Fidesz’s illiberal democracy may have its eye on CEU in 2017

February 3, 2017

Budapest’s Central European University (CEU) may come into the cross hairs of the Hungarian government in 2017 as part of the broader war it is declaring on civil society. Top Fidesz members in government have openly expressed their desires to “sweep out” certain civil organizations from the country, especially those funded by billionaire Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros, claiming that they are a threat to Hungarian sovereignty, democracy, and national security. CEU was founded by Soros in 1991, and its leftist tendencies have reportedly provoked the ire of the Orbán government: recent reports suggest that the crusade against NGOs might even reach this “crown jewel” of Soros-funded organizations in Hungary. 

An article appeared in the conservative business weekly Figyelő this week that suggests the Hungarian government might be considering concrete steps to rid Hungary of top-rated graduate-level university CEU. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán reportedly met secretly with CEU founder George Soros last summer, during which Orbán promised the billionaire that the government would not take steps to interfere with the university’s operations. However, with major changes in the global political landscape, the government might now be willing to risk such an attack on the university that it may not have dared prior to the election of American President Donald Trump, writes Figyelő.

A ranking government cabinet member reportedly remarked in closed-circle talks that CEU could be the government’s primary target in 2017. While it is unknown whether the cabinet member was speaking on behalf of higher levels of government or simply of his own desires, the statements implied that the government would like the university to leave the country.

CEU has one of the most prestigious social science programs in Europe, but some conservatives speculate that its Gender Studies department, in addition to what has been described as a “Marxist” sociology department, may be a factor rankling the conservative political establishment in Hungary. As Figyelő writes, “the identity-politics cultural line is incompatible with Hungarian illiberalism. While at first glance it seems more disconcerting than dangerous, the conservative parties around the world view the spread of the gender revolution, which is now one of the focuses at CEU, with great worry.”

The Orbán regime has indeed taken a hard line against gender politics: Budapest will reportedly host the ultra-conservative World Congress of Families in May, with Viktor Orbán as one of its primary patrons. The congress is intended to emphasize that Hungary stands “on the good side” of identity politics, with the “classical family” and parenthood, and against gay marriage and abortion.

But pressure on CEU would likely come not only from the retrograde moral convictions of the regime. Such rumors of impending attacks on the university hardly seem coincidental in light of recent threats against Soros-connected organizations made by high-level government figures such as government spokesman Zoltán Kovács, Fidesz vice-president Szilárd Németh, and Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár. 2017 was declared to be the year that the government “use every means possible to repulse the pseudo-civil organizations of the Soros empire.”

A shot in the foot to save the skin

“An attack like this would be like the government shooting itself in the foot,” said a Figyelő source within CEU, arguing that it would be foolish for the government to stand in the way of a university that could raise Budapest to the level of an international higher education center. But CEU’s profile in Hungary as a nest of liberal elitist intelligentsia may be more than the government is willing to gamble on in its construction of an “illiberal democracy.” Indeed, many of the faculty at CEU are sharp critics of the Fidesz government, and some are even former opposition politicians. Such a dense center of criticism is naturally at risk at a time when the government has declared open war on regime-critical NGOs such as Transparency International, the Helsinki Committee, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.

It isn’t the first time CEU has faced such existential threats: the Fidesz government once tried to withdraw the university’s accreditation when a new education law dictated that it would not be issued an operating license. The case inspired a flurry of support for CEU, and the issue was eventually resolved. But university officials have reportedly browsed real estate in Bonn, Germany, in case of a possible relocation.

But there is not necessarily consensus within Fidesz’s ranks on what to do about CEU. Figyelő spoke to a Fidesz parliamentary faction member who said there is no need to administratively undermine the university, but rather to establish an “anti-CEU” in Budapest.

CEU rector Michael Ignatieff wrote an open letter to the editors of Figyelő in response to their article, which he described as “misleading.” Figyelő was recently purchased by a key Fidesz-connected figure, the revisionist historian and director of the House of Terror museum Mária Schmidt. Here is Michael Ignatieff’s open letter:

Dear editor in chief, tweet

I am writing in reaction to the article which came out today in Figyelő titled “Can the Soros school stay?”, which presents parts of our institution in a misleading way. tweet

Central European University (CEU) is proud to have been a member of the Hungarian higher education system for 25 years. We have numerous university programs which are accredited in Hungary. CEU rectors are appointed by the President of the Republic of Hungary. tweet

Hungarians make up the largest nationality among CEU students. 20 percent of our students are Hungarian and we are proud of our international student body which comes from 117 countries. Contrary to allegations in your article, 40 percent of our teaching faculty is Hungarian, many of whom returned home to Hungary from abroad to teach and do research at CEU. tweet

We employ nearly 700 Hungarian workers. Our university spends nearly HUF 10 billion (USD 34.7 million) annually in Hungary on payroll and other expenses, including taxes, social security, healthcare contributions, and other goods and services purchased from Hungarian suppliers. This wonderful city has been our home for 25 years. We believe we have made a great contribution to life in the city over the years, and Budapest has given a lot to us. tweet

We are not a civil organization. We aren’t a political platform. We are a university, which is proud of its education and its research. 14,000 of our graduates work in the business world, in government offices, in international organizations and in universities around the world. We cooperate with other outstanding Hungarian institutions such as the Hungarian Sciences Academy, the Eötvös Loránd University of Science (ELTE), the Budapest Corvinus University, and others. It is a false claim that we take resources from other institutions. tweet

While CEU’s research truly is successful in receiving European Union support, the article makes an exaggerated claim when it says that CEU “takes away 95 percent of research and development funds.” These funds would otherwise go to other countries. The educational and research activities conducted at CEU do not displace state-financed universities from any market. Instead, they contribute to national research and educational capacities. Additionally, we consistently seek cooperation in our research with Hungarian partners, even if we are funding the research from our own sources. tweet

We are proud of our OLIve program, mentioned in the article, which on the basis of Hungarian law offers education to refugees who have received asylum. The program offers access to higher education, and our full year programs are jointly conducted with two other European universities, Vienna University and East London University. tweet

We have a relationship with the Open Society Foundation that goes way back, but we have no influence on the institution’s funding decisions — we are concentrating exclusively and independently on our own higher education activities. tweet

The university was founded by George Soros, and we are proud that we can nurture a relationship with a Hungarian patriot, but we maintain our independence which is key to every excellent university. tweet

The article suggests that the Hungarian government is considering taking steps against CEU. On the contrary: we have worked together with every Hungarian government for the past 25 years, including the present one. We expect to maintain this good relationship in the future as well. tweet