Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won re-election in April on the back of a campaign defined by his relentless vilification of billionaire philanthropist George Soros. And though the elections may be over, Orban's still attacking his archnemesis.
On Monday, Central European University (CEU), a leading grad school in Budapest founded by Soros in 1991 to educate a new generation of leaders in post-Communist Europe, announced it was the latest casualty in Orban’s campaign against the financier. The university, which has dual accreditation in Hungary and the United States, will shift its U.S.-accredited programs to Vienna next year as a result of tough Hungarian laws targeting the institution.
“CEU has been forced out,” the university’s president, Michael Ignatieff, said in a statement.
“It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary,” he said. “This is unprecedented. A U.S. institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally. A European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU.”
CEU is the second Soros-backed institution to be forced out of Hungary this year as a result of Orban’s obsessive campaign against the Hungarian-American philanthropist. In May, Soros’ Open Society Foundations, the nonprofit through which he provides billions to support human rights and pro-democratic initiatives, was forced to relocate its Budapest office to Berlin after being pressured by the Hungarian government.
Andrew Stroehlein, Human Rights Watch’s European media director, said the development was the latest example of Orban’s party, Fidesz, undermining “fundamental democratic values again and again.” He called on the European People’s Party, the European parliamentary group to which Fidesz belongs, to expel Orban’s party in protest.
Orban, a populist strongman who's been remodeling Hungary in accordance with his authoritarian vision of an “illiberal democracy,” made Soros the focus of his re-election campaign this year, plastering his face on billboards telling voters: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” In recent years, he’s introduced a raft of laws specifically targeting Soros’ activities, and shamelessly signal-boosted conspiracy theories about the liberal philanthropist, accusing him of plotting to flood Europe with Muslim migrants to erode the continent’s traditional Christian identity.
Central European University has been battling for survival in Hungary since the government introduced a new higher education law in April last year, which educators say specifically targeted the Soros-backed university. The law banned foreign-registered universities from teaching in Hungary unless they also taught courses in the country where they were registered.
The university had taken steps to comply with the new rules by launching a program at Bard College in New York, certified by New York state authorities. But Hungary’s government, which has routinely attacked the institution’s dual-accreditation status as a “fraud,” dismissed the creation of the Bard College program as a “Soros-style bluff.”
While the U.S.-accredited programs make up the bulk of CEU’s operations, the university said it would continue to operate its Hungarian-accredited programs in Budapest for “as long as possible.” Students already enrolled in U.S.-accredited programs in Budapest would also be able to complete their studies there.
Since the law was introduced last year, supporters of the university have mounted frequent protests to defend the institution and at one time had hoped that the U.S., where there's vocal support for the university from Congress, might pressure the Hungarian government into changing course.
U.S. ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein attempted to resolve the issue over the summer but eventually dropped the effort after making no headway. In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Cornstein sided with Orban over the issue, saying it had nothing to do with academic freedom, and blamed Soros for not working better with the Hungarian government. On Monday, the State Department issued a statement saying it was disappointed the Hungarian government and CEU had not reached an agreement to allow the university to continue operating in Budapest.
Orban’s crackdown on the university has faced widespread opposition in Europe. Last December, the European Union took a case against Hungary’s university law to the European Court of Justice, which is still making its way through the system.
On Monday, Manfred Weber — leader of the European parliamentary group that Fidesz belongs to — called on the court to fast-track proceedings and issue a ruling. “It is unacceptable that a university in [the] EU today is forced to move elsewhere,” he said.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Ignatieff said the U.S. and European nations hadn’t pressured Orban enough on the issue to keep the university in Budapest. “At the end of the day, they have not made this point sufficiently strongly to their Hungarian partners,” he said.
Cover image: In this Thursday, June 8, 2017 file photo, Hungarian-American investor and CEU founder George Soros attends a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Germany. (AP Photo/Ferdinand Ostrop)