https: 0 – 1 – vimeo.com 2 – 503173838 3 –

This video was made by the team of space of urgency.

?

AURÓRA

 

In Hungary, communities and NGOs that support refugees and other minorities, or hold pro feminist or LGBTQ+ views, continue to be oppressed by the right-wing government. Auróra came to life as a response to wide-spread xenophobia and government efforts to suppress minorities and civil initiatives in Hungary over the past few decades. A community and cultural center and NGO hub that opened in 2014, Auróra connects civil society groups, activist organizations and cultural programs that are working to protect and empower Hungary’s marginalized communities. 


Interviewee: Daniel Mayer - Member of Auróra since 2015, freelance news producer and researcher for various foreign media covering Hungary.

The Urgency

“It started with some really small steps, somethings which you can say we find something similar in other countries in Europe. But then it became much more and more worrying.”   Daniel Mayer

The dominance of right-wing populism

In 2010, the right-wing populist party Fidesz reclaimed political power in Hungary, after having run the country throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Led by Victor Orbán, the conservative government has had almost unlimited power, enjoying widespread support from the electorate. Fidesz was reelected yet again in 2014 and 2018, winning a huge majority of seats in parliament. To give an example of the party’s reach, Budapest is divided into 23 districts, each with their own mayor and electrical council. Out of the 23 districts, 17 have been led by Fidesz since the 2018 elections, with some run by the party for even longer, such as Józsefváros (8th District), where Auróra is located. The rise in popular support of the Orbán government and their right-wing policies does not bode well for religious minorities and other marginalized groups in Hungarian society.

Xenophobia & Christian conservatism


Almost all of Europe was affected by the refugee crisis that began in 2014. As Muslim refugees poured in from Syria and other Islamic countries, they were met with rising xenophobia. In April 2015, 46% of the adult population in Hungary reported that they thought asylum seekers should not be allowed to set foot in their country, especially those from Arab countries (94% of repsondents). Hungary continued as one of the least tolerant EU member states in 2016, with well over half of the adult population reporting that they felt threatened by refugees regarding access to jobs and social benefits, as well as an increased likelihood of terrorism. The wide-spread xenophobia extended to the LGBTQ+ community, with large segments of the Hungarian population expressing fear that their Christian “democracy” and society based on family values would somehow be overrun by Muslims and “degenerates.” 

Video: President Victor Orbán speech in the European Parliment "You are condeming Hungary" , Euractiv

Restrictions against NGOs, liberal movements & alternative culture

In Hungary, legal, administrative and financial measures taken by the government target self-organized alternative communities, and have grown worse over time - escalating to criminal investigations, smear campaigns and verbal assaults. 

The Orbán government began by targeting certain international companies and organizations and prominent individuals: politicians, activists on the front line and public figures covered by independent media. One of the most high-profile attacks was a 2017 smear campaign against the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist George Soros, during which the government installed approximately 2,000 billboards across the country defaming Soros. They did not stop with Soros himself, targeting the Open Society Foundations and eventually forcing the Soros-funded Central European University to relocate its US accredited programs to Vienna in 2019.

In June 2018, the government passed the ‘STOP Soros’ legislation. The package of bills restricts and criminalizes NGOs assisting asylum seekers and refugees. A 25% tax on aid groups supporting immigration was introduced, as well as a law that requires all NGOs receiving more than 7.2 million Hungarian forints (20,096 EUR) a year from internationaldonors to publicly register as a foreign-funded organization. The need for foreign funding is largely a result of the GONGOs (government-organized NGOs), which are funded by the ruling party to carry out its agenda, a trend seen across countries with repressive regimes. With no coordination among the political opposition to secure domestic funding, Hungary’s legitimate civil society is left to look outside of its borders.

Video: Hungary MPs back controversial "Stop Soros" law, France 24

 

This new legislation has placed extreme pressure on community groups such as Auróra, which provides subsidized office space to NGOs working to promote immigration rights and create safe places for oppressed minorities and marginalized communities. The Orbán government began to go after smaller communities and NGOs, as well as ordinary citizens. They have directly targeted the Auróra community, the Budapest pride community and similar organizations. This new kind of  “Kulturkampf” against alternative culture has only continued to grow.

The Space

History

Auróra began as a reaction to government oppression of civil society and alternative culture in Hungary, and has been committed to providing a space where individuals, groups and non-profit organisations can meet and share their ideas and collaborate with each other on new initiatives. Auróra was established in 2014 by the Jewish youth group Marom Budapest. Prior to this, the group ran a cultural center called Sirály, which was open from 2006 to 2013 and located in the basement of an art center. After a month and a half, they were evicted. During this time, the group decided to continue working together, so in 2014 they formed the Auróra collective. They set out to find a new space that would be community-based and community-run, to withstand the right-wing tendencies in Hungary.

Use of the space

Eventually a new space was found, which also housed several other NGOs that focus on marginalized and stigmatized groups and issues such as HIV, LGBTQ+ rights, community solidarity programs, education for disadvantaged children and independent media. Besides gigs and parties, Auróra provides a place for alternative theatre, performances, film clubs and exhibitions. Along with cultural community events and programs for children, there’s a place for grassroots initiatives to meet and hold debates and roundtable discussions about current social issues. Auróra has a community of 50 volunteers and is run democratically as a self-organized, self-governing collective.

 

Direct attacks on Auróra 

Demonstrations and attacks against anyone or any community seen as a threat to Hungary’s right-wing beliefs or policies are heavily supported by the current national and local governments. From 2017 to 2019, Auróra was subjected to multiple raids initiated by the local government, with the aim of closing the collective down. It started with a drug raid in 2017, followed by various other forms of intimidation and pressure, including revoking operational licenses or forcing consecutive temporary closures. Aurora has been directly targeted a number of times, both from the government and far-right groups in Hungary.

Bureaucratic Attacks

  • 2017: Legislation introduced in Budapest’s 8th district of Józsefváros by Mayor Máté Kocsis (member of Fidesz) prohibits bars from staying open after 10pm, meaning Auróra will have to close its bar early and lose revenue. June 2017: Auróra is shut down for four months after a raid during a concert leads to the arrest of 15 patrons who had minor amounts of marijuana on them. The Budapest Capital City Government Office subsequently declared that the District VIII municipality’s closure of two cafés run by Auróra was unlawful.

  • March 2019:  A press release from Mayor Kocsis, condemns Auróra and threatens legal action, portraying them as loud and disruptive to the “peace of the population.” The mayor urges the building owner to take action and even offered to buy the building so he could “take care of the problem himself.” The owner declined.

 

Image: Press release from Mayor Kocsis of Józsefváros, March 19, 2019

Attacks by far-right and neo-fasicist groups

  • May 2017: Stop Operation Soros: Activists from the far-right Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement created a film and picture collage of men placing posters reading “Stop Operation Soros” on the message board of Auróra, and spray painted anti-Soros slogans onto the sidewalk outside Auróra’s entrance. The youth movement posted the attack on their website stating they wanted to “draw attention to the fact that one of György Soros's tentacles could operate smoothly in the heart of Budapest.”

  • June 2019: Members of the youth wing of the far-right Mi Hazánk movement (“Our Homeland”), hang a poster on the entrance to Auróra reading “stop homosexual porpoganda!” 

  • September 2019: Five to 10 members of the neonazi group Mi Hazánk barge into Auróra during a screening of a film about how to stop the bullying of LGBTQI+ youth in schools. The group waves banners reading “stop LGBT propaganda” and “zero tolerance.

  • October 2019: a mob of 50 far-right radicals from the group Legion Hungária attack Auróra by setting fire to a rainbow flag and spray painting their logo outside Auróra. 

 

Image: Szablocks Panyi twitter feed showing far-right group 'Legio Hungaria' marching and harrassing Aurora

Social Significance

“They would like to get rid of us. They would like that we shut up, that we don't provide these services, don't provide offices, don't host events.”  - Daniel Mayer

The community

 

In a country that has failed to accept, let alone support, various segments of society, Auróra offers free, open and safe spaces to marginalized communities that are democratic, self-organized, counter-cultural, alternative, underground, open-minded, tolerant, socially just, socially active and inclusive of minorities.

 

Auróra houses several NGOs including the independent Roma Press Center; the headquarters of a school for disadvantaged children; and Budapest Pride, an LGBTQ+ support group, among others. In 2018, the spokesperson for Budapest Pride told CNN “this building is a symbol for us - of solidarity, community, peace, where we share our knowledge and equipment.”

 

Image: Civil Organizations officed in the Aurora

Uniqueness

Auróra is one of the last open, free and safe spaces in Budapest for like-minded, socially active citizens who want to organize and effect change in their society. It’s also one of the only remaining cultural centers in Budapest for counter-cultural, alternative and underground cultural events and artivism, making it critical to maintaining and strengthening civil society in Hungary. 

A fragmented opposition

Adding to the need for spaces such as Auróra is the fragmented nature of the country’s political opposition. According to some, including Hunagrian Green MP Bence Tordai and Éva Pákozdi from the Hungarian European Women’s Forum, the competition and power games between parties that oppose Fidesz has inhibited a united front. While political parties fail to come together against the Orbán government, civil society groups have been left to pick up the pieces and provide community support. With collectives like Auróra, civil society has at least one space in Hungary to organize and coordinate efforts. 

Resilience strategies

“It was in that specific moment, almost lifesaving to get so much little donations of five to ten to twenty Euros each, from abroad and also in Hungary from people you'd not expected it's, because they saw that there is a center which is standing up to for their rights and they don't give up.”  - Daniel Mayer

Media strategy

To resist pressure and attacks from the national and local governments, Auróra’s primary strategy was to use the media. Their advantage: personal connections to journalists in Hungary as well as abroad. The story about the raids Auróra faced was picked up by international media like Al Jazeera, CNN and VICE. This was invaluable in raising awareness for their case and broadening their network of supporters.

Community-building

Auróra was built on a strong sense of community, and participative and communal decision-making, with regular input from it’s volunteers. The only capital you need to be involved in the decision-making processes is the time you invest and spend at Auróra. This horizontal, inclusive organizational structure provides a strong cohesion within the group and the motivation to work collectively to defend Auróra and the values it promotes.

Fundraising

Through their Facebook group and widespread advocacy network, Auróra gained more visibility and support, resulting in donations that helped them survive in the months following the raids and  forced closure. Approximately 3,000 EUR was received from within Hungary and abroad, mostly in the amount of 5, 10 or 20 EUR per donation. This might not seem like a lot of money, but it kept the organization alive during a time of zero income. 

In addition to more direct fundraising, Auróra’s position within the community has also resulted in acts of solidarity from other oppressed groups. Rev. Gábor Iványi of the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood, a Methodist church that was unlawfully stripped of its status by the Hungarian government, won a court order where District Mayor Máté Kocsis had to pay 300,000 forint in damages to the church. The church in turn donated 10% of the pay out to Auróra. The letter from Rev. Iványi stated: “A second-level court ordered [Máté Kocsis] to pay me 300,000 Forint. With great respect, love, and friendship, I would like to offer up ten percent of this to you in this difficult time, wishing that [God] gives you much strength, serenity, peace, and success.”

Image: Auróra’s public thank you to Rev. Iványi. Source: Twitter.

Protest and demonstrations

 

In April 2017, after the government threatened to restrict NGOs with foreign connections and shut down Soros’s Central European University, Auróra helped organize a large demonstration. Around 15,000 people gathered on the square in front of the parliament. Speeches from activists and victims of the regime were given, interchanged with musical performances. It was the first large-scale demonstration with music in Hungary and drew the attention of the media around the world. This protest was just one of many that have taken place against the government in the last few years.

Collaborations

Political pressure on civil society is increasing (not only in Hungary but across most of Europe), with the possibility for open, critical dialogue on social and political issues diminishing. To address the lack of opportunity for all facets of Hunagrian society to debate and mobilize within the public sphere, Auróra and it’s parent NGO, Marom, have initiated “Szabad Terek/Open Spaces: Addressing the Shrinking Space for Civil Society” in Hungary. Open Spaces is a community development initiative that relies on principles of solidarity and cooperation among community spaces, organizations and activists, in order to strengthen their individual efforts at the local level. There are three major areas which the coalition will tackle: governmental harassment, self-censorship and the isolation from possible alliances between civil society initiatives.