A Battle For Intellectual Freedom in Hungary

BY HUGO RIOS

(Associated Press)

(Associated Press)

The government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, elected in 2010 under the leadership of the populist Fidesz party, has assaulted higher education by passing a law placing new restrictions on foreign universities. Under the new law, foreign universities are banned from operating in Hungary unless they have a campus in Hungary and in the host country that grants them accreditation. The Hungarian government included a compromise: foreign universities have been given an unrealistic deadline of one year to comply with the requirements. Critics of the law view as the Hungarian government’s attempt to purposefully target the Central European University, founded in 1991 by Hungarian-American George Soros as a democratic institution to primarily serve students who had resided in the former communist states under the influence of the Soviet Union. Soros and Orbán have an indirect connection with each other as Orbán attended Oxford University in Great Britain with the aid from a scholarship sponsored by Soros himself.

But the Hungarian government views the Central European University, and by extension Soros and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) he funds, as challenges to its rule. The most prominent Soros NGO in Hungary, the Open Society Foundation (OSF), lists in its mission statement that it seeks to “strengthen the rule of law; respect for human rights, minorities, and a diversity of opinions; democratically elected governments; and a civil society that helps keep government power in check,” a left-leaning agenda that the right-leaning Hungarian government perceives as a threat to its rule as the agenda, if implemented, would strengthen the Hungarian opposition. Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs, who ironically is a graduate of the Central European University, has stated, “We do have a problem with George Soros – or rather George Soros has a problem with us. He’s been using his money and influence – through his NGOs – to put pressure on Hungary.” Soros promotes left-leaning ideas that are in contrast to the right-leaning Hungarian government, which likely would be less inclined to attempt to ban the Central European University if its owner held right-leaning views.

Since Hungary is a former communist state and Soros seeks to promote democratic values in his homeland, the Hungarian government strongly believes that he has ulterior motives. In response to the Hungarian government’s distrust of NGOs, another law is currently being considered that which will force NGOs with a yearly overseas income of over $25,000 to register with the Hungarian government, directly affecting all of the NGOs that Soros funds in Hungary. The NGOs’ sources of funding would have to be made public, allowing the Hungarian government to influence the opinions of its citizens regarding these NGOs. The OSF has denounced this law as a “thinly-veiled political bid to put pressure on critical voices in a time of growing authoritarianism.” The Hungarian government’s support of new restrictions seems to be more of a tactic to cast Soros, and by extension Western nations such as the United States, as agents seeking to control Hungarian politics.

Criticism of the Hungarian government from the international community has been limited so far. First vice president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who views the foreign university law as a possible violation of the European Union’s laws that Hungary is obligated to follow, stated that “we need to quickly complete a thorough legal assessment of [the new law’s] compatibility with the free movement of services and the freedom of establishment.” With the European Union set to release an initial report on the legality of the foreign university law by the end of April, tensions between the European Union and the Hungarian government will continue to rise since both sides have already been arguing on other crucial issues such as immigration. From the American government, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Yee has expressed a stronger critique of Hungary’s foreign university law: “The United States is concerned by this legislation…because it targets (CEU) very clearly and threatens…this important American Hungarian institution.” Although the United States has expressed disapproval of Hungary’s law, concerns about Russia in European affairs mean that its alliance with Hungary is more important to maintain than protecting the independence of the CEU.

 

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