Freedom Fights for Survival in Hungary

In trying to extinguish Central European University, Viktor Orban has attacked one of the last remaining bastions of liberty in his country.

A demonstration against Prime Minister Viktor Orban's efforts to force a George Soros-founded university out of the country in Budapest, Hungary on April 2, 2017.
A demonstration against Prime Minister Viktor Orban's efforts to force a George Soros-founded university out of the country in Budapest, Hungary on April 2, 2017. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters)

Since Viktor Orban’s return to power in Hungary in 2010, the country’s institutions have one by one come under the direct political control of the head of government: the constitutional court, the central bank, museums, television, and radio broadcasting.

As independent civil society has contracted in Hungary, the remaining centers of freedom have acquired special importance. Among the most important of those free places is Central European University. Small but acclaimed, CEU was created in 1991 to liberate academic life in the region from the dogmas of the communist era. It teaches in English and is accredited in the United States. An endowment donated by George Soros has freed the university from dependence on any government—and thus protected it from the relentless pressure of the Orban government on other Hungarian universities.

Until now. On April 4, the Orban government rammed through Parliament a law aimed at extinguishing CEU altogether. The law would ban from Hungary any university that offered foreign-accredited degrees, without maintaining a campus in the country that accredited it. CEU is the sole such university in Hungary. Thousands have turned out to protest the law in the days since its passage.

I spoke on Thursday afternoon with CEU’s rector, Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff, who has taught at Harvard and Oxford, led the Liberal Party of Canada from 2008 to 2011. He is married to a Hungarian and knew the country well before returning to academic life at CEU in 2016. I reached him during a short visit to Washington.

I began by asking him about the protests in Budapest against the Orban government’s actions. “This is a society with an acute sense of what it’s like to have freedom and to lose it. Both local tyrants and foreign despots judged wrong when they underestimated the righteous anger of the people in this region. There were 10,000 people outside our front door protesting; civil society is not dead in Hungary.”

I asked him about the sources of Orban’s antipathy to the university. “He wants to shut down a free institution. One of his lines is that we’re unfair competition with local schools. That won’t wash. We are embedded in this society, we share resources with other Hungarian universities. He keeps calling us the Soros University. I don’t answer to George Soros. I answer to a board of trustees made up of a number of distinguished people, including the former governor of New York, George Pataki. Those are the people who hired me, those are the people to whom I answer. I’m not in politics in Hungary. I have no challenge to offer to Mr Orban’s rule. I have one objective: leave us alone; we’ll leave you alone.”

He was in Washington, he explained, to seek support from the U.S. government. “We wanted to be sure that the U.S. State Department’s immediate, courageous, outstanding support for CEU spoke for the whole administration. Viktor Orban has made clear his contempt for statements from the State department alone. We wanted to make clear that the Trump administration—to the degree it has a view—is speaking through the State Department. We got unequivocal support [from Fiona Hill’s team at the National Security Council]. I went up on the Hill and spoke to Republican senators and staff. There is a tiny ledge of commonality between Republicans and Democrats, and academic freedom is one issue that unites them both.”

Ignatieff explained that there exist some 30 other U.S. degree-granting institutions that have their physical presence entirely outside the United States: the American University in Beirut being perhaps the most famous. Another 100 U.S. universities have premises both inside and outside the United States. “If Orban succeeds, a lot of other American institutions around the world can be taken hostage by some local despot.” He added a little later: “I do fear that if Orban takes us down, it will be a darker, grimmer, more repressive period for those institutions that remain.”

Could he see any hopeful signs? An appeal had been initiated to Hungary’s constitutional court, but of course that process had long ago been utterly politicized. However, “the United States has been much tougher on this issue than the prime minister gambled. Even at this late date, it’s not inconceivable he might cut a deal. The problem is that the rhetoric has been so harsh—he’d have to make some concessions that at the moment are difficult for him to make. We’re hopeful that a quiet word from the Trump administration, from his allies in Bavaria and the European political scene, will make Orban understand that this is not in his interest.”

The alternative before the university would be to abandon its beautiful buildings in the center of Budapest and shift to another central European city. Ignatieff made clear his distaste for that option. But unfortunately, Orban “has so weakened the rule of law in this country that I can’t trust any of the guarantees he might give. This is the nemesis of authoritarian populist democracy. If you erode the rule of law to satisfy your populist drive to power, inward investors don’t know whether they have the rule of law to protect their investment, institutions like ours don’ t know whether they have the freedom to do their work. Authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to their own overreach. They destroy the base of trust within their own societies on which their own power rests.”