricultural industry wiped out everything in ten years,” explains Vincent Liegey, a Frenchman who moved here 17 years ago and who, in addition to being one of the co-founders of Cargonomia, over the years has been an activist, co-founder of the Hungarian Green Party Lmp (“Another Politics Is Possible”) and political consultant to the French embassy in Budapest. “With Cargonomia, we try to reproduce that autonomy and influence politics by showing that an alternative is possible even on a small scale.
Like associations based on the territory of Budapest, also NGOs, suffering from a campaign of defamation and “anti-Soros laws,” do not have an easy life. “We have not been particularly affected by the laws that have criminalized aid to asylum seekers,” explains Miklós Ligeti, Head of Legal Affairs at Transparency International Hungary, an NGO that fights against corruption worldwide. “But the government still keeps us very busy with unfair competition, anomalous procedures for public procurement, and especially the enrichment of those who are friends of the government. Here we observe, above all, a particular growth of crony capitalism, where friendships and personal relationships often override economic performance and have a significant impact on the pockets of a few. Although TI is not a politically aligned organization, it is objectively difficult to believe in the good faith of a premier whose son-in-law, just 30 years old, has overnight become the second richest person in the country. The European Anti-Fraud Office, for example, has never received back the 43 million euros of which the company of this son-in-law, Istvan Tiborcz, has unduly appropriated through rigged contracts co-financed by the EU between 2011 and 2015. But it is difficult to count all the cases (even those involving much larger sums.)
Viktor Orbán knows how to play his cards well – so well that he can easily be considered “the smartest bastard in Europe,” says Liegey. Although only a minority in the country really supports him, “he knows how to use very effective methods to maintain power and pretend to be the strongest in Hungary”, eliminating one by one anyone who could pose a threat to him. With the migrants, Orban was able to create a problem where the problem did not exist, by continuing with his political agenda. “He speaks of Christianity as the foundation of Hungarian society, but the churches are empty. The reality of the country is very different from what it says. What people really care about is the healthcare system, the education system, the emigration of young people. But in the country there is no debate about any of this,” only a media narrative completely controlled by the government.
Through targeted actions, such as increasing wages by 15% a year before the elections, or granting Hungarian citizenship to citizens of other countries (in Ukraine the sale and purchase of Schengen passports brought a fair amount of money into the pockets of many within the government, as well as a large number of voters in the ranks of the party) Orbán was able to maintain his power. “The last reelection was scary, we really started to lose hope of being able to get rid of him,” admits Liegey. Thanks to the Hungarians’ substantial disaffection and mistrust in politics (only 15% really believe in the conspiracy theories about the Western threat to the country) and the fatalism that characterizes the collective psyche, in a country that was occupied by foreign powers for five centuries, Orbán is seen (even within his own party) as the lesser evil and the only concrete alternative, faithful to the “never again” promise against communism.
In this context, a 50% of abstention rate is foreseen in the European elections for Hungary. “Even the people who are in favour of the European Union know nothing about how European institutions work. Not even the most politically active intellectual elite. When there was a referendum to join the EU, only a quarter of the population went to vote, and even then there was a very vague idea of what the European Union really meant,” Liegey explains. “The Hungarian ruling class had a fictional vision of Europe and really believed that it was enough to implement good structural investments; growth and democracy would come naturally. But EU money has only had the effect of strengthening corruption, inequalities and the interests of Western corporations.
“We feel like Eastern Europeans, we don’t have the same resources and we have to find our own way to make things work. For me, Europe is divided in two. If the European Union still wants to be a framework for democracy, it must be able to harmonise,” says Birtalan. Voting in elections around here is not perceived as a real solution: “We do not have a long-standing anti-fascist tradition like elsewhere. It’s like taking to the streets to demonstrate, we now know that doing this does not change things, so we decided to abandon these forms of petty-bourgeois activism. We must change reality from the ground up, organise ourselves and be economically autonomous. The movement will only be able to achieve its political objectives if we have enough financial and social support.
Who would have ever thought that right there, where the islands of resistance still remain, in the places where everyone knows each other, are the places where the heart of Europe beats the hardest. A Europe where politics are not top-down but is built day by day, whether that’s by getting its hands dirty by picking tomatoes on a farm or bringing an old forgotten building back to life. Despite the threats and madness, the power struggle endures. “Loyalty is one of the founding values of Hungarian society. Orbán has made a great deal of use of this feature, promoting the idea that anyone who takes a step against the line of government, will be neutralised instantly. Ideologically, it is very strong, but this also makes it very unstable: as soon as a critical mass of people is able to organize itself, Orbán can immediately collapse,” says Liegey. “It could happen tomorrow or in 20 years, nobody knows.” Just because there is no worthy political representation, does not mean that everything is lost. On the roof of the factory, Birtalan speaks calmly, his face facing the sun. “Maybe we’ll win, maybe we won’t.” Downstairs, the workers continue their work. “But change can happen. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t do it.”