The Crisis of the Central European University in an Age of Political Populism

The Hungarian Parliament on the Danube was built in the late nineteenth century, in a Neo-Gothic style inspired by the British Parliament at Westminster, as the architectural embodiment of Hungary’s legislative autonomy within the Habsburg dualist state of Austria-Hungary. After the abolition of the Habsburg empire in 1918, the parliament’s legislative significance was tempered by long periods of political imposition during the interwar authoritarian government of Admiral Miklós Horthy and the post-war communist party state.

Ironically, numerous members of the Fidesz party— including Orbán himself—had been supported by Soros’s generosity as they pursued their educations, and many are alumni of CEU itself.

The parliament’s relation to Hungarian political independence has taken on newly ambivalent aspects in the current era of political populism dominated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary and his Fidesz party which came to power in the elections of 2010.

Last April, parliamentary legislation on higher education seemed to target the Central European University (CEU), which has played an exceptionally important academic role in Budapest since its creation in the post-communist decade of the 1990s. This legislation opened the possibility of driving the university out of Hungary or simply shutting it down.

Orbán waged a fierce rhetorical campaign against the acceptance of Middle Eastern Muslim refugees in Hungary, and has encouraged the bizarre notion that Brussels is the “new Moscow,” prescribing policies that interfere with Hungary’s independence.

The so-called “Lex CEU” was strongly encouraged by Orbán, and was accompanied by a populist political rhetoric of national educational independence directed against CEU as a “foreign” institution, created and supported by the “foreign” (Hungarian-American) philanthropist George Soros. Ironically, numerous members of the Fidesz party—including Orbán himself—had been supported by Soros’s generosity as they pursued their educations, and many are alumni of CEU itself.

Orbán’s Rhetorical Campaign against Muslim Refugees

Official hostility to CEU in Hungary has been accompanied by a disturbing, very personal billboard campaign featuring Soros’s photograph. Soros in Hungary has been targeted not just as the “foreign” sponsor of CEU, but also as a supporter of the European Union’s measures on behalf of refugees, and the intersection of these issues is one of the interesting and perplexing aspects of the Hungarian populist puzzle. Orbán waged a fierce rhetorical campaign against the acceptance of Middle Eastern Muslim refugees in Hungary, and has encouraged the bizarre notion that Brussels is the “new Moscow,” prescribing policies that interfere with Hungary’s independence.

This view has been echoed by other populist demagogues in Eastern Europe, even though the aspiration to EU membership once appeared as a cherished ideal there, back in the 1990s, fervently endorsed by most political leaders, including the young Viktor Orbán. Now the European Commission has criticized the Hungarian Lex CEU, and raised the possibility of taking it before the EU Court of Justice, while Fidesz has denounced the EU as presumptuous for interfering in Hungarian higher education as well as immigration policy.

The Government Seems in Little Danger of Losing Elections

While Lex CEU has been widely denounced—also in American academic communities—as an assault on academic freedom, threatening an institution where professors sustained a critical perspective on Orbán and Fidesz, one might reasonably ask whether closing down CEU is actually the primary imperative of the government or whether Orbán is more interested in stoking the ugly rhetoric around this campaign as a political goal in its own right, anticipating the elections in April.

One of the early lessons of political populism seems to be that ugly demagoguery may be pursued for its own sake, enhancing the malice of the political climate.

One might recall that the image of Soros was also used in the final stage of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—along with the images of Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein—in a piece of populist political advertising that was immediately criticized as implicitly anti-Semitic.

Orbán, after making some adjustments to Hungary’s judicial and political system, seems in little danger of losing elections in the currently somewhat eroded conditions of Hungarian democracy, even as the parliament serves to further the ruling party’s demagogic campaigns with legislation like Lex CEU. One of the interesting political features of Vladimir Putin—whom Orbán, like Trump, openly admires—is that he has been politically so much nastier in his political persecutions and vendettas than he needs to be in circumstances where he is very unlikely to lose elections. One of the early lessons of political populism seems to be that ugly demagoguery may be pursued for its own sake, enhancing the malice of the political climate, even without an immediate Machiavellian political purpose in sight. The campaign against CEU—with its unpleasant billboards—may fall into this category of apparently gratuitous political nastiness intended to help shape a nastier populist public.

A Laboratory for Democracy for All of Central Europe

For the moment, CEU seems to have satis ed the principal condition of Lex CEU by establishing a relationship with Bard College in the United States, a presumptive American home base, though anyone who knows the history of CEU knows that Budapest is its true home. However, the Orbán government has demonstrated that it can pull the rug out from under the university at any time by arbitrary interpretation of the law or by instigating new laws in the complicitous parliament on the Danube. Whether the university can continue to function successfully with such a sword hanging over its head is di cult to determine, and some would say that CEU might do better to pull up stakes and move up the Danube to Vienna in search of a more appreciative political context. Yet, it might also be argued that there is no place right now that needs the liberal values of CEU more desperately than the democratical- ly-challenged Hungary.

In November, New York University hosted a discussion of the crisis surrounding CEU with the former Rector of CEU, John Shattuck, and with the celebrated Hungarian-American television and radio journalist Kati Marton, who is also a trustee of CEU. Shattuck, who was formerly the US ambassador to the Czech Republic, spoke of CEU as a laboratory for democracy for all of Central Europe in the aftermath of communism, a place where post-communist values could be tested and evaluated.

For that very reason the university was now menaced by the hijacking of Hungarian democracy under the Orbán government in a climate of newly intense nationalism. Marton spoke of the stoking of fear and hatred in the current climate. Attending the session was the Hungarian Consul in New York, Ferenc Kumin, a CEU alumnus who nevertheless had to defend his government’s assault on the university before an academic public of professors and students who were not inclined to be sympathetic to the Orbán agenda. The exchanges between Kumin on the one hand and Shattuck and Marton on the other were pointed but civil. The consul insisted, somewhat ingenuously, that Hungary was only asking CEU to abide by “the rule of law”—that is, Lex CEU—but he did not acknowledge that that law was passed in parliament precisely to target CEU and threaten its existence in Budapest.

Yet, it might also be argued that there is no place right now that needs the liberal values of CEU more desperately than the democratically-challenged Hungary.

The Role of Liberal Universities in Increasingly Illiberal Societies

The circumstances surrounding the crisis of CEU in Hungary do not so much teach lessons as pose questions. First, what is it that Orbán finds so disturbing about CEU, and, if not so disturbing, then what makes it such an attractive target? Second, what is it about Hungarian nationalism that makes the rhetorical disparagement of the “foreign” such a potent political force? And should we understand this as the long-lived resentment that derives from the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, the treaty that dismembered Habsburg Hungary after World War I, a treaty that is still invoked in a contemporary discourse of Hungarian victimization?

The circumstances surrounding the crisis of CEU in Hungary do not so much teach lessons as pose questions.

Third, does some sort of Trianon complex also explain the unexpected potency of Euroskepticism in a country that, according to Milan Kundera in his famous essay on the tragedy of Central Europe, stood ready to “die for Europe” in 1956— in a country that seemed to celebrate unanimously its entry into the European Union in 2004? Fourth, how did Orbán’s Hungary with its much-vaunted “illiberal democracy” develop from the seemingly liberal decade of the 1990s, when communist society and economy gave way to democratic and liberal forms of government and economy, when the young Viktor Orbán seemed to represent the post-communist liberal vision of Hungary? And, finally, what is the proper role of a liberal university like CEU— with its commitment to free intellectual inquiry and free academic discussion— within the political and social context of an increasingly illiberal society? This last question is one that other universities in other countries— including the United States— may have to consider in the coming decades.

Larry Wolff

is the Silver Professor of History at New York University, director of the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, and executive director of the NYU Remarque Institute. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books include Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994), The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture (2010), and, most recently, The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage.

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