University “Forced Out” Of Hungary By Government Restrictions

Last week, the Central European University, an American private university based in Budapest, made the decision to transfer most of its programmes to Vienna. The move follows 18 months of legal dispute with the Hungarian government, which passed legislation last year to target the CEU’s campus and more fundamentally, the tenets of liberal democracy and freethinking that it was founded on. Whilst the CEU complied with tightening legal restrictions that required a physical presence in the university’s accredited nation, the government ruled that its pairing with Bard College in New York was unsatisfactory.

The university’s president, Michael Ignatieff, said that the CEU had “been forced out”. “This is unprecedented. A US institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally. A European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU.” At a press conference last week, Mr. Ignatieff called it a “dark day [for] freedom in Hungary [and] academic freedom.” A spokesperson for the EU Commission supported this view, saying that they were “deeply concerned by the fact that the Central European University has decided to move to Vienna.” Whilst the United States ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, was initially supportive of the CEU, he has since backtracked. In a Washington Post interview, he said that, “The university is in another country. It would pay to work with the government.”

Established in 1991, the CEU had the express goal of supporting the principles of democracy in the post-Soviet era. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, has championed the idea of “illiberal democracy” and, since coming to power in 2010, has slowly disintegrated democratic processes. The Constitutional Court has been filled with loyalists of Fidesz, the government party, and parliamentary districts have been reconfigured, helping it win a third term in April. Similar processes have taken place in the media, where state funded outlets tow the party line strictly, whilst Fidesz allies control private media. The harassment of the CEU contributes to a wider assault on academic freedom and freedom of expression: courses on gender studies have been discontinued and, in 2010, several intellectuals were dismissed from their state university posts. An attempt to charge them with misappropriation of research grants was eventually aborted.

Furthermore, the CEU case is another example of the demonisation of the American-Hungarian philanthropist, George Soros, who provided financial backing to the CEU. Through his Open Society Foundations, he has provided billions of dollars to its aim of supporting “vibrant and tolerant democracies” across the world. Viktor Orbán has been consistent in his attacks on George Soros and, in June, drove forward the so-called “Stop Soros” law, which banned organisations in the “promoting and supporting” of “illegal migration”. Mr. Soros, a Holocaust survivor, has become a central figure in far right anti-Semitism, which fear mongers “elite” control over the world. The Hungarian government has peddled such racist tropes consistently. In particular, a campaign last year spread posters depicting Mr. Soros smiling over the caption, “99 percent reject illegal migration” and “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh”. In the same year, Mr. Orbán told the European Parliament that Soros was a “financial speculator” who was “attacking Hungary”.

This rhetoric is disturbing and its adoption by leaders in more entrenched democracies, such as Donald Trump in the U.S., outlines the growing acceptability of anti-Semitism, and racism more generally, in political discourse. It forms part of the right-wing populist programme, which seeks to systematically undermine democracy, maintaining its bare-bones as a means of legitimacy, whilst constructing an “other” as a scapegoat for its own insecurities and failings. The decision of the CEU to move is a symptom of Viktor Orbán’s growing authoritarian control of Hungarian society. It will surely not be the last, and the undemocratic nature of his rule is highly concerning.