Prime min­is­ter’s rule threat­ens Soros school

Bil­lion­aire bat­tles in na­tive coun­try

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY PE­TRA HADJU AND JOHN DYER

Hun­gary’s head­strong na­tion­al­ist prime min­is­ter and Hun­gary’s most fa­mous ex­pa­tri­ate lib­eral bil­lion­aire are on a col­li­sion course in a bat­tle over the fu­ture of a school.

Pro­test­ers pledged to keep de­mon­strat­ing against the govern­ment even af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban pushed through leg­is­la­tion that crit­ics fear could shut down a univer­sity founded by Amer­i­can-Hun­gar­ian in­vestor and Demo­cratic Party power bro­ker Ge­orge Soros.

Mr. Soros has at­tracted staunch sup­port­ers and bit­ter crit­ics in the U.S. with his will­ing­ness to put his for­tune at the ser­vice of his lib­eral prin­ci­ples. Repub­li­cans in the Vir­ginia gu­ber­na­to­rial race just this week high­lighted the Soros fam­ily’s ma­jor do­na­tions to the campaign of lib­eral in­sur­gent can­di­date Tom Periello.

The 86-year-old hedge fund trader gen­er­ates sim­i­lar lev­els of sup­port and sus­pi­cion across Cen­tral and East­ern Europe, where he has spent freely in the ser­vice of pro-lib­er­al­ism or­ga­ni­za­tions and Open So­ci­ety In­sti­tutes. Bu­dapest’s

Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity, at the heart of the clash of wills with the con­ser­va­tive govern­ment, was founded and funded by Mr. Soros in his home­town and boasts one of the largest en­dow­ments of any univer­sity in the re­gion.

“This is my univer­sity, the best in Hun­gary and the re­gion,” said Maria Koosh, a Ge­or­gian cit­i­zen and Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity alumna who now works in Bu­dapest at the United Na­tions Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Ms. Koosh has taken to streets re­peat­edly in re­cent weeks as the govern­ment bill made its way through par­lia­ment. Po­lice ar­rested her boyfriend, Gergely Varga, for throw­ing paint at the pres­i­den­tial palace. He was sen­tenced to 200 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice, she said.

“The Hun­gar­ian govern­ment ig­nored the in­ter­na­tional en­ti­ties ask­ing them not to pass the bill, and then the Hun­gar­ian peo­ple asked the pres­i­dent not to sign it, but they still pushed it through,” said Ms. Koosh.

The anger of Ms. Koosh and oth­ers stems from a rule signed into law last week that would im­pose a range of re­quire­ments on for­eign-af­fil­i­ated uni­ver­si­ties, in­clud­ing a man­date that they main­tain cam­puses in their home coun­tries.

Of the 28 for­eign higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions in Hun­gary, only Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity, which has made it a point of of­fer­ing ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties to mi­grants in the coun­try, would run afoul of the rule. The Bu­dapest­based school is af­fil­i­ated with New York State but has no fa­cil­i­ties there. The rule also could pre­vent the school from of­fer­ing Hun­gar­ian or Amer­i­can diplo­mas with­out the per­mis­sion of the U.S. and Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ments, a man­date that crit­ics said is too oner­ous and al­most im­pos­si­ble to sat­isfy.

When he pro­posed the rule early this year, Mr. Or­ban said the school was a hot­bed of po­lit­i­cal dis­sent that un­der­mines its sup­posed aca­demic mis­sion and says the mi­grants the univer­sity aims to help have been a source of ter­ror­ism. Back­ers of the law also ar­gue that it will give other Hun­gar­ian uni­ver­si­ties a “level play­ing field” to com­pete with Mr. Soros and his bil­lions of dol­lars.

It was only the lat­est at­tack on any­thing linked to the financier.

“Large-bod­ied preda­tors are swim­ming in the wa­ters, like Ge­orge Soros and his groups,” Mr. Or­ban said in his an­nual state of the na­tion ad­dress in Fe­bru­ary. “This is the trans­bor­der em­pire of Ge­orge Soros, with heaps of money and in­ter­na­tional heavy ar­tillery. They are try­ing se­cretly and with for­eign money to in­flu­ence Hun­gar­ian pol­i­tics.”

A for­mer pro­fes­sional soccer player who gained fame as a critic of Hun­gary’s com­mu­nist regime, Mr. Or­ban stud­ied at Ox­ford Univer­sity on Soros-funded schol­ar­ships in the late 1980s. But he has adopted a more na­tion­al­ist and anti-immigration stance in re­cent years and of­ten clashed with of­fi­cials of the Euro­pean Union over is­sues such as bor­der con­trols.

Mr. Soros founded the 1,800-stu­dent univer­sity in 1999 as part of his push to pro­mote more open so­ci­eties in East­ern Europe af­ter the fall of com­mu­nism.

In an April 6 state­ment, a Soros spokesper­son said Aus­trian Chan­cel­lor Chris­tian Kern of­fered Vi­enna as a host city for the univer­sity, but Mr. Soros said it wasn’t his de­ci­sion.

“Mr. Soros re­sponded that any such de­ci­sion was CEU’s alone,” the state­ment said. “Mr. Soros’ un­der­stand­ing is that CEU has no in­ten­tion of leav­ing Bu­dapest.”

Un­fairly tar­geted?

Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity Pres­i­dent and Rec­tor Michael Ig­nati­eff said Mr. Or­ban was un­fairly tar­get­ing the school.

“We love be­ing in Bu­dapest,” said Mr. Ig­nati­eff. “We re­main open to di­a­logue with the govern­ment. But we sim­ply can­not ac­cept this leg­is­la­tion, and we will resist it. And when we resist it, we’re not fight­ing just for CEU; we be­lieve we are fight­ing for Hun­gar­ian higher ed­u­ca­tion, we are fight­ing for the aca­demic free­dom of in­sti­tu­tions across Europe and across the world.”

The U.S. State De­part­ment also op­poses the leg­is­la­tion.

“We be­lieve it threat­ens the con­tin­ued op­er­a­tions of Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity, which is a lead­ing aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion,” State De­part­ment act­ing spokesman Mark Toner said last week. “It’s an im­por­tant con­duit for in­tel­lec­tual and cul­tural ex­changes be­tween Hun­gary and the United States. And frankly, it’s at the cen­ter of free think­ing and research.”

Mr. Or­ban may be bank­ing on Pres­i­dent Trump shift­ing the U.S. stance be­cause Mr. Soros is a well-known Demo­cratic donor, said Ist­van Hege­dus, chair­man of the Hun­gar­ian Europe So­ci­ety, a pro-EU group. Dur­ing his elec­tion campaign, Mr. Trump re­peat­edly at­tacked Mr. Soros as part of a “ne­far­i­ous” group that con­trolled Wash­ing­ton. Mr. Or­ban was one of the few Euro­pean lead­ers who wel­comed Mr. Trump’s vic­tory in Novem­ber.

So far, the U.S. po­si­tion has not changed.

“It seems [Mr. Or­ban] mis­in­ter­preted the U.S. way of think­ing,” said Mr. Hege­dus. “But the new administration, which has noth­ing to do with Ge­orge Soros, seemed to re­act the tra­di­tional way. Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity is partly an Amer­i­can univer­sity, and they feel that their in­ter­ests are hurt. They sup­port aca­demic free­dom and all.”

The campaign is clas­sic Or­ban, Hun­gar­ian an­a­lysts say. The pres­i­dent’s Hun­gar­ian Civic Al­liance party, or Fidesz, took a 180-de­gree turn in the 1990s to­ward the right, said Mr. Hege­dus, a Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity grad­u­ate and for­mer Fidesz par­lia­men­tar­ian who once worked closely with Mr. Or­ban.

Three years ago, Mr. Or­ban said he pre­ferred the “il­lib­eral” regimes of China and Russia over West­ern-style democ­ra­cies. Since then, the pres­i­dent has been strength­en­ing ties with Moscow and waged a campaign against Syr­ian and other im­mi­grants who have been flood­ing into Europe.

“Fidesz al­ways needs new en­e­mies,” said Mr. Hege­dus. “These were most re­cently the mi­grants, but en­e­mies also in­clude Brus­sels. “This time, he thought there was room for ma­neu­ver to at­tack those who were still strong in his eyes: the in­tel­lec­tual, lib­eral elite.”

But the prime min­is­ter’s de­fend­ers said crit­ics were over­re­act­ing.

“No one said the univer­sity should be closed down,” said Peter Torcsi, research di­rec­tor of the Hun­gar­ian Research Cen­ter on Fun­da­men­tal Rights, a con­ser­va­tive think tank.

Univer­sity lead­ers are fight­ing for the right to con­tinue crit­i­ciz­ing and fo­ment­ing op­po­si­tion to Mr. Or­ban for his sup­posed il­lib­er­al­ism while claim­ing they are be­hav­ing like dis­in­ter­ested aca­demics, said Mr. Torcsi.

“The prob­lem here is not the kind of val­ues that the univer­sity may or may not rep­re­sent,” Mr. Torcsi said. “Ed­u­ca­tional free­dom is guar­an­teed in Hun­gary con­sti­tu­tion­ally. The prob­lem is when a univer­sity or non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion starts act­ing as a po­lit­i­cal player.” The Euro­pean Union dis­agrees. Last week, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, say­ing the new laws could vi­o­late EU rules that en­sure the free move­ment of ser­vices and the free­dom of es­tab­lish­ment. The probe could lead to a case in the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice and heavy fines.

But dis­plea­sure in the EU cor­ri­dors of power is un­likely to faze Mr. Or­ban. His eu­roskep­tic govern­ment has launched a new me­dia campaign fea­tur­ing “Stop Brus­sels” ad­ver­tise­ments in protest of what they said were in­tru­sive EU reg­u­la­tions.

Still, the EU isn’t struc­tured to let Brus­sels pun­ish mem­ber states too se­verely, said Mr. Hege­dus. Mr. Or­ban has run afoul of EU bud­get, civil rights and refugee rules in the past. That the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion took ac­tion on the univer­sity’s case proves Mr. Or­ban has now gone too far, though Mr. Hege­dus ac­knowl­edged that the cen­sure wouldn’t change much.

“The com­mis­sion acted quite sharply,” he said. “The ques­tion is what Euro­pean in­sti­tu­tions, es­pe­cially the com­mis­sion, can do against a mem­ber state that reg­u­larly breaches Euro­pean norms and reg­u­la­tions. There is no easy an­swer.”

Mr. Or­ban seems ea­ger to es­ca­late the fight with Mr. Soros. Hun­gar­ian law­mak­ers this week be­gan de­bat­ing a Fidesz-backed bill that would re­quire many NGOs that re­ceive for­eign fi­nanc­ing to reg­is­ter with the courts and iden­tify their for­eign fund­ing sources on the web and in their pub­li­ca­tions. Among the tar­gets: the Hun­gar­ian Helsinki Com­mit­tee and the anti-cor­rup­tion group Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional, which Mr. Or­ban and his sup­port­ers in­sist are part of a Soros-bankrolled net­work to med­dle in the coun­try’s do­mes­tic af­fairs and pro­mote open immigration poli­cies.

“The Soros em­pire set out to pro­mote the cause of mi­grants and mass mi­gra­tion,” Mr. Or­ban said Sun­day on state ra­dio. “This is now about the se­cu­rity of the Hun­gar­ian peo­ple, the se­cu­rity of Hun­gary, the pro­tec­tion of the bor­ders, pub­lic se­cu­rity and ter­ror­ism. On this, there can be no com­pro­mise.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

NA­TION­AL­IST: Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban says Ge­orge Soros and his em­pire “are try­ing se­cretly and with for­eign money to in­flu­ence Hun­gar­ian pol­i­tics.”

Soros

A demon­stra­tor ral­ly­ing for the Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity, founded by Ge­orge Soros, holds a plac­ard read­ing “Or­ban [the prime min­is­ter] is a cruel, in­hu­man tyrant.”

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