Hungary Closes Soros's University: Lessons On The Creeping Decline of Democracy

On Monday, the Central European University was forced out of Hungary, the latest victim of Prime Minster Victor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Founded in 1991 by Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros, the CEU has become one of the leading universities in Central Europe, with world-class programs in politics and international studies. In recent years, Orban has targeted the CEU and Soros as part of his broader efforts to undermine democratic institutions in Hungary. What is happening in that country provides a frightening example of how authoritarianism takes hold—not in one dramatic moment, but gradually, with a series of incremental measures consolidating central government control. As in many places around the world where democracy is under assault, Hungary also illustrates a dramatic abdication of U.S. leadership in response.

Founded in a more hopeful era, the CEU initially opened its doors as the Soviet empire entered a terminal decline and democratic states began emerging in Eastern and Central Europe. The vision of the school’s founders was to examine contemporary challenges to open, rights-respecting societies and to educate the next generation of leaders in that region. Soros and his colleagues sought to follow a Western-style educational model, but with a distinctly Eastern and Central European culture and focus. Twenty-five years later, the school has grown significantly and now has an enrollment of almost 1,500 students from more than 100 countries.

CEU’s success and democratic orientation unnerved Orban, who has increasingly ruled Hungary with an iron fist since he was elected Prime Minister in 2010. Orban has abandoned his early political orientation as a freedom fighter against Soviet domination. In 1989, he received a Soros-funded scholarship to study political science at Oxford. Returning to Hungary, he quickly emerged as a leader of a new political party, Fidesz, meaning the Alliance of Young Democrats, which was created to challenge Soviet control. Elected to Parliament in 1993, he became Fidesz’s first president. Orban rose rapidly in national politics, and in 1998, at age 35, he became Prime Minster. After he was voted out of office in 2002, he spent eight years as leader of the opposition.  When he regained power in 2010, he quickly abandoned his democratic reputation and began to consolidate his control of the country, creating what he himself has called an “illiberal democracy.”

Orban’s strategy has included the targeting of CEU and its founder and financial benefactor, Soros. By mid-2017, Orban was in full attack mode, launching a billboard campaign in Budapest that denounced  Soros as an “enemy of the state.”  Next, Orban persuaded the parliament to adopt so-called stop-Soros laws, which were designed to make the CEU ineligible to continue operating in Hungary. Despite tireless efforts by the university’s outstanding rector, Michael Ignatieff, and interventions by a wide range of European governments and academic leaders from around the world, Orban remained defiant and ultimately forced CEU to shut down.  Ignatieff announced on Monday that the school will relocate its primary campus to Vienna next fall. Absent an eleventh-hour reversal by the Orban government, CEU’s remarkable journey in Hungary will end, with only a handful of courses still being taught in Budapest. “Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom,” the school said in a prepared statement announcing its move.  “It’s a dark day for Europe, and a dark day for Hungary.”

Three lessons emerge from this disturbing saga. First, efforts by authoritarian leaders to destroy democracy often are not undertaken suddenly, but rather through a series of incremental measures that have the effect of crippling democratic institutions. Orban’s actions over the last eight years are a textbook example of how this works. Rallying Hungarians with fiery rhetoric that plays to anti-immigrant sentiments, Orban has steadily centralized executive powers, restricted free speech and press freedom and weakened the courts. He has espoused a virulent brand of nationalism by, for example, rejecting efforts by the European Union to have all EU countries share the responsibility for new immigrants coming from Syria and other war-torn countries.

Second, anti-Semitism is often an element in an authoritarian surge. Orban’s attacks against Soros have focused on Soros’ support for more generous immigration policies and for his financial backing of human rights organizations in Hungary. But the assault against Soros, who is Jewish, needs to be considered against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitism in Hungary and across Europe. Last week, CNN released the results of an extensive poll that showed a dramatic upswing in anti-Semitic attitudes on the continent. Forty percent of the Hungarians CNN surveyed said Jews have too much influence in business and global finance. Roughly a third said they have too much influence in global politics, while a quarter believe that Jews have too great an influence in the media.

Finally the Hungarian case provides yet another example of the absence of U.S. leadership on human rights and the profound consequences of this country’s dramatic retreat. As in so many places, the Trump Administration is not just failing to lead, it is adopting positions that defend the indefensible. The current U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, exemplifies the pattern. In an interview with The Washington Post last week, he refused to criticize Orban, calling him a “friend.” Cornstein sought instead to pin the blame on Soros. He compared his own experience as a jeweler selling his products in department stores:  “I was a guest in another guy’s store,” he said. “The University is in another country. It would pay to work with the government.” Stunningly, he concluded that CEU’s forced closure “doesn’t have anything to do with academic freedom.” What is most shocking about this complete abdication of U.S. leadership is that it has become the new normal, an approach that reflects the President’s own values and instincts with respect to these issues.

Ultimately, we can hope that democratic institutions in the U.S. are strong and that we will recover our equilibrium, reject the Trump doctrine on human rights and elect a president who will seek to restore U.S. leadership in the world. But the long-term cost of the current administration’s abandonment of principle in places like Hungary will be incalculable.