Disrupting Illiberal Democracy: Gender, Boundary Crossings, and the Possibility of Kinship in Hungary
An Interview with Orsolya Lehotai

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Orsolya Lehotai is a Ph.D. student at the New School for Social Research and holds an M.A. in Gender Studies from the Central European University. Her research focuses on the politics of care, as well as the conditions, articulations, and multiple forms of civic responsiveness and belonging in relation to the mediation of the suffering Other in contemporary Hungarian politics. She is also a regular contributor to the opinion column of Mérce.hu

She recently sat down with Barricade editorial collective member and fellow alum of Central European University’s Department of Gender Studies, Zach Rivers, to discuss her experiences of organizing protests against the Hungarian government’s legislations to close Central European University, how issues surrounding gender and migration are being mobilized in Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy,” and some innovative ways for the Left to combat Orbán’s regime. The stakes are high—Lehotai describes the present moment as the last hour to protest in Hungary—but this wide-reaching and impactful interview offers paths for combatting the rise of right-wing populism.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

ZACH RIVERS: In 2017, during your time as a master’s student in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University (CEU), Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party, passed a law commonly referred to as “Lex CEU” that would effectively make CEU’s continued existence in Hungary impossible. You were one of the main organizers of the protests that formed against this law, which drew tens of thousands of people, and transformed into a larger movement known as Oktatási Szabadságot [Freedom for Education] that seeks to protect the autonomy of Hungarian higher education institutions from government attacks. Could you describe a bit your experiences of organizing these protests?

ORSOLYA LEHOTAI: The first information regarding Lex CEU emerged as a gossip in February 20171 from a pro-government weekly, Figyelő, that suggested CEU might come under some new legislation due to some legal issues. Figyelő was the also the publication that published the list of “Soros mercenaries” of professors, journalists, civil society workers, and activists.2 So, it started as this gossip that eventually got picked up in other media outlets and then government officials were talking about it. Then, about a week after the whole Lex CEU emerged as a gossip, some of us decided that we should stage a protest, that there should be an actual physical protest on the street.

When it started, we went to the CEU General Assembly [on March 30 2017], which was an interesting place to be—all these student representatives in the student body and the Dean of Students. Three of us who began organizing—myself, a Sociology student, and a Public Policy student—were just kind of exploring and scoping what people would think about it. It was even a question of whether this is something we should do or shouldn’t do. There was a frustrating amount of silence from the administration and the student body. And when we proposed the idea of a potential protest to the student body, it created a certain kind of tension. This was the day before I wanted to go to the police to report that we were going to have a protest, which is a super formal and intimidating procedure. It was the first time I’d ever done that.

And so our introducing this at the general assembly was met with a kind of agitated response that insisted, “No, no, no, there are all of these Nazis on the streets and they’re going to beat us up…” There was a certain distancing position. I’m not trying to undermine what’s happening in Hungary—there is some form of street violence and some form of othering very explicitly happening on the street—but, if thousands of us show up, do we really care if there are twenty Nazis? Is that really what we’re most afraid of? Because in my opinion what the government actually does feels much more dangerous than the possibility of twenty little Nazis showing up. The government just does it differently, operates with other forms of violence.

So there was this demotivating response in this meeting that we should not do it. And of course the gender dimension was there; that all of these men were telling us that we should not do this. We came out of the meeting saying, “Let’s go for a beer.” Everyone was depressed, emotionally drained, and paralyzed—what are we going to do? But then reading just the news…you were constantly bombarded with all kinds of updates. I was like, “Fuck it, let’s do it, let’s protest.” There were some people saying to me, “You’re from Gender Studies and now you’re organizing this protest…This is exactly the controversial action you should not do; you should not emphasize that you’re from Gender Studies.” After all of these censoring and policing techniques that were happening, we were afraid what would happen if no one had shown up, then that could have been very controversial. The government seeks every possibility to tell you that you are little, that you don’t matter, that you are the minority.

So when 10,000 people showed up in the first protest, we did not expect that! Especially because there hadn’t been any major mass protests for years. The last major protests had been in 2013 against a constitutional amendment that would restructure higher education, and then in 2014 against the proposed internet tax, when 80,000-100,000 went to the streets. Since then there have of course been issues that would have required responses and protests, and I’m always wondering what are the single issues that eventually bring people together to say “this is enough” and protest. There have been plenty of opportunities to do that: journalist portals were shut down, terrible amendments were passed, and no one did anything.

But, of course there comes the prestige of CEU and the general political-institutional power that comes with it. In terms of a genealogy, it is interesting that in that very first article in Figyelő about the potential legislation against CEU, in this article you can identify the start of something that at the time you couldn’t quite put your finger on—for example, there was a sentence that mentioned something like, “CEU hosts Gender Studies and Sociology departments with feminist and Marxist scholarship.” Just one little shady sentence put there, which not so many people really paid attention to at that time. But I remember thinking that something more is there. I remember speaking with Erzsébet Barát—professor of Gender Studies at CEU and the University of Szeged who specializes in linguistics, language and gender, and critical discourse analysis—about this, wondering, how do you make sense of that sentence linguistically? It wasn’t thematized, it didn’t feature in a large way then.

Then after those protests around CEU were over, this legislation against gender studies started.3 And if I had to trace it back…From the very beginning, before the whole anti-CEU legislation was introduced, these issues around gender studies were already there. It was just not emphasized or amplified at the time. So this was 2017—February was the first article and then protests from March to mid-April, and then I had to write my M.A. thesis. That was terrible, I don’t want to think about those times. (laughs)

It’s such a paralyzing position to be in. I mean, you cannot function academically or intellectually the same way because it’s kind of a weird shock situation. You’re supposed to react to something, but how fast? What reaction exactly? In whose names? As well as the internal struggles within different departments and how others view the Gender Studies department. It was such a weird time of even thinking about building affinity and any kind of kinship relations with different departments. It’s hard to build solidarity when people look down on your field of study. In my experience this manifested in various implicit and explicit ways. The whole anti-CEU attack did bring together scholars from various disciplines, which is great, but seemingly everyone has had an opinion on this field of study and for different strategic reasons.

We knew that the week following the first protest [on Sunday, April 2] the Hungarian National Assembly would discuss this introduced legislation. They had already made a decision at that time that it would go on a “fast track,” which means that you can literally introduce a legislation, discuss it for a few hours that same day, and then done. Terrible, inhumane legislation like this has gone through in the past with the most dangerous outcomes. At this point, we’d already gone to the police and said that we would do this human chain kind of spectacle that happened [on April 4].

This action felt the easiest for just very practical reasons: we were so tired after the first protest. And it seemed like a good idea to do a flash mob—people go around the building and hold each other’s hands, a cheesy kind of way of showing solidarity. But it was nice to experience that and see photos of that event. It felt like a form of self-care, to get your anger out there and say, together with others, “Fuck, what just happened?”

The night of the human chain action, a friend of mine had a visit by the police in Budapest. Another participant, an international student, was also visited by police, and their face was printed in many online portals discussing the protest. I was very worried because of various political reasons. And then the morning after, I had the police visit me in an apartment where I was not even registered. I got in touch with journalists, because you have a constitutional right to ask what kind of police investigation took place. But it was not registered and there was something really shady about it. After this, I left my apartment for like a week and stayed with friends. I didn’t go home, particularly because we were in the organizing stage of a major event [for April 9] in which 80,000 people took part. That felt like a different level of a state’s surveillance regime—intimidating people in their homes. And that’s enough, actually, that’s enough to scare some people. I mean, that’s the point.

The day after this massive protest, the Hungarian president, János Áder, signed Lex CEU into law. Since, there have been some irregular demonstrations, like when people showed up in front of the president’s palace, but it just felt like the moment for protest was done and that a different kind of resistance became necessary. I felt like that form was exhausted, at least in that peaceful marching form. It was important and necessary to some extent but, with how pervasive the regime is right now, it’s not what we need. Of course you are there, you’re visible, you’re on the street, but there’s a feeling that you’re not being heard, or more like being strategically unheard.

ZACH: It seems that what the Hungarian government is doing is pretty transparent, that there isn’t a lot of hiding about its intimidation factors, its consolidation of the media, or the recent “stop Soros” laws that criminalize providing assistance to asylum seekers, or de-legalizing NGOs that assist migrants…

ORSOLYA: They’re very explicit about it. They’re not ashamed or even pretending that this is something different than that. But on the other hand this kind of regime in some way wants to pretend that everything is fine, that nothing significant has changed in the political system. They constantly emphasize that they are building an illiberal democracy—that “democracy” emphasis is there, it’s all about the people, power from the people. So we can go on the street, turn to the remaining media platforms, and no one is going to arrest us or shoot at us, but it’s also not going to make any significant difference. They’re not even pretending anymore that there is an opposition in the Parliament, they ignore them and humiliate them in every possible way. It was only recently with this new legislation surrounding overtime labor hours that was coined the “slave law”4 that oppositional obstruction happened in an actually very productive and performative way—people were going into the face of Orbán in the Parliament. Live-streaming and using social media as a way of showing that here, in real time, me and the prime minister, look at how arrogant he is, and how explicitly and violently he ignores us. This performance did make a difference because basically otherwise Orbán doesn’t give interviews to nongovernment portals, and does not even meaningfully engage with oppositional MPs. He only gives interviews to the public television and radio, so there’s usually no direct interaction and confrontation with him outside of his own realms.

ZACH: There have recently been protests against the so-called “slave law” where there have been labor strike threats. Do you think these protests that have mobilized and linked different segments of society—press, labor organizers, student movements—hint at the possibility of affinity? Also, how do you see the European Union playing into these recent labor discussions?

ORSOLYA: Yes, some workers used strike techniques to increase salaries. It was definitely to some extent a productive strategy. It’s just such an entangled situation. Just recently, the leader of the European People’s Party [the Christian conservative party to which Fidesz belongs] and aspiring leader of the European Commission [Manfred Weber] visited CEU as well as met with Orbán’s government during which he offered an ultimatum as the only way for Fidesz to remain in the EPP: stop anti-EU propaganda, allow CEU to remain in Hungary, and for Orbán to apologize for his behavior.

German companies have a lot of interest in Hungary. Basically the government was lobbying against Hungarian workers and saying that, “Oh, you should not strike because then all of these German companies are going to leave for countries with other cheap labor.” That was an explicit move in which the state actively places you in a very precarious position, basically saying “it could be worse” so accept your current miserable position. So having that kind of weird relationship with Germany and the Christian Democrats adds another layer to the story.

The strongest moments of the “slave law” protests were really before Christmas, between the 15th and the 20th of December last year. Before this, at the end of November, the self-organized activists of the grassroots group named Szabad Egyetem [Free University], many of them from CEU but also from ELTE and Corvinus [Hungarian universities in Budapest], came together and organized a Free University in front of the Parliament, on Kossuth square, with classes, lectures, and discussions. These “slave law” protests culminated in the arrest of some student activists, in particular a foreign student of gender studies has been wrongly targeted.5 And that group [Szabad Egyetem] has been quite active also in confronting the Nazis at their annual little Nazi tour that they do in Buda.

After the strong resistance against the amendment of the labor law, the government went fairly low-key. They’re playing with cycles of highs and lows, namely after strongly politicized events they turn to a different policy and group of people. This cyclical dynamics of taking and giving creates a very weird co-dependent power dynamic between the state and different groups, and in inter-group relations. After the culmination of the “slave law” protests, they introduced that from next year, all retired people will receive extra money. So, when they perceived that the “slave law” was not very popular, they then decided to give something to a different population demographic. Importantly, these are all one-time gestures. Of course, 10,000 Forints [approximately thirty-five US dollars] will benefit them, but it mostly shows the government’s interest in keeping people precarious. It’s the same logic with the Public Works schemes, local nepotistic labor and political relations, and how they’re all interconnected with subjugation and loyalty.

It feels like a form of state capitalism, although I don’t know if that’s the best concept that we could be using, in that there is a certain level of wild neoliberalism and repressive and calculative state planning together. This usually includes the promotion of economic and cultural operations between “illiberal” regimes, and offering economic benefits to Russian and Chinese stakeholders and business organizations, for instance.

  1. “Maradhat-e Budapesten a CEU? Orbán és Soros állítólag tárgyalt az egyetemről [Can CEU Stay in Budapest?],” HVG.hu, last modified February 2, 2017, https://hvg.hu/itthon/20170202_ceu_orban.
  2. Christopher Adam, “Hungary Begins Intimidation Campaign Against Civil Society with Soros Mercenary List,” Hungarian Free Press, last modified April 13, 2018,http://hungarianfreepress.com/2018/04/13/fidesz-begins-intimidation-campaign-against-civil-society-with-soros-mercenary-list/.
  3. The government’s legislation against gender studies is a separate legislation to the Lex CEU. In August of 2018, Fidesz announced the revocation of university accreditation for gender studies as an academic discipline. This ended state funding to the only Hungarian language Gender Studies program at a Hungarian state university, ELTE [Eötvös Loránd University], which only began offering gender studies classes in Fall 2017. The dis-accreditation also affects the two-year M.A. in Gender Studies at Central European University. When gender studies was removed from the official list of Hungarian university accredited subjects, a new study program named the “Economics of Family Policy and Public Policies for Human Development” silently appeared on the list.
  4. The “slave law” refers to new legislation that allows employers to demand 400 hours of overtime labor per year, without promise of payment for three years. This law has been understood by many to be Orbán selling out the country’s labor force to foreign employers.
  5. Jakub Gawkowski, “How a Belgian-Canadian student became an enemy of Orbán’s state,” Krytyka Polityczna, last modified 26 December 26, 2017, http://politicalcritique.org/cee/hungary/2018/student-enemy-orban-state/.