Soros-Funded University Pledges to Fight Hungarian Crackdown

  • CEU says proposed bill threatens its operations in Hungary
  • Premier Orban has targeted Soros-funded organizations

The crown jewel of billionaire financier George Soros’s educational and philanthropic network in Europe condemned a Hungarian draft bill targeting foreign-funded universities and said it’s aimed at shutting it down.

In a showdown with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Central European University, established by Soros in 1991, said a bill submitted to parliament by Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog targets the school “directly” and must be withdrawn. Balog, who’s in charge of education, said “national security considerations” and ensuring that university courses meet “foreign policy priorities” required amending current legislation.

Soros speaks at CEU in 2012.

Photographer: Lajos Soos/MTI/AP Photos

“The bill is a threat to our continued existence in Hungary,” Michael Ignatieff, the president of CEU, told reporters in Budapest on Wednesday. “This is an institution that doesn’t bow to intimidation or force.”

Orban, who has vowed to purse an “illiberal democracy” modeled on those in Russia and Turkey, is stepping up a campaign to sideline opposition voices. One of Europe’s strongest advocates of U.S. President Donald Trump, the former anti-communist student leader has overseen the most extensive centralization of power in Hungary since the fall of the Iron Curtain after returning to office in 2010. The U.S. criticized the draft bill.

‘Very Concerned’

“The United States is very concerned about the legislation proposed by the Hungarian government yesterday that would severely impact the operations of the Central European University in Budapest,” U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Hungary David Kostelancik said in an emailed statement on Wednesday. The U.S. “opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the University,” he said.

The bill proposes tightening regulations on non-EU universities issuing diplomas in Hungary, forcing them to close if there’s no bilateral agreement with their home countries. CEU, which is accredited both in the U.S. and in Hungary, doesn’t have such an agreement. Another rule would require universities to have a campus in their “home” countries as well, a regulation which CEU alone doesn’t meet among 28 institutions reviewed, Education Ministry State Secretary Laszlo Palkovics told reporters.

“This isn’t targeted at CEU or against Mr. Soros,” Palkovics said. He said universities that don’t meet the new criteria would be barred from enrolling new students in September of next year.

Trump Adversary

Palkovics said Hungary would support the signing of a bilateral accord with the U.S. to ensure CEU’s continued activity. Trump has accused Hungarian-born Soros, a major Democratic Party donor, of being part of a “global power structure” that has “robbed” the working class. Orban also frequently denounces Soros, in particular for his support of open borders in Europe, which the Hungarian leader has thwarted by building fences to keep out migrants. He has instituted one of the harshest border policies on the continent, parts of which have been found in breach of human rights conventions.

Other countries have also targeted Soros-funded organizations. Russian President Vladimir Putin banned them in 2015, saying that they threatened the country’s security and constitution. The former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan shut down the group’s local office in 2004. In Israel, lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring foreign-funded NGOs to disclose the source of donations from abroad if such payments make up more than half of their funding. Soros, 86, is also a target of criticism among right-wing groups in the U.S.

The education bill follows another legislative proposal that Orban’s ruling party floated in January to “sweep out” non-governmental organizations funded by Soros. That bill has yet to be published. In 1989, Orban received a scholarship from Soros to study at Oxford. He has since turned on Soros’s support for “open societies,” telling entrepreneurs on Feb. 28 that Hungary “must preserve its ethnic homogeneity.”

CEU has “no other home than Budapest,” Ignatieff said. He demanded the government sign a “international binding agreement” guaranteeing independence from state interference. “This university won’t close and won’t be pushed around,” he said.

— With assistance by Marton Eder

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