By Gergely Szakacs
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Thousands of Hungarians marched across central Budapest on Monday in a show of support for the European Union, protesting against what a new political movement sees as a creeping rise in Russian influence under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The rally follows a series of major demonstrations in Budapest in recent weeks, triggered by a new law that would drive out of Hungary a top university founded by U.S. financier George Soros.
Momentum, an upstart political movement that called for Monday's rally dubbed "We belong to Europe," announced it would run at a parliamentary election next April.
"Health care, education, (public) transportation are failing. We struggle to make things work every day," Momentum leader Andras Fekete-Gyor told demonstrators, adding that the group would unveil its election manifesto in October.
The group gained national prominence with a referendum campaign that torpedoed Orban's bid for Budapest to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Orban, a former critic of Moscow, changed tack after returning to power in a 2010 landslide. In a key speech, he called for transforming Hungary into an "illiberal state," citing Russia and Turkey as templates for success.
He still holds a firm lead in opinion polls. But on Saturday he told leaders of his centre-right EU political group he would comply with demands from Brussels to change measures branded an attack on academic freedom.
"Viktor Orban's performance at the European Parliament has shown that it is not only Hungarians who are tired of Orban and his Fidesz party," said Daniel Kiss, a 23-year-old university student, who carried EU flags at the rally with his girlfriend.
"He blasts the EU, but at the same time we need European money to stay afloat," he said. "We have had enough."
Orban has said Hungary should remain a member of the EU, but is also seeking reforms and wants to avoid a further loss of national sovereignty.
In the past seven years, Orban, 53, has eliminated checks on his power by taking control of the public media, curbing the powers of the constitutional court, and placing loyalists in top positions at public institutions.
But Orban's unorthodox fiscal stabilisation measures have slashed the budget deficit, sent unemployment to record lows and Budapest forecasts economic growth above 4 percent this year and next, which would be the fastest rates since Orban took power.
Despite the street protests, the fragmented Hungarian opposition so far looks unable to mount a serious challenge.
An April survey by think tank Zavecz Research put support for Orban's Fidesz party at 27 percent of voters. The Socialist party scored 13 percent, the nationalist Jobbik 11 percent and Momentum just 2 percent.
Even some protesters, like 26-year-old Bence, who wore a mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the back of his head, were sceptical of a breakthrough next April.
"In such an election system, even Momentum or some other smaller opposition party getting into parliament would be a big deal," he said. "But that is just what this is all about."
(Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, editing by Larry King and Robin Pomeroy)