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Hungarian university under fire: fight or flight

Hungarian university under fire: fight or flight

Photographer:Fotograaf: Laszlo Mudra

Schuman lecture by Michael Ignatieff, rector of Central European University in Budapest

Things are getting tense: will business magnate George Soros’s Central European University weather the storm in Budapest, or be chased off by the right-wing, nationalist government of Viktor Orbán? The university’s rector Michael Ignatieff may be able to shed some light on the matter: in early May, at the invitation of Studium Generale, he will deliver the Schuman lecture. Focusing on the new enemies of the open society, it’s not one to miss. What exactly is going on? Why does Orbán have the university in his sights? Hungarian history lecturer Ferenc Laczó (FASoS) takes us behind the scenes.

"Hungarian students who study abroad won't return home nowadays", says Ferenc Laczó, assistant professor at the History Department of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. "The economic circumstances are bad; you earn a lot more money in the West. And the political atmosphere is terrible. Lots of propaganda, one-sided media, hate speech and state-funded campaigns against migrants and the EU."

Laczó (35) himself, who studied at University College Utrecht, did go back to Budapest in 2003. "Back then the country was doing better. There was hope, partly because Hungary was one year from entering the EU. Orbán was prime minister from 1998 to 2002 but had just lost the elections, to his own astonishment."

Orbán was a different politician back then: not yet an autocrat, but a liberal. Over time he has changed his stripes completely, Laczó says. "He and his party members once walked out of parliament in protest against the politics of resentment, such as complaining about lost territory. But twenty years later, Prime Minister Orbán installed a commemoration day for schools and government departments to remember the injustice inflicted on Hungary in the past."


Orbán and the Hungarian-American business magnate George Soros are no strangers. In fact, Orbán studied on one of the scholarships made available by Soros for Hungarian students. But ten years later, during the refugee crisis of 2015, when thousands of migrants were traipsing across Hungary on their way to Western Europe, the pair found themselves on a collision course.

While Orbán was building a fence on the border, the progressive billionaire Soros, who is based in the US and invests in NGOs around the world, was pulling out all the stops to support the refugees. The Central European University (CEU), founded by the businessman in Budapest in 1991, started paying for medicines and providing study places for refugees.

“Around the same time, something crucial happened: the Hungarian state was being sued at the court in Strasbourg for mistreating migrants. Orbán suspected a conspiracy, a master plan, not least because one of the judges was from the CEU. Then, so the story goes, Orbán met with Soros and gave him an ultimatum: you can have your NGOs or your university. Not both. Orbán wanted to scale back the progressive pressure on his government.”


In 2017 the CEU was threatened again. Hungary passed an education law requiring foreign-accredited universities to have a base in their home country. The law targeted 28 universities in Hungary, of which CEU and six others have international founders.

“Nobody cares, Orbán must have thought, it’s only a small university. But the scandal grew bigger than expected, with mass protest in the streets. The EU condemned it, the Americans clearly objected and even voters for his own political party Fidesz were not amused. It was a miscalculation. Attacking a university in the EU is seen as a clear sign of autocracy.”

The CEU has since founded a campus in New York State and now meets the requirements of the new education law, says Laczó. “But Orbán postponed signing the new agreement. He’s making the CEU wait. He has time on his side, the CEU doesn’t. Under these uncertain circumstances, students will stop applying. The CEU had to make a move and just bought a small campus in Vienna.”


A new low was reached a few weeks ago, when it emerged that academics, activists and journalists are at risk of ending up a black list. A magazine sympathetic to the regime has already published over two hundred names, including employees of the CEU, Amnesty International and corruption watchdog Transparency International. These organisations are all supported by Soros.

Hungary has a lot to lose if the CEU leaves the country, says Laczó, who obtained his master’s in history there, followed by his PhD on Hungary’s Jews in World War II. “It’s by far the best university in the country, the only institution with access to international journals and books. It invites people like Chomsky, Applebaum and Rosanvallon. Rector Michael Ignatieff himself is one of the most famous political philosophers in the world. And they say he’s friendly with Obama.”

In the political campaign ahead of the national elections, a few weeks ago, Orbán launched an all-out attack on Soros. “Not other political parties, as you’d expect, but Soros! A poll found that two-thirds of the Hungarian population thought Soros was one of the candidates. His face was everywhere, on billboards, even on the floor in trams, saying ‘Let’s not allow him to have the last laugh’.”


Laczó calls the campaign against Soros, who comes from a Jewish family and survived the Holocaust in Budapest, as “anti-Semitic in tone”. The similarities with the 1930s are striking, he says. “It’s a story that fits in the tradition of far-right theories historically: the followers of Soros, just like the Jews in Germany, are supposedly using their money to undermine the nation and take power. It’s a form of false morality: the government claims Soros is acting unlawfully and the CEU is guilty of deceit and deception.”

The Fidesz brand of right-wing extremism is understandable in the light of the Second World War. “Hungary was one of the nations that fought alongside the Nazis. But after the war the Germans took a different developmental path than the Hungarians. They dealt with their worst moments in history. German nationalism de-radicalized and a kind of critical reflection on their crimes arose. The right-wing politicians in Eastern Europe, on the other hand, were suppressed by communism. They claimed to be victims, just like the Jews, and their radicalism survived.”

The aversion to migrants has hardly come out of the blue either. “Hungary was never a colonial power and has little experience with people from outside Europe. At the same time, it was invaded by Mongols, Turks and Soviets, which created a breeding ground for nationalism and the idea of national self-defence. Orbán presented the refugee flow as an invasion. The migrants are a threat to your jobs and houses, but I will protect you, he claimed. I’m disgusted by it, but this propaganda worked. They even added the strange argument we can’t even integrate the Roma, so how will we manage with all these refugees?”


The EU is trying to stop Orbán, but at the same time helping him. “He gets a lot of funding, with no proper monitoring of where the money goes. Also, the EU gives his party legitimacy and approval by allowing it to remain part of the People’s Party in the European Parliament, together with the Dutch CDA and the German CDU. He’s formally an ally of Merkel.”

Now is a decisive moment, Laczó believes. Two scenarios are likely. One: Orbán becomes even more autocratic, but the other member states turn a blind eye and Hungary stays in the EU. The second scenario is Laczó’s worst nightmare: Hungary gets expelled from the EU.

As for the CEU, the university probably will move to Vienna and, from there, operate a branch in Budapest. “That could be a solution. It’s only three hours by train.”

Schuman lecture by Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff (Toronto, 1947) is a writer, academic and former politician. He has published three novels and a biography of the liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin. He also publishes in newspapers, makes documentaries and presented a philosophical talk show for the BBC. As an academic, he previously worked at Harvard. From 2008 to 2011 he led the Liberal Party of Canada, but was unsuccessful in the elections. Ignatieff has been rector of the Central European University in Budapest since 2016.

The Schuman lecture will be held at 8pm on 7 May in the Franz Palm Lecture Hall, Tongersestraat 53



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