The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Soros-founded university says it has been kicked out of Hungary as an autocrat tightens his grip

People attend a rally for Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, on Nov. 24, 2018.
People attend a rally for Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, on Nov. 24, 2018. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

BERLIN — European Union leaders warned that it was a red line and urged Hungary not to cross it. The U.S. ambassador pegged the issue as his top priority. In the streets of Budapest, tens of thousands marched.

But in the end, there was nothing to stop Prime Minister Viktor Orban — who calls all the shots at home and increasingly does the same with his supposedly more powerful allies in the West — from driving Central European University into exile.

The school, established a ­quarter-century ago to educate a new generation of leaders and scholars after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, became on Monday the first university to be forced out of a European Union nation. 

The ejection marked one of the surest signals to date of autocracy’s return to Hungary, and the region, after decades of relative freedom.

A spat between a university in Budapest and the Hungarian government played out Nov. 30, as part of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's crackdown on academic freedom. (Video: AP)

It also reflected a humbling for the West, which could not muster the strength to stand up to Orban. The Hungarian leader has made no secret that he wants to overturn the liberal international order from within and replace it with a system more akin to the illiberalism of Russia or China. 

“Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom,” the university said in announcing the move. “It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary.”

The university’s exasperated president, Michael Ignatieff, said at a news conference that despite “many declarations and expressions of support” from U.S. and E.U. leaders, the West was ultimately toothless in defense of its principles.

“No leverage has been exerted on the government of Hungary from outside,” he said. 

Reaction from E.U. officials Monday was muted. In an interview with The Washington Post last week, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David B. Cornstein confirmed that he had never tried to use either incentives or threats to sway Orban, despite proclaiming upon arrival in Budapest in June that his top mission was to keep CEU in the country.

With that effort having failed, he blamed the university’s founder — Hungarian American financier George Soros — for CEU’s departure and refused to criticize Orban.

Cornstein also minimized the university’s importance — and appeared baffled by why the school’s fate had generated wider interest.  

“It doesn’t have anything to do with academic freedom,” Cornstein said. 

CEU has long been considered among the world’s finest graduate schools, attracting students from across the globe, and it is widely seen as the best in Hungary. 

But for nearly two years, the university also has been the target of harassment by a right-wing government that has systematically consolidated control and marginalized dissent. 

Orban has been particularly ruthless in attacking anything associated with Soros, whose open and liberal philosophy is the anti­thesis of the prime minister’s nationalist and nativist outlook.

In the spring, after Orban made denunciation of the billionaire the centerpiece of his reelection campaign and won a resounding victory, Soros’s Open Society Foundations announced it was fleeing Hungary because it could no longer guarantee the safety of its staff.

The university said Monday that it had no choice but to move its primary campus to Vienna next year after Orban’s government refused to acknowledge an agreement that would enable CEU to continue to admit new students in Budapest. 

The university, which has dual accreditation in Hungary and the United States, has enjoyed robust, bipartisan backing in Congress, where members expressed concern about the threat to academic freedom and the precedent of a U.S. institution being kicked out by an American ally. 

The Trump administration tried to save a U.S. university by playing nice with an autocrat. It failed.

But last week, after it became clear that there would be no deal, Cornstein broke with previous U.S. policy on the matter. In the half-hour interview, he described Orban as his “friend” and accused Soros of being insufficiently acquiescent to the government. 

Cornstein — an 80-year-old New Yorker who made his fortune in the jewelry, gambling and telemarketing businesses and is a close friend of President Trump’s — compared the university’s plight to his own experience selling jewelry at department stores.

“I was a guest in another guy’s store,” Cornstein said. “The university is in another country. It would pay to work with the government.”

Ignatieff rejected any suggestion that the university could have done more, saying the government had never been interested in a solution. “This game has to stop,” he said. 

Kati Marton, a university trustee and Hungarian American author, described Cornstein’s comments as “the end of America as a defender of academic freedom. It’s a betrayal.” 

The Hungarian government’s campaign against CEU began in early 2017, soon after Trump’s inauguration. Legislation passed that spring by parliament appeared to specifically target the university by requiring all foreign-based schools in Hungary to also have academic programs in their home countries.

CEU created a program at Bard College in New York, and it was certified by state authorities. But the Hungarian government did not acknowledge the arrangement, and officials signaled last month that they never would because the university had not complied with all aspects of the law. They have declined to spell out publicly exactly how.

Zoltan Kovacs, a senior Hungarian official, said in an interview that the university’s decision to move is a bluff and that it will ultimately back down. 

“CEU is going to remain,” said Kovacs, who is a CEU alumnus. 

The government’s crackdown on CEU spawned mass protests last year. But those fizzled out, and in recent days the main evidence of dissent in Budapest has been a collection of white canvas tents outside parliament. There, professors conducted classes round-the-clock in the freezing cold, and students posted homemade signs: “Even Voldemort didn’t kick Hogwarts out,” one read, a reference to the Harry Potter series.

Zalan Jakab, a 23-year-old Hungarian who was among the students protesting, said that in his home region, the vast majority of people hear little about the university beyond government propaganda. As a result, they regard CEU “as an evil place.” 

The protest, he said, was designed to show the public the true face of the school. But it ultimately wasn’t enough to make a difference in the university’s fate.

“Emotionally, it’s a big loss,” said Jakab, who is studying political science. “I feel ashamed that my government has done this.”

Soros-founded university says it will pull out of Hungary without a deal by Dec. 1

Hungary’s ‘Stop Soros’ bill suggests jail time for those who help migrants

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

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news