Monday, April 3, 2017

Orbán’s Attack on CEU Prefigures a Hard Turn to Authoritarianism

Following months of escalating rhetoric against CEU, the Hungarian government finally fired its shot across the bow. Last week, populist Fidesz Leader Viktor Orbán introduced legislation to parliament that would effectively expel CEU from Hungary, where the university has been based for the past 26 years.

The new proposed amendments to Hungary’s 2011 law on National Higher Education affect CEU alone among the 28 foreign universities now operating in Hungary. The amendments are so draconian, target CEU so directly, and were introduced so suddenly that they can only be read as an attempt to shut down the university. Any lingering doubts that these actions are politically motivated must be set to rest in light of the government’s own statements. In the days that followed, Orbán himself gave an interview stating that "George Soros's university" is "cheating" and engaging in "unfair competition" with Hungarian universities.

To say this came as a shock is an understatement. I have lived in Hungary and taught at CEU for well over a decade as professor in the International Relations Department. Although an American citizen, I have now lived in Budapest longer than any other city in my life. I have Hungarian permanent residence. I own a flat in the downtown and have numerous Hungarian friends and a Hungarian partner. I am a great fan of this lovely country and its wonderful people and have invited many friends and dozens of colleagues to conferences, workshops and talks at CEU. They return home, seemingly without exception, with fond memories of the place. In short, I consider Hungary my home, and it breaks my heart that I may now have to leave.

The question on all our minds is: Why? What is the government doing? What is its real goal?

It is true that Orbán, once a recipient of a Soros scholarship, has no great love for a university, many of whose faculty, staff and students have at times criticized the government (including myself). But CEU has had good working relations with every post-communist government in Hungary, and few had any inkling that the government might go quite this far.

The first possible explanation is the government’s own stated motive, which is that they merely aim to bring all foreign universities into compliance with Hungarian law. However, if compliance were the concern, the government should have entered into a dialogue with CEU administrators rather than issuing a fait accompli in parliament and rushing it through to a vote. What is more, CEU is already in full compliance with Hungarian laws on higher education, as verified by Hungary’s own Educational Authority. CEU has never once fallen afoul of Hungarian law. The leadership has in fact given the game away by admitting it is going after CEU with these amendments; this is of a piece with the government’s long-running campaign against Soros. Szilard Nemeth, vice-chair of the Fidesz party said in January this year:

"[Soros-backed] organizations must be pushed back with all available tools...I think they must be swept out, and now I believe the international conditions are right for this with the election of a new president [Trump]."

We can thus safely dispense with the notion that the government is not engaging in a politically motivated attack against CEU.

The second possibility is that Orbán is going after CEU, but is not really serious about expelling it from Hungary. Despite the gathering clouds, few in or around the university believed that the government really meant to break its ties with CEU. After all, the contributions CEU has made to Hungary are substantial—ranging from its significant tax receipts to the business revenue generated around CEU’s downtown campus to the deep ties between CEU and other Hungarian academic institutions and civil society. In return, Hungary has been an outstanding home for CEU, with excellent services and infrastructure and an easy and welcoming urban community. Truly, as the rector has said, CEU has been good to Hungary, and Hungary has been good to CEU.

For all these reasons, many believe that the government does not really want to close down CEU, but is instead politicking in the run-up to the 2018 elections, in which the Fidesz leadership faces a mounting challenge from the even further-right Jobbik Party. In this view, the government simply wants to put on a political show with its fight against CEU. The “Soros University” is a perfect target in view of the fact that Soros and all things Soros have become a convenient whipping boy for nationalists and demagogues the world over. CEU is, in this view, collateral damage of ideological outbidding on the part of a party seeking to maintain its political relevance as the ground shifts beneath its feet. If this is right, then the government’s actions are inherently self-limited and can be managed.

However, there is still a third possibility. And this looks to me increasingly likely as the government seeks to ram through the legislation as quickly as possible without any meaningful dialogue with the university: Orbán is making a hard turn toward authoritarianism and wants to clamp down on independent intellectual life.

Fidesz has in fact been moving in this direction since the 2010 elections brought the party unchecked power with two-thirds majority in a unicameral parliament. Over the years, they have curtailed media freedom, attacked the independence of the courts, altered election laws to make it much harder for the opposition to win, undermined human rights protections, and used clientelism and patronage to gain control over the bureaucratic state. What Orbán has done in Hungary is merely a lighter version of what Vladimir Putin has done in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

Indeed, one of the steps along the road to autocracy is gaining control over the county’s intellectual life, which means civil society organizations and universities. After the Bolsheviks came to power, Lenin undertook mass arrests and deportations of professors and scientists judged to be political opponents; the old Russian intelligentsia was seen as a rival to his “party of a new type.” Stalin too conducted cultural purges of writers deemed insufficiently patriotic during its war with Nazi Germany. Pol Pot famously murdered intellectuals and city residents in an attempt to create a classless peasant society. Myanmar’s ruling military junta shut down the capital’s universities in 1991 to prevent students from protesting government crackdown of pro-democracy activists.

Today’s motley crew of despots might not be seeking to replicate the killing fields of Cambodia. However, they have found numerous other ways to establish control over universities, which are after all competing hubs of cultural and civic power. During last year’s failed coup attempt, Erdogan effectively fired tens of thousands of civil servants, teachers and university deans--all in the name of rooting out foreign influence and domestic traitors.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin has sought to elevate technical departments over humanities and social sciences, with the ultimate aim of downsizing or merging these departments with others to establish greater control over their academic output. Currently, the government is using the same kind of legalistic techniques used by the Orbán government to shut down the European University of St. Petersburg. The Russian authorities announced that they planned to revoke the university’s license due to building code violations such as the lack of a fitness room and the absence of an information stand against alcoholism. The university has operated in Russia since 1994. The Russian government has also revived Soviet era regulations requiring academics to report their foreign contacts and international travel.

 We are now through the looking glass. An early generation of pro-western democratic leaders, including Viktor Orbán and Vaclav Klaus, have since become  anti-western illiberal elder statesmen.

As a young pro-democracy activist, Orbán used to defend Soros institutions:

“We have been shocked by the recent disgraceful attacks against the Soros Foundation and George Soros himself. By supporting the younger generation, the movement of special colleges he has helped establish a more open and free atmosphere in Hungary. Seeing the difficult situation of higher education, we think that newer generations will also need the unselfish support of the Soros foundation which we hope they will continue to give in the future too.”

FIDESZ, 1992.

What tragic irony if Orbán—the man who helped usher Hungary out of one-party rule in the late 1980s—is the very man who leads it back into darkness. It should be clear to all that the real loser here is not CEU, but the Hungarian people.


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