The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid illiberal revolution in Hungary, a university with U.S. roots fights to stay

Demonstrators in Budapest protest legislation seen as targeting Central European University in April 2017.
Demonstrators in Budapest protest legislation seen as targeting Central European University in April 2017. (Zoltan Balogh/European Pressphoto Agency)

BUDAPEST — Next week, 1,500 students from more than 100 countries will converge in the heart of this regal city on the Danube to prepare for classes at a university that enjoys respect among Hungarian academics, top international rankings and an American accreditation.

The only thing Central European University lacks is assurance that this year’s back-to-school rush in Budapest won’t be its last. The university’s right to admit new students expires in January, and a hostile Hungarian government shows no sign of granting a reprieve.

“We’ve been taken hostage,” said Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian human rights scholar and former politician who, as the university’s president, may soon have to lead its retreat into exile. “I don’t want to do that. But we’re coming up to crunchtime.”

There is no precedent for a European Union member state expelling an entire university. But Central European University — founded and funded by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s favorite boogeyman, liberal Hungarian American investor George Soros — has become the prime target of Orban’s campaign to dismantle Europe’s multicultural, tolerant liberalism and cement a culture that is unapologetically Christian, conservative and nationalist.

Orban has repeatedly attacked the university, known as CEU, as an agent of Soros’s alleged plots, including a plan to create “a mixed population” in Europe. 

Since Orban won a landslide reelection in April, his siege of academia has expanded to include a blitz against gender studies programs, an attempted takeover of scientific research funding and a push to remake the nation’s literary canon.

His ambitions for a cultural counterrevolution extend beyond his nation’s borders. Across Europe, as he proclaimed in a speech at a July youth festival, he foresees a chance to “wave goodbye” to liberal democracy — and with it a generation of intellectual and artistic elites who advanced an “ideology of multiculturalism” and “adaptable family models.”

“We are on the threshold of a great moment,” he declared.

Orban has found allies for his cultural crusade in a far-right movement that is ascendant across Europe, in Russian President Vladimir Putin and in the White House. President Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, has celebrated the Hungarian leader as “a hero.” 

After years of isolation for Orban from the United States under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump called to congratulate him on his reelection. Hungary’s foreign minister was welcomed at the State Department in May. And Washington has dangled a possible meeting with Trump — a recognition Orban has long craved.

This willingness to engage, even as Hungary becomes increasingly autocratic, has generated criticism among democracy advocates. But it also gives the United States leverage in determining the future of CEU.

The new U.S. ambassador in Budapest, Trump appointee David B. Cornstein, is due to discuss the university with Orban in early September in a meeting that could be pivotal.

Cornstein has made clear that Washington wants Hungary to back off its attacks and allow CEU — which has dual accreditation in Hungary and the United States — to remain in Budapest.

“I hope it will continue to connect our two countries for many years to come,” Cornstein said in a visit to the university shortly after his arrival in June. The CEU campus — a collection of handsome stone-and-glass buildings in Budapest’s elegant Fifth District — is bedecked with blue banners featuring the slogan “#IstandwithCEU” in both English and Hungarian.

A bipartisan group of senators has voiced support for the university, saying the departure of CEU from Budapest could set a dangerous precedent for American academic institutions worldwide — and cause grievous harm to the U.S.-Hungarian relationship.

Orban still may shrug off the Americans, as he has ignored repeated appeals from European leaders to allow CEU to stay. But to Ignatieff, American pressure is the university’s last hope.

Ignatieff, who was leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and has written extensively on autocratic regimes as a journalist and a scholar, considers himself to have a grasp on Orban’s strategy.

“He understands that you can’t have stable, long-term domination of a political system unless you have an ideological project,” Ignatieff said.

Orban’s project involves visceral opposition to anything Soros touches. The prime minister’s reelection campaign was focused almost singularly on whipping up hatred toward the 88-year-old Soros, who has advocated what he describes as a humane approach toward the settlement of refugees.

Soon after Orban’s election to his fourth term, Soros’s nonprofit Open Society Foundations announced that it could no longer protect its staff in Budapest and was shifting operations to Berlin.

But CEU — Soros’s other great philanthropic endeavor in his native city — has hung on. 

The university was founded in 1991 to support Central and Eastern European nations as they transitioned to democracy after the fall of communism. CEU has graduate programs that are among the top-ranked in the world. It leads all Hungarian universities in attracting European research grants. 

It is not, Ignatieff emphasizes, Orban’s enemy. 

“He’s got us wrong,” the 71-year-old said. “A university is a university. We’re not his political opposition.” 

In April 2017, the Orban government rammed legislation through parliament that appeared tailor-made to target CEU. It dictated that foreign universities are not allowed in Hungary unless they also offer classes in their home countries. In response, CEU launched an academic program at Bard College in New York. 

But the government has refused to sign an agreement acknowledging the arrangement, leaving the university in limbo. 

Ignatieff said that without clarity soon, the university will be forced to shift its home base to Vienna, where it is building what had been intended as a satellite campus.

Laszlo Palkovics, the minister of innovation and until recently the government’s point person on higher education, said he considers Ignatieff’s threat to move to be a bluff. 

“I don’t think he’ll do that,” Palkovics said in an interview in which he drew a distinction between the American-accredited legal entities and the Hungarian ones that make up the university.

The latter is welcome, he said. “We don’t want the Hungarian CEU to leave. They are a valuable member of the community.”

But Palkovics would not say when or whether the Hungarian government would sign the agreement that CEU needs to keep operating as a U.S.-accredited institution. 

“This is a diplomatic issue,” he said. “Diplomacy is always complicated.” 

The CEU controversy is not the only one that has unsettled Hungarian academic and cultural circles. In August, the government said it would stop funding gender studies programs, with Orban’s chief of staff telling reporters that “people are born either men or women” and that the issue is not worth studying.

The pages of pro-government newspapers, meanwhile, have lately been filled with attacks on authors who are perceived to be insufficiently supportive of Orban. Writers once scorned because of Nazi ties or connections to other right-wing groups have been rehabilitated.

“It’s not about the books,” said Krisztián Nyáry, a writer and creative director at one of Hungary’s largest publishers. “They’ve started to categorize writers according to their real or presumed political leanings.” 

At the Hungarian Academy of Sciences this summer, researchers have been in an uproar over a government plan to take direct control of funding. Palkovics, the innovation minister, said the plan was aimed at focusing taxpayer money on areas that can generate a payoff for society. 

László Lovász, a prize-winning mathematician who leads the academy, said members feared that it was an attempt to steer research findings in a government-friendly direction. 

“I hope that was not the goal,” said Lovász, who has been negotiating a potential compromise. 

Even during communist times, he noted, the academy’s researchers had a relatively free hand to pursue their studies.  

“It’s in the government’s interest,” he said, “to get an unbiased opinion.” 

Gergo Saling and Andras Petho contributed to this report.

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