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As huge protests choke downtown Budapest, organizers say a Hungarian spring is underway.
BUDAPEST, Hungary — In 1989, 26-year-old Hungarian lawyer Viktor Orban gave a speech credited with firing up his countrymen to throw out their Communist dictators, leading to the revolution of that year.
Now, demonstrators are protesting Orban, “the Viktator,” as his opponents call the nationalist prime minister. He has become what he once most despised: an autocratic leader, they say.
Since the fall of Communism, Hungarian politicians have imposed laws restricting press freedoms and muting dissent. They have also been quick to order police to squash protests.
And for the most part, Hungarians backed down because Hungary, in the words of Austrian writer Paul Lendvai, has long been a democracy without democrats.
But huge anti-government street protests have choked downtown Budapest in recent weeks. And while no one is prepared to predict what comes next, organizers in the capital say a Hungarian spring is underway.
“Hungary used to be one of the most politically passive countries I know of,” said demonstration organizer Attila Steve Kopias, who helped bring tens of thousands of Hungarians onto the streets on Monday. “But now people are waking up… many people say this era has to end as soon as possible.”
They point to what they say are harsh policies toward the down-and-out, such as jail terms for the homeless, those who pick through trash for scraps, and beggars.
And they say that the new constitution that Orban has put in place contains a variety of measures that restrict personal freedoms and impose his government’s conservative views, such as his anti-abortion stance, for example, onto the entire population.
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“I have serious concerns about women’s continuing access to abortion under the new constitution,” said the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union’s Stefania Kapronczay.
Three Hungarian journalists have been on a hunger strike for nearly a month outside the state media compound, protesting government heavy-handedness and interference.
Accusations leveled at Orban's meddling with the media are nothing new. In March last year, his government set up a Media Council to control Hungary’s state broadcasters. Since then, journalists say the situation has gone from bad to worse.
Journalists there describe coming under extreme pressure to slant the news and blur out dissenters. They say a government-appointed news director tells them what to broadcast.
“We joke that the only noise you hear at our offices these days is the director telling the journalist in the office next to you what to write through an earpiece,” said one journalist at Duna TV, who declined to be identified out of fear of losing her job.
Economy in crisis
Orban is not just fighting liberals or journalists these days. Orban’s interventionist style has unsettled investors, too. Fitch became the last of the major credit-ratings agencies to downgrade Hungary’s credit rating to “junk” status on Friday.
The agency blamed “unorthodox policies undermining investor confidence” for its decision.
Fitch’s decision could have serious consequences for on the Hungarian economy. The country has traditionally been a large beneficiary of investment from neighboring Austria.
The downgrade came at a time when confidence in Hungary’s financial system was already slumping. Orban’s reputation for making erratic economic decisions has fueled declining confidence. Orban, for example, recently nationalized Hungarians’ private pensions. He also introduced, and subsequently retracted, a 16 percent flat tax.
Meanwhile, 22 percent of Hungarians can no longer pay their utility bills, according to a survey conducted by Dijbeszedo, a Hungarian debt collection agency.
The Hungarian National Bank put out a very unusual statement late on Thursday night. “The Hungarian National Bank stresses that the Hungarian banking system is stable,” it read.
It followed rumors about bank runs, which spread — unconfirmed — on Thursday. By Friday, many ordinary Hungarians were considering moving their savings abroad.
A Budapest banker told GlobalPost that Austrian banks have put up signs touting Hungarian-speaking staff in recent days. She added that securing an appointment with one of those Hungarian-speaking staff members can now take as long as a week and a half at branches on the Austro-Hungarian border.
Fears of an imminent collapse of the Hungarian financial system prompted government denials Friday.
Former Finance Minister Peter Oszko told Hungarian Channel One that such fears were not “rational,” while Prime Minister Orban assured savers that the government would not seize their deposits if Hungary did not secure a new International Monetary Fund loan.
That loan has been looking less and less likely in recent days, after Orban’s decision to assume new powers at the Hungarian central bank, weakening its independence.
The European Union and the IMF terminated negotiations on Hungary’s second financial bailout in four years after the extent of the planned changes became clear in late December.
Although Hungary is in social, economic and political crisis right now, the government says it wants to press ahead with its new constitution.
It contends that the concerns expressed by other members of the European Union and by the United States reflect the interests of the banking lobby.
“If someone reads the Hungarian constitution, and not just the headlines elsewhere in Europe, they will find that it is democratic,” said Jozsef Szajer, who represents Orban’s Fidesz Party in the European Parliament.
Szajer says other European countries are targeting Hungary because it has used “some unusual methods to share the burden of the crisis” including imposing a tax on banks and telecommunications companies, he noted.
“It’s these interests that are motivating many of these criticisms,” Szajer said.
That kind of statement might play well in Hungary, where Fidesz still remains ahead in opinion polls, and commands a two-thirds majority in parliament. Yet Orban’s strength at home, slowly and steadily diminishing some say, disguises his weakness in Brussels.
If Hungary’s financial position continues to worsen, Orban may soon face Silvio Berlusconi’s fate. Many Italians loved the media tycoon almost to the bitter end — but that didn’t save him.
Petra Hajdu contributed to this report from Budapest.