How a Hungarian community center became an ‘enemy of the state’

Posted at 6:18 AM, Dec 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-30 05:42:02-05

It’s almost 6pm in a rundown area of Budapest, and the Aurora community center is shifting into its evening groove.

Young people drink beer under a canopy of fairy lights in the central courtyard. Upstairs, children come tumbling and giggling from their after-school playgroup. Signs advertising yoga and theatre workshops adorn the brightly painted walls.

But beneath the carefree atmosphere, the Aurora is fighting for survival.

Since the right-wing Fidesz party swept into power in 2010, and most recently won a landslide election again in April this year, it has come under increasing fire from the United States and European Union over its crackdowns on democratic institutions and civil society.

At home too, thousands of protesters hit the streets of Budapest earlier this month in week-long demonstrations against Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s hardline policies.

Now the Aurora, which rents office space to a handful of NGOs — including LGBTQ and Roma support groups — says it has been pushed to the brink of closure by far-right attacks, police raids and municipality moves to buy the building.

Critics say that in Orban’s self-styled “illiberal democracy” NGOs are routinely attacked through legal measures, criminal investigations and smear campaigns — something the Aurora told CNN it has experienced first-hand.

Aurora’s aim is straightforward, said Adam Schonberger, director of Marom Budapest, the Jewish youth group that founded the community center in 2014.

“We wanted to create a safe environment for civil organizations,” he said.

“By doing this we became a sort of enemy of the state. We didn’t set out to be a political organisation — but this is how we’ve found ourselves,” he added.

Schonberger didn’t think authorities had targeted Aurora because of its Jewish roots. Instead, he put the harassment down to the group’s values of “social inclusion, building civil society and fighting for human rights.”

Tikkum Olam — ‘repairing the world’

Marom was founded by a group of Jewish university students in 2002, with the goal of regenerating and reconnecting with their Jewish culture — an ambition previously unthinkable under communism.

Soon the group of mostly secular Jews began to expand their activities beyond Jewish cultural events, creating alliances with marginalized groups such as the Roma community.

“It’s based on the core Jewish value of tikkun olam — the concept of ‘repairing the world’ or ‘making the world a better place,'” explained Schonberger.

“So although we have a lot of Jewish projects in Marom, the major goal became to create a space for civil society in Hungary.”

To do this, the group needed a building — hence the Aurora.

In the last four years Marom transformed what was a disused office block in Budapest’s Eighth District into a multi-purpose community center — replete with bar, concert stage and office spaces.

Today the Aurora is home to several NGOs — including the Roma Press Center, an independent news agency, and the Invisible School, which assists local disadvantaged children.

Budapest Pride, an LGBTQ support group, moved into the Aurora the very first day it opened. The group has 14 volunteers and uses the building to organize everything from its annual Pride march, to cultural festivals and campaigns for equality.

“This building is a symbol for us — of solidarity, community, peace, where we share our knowledge and equipment,” Budapest Pride spokesperson Kama Peksa told CNN.

And at €200 (around $220) a month, Peksa said a similarly-sized office space elsewhere in the city would cost twice as much.

The building itself is owned by a private landlord in Austria. Most of the €2,000 (around $2,200) monthly rent is generated by the bar and hiring out of office spaces.

Marom has also received some funding from American-Hungarian billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

None of this is likely to endear Aurora to Orban’s government, which has long vilified Soros and organizations associated with him — and used the same brush to paint any opposition to its rule.

Those criticizing the government’s policies, or speaking up against corruption or human rights violations, are often stigmatized as “traitors” or “Soros-agents,” said Bulcsu Hunyadi, senior analyst at Budapest think tank Political Capital.

Just this month, thousands marched through Budapest in anti-Orban protests, and opposition lawmakers were assaulted in a dramatic standoff at state media headquarters. The government, in its response, blamed “Soros networks” no fewer than five times.

It’s a line of attack Aurora knows all too well.

NGOs ‘think twice’ before working with us

Seated at the Aurora’s rough-and-ready bar, with minimal techno music playing in the background, Schonberger opens his Macbook and meticulously recounts years of attacks.

These began in March last year when the Hungarian far-right group, Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, filmed themselves spray painting “Stop Operation Soros” on the Aurora’s walls and nearby pavements.

Then in June the same year, police raided a concert at the building, searching around 150 guests. After finding “a minor amount of marijuana” on several people, authorities shut the Aurora for four months, said Schonberger, before the community center reopened after winning a court appeal.

The temporary closure — and significant financial hit — brought the Aurora to the “brink of closure,” he said.

For Budapest Pride, the closure happened at the worst possible time — during their annual cultural festival.

“We advertised this place as a meeting point for the participants,” Peksa explained.

“The events could happen, but the bar and the garden was closed, so many of our plans were eliminated,” said the spokesperson, adding that instead of mingling after discussions or film screenings, people simply “went home.”

This summer, the Aurora was in another court battle with authorities over what Schonberger said was “essentially a typo” in its rental documents. The case is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the municipality sent a letterto the building’s owner recommending he think over his contract with Marom, and offering to buy the building.

Schonberger believed the owner was “sympathetic to our cause” but added “nothing is certain.”

Seated on one of the bar’s mismatched retro chairs, Schonberger said the “constant harassment” had taken its toll.

Other NGOs were forced to “think twice” before working with an organization that has “a bad reputation in the eyes of the government,” he said.

“This type of alienation and isolation is a big problem — not only financially, but also because our mission is to work with NGOs in Hungary.”

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told CNN he could not comment on Aurora as it was a municipal matter. CNN contacted the local Fidesz-controlled Jozsefvaros municipality, which declined to comment.

While the government was quick to shift responsibility for Aurora to the municipality, Orban’s rhetoric had a big impact on how local authorities operated, said Hunyadi.

Since Orban came to power “Hungary has become a centralized state with one party dominating almost the entire public sphere,” he said, adding that municipalities get most of their funding from the state.

Orban’s “fight against Soros agents” had also filtered down the political chain of command, with local municipalities trying to “hamper the work of independent NGOs,” he said.

No place for NGOs in Orban’s illiberal democracy

Independent actors — NGOS, media, universities — don’t really fit with Orban’s vision of an illiberal, Christian, nationalist state, said Hunyadi.

While Hungary’s opposition parties were “weak and fragmented,” the government might regard NGOs and community hubs such as Aurora as “possible cradles of new social opposition movements,” he added.

In order to discredit and threaten NGOs, the government set to work on a few fronts — legal, administrative and financial measures; criminal investigations; smear campaigns and verbal assaults, he said.

The most high-profile of these crackdowns is the government’s “Stop Soros” law, passed earlier this year, which criminalizes NGOs assisting undocumented migrants.

As part of the law, the government introduced a special 25% tax on aid groups it says support immigration. The levy forced Budapest’s Central European University to suspend its refugee programs.

Then there’s the law requiring all NGOs receiving more than 7.2 million Hungarian forints ($26,000) a year from foreign institutions, to publicly register as foreign-funded organizations.

Orban said the move was necessary for greater “transparency.” NGOs said it stigmatized organizations as working for foreign interests.

The government has saidon several occasions that it supports a “prosperous and independent civil society,” adding that Hungary has a “dynamic NGO sector” which has grown in recent years.

But the reality is very different, according to Peksa from Budapest Pride, who said Orban’s insistence on “traditional family values” had been deeply damaging to the LGBTQ community.

Peksa said the Aurora was a place that “politicians can’t bear” because “we question the system here, we cooperate, we listen to each other, we discuss things, we are open minded, we see what is wrong and we want to change it.”

If the thousands of people protesting on the streets of Budapest this month is any indication, they are not alone.