The Political Awakening Of Budapest’s Underground Music Scene
Budapest’s UH Fest doesn’t shy away from confronting political realities. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that political realities confront UH Fest. A series of aggressive moves from Hungary’s leading party, Fidesz, against non-government organizations (NGOs) and other potential sources of resistance has manifested a hostile climate for many in civil society. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán started a campaign against NGOs in 2014, when he referred to such groups as “paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests” and launched a controversial audit of them.
UH’s 2017 edition built a campaign for its week-long music and arts festival in response to the most recent measure in this anti-NGO campaign. The new legislation, passed earlier this year, requires those that receive more than €24,000 in funding from non-Hungarian sources to register and advertise themselves in promotional materials as “foreign-funded.” UH Fest, a week-long music and arts festival, is a member of the International Cities Of Advanced Sound network and its affiliated SHAPE Platform, and thus it receives more than the stated limit from non-Hungarian sources. So UH’s flyer design plastered the words “FOREIGN-FUNDED FESTIVAL” over the names of the artists on the lineup as an act of solidarity with fellow organizations that refused to comply with the orders and could face extinction for doing so. The crusade to villainize civil society groups—many of which are responsible for migrant aid and protecting human rights—and their foreign benefactors is only one facet of what is seen as a larger effort by Fidesz to mobilize xenophobia against migrants and justify increasingly illiberal actions.
Although these developments aren’t aimed specifically at local underground music sub-cultures, those involved in Budapest’s music scene recognize them as serious existential threats. This hit close to home earlier this year, when Fidesz forced the closure of community center, bar and concert venue Aurora, which also housed a number of NGOs and was referred to as Soros’ “Hungarian headquarters.” We sat down with the organizers behind UH Fest, András Nun and Krisztián Puskár, to break down the intricacies of Hungary’s political context and how it affects local musicians and promoters.
Elissa Stolman: I want to start with the political situation and how that’s developed since I was here in 2015. Could you explain what’s happened since the 2014 audits and talk about how the pressure on NGOs has developed?
András Nun: 2014 was a year when the Fidesz party got re-elected. It seemed that the opposition was devastated. It became pretty obvious that, if a real oppositional power were to arise, it would emerge from civil society. People who work with NGOs have some kind of knowledge of how to organize things, how to organize people, how to set up projects and implement them. So therefore it was a natural step for the government to seize the moment and crack down on NGOs and intimidate them. They persecuted the NGOs and frightened them out of being vocal or critical of government policies.
Then they started the real campaign against NGOs—a smear campaign. Every day there was news of actions that caused real uproar in the community. It went to the extent that they searched the NGO offices for so-called “evidence” that these NGOs are affiliated with opposition parties. Those parties are definitely trying to seize power, but NGOs aren’t set up for that; they’re meant to solve problems. Fidesz wanted to blur this border.
ES: I’ve seen a lot of billboards around Budapest with Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros’ face on them. Can you translate the words featured on them for me? And what do they have to do with the NGO situation?
Krisztián Puskár: Those are the latest of the so-called “blue billboards.” They use half-truths and mostly false information to create public fear. For instance, the first ones didn’t mention Soros; they were about how 1 million refugees will arrive in Hungary. The ones you’re mentioning have a picture of Soros and say, “Don’t let him laugh in the end,” which is a Hungarian expression. Three or four years ago, most people didn’t know what or who Soros is—and even now they only know that “he’s the evil guy with money.”
New billboards just came out during this year’s festival as part of the so-called “National Consultation”, which is a fake survey that the government uses to justify their actions. They send it to everyone, but only about two percent of society responds—and most of them are Fidesz voters. This latest survey was called “The Soros Consultation” and had 10 questions, all of which were incredibly dull. “Do you want 1 million refugees to come to Hungary? Yes or no.”
AN: They spent more money on this anti-migration “blueboard” campaign than pro-Brexit organizations spent on theirs. And it’s not just billboards; commercial radio stations say the same thing each half hour: “Migrants at the border. We caught 10 of them today. You should sign up to join the border control.” The NGOs they cracked down on last year were the ones that called for humane and just treatment for refuge seekers, like Amnesty International and other migrant aid organizations. They were accused of not protecting human rights, but rather of aiding in smuggling people.
ES: What’s the connection between the blueboards, the anti-Soros propaganda and the attacks on NGOs?
AN: Soros has been financing the NGO sector since the mid-‘80s, when Hungary was still under the grip of the Soviet Union. So NGOs contributed to the process of gaining independence, then building democratic institutions and attitudes as well as integrating the country into the European community, which we say is “the nation’s dream of a thousand years.” They’re guided by sound values and principles and are the vital building blocks of a democratic society.
The connection is that, if you single out NGOs that are somewhat critical of certain policies, they can somehow be affiliated with Soros. If not this year, then maybe 10 years ago they received some support from him. In that sense, he’s a central figure for NGOs in Hungary as well as other countries around the world. That’s why it’s correct for the government to say there’s a “Soros plan.” Open society, human rights, control of power-holders, protection of individuals from abuses by the state and, yes, open borders—just like what we have in European Union: that’s the plan. Or, let’s put it in this way: that’s the dream.
KP: But they never actually say what the plan is. At least in the beginning it was a bogeyman, like a phantom in a mist. What people don’t know, they fear more because they can project their fears. People in the countryside don’t really know what an NGO is, so they project their fears onto them. Same with Soros.
AN: Well, they do know what an NGO is. Lately the government started using the English term NGO to refer to “bad” organizations and the term civil society organizations (civil szervezetek) for “good” NGOs. Hungary’s is a closed society—especially in the countryside—with very little knowledge about the outside world. Most people think that NGOs just provide missing services and organize free time activities. You organize cooking a community meal and then watch the football championship, and that’s all. They differentiate between volunteer-based NGOs that do charity work and those that stand for rights. All those voluntary NGOs in the countryside look at those that have an office and staff in the cities, people who speak other languages, are part of international networks, and they say, “You’re not this kind of NGO–the good kind. You are the bad kind of NGO because you deal with power and politics. We don’t. We just do something good for people. But you want to change things and interfere in policies, and that’s no good.” Therefore the government can divide the NGO sector, and that’s really dangerous.
It’s all part of the government’s plan. During the festival last year, there was a referendum on migration—that’s what the billboards were about: encouraging people to go vote and say they don’t want migrants or the villain NGOs that help them. The referendum was regulated by law, but too few people went to the ballots, so the vote wasn’t legal.
KP: Nevertheless, after that they quoted the statistic that “95 percent of Hungarians don’t want refugees”—and that is, of course, 95 percent of the 30 percent of people who voted.
AN: That was the moment when the NGO community in Budapest decided to start gathering every Monday. We felt that there’s a threat and we should be prepared. So we started to set up scenarios and talk about how to counteract them and how to be proactive. It was in the air that they wanted to initiate a new law that would identify the NGOs that receive foreign funding. They were smart to connect them with the idea that “bad” NGOs are those that receive money from abroad, and therefore they don’t represent Hungarian interests. That’s very easy to understand: foreign money means foreign interest.
We understood that we couldn’t stop this law from being approved, because Fidesz has a nearly two-thirds majority in parliament. But we could ring the alarm that it’s against civil rights, as people are free to find sources of funding for independent NGOs wherever they can.
When they finally pushed the legislation through in May, we were really pissed off. UH Fest is affected because we receive foreign funding, and if you receive more than about €22,000 you qualify as a “foreign-funded organization” and you have to register as such in court and put that in each publication you make.
KP: We weren’t forced to register or identify as a “foreign-funded NGO.” Our campaign was more an act of solidarity. You can call it satirical or provocative that the three words “foreign funded festival” covered the names of the performers on the posters.
AN: In this country it’s compulsory for NGOs to make their annual financial report available to anyone, and it’s been that way for ages. Besides posting it on your organization’s website, you also have to send it to the court so that they can publicize it on their database. You just type in the name of whatever NGO and download their reports, which clearly list the projects they did, who funded them, where the money came from and how much it was. Instead of informing people about this already-available information, the government started a propaganda campaign saying that we can’t know the truth about NGOs because they hide things.
KP: The government communicated this move like, “We just want this information to be public because we think it’s right for NGOs to be transparent.” Of course, it was transparent before.
AN: So from now on if you’re foreign-funded, you have to register as such. Then a ministry will use that information to make a very long list of NGOs that have declared themselves. This may seem innocent, but making lists is very dangerous. History tells us this. Sooner or later bad things will happen to those on any such list—that’s for sure.
ES: What is the structure of NGO funding with UH?
AN: We have European funding as one of the 16 festivals affiliated with the SHAPE project, and that accounts for 60 percent of the total budget. And then we have support from cultural institutions like Goethe and the French Institute, Pro Helvetia from Switzerland and so on. And money from [the Budapest venue]Trafó
ES: You also mentioned that, as a foreign-funded festival, UH could be affected by these actions. Have you felt the effects so far? Do you see other potential effects?
AN: Well, we checked with the statistics office on how many organizations receive more than €22,000 per year from foreign countries, and it must be at least 700. But if you go to the webpage of the ministry in charge of collecting this information, you won’t see more than 50. That means that most of the foundations—us included—said, “Fuck you! I’m not registering.” So we can’t see the real effect of this legislation yet. My expectation is that things will change after the election and that they will probably check to see who didn’t register. If you don’t obey, then they’ll move to annul your organization.
ES: Okay. Does UH therefore face a potential existential threat?
AN: Yes, because we are not registered, and if they read our annual report they would see that we have received€26,000 from the EU, which is above the limit. But we haven’t and wont register. So they might notice. Still, I wouldn’t say that Ultrasound Foundation, which is behind UH Fest, is a target for the government. We’re not a human rights organization that’s criticizing Hungarian policies in the press.
ES: Do you think that underground music or culture in general is not a threat to them as much as they want to focus on migration and other issues?
KP: Politicians’ goals aren’t to ban harsh noise acts. It’s more of a structural problem because they’re definitely against independent and self-organized communities. I really believe that underground music is thriving now because I think when there’s political pressure and also this fear and this feeling in the air or whatever—that makes underground music more vital.
AN: Underground music relies on institutions, like the venue we went to yesterday, Gólya. That’s a hub for different thinking. And if the government cannot directly attack free networks and free-thinking groups, then they can attack the infrastructure that creates the possibility for them to meet and be organized.
KP: Take [the recently re-opened venue and community center] Aurora, which was a target for Fidesz precisely because it was clear that it was connected to Soros. And it’s the home of several NGOs. Gólya is located in the district of Budapest where you can’t play loud music after 10 PM, so they’re struggling too. Underground music in Budapest is in a difficult situation in terms of venues more than anything else.
ES: Have the venues and people involved in local underground music taken on a more explicitly political stance and addressed politics more often in the last few years?
KP: Absolutely. When you’re in these situations, more people who previously considered themselves apolitical start to feel threatened in their comfort zone, ecosystem and their creativity, so obviously they become more political. If you don’t have the space to create or if the space where you create and spend your life is threatened, then your art becomes more political. Your life, your existence becomes political.
AN: Each year we put out a call for volunteers to help at the festival. This year we had a really high number of people interested, and we were shocked. The flyer campaign had been covered in the media and reached tons of people. I have the feeling that many of the people who volunteered are really fed up with this system and they want to change it somehow, so they said, “This is a festival that’s clearly stating that it’s fed up as well, so therefore I’m coming and helping you to let it happen.”
KP: Yeah, I agree—partly. Every year more people come to the festival, and attendance this year was more than 60 percent higher than last year. In previous years we grew by like, 10 or 15 percent. But I don’t think our growth this year was entirely because of the political situation. And anyway, I think we’re very close to our limit. 200 people on a Monday is more than enough.
ES: How many people come from abroad versus within Hungary?
KP: More and more foreigners come to UH, but it’s important to note that they’re mostly coming from Serbia and other countries in eastern and central Europe.
AN: I would estimate that it’s maybe 10 percent foreigners at UH. But we don’t intend to have an international festival in the sense that it’s recognized and validated by foreigners. That’s not because we don’t like foreigners, of course.
ES: Is it a bigger priority for you to use your message to activate people within Hungary?
KP: Of course. We are building a community. We love that people come from other countries. But it’s not our goal economically or culturally to address them.
ES: Did UH always have a political stance since you started it? Has that become stronger, more present, more precise? Or has it just always been this way?
AN: It’s hasn’t, no. In the early 2000s we thought of ourselves as a music festival, and music is music. I think the turning point for me was 2009. I work for [the NGO] Autonomia, which mainly deals with Roma issues in a country where it’s one of the most burning issues—much more burning than migration. Half of them are damn poor, like third-world-country poor. And Hungary does nothing with them because there’s a history of antigypsyism here.
In 2009 a paramilitary, right-wing extreme group killed 9 Roma people in this country. They set fire to houses and machined gunned them down—even children. There was a spontaneously organized protest and a memorial, but only about 50 people showed up in a city with almost 2 million habitants. We were in the middle of planning the 2010 UH Fest when this happened, and I said, “Why do I have to deal with this festival while such things happen here?” So that was a turning point when I decided we should step out and say something.
In 2010 we started a program called UH Fest Go Social. We invited the artists we had already booked to come on a trip in the country. We got a minibus and went to a Roma ghetto where NGOs are working to make a difference. We asked the artists to put together a little workshop, like a sound playground. We set up a table with electronic gadgets so that local kids could make noise. They were just slamming or saying their rhymes, and others were just [makes a sound like a modular synth]. They forgot everything. It was so heartening. We had to stop them. “Guys, we have to go.” And they said, “No! One more!” Social workers said that they hadn’t seen those kids so immersed in something. Since then we have done a few more outreach activities as part of the festival; in 2016 we used in our visual materials and images that were taken at a demonstration where protesters clashed with police.
ES: What is the mood among the people and organizations who oppose Fidesz, from Gólya and Aurora to UH and NGOs and underground music. Is it hopeful?
KP: Not hopeful. The feeling is like, struggling and getting more angry, but it’s also becoming more constructive. I think there is a new generation of young people who became political in a grassroots way, and also in practical dimension. Right now I feel like, okay, this government will win again, and it’s okay. Let’s start to work and build an underground. Obviously we will vote against them. But I think it’s not realistic to expect to change the government now. In four years we can. The government is not the only issue.
AN: I agree that now it’s time for more conscious people to come together and take action. Probably there will emerge a new oppositional power center that can challenge this regime.