Michael Ignatieff, head of the Central European University in Budapest, is fighting an attempt to have the George Soros-funded private institution thrown out of Hungary by its authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. By Hamish McDonald.

George Soros’s university under fire in Hungary

Michael Ignatieff, president  of Central European University, speaks at a press conference about amendments in Hungarian higher education law in March.
Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University, speaks at a press conference about amendments in Hungarian higher education law in March.

Michael Ignatieff was a late entry to politics, getting elected to Canada’s parliament at the age of 59 and chosen as leader of the Liberal Party about three years later, after serving as interim leader. Before, he’d been a historian at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Toronto universities, familiar to the general public through television documentaries, an exploration of his family’s ancestry (The Russian Album), and a novel (Scar Tissue) that made the Booker shortlist.

It was not a glorious new career. He was unlucky to face one of the toughest conservative prime ministers of recent times, Stephen Harper, often likened to John Howard, who had the country locked into a cycle of suspicion that trashed Canada’s deserved reputation as a liberal, responsible middle power.

A “very tough, relentless and skilful politician”, Harper used a stock-in-trade identified with Howard. “One of Australia’s great gifts to political science is the concept of the dog whistle,” Ignatieff said. “Sounds that only a dog can hear is a great metaphor for politics. Thank you, Australia.”

The Canadian dog was enraptured. The Liberals went to their worst-ever defeat in 2011 with Ignatieff losing his own seat. It was not until Justin Trudeau took over the party leadership that Canadians saw Harper’s “meanness” and the spell was broken in the 2015 elections.

By then, Ignatieff had returned to academia, and last year took up the position of head of the Central European University (CEU), a liberal postgraduate centre set up in 1991 with a $US880 million endowment from the financier and philanthropist George Soros, in Budapest, the city where Soros’s family had disguised their Jewish origin to evade deportation to the Nazi death camps and which he’d left for London in 1947.

But it has not taken long for politics even nastier than Canada’s worst to catch up with Ignatieff.

In April, without consultation or warning, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán introduced new legislation requiring foreign-founded universities without a campus in their home country to close at the end of the year. Out of 28 foreign-funded institutions, the “Lex CEU” legislation threatened only the Soros-founded university.

“It seemed to us a direct, premeditated, frontal attack on our freedom to operate in Hungary and I think it was intended to be so,” Ignatieff said when we met at the university, which sits close to the Hungarian parliament on an avenue running down to the Danube from the baroque St Stephen’s Basilica, named for Hungary’s canonised first king whose clenched right fist, blackened after nearly 1000 years, is on display inside.

The government followed up last month with another law requiring NGOs receiving more than €24,000 from foreign sources to register as agencies of foreign interests. This exercise is also focused on Soros and the funds flowing from his Open Society Foundations.

“There is an important element in public life in Hungary which is not transparent and not open – and that is the Soros network, with its mafia-style operation and its agent-like organisations,” Orbán said on state radio.

“The Hungarian people have the right to know who represents what and to what end, and what goals they seek to achieve through their operations.”

From someone who entered politics as a post-communist liberal democrat, with a scholarship to Oxford from Soros, Orbán has been moving steadily rightwards since the late 1990s. He now talks defiantly of “illiberal democracy” and openly admires Vladimir Putin. The 2015 influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere led to barbed-wire coils on the border and bleak shipping-container camps for asylum seekers who remain in Hungary. Last year, Orbán’s government held a referendum seeking a vote against the European Union’s plan to allocate refugees around its 28 member countries. The government got the rejection it wanted, but the turnout was too low for a valid result. It then conducted a public consultation titled “Let’s Stop Brussels”.

Orbán has tapped into the fears of the perhaps 70 per cent of Hungary’s 10 million people still more comfortable with the fiddles and compromises of the communist era than the European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004. Similar rightward moves have happened across Eastern Europe, from Poland to Bulgaria.

In Hungary, rising anti-Semitism, along with corrupt bureaucracy, caused Mercédesz Czimbalmos to move to Finland recently. “I constantly got comments about me being a Jew, and heard comments about Jews in general on the street, public transport, and online media,” she told me via email. “There are people – even among my acquaintances, former classmates, colleagues – who deny the Shoah, or who told me when it turned out I had Jewish roots that, ‘Yeah, but you are different.’ Now with the Lex CEU and the Lex NGO it’s even worse: George Soros appears in the Hungarian media as if we’ve jumped back to the 1930s, which is extremely scary.”

The CEU has faced a hostile media campaign as well. “No university in Europe that I know of has ever faced such a torrent of defamatory attacks,” Ignatieff said. “It’s entirely legitimate for the media to attack a university: bring it on. But these were defamatory attacks on the legitimacy of our degrees, and we’re very proud of our accredited masters and PhDs, so an attack on those things is very much an attack on our very raison d’être and our capacity to operate.”

Old political instincts came back. “If I learnt anything in politics it is: never think you’re above the fray, punch for punch,” he said. “Canadian politics is a little like Australian politics. If you don’t reply to an attack, it quickly becomes seen as the truth and then you’re on the back foot forever.”

Orbán may have miscalculated, however. Hungarian liberals and institutions came out against Lex CEU, with 70,000 people attending one Budapest demonstration. “One of the reasons we got so much support from other Hungarian institutions is that they do believe our battle is their battle,” Ignatieff said. “We’re able to stand up and fight because we’re a private institution with an endowment, but a lot of people feel that this government has been imposing increasing political and ideological pressure on a university system that deserves better.”

The prime minister may have also counted on support from Donald Trump. Orbán was possibly the first elected leader anywhere to express hope early in the Republican primaries that Trump would be nominated. Trump does not like Soros either. But so far Orbán hasn’t got his political dividend. “Washington looked at an American institution being pushed around and didn’t like it, and academic freedom is a pretty strong American value across the partisan divide,” Ignatieff said, quickly qualifying: “But it’s never over in politics.”

Soros himself has weighed in heavily. Now 86, he rejected Orbán’s “unrelenting propaganda campaign” portraying him as a scheming currency speculator. “This is not who I am. I am the proud founder of the European University,” he said, adding he was “full of admiration for the courageous way the Hungarian people have resisted the deception and corruption of the mafia state the Orbán regime has established”.

Ignatieff says the remarks were “unhelpful” and he does not take orders from Soros, who is an honorary member of a board of trustees that includes the academic heads of Oxford and the University of California, Berkeley. “Academic freedom doesn’t just mean freedom from the Hungarian government, it also has to mean freedom from George Soros,” he said.

“But who am I to give this guy lessons?” Ignatieff added. “There’s no one who’s done more to assist in the democratic transition in Eastern Europe. It’s an astounding achievement. There are just moments when – because he feels so strongly that Hungary is going in the wrong direction – I understand why he’s saying it, but I would repeat, it wasn’t helpful.”

Instead, Ignatieff is working on diplomacy to save the CEU. On June 23, a delegation from the Hungarian government was in talks with the New York state government about a 1994 agreement that accredited the university in both places. The hope is that a revised and strengthened agreement will result in time for the CEU to enrol new students in the northern autumn.

Ignatieff is hoping Hungarian authorities will rediscover their country’s outstanding intellectual tradition, and a more hopeful turn will eventually follow the wave of authoritarianism coming out of Russia. He likens Putin to Tsar Nicholas I, whose 30 years of autocratic rule repressed the liberal hopes of the Decembrist revolt at the start of his reign in 1825. “Putin is the latest incarnation of deep Russian traditions of authoritarian rule, but there are other deep cycles in Russian history. After Nicholas I comes Alexander II, the liberator-tsar, the emancipation of the serfs, the beginnings of an industrialisation and an opening to the West.”

The freedom of Russians to connect with the West will have an “incalculable” long-term effect, he said. Putin is tapping into the fear that followed the removal of the certainties of Soviet life. The pensions, however meagre, get paid. The oligarchs have to check first with the Kremlin before they steal. But it’s a regime without a succession plan, a one-man personality cult. “I don’t think the structure will disintegrate or you’re looking at a civil war, but you are looking at a regime crisis once he’s unable to continue. That creates opportunities for a very different Russia. We don’t look at the Putin phenomenon with sufficiently deep understanding of these cycles of Russian history.”

Meanwhile, the West has to show strength to Putin, in the Baltic states and Ukraine, but also could show more respect. “One thing I absolutely hate in the Western view is this kind of condescension towards Russia – a third-rate power, the constant recycling of the ‘Upper Volta with rockets’ jibe,” Ignatieff said. You don’t get anywhere on the Middle East and other big issues without involving Russia, he adds. While “there isn’t an oligarch Trump doesn’t want to do a deal with”, Ignatieff also sees “a deep absence of respect in Washington, and a deep ignorance”.

Meanwhile, the former politician’s battle with the Hungarian leadership continues: “Do I relish this? No! Do I want to just go back to being a nice quiet university president out of the headlines? You bet I would.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2017 as "University challenge".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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