As guest blogger for the month, I’m going to be talking about Hungary, where I’ve been doing field research in since 2004. In doing so, I also have to talk about Trump. I don’t want to, but I have to, since Hungary has had a far right populist leader for a lot longer than the U.S. Viktor Orbán is the head of the right-wing party, Fidesz, and has been the prime minister of Hungary since 2010. Pretty much everything Trump has threatened to do, Orbán has already done louder and more effectively. Demonize the press as purveyors of “fake news”? Check. One of Orbán’s first acts in office was to change the constitution to limit the power of the free press. Now the vast majority of the media outlets are controlled by the government, private entities closely tied to the ruling party, or fear for their closure. Build a wall to keep out immigrants? Check. A razor-wire border fence stands at the southern border of Hungary to keep out asylum-seekers, most of whom international agencies claim meet the definition of a refugee. Attack institutes of higher education as breeding grounds for liberalism? Check. Last Tuesday, March 28th, legislative amendments were introduced that could effectively close Central European University (CEU), an institution that has stood as a proponent of internationalism and democracy since 1991.
These newly proposed amendments would put restrictions on foreign institutions of higher education operating in Hungary. No institutions were mentioned by name; a government spokesperson said that the amendments targeted 28 foreign universities operating unlawfully by not complying with regulations. Most, however, see the proposed changes as a way to attack one university in specific, Central European University. CEU is an international, English-language graduate-level institution based in Budapest founded in 1991 in response to the fall of the Soviet Bloc with the intention of fostering open society, democracy, and anti-totalitarianism. It was founded by a group of intellectuals, but is remembered as the brain child of George Soros, Hungarian born American billionaire who is still a notable figurehead of the school as Honorary Chairman of the Board. CEU is truly international, with students from over 100 countries and five continents. Students can receive masters and doctoral degrees in several fields of study, but the university is most known for its focus on public policy, international studies, and nationalism studies. CEU students are generally known for the activism as well, and many mobilized to run Wi-Fi and charging stations for the refugees stranded in the Budapest train stations in the summer of 2015.
The legislative amendments mandate that the institution stop giving US-accredited degrees (the university is accredited in both the United States and Hungary), operate a campus in the United States where it was founded, change its name, and end the agreement whereby non-EU staff do not need a work permit. The current rector of the university, Michael Ignatieff, has stated that these regulations would make it impossible to function, but has also said they would fight the legislation by every legal means necessary. At a press conference on Wednesday he passionately claimed that CEU would not close. He assured enrolled students that they would receive their degrees and encouraged prospective students to apply. He asserted that they have done nothing wrong and have worked within the law since their establishment.
Orbán has long portrayed George Soros as his archenemy and the nemesis of the Hungarian people, despite the fact that many argue Orbán owes his political career to Soros and that Soros himself has been largely removed from Hungarian political and civil society for many years. But since the era of transition, Soros has been associated with the promotion of liberal democracy. When Orbán is actively calling for an illiberal democracy, Soros comes to stand for everything the new Hungary is against. While Soros and the organizations associated with him (CEU as well as the Open Society Foundations) support a free press, Orbán’s government is responsible for closing one of the leading Hungarian newspapers. While Soros is an advocate of expanding civil sectors, Orbán has maligned nongovernmental organizations as foreign supported agents of chaos. Attacking CEU is one more step in a multifaceted and ongoing plan to move Hungarian society to a closed-nationalistic stalwart. Therefore, this legislation is not aimed at simply closing CEU but closing all avenues to liberal democracy in the country.
It is also a symbolic attack on anything deemed un-Hungarian. As an international university, CEU seems to stand out in Budapest. In the coffee shops and restaurants surrounding the school, you are more likely to hear English than Hungarian. CEU students and international support staff do not typically learn Hungarian. Conversations at CEU are global and humanitarian in scope. In the past, the international intellectualism encouraged by the university was something seen to be a benefit to Hungary. Now, the spotlight CEU shines on Hungary is not necessarily one the current government finds favorable and is in opposition to the more isolationist stance they have adopted.
The attempt to close CEU is even more troubling than it seems at first glance. CEU is not the focus. Rather, democracy, humanitarianism, and globalism are. The attempt to close CEU is just the most recent in a long series of parliamentary acts meant to fundamentally change Hungary’s social and political landscape. And we should expect more changes to come. When I was in Hungary at the beginning of March, I asked several CEU faculty, students, and staff if they were concerned about the future of their university. Most told me that they believed in the satiability of the university and doubted that Orbán’s words could be turned into actions. However, if the legislation proposed on Tuesday evening shows us anything, it’s that nothing should be dismissed as rhetorical posturing.
Prior to Trump’s election, Hungary was my focus of study. I fretted over the move to populism in the country and I bemoaned the changes to the Constitution that were made that I and my leftist intellectual friends in Hungary saw as ultimately harming anyone who is not a part of the socio-economic elite. Since Trump election in the United States, my concern over what I saw happening in Hungary has become so much more personal. I have also watched as my friends in Hungary become more hopeless and fearful as a result of the outcome of the U.S. election. Trump’s inauguration emboldened Orbán. The prime minister lauded the inauguration of Donald Trump as the “end of multilateralism” and stated that as a result, “We have received permission from, if you like, the highest position in the world so we can now put ourselves in first place.”
Now, putting themselves “in first place” means attacking institutes of learning. CEU has the support of the international community and has received many public statements of support from other Hungarian universities, the U.S. Embassy, and the U.S. Department of State. The university of has launched a full-scale resistance and is encouraging people to engage in acts of solidarity by writing a letter of support, using the hashtag #istandwithceu, signing a petition, or changing their profile picture to show CEU solidarity. A large demonstration held today (Sunday, April 2nd) brought out many people to show their support for CEU and opposition to the proposed changes. Since the right wing party has the clear majority, public displays of support may have little effect, and, indeed, the government has shown itself to be quite resistant to protest. That being said, Hungary seems to be receiving push-back from governments that they need to keep as allies. U.S. and European governments have been surprisingly silent on Hungary’s treatment of refugees (which I will discuss in my next post) which has meant that a number of discriminatory policies have been passed and enacted. The closing of CEU may not go so unnoticed.
As an anthropologist, my focus of study is nongovernmental organizations, and until recently I did this research in countries that met the definition of liberal democracy. The political changes in Hungary and the United States have thrust me into the world of populism in a way that feels very sudden. I’d appreciate hearing from people who have more experience studying the processes and effects of populism. Both personally and professionally, I am a little out of my depths. But it is clear to me that the proposed amendments should not be viewed as an attack on a singular institution. Rather, this is one small part of dismantling the larger social structure. Orbán’s tactics have been extremely effective and it seems that Trump is following the same playbook.