Student Blockade Protests Viktor Orban’s Reach at a Top Arts University

BUDAPEST — Nearly 100 students have occupied a key building of a prestigious Hungarian university for the past week to protest what they see as a takeover of their school by the autocratic government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a demonstration that has become a symbol of resistance to the […]

BUDAPEST — Nearly 100 students have occupied a key building of a prestigious Hungarian university for the past week to protest what they see as a takeover of their school by the autocratic government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a demonstration that has become a symbol of resistance to the country’s nationalist leadership.

The protest, at the University for Theater and Film Arts in central Budapest, has drawn shows of support from theater groups, students, actors and university faculties in Hungary and around Europe since dozens of students began the effort on Monday. On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators joined the students in forming a human chain stretching from the barricaded university building to the steps of Parliament, a distance of five kilometers, or about three miles.

The protesters passed down the line a document declaring the university’s autonomy, and its arrival at the Parliament steps caused jubilation among the demonstrators.

“It is everyone’s constitutional right to receive an education regardless of their political affiliation,” said Panni Szurdi, a 22-year-old student at the university, which has about 500 students.

Supporters of the students have ferried goods and supplies to the barricaded university building, where 70 to 100 protesters have been holed up at any given time during the week. The students said they would not dismantle their barricade until the university’s new board met their demands for institutional autonomy.

“There is this very deliberate and determined culture war that Viktor Orban has been fighting,” said Mihaly Cserni, 23, the president of the university’s student government.

Founded in 1865, the school counts numerous acclaimed graduates, including Geza Rohrig, the lead actor in “Son of Saul,” which won the 2016 Academy Award for best foreign language film; the influential cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; and the filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi, who is known internationally for her award-winning 2017 film, “On Body and Soul.”

Mr. Orban’s government had vowed to give the university’s administration a say in determining the new board, but that did not come to pass, said Laszlo Upor, the university’s deputy rector. In August, the board introduced new rules governing the university’s operations, effectively stripping its Senate of deciding key budgetary and managerial matters. The university’s entire Senate and the bulk of its administration resigned in protest.

The changes are part of a broader trend in Hungary as Mr. Orban has centralized power among his allies and pushed a nationalist agenda since returning to office in 2010.

In recent years, the prime minister and his allies have rewritten the country’s Constitution; had election laws changed to favor his party; and overseen an overhaul of Hungary’s judiciary, with the highest court now stacked with loyalists. He and his allies control Hungary’s public media outlets and most of its private ones.

Mr. Orban’s government has also revamped Hungary’s cultural arts, appointing scores of theater directors across the country. And last year it tightened its control by changing the way theaters receive state funding, a significant source of income.

The nationalist push has likewise stretched into academia. The government has funded research institutes that supply revisionist interpretations of Hungarian history and created a university to train the next generation of government bureaucrats.

At the University for Theater and Film Arts, anger over Mr. Orban’s policies has been focused on Attila Vidnyanszky, a nationalist theater director with close ties to the prime minister who was chosen to serve as the new board’s chairman.

“But they have also seen the power of their own actions and have met the solidarity of those around them,” Mr. Upor said. “This is a lesson they will never forget.”

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