Hungary ‘backtracks’ in row over CEU, as protests persist


CEU rector Michael Ignatieff

Hungary denied on Wednesday that a new education law was aimed at shutting down a university founded by U.S. financier George Soros, and suggested a possible compromise in a dispute that has drawn protests at home and criticism from Washington, Reuters reports:

Central European University (CEU) found itself in the eye of a political storm after Hungary’s parliament passed the new law last week setting tougher conditions for the awarding of licences to foreign-based universities. Critics said the new terms would hurt academic freedoms and were especially aimed at CEU, founded by the Hungarian-born Soros after the collapse of Communism and considered a bastion of independent scholarship in the region.

In an apparent change of tack, Education Secretary Laszlo Palkovics said CEU could continue to operate if it delivered its teaching and issued its degrees through its existing Hungarian sister school.

“We never wanted to close down CEU,” Palkovics told news website “The question is whether CEU insists on having a licence in Hungary or having courses in Hungary honoured with a CEU degree… (CEU’s own) licence has little significance.”

The United States called on to the Hungarian government to suspend a recently passed amendment on higher education, targeting the Central European University, which was established in 1991 by Hungarian-born financier George Soros.

Tens of thousands turned out in Hungary’s capital on Sunday to protest the legislation, Bloomberg reports:

Like local nongovernmental organizations promoting integration and human rights, many of which Soros also supports, the university represents an affront to [Hungarian PM Viktor] Orban’s ideal of “illiberal democracy,” which increasingly looks like populist autocracy sanctioned by elections, a kind of Putinism with Hungarian characteristics.

“Self-governing institutions are a corner stone of democracy,” said CEU rector Michael Ignatieff. “This is the value we are fighting for. I have no interest in staging a political confrontation with Orbán,” he told Deutsche Welle. “I am not interested in his ideology. I am interested in defending this institution and getting us back to work.”

Orban has embraced the term “illiberal democracy,” essentially arguing that majority rule is more important than minority rights, said Andras Loke, president of the board of Transparency International’s branch in Hungary.

“Here is a government that proclaims itself as illiberal, and if it says it’s illiberal, liberals are its natural enemy, especially if they are backed by funds the government has no control over,” Mr. Loke told the New York Times, referring to organizations funded by Mr. Soros.


To students of history, this is all eerily familiar, analyst Anne Applebaum writes for the Washington Post.

“These are exactly the kinds of campaigns that the Hungarian communist party once ran against its ideological enemies and that autocratic states such as Russia and Iran run against their ideological enemies, or perceived enemies, even today,” notes Applebaum, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

These ideals of truth and transparency went hand in hand with the tangible goal of democracy promotion, notes analyst Ognjen Kojanić.

“In practice, this has meant that part of CEU’s work was to educate a group of people from Central and Eastern Europe who could bring Euro-American ideas about governance and politics into formerly socialist countries,” he adds.

Nevertheless, the need to safeguard pluralism and freedom in Hungary will require the commitment of all social and political forces at the national as well as the supranational level, Andrea Fumarola writes for the LSE’s Europp blog. The European Union must make its voice heard, not only to stem the ‘Putinist’ approach that is orienting Orbán’s domestic policy, but also to prevent other EU members, such as Poland, from pursuing the same path.

“Since summer 2015, Orban has been demonizing George Soros and blaming the refugee crisis on him,” notes Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton University professor who has studied Hungary’s constitutional transition from communism. “Orban has argued that the refugee crisis is Soros’s way of guaranteeing pluralism in Europe because Soros doesn’t support the current government’s defense of Christian Hungary.”

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