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Hungary’s authoritarian leader is trying to shutter a university founded to promote democracy

60th Anniversary of the Signing of the Treaties of Rome Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Hungary’s hardline populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has praised the benefits of “ethnic homogeneity,” championed curtailing immigration, and called asylum seekers “a poison.” He is known for criticizing the very idea of liberal democracy and promoting instead a model of what he calls “an illiberal state” — states like Russia and Turkey.

But in his recent effort to shut down Budapest’s Central European University, he may have finally gone too far. Thousands of protestors came out in the streets of Budapest on Sunday evening clamoring against Orbán’s efforts to close down the campus, which serves more than 1,400 students from 108 countries.

Orbán and his supporters are pushing a new law that, if passed, would require foreign universities in Hungary to also have a campus back in their country of origin. Orbán has said he believes it is “cheating” for CEU to not have home accreditation, and that it gives the university an unfair advantage over Hungarian institutions because its graduates receive a diploma that is recognized as coming from a US institution.

The only university in all of Hungary that would actually be affected by the bill is Central European University, which was founded by Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Soros is widely seen as Orbán’s intellectual and ideological rival; Soros’s open-society institute, and the CEU itself, promotes liberal democracy and the rule of law. As University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, a former CEU professor, wrote this week, “CEU is everything Orbán detests: it is critical, global, independent and multicultural.”

Parliament moved to begin debating the law on Tuesday.

“We view it as discriminatory and we view it as a piece of political vandalism,” Michael Ignatieff, president and rector of Central European University, told the New York Times last week. “We feel that this isn’t just about us; this is about Hungarian academic freedom in general.” Ignatieff himself is Canadian; he’s an expert on human rights, and is the former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party.

In a March 29 letter to faculty, Ignatieff wrote, “As we see it, this is legislation targeted at one institution and one institution only. It is discriminatory. It strikes at the heart of what we have been doing at CEU for over two decades.”

“We are in full conformity with Hungarian law and have been for more than two decades,” he added.

The fight is essentially a battle between nationalistic authoritarianism and the liberal democratic ideals of human rights and the rule of law — at a moment when far-right movements in Europe are on the ascendency.

The case of the CEU, then, is not just about a few hundred graduate students and professors, but about the emergence of an autocratic government dismantling the mechanisms by which individuals learn to question power.

Academic freedom in Europe is at risk

The Central European University was founded in 1991 to educate a new generation of academics in civil society, human rights, and democracy building after the Iron Curtain came down. On March 31, the Washington Post’s editorial board called CEU “an anchor for the study of freedom in lands long tormented by tyranny” and noted that “CEU is at the fault line of an intensifying contest between democracy and illiberal rule around the globe.”

That same day, some 150 academics, including more than a dozen Nobel Prize winners, wrote an open letter to the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, Réka Szemerkényi. "It would be a sad outcome for the training of students from the region, for academic research in Hungary, and for our own cooperation with Hungarian academics, if the proposed legislation came into force," the letter read, as reported by the Associated Press.

In a blog post, professor Erin Jenne of the CEU’s international relations department argues that one possible reason Orbán is cracking down on CEU is because the leader is “making a hard turn toward authoritarianism and wants to clamp down on independent intellectual life.”

Ironically, Prime Minister Orbán himself received a Soros scholarship to study in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s. But of late he has taken aim at Soros and his idea of “open societies.”

Orbán was an anti-communist as a young man. But in the years since, he has turned toward Russia. In 2014, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the New York Times that Orbán was the “only Putinist governing in the European Union.”

In January, Bloomberg reported a member of his ruling Fidesz party had promised to “sweep out” nongovernmental organizations backed by Soros because they “serve global capitalists and back political correctness over national governments.”

Academics in Hungary and across Europe are concerned about what it would mean for an authoritarian-minded leader to be able to shut down an institution of higher learning.

Writing for the Guardian, Mudde noted the “struggle over CEU is not just about that unique university, it is about all universities, and it is about liberal democracy. If we don’t take a stand now, we will be fighting similar measures in Poland and other countries soon.”