Hungary: Showdown of 'illiberal state' vs. 'open society'

Hungary's effort to close Central European University, founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros in 1991, is another step in Prime Minister Viktor Orban's plan to transform his country into an "illiberal state," a narrower view of democracy which contrasts with the "open society" ideals promoted globally by Soros.

A law rushed through parliament on Tuesday sets new conditions for the 28 foreign universities operating in Hungary. Some of the requirements — such as carrying out teaching activities in their home countries — are seen specifically targeting CEU, which does not have an American campus. CEU is accredited in New York state and Hungary and its students can obtain diplomas accepted both locally and the United States. Orban says CEU is "cheating" by issuing two diplomas, giving it an unfair advantage over other local universities.

Hungary is demanding a binding, bilateral agreement with the U.S. government on CEU and another one with New York state.

Thousands attended two rallies against the law targeting CEU. Another protest has been announced for Sunday to ask President Janos Ader and the Constitutional Court to block the legislation.


Orban, an early supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, especially his anti-migrant stance and the vow to end America's "democracy export," said "goodwill" will lead the two governments and "therefore there is no reason for anyone to be nervous."

Orban, who has named Russia, China and Turkey as models for his "illiberal state," had great expectations that the Trump administration would be less critical than Barack Obama's about his efforts to undermine the democratic system of checks and balances, stifle media freedoms and increase the role of state control over the economy, sports, culture and practically all aspects of life in Hungary.

The U.S. State Department, however, has made it clear that CEU has "bipartisan support" in Washington and that it "will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary."


Orban may be aiming for an invitation to the White House, appearing to ally himself with Trump against Soros, a prominent backer of Hillary Clinton in last year's U.S. presidential election — while also trying to please with Russia.

"You are willing to sacrifice a university to finally get Donald Trump to host Viktor Orban," Gergely Barandy, a lawmaker with the opposition Socialist Party, told deputies from Orban's Fidesz party. "This may be too big a price to pay."

Orban, who has increased Hungary's dependence on Russia with a long-term nuclear energy deal, may also be doing a favor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he has hosted in Budapest twice in the last two years. "CEU ... is the training ground for the opponents of Putin and other illiberal politicians," Robert Braun, a former political consultant, said in an article published in the online magazine. "That is its mission."


The government says CEU is deceiving public opinion, but the president of Germany, hundreds of academics and many universities around the world, over a dozen Nobel Prize winners as well as the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Hungary's major universities have expressed solidarity with the university and its intention to remain in Budapest.

CEU enrolls over 1,400 students from 108 countries and offers master's and doctoral degrees in disciplines ranging from the social sciences to law, business and public policy.

The EU Commission, the bloc's executive body, plans to discuss the CEU issue next week.