Making Sense of Current Hungarian Politics

Mate Varga (w/ pony tail)

Kunbabony, Hungary  The opening session of the 8th meeting of the Citizen Participation University began with the traditional welcome by Mate Varga, the head of Civil College Foundation. Varga is an open-handed and open-hearted man with a ready ability to laugh, often seeming to be chuckling to himself, so his welcome would normally be met with open faces and wide smiles, but this year must have seemed more subdued and sober to CPU veterans.

Mate’s remarks were tempered by the times. He described the protests recently in Budapest around the government’s new restrictions on nonprofits. The crowds, the excitement, the anger, and the disappointment that their protests had been unsuccessful. Nongovernmental organizations that receive any foreign funding are now required to publicly label themselves as “foreign funded” on their literature, website, and so forth. Grants from the Norwegian government are being held up over the dispute. The Civil College has been mentioned in coverage newspapers and television stories along with others including George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire, who is currently the boogie man of Hungarian conservative politics. In fact Mate warned that the very location in Kunbabony where we were meeting had been the target of journalistic interlopers, who might be seeking unsolicited interviews.

Nick Thorpe, a veteran BBC reporter stationed in Budapest and reporting over the last 31-years on Eastern Europe, was partnered with me to provide the keynote to the opening session. He was going to provide context and analysis of the current scene in the region and in Hungary, and I was slated to provide some perspective on how organizations could respond and survive in these increasingly harsh climates. All I would offer on ACORN’s experience in my half-hour could be summarized as “dare to struggle, dare to win,” and never, never ever quit fighting, which was well enough received, but I was especially interested in hearing Nick’s on-the-ground, ringside perspective.

Nick Thorpe (BBC reporter)

He began with remarks about the huge dead-of-winter protests in Romania earlier in the year against corruption. He had spent weeks there trying to solve the puzzle of the protests and the organizers and organizing behind it after being initially skeptical that their efforts had any chance of success, yet the government had fallen to their efforts.

Thorpe warned the assembly that his view on the current condition of Hungarian politics might be seen as contrarian. Despite the foreboding of Mate’s introduction, he felt the government’s attacks might be ebbing, rather than rising. The heart of his argument was that the obsession of the existing government with the Central European University and its support by Soros had crossed a line and had lost support of other right parties and within the governing party itself. Though in the West the situation is seen as a stalemate with a year’s cooling off period, Thorpe’s analysis from his sources was more along the lines that the year was a face saver for the government, rather than the last gasp for the university.

Unfortunately for our comrades among Hungarian NGOs, Thorpe’s sources did not extend sufficiently, at least not yet, to give them comfort on their fight. The same tide had not gone out on nonprofits. On the other hand Thorpe speculated that despite the overwhelming odds stacking the deck for the existing government in the coming election that would require virtually all parties, right and left, to coalesce in order to defeat it, he believed there were signs in the wind that indicated that such a political tsunami might be building. He couldn’t be sure of course, and he could be wrong, but his finger was in the wind, and he could feel currents moving in surprising directions.

All of which made my following Thorpe easier. Where there is even a glimmer of hope, struggle is easier to imagine, and organizing a more obvious necessity.

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Citizen Participation University

Welcome Sign

Outside Budapest   There are a lot of great ways to celebrate Independence Day. There are picnics, barbecues, parades, fireworks, and good times and sober reflections throughout the land. For me this year, it has meant flying across the world to arrive in Budapest and then catch a lift to somewhere about an hour out of the city to a great facility operated by a Hungarian nonprofit where something called the Citizen Participation University has been meeting annually about this same time for several years now. A year ago, I had visited with Mate Varga of the Civil College Foundation which runs the CPU and had promised I would try to come back and lend a hand, and so I have.

participants sharing stories of change under the tent

Shaking off the jet lag, I almost tipped over one of the feed sacks filled perhaps with pine needles or some such that served as seats under the parachute tent where this year’s participants were introducing themselves with stories, some short and some longer, about change. There were more than thirty there, going one by one, of a crowd expected to swell over the week between forty and sixty. My impression had been that most of the participants would be from Eastern European countries. Listening to everyone that turned out to be partially true, but mostly wrong. Yes, there were people there from Hungary of course, Ukraine, and Romania with American expats from the Czech Republic and Slovenia, but they were in the minority of the dozen or so countries represented. The biggest delegation was from Belgium, primarily Brussels, from various community development groups, but there were also several people from Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Norway were represented, along with Denmark and the Netherlands, and an organizer from the Working Families Party based in New York City and of course I was there to wave the ACORN flag as well.

The stories were interesting. Many focused on how people had come into the work at various angles ranging from homeless activism to corporate retrenchment as well as back-to-the-landers and folks just plain looking for a job. There were several people who actually worked as community organizers in a way that we would recognize the concept in the United States, but many self-defined themselves as being involved in community development or various citizen participation schemes, which may be a euphemism for acting as community organizers and may not. The next several days of work will fill in the details on that question.

organizer from Romania tells about his work

There is a cloud hanging over this year’s session in Hungary as the quasi-populist government has joined Russia, India and other countries in an assault on nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations in general. The attack on a university supported by George Soros has garnered much of the news internationally, but the fight has been more intense in Hungary around constant financial inquires and harassment directed at any groups receiving money from international sources.

I may be here as one of the instructors, but I’ve come to learn and put my shoulder to the wheel to protect independence and the rights so celebrated at home yet under assault both in the Untied States and increasingly around the world.

folks join for dinner to continue the conversation

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Opportunity and Challenges in Hungary

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planning with the Civil College team

Dusseldorf   I knew just by reading the papers and some quick looks at the internet news that people and their organizations were facing severe political challenges in Hungary at the hands of a rightwing populist government, but two days of meetings with organizers and activists in Budapest left me excited about the huge opportunity our friends also have at the moment.

Mate Varga comes from a long tradition of community development in Hungary. We could almost say it is in his genes since his parents began the Civil College Foundation and he now leads the program. In recent years, he has concluded with his colleagues that they needed to embrace and support building community organizing in their country. Exchange programs and joint trainings with organizations in the United States, most importantly perhaps Virginia Organizing and Joe Szakos, its director, where one of his staff, Bernadett Sebaly spent a full-year, have given them rich experiences not only in Hungary but in Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia as well. Now under his leadership, they have assembled sufficient resources to support twenty-seven staff members, potentially organizers, with local and other partners all around the country.

The first day I was in Budapest, Mate and Betti, introduced me to the some of the community organizers at the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network. We spent most of the time talking about the Hungarian workfare program currently employing, if we could call it that, 220,000 people in low level, in largely manual and menial public employment projects around the country. This is not workfare as a requirement to get welfare, but workfare is the welfare program of the state. The workfare workers are paid about $200 in USD monthly and once accepted can work up to a year and then reapply if still not able to find a job. It was unclear if it is an entitlement or there is a cap, but it seemed like an entitlement. The Network has won victories in this organizing including the payment in cash because drafts to bank accounts were forcing the workers into costly financial products. Monika Balint and I shared a number of experiences on how to handle “check” pickup days, direct actions, and benefit campaigns. The government is very proud of this program so they have widely publicized how many people are working where, so a lot of mass contact work and mobilization is elbow grease and shoe leather working the cash collection sites and job centers to meet the workers and talk to them about issues. Exciting opportunities for an organizational movement for change seemed everywhere in this workfare mess. It brought me back!

with the organizers of the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network

with the organizers of the Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network

Speaking of movements, I also met a delightful teacher who was one of the leaders of the teachers’ movements that had put 50,000 people – a huge percentage of that workforce almost 30% – on the street in protest to government action changing curriculum, job security and about everything else in the schools. They were widely supported by parents and students. The government wisely agreed to negotiate with teachers, but they were muscled off the table by brokering groups including the unions, collected a lot of promises, and very little action. They now face the need to call for more this fall, while also trying to pull their key activists together in fifty different areas of the country where they could built local circles or chapters. Wow!

As exciting, and fraught, as both of those opportunities were, the Civil College itself was the focus of much of my time, meeting with their core team of organizers and Mate, to evaluate the best way forward in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they face to have the resources and potential staffing in place to assemble the pieces of a national community organization in Hungary. There was a lot of discussion of the ACORN model, because one of key pieces missing for the College team is a replicable model with the promise of sustainability since most of their external capacity is embedded in the 27 different organizations. I argued with some assistance from Chuck Hirt of the European Community Organizing Network, who had driven over from Slovakia for the meeting, that they needed to calf off a team of three to five organizers and try some pilot programs to prove what would work and share it with the others, as well as beginning now to have the conversations with groups and leaders about potential mutual campaigns and how to structure a national organization.

Heady stuff, but there is huge opportunity in Hungary, and the demand for change at the grassroots level of low-and-moderate income people with 40% of the population living in poverty is immense.

the outside of the building that has been their home

the outside of the building that has been their home

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