Soros's baby, Orban's enemy: the Central European University

The Central European University, co-founded 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 Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Soros is not a philanthropist but a rapacious financier looking to undermine nation states. And the CEU, smack bang in the middle of Budapest, is a laboratory of dangerous ideas breaking the rules.
In April parliament fast-tracked a law that the CEU fears will force it to close. It is enrolling students for the 2017-18 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," recounts the CEU website.
Others included Czech dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel, and the CEU's first classes were held in Prague in 1991 with 100 students from 20 countries.
In 1993 it moved to Soros's native Budapest and many of its alumni have indeed played important public roles. They include Georgia's President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Remigijus Simasius, mayor of Vilnius.
Monica Macovei, a former Romanian justice minister and now an MEP, told AFP that her education studying constitutional law at the CEU in 1992-3 "changed my life".
"During my time in CEU I fell in love for life with human rights," said Macovei, who is now on the CEU board of trustees.
- 'Going global' -
According to deputy rector Liviu Mateir, since 2000 the CEU has "gone global", marketing itself to all parts of the world. It currently has almost 1,500 students from 117 countries.
Its 13 departments award US-accredited postgraduate degrees and where the lingua franca is English, its social sciences and humanities graduate courses regularly reach worldwide top 100 lists.
The CEU came second in a recent Times Higher Education ranking of universities by percentage of foreign students. Around 80 percent of its students are non-Hungarian, as well as many of its 420 teaching staff.
"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, taking a master's in political science.
"They appreciate when you have good comments and questions."
One of those attracted to teach at the CEU 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.
But 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.
- Writing on the wall -
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 organisation".
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, himself a one-time recipient of Soros funds helping him to study at Oxford in the 1980s, denies the CEU -- which he derides as "the Soros university" -- is being forced out.
He says 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, CEU could lose its operating licence for the 2018-19 academic year.
Hungary and New York State are currently in talks.
The law is "vandalism", Andras Bozoki, a Hungarian professor of political science, told AFP.
"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."
Gaspar Bekes, 20, a Hungarian CEU student who has helped organise protests against the law, says it is reminiscent of Russia under President Vladimir Putin who has also clamped down on higher education.
"CEU is an isolated bubble of freedom here, it would be a huge blow to Hungary if it left," he told AFP.
by Peter MURPHY
© 2017 AFP
Soros's baby, Orban's enemy: the Central European University Soros's baby, Orban's enemy: the Central European University Reviewed by Alexander Von Stern on 02:59:00 Rating: 5