Features CEU’s fate a symbol of what went wrong

In Hungary, the amount of protest to follow the announcement of Lex CEU was probably underestimated by the government, yet one relatively unexpected feature was that even a number of influential conservative public figures went against the prime minister and showed their support for CEU.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2017: 1-2, p 31
Published on balticworlds.com on June 13, 2017

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Many of us have been shocked by the Hungarian government’s intention to close CEU. However, it was not such a hasty decision as it appeared. Changing the laws on higher education and on organizations cofunded from foreign sources has for a while been on the hidden agenda.1 Interestingly enough, a number of influential members of the Fidesz government opposed Lex CEU (as it was soon called) at an early stage. Members including the Minister of Human Resources, the State Secretary for Higher Education, and even the party’s vice-president. It may recall historic times — or purely reflect ancient power-exercising tactics — that in the end it was the Minister of Human Resources who had to work out the technical details of the new legislation.

Either way, the Hungarian government has been bashing George Soros for weeks before announcing Lex CEU. In February, the Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán said that “[i]nternational organizations operating in Hungary and calling themselves ‘non-governmental’ — though in fact attempting to influence Hungarian politics while representing the interests of global capital with paid activists using money from abroad — must be made accountable and transparent”,2 implicitly calling for legislation like that in Russia. Orbán added that “[o]ver the past twenty years we have tolerated the existence of these organizations, but their behavior in relation to migration is the final straw”. For months, Hungarian public media have been more and more explicitly conveying the message that George Soros is largely to blame for “the migrants” and that NGOs supported by him cooperate with human smugglers in North Africa.

As an influential American financier with roots in Budapest, Soros makes a particularly welcome enemy representing global domination in Hungary3 but also beyond. While it is true that several mayors across Central and Eastern Europe have invited CEU should it have to leave Hungary, there is at least as much opposition against such a move, for instance in Slovakia4 and the Czech Republic.5 In the midst of its huge and long-lasting domestic political crisis, Macedonia in particular has seen the rise of an anti-Soros movement,6 vividly reported on by Hungarian public media.

In Hungary, the amount of protest to follow the announcement of Lex CEU was probably underestimated by the government, yet one relatively unexpected feature was that even a number of influential conservative public figures went against the prime minister and showed their support for CEU.7 This is particularly important in a society as ideologically divided as Hungary.

At the same time, one of the most surprising yet interesting commentaries came from Róbert Braun, a leading researcher at the Vienna Institute for Advanced Studies and professor at the Lauder Business School. Up until 2005, Braun also held strategic positions as advisor to the prime ministers of the Hungarian socialist government, but he is now looking more critically at his and others’ roles in shaping the country. According to Braun, CEU has created a Western elite power ghetto, which he sees as justified but carrying huge risks.8 Whereas the institution’s teaching and research achievements are unquestionable, CEU has also become a symbol of the failures of integration and Westernization: a few have succeeded, the majority has not; those inside have research funding, an ideal working environment, etc. Braun reminds us that symbols can be destroyed even if they carry great value.

In the end, the dramatic fate of CEU has shown us at least three important things. One, power concentration in Hungary may now be at its peak, but is unlikely to remain so for long, due to growing protest from within. Second, large-scale bottom-up mobilization is not dead in Hungary. Last and not least, a dramatic event such as this has the side effect of delivering some critical self-reflection by elites, past and present, on the socially diverging effects of Westernization and transformation in Central and Eastern Europe.≈


1          http://diepresse.com/home/ausland/aussenpolitik/5200909/UniGesetz-spaltet-OrbanPartei?from=suche.intern.portal.

2          http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/news/the-representatives-of-global-capital-must-be-made-accountable.

3          http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2017-04/ungarn-orban-soros-ceu-universitaet.

4          https://spectator.sme.sk/c/20502211/slovakia-does-not-want-soros-uni.html.

5          http://zpravy.e15.cz/domaci/udalosti/sorosova-univerzita-se-do-prahy-stehovat-nechce-1330910.

6          https://spectator.org/macedonia-to-george-soros-and-usaid-go-away/.

7          http://mandiner.hu/cikk/20170416_kiraly_miklos_valasz_orban_viktornak_avagy_miert_tiltakoznak_a_professzorok.

8          http://hvg.hu/itthon/20170403_bun_es_hiba_ceu_braun.

  • by Péter Balogh

    Péter Balogh’s research focuses on geopolitical narratives in Hungary and Central and Eastern Europe. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Regional Studies, CERS-HAS, where he is critically analysing how and why the notion of ‘Central Europe’ has been changing over the past years.

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