Viktor Orbán vs. Budapest’s Central European University

Prime Minister Orbán’s assault on the Central European University has become a flash point in the struggle between democracy and nationalism in the EU

By Nicolas Kristen & Benjamin Wolf

It is hard to remember today the euphoria and optimism that swept through Central Europe following the fall of the Iron Curtain. With the suffocation of soviet communism lifted, open societies would emerge as people stretched into new roles and international investment poured in. Everything seemed possible.

Hungary, in particular, emerged as a model democracy. Perhaps better prepared after decades of the pragmatic “Goulash communism”, Hungarians had stronger Western ties, particularly with Austria and embraced initiatives like Otto Habsburg’s pan-European picnic of solidarity with the family of free nations.

So the joy and pride were sincere, when George Soros, a Hungarian-born American philanthropist and billionaire, moved the Central European University (CEU) from Prague to Budapest in 1995.

Dedicated to examining the contemporary challenges of “open societies” – a term coined by Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper, a friend and mentor of Soros – and building democracy in the transition countries, the CEU sought to be both a world-class Western-style university and a distinctly Central European institution. In the headiness of those days, Soros had fewer illusions; if open societies were to flourish in CEE, it was critical to invest in democracy and intellectual freedom.

Recent events in Hungary have only confirmed Soros’ fears. In April, the far-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán pushed an education reform bill through parliament, targeting foreign universities and setting new requirements on financing, hiring and parent institutions that could force many to close. Of those affected, the Central European University is by far the largest and most prestigious. And more than any other institution, it stands for Hungary’s hopeful new beginning after the end of communism and its turn toward the West.

The “Lex CEU” – as the amendment is called by critics – would make its operations illegal by January 1, 2018, making new enrollments impossible. Programs begun before 2018 would have until 2021.

Fishing for allies

“Academic freedom is a cornerstone of democracy and a free society,” thundered Michael Ignatieff, the CEU’s current president in the New York Times in early April. Appealing directly to its American audience, he cited Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, where a free society is defined by robust self-governing institutions that regulate themselves under the law …without interference from government.” His hope seemed to be that politicians and academics of the U.S. might play a crucial role in the CEU’s fight for survival.

CEU president Michael Ignatieff is taking on Viktor Orbán along with 400 international artists and academics opposing his campaign “to close down democratic insitutions in Hungary.” // © CEU / Kepszerkesztoseg – Karancsi Rudolf

Founded in 1991, the CEU is officially registered in the State of New York. Since it does not have a campus in the U.S., however, the new law would force the university to cease all activities in Hungary by February 2018. The alternative, a revision of the joint declaration of 2004 between the Hungarian government and the State of New York establishing the CEU as a dual entity with degree-granting privileges in both countries. Some suspect the prime minister may also have a more personal agenda.

“Orbán is trying to get positive attention from the Trump administration but Trump has yet to notice him,” says Austrian political scientist Anton Pelinka who is a professor of political theory in the CEU’s Nationalism Studies Program.

In its current form, the amendment will not only force CEU to open an additional campus in New York State, at substantial cost, it also eliminates a good faith waiver that has allowed academic staff to teach in Budapest without a local work permit, thus creating additional barriers for the international personnel considered central to maintaining its academic reputation and international outlook.

Say no more

That the “Lex CEU” was rushed through and signed within a week was seen by critics as an attempt “to minimize public debate,” countering the supposed threat the university posed to Fidesz ideology.

“The CEU stands for intellectual cosmopolitanism and liberal democracy,” pointed out Pelinka, “which stands in the way of the current government’s neo-nationalism and its authoritarian tendencies.” A few days after the signing, more than 400 international artists and academics, among them 17 -Nobel laureates, signed an open letter denouncing the move as  part of the prime minister’s campaign to “close down democratic institutions in Hungary.”

Calling on the EU to investigate the legality of the amendment, they warned against inaction: “It would be a serious blot on the EU’s conscience to have permitted this act of the Orbán government to pass without response,” the letter read. “It reduces Europe. It weakens it. It takes it one step further to the edge of disintegration.”

So far, Orbán is unrepentant. The CEU was “cheating” by issuing diplomas that are accepted in both Hungary and the U.S., he said on state radio, providing it with “an unfair advantage.” “It is inexplicable why we should put our own universities at a disadvantage,” the prime minister asserted. “Hungary supports knowledge in all cases, but does not tolerate cheating. Not even a billionaire can stand above the law, therefore this university must also obey the law.”

Hungarian diplomats deny that the law is aimed specifically at CEU. The regulations were intended to fix irregularities at all 28 foreign universities active in Hungary, said the Hungarian Embassy in Vienna in a statement. Irregularities included the lack of -external accrediting bodies and/or formal recognition in their respective countries – including 17 unregistered courses, which they described as a “failure to disclose its activities.”

They also downplayed concerns of an impending closure. “Through this revision, a consistent framework will be introduced, which will require a bilateral agreement with the state of origin as well as an accredited program within said state,” the embassy stated in early April, although both of these criteria are ostensibly fulfilled under current CEU agreements.

Clouds of doubt

Critics are skeptical. “The nature and speed of the proceedings by Orbán’s government wouldn’t make any sense if they weren’t targeted specifically against the CEU,” says political scientist Pelinka. The European Commission has also launched proceedings against Hungary. “It concerns questions of freedom of establishment and provision of services,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, the vice-president of the European Commission.

The mounting pressure could stop the closure of the university, says Pelinka. “If the Hungarian government concludes that the political costs are too high, they may back down. But this would have to happen soon.” Taking the matter to the European Court of Justice, as some propose, could, however, mean waiting years for a verdict – time that the beleaguered CEU can ill afford.

More promising is the resolution adopted by the European Parliament (EP) on May 17, urging the EU to trigger an Article 7 -infringement procedure, to be used against member states for fundamental rights violations. The EP noted a “serious deterioration of rule of law and democracy” in Hungary and demanded that the controversial laws be suspended or withdrawn. In a precedent-setting move, Article 7 would lead to a three-step process, potentially culminating in the revocation of Hungary’s voting rights in the European Council – an extreme outcome that has earned it the nickname the “nuclear option”.

Protest and resist

The new law was met by a storm of protests. Thousands took to the street in Budapest, decrying Orbán’s assault on academic freedom. Many Austrians were shaken. “After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hungary opened up to the world. Now it is closing itself in again on its own initiative,” said Oliver -Vitouch, president of the Austrian Conference of Universities.

CEU director Michael Ignatieff insists that the CEU is committed to staying in Hungary: “We will never close this university,” he said in late March. “We have no other home than Budapest. Budapest has been good to us and we have been good to Budapest … The legislation must be withdrawn.” However, as of late April, deputy director Zsolt Enyedi conceded the chances of the CEU remaining in Budapest in its current form “are currently below 50 percent.”

Ignatieff remains unbowed, however. “Budapest is our home,” he repeated several more times, adding. “One would have thought a nationalist Hungarian government would welcome the fact that we actually educate students from 120 countries in their capital city.” He insists that the university “has always been in full compliance with Hungarian law,” and like many, he suggests a different motive for the changes. “If the government wishes to conduct a vendetta against George Soros, CEU cannot stop them, but we have every right to refuse to be taken hostage.”

A battle of ideologies

In fact, this hostility may be a driving motive. Orbán regularly accuses Soros of undermining him and his government. Ironically, though, it was precisely a scholarship from the Hungarian-born U.S.-based philanthropist that allowed Orbán to study at Oxford as a young man, paving his way to his career in Hungarian politics. Parallel to Orbán’s evolution from broadly liberal to nationalist, Soros – who has funded countless other initiatives and NGOs promoting democratic values and human rights in CEE – has become the government’s favorite scapegoat, along with a certain anti-Semitic undercurrent, as suggested by EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans in an interview with the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit.

As an example, another bill currently under discussion would force every foreign-funded NGO with an income above $25,000 a year to register with the authorities, affecting most directly the Open Society Foundations, legally based in the U.S. and partly funded by Soros.

It has all the trappings of a battle for the soul and the future of Hungary, with Orbán and Soros leading opposing camps. So it was not surprising that the refugee crisis also turned into a bone of contention. Soros, from a non-observant Jewish family who had survived Nazi Hungary with false papers, generously donated to groups helping refugees fleeing to Europe in the summer and autumn of 2015. Orbán, true to his rhetoric of an Occident under siege, sees refugees as a threat to European (and Hungarian) identity. Appalling treatment of refugees by Hungarian authorities was redressed somewhat by citizens’ efforts, but without support of the government, their effect was limited. Amnesty International, fiercely critical of Orbán’s policies, was accused of being “Soros’ people” and giving false reports to undermine the Hungarian military and police stationed at the borders.

Analysts in Hungary see local politics behind the moves. “It is to provide a narrative to the roughly 2.5 million core voters of the party,” says Andras Zagoni-Bogsch, foreign policy and national security advisor for the Green Party in Hungary. These, he says, could propel Fidesz to another two-thirds victory under the recently revised electoral rules. “Their narrative connects Western liberal voices to the Hungarian left – the arch enemy of the Fidesz party – and juxtaposes them with Orbán as the savior and restorer of Hungarian sovereignty.”

But people shouldn’t be surprised, Zagoni–Bogsch says. “Hungary has never, in its history, produced a functioning democracy.” What Orbán understood is that the best way to consolidate power is to play to the fears of the Communist Kádár-regime. “Somewhat dramatically,” Zagoni-Bogsch says, “Orban has become the genuine successor of the political figure he opposed when he launched his career. And those shoes fit him remarkably well.”

If this narrative takes hold, the elections in early 2018 could be another stepping stone towards the “illiberal state” Orbán has apparently been aiming for, with dire consequences both for Hungarians themselves and for their European partners, friends and neighbors.

Vienna’s Open Invitation

With the threatened closing of the CEU in Budapest, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern (SPÖ) and Vienna‘s Vice-Mayor Maria Vassilakou (Greens) have offered the CEU their support in relocating to Vienna.

Both have made formal contact with CEU officials, although no concrete plans have been announced, pending follow up by the European Commission and the European Parliament.

“We would be honored to welcome you and your university,” Vassilakou wrote CEU director Michael Ignatieff on April 3, adding that she was “confident that the CEU would make a significant contribution to our city and at the same time retain its function as an academic hub as well as backbone for civil society in Central Europe.”

“It would be a huge opportunity for Vienna,” agreed Beate Meinl-Reisinger, leader of the parliamentary group NEOS on the Ö1-Abendjournal the same day. “With the city’s historical “hinge role” between Central and Eastern Europe, it would be the ideal location.”

The move has also received strong support from academia: “The CEU would fit in equally well in Vienna, Graz or Klagenfurt,” said Oliver Vitouch, President of the Conference of Austrian Universities in an interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard. “They could move to Austria, register as a private university and even keep their name.”

The Editors
The Editors
This was written by the Metropole editorial Team. Sometimes its an expat, sometimes a native, most of the time the lines are blurred, and sometimes we're sharing someone else's content, but we always say so. Oh yeah, and buy our magazine! Thanks.

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