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“We would like to carry on working. Here in Budapest, where we belong.”

By Aaron Sterniczky , Matthias Riedl

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his followers in the ruling party, Fidesz, are constructing an illiberal state. The target of their most recent attacks is the freedom of academic research. The continued existence of the renowned Central European University is under acute threat. A specially framed law, drawn up in the closed confines of the innermost circles of government and rushed through by the parliament, aims to close the institute in 2018. This would represent an enormous loss to the European higher education landscape, because this excellent establishment is something exceptional within the academic world. The Central European University offers only postgraduate courses, all of them with a very good reputation. The student body is unusually international in character. The disciplinary focus is on the humanities and social sciences, law, economics, and mathematics. We spoke with the Head of the History department Matthias Riedl about what is happening.

The Central European University – CEU for short – was founded in 1991. Two years earlier, the Berlin Wall had fallen; the dissolution of the Soviet Union followed in December of that same year. What is the CEU’s role in historical terms?
After that period of upheaval, the CEU helped young people in the post-socialist world to get access to a Western standard of education. It was already a distinguishing feature of our institution at that time that the majority of students were offered scholarships so as to enable people with limited financial means to go to university.
And another feature has also remained in place. From that time onwards, the University has functioned as a meeting point between East and West. It represents not only a magnet for people from the post-socialist world, it also provides a framework for international encounters. The 1,400 students currently there come from around 110 countries, from all continents.

And entirely in line with its international ethos, the CEU was even founded in two places, Prague and Budapest. Why is Budapest the only site remaining today?
It actually began at three different sites: Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw. Once the University had very quickly transformed itself into an international centre for research, it became ever more difficult to maintain the original configuration. The organisation of the academic work required a fixed location with a professional administration. That was the practical starting point for the decision to base the organisation entirely in Budapest. And the political reasons behind the decision to give up the Prague branch were connected with the accession of Václav Klaus to the office of Czech Prime Minister.

To come back to the founding: an important role was played at the birth of the University by a varied group of intellectuals and by the financial support provided by the Open Society Foundation, which was set up by George Soros. So Soros was not the only figure involved, as has been incorrectly alleged. What did the situation look like at the time?
It was a motley group at the beginning. Advisers from Oxford were involved, many intellectuals, predominantly from Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, a number of former political dissidents, among them the well-known name of Václav Havel. It seems that the original idea to set up an independent university in the post-socialist countries came from the Hungarian writer Miklós Vásárhelyi. It was he who thought up the name, too. Behind the title of ‘Central European University’ lies a belief that was widely expressed in the Visegrád countries at that time.

The countries that make up the Visegrád Group are Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia). What is the belief you are referring to?
Immediately following the change of systems, the view taken in these countries was that they belong to the West. The central idea was to establish open, democratic societies. The foundation system which underlies the University’s financial structure is based on this principle. It is intended to guarantee institutional autonomy vis-à-vis the state authorities. However, the European Union is now the second largest source of finance for the University. We are very successful at competing for European funding, and we receive grants from the European Research Council. Current research activities are financed in large part from EU funds. Most of the EU money flows through cooperative partnerships with other universities in Hungary or in other European countries.

So the label of ‘Soros University’, a myth cultivated by the Hungarian government and used as a battle slogan, can be regarded as nonsense?
What is that supposed to mean in practice? That George Soros draws up the subject curricula? That he gets involved at that level of detail? The decision to establish the CEU as a leading research university means in practice that there is no scope for political intervention. We go for the best people we can get. Qualifications alone are the decisive factor, not a person’s political orientation. It is important to stress this simple fact once again, because even sympathetic journalists sometimes present this in a distorted way.

When we come to freedom of research, the situation in Hungary appears to be precarious. The government budget for higher education has been cut by a quarter between 2010 and 2013 alone. Subsequently, chancellors were appointed to the universities to get a grip on the organisational chaos. What all of these chancellors have in common is that they are people who are close to the ruling party, Fidesz. What consequences does this have for the CEU?
The fact that we are not dependent on public finance has been a factor in making the conditions of work at the CEU dramatically better than at all other Hungarian universities. The ratio of teaching staff to students is aligned with that at the Anglo-American elite universities and is thus the lowest in the country. We maintain a widespread cooperation network with other national and international institutions. The administration, where a majority of those employed are Hungarian citizens, works on a bilingual basis. This level of professionalism enables us professors genuinely to focus on research and teaching duties without being hindered by dealing with administrative tasks. In addition, Hungarian academics like to use our library to pursue their own research.
But the current situation represents a miscalculation by the government. They probably thought that there would be a great deal of envy towards the CEU in the wider Hungarian academic community and that there would be no noticeable opposition to the intended closure. Instead, Hungarian academics have demonstrated solidarity with us. Even conservative academics have joined the protest.

Can we please at this point go over the course of events? What is the chronology of the most important incidents?
It was the Hungarian government who introduced a draft law in parliament in March that would prevent the continued existence of the CEU as of 2018. The law would have resulted in the ending of teaching activities. This is the current legal position. For the decision to be revised would require either new laws or a specific law overruling the previous law.
The text of the law was drawn up by the government without consultation. It requires the CEU to maintain a teaching facility in the USA as well from next year, and for our right to exist in Budapest to be subject to bilateral agreements. Organisationally impracticable and unacceptable in principle.
We were totally unprepared for any of this, and that was the intention. The draft law emerged from Viktor Orbán’s innermost circle. But we weren’t the only ones they wanted to take by surprise. The Rectors’ Conference and the Academy of Sciences were likewise never invited to any consultations. Normally, these bodies are asked to give their opinion in advance on any regulations affecting the Hungarian higher education community. Furthermore, there was no coordination with the civil service. This is very surprising, given that many legislative proposals are usually drawn up by the civil service itself.
Finally, the law was fast-tracked through the parliamentary chamber, and the Fidesz parliamentary delegates themselves were brought into line by means of a palpable obligation to vote in accordance with the party policy.

This brings us unavoidably to domestic politics in Hungary. In 2010, the ruling party, Fidesz, under Viktor Orbán, won 53% of the votes in the national elections. Because of the electoral arithmetic, this result was enough to give them a two-thirds majority in the parliament, a majority which has held since then.
This power is being used to the full. First, a new constitution was pushed through; then the system of constitutional accountability was reformed; and then the freedom of the press was restricted. Now comes the dispute over the CEU. In addition, and in parallel, a law has been put in motion that obliges NGOs to declare themselves foreign-funded organisations if they receive more than $25,000 of international financial support.

What explains this latest escalation?
In 2018 national elections will be held. The government is fighting for control over public opinion. You have to bear that in mind in order to understand what is going on.
It’s about creating bogeymen. The CEU is consistently referred to as the ‘Soros university’, and similar tactics are used against the NGOs. This ‘agitprop’ works as a diversionary tactic. The epidemic of corruption in the country suddenly disappears from the public spotlight. The fact is that businessmen who are friends of Viktor Orbán are becoming the richest men in the country and are amassing fabulous wealth. The problem of endemic corruption was at one time the focus of intense attention, and it was politically damaging to Viktor Orbán. He was rescued at that point by the fact that the refugee crisis suddenly became the dominant issue.
At the same time the government is busily promoting the supposed general economic boom. Everyday life, on the other hand, is dominated by devastating conditions in the health and education services. The fact that the threatened closure of the CEU has led directly and indirectly to the biggest protests in the country for years can only be understood against this background.

Before the protests against the threatened closure of the CEU, there were already discernible signs of life from the Hungarian oppositional public sphere. Protests were held against hosting the Olympic Games in Budapest in 2024. The movement is apparently even considering taking part in the next national elections. Do you see this as a sign of possible change?
If we want to understand the impressive protests in Budapest against the government’s actions towards the CEU, we need to distinguish between the trigger, or occasion, and the underlying causes. No-one foresaw these demonstrations. Suddenly, in Budapest, up to 80,000 people took to the streets. Neither the government nor we ourselves expected something like that. Perhaps there is another factor involved in this, one that is entirely overlooked by those outside the country. A law is currently being drafted in Hungary that would centralise and restrict access to the gymnasiums – distinguished public grammar schools – across the whole country. This is the measure the government intends to use as a response to the impending shortage of teachers.

The teacher shortage is a sign of a different trend. Well-educated people are leaving the country in droves. Between the years 2010 and 2013 alone, 350,000 people emigrated, out of a total population of 9.8 million. What are living conditions like in general?
A lack of prospects is weighing on society. International competitiveness is suffering. Businesses are concerned about the security of the principle of legal certainty, because regulations can change completely in less than a week without any prior notice. The reform of the gymnasiums will make upward social mobility considerably more difficult in future. Education policy involves influencing schools to use particular books which adopt a tendentious interpretation of historical processes. So ordinary families took part in those demonstrations and took the opportunity to give voice to their frustration at the overall situation.

Is it possible to understand the domestic political situation without reference to the geopolitical context?
No. Viktor Orbán maintains increasingly close relations with Vladimir Putin, and lately also with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This closeness is in significant contrast to the way the Hungarian government handles its relations with the European Union.
We can see here a striking similarity in patterns of behaviour. The law proposed in Hungary against NGOs is copied from an earlier Russian law. In Russia itself, the European University, based in St Petersburg, was closed for a time by the authorities in 2008. Fire safety regulations were the pretext given for the closure of the lecture theatres. Only recently, again on very flimsy grounds, its accreditation was withdrawn. Since the failed putsch in Turkey, more than 5,000 professors have been expelled from the universities. We experience the impact of these developments directly. The number of applications to the CEU from Turkish and Russian students and academics has risen massively.

Would you agree with the view that European public opinion has for too long failed to understand what is going on in Hungary?
Let us not forget one thing. Some people in Europe are pleased with Viktor Orbán’s border control regime. And in addition, there are legitimate concerns over what the possible alternatives to Fidesz might be. Jobbik, the biggest opposition party in the country, pursues extreme right-wing goals.
By contrast, the liberal and left-wing groups are in desperate straits. They are incapable of forming a constructive opposition or of presenting an alternative vision. Personal sensitivities and internal party divisions make what is already a miserable situation worse. It is a tragedy.
What’s more, left-wing or liberal beliefs have been systematically discredited in recent years. Under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine a direct switch of policy from right to left. This is another reason why what is currently happening could be decisive. People with different fundamental attitudes are suddenly taking to the streets together. Perhaps an opportunity may arise out of this to create an opposition that works across the different camps. Significantly, in the course of these events, conservative public figures too, have stood up against Viktor Orbán. At the beginning, there were rumblings of opposition against the law even from within Fidesz. But we mustn’t allow ourselves to fall prey to simplistic illusions. For a change of government to occur, up to 1.5 million voters would have to be won over from the government side.

What do you think of the approach the European Union has taken in relation to this issue?
The fact that the European Commission has instigated Treaty infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government seems important. The public visibility created for the issue in the European Parliament appears to be significant. However, the key will lie in the behaviour of the European People’s Party. Will Fidesz be threatened with expulsion from the group? Would Fidesz be willing to take that risk? The European People’s Party appears to be split on the fundamental issue. A difficult decision lies ahead. If it is decided that Fidesz should be expelled from the European People’s Party group, that would be tantamount to admitting that the integration policy pursued towards Viktor Orbán to date had failed. But a growing number of representatives seem to be prepared to take this step. Because one thing needs to be understood. If Viktor Orbán is allowed to succeed on this issue, then others would also have to bear a share of responsibility for whatever else may happen in Hungary.

What do you see as the duty of the other European parties?
They must continually confront the European People’s Party with the latest developments, and should be reminding them of the importance of conservative values.

What does the CEU actually want?
We would simply like to carry on working. Researching, teaching, studying. Here in Budapest, where we belong.

So, what are the prospects?
The CEU has become a cause of national and international confrontation. Everything is possible. There is a real possibility that the University could be closed, which would be a decisive step towards the establishment of an illiberal state in Hungary. If the CEU really is forced to leave the country, things will be bleak. It is easy to imagine what that would mean for freedom of speech in the country, what it would symbolise for other foreign institutions, what it would mean for the spirit of civil resistance.
But it is also possible to imagine a radically different alternative. The conflict over the CEU could mark the start of political change in the country.

Thank you for this discussion.

“We would like to carry on working. Here in Budapest, where we belong.”