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World 13/04/2017

Why is Hungary’s Viktor Orbán picking a fight with George Soros?

World Economic Forum

The populist leader is exploiting anti-Semitic, xenophobic tropes about Soros, “foreign” enemies and the EU

“Cheating is cheating” – stated Hungarian prime minister and illiberal trailblazer Viktor Orbán in his regular Friday morning radio address to the nation, broadcast on 31 March.

He was talking about Central European University (CEU), the country’s top university, according to the Times Higher Education Rankings, and also the most successful in terms of securing funding from the European Commission’s Research Council.

Orbán declared that, as CEU offers both US and Hungarian-accredited degrees, its operation should be underpinned by an intergovernmental treaty between the USA and Hungary. “That’s normal procedure, we’re just making it unambiguous now”, said Orbán, adding that “it is a clear rule that a university cannot offer foreign degrees if it has no operations abroad.” He also said that it is “unfair” that CEU offers American and Hungarian degrees at the same time, as other Hungarian universities cannot do the same.

The “normal procedure” and “clear rule” referred to by Orbán were first heard of by the Hungarian public all of two days earlier, on Wednesday, when the government introduced a proposed amendment to the country’s law on higher education in parliament. The prime minister was condemning CEU for not being compliant with future legislation. And he failed to offer a single argument to support the amendment: why and how, exactly, would CEU be a better or more upstanding university because of such a treaty? What would be the upside, for students, faculty and/or Hungary, of CEU having a foreign-based campus as well as that in Budapest? If CEU’s practice is unfair, how could a treaty make it fair again?

“According to Viktor Orbán, Brussels and George Soros are trying to force Hungary to admit ‘migrants’ into the country”

Orbán declared that “no-one is above the law, not even a billionaire”, alluding to his government’s bête noire, Hungarian-born US financier and philanthropist George Soros, CEU’s founder and main backer. Thus, he tied the far-from-household name of a small, English-language university to his government’s overarching propaganda narrative: the existence of a conspiracy against Hungary and Hungarians, even Europe and Europeans, their roots, culture and values. According to Orbán, his government, MPs and his media, Brussels (= the EU), Strasbourg (= the European Court of Human Rights, recently ruling against Hungary because of its treatment of two Bangladeshi asylum-seekers) and Soros are trying to force Hungary to admit “migrants” into the country. They also want to make a lot of money by doing so, but if Hungary’s government prevails, their “migrant business” will be over.

To attack George Soros and local NGOs partly or fully funded by his foundations is the oldest trick in the book of post-soviet autocrats; would-be or actual, anti-Semitic or just not exactly uncomfortable using anti-Semitic tropes.

Ethno-centric Hungarian right-wingers were already speechifying about the dangers of Soros’s ideas and organisations in 1990, when Orbán’s party, the then-radical/liberal Fidesz, was still happy to accept the Soros Foundation’s help. A few years later CEU arrived in Budapest following arch-conservative Czech prime minister Václav Klaus’s not too subtle discouragement of its presence in Prague, where it was originally established.

Days after the salvo against CEU, the government introduced another legislative proposition, one that would require NGOs part-financed from abroad to register as “foreign agents”, à la Putin’s Russia. This proposal was put forward in the name of “transparency”, but – as all NGOs are already obliged to make their accounts public – it would only serve the purposes of propaganda, effectively making it official that anybody who’s against the government’s immigration policies, for example, is part of a fifth column.

Speaking to a journalist in December 2016, CEU president and rector Michael Ignatieff said he interpreted the Hungarian government’s ongoing, vehement attacks against Soros as being “about politics”. Ignatieff, a historian and also the former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, has wide-ranging connections in Washington, and seems to be, to put it in an old-fashioned way, a tough cookie. He may have been naïve or simply trying to be tactical when he said in the same interview that in his opinion the government still understood that CEU was “a university, not a party”. Three months later, it became clear that the government had no such understanding.

Some background: CEU’s model is special, but far from being unique. It’s basically an American university that operates solely in Hungary but is fully accredited in the US. This makes it possible for CEU to offer American and, in the case of certain programmes, also Hungarian degrees to its students. This is a feature, not a bug; the very reason why the university is able to attract world-class teaching staff and students from all over the world. CEU has operated in Budapest since 1993, and under this exact model for more than a dozen years. Its presence is demonstrably beneficial for Hungarian academia and young Hungarian scholars. It’s not true that other Hungarian universities cannot offer joint degrees with foreign universities, either – they can and they often do, though obviously on a much smaller scale than CEU.

The legislative and propaganda blitzkrieg against CEU was launched a day before the introduction of the amendment: Origo, a formerly independent news portal now owned by government cronies, published an article based on a supposedly leaked report by the country’s education authority, alleging that CEU is basically a fraud. Origo said that the institution, “colloquially called Soros University” according to the article, cheats its students, as some of its programmes are unregistered. CEU countered with a press release, denying any wrongdoing and demanding a retraction. Orbán did not care: in his address, he intentionally conflated the education authority’s findings regarding some other internationally affiliated universities working in Hungary (serious irregularities), and those regarding CEU (minor administrative deficiencies, already in the process of being corrected).

The co-ordinated attack on CEU was ham-fisted, the arguments absurd, the subsequent spin confused. In the week following Orbán’s address, the amendment was voted into law in parliament after all of three hours of debate and the introduction of an amendment to the amendment, one that prescribed an even more urgent timetable for universities to comply with the new rules.

“Government MPs claim pro-CEU protesters are foreigners flown in by Soros”

Tens of thousands of mainly young protesters took to the streets day after day, demonstrating against “Lex CEU” and the NGO amendment, only to be told by government MPs that they are foreigners (purposely flown in on airplanes by Soros), enemy agents, or, at best, fools deceived by Soros and his conspirators.

The demonstrations themselves are proof of Soros’s machinations, said the government, at the same time maintaining that the whole hullabaloo is a big misunderstanding, the amendment is not specifically aimed at CEU at all, and they are just waiting for the call from the White House to write up their treaty to make it all go away.

This after the cabinet minister, Zoltán Balog, who introduced the amendment in parliament, started his speech talking about “George Soros’s fake NGOs that are undermining our legally elected government and must be stopped by any legal method”.

When it’s been pointed out that the US government, being still bound by the constitution and whatnot, is not in a position to sign treaties about universities (higher education being supervised by individual states), the Hungarians variably replied that A) it’s not realistic to expect Hungarian MPs to be erudite in the finer workings of the US Constitution, so there, and B) almost any kind of bilateral document would be OK, maybe something signed by the secretary of education, or a letter of intent, as there are no formal requirements laid out in the amended statute.

When Hoyt Brian Yee, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State said that his government is very concerned and expects Hungary to honour academic freedom and negotiate with CEU, it was countered that he was expressing a private opinion. When the State Department’s acting spokesperson, Mark Toner, demanded the suspension of the amendment, a government MP said that it was sadly not possible under Hungarian law (the government being able to rush anything through parliament under a week’s time notwithstanding), while government pundits theorised that these guys are just holdovers from the – needless to say, Soros-affiliated – Obama administration, and Donald Trump would support Hungary’s measures, if he knew about them. (This idea may well turn out to be true, but it is not supported by any fact at this time.)

“One government affiliated newspaper ran the headline ‘Machinery of the Soros empire mobilised against Hungary’”

Magyar Idők, one of the government-affiliated daily newspapers, ran the perfect headline on 10 April: “MACHINERY OF THE SOROS EMPIRE MOBILISED AGAINST HUNGARY”, stating that “CEU is a pretext, the goal is to remove Orbán”.

Two days later, after falsely accusing CEU of breaking the law, the government’s top education official was effectively encouraging the university to act illegally. László Palkovics, minister of state for education, back from his apparently fruitless clear-up-mission to Brussels, suggested that CEU should simply utilise a loophole in the law and carry on awarding degrees as usual, no matter if it has official standing in Hungary or has not. On his way back from the airport, he might have been enjoyed the billboards paid for by his government, shouting “LET US STOP BRUSSELS!”

For years, Orbán and his government have been whipping up this ongoing hysteria against “migrants”, “migrant-fondlers” and the European Union, of which Hungary is a member, of course.

Paradoxically, polls show that his party would easily win the elections if they were held today (this has to do with an election law tailor-made for this purpose, and also with the large number of people who wouldn’t vote, but it is still true that Fidesz is the most popular political party by far), while an overwhelming majority of the population still supports EU membership. It seems that by tying the EU to the migrant peril, Orbán is playing the long game of preparing his voters for the country’s eventual exit from the Union.

On 12 April Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, expressed concerns about Hungary and promised that the commission will look into the matter of the laws affecting CEU and the NGOs, as well as the campaign to “stop Brussels”. Lajos Kósa, parliamentary leader of Fidesz, gleefully replied that if the government had real problems with the EU, the billboards would say “DOWN WITH BRUSSELS!”, an altogether different message. He added that the whole thing was typical Brussels meddling, but the government would defend the sovereignty of Hungary against those who want to force illegal migrants into Hungary.

It’s been speculated that the attack on CEU is some kind of favour Orbán does Russian president Vladimir Putin. It’s worth remembering, however, that his government’s concerted actions against NGOs go back to at least 2014, while the stripping of Hungarian universities of their independence started in 2012. It really seems that this government wants to exterminate all independent institutions of public-minded autonomy. If the government prevails with this and its other ongoing project of eradicating independent media, there will be no-one to amplify the voices of those who disagree, to defend those who are deemed enemies of the state. While Brussels and/or Washington can and may annoy the government at some junctions, it is really hard to see how Orbán could be made to turn back on this road.

On the other hand, if the current youthful, largely good-natured, sometimes even funny (“CEU IN, WENGER OUT”) demonstrations lead to the coalescing of a new political force, one will look back at all these machinations of this bully of a government as foolish. This is not the first time in the past few years that people take to streets against some government measure, though, and it would need a long game to get there, too.

Péter Nádori is a journalist and editor, former editor-in-chief of Origo, current chief content officer of Lapcom, a Hungarian media company. In 2015/2016, he spent a few months as a so-called pre-doctoral resident fellow at CEU’s Center for Media and Communication Studies. He does not recall having been brainwashed during his time there. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?