Unfazed by criticism at home and abroad for his increasingly authoritarian politics, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has taken aim at another liberal institution in his country — this one founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros.
Budapest’s Central European University (C.E.U.), a graduate-level, English-language institution accredited in both the U.S. and Hungary, could be forced out of Hungary after Parliament voted 123-38 for a bill that puts tough restrictions on foreign universities. The move, just the latest in a series of authoritarian steps by the conservative government, prompted a fresh wave of protests in Budapest Tuesday, two days after thousands marched in the institution’s defense.
Speaking on state radio Friday, Orbán, known for his dog-whistle rhetoric directed at the college’s founder, George Soros, labeled C.E.U.’s unusual set-up a “fraud,” saying it gave it an unfair advantage over Hungarian institutions.
“In Hungary, one cannot be above the law — even if you’re a billionaire,” he said.
The changes, which come into law once approved by the president, will affect a number of universities, but critics say they are largely targeted at C.E.U. They require foreign universities operating in Hungary to be approved through a “contract” with the government and for the university to have a campus in its home country as well – a requirement that would be prohibitive for the institution to meet.
The C.E.U., which has received support from universities around the world over the issue, says the law puts academic freedom at risk. It intends to challenge the law’s constitutionality, university president Michael Ignatieff said in a statement.
The symbolic standoff over C.E.U. has become the latest flashpoint in Orbán’s project to build an “illiberal” state, and pits two of the country’s most prominent men — representing opposite ends of the political spectrum – against each other. Soros, who funds NGOs that promote human rights and open government, has become a favorite target of the right-wing Hungarian government; his university is seen as a bastion of liberal values and the activists who promote them — none of which are welcome in Orbán’s Hungary.
“We are committed to use all legal means at our disposal to stop pseudo-civil society spy groups such as the ones funded by George Soros,” Zoltan Balog, a government minister, said ahead of the vote.
He said it went “against Hungary’s interests to host experiments … which aim at undermining the lawfully elected government or leadership.”
“He wants to say he stands for protection and security.”
Reka Csaba, an analyst at Hungary’s Integrity Lab, said Soros had become a popular target for the government to attack to appeal to its supporters. “He represents an easily hatable figure for Hungarians who are not liberal, Western-minded people,” she said.
C.E.U., whose student body is mostly international students, represented everything Orbán’s populist government stood against.
“[Orbán] wants to say he stands for protection and security — protecting the people of Hungary against international actors who want to influence what is happening here,” Csaba added.
A report released by the pro-democracy group Freedom House Tuesday gave Hungary the lowest “democracy score” in Central Europe. It said Orbán and his Fidesz party had led the way in turning the political tide toward populism in Central Europe since 2010, cementing their power by systematically removing checks and balances, changing the constitution, and “stoking bigotry and hatred through a self-serving anti-immigration campaign.”
Csaba said Orbán would be unfazed by the international and domestic criticism of his latest campaign, as he was focused primarily on populist moves that appealed to his base ahead of elections next year.