Budapest’s Central European University (CEU) is facing an existential threat from proposed Hungarian government amendments that the graduate university argues specifically target it and which have been in the works for months.
The university was founded by George Soros, the US-Hungarian philanthropist in 1991. Through CEU and other schemes, Soros has bankrolled the postgraduate studies of several Hungarian government officials, including Prime Minister Viktor Orban himself, and the two men maintained reasonably good, if uneasy, relations until around the time of Orban’s election victory in 2014. Since then, however, the Orban government’s PR machine has been turned against the “Open Society” values of Soros and CEU, which do not chime with his stated aim to to abandon liberal democracy in favour of an “illiberal state”.
So the mood was one of dismay, rather than surprise, when hundreds of students, professors and at least seven locally based diplomats arrived at the CEU building for a crisis meeting on the afternoon of March 29. CEU president and rector Michael Ignatieff had announced the meeting in a letter widely distributed on social media the previous evening, and the main CEU auditorium was so full of CEU supporters by 12:30pm that the university had to set up live streams in other classrooms to accommodate them all.
Ignatieff, a former Liberal party leader in Canada, said the legislative amendments proposed on March 28 were plainly and specifically targeted to force the closure of his institution. “CEU will not be closed under any circumstances and its academic programmes will continue,” he stated. “We can’t even begin to talk to the government unless the bill is withdrawn.”
“Freedom is not an abstraction here, folks, it is what we run on, without it we can't do anything of any value,” he added.
Zsolt Enyedi, CEU’s pro-rector for Hungarian Affairs, highlighted five amendments that would endanger the university’s operations. The clearest discrimination, Enyedi claimed, is the provision preventing universities in Hungary from issuing degrees from non-European institutions. As CEU has dual accreditation in the US and in Hungary, under the amendments it would in effect be unable to recruit new students from February 2018 onwards. He noted that any solution to the accreditation issue would involve a bilateral agreement between Hungary and New York State, rather than Washington. Amongst other problematic stipulations is the proposed elimination of a waiver that allows non-EU academics to work at CEU without a work permit.
Asked by bne IntelliNews whether he had been prepared for a governmental assault on CEU when he took up the job last summer, Ignatieff said: “I wasn’t prepped, but I knew I was coming to Hungary, so the political context would be interesting. Let’s just say I was well briefed.”
“We had been trying to talk to the ministry for a month, but then today they allow us a meeting,” he explained.
In the event, however, on the evening of March 29 Ignatieff was not granted a meeting with the minister in charge of education, Zoltan Balog, but only his underling Laszlo Palkovics, a state secretary with negligible political power. After the meeting Palkovics baldly told reporters that the ministry sees no reason to withdraw its bill on foreign universities.
In the making
By March 31 a timeline of events had emerged. CEU sources told local media that in December Ignatieff had received a “friendly warning” from Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi that the cabinet was “preparing to kill” CEU with an amendment motion. Ignatieff was then told the details of the bill around a month before it was filed, the sources added.
However, even MPs of the ruling Fidesz party, speaking on condition of anonymity, have expressed anger about the attack on CEU, with one saying academic interference was “not normal in the Middle Ages, never mind the 21st century”.
The move could represent Fidesz’s first major PR campaign action ahead of the general election that will be held next April, another unnamed MP told local media. Soros and the EU will play the role of foreign attackers of Hungary, from which Fidesz will have to defend the country, he explained. The MP said he had disagreed with, but accepted, the government’s harassment of “Soros NGOs”, but found this attack on one of Hungary’s most respected academic institutions unacceptable. MPs said they had not been told about the attack on CEU, although the squeezing of the “Soros army” NGOs had been on the agenda of a party caucus meeting in February.
Party insiders speculated that the move was revenge for the partially Soros-funded Helsinki Committee’s recent human rights court victories against the state, or that it intends to cut a deal with Soros that if such NGOs stop their operations, then CEU – which Soros considers the jewel in his philanthropic crown – can stay.
As the dust cleared on what business weekly HVG called “a bomb going off at international level”, suspicion crept in that Orban may have underestimated how unpopular the attack on CEU would prove to be. Ranked in the world’s top 200 universities in eight disciplines and in the top 50 in political science and international studies, CEU has considerable international sway. Many of its over 14,000 graduates now hold government positions around the globe.
Support from the US Democratic Party could have been expected, and on March 30 Senator Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee, issued a statement in defence of CEU. “I share concern that legislation being considered in Hungary will threaten the operations and functions of CEU and, it seems, be a step down an isolationist path,” his statement said.
However, if Orban, who was the first European premier to publicly back the candidacy of Donald Trump, had expected support from the new US administration, it – like that ever elusive White House invitation – has not been forthcoming.
On March 31, the US Department of State issued a statement over its concerns that the proposed legislation would negatively affect or even lead to the closure of CEU. “We urge the Government of Hungary to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence,” the statement read, arguing that CEU “has strengthened Hungary’s influence and leadership in the region through its academic excellence and many contributions to independent, critical thinking”.
Furthermore, the most influential ethnic Hungarian in the White House is currently Sebastian Gorka, the deputy presidential assistant, who in 2007 declared Orban a busted flush as he attempted to set up a nationalist party to rival Fidesz in Hungary. Nor will the CEU attack please Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who has long-standing business ties with Soros.
On March 31, Orban appeared firm on the issue. “Cheating is cheating. We are not going to hold talks with CEU, as they are not yet the US government, however much they wish they were. I will only discuss the licence with the federal government,” he said.
Edit Zgut, the foreign policy analyst at Budapest-based think-tank Political Capital, called the attack a “milestone” in the history of Orban’s “hybrid regime”. Fidesz is shifting from the “grey zone to authoritarianism” she wrote.
Even Gabor Bencsik, a leading pro-Orban journalist, warned in an editorial in the conservative weekly Mandiner that, “if the Hungarian government crosses the democratic Rubicon, the consequences will be unpredictable”.
Ignatieff said CEU will explore any legal avenue available to fight for its survival. “We plan to show them over the next week or so that messing with us comes with costs,” he said.