On April 4, 2017, the Hungarian Parliament amended a law regulating higher education in a way that has been widely reported as targeting the Central European University (CEU), founded by Hungarian-born U.S. financier George Soros. The amended law requires universities to open campuses in the country in which they are registered; and to cease operations in Hungary unless the country they are in enters a bilateral educational agreement with the Hungarian government.
Observers have been calling this the Lex CEU given that it appears to be tailored to kick out one specific institution: the CEU, one of Hungary’s leading institutions of higher education. While it operates only in Budapest, CEU’s degrees are recognized in the United States. If the amendment goes into effect, CEU would be required to establish a U.S. campus, or close.
The new amendment was passed within a week of being introduced; critics charge that the government expedited it to minimize public debate.
So why is the Hungarian government going to war with an individual university?
First, let’s look at Hungary’s political background
In 2010, Viktor Orbán of the Fidesz party became Hungary’s prime minister for the second time, after his party won a landslide victory. With a supermajority in parliament, Fidesz kicked off an ambitious push towards illiberalism. The government amended the constitution to loosen democratic checks on Orban’s power. It packed the Hungarian Supreme Court with its political allies and curtailed its powers to review legislation.
Moreover, cronies of the “new elite” have bought much of Hungary’s independent news media outlets, thus limiting journalists’ ability to report on or criticize the government’s actions. Orbán further fractured what was left of institutional checks and balances by appointing party loyalists to previously independent institutions.
Paradoxically, the dismantling of counter-majoritarian institutions was sold to the Hungarian public as changes mandated by the government’s super-majoritarian support.
To deliver on his promises to the Hungarian masses, Orbán undertook a sweeping takeover of the economy. He nationalized citizens’ private retirement savings to set up a war chest for lavish spending. He heavily regulated the service sector, including the media, completely preventing competition in some industries.
While many viewed Orbán’s economic experiment with skepticism for drastically increasing the state’s control of the economy, Hungary’s unemployment rate is falling and, in the years after the global financial crisis, its GDP has been growing two to three faster than in Western Europe. As a result, Orbán is claiming that his style of capitalism is superior to the model Western experts have been telling East Europeans to follow as they transitioned from communism to capitalism.
He fails to mention that much of the fuel for this growth comes in the form of aid from the European Union (EU). And stellar unemployment statistics effectively conceal the heaps of unskilled people “hired” by local governments as a condition to receive unemployment benefits.
As the economic engine plows ahead, could some other factors nudge the Hungarian government to change the course? Protests and referenda have convinced the government to jettison some initiatives in the past. For instance, this year, a successful ballot initiative organized by Momentum, a newly forming party, persuaded the government to withdraw its bid to host the 2024 Olympics, which opponents feared would lead to more opportunities for corruption and cronyism. Only a year earlier, fearful of a ballot initiative, the government withdrew a new law forcing retail stores to close on Sundays.
But these are comparatively minor shifts; the slide toward authoritarianism remains.
But now public anger toward Orbán is growing — so he’s stirring up anger at some enemies
There is a growing anger in some parts of Hungarian society against Orbán, fueled mostly by corruption scandals exposing the luxurious lifestyle of cabinet members, and the barely-hidden funneling of state funds to cronies.
Orbán has therefore been ramping up the drumbeat of fear and anger toward foreign forces that he contends threaten Hungary’s independence and sovereignty. For instance, a month ago, while commemorating the failed Hungarian revolution against the Hapsburgs in 1848, Orbán said that Austrian oppression in the 1840s was being echoed in current events: “Our revolution takes place against the alliance of the bureaucrats of Brussels, the liberal media and the insatiable financiers.”
This narrative conveniently leaves out the fact that Hungary’s economic growth, as alluded to earlier, is partly fueled by funds from the E.U. But that doesn’t stop nationalists from fearing those globalist influences. Positioning himself as the defender of national virtue and values has helped Orbán to limit the appeal of the Jobbik party, which has been challenging Orbán from the far right on such issues as corruption.
CEU is a convenient target for this anger
When the new university-registration amendment was first passed, the Hungarian government said that many foreign universities were defrauding Hungarian students, and this amendment was necessary to stop that. But public discussion quickly zeroed in on the fact CEU would be the school most affected.
Orbán then argued that by issuing degrees recognized both in Hungary and the United States, CEU was breaking the law. “Fraud is fraud, whoever commits it,” Orbán said. “Not even billionaires are above the law.”
Eventually, deputy prime minister Zoltan Balog, who officially proposed the amendment, came out and stated: “We do not wish CEU to continue its operation in its current form.”
But CEU is accredited in both the U.S. and Hungary. So what was really going on?
The talk of a billionaire was a hint. George Soros, CEU’s founder, has emerged as a chief villain in Orbán’s political mythology.
Orbán uses Soros as a symbol of globalist interference and disregard for national sovereignty. For instance, after human rights watchdogs condemned Hungary’s treatment of refugees on the Hungarian-Serb border, a government communique asserted that “Soros’s people are using lies to attack Hungarian policemen and soldiers defending our borders.” Soros further symbolizes the cosmopolitan-liberal and international opposition that has been criticized Orbán’s illiberal practices. In fact, international observers note that CEU is widely considered a last bastion of liberal values in Hungary.
The university’s economics department, considered a leading European research center, is a stronghold of serious economists. Gyorgy Matolcsy, the Orbán-appointed governor of the National Bank, regards many of these economists as his nemeses, on account of his rejection of mainstream economics. One member of Orbán’s opposition used to teach in CEU’s Department of Political Science. What’s more, CEU offers degrees in Gender Studies, a field attacked by Orbán’s coalition partners, the Christian Democrats.
A new election campaign of the far-right opposition reads: “While you are working, they are stealing.” In the coming months, Orbán is bound to continue his fight against the bogeymen he created in fear of becoming one himself.
Gabor Simonovits, a graduate of Central European University, is a PhD candidate in the department of politics at New York University.
Jan Zilinsky is a PhD candidate in the department of politics at New York University.