Space for civil society in Hungary to meet and discuss

Published:  20 January 2020

It inspires me that people now have a very good understanding of each other”- Adam Schönberger, founding member and active participant in the Open Spaces network.

As a result of the recent municipal elections, the opposition is now in the driving seat in several cities in Hungary, including Budapest. It is not yet clear whether this development will also lead to more space for civil society to meet and discuss issues of common interest. Civitates is supporting ‘Open Spaces’, a new coalition that tries to provide an answer to the various challenges of the shrinking civic space.

Adam Schönberger is a founding member and active participant in the Open Spaces network, which provides actual physical spaces where all kinds of people can connect.

What do you think will change after this shift in power at the local level?
We don’t know what will happen next. The new mayor of Budapest introduces himself as a supporter of civil society organisations; that is a win. In the bigger picture I don’t think it will really have an effect on government policies, at least not on the pressure exerted on civil society organisations.

Your coalition tackles issues relating to civil society organisations including governmental harassment, self-censorship and isolation. How do you do that?
Our response is to create physical space, to create publicity, and to connect civil society organisations among themselves and with their social bases. I can give you two concrete examples.

Students wanted to raise their voices about a couple of questions and decided to strike to generate attention for their issues. The Open Spaces network worked together with students around the country to develop this idea, and together we came up with quite a positive plan, a so-called ‘educational day’. As we have several physical spaces where the students could meet, they were able to organise this ‘educational day’ in five cities at the same time. This ‘strike’ got a lot of publicity at the national level as well as in in the students’ own cities.

Another example: the Open Spaces network facilitated the hosting of the annual human rights festival in Hungary in five cities instead of only in Budapest, simply by connecting the organisers with their members – the civil society organisations – throughout the countryside. Together they discussed the existing subcultures, and this helped the human rights festival organisers to adjust the movie programming to take the realities in the different cities into account. The civil society organisations also played a big role in reaching out to people to invite them to the festival.

What in your work with this coalition has inspired you and made you feel excited? 
What is inspiring to me is that people from different parts of the country are now able to work together and understand each other better. Not only is there is an exchange of business cards, but people really have a very good understanding of each other; they know each other’s struggles; they know what is important to each other; and they work on the same issues. Personally, I find it a tremendous achievement in my life that I have friends all over the country. This has given me new horizons and a new level of understanding. I thought that people in the countryside were different, but now I have totally changed my ideas about them, and therefore also my ideas about the programmes I am doing. I have better ideas about whom to invite, what kind of strategies to use, and last but not least what kind of programmes to develop.

What is your personal motivation to do this work?
My personal motivation is to achieve change by giving more space to civil society organisations and activist groups. I want to live in a democracy: to make Hungary democratic again. It is impossible to do that only from Budapest, and only from the way I think. That is why I value the cooperation with people all over the country so much.

What is your dream for Hungary? 
That it will be a democratic country again, and that we will have equal rights for all people here.