With the current government-orchestrated threat to the survival of the prestigious Central European University in Budapest, darkness is descending on Hungary. A quarter of a century after the end of communist rule, Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and his Fidesz Party are systematically dismantling liberal Western institutions and values. Hungary is moving further and further away from a genuine multi-party democracy that can claim to possess robust and independent courts, a diverse media free of government interference or control and a vibrant intellectual life committed to open and informed debate.
On the same day that the Hungarian parliament enacted legislation widely regarded as making it impossible for the CEU to continue functioning in Hungary, Freedom House published its latest assessment of the state of democracy in the country and the surrounding area. For the first time, Hungary is given “the lowest ranking in the Central European region”, well behind Slovenia, Slovakia and Poland and with a lower score than even “semi-consolidated democracies” such as Romania and Bulgaria.
Freedom House’s Report makes for sober reading. Whereas the US-based human rights NGO awarded Hungary a “democratic score” of 2.14 in 2008, with 1 representing the highest level of attainment in meeting the requirements of liberal democracy, this has sunk to 3.54. The gloomy assessment is based on various regressive developments, including the government’s crudely xenophobic 2016 campaign against asylum seekers and its growing domination of the print and electronic media from which opposition voices have been largely excluded. As the report notes: “[d]ue to the support of the deeply biased public media and important acquisitions in the television, online, and print segment, pro-government outlets have come to dominate the market to an overwhelming degree unimaginable even a year earlier”. At the same time, it draws attention to the worrying extent of ““reverse state capture” in Hungary, where politics and a strong state set up corruption networks and use public power and resources to reward friendly oligarchs”.
Allegations concerning the shadowy, pervasive and mutually beneficial relations that have developed between senior political figures and a privileged circle of businessmen are scarcely new. In 2016, Bálint Magyar, a sociologist and former Minister of Education, brought out a book, Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary, which, incidentally, was published by CEU Press. He argues that ministers and Fidesz have used their extensive powers of patronage to help secure lucrative contracts for favoured businessmen who, in turn, can be relied upon to provide unconditional support for it and the government. Magyar sees a clear and compelling analogy between the role of the head of a patriarchal family, or a Mafia clan, and a political leader such as Hungary’s Prime Minister:
In the same manner as the patriarchal head of the family is decisive in instances disposing of personal and property matters […] so the head of the adopted political family is leader of the country, where the reinterpreted nation signifies his ‘household.’ He does not appropriate, only disposes. He has a share, he dispenses justice, and imparts some of this share and justice on the ‘people of his household.’ his nation, to all according to their status and merit.
In recent days, government ministers have tried to argue that the legislative measures affecting CEU, passed by Hungary’s parliament on 4 April after only minimal debate, are neither discriminatory nor politically motivated and that they do not threaten its continued viability. However, such protestations have been widely discounted. In the Washington Post on 4 April, three eminent US scholars, Leo Botstein, the President of Bard College, Carol Christ, Provost and Chancellor-Designate of the University of California at Berkeley and Jonathan Cole, a Professor and former Provost at Columbia University, denounced the hastily enacted legislation as an “attempt at purging CEU”. They went on to note that “[t]his is nothing less than an attack rooted in a xenophobic nationalism and an anti-intellectual mistrust of the conduct of free inquiry, research and teaching”.
The new conditions imposed on CEU are arbitrary, onerous and perverse. They would require it, as a university registered in the US, to demonstrate that it is actively engaged in providing higher education in the US as well as in Hungary. Given that CEU was established in the early 1990s with a specific mandate to offer high-quality post-graduate education in the social sciences, humanities and related disciplines for students who were, at least originally, drawn predominantly from ex-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet states, there has been no reason for CEU to establish an American campus. However, academic expertise in these and in other important areas, including management science, finance and economics, was severely limited in the former Soviet Union and in the CEE area when the CEU was founded, with the explicit and wholly laudable aim of helping to forge open societies in former totalitarian states.
The new legislation imposes a further and almost certainly unattainable obligation on CEU. It can only continue to award degrees if an international agreement is concluded between Hungary, as the host state, and the US. This condition blithely – and no doubt deliberately – ignores the fact that, under the US Constitution, education falls within the competence of individual states rather than that of the federal government. A strict and absurdly unrealistic time-limit of 1 January 2018 is prescribed for compliance.
The legislation is little more than a crude, discriminatory and blatantly political measure that has nothing to do with ensuring that CEU conducts itself in accordance with reasonable and fair standards. It represents an intensification of the authoritarian and illiberal politics that Orbán and his government have pursued since returning to power in 2010. In striking at CEU and its founder, the Jewish-Hungarian philanthropist and financier, George Soros, Orbán is projecting himself as the ’saviour’ of a Hungary that he constantly portrays as imperilled by the combined forces of liberalism, international finance, multiculturalism, secularism and, not least, Muslim ’migrants’. In all of this there is more than a whiff of age-old anti-Semitic tropes and of a narrowly chauvinistic anti-globalism calculated to appeal to a significant proportion of the Hungarian electorate. . Ultimately, CEU has fallen victim to Orbán’s strategic obsession with removing any remaining institutions that dare to promote liberal, cosmopolitan values and of his tactical desire to highlight and defeat fictive ’enemies’ of the Hungarian nation in the run-up to general elections in 2018.