Another one to go

Central European University and Orbán’s campaign against liberalism

The unscrupulous political attack at the Central European University (CEU), located in Budapest, can gain Viktor Orbán part of the votes of the extreme right party Jobbik. It is equally likely that this case is not solely about elimination of the nest of critical thinking but also about lucrative property the university occupies.

The new Hungarian Higher education act was approved and signed by the president with lightning speed, so typical for “democracies of the new type,” such as Hungary and Poland. The day the president endorsed the Act, April 10, tens of thousands of people protested against it in the center of Budapest. This is in spite of the fact that the new Act itself did not need to cause such great agitation. In many respects, the Act implements a similar legislation that is also familiar in the Czech Republic. The trouble is that the Central European University (CEU) can quite correctly infer that the Act was prepared to harm the university. Is that paranoia? Possibly elsewhere, but in Hungary, each new act is connected to the personal will of the Prime Minister and limitless leader of the country, Viktor Orbán. And it is Orbán who during a traditional February address pointed to founder of CEU, billionaire and philanthropist George Soros as the embodiment of one of five “attacks” that Hungarian politics will need to face in 2017.

It is mid 1930s and Hungary – like most of Europe – is gripped with anti-Semitic hysteria. The Budapest family of the Schwartz’s that does not think too much of its Jewish origin, changes its name for safety reasons. The choice is Soros, meaning, in Hungarian, something like “serial,” or “another one to go.”


End of liberalism – a new era

The irony of fate is CEU, founded by Soros, Soros himself and all he represents – all this is next to go in Orbán’s grand campaign against liberalism – the ideology whose end this former Hungarian liberal ceremoniously proclaimed at that February speech. Since 2010, this campaign has dealt with a great number of topics: the Hungarian constitution and the entire political system along with it, tens of new constitutional laws, including the election law, but also the European union and refugees from the Near East and, as Orbán likes to say, from the “depths” of Africa. For even the CEU case includes a “migration line” since Soros allegedly funds migration to Europe.

Orbán is a politician who thinks – or at least talks – in strong ideological schemes. Even his grand February speeches can be read as preparatory ideological firing. In his first speech, he announced the end of liberalism, referring to Trump and Brexit. This historical turn is allegedly caused by a rebellion of the middle class against wealthy elites, nations against “globalists,” and “sovereignists: against “Brusselists” in Europe. Wealthy cosmopolitan Soros, also mentioned in the speech, perfectly represents perhaps everything that the new era seeks to sink. It is not only the fondness for constructing new “isms” but also for targeting some specific ones that connects Orbán with Václav Klaus. As an example, Orbán’s second speech aimed more closely at “NGOism” (without specifically using this new term coined by Klaus), and delineated an issue of an overt power of international nongovernmental organizations that allegedly openly influence and attempt to manipulate Hungarian politics as one of the major fields of conflicts within Hungarian politics. As an example: the other four themes also revolve around clashes between national, Hungarian politics and national interest with foreign centers of power (mainly the European Union).


Center versus periphery

But the hostile “foreign context” can be successfully found inside the country as well. The liberally leftist Budapest tends to form an oppositional island in the electoral map controlled by Fidesz. Soros and CEU well represent this mental resistance of the metropolis. The entire issue has its deeper and more personal level. At the turn of the 1980s and the 1990s, the founding elite of Fidesz, a former student protest underground anticommunist movement, stood in latent opposition against the major stream of the Hungarian dissent – generationally older and once by Marxism influenced Budapest intellectuals who were affected by the 1956 experience and the human rights movement of the 1970s. Orbán and many of the Fidesz founders represent another story: youth coming from the countryside or smaller towns to study in the metropolis where they first meet (and culturally clash with) its cultural elite. What relevance does this old story have today? The liberal dissenters later became allies of the “postcommunist” left in the partisan politics and continued to occupy the position practically until Orbán’s triumphal ascension to power. They were allies prior to his first administration between 1998 and 2002 as well as afterward. And Soros has always supported this very stream of Hungarian politics.

Soros is everything but a secretive manipulator of politics. Rather, he intervenes in the politics quite openly through his foundations. In the USA, he has long financially supported the Democrats and he also contributed to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. After the elections when many attempted to smooth the edges, Soros unusually fiercely called Trump a con man and would-be dictator destined to fail. Orbán can hope that his loud fight against Soros cements his American line. After all, the new Higher education act states that foreign nonunionized universities first need to arrange an international agreement with a corresponding government and the institution needs to obtain an approval of the corresponding foreign country. This is a condition that CEU cannot comply with upfront since in the US the establishment of new universities is up to individual states.

Orbán can be accused of many things, just not of antisemitism. In his attacks at Soros, at least from what is known from open sources, he never even subliminally mentioned his Jewish background. This does not change the fact that currently the most powerful opposition party in Hungary is the extremely right wing Jobbik. The party’s representatives expressed, especially in the past, their more or less anti-Semitic statements, such as about an overt influence of Jewish circles within the cosmopolitan liberally-leftist Budapest elite. But it also needs to be added that recently, Jobbik has systematically attempted to present itself as a “typical” non-extremist party and cut down its rhetoric. In the CEU’s case, Jobbik’s MPs supported the opposition initiative for a constitutional review of the new Act, even if they did not forget to add that this does not mean support of Soros who they consider to be a representative of an extremist liberal ideology.  If Jobbik’s “centripetal” maneuver meets Orbán’s escalation of the course in a constellation that is favorable for the Prime Minister, Fidesz can hope that a number of disappointed and confused Jobbik followers turn to them. 


House of terror instead of university?

In conclusion, it is necessary to add that everything can be different, and that far shallower motives, quite literary, can be accounted for the elaborate ideological formulations and personifications of opposite principles and ideals. There are speculations in Hungary that if CEU closes doors, the Terror Háza Múzeum (or Museum House of Terror) and its director Mária Schmidt, who personally and very fiercely joined the attacks at Soros, is interested in the lucrative properties of the university. The mission of Schmidt’s institution is memory politics: remembering the terrors of Nazism (the arrow cross regime during the German occupation between 1944 and 1945) and communism (during the entire existence from the Stalinist period, the Nagy experiment in 1956 to the long Kadar period resulting in the so called “goulash socialism”) that are officially placed side by side (per the Hungarian constitution). In contrast, Horthy’s interwar fascist dictatorship is not discussed. Orbán would certainly be more pleased if it was the House of Terror, promoting the state historical doctrine, that would teach contemporary history of the country, rather than a university with its academic mission to raise questions, challenge, and test various hypotheses. A foreign university at that.

Author is a political scientist.