An assault on a Hungarian university shows authoritarianism in action

Ibrar Hussein Mirzai is an 18-year-old refugee from Afghanistan living in Hungary. A member of the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority, he fled under threat of violence and traveled across Asia in hopes of crossing into the European Union. He spent three months living in a “transit zone” along the Hungarian border — a glorified detention center for migrants that forbade him from contacting his family and friends — before crossing the border in April 2017.

By the time I met Ibrar in June of this year, he had managed to build a life in Hungary. He attributed that in part to Budapest’s Central European University (CEU), one of the very few places in anti-migrant Hungary where refugees are welcome. CEU’s Open Learning Initiative (OLIve), a program tailored for migrants, helped Ibrar improve his English and get enrolled in an international high school.

“For refugees, education is a big problem here,” he told me when we met on CEU’s campus. “I completed my one year here with [the] OLIve program … which I really liked.”

Yet now, no one in Hungary — migrants and native-born alike — will be able to benefit from CEU’s world-class programs. On Monday, the university announced that it was leaving Budapest and decamping for Vienna, bowing to nearly two years of pressure from the Hungarian government that started with an anodyne-sounding 2017 higher education law that was designed to hamstring CEU specifically.

“The government has never even tried to pretend that there were academic grounds for their actions,” the university wrote in a press release. “Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom. It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary.”

But CEU’s demise was not entirely “arbitrary.” The university was a casualty of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s turn toward authoritarianism, his development of a quietly repressive system that I’ve termed “soft fascism.” CEU, a university dedicated to liberal principles and founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, posed a threat to Orbán’s ideological project. So he put in place a set of characteristically sneaky regulations aimed at forcing out CEU without needing to formally ban them, eventually crushing the university’s ability to operate.

The demise of CEU in Hungary, a kind of legalistic murder by a thousand cuts, is the story of democracy’s death in Hungary in microcosm. And the United States under Trump isn’t stopping Orbán’s crackdown. In fact, it’s cheering him on.

CEU and Hungary’s slide into soft fascism

Soros founded CEU in 1991, amid the fall of communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe. His plan, as CEU’s website explains, was to cement the transition to democracy in Hungary and other post-communist nations.

“Soros championed the project because he understood that open societies can flourish only with people in positions of responsibility who are educated to promote them,” the school’s website notes. “His vision was to … train future generations of scholars, professionals, politicians, and civil society leaders to contribute to building open and democratic societies that respect human rights and adhere to the rule of law.”

CEU, on this theory, is not just an ordinary house of learning. It’s a forward-looking part of Hungarian democracy, one designed to maintain the country’s move to democracy for the decades to come. Such an institution would, for obvious reasons, be a threat to any incipient authoritarian leader.

And make no mistake: Since the 2010 election, which Orbán’s Fidesz party won with a parliamentary supermajority, Hungary’s prime minister has governed like an authoritarian. Fidesz rewrote parts of the constitution within months of taking power.

Parliamentary districts were redrawn and gerrymandered to give Fidesz a leg up. The new constitution packed the country’s courts, creating new seats that Orbán filled with loyalists. Civil servants were fired en masse, and Fidesz allies were installed in vital roles, like election supervision. Hungary’s state broadcaster was brought under the control of a new media board, and its editorial outlook began to mirror Fidesz’s positions.

No single one of these moves destroyed democracy in Hungary. Cumulatively, though, they created a system in which it was very difficult for the opposition to compete on a fair playing field. Minor changes to the political and electoral system, each one potentially defensible on its own terms, amounted to an attempt to undermine the functioning of Hungarian democracy.

Orbán ran a similar playbook against private actors who could potentially put a check on his power. After the 2010 victory, the Fidesz government used the state’s regulatory tools to pressure media corporations to sell to the state or to oligarchs aligned with Fidesz. Tactics included withholding government advertising dollars, selectively blocking mergers that would allow outlets to expand, and imposing punitive taxes on ad revenue. By 2017, 90 percent of all media in Hungary was owned by either the state or a Fidesz ally, according to a count by CEU professor Marius Dragomir.

It was inevitable that CEU itself would become a target of this crackdown. Not only is it an avowedly liberal institution, but the government had recently begun using Soros himself as a kind of propaganda boogeyman, blaming him for mass migration much in the same way the American right does today. Last year, Fidesz blanketed the country in huge posters featuring Soros’s grinning face, with captions like “99 percent reject illegal immigration” and “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.”

In April 2017, the Hungarian government announced a new law regulating the operation of universities. The bill required any colleges operating under foreign auspices — CEU is technically an American international school — to have a physical campus in its home country, which CEU does not. It also required such a school that wishes to award Hungarian diplomas to secure an agreement between the Hungarian government and the educational authorities in its own country.

These regulations may sound boring, but they were a dagger aimed at CEU’s heart. No other university in Hungary was affected by these regulations. Unless CEU managed to get an American campus and negotiate an agreement with Hungarian authorities, it would no longer be allowed to admit students to its Budapest campus. Orbán was using the pretext of a legitimate national interest — regulating foreign entities operating in Hungary — to crack down on an ideological threat.

CEU did manage to secure a US location, coming to an agreement in the summer of 2017 with Bard College in New York to teach courses at its facilities. It got the New York state educational authorities to sign the required agreement. But the Hungarian government decided not to sign, effectively banning the school from admitting new students in the next academic year. CEU could not operate under these conditions, and was forced to move out.

“CEU has been forced out,” CEU President Michael Ignatieff said in a statement. “This is unprecedented: a U.S. institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally, a European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU.”

Trump’s troubling reaction

Trump and Orbán.
AFP/Getty Images

Orbán’s tactics in the CEU fight were quite clever. He didn’t outright ban CEU from operating anymore than he banned elections or nationalized media corporations. Instead, he applied more subtle means of control, a thicket of regulations that made the school’s continued operation difficult and, eventually, impossible.

This soft fascism is far more effective in the modern political context. International press coverage of police beating protesters or arresting professors generates sympathy and perhaps action from the EU or US.

A battle over the regulations governing foreign-based universities, by contrast, is much easier to pull off without attracting international attention. The same can be said for undermining the fair functioning of elections rather than outright banning them, or giving friendly media outlets advantages instead of banning critical ones. On the surface, Hungary looks like a healthy democracy; it’s only when you look closely that you realize it’s not a democracy at all.

This makes it absolutely vital for international observers and foreign governments to highlight what’s really happening in the CEU case. Orbán values his country’s membership in the European Union and NATO; leading countries in those organizations could apply real pressure on his government to curb its worst anti-democratic excesses.

Yet the international community has been slow to act. The EU cannot agree on what to do about Hungary; some more conservative EU governments are even standing up for him in the EU Parliament, seeing him as an ally in their fight against migration.

The US under President Donald Trump, for its part, is very unlikely to challenge a far-right populist going after George Soros. Trump himself has suggested Soros might be behind the recent migrant caravan coming to the United States, as have many of his ideological allies. Trump’s ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, an 80-year-old New York business mogul and friend of Trump’s, has referred to Orbán as a “friend” in interviews. He even defended the attack on CEU in an interview with the Washington Post, invoking a confusing analogy of working in a department store.

“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.”

Trump hasn’t personally embraced Orbán in the way he’s done with other authoritarians, like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. But there’s an affinity there, a shared disdain for the norms of liberal democracy and willingness to pursue power at any cost. When Hungarians found out I was American during my visit there this summer, many of them almost immediately pointed out the similarities between the two men.

What this points to, in a broader sense, is a kind of implicit illiberal axis inside the West. Leaders like Trump, Orbán, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, and Polish President Andrzej Duda are all, to varying degrees, hostile to the core values of liberal democracy. And while they may not be explicitly aligned with each other in a unified anti-democratic front, they are unlikely to join in any kind of action by other Western states to challenge each others’ authoritarian actions. Anti-democratic politics in one Western country, in short, enable anti-democratic politics in another.

Hungary is, of these countries, in by far the worst state. Democracy no longer exists there in any meaningful sense, as the CEU case shows. And the people who suffer the most — ordinary Hungarians and migrants like Ibrar — may not have anywhere to turn for help.

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