The Central European University (CEU), cofounded by billionaire George Soros after the fall of communism to help eastern and central Europe’s transition to democracy, is in the crosshairs of Hungary’s government.
To Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Soros is not a philanthropist, but a rapacious financier looking to undermine nation states, while the university, which is in the middle of Budapest, is a laboratory of dangerous ideas breaking the rules.
In April, parliament fast-tracked a law that the university says would force it to close.
It is enrolling students for the 2017-2018 academic year, but further ahead the situation is not clear.
In 1989, Soros and his fellow “visionary intellectuals” wanted to lay the foundations for “democratic societies that respect human rights and adhere to the rule of law,” the university Web site says.
Others included former Czech president Vaclav Havel.
The university’s first classes were held in Prague in 1991 with 100 students from 20 countries. In 1993 it moved to Soros’ native Budapest and many of its alumni have played important public roles. They include Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius.
Former Romanian minister of Justice Monica Macovei, who is now a member of the European Parliament, told reporters that her education studying constitutional law at the university in 1992 and 1993 “changed my life.”
“During my time in CEU I fell in love for life with human rights,” said Macovei, who is now on the university’s board of trustees.
Since 2000 the university has “gone global,” marketing itself to all parts of the world, deputy rector Liviu Mateir said.
It has almost 1,500 students from 117 countries.
“Unlike at the Hungarian university where I did my BA, we have this equal position here, we can challenge the professors,” said Luca Laszlo, 21, who is taking a master’s in political science. “They appreciate when you have good comments and questions.”
One of those attracted to teach at the university is Anil Duman, a visiting professor in political science who was offered a post after losing her job in her native Turkey in the massive government crackdown on academics.
However, now the 39-year-old fears for the future.
“I thought Budapest was a haven from persecution, but now I’m reluctant to even sign a lease renewal for my apartment,” she said.
The reason is that like in other countries in the region, the knives are out for Soros.
Orban has called him a “public enemy” who has “destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans.”
In addition to the university law, legislation expected to pass this month will force civil society groups — many of which receive money from Soros — to disclose how much foreign funding they receive.
Their publications will have to be stamped with “foreign-funded organization.”
Washington has urged the suspension of the university law and Hungary has so far defied demands by Brussels to change the legislation or face a so-called infringement procedure.
Orban denies that the university — which he calls “the Soros university” — is being forced out.
He said the new rules remove unfair advantages that 28 foreign-registered universities enjoy over local counterparts like offering degrees accredited in two countries.
If treaties are not signed by October between Hungary and both the US federal and New York State governments, the university could lose its operating licence for the 2018-2019 academic year.
The law is “vandalism,” Andras Bozoki, a Hungarian professor of political science, told reporters. “PhD students come here for four or five years, it’s a long-term thing, some may be hesitating whether to accept offers from the CEU or not.”
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