A Lib­eral’s Last Stand

Can Michael Ignatieff beat back au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism in Hun­gary?

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When michael Ignatieff moved to Bu­dapest in 2016 to be­come rec­tor and pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity (ceu), he had two main tasks to at­tend to, only one of which was likely in his job de­scrip­tion.

The ceu was founded in 1991 by the Hun­gar­ian Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire and phi­lan­thropist Ge­orge Soros as part of his long-run­ning ef­fort to pro­mote free ex­pres­sion and lib­eral val­ues. Home to 1,400 stu­dents from 120 coun­tries, the univer­sity of­fers a range of grad­u­ate-level cour­ses, in­clud­ing ones in eco­nom­ics, en­vi­ron­men­tal science, and law. In the face of Hun­gary’s in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment, Ignatieff was hired to safe­guard the ceu’s sta­tus as a home for aca­demic free­dom.

The un­writ­ten mis­sion—which the writer, aca­demic, and for­mer politi­cian chose to ac­cept—was to stand up for the very things the ceu sym­bol­izes, namely the pri­macy of an open, tol­er­ant so­ci­ety. Se­cur­ing the fu­ture of the ceu in Bu­dapest would send a mes­sage to Hun­gar­ian prime min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán, to Europe, and to the world that mem­ber coun­tries of the Euro­pean Union are the nat­u­ral habi­tat of pro­gres­sive ideas.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. To­day, the ceu—which Or­bán calls Soros Univer­sity—is un­der con­stant at­tack by the prime min­is­ter, who claims to be will­ing to have it stay in Bu­dapest but has con­sis­tently re­fused to give it the le­gal right to op­er­ate there. Whether out of frus­tra­tion or as an at­tempt to pres­sure Or­bán into re­lent­ing, or both, the ceu board of trus­tees an­nounced on Oc­to­ber 25, 2018, that in­com­ing stu­dents for the 2019/20 aca­demic year will start their stud­ies at a new cam­pus in Vi­enna. “They will have forced a free in­sti­tu­tion out of a Euro­pean mem­ber state,” Ignatieff said when I spoke with him shortly af­ter the an­nounce­ment. “It’s a scan­dal.”

The fate of the univer­sity re­mains un­clear. Amer­i­can diplo­mats, in­ter­na­tional schol­ars, and Euro­pean tech­nocrats are work­ing be­hind the scenes to reach some kind of aca­demic dé­tente. But the ceu is cur­rently un­sure of its place in the world, where it’s go­ing next, and how much power its core val­ues ac­tu­ally hold.

The same might be said for Ignatieff, the man per­haps known best in Canada for parachut­ing into the coun­try and into the Lib­eral Party lead­er­ship race af­ter three decades abroad, only to get thumped by Con­ser­va­tive Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper in the 2011 fed­eral elec­tion. In a ca­reer marked by both high ac­com­plish­ment and hum­bling de­feat, the next year may well de­cide the fi­nal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his life’s work, in that it will ei­ther sup­port or al­ter the sense that his po­lit­i­cal in­stincts have not al­ways been in step with his po­lit­i­cal ef­fec­tive­ness. Not that that’s ever stopped him try­ing—not when he took on Harper and not now that he’s tak­ing on Or­bán. “I didn’t start this thing. They did,” Ignatieff told me when I spoke to him in Bu­dapest in late May. “But my gut is telling me, ‘Fight.’”

Ignatieff is fight­ing for the ceu, but in many ways, he’s fight­ing for his legacy. It seemed the per­fect fit at the start, a job that called for aca­demic cred­i­bil­ity, which he has in spades, as well as po­lit­i­cal savvy, which, if you trust the maxim that you learn more from your losses than your wins, he also pos­sesses. It also re­quired a cer­tain pub­lic-re­la­tions gift and deep

in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tions. Again, Ignatieff—who has trav­elled the world as a thinker, writer, and speaker, and has rubbed shoul­ders with a who’s who of the An­glo-amer­i­can cul­tural elite—checked those boxes eas­ily. On top of all that, in 1999 he mar­ried Zsuzsanna Zso­har, a Hun­gar­ian Cana­dian with deep ties to Hun­gary. Bu­dapest is emo­tion­ally, and lit­er­ally, his home now. The ceu was, he told me, the right job in the right place at the right time. To­day, how­ever, the ceu is pre­par­ing to move. Which means that, in what could be his last ma­jor role as a pub­lic fig­ure, Ignatieff, now in his sev­en­ties, is won­der­ing how it came to this and what he can do to turn things around.

Few ob­servers were sur­prised that on April 8, 2018, Vik­tor Or­bán was re­elected prime min­is­ter of Hun­gary. The vic­tory—a third con­sec­u­tive term and fourth over­all—was to­tal: Or­bán’s Fidesz party re­tained its two-thirds su­per­ma­jor­ity. As a re­sult, Or­bán se­cured a man­date to pur­sue al­most any course that pleases him, a fact that has mod­er­ate Europe jan­gling with anx­i­ety.

Or­bán is a pop­ulist who openly de­mo­nizes Mus­lim for­eign­ers and has built a fence along the bor­der with Croa­tia and Ser­bia to keep them out, who un­der­mines the me­dia and has been blamed for the clo­sure of the coun­try’s two main in­de­pen­dent news­pa­pers, and who will go to war with any­one not aligned with his stated goal of achiev­ing il­lib­eral democ­racy in Hun­gary—that is, a gov­er­nance model that may adopt the struc­tures of democ­racy but re­jects lib­eral val­ues and demo­cratic norms. Or­bán isn’t dis­tracted by fri­vol­i­ties like col­lab­o­ra­tion and di­a­logue; power is the point. If we are wit­ness­ing a march against tol­er­ance and open­ness in Euro­pean pol­i­tics, Hun­gary is hold­ing one of the bull­horns.

Dur­ing the 2018 cam­paign, Or­bán re­lied pri­mar­ily on one sym­bol to rep­re­sent what he char­ac­ter­ized as the dan­ger­ous tidal wave of im­mi­grants spilling into the coun­try to steal its jobs and rape its women: Ge­orge Soros. A Jewish émi­gré who has lived in the United States for many decades now, Soros has to date plowed close to $30 bil­lion (US) into ef­forts to cre­ate a tol­er­ant and lib­eral world or­der. He has done this through var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties but pri­mar­ily via the cre­ation of the Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions, which last year alone spent more than a bil­lion dol­lars fund­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions around the world. Through­out Or­bán’s cam­paign, Hun­gary was rife with pho­to­shopped bill­boards show­ing a grin­ning Soros—a long-time ad­vo­cate of more broad-minded im­mi­gra­tion—us­ing wire cut­ters to let in a surge of Mus­lims. The words “Stop Soros” dom­i­nated the sig­nage.

Soros wasn’t al­ways so vil­i­fied in Hun­gary. He moved the ceu to Bu­dapest shortly af­ter it opened in Prague partly to rein­vig­o­rate his for­mer home­land and partly to pro­vide peo­ple from the for­mer Eastern bloc with ac­cess to a Western­stan­dard aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion. Soros also handed out sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to many nascent cen­tre and left-of-cen­tre po­lit­i­cal par­ties (Fidesz among them) and sup­ported the ed­u­ca­tion of young ac­tivists and in­tel­lec­tu­als.

Or­bán him­self at­tended Ox­ford on a Soros schol­ar­ship in the late 1980s.

That was then. In re­cent times, the fate of the ceu has in­creas­ingly emerged as a ref­er­en­dum on the va­lid­ity of the en­tire Euro­pean ex­per­i­ment, which is it­self a test of the power of pro­gres­sive val­ues (such as a free ju­di­ciary, an open press, and po­lit­i­cal choices for cit­i­zens) to shape na­tional and in­ter­na­tional in­ter­ests. Or­bán, through pol­icy and prac­tice, is try­ing to erase these prin­ci­ples in Hun­gary—which means that the ceu is in his way.

But who can check Or­bán? The op­po­si­tion on both the left and the right is in tat­ters. Soros is eighty-eight years old. The Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions has left Bu­dapest and re­lo­cated to Ber­lin. The free press has been cur­tailed. Don­ald Trump and Vladimir Putin cheered Or­bán’s rise. Angela Merkel is due to step down in 2021. In a bid to sanc­tion Hun­gary, the EU Par­lia­ment voted in Septem­ber to trig­ger Ar­ti­cle 7 of its con­sti­tu­tion, which could re­sult in the coun­try los­ing its EU vot­ing rights, but the move has not al­tered Or­bán’s be­hav­iour. If he isn’t reined in some­how, even sym­bol­i­cally, it will be one more sig­nal to ev­ery politi­cian with an au­thor­i­tar­ian streak that civil so­ci­eties are in re­treat.

Which is where Ignatieff comes in. Early in Ignatieff ’s ten­ure at the ceu, Or­bán an­nounced that his gov­ern­ment was go­ing to ta­ble leg­is­la­tion in the spring of 2017 that would force Hun­gar­ian uni­ver­si­ties to com­ply with a set of oner­ous con­di­tions by Jan­uary 1, 2019. Ev­ery­one knew the in­tended tar­get was the ceu.

The univer­sity pur­sued a strat­egy of fram­ing the is­sue of its jeop­ar­dized le­gal sta­tus as one of aca­demic free­dom. In the­ory, this seemed a wise move, in that it of­fered Or­bán a sim­ple out: he could re­new the ceu’s op­er­at­ing li­cence and claim the strife was all sim­ply a bu­reau­cratic mis­un­der­stand­ing around en­sur­ing the univer­sity fol­lowed Hun­gar­ian reg­u­la­tions.

Un­for­tu­nately, this proved to be about as ap­peal­ing to Or­bán’s re­alpoli­tik na­ture as sug­gest­ing to At­tila the Hun that he could catch more flies with honey than vine­gar. Back chan­nel, front chan­nel, pub­lic state­ments, ral­lies, let­ters of sup­port from po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural fig­ures around the globe: Ignatieff de­ployed nu­mer­ous tac­tics in the lat­ter part of 2016 and early 2017 to save the ceu. Or­bán es­sen­tially ig­nored it all.

Ignatieff re­sponded by play­ing a key role in or­ches­trat­ing a protest in April 2017: some 80,000 peo­ple marched through the an­cient cob­bled streets of cen­tral Bu­dapest’s east bank, near the par­lia­ment. There were calls for ac­tion against Or­bán’s higher-ed­u­ca­tion re­forms, de­mands for jus­tice, and cries of warn­ing about the ad­vanc­ing au­to­cratic state. Or­bán was un­moved, and, as sched­uled, Pres­i­dent János Áder signed the leg­is­la­tion the next day.

Up to that point, the bat­tle be­tween Or­bán and the ceu had been largely rhetor­i­cal. But the mo­ment Áder signed the leg­is­la­tion and the ceu be­came un­law­ful, the cam­paign moved to le­gal and tech­ni­cal grounds. In or­der to com­ply with Hun­gar­ian law, the ceu now had to find a bricks-and-mor­tar cam­pus in the United States and of­fer cour­ses at that cam­pus in or­der to re­tain its abil­ity to grant Us-ac­cred­ited de­grees on Hun­gar­ian soil. Through a pre­ex­ist­ing re­la­tion­ship with Bard Col­lege in New York state, the ceu soon had an Amer­i­can build­ing and cur­ricu­lum. De­spite the ceu hav­ing ap­par­ently met the law’s con­di­tions, Or­bán’s gov­ern­ment re­fused to sign off on the agree­ment that would al­low the univer­sity to con­tinue to op­er­ate as usual.

This state of af­fairs frus­trated Ignatieff on many lev­els. For starters, it was al­ready mak­ing it harder to re­cruit stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff. But he also seemed ex­as­per­ated at his in­abil­ity to in­flu­ence Or­bán. In May, as we were seated in his cor­ner of­fice at the ceu’s down­town cam­pus in Bu­dapest, I asked him why he thought Or­bán con­tin­ued to tar­get the ceu. “It’s pure pol­i­tics,” he said, lean­ing back in his chair and look­ing a bit like an older, di­shev­elled Daniel Day-lewis. “I think

the way he thinks about it is that a politi­cian at his level needs an op­po­nent at his level. There is no do­mes­tic op­po­nent at his level or stature, he has dom­i­nated the po­lit­i­cal scene, so it turns out to be very use­ful to him to have an im­por­tant en­emy. Use­ful and sat­is­fy­ing. But,” Ignatieff in­sisted, “I am not Mr. Or­bán’s op­po­si­tion. I do one job here, which is to train peo­ple to know what knowl­edge is.”

Michael ignatieff has been in fights be­fore, though at times (as in his vo­cal sup­port of Amer­ica’s 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq) he backed the wrong side, and at other times, when the op­po­nent was more clearly de­fined (Stephen Harper), he didn’t win. Born in Toronto in 1947, Ignatieff lived the peri­patetic child­hood of a diplo­mat’s son. Af­ter more than ten years work­ing in Lon­don, Eng­land, as a high-pro­file jour­nal­ist, Ignatieff be­came, in 2000, di­rec­tor of the Carr Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights Pol­icy at the John F. Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment at Har­vard. Ignatieff is a writer with gen­uine ideas and a fluid style, and his in­tel­lec­tual life—whether he is ex­plor­ing geno­cide, na­tion­al­ism, hu­man rights, or ethics—has been marked by a keen, if un­sys­tem­atic, in­quiry into the moral shad­ings of most ev­ery sit­u­a­tion. It is a trait with con­sid­er­able value in academia but one which would ul­ti­mately be po­lit­i­cally dam­ag­ing.

Af­ter 9/11, Ignatieff be­gan ar­gu­ing in mag­a­zines and books that Amer­ica should pur­sue a strat­egy of “em­pire lite,” that the Iraq in­va­sion was jus­ti­fied, and that “co­er­cive in­ter­ro­ga­tion” could be de­fended if it was prop­erly over­seen. In 2007, as it emerged that Ge­orge W. Bush and com­pany had lied about Sad­dam Hus­sein’s stock­piles of weapons of mass de­struc­tion, Ignatieff pub­lished a mea culpa in The New York Times Mag­a­zine. In some ways, the es­say came across as con­ve­niently timed, given that, by then, he’d re­turned to Canada to pur­sue a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, but it of­fered in­sight into his think­ing on Iraq as well as his take on the re­al­i­ties of pol­i­tics. The es­say also re­vealed a ten­dency—which he seemed at least par­tially aware of—to in­tel­lec­tu­al­ize mat­ters of real-world con­se­quence.

“I’ve learned that good judg­ment in pol­i­tics looks dif­fer­ent from good judg­ment in in­tel­lec­tual life,” he wrote. “In aca­demic life, false ideas are merely false and use­less ones can be fun to play with. In po­lit­i­cal life, false ideas can ruin the lives of mil­lions and use­less ones can waste pre­cious re­sources.” He con­tin­ued: “In pol­i­tics, ev­ery­thing is what it is and not an­other thing. Specifics mat­ter more than gen­er­al­i­ties. The­ory gets in the way.” Pol­i­tics is a world so lit­eral, he wrote, that even the slight­est gap be­tween what you say and what you mean is space enough to have “the knife driven home.” The game, he added, “usu­ally ends in tears.”

Ignatieff couldn’t have known at the time that many such tears would be his. The tri­umphant re­turn to Canada did not go ac­cord­ing to the grand de­sign. He ran for leader of the fed­eral Lib­eral Party and lost to Stéphane Dion. Af­ter Dion got blitzed by Harper and re­signed, Ignatieff as­sumed the lead­er­ship—and then lost his own seat in the 2011 elec­tion. Not only did the Lib­er­als have their worst-ever show­ing in 2011, Ignatieff was ex­posed as some­thing less than the sum of his parts, whereas suc­cess in pol­i­tics re­quires the op­po­site. It doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re the smartest or most eth­i­cal or hard­est-work­ing or best­look­ing or most ar­tic­u­late can­di­date (and Ignatieff ar­guably held all of these cards over Harper). What mat­ters is whether you add up to one sin­gle idea a voter can be­lieve in (which is not to say that that one idea is al­ways a good thing). Ignatieff over­com­pli­cated things. Cana­di­ans didn’t like be­ing lec­tured to. They smelled am­bi­tion un­paid for and pun­ished him for it. “Let’s not put too fine a point on it,” Ignatieff told me. “I got beat up pretty good in Cana­dian pol­i­tics.”

But was there any­thing, I asked him, that he’d learned in Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal life that he thought might help him at the ceu? “I’m a Cana­dian lib­eral,” he said. “And I’d say one of the weak­nesses of this Cana­dian lib­eral is that I some­times didn’t know that there were mo­ments I had to fight. It comes late to you in life that you have to draw a line.”

The kind of line, I asked, that he’d been try­ing to draw with Or­bán? He nod­ded. “Ob­server or ac­tor, I’ve strug­gled with it all my life,” he said. “I think the lure of the ceu was to be an ac­tor again, to be in the arena.”

Ignatieff de­serves credit for putting him­self on the front lines, but is that pub­lic ser­vice or over­con­fi­dence? It’s hard to for­get the dev­as­tat­ing “just vis­it­ing” ads the Con­ser­va­tives launched against him in 2009; the mes­sage stoked voter sus­pi­cions that Ignatieff was an ar­riv­iste who—af­ter spend­ing decades out­side the coun­try as a pro­fes­sor, jour­nal­ist, and au­thor—had deigned to en­ter pol­i­tics as a favour to his coun­try. But whether he took the ceu job for rea­sons of po­lit­i­cal ide­al­ism, ego, or, more likely, a stew made of both with a bay leaf of in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity thrown in for flavour, he’s now in an arena with an ad­ver­sary who com­bines the ex­pe­ri­ence of Stephen Harper, the views of Don­ald Trump, and the meth­ods of Tony So­prano.

A soc­cer star when he was younger, Vic­tor Or­bán to­day is an older ver­sion of the ath­lete he once was, a stocky body­guard type with a blunt hair­cut and a pug­na­cious pres­ence. He doesn’t just cre­ate tough leg­is­la­tion, he also looks tough, the kind of street brawler you’d want on your side. A fam­ily man with a wife and five chil­dren, Or­bán in­spires love among the peo­ple of the heart­land who don’t see an au­thor­i­tar­ian. They see a pa­ter­fa­mil­ias try­ing to pro­tect his coun­try’s Chris­tian her­itage.

Yet Ignatieff also feels that his ex­pe­ri­ence go­ing up against Harper has given him the tools to con­tinue this fight and has drilled him on the con­tin­gency of his­tory. “Let me make it clear,” Ignatieff said. “Or­bán is not go­ing to be pushed or bul­lied into any­thing. I’m not in­ter­ested in be­ing any­body’s punch­ing bag or en­emy. But this coun­try has moved away from com­mu­nism and not to­wards lib­eral democ­racy. It’s headed more to­wards what looks like a sin­gle-party state rat­i­fied by a democ­racy. And so who is go­ing to step up?” Ignatieff added later, in Oc­to­ber, with per­haps a touch too much be­lief that Or­bán is even lis­ten­ing, “What he’s do­ing is a gra­tu­itous act of self-harm.” He con­tin­ued, “Or­bán does it be­cause this need to con­trol, this need to dom­i­nate, is over­pow­er­ing. And it will even­tu­ally lead to his down­fall. It’s called hubris.”

Zoltán Kovács is a for­mer cab­i­net min­is­ter and now spokesper­son for Or­bán’s gov­ern­ment on ev­ery is­sue. In May, he in­vited me to his of­fice, which is si­t­u­ated in the cor­ner of the third floor of a baroque build­ing a block from the Hun­gar­ian par­lia­ment. He ush­ered me to a chair in a light and airy room with win­dows look­ing west onto both the Par­lia­ment and the Danube. A large flat screen TV mounted to the wall played cnn. Af­ter switch­ing off the sound, Kovács, whose Euro-stub­ble and trendy spec­ta­cles cre­ate the im­pres­sion of some­one able to tog­gle ef­fort­lessly be­tween hench­man and philoso­pher, of­fered me cof­fee and be­gan to speak. As some­one who re­ceived two de­grees from the ceu, he had noth­ing but praise for his own ed­u­ca­tion, but in the last decade, he said, the ceu has changed.

“The ed­u­ca­tion at the univer­sity has be­come ide­o­log­i­cal,” said Kovács, who ac­cused the ceu of “cam­ou­flag­ing” po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives and train­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivists. “Ev­ery­body knows that the univer­sity it­self—or cer­tainly those or­ga­ni­za­tions that are be­ing es­tab­lished and fi­nanced by Soros—ba­si­cally per­form po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity in this coun­try.”

To what end? I asked. What was Soros’s ob­jec­tive? “Mr. Soros or Mr. Ignatieff would tell you that they are do­ing it for hu­man­i­tar­ian or other high-minded rea­sons,” he said, rub­bing his shaved head. “But, from our point of view, there is al­ways po­lit­i­cal in­tent.” (I shared these views with Ignatieff the next day. He took ex­cep­tion to the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. “What Mr. Kovács says is man­i­festly false. The univer­sity would not have the rep­u­ta­tion it has if it was sim­ply some kind of op­po­si­tion ngo fronting as a univer­sity. And I wouldn’t have taken the job.”)

To Kovács, how­ever, Ignatieff’s ap­point­ment was just an­other in­di­ca­tion of the univer­sity’s sin­is­ter po­lit­i­cal de­signs. “He called him­self a ‘failed lib­eral politi­cian,’” said Kovács, re­fer­ring to a twoyear-old news­pa­per in­ter­view given by Ignatieff. “And he be­haves like and acts like a politi­cian at the head of the univer­sity.” I asked if that’s why he thinks Ignatieff was hired. “In that world, I don’t be­lieve any­thing hap­pens by ac­ci­dent,” Kovács replied.

But even if Soros or Ignatieff have their po­lit­i­cal be­liefs, I asked, what’s the threat? “The dan­ger,” Kovács said, “is that the state’s ca­pa­bil­ity to han­dle mi­gra­tion is be­ing un­der­mined. It is clearly un­der­min­ing the ex­is­tence of bor­ders, with­out which there is no coun­try.” Kovács’s sug­ges­tion be­comes clear: Or­bán be­lieves that Soros and Ignatieff are us­ing the ceu to train ac­tivists to over­throw pop­ulists and es­tab­lish a lib­eral open so­ci­ety, which, for Or­bán, can be equated to a tsunami of Is­lamic mi­grants di­lut­ing Hun­gar­ian cul­tural pu­rity.

Kovács went on to ac­cuse the EU of sell­ing Europe as an open con­ti­nent ev­ery­one should come to. Such a per­cep­tion, he ex­plained, jeop­ar­dizes the rule of law and cul­tural in­her­i­tance. He ar­gued that waves of mi­grants who have come to Europe in the last cou­ple of decades have started “par­al­lel so­ci­eties”—com­mu­ni­ties of out­siders who live in their own neigh­bour­hoods ac­cord­ing to their own rules. Fidesz, Kovács said, wants to avoid that. “It’s

not Is­lam­o­pho­bia but a de­scrip­tion of the fact that is hap­pen­ing on the ground,” he went on. Kovács in­sisted that Is­lam isn’t in­te­grat­ing and that it is im­pos­si­ble for such an “alien cul­ture” to do so. “When you talk about this, ob­vi­ously, you are called all kinds of nasty things. But we named it for the past eight years. They don’t like it, but facts are facts.” He paused to fin­ish the last of his cof­fee. “And we got re­elected,” he con­cluded, stand­ing to in­di­cate that my time was up.

Five months later, within hours of the ceu re­leas­ing its an­nounce­ment that it was be­ing forced by the Or­bán gov­ern­ment to ini­ti­ate the process of mov­ing to Vi­enna, Kovács re­leased an of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment re­sponse, which ex­plained that the ceu was still a reg­is­tered univer­sity in Hun­gary. “It’s called,” the state­ment read, “the Közép-eu­ró­pai Egyetem (also known as Kee), and its [sic] fully ac­cred­ited here. Kee has been de­liv­er­ing cour­ses as a Hun­gar­ian in­sti­tu­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion. It con­tin­ues to do so to­day and, as far as we know, will con­tinue to do so in the fu­ture. Tech­ni­cally, then, the rec­tor’s dec­la­ra­tion of an in­tent to re­lo­cate the ceu’s is­su­ing body to Vi­enna only af­fects the Us-reg­is­tered ceu and leaves Kee in­tact.”

The state­ment went on to claim that the ceu’s planned move had “noth­ing to do with ‘aca­demic free­dom’” and called it “an­other wily ma­neu­ver, a Soros-style po­lit­i­cal ploy.”

When I asked Ignatieff about Kovács’s state­ment, he agreed that no one has ever ques­tioned the right of Kee to op­er­ate as a Hun­gar­ian univer­sity, but he pointed out that it has al­ready suf­fered aca­demic re­stric­tions. “The gov­ern­ment has re­moved gen­der stud­ies from the list of ac­cred­ited, legally of­fered cour­ses in Hun­gary,” he said. “So we can’t teach gen­der stud­ies in Hun­gary. And any at­tempt to teach mi­grant stud­ies, or of­fer ser­vices to mi­grants and refugees, may sub­ject us to pe­nal taxes of 25 per­cent. So they are say­ing, ‘You’re wel­come to stay, but you can’t teach this, you can’t teach that, you can’t teach those peo­ple,’” he said. “And as for Mr. Kovács, he’s a man who re­ceived de­grees from us, and a man who be­trays the in­sti­tu­tion, be­trays his ed­u­ca­tion, is not a man to be be­lieved about any­thing.”

Or­bán may be us­ing time­honoured au­to­cratic meth­ods to re­move the choices avail­able to his fel­low cit­i­zens, but, Zsolt Enyedi ar­gues, he is far can­nier than his de­trac­tors some­times credit. Enyedi is a po­lit­i­cal-science pro­fes­sor at the ceu who is also cur­rently act­ing as the prorec­tor for Hun­gar­ian af­fairs. I met him in a newly ren­o­vated build­ing on the ceu cam­pus, the in­te­rior space of which is full of Escheresque an­gles sculpted from beech­wood and poured con­crete. “Or­bán is an un­usual pop­ulist politi­cian,” the soft­spo­ken Enyedi told me. “He started as a very bright and brave young ac­tivist dur­ing com­mu­nist times, and then he drifted to con­ser­vatism and then fur­ther to pop­ulism, then an ex­treme right politi­cian. An au­thor­i­tar­ian.”

Or­bán cur­rently doesn’t see any rea­son why he should limit him­self, Enyedi told me, given that he has a man­date. This is what, for Enyedi, makes him such a great threat. He is ma­nip­u­lat­ing the elec­torate to make gains he can then use as a ra­tio­nale to en­act his il­lib­eral goals. In its own way, us­ing democ­racy to cre­ate some­thing pro­foundly un­demo­cratic is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary gam­bit. But make no mis­take, Enyedi told me, Or­bán is “a charis­matic leader, a born leader, and prob­a­bly one of the best politi­cians in the world.”

Nick Thorpe has been an eastern Europe cor­re­spon­dent for more than three decades, work­ing mostly for the bbc. He knows Ignatieff, but more cru­cially, he knows Or­bán. Thorpe and I met for break­fast at the Kelet Café, on Béla Bartók

Street on the south­west­ern, more gen­tri­fied, less touristy side of Bu­dapest. Around us, peo­ple sipped espres­sos as they leaned into their con­ver­sa­tions. “I first met Or­bán when he was a skinny young ac­tivist,” Thorpe re­called. “Very pas­sion­ate, very com­mit­ted to po­lit­i­cal change.” Thorpe now de­scribes him as a com­bat­ive fig­ure with­out a par­tic­u­larly strong be­lief sys­tem or ide­ol­ogy of his own, out­side of re­tain­ing power. “He likes an en­emy. He loves a good fight.

He’s a master of com­ing to power and hold­ing on to it. I think it’s a phys­i­cal as well as a psy­cho­log­i­cal need for him to be bat­tling some­thing. He gets bored of ev­ery­day pol­i­tics.”

Know­ing what he now knows of Or­bán’s na­ture, I asked Ignatieff in late Oc­to­ber if he thought there was a com­pro­mise avail­able be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the univer­sity. He seemed skep­ti­cal. “These are the kind of peo­ple who go into ne­go­ti­a­tions and then ba­si­cally walk away,” he said. “You want to do busi­ness with a guy you ne­go­ti­ate with for three months and then a year later he turns around and says, ‘Well, I don’t think so’?” He added,“it re­ally does de­pend on whether the Amer­i­cans are will­ing to es­ca­late this or not.”

And the EU? “That’s ac­tu­ally one of the big les­sons here,” said Ignatieff, re­call­ing the EU vote against Or­bán in the early fall. “That the le­gal and in­sti­tu­tional mech­a­nisms Europe has to de­fend demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions in­side EU mem­ber states are much weaker than peo­ple re­al­ize. And Or­bán fully un­der­stands that, un­for­tu­nately.”

De­spite the tur­moil of the mo­ment, and what sounded like a de­feated at­ti­tude over the phone, I put it to Ignatieff that no mat­ter what tran­spired in the com­ing weeks and months, he would still, in fact, be the rec­tor and pres­i­dent of a univer­sity in Bu­dapest, even if it could no longer of­fer Amer­i­can de­grees on its cam­pus there. “Of course,” he said. “Regimes come and go, but uni­ver­si­ties re­main. They are the old­est self-gov­ern­ing free in­sti­tu­tions in the world. We are not the first univer­sity to face pres­sure, and we won’t be the last. I just don’t see how we can re­main solely as a Hun­gar­ian in­sti­tu­tion in an at­mos­phere of in­tim­i­da­tion. We’ll try to keep a pres­ence in Bu­dapest, but I don’t know yet how that’s go­ing to play out.”

No one re­ally knows at this point how it will end, prob­a­bly not even Vik­tor Or­bán. Given his un­pre­dictabil­ity, he might re­v­erse course. Or he could in­tro­duce a hold­ing-pat­tern com­pro­mise. Or he could march in and shut the ceu’s doors to­mor­row.

But even if Ignatieff some­how finds a way to keep the ceu’s main cam­pus based in Hun­gary, the truth is that it’s un­clear how much of a win that would be. Hav­ing Or­bán sign a deal to­day would hardly make such a deal se­cure or en­force­able; he could eas­ily man­u­fac­ture a rea­son to re­voke it if con­di­tions change. Get­ting a new li­cence to op­er­ate might just mean Or­bán has de­cided to keep the ceu around in case Ge­orge Soros passes away be­fore the next Hun­gar­ian elec­tion and Or­bán re­quires a Soros proxy to fo­ment voter griev­ance. If the ceu ends up stay­ing in Bu­dapest, it will only be be­cause Or­bán has de­cided it’s ad­van­ta­geous to him.

Why even bother fight­ing, then? The an­swer is that Ignatieff is up against a politi­cian who is a fla­grant threat to Western val­ues of tol­er­ance and free­dom. Whether the ceu’s on-the-ground strug­gle is cast as one of pol­i­tics or academia, the univer­sity’s fate is tied to larger sea changes across Europe. Rus­sia is openly desta­bi­liz­ing wher­ever it sees the op­por­tu­nity. Bri­tain, via Brexit, is opt­ing out. Italy, Poland, and Aus­tria have all tacked to the right or far-right. The mean­ing of Ignatieff ’s bat­tle for the ceu can be con­densed into a sin­gle ques­tion: Will the world lean to­ward civil so­ci­eties run by their cit­i­zens or oneparty states run by ruth­less strong­men? Once events tip past a cer­tain point, it’s go­ing to be hard to re­v­erse them.

Ignatieff in­sists he’s up for the fight, per­haps for no other rea­son than to prove he can—though be­ing in the midst of the ac­tion hasn’t stopped him from play­ing the ob­server, even, or es­pe­cially, when it comes to him­self. “I’ll be frank with you,” he told me when we first spoke in Bu­dapest, “there are mo­ments when I feel I’m re­ally strug­gling with this, just as I was strug­gling in pol­i­tics.” He stopped and thought about it for a minute. “No, this is a real strug­gle. And there are days when I just don’t know how it’s just go­ing to turn out.”

cur­tis Gille­spie has won seven Na­tional Mag­a­zine Awards and is the ed­i­tor and co­founder of Eigh­teen Bridges mag­a­zine. He lives in Ed­mon­ton.

above Michael Ignatieff looks at the Hun­gar­ian par­lia­ment from the rooftop of the Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity.

Left In his of­fice at the ceu, Ignatieff in­sisted, “I am not Mr. Or­bán’s op­po­si­tion.”

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