Virus shutdown ends Hungary students' campus blockade

·2-min read
The blockade by university students, pictured last month, presented a rare physical challenge to Prime Minister Viktor Orban
The blockade by university students, pictured last month, presented a rare physical challenge to Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Students at Hungary's top arts university opposing a reform by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government ended a long-running blockade of the campus Tuesday but vowed to continue the protest elsewhere.

Students from the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) said anti-coronavirus measures announced by Orban on Monday, including an order for higher education institutions to move to digital teaching, meant they had to leave the premises after a 71-day-long occupation.

"With respect to the epidemic measures we have no opportunity to continue the protest in physical form, we have to leave the building today," a student spokeswoman told reporters outside the campus.

But the protesters, who guarded the building's entrance and held classes inside during the blockade in what they called an "educational republic," said they will continue their protest outside the building until the institution's autonomy is restored.

"As our demands are still unmet, we are not giving up the blockade, but taking it with us, we are the university, the blockade will last as long as the repression by the powers that be lasts," the spokeswoman added.

The blockade began on September 1, a day after the university's management resigned in protest, claiming the government had stripped SZFE of its autonomy.

The students at the 155-year-old university, and many staff who went on strike in solidarity, say the government imposed a new "illegitimate" board whose pro-Orban trustees are appointed indefinitely.

The reform is seen by critics of Orban as the latest step in his attempt to reshape Hungary's public life to fit his own nationalist and culturally conservative agenda.

After the blockade began the new board's chancellor, Gabor Szarka, a former army colonel, was prevented from entering the building by students blocking the entrance.

Szarka described the occupation as "anarchy" and switched off the internet at the building, as well as changing door locks inside.

The new board insists that the changes -- including moving SZFE's ownership from state to private hands -- will improve infrastructure and educational standards.

Last month the government doubled the university's budget for next year.

The blockade presented a rare physical challenge to the self-styled "illiberal" premier Orban, 57, whose control in Hungary has steadily grown since he won a landslide election a decade ago. 

In 2018 he declared that "big changes" were afoot for Hungary's cultural and academic scenes, considered in pro-government circles as hotbeds of liberalism.

Since then, laws have reformed how theatres are managed and removed autonomy from the leadership of the prestigious Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

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