After a massive protest in Budapest on Sunday involving more than 70,000 demonstrators–who called for academic freedom and freedom in general in authoritarian Hungary–and after receiving letters and petitions from dozens of universities, academic associations and scholars abroad, President János Áder signed off on a bill that, in its current form, will make it impossible for Central European University to continue operating in Hungary beyond January 2018. According to Mr. Áder, the bill–which was designed specifically with CEU in mind, in order to strike a blow at the regime’s public enemy number one, George Soros–is not unconstitutional. Mr. Áder also remarked that the law would not impact any student who is currently studying at CEU or any other university-they will be able to complete their program as normal.
The now enacted legislation will, however, make it impossible for CEU to enroll any new students in the next academic year, unless the school somehow manages to open a new campus by September 2017 and if the State of New York, as well as the Trump administration all agree to negotiate a new agreement with the Orbán government. The tight timeline and the fact that the U.S. federal government does not have purview in this area, all but make any deal unattainable.
Mr. Áder said that he recognized that many students, researchers, professors and administrators now worry about the future of their universities. As such, the president asks the government to begin negotiations immediately, so as to ensure that “not a speck of doubt remains about whether foreign universities operating in Hungary will have the conditions in place to allow them to continue with their high quality work.”
It cannot be stressed enough that Mr. Áder is not an independent political player. Since assuming office in 2012, he has not once vetoed any bill of real significance, that was seen as important to Prime Minister Orbán. Mr. Áder is, in fact, one of the architects of the electoral reform that aims to keep Fidesz in power.
Now that Mr. Áder has signed off on the bill, one quarter of parliamentarians may request that the Constitutional Court review the legislation. The only way that this could happen is if the left-wing opposition and Jobbik unite to demand this together. CEU may also turn to the Constitutional Court, launching a legal challenge to the law. The problem is that this would in no way suspend the conditions of the new law. CEU would have to comply with these conditions, if it wishes to continue operating in Budapest, regardless of its legal challenge.
Perhaps the last hope may be if the ombudsman requests that the Constitutional Court suspend the implementation of the law until the end of any legal review.
A few words are in order about Sunday’s massive protest, drawing the most youthful crowd of protesters seen to date in the past seven years since the start of Viktor Orbán’s so-called Regime of National Cooperation (NER). Estimates of how many protested in downtown Budapest range from 60,000 to 80,000. The pro-regime media (most notably the Origo website) claimed that George Soros had flown in protesters from abroad–a completely absurd and patently false claim. The pro-regime media also claimed that the number of people who showed up to protest was far less than what organizers had expected. Again, this is an outright lie: the protest’s Facebook page showed that approximately 40,000 intended to demonstrate. In the end, almost double this number showed up on the streets.
The majority of Hungarians who get their news from either the public broadcaster or from regional, county-level papers would have thought that nothing of importance happened on Sunday. The regional papers simply did not bother reporting on the massive protest at all. Some people likened the bizarre and forced silence, and the outright lies of Origo and other pro-regime news organs, to when the Kádár regime referred to the 1956 Revolution as “the unfortunate event,” and turned discussion of it into a taboo.
The protest itself was an odd one. The initial crowd that had gathered was large and enthusiastic, but clearly seeking some sort of leadership and direction. There was none. When the formal protest had ended and the organizers asked people to disperse, around 3,000 to 4,000 people remained and launched illegal protests, first attempting to break into Parliament, and then marching over to the Ministry of Human Capacities, and attempting to lay siege of the building. In both cases, they were not able to get past the riot police. Some threw bottles and other projectiles at the police. They then did manage to shut down Budapest’s main ring road at Oktogon and began marching towards Fidesz party headquarters near Heroes’ Square, all the while taunting police and in some cases asking them to join the side of the protesters. The enthusiasm of earlier in the day turned into palpable anger, and the vast majority of these more “radical” protesters were Hungarians in their late teens, twenties and thirties. Some journalists felt that a good number of them were high school students. The protesters emphasized that this was no longer just about CEU–it was about restoring freedom to Hungary, throwing the leaders of NER into prison and demolishing the regime.
According to current plans, another mass protest is planned for Wednesday. Unless a group or an individual takes control and gives it some direction, it could take on a life of its own.