Days after a bomber sent a crude explosive device to the home of billionaire George Soros, the progressive philanthropist’s flagship university in Budapest announced Hungary’s far-right government is forcing the school to move its operations to Austria.
Central European University, a widely respected academic institution founded by Soros in 1991, has repeatedly come under fire from Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government as authorities crack down on the country’s liberal institutions. Last year, Orban passed a law that put new regulations on foreign-registered universities, threatening CEU’s future in Hungary.
But even though CEU says it complied with the new rules, Orban’s government hasn’t accredited the university. “We did everything to satisfy the Hungarian government, as we are deeply attached to Budapest, but the government seems to have made up its mind,” Zsolt Enyedi, a political science professor at CEU, told HuffPost.
Unless the government relents in the next month, CEU President Michael Ignatieff said, the university will have to shift its degree programs and new students to Vienna, where the institution can operate freely.
“We’re being forced out of a country that’s been our home for 26 years,” he said at a press conference on Thursday.
The long-running fight over CEU, which has brought tens of thousands of people into the street to demonstrate against the government in recent years, is part of a wider campaign by the prime minister to frame Soros as a scheming mastermind dead set on overthrowing the government and bringing mass African migration to Hungary.
Although anti-Soros rhetoric is rampant on the far right in many countries, Hungary’s government leads the world when it comes to contempt for Soros and use of the billionaire as a scapegoat. Orban’s government blames Soros for everything from the refugee crisis to the European Union’s criticism of Orban’s increasing authoritarianism. During elections this year, anti-Soros billboards were ubiquitous, and Orban used anti-Semitic tropes, warning of an “international” enemy that “speculates with money.” In one video from a major pro-Orban news outlet, an altered “Lord of the Rings” clip showed Soros’ face superimposed on the leader of an orc army. Soros was born in Hungary to a Jewish family.
The government’s so-called anti-Soros laws, passed this year, have also targeted civil society organizations and criminalized aid for migrants and refugees. Members of Orban’s Fidesz party have repeatedly demonstrated outside aid agencies such as Amnesty International, putting stickers on their office doors reading, “organization supporting migration.”
But the government’s pressure on CEU has garnered special attention from diplomats and become a major issue for the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, who issued a statement on Thursday saying he remains committed to reaching a deal between the government and the university.
Last week Orban’s government announced it was revoking accreditation and funding for gender studies programs because “people are born either male or female” and it opposes discussing gender as a social construct.
“It is a strategic and unnecessary loss for Hungarian higher education and for academic freedom globally,” Andrea Peto, the head of CEU’s gender studies department, said of the move.
Hungary’s rights groups similarly opposed the government’s actions, calling on European Union courts to swiftly respond to protect academic freedom.
“It’s time for European and US decision-makers to recognise Hungary’s government for what it truly is: utterly disrespectful of the rule of law and selfishly eager to escalate the political fight before the [European Parliament] elections next May,” Marta Pardavi, a co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization that receives some of its funding from Soros-run foundations, said via email.
In typical fashion, Hungary’s government blamed Soros for the university’s move to Vienna. The government claimed that the new academic laws affected only CEU’s ability to issue U.S.-accredited degrees and don’t threaten its ability to operate in Hungary ― something the university disputes.
“CEU’s move to Vienna is another wily maneuver,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs tweeted. “A Soros-style political ploy.”