Juke on a mission in Budapest: Brave Hungarians
Our dear colleague Juke Fluitsma is currently staying in Budapest. She has worked for Amnesty International the Netherlands for 9 years, but last September she started a new adventure. Juke has joined the team of Amnesty Hungary to support their student activist and human rights education programme. In this first of a series of blogs, she shares her experiences with (student) activism in the country of Goulash, thermal baths and Orbán.
Suddenly, just before Christmas, the Hungarians had enough. Snow and ice didn’t faze the crowds in Budapest, Debrecen, Pécs, Miskolc, Veszprém and Szeged. What did enrage them, enough to march together for hours in the freezing cold, was being exploited and lied to by their own government, the current adopted labour law serving as the fuse that lit the powder keg. The protesters’ demands: revoke the labour law, dubbed ‘slave law’, that required workers to put in 400 instead of 250 hours of overtime, having to wait for a pay-check for those extra hours for three years.
No room for freedom of speech
The usually divided Hungarian opposition managed to form a united front in the course of the protests. Protesters and opposition politicians called for free press and an independent judiciary in addition to striking the slave law. Media and the courts have been suffering under the clampdown of the Fidesz administration for years now. Orbán’s inner circle of friends bought up most of the outlets in Hungary, leaving hardly any room for dissident voices. Furthermore, a parallel court system was in the making, the administrative courts, opening up the judiciary to even more political meddling.
So that is why, just before Christmas, I found myself on Andrassy Street alongside Andréa and Tímea heading to Kossuth Lajos tér, the parliament square, instead of having drinks at our office Christmas party. Three hours earlier, at the beginning of the manifestation only a small group of people had gathered in front of the parliament and it looked like I was going to be on my way to the cosy party in no time. But it wasn’t long before the crowds grew and the excitement rose. So, marching it was!
After three hours, my bravery was starting to wane though. Had I’d known walking would be the main event for the evening, I would have worn more sensible shoes. Now my whole body felt frozen. I was about to call it a night and head for wine and warm soup. But the brave crowds, including my friends, were still energetic and not even close to going home, despite of the overwhelming police presence.
During protests earlier that week, the police reverted to tear gas to stop the crowds from storming the parliament building, as my friends experienced first-hand. And also tonight, tensions rose. I was about to say good bye, when shouting started and purple fumes start filling the air, forming a dense, suffocating mist. Tímea and Andrea immediately started running towards the riots, I followed reluctantly. One of the protesters was arrested by the police and the surrounding crowd formed a human shield to prevent him from being dragged off. The disturbance died down soon enough, but tensions were right beneath the surface.
The government response to the protests was business as usual. A government issued press release pointed towards the “pro-immigration Soros-network” organising violent protests, blaming philanthropist George Soros yet again. The “Soros-activists’ were labelled “Soros-mercenaries” out to raise hell and provoke police. Several arrests were made, and protesters’ photographs were placed on the front cover of government friendly newspaper Ripost, asking readers to contact the police if they recognised “the vandals sustained by Soros”. Fearmongering and scapegoating were still the favourite tools of Orbán. How long this strategy will prove effective, remains to be seen however.
The new year has begun, and the first demonstrations have already taken place last weekend. This is only the beginning. Upcoming Saturday, mass protests are planned throughout the country. The people are fed up. Let’s hope their voices are heard this time and they will get the support of the international community.
And as for me? I will come prepared and wear warm socks and shoes this Saturday. That’s for sure!
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