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Central European University has become the battleground in Hungary’s war of ideas

A rally protests against a new law that could force the Soros-founded Central European University out of Hungary. Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

Central European University has become the battleground in Hungary’s war of ideas

A rally protests against a new law that could force the Soros-founded Central European University out of Hungary. Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

Ignoring protest from around the world, the Hungarian government has fast-tracked legislation to tighten rules governing foreign universities operating in the country. The law could force the closure of the Central European University (CEU).

The new law requires foreign universities to gain agreement for their foreign operations from their home government. But US law clearly gives authority for higher education to the states.

The Hungarian law also requires institutions to have a permanent educational program in their country of origin as well as in Hungary. To comply with this, CEU would have to create a new campus in the United States in order to stay open in Budapest.

The university plans to challenge the constitutionality of the legislation, arguing that it’s a violation of Hungarian laws protecting the “freedom of scientific research”.

An ‘open society’ institution

Founded in Budapest after the unshackling of Central Europe from the USSR, the university was launched in 1991 on the principles of “open society”, which foster tolerance and transparent political institutions.

It’s a private American university that delivers Western-style, English-language education. Its humanities and social sciences degrees have been accredited in Hungary and the United States. University faculty are often strong supporters of civil liberties, freedom of speech and other liberal democratic values.

Michael Ignatieff, rector of the Central European University, has said the institution will challenge the validity of the law. Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

CEU is funded by Hungarian-American hedge-fund entrepreneur and philanthropist George Soros. For decades, Soros has been a lightning rod for conservative critics in Europe as well as the US for supporting liberal causes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Soros of orchestrating the “colour revolutions” in Georgia and the Ukraine over the last decade. And, in the past few years, the Hungarian government has denounced NGOs funded by Soros for “illegitimately” influencing political life.

They have been joined by others in Eastern and Central Europe since the election of US President Donald Trump. A former Polish prime minister, Jarosław Kaczyński, considers groups backed by Soros as seeking “societies without identities”, while Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia’s former prime minister, has called for a “de-Sorosization” of society.

Illiberal democracy Hungarian-style

Elected in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his political party, Fidesz, have since sought to centralise control in their country. They have removed heads of independent institutions, including the courts, and tightened control over the media.

Such controls are characteristic of “state capture”, which maximises the wealth and power of particular groups rather than serving the public interest. It’s sometimes called “crony capitalism”.

In Hungary, the political leadership is not bribed, nor is theft committed. Through legal processes, local companies, lands, profitable enterprises and European funds are directed to pro-Orbán allies and friends.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has sought to centralise control in the country since his election in 2010. Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

After his re-election in 2014, Orbán said he wanted to abandon liberal democracy in favour of an “illiberal state”, along the lines of Russia and Turkey. He claimed more centralised control was needed to escape from “debt slavery” to multinational firms and to protect Hungarians from becoming a “colony” of the European Union.

His populist tactics include denigrating the Roma, refugees, the homeless and other minorities.

Civil society organisations receiving money from abroad have been targeted with draft legislation to be more transparent about this funding. Orbán’s government claims such organisations are agents of foreign powers.

Tactics of political control

In January 2017, a Fidesz party deputy singled out human rights organisations – the Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union TASZ and Transparency International – to be “swept out” of the country. These organisations receive funding support from the Open Society Foundation, which is funded by George Soros.

Critics of the government have highlighted three separate goals Fidesz is pursuing. It is disrupting the work of key NGOs through bureaucratic overload and intimidation; de-legitimising watchdogs and independent critics in the eyes of the public; and reinforcing the commitment and cohesion of Fidesz’s core supporters in the electorate.

De-legitimising critics of government has been one of the standard strategies in Hungary’s “war of ideas” over democracy and independent institutions since Orbán’s 2010 election.

He invokes Hungary’s “Christian” culture and conservative values and presents democratic “chaos” as the opposite of strong-fisted rule that guarantees harmony and order. This fight over ideas can turn universities into battlefields, as appears to have happened with the avowedly liberal CEU.

The Hungarian parliament votes on the bill tightening regulations on foreign universities operating in Hungary. Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

The university is now firmly on the frontline of this war of ideas. And whether it becomes a casualty depends on continuing international support – from both the scholarly community and other governments.

When the legislation was announced last week, CEU called upon the scholarly community for support. But while it received an overwhelming response, that was ultimately inadequate to sway the Hungarian government.

The university also requires political support. Diplomatic pressure from American and EU governments is needed to shield it and to bolster the principles of academic freedom in Europe. This support is overdue according to Cas Mudde, a leading analyst of right-wing parties in Europe.

The rally in Budapest of thousands of protesters was a show of local support for CEU. But this too could fade over time.

In the march to the 2018 Hungarian parliamentary election, Orbán and Fidesz are likely to scale up their populist strategies. And if the legal challenge to the new law isn’t settled by election time, it could undermine support for the university from domestic allies committed to the values of the open society and liberal democracy.