Set against the backdrop of sleepy Danubian Europe, Hungary has, in recent months, returned to being at the centre of international attention. What has brought the spotlight back onto Budapest are two laws, passed one soon after the other, which have resulted in conspiracy talk of a deliberate attack on academic freedom and the world of NGOs.
In April 2017 the government approved a law which, by imposing a series of conditions for staying in the country, greatly restricts the work of foreign universities in Hungary. This provision was instantly coined ‘lex CEU’ in reference to what was clearly its chosen target, the Central European University, which has operated in Eastern Europe, initially in Prague and then in Budapest, since 1991.
Two months later, in June 2017, the target became civil society itself with an ‘anti-NGO’ law that obliges all organisations receiving funds from abroad to immediately identify themselves, thus explicitly stigmatising them.
What these two laws have in common is the opposition declared by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the governing party Fidesz to George Soros, the American magnate and philanthropist of Hungarian origin, and his idea of an open society, inspired by the theories of Karl Popper.
Soros had founded the Central European University, just after the fall of the Soviet bloc, with the idea of generating a managerial class capable of facilitating the transition to democracy of former socialist countries.
Furthermore, Hungarian civil society receives significant funding from the network of Open Society foundations, created and presided over by Soros himself who is particularly active in the field of minorities’ rights, the rule of law and freedom of expression.
What remains debatable is the manner in which this attack should be contextualised, both within Hungary’s internal political affairs and at the global stage.
At the international level, these recent months have coincided with the Hungarian government’s rapprochement with Russia, its historical enemy since before the 1956 invasion, a rapprochement rounded off by Putin’s visit to Budapest in February 2017.
For years, Moscow has been the godfather to the anti-Soros campaigns, which found particularly fertile ground in those countries whose political Right bases its outlook on the idea of an orthodox brotherhood such as in Serbia or, more recently, Macedonia.
In these contexts, allegations of having received funding on behalf of Soros are tantamount to an accusation of being an agent for external interference, an international plot aimed at imposing values extraneous to national ones.
The rise of East European populisms has found in this anti-Soros campaign the launchpad for a relentless battle against the demons of multiculturalism, globalisation and migration, whilst supporting an idea of national identity within which the people of Eastern Europe are allegedly the strongholds, defending Christianity while also remaining impervious to the degeneration afflicting Western Civilisation.
Donald Trump’s 2017 ascent to the White House has probably strengthened the hypothesis that the new administration would not be actively committed to defending the philanthropic work undertaken by Soros, who supported Hillary Clinton in the last presidential elections, and might even have shown a degree of alignment with Orban’s Hungary.
According to many observers, however, Hungary’s legislative activism is, above all, understandable in view of its internal political scenario.
The Fidesz Party, which had originally held a liberal agenda, returned to power in 2010 with an overwhelming two-thirds majority (reconfirmed in the 2014 elections) and started to shift from being a conservative party to increasingly leaning towards the extreme right.
Through a clever manipulation of the media, Orban has been able to create the foundations for what he has called an “illiberal democracy” based on a national and selective approach to so-called ‘liberal values’ which have supposed roots in Hungary’s past. Most notably, this has resulted in the closure of the legendary Left-wing newspaper Nepszabadsag, amendments to the constitution and open violations of Asylum Seekers’ rights regulations.
“The Orban government has merged the legacy of the right-wing regime headed by Horthy, who was in power in between the two World Wars, with Kadar’s socialist regime” observed the Hungarian historian Viktor Pal, a lecturer at Helsinki University. “Hence the idea that anyone who is against the Hungarian government is the enemy, but also that the West is experiencing its death throes and that, therefore, a new model must be found farther East.”
It is an identity-making right wing project, fuelled by ‘siege syndrome’. It is often said that Hungary is a small country, in particular due to territorial losses arising from the Treaty of Trianon following World War I, and that it is supposedly threatened by external enemies, as it once was by the Ottomans.
Soros, born to a Jewish-Hungarian family in Budapest 87 years ago, is one of such enemies and is presented as being a symbol of international speculation exploiting, more or less openly, the stereotypes with roots in the anti-Semitism of the Thirties.
However, the refugees and migrants remain the primary antagonists that the Hungarian government has so fervently tried to oppose, not just by building physical barriers but also, most significantly, by internally deconstructing the international rules for asylum seeking and forwarding an anti-refugee ideology.
One of the accusations directed at Open Society is that of supposedly planning an invasion of migrants, well summarised in a statement issued by Fidesz, according to which Soros has supposedly declared war on Hungary by wanting to bring down the wall.
However, as many have observed, this insistence on labelling the CEU as ‘Soros’ university’ leads one to lose sight of what this academic centre represents nowadays. An attack against the CEU is an attack against a bastion of freedom of thought in a country increasingly subjected to a single dominant ideology, thus following from several past attempts to regulate Hungarian state universities.
The founding intent of the Central European University was to educate a future managerial class in countries new to democracy, particularly in the climate of optimism following the fall of the Berlin wall, in the hope that Eastern Europe would then continue on a well-defined path towards democracy, free-market economics and respect for human rights.
From a historical perspective, such a trend appears to be anything but a given, as proven by the current positions assumed by the Visegrad Group in regards to most European affairs. The fact that something has gone wrong seems also to be symbolised by the success achieved by Orban who, as a student, won a scholarship from Soros’ network so he could complete his studies at Oxford.
It is justifiable to ask oneself whether the idea of a value-exporting mission, on behalf of the Western world, has perhaps accelerated a process of closure and regression to an autochthonous, patriarchal and authoritarian idea of traditions.
In the meantime, however, the CEU has become much more, it is now a place which circulates ideas that familiarize part of the region’s academic world with new trends, breaking the isolation caused by the East/West barriers raised during the Cold War and the war scenarios of the former Yugoslavia.
And, it is no less important that it has brought a breath of fresh air to academic systems that, following 1989, assumed the role of producers of ethnocentric narratives.
Furthermore, with the regionally unprecedented introduction of a wide-ranging series of courses such as gender studies and the presence of a significant number of left-wing intellectuals among the academic staff, it has created a safe space for the radical ideas which have been marginalized in East European state universities.
One must also take into account that, since an elevated number of Masters and PhD students have scholarships, the CEU has provided top level education and economic sustainability to many young people in the region during a period of exponential increase in university tax, in all countries.
This explains why, in order to defend the CEU, many voices have been raised, voices belonging to a variety of positions ranging from the radical Left to theorists of liberal ideas, as well as 27 Nobel Prize winners and the Hungarian and international academia. In a bipartisan statement supported by both Democrats and Republican, both chambers of the United States Congress have asked Hungary to suspend its attack on the CEU. The European Commission, also supported by the European parliament, has opened an infringement procedure against Hungary.
Wishing to reflect further on the matter, Orban’s move against the CEU could be seen as a proverbial own-goal that, rather than bring him consensus, could cause him to lose popularity, as a number of surveys appear to indicate. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to oppose the ‘lex CEU’, with the largest protests Hungary has ever seen since Orban has been in power; organisers have reported the presence of 80,000 protesters.
“These figures prove how important this university is for the city of Budapest,” said Jenna Althoff, a PhD Political Science student. “At the CEU, one is often under the impression of being inside a bubble; both students and staff communicate little with the external world, primarily because they do not speak the language. Well, these protests supporting the CEU have burst that bubble.”
Many in the academic world have taken a stand in defence of the CEU, chanting the slogan “I stand with CEU”, not only because of the importance this institution has, per se, but also because they fear for themselves, in a more or less distant future; Hungarians fear being overwhelmed by Fidesz, while foreigners fear they will be squashed by the transnational trend of illiberal democracies.
The future of the CEU still remains uncertain. In spite of offers from other cities, the university will remain in Budapest for the 2017-2018 academic year, also taking advantage of the fact that the new law will not come into force immediately while, for next year, everything is still up in the air.
There are many rumours but one thing is certain; should it lose the CEU, Budapest and its citizens would lose a great deal.