Hungary said it will not withdraw new legislation to regulate foreign universities that a Budapest college founded by American financier and philanthropist George Soros says could force it out of the country, Reuters reports:
Central European University (CEU) said on Wednesday that the bill proposed this week was unacceptable and that it threatened academic freedom in Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban (below, right) has clashed with Soros-funded organizations….Orban has criticized civil society organizations funded by Soros which espouse an Open Society model at odds with his own preferred “illiberal democracy”. One flashpoint has been migration.
“No university can stand above Hungarian law,” said a government statement provided to POLITICO. “Several institutions are acting unlawfully when they issue foreign university degrees here in Hungary while not conducting teaching in their country of origin, as prescribed by Hungarian regulations.”
The university’s president and rector, Michael Ignatieff, a human rights scholar and a former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, feared his institution was the main target of the legislation, The NY Times reports.
“We view it as discriminatory and we view it as a piece of political vandalism,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “We feel that this isn’t just about us; this is about Hungarian academic freedom in general.”
The threatened closure is the latest in a series of alarming developments, observers suggest.
“Prime Minister Orban is flagrantly undermining what remains of Hungary’s democracy by demanding that the Central European University close unless it meets new, intentionally arbitrary requirements designed to be impossible to fulfill,” said Arch Puddington (left), distinguished fellow for democracy studies at Freedom House. “Central European University for 25 years has served as a pillar of free expression, critical debate, and the open exchange of ideas in Hungary and across Europe. The government, which has made extraordinary efforts to undermine civil society, should withdraw the legislation, a measure singling out CEU, its most prominent funders, and academic freedom in Hungary.”
Maria Schmidt, an influential Orban ally and owner of Figyelo, a business weekly, described CEU as Mr Soros’s “outpost”, the FT adds. In a blog post she said the billionaire philanthropist was “the embodiment of everything that deserves our contempt. Today Soros’s name means liberal and . . . everything that is loathsome, unpatriotic, arrogant, and unacceptable”.
“The Hungarian academic sector needs specifically these international relations and inspirations to be able to further develop,” said Peter Kreko, a political analyst and visiting professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. He is involved with Political Capital, an independent research institute in Hungary that has received Soros funding, The Times adds:
Mr. Kreko called the proposed law “an escalation” of troubling trends. “The Hungarian government is taking ever tougher steps against civil society, higher education, the news media and other sectors,” he said. The proposal was submitted to Parliament on Tuesday and could become law by summer. He warned it was not an isolated move, noting that Mr. Orban’s illiberal democracy is seen by some as a model in the region.
“Nobody should believe that what is going on in Poland is independent of what goes on in Hungary,” he said.
At issue in the court dispute, the university’s rector, Oleg Kharkhordin, said in an interview, is whether the university responded adequately to alleged rule violations uncovered in a series of inspections over the summer. The university says the inspections were prompted by a complaint against the university by Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg politician known internationally for his role in promoting Russia’s much-maligned law banning “gay propaganda.”
Hungary is rated Free in Freedom in the World 2017, Partly Free in Freedom of the Press 2016, Free in Freedom on the Net 2016, and receives a democracy score of 3.29 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 as the worst possible score, in Nations in Transit 2016.