We have all seen this film before. The Orbán government uses its legislative might to launch an explicit attack against an institution, a prominent group, a principle or an individual. It then lines up its media empire to spread misinformation and heated rhetoric against the new public enemy number one, while successfully galvanizing and transforming its most primitive supporters into a veritable lynch mob. Meanwhile, thinkers, academics, civil rights and community activists in Hungary and abroad are horrified and share their just indignation on social media, through petitions, letter writing campaigns, protests and what the Orbán government likes to call “foreign attacks against Hungary.” Everyone is playing their respective role, as designated in the Fidesz script and the Orbán government can proceed with punitive legislation, targeted, partisan attacks and verbal warfare with complete impunity.
On Wednesday, the embattled Central European University, now facing potential closure due to legislation proposed by Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, held a public forum with its employees, professors, researchers and students, who have chosen to move to Budapest from 100 different countries around the world, in order to engage in graduate studies at the most respected university in Central and Eastern Europe. CEU is mulling its next steps and its future, and it is launching legal action against the pro-Fidesz Origo online news site, which suggested that the school did not have proper accreditation.
“Any legislative change that would force CEU to cease operation in Budapest would damage Hungarian academic life and negatively impact the government of Hungary’s relations with its neighbors, its EU partners and with the United States,” remarked Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s rector. Among the elements of the proposed legislation that would make it impossible for CEU to continue its operations is a measure that would ban non-European Union colleges and universities from issuing recognized degrees in Hungary. At the moment, entities that are based in an OECD country (such as the United States) can function through joint entities and partnerships in Hungary–this is the model used by Central European University, ever since its founding in 1991. As well, the bill would likely require CEU–a well-established name and brand in higher education–to change its name and the university could no longer employ academic staff from outside the EU, unless they obtain for them work permits.
“CEU celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. It has no other desire than to remain in Budapest. It is deeply embedded in Hungarian academic life (…) Any legislation that would make it difficult for CEU to operate in Hungary would destroy this fabric of cooperation with Hungarian institutions and the Hungarian public and would damage Hungary’s long-held reputation as a center of innovation, academic excellence and scientific inquiry”–indicated CEU’s statement.
It is worthwhile to note, on a coldly practical level, that Hungary needs CEU more than CEU needs Hungary. A column by Márton Bede on the 444.hu website noted as much Wednesday morning, entitled “Primitive Revenge Against CEU.”
If CEU had no choice but to wind down operations in Hungary, due to the unpredictability of the Hungarian government, several countries in the region would enthusiastically welcome the opportunity to provide CEU with a new home. I think, for instance, of Slovakia’s dynamic capital city, Bratislava, which has undergone impressive development in the last 10 years, is solidly within the euro zone and the European Union and is at commuting distance from Vienna.
Each year, CEU contributes more than 10 billion forints into Hungary’s national budget, purely through source deductions for its employees. Between 2011 and 2016, CEU received nearly €7 million in grants from the European Research Council and expects to receive another €15 million in the next five years–all funds that flow into Hungary. The university employs some 400 academics and around 600 people in academia and administration combined. It attracts 1,800 students each year, many of whom are foreigners who make their home in Hungary, rent apartments in Budapest and are consumers who help grow the local economy. More than 8,600 graduates of CEU are employed in public policy, diplomacy, all quarters of the civil service, research, law and international business around the world.
I would surprised if Fidesz did, in fact, want to eject CEU from Hungary. It is more likely that CEU, founded by the reviled George Soros, is a useful target for partisan propaganda purposes and a handy way to deflect attention from domestic ills in education and health care.
What Fidesz and its supporters need to realize sooner or later, is the hard reality that any mature adult already knows about him or herself: everybody is replaceable. Hungary and Hungarians are replaceable too.