Af­ter ef­forts to charm Hun­gary’s Or­ban, U.S. fails to save Amer­i­can school

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY GRIFF WITTE [email protected]­post.com

bu­dapest — The fu­ture of a revered Amer­i­can univer­sity was on the line, and Pres­i­dent Trump’s am­bas­sador came to Hun­gary on a mis­sion to save it.

When David B. Corn­stein ar­rived in Bu­dapest last sum­mer, Cen­tral Eu­ro­pean Univer­sity faced an im­mi­nent threat of ejec­tion by the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban. Rather than try to shame the in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian leader into back­ing down, Corn­stein sought to charm him.

He told Hun­gar­ian me­dia he saw no hint of gov­ern­ment in­fringe­ment on lib­er­ties or hu­man rights, de­spite mount­ing ev­i­dence to the con­trary. He vouched for Or­ban with his long­time friend, the pres­i­dent. And af­ter a meet­ing with the right-wing prime min­is­ter in Septem­ber, Corn­stein pro­nounced that the two had used their easy rap­port to reach the cusp of a deal that would keep CEU in Hun­gary for­ever.

It was not to be. On Mon­day, the univer­sity plans to an­nounce that it has been kicked out of the coun­try — a dark way­point in Hun­gary’s crack­down on civil so­ci­ety and an omi­nous sign for U.S. in­sti­tu­tions op­er­at­ing un­der au­to­cratic regimes world­wide.

“The star­tling fact is that an Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tion that has been in this coun­try for 25 years is be­ing thrown out by a U.S. and NATO ally,” said Michael Ig­nati­eff, the univer­sity’s pres­i­dent. “It’s a warn­ing. Once the rule of law is tam­pered with, no in­sti­tu­tion is safe.”

The fail­ure to pro­tect CEU fits a pat­tern of the Trump pres­i­dency: The United States in the past two years has co­zied up to nu­mer­ous au­to­cratic regimes. But that does not mean it can ef­fec­tively in­flu­ence them.

As has been true with Rus­sia, North Korea and other gov­ern­ments long con­sid­ered un­sa­vory in Wash­ing­ton, Trump has taken a markedly friend­lier line. Yet the re­sults have been mixed, at best.

In Hun­gary, Trump has bro­ken with his two pre­de­ces­sors — Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama — by en­gag­ing Or­ban, rather than try­ing to iso­late him.

Trump’s one­time chief guru Stephen K. Ban­non praised Or­ban as “a hero” for his un­com­pro­mis­ing stance against im­mi­gra­tion, and some ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials see in the ever-provoca­tive prime min­is­ter an ide­o­log­i­cal com­pa­triot more to their lik­ing than the tra­di­tional cen­trist heavy­weights of Eu­rope. Or­ban’s for­eign min­is­ter has been wel­comed to Wash­ing­ton for high-level meet­ings, and a pos­si­ble White House visit for the prime min­is­ter has been floated.

But the af­fec­tion does not seem to have made Or­ban any more in­clined to­ward Wash­ing­ton. CEU’s de­par­ture is just one among a se­ries of set­backs for U.S. in­ter­ests as Or­ban steers the coun­try closer to Moscow, its Cold War-era mas­ter, and away from a Western or­bit that Hun­gary had been des­per­ate to join only a gen­er­a­tion ago.

Or­ban has de­fied Wash­ing­ton in re­cent months by ig­nor­ing a U.S. ex­tra­di­tion re­quest for a pair of Rus­sian arms deal­ers, send­ing them to Moscow in­stead. Mean­while, Hun­gary be­gan shel­ter­ing the fugi­tive pro-Rus­sian for­mer prime min­is­ter of Mace­do­nia and has been un­moved by U.S. ap­peals that he be sent home to serve a prison sen­tence on cor­rup­tion charges.

“Or­ban thinks the U.S. is weak and will not act,” said Peter Kreko, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Bu­dapest-based anal­y­sis firm Po­lit­i­cal Cap­i­tal. “It’s in­cred­i­ble that the au­to­cratic leader of a coun­try of 10 mil­lion peo­ple can play th­ese games with the U.S. and not face any con­se­quences. It’s a hu­mil­i­a­tion.”

A se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial ac­knowl­edged set­backs in the re­la­tion­ship, but ar­gued that there were early signs of progress in ar­eas such as en­ergy and de­fense.

“The jury is out. This ap­proach may fail. I don’t know. I do know that the pre­vi­ous ap­proach [of iso­lat­ing Hun­gary] was not work­ing,” said the of­fi­cial, who spoke un­der the ground rules that his name not be used.

Kick­ing out CEU is per­haps the most bla­tant ex­am­ple yet of Or­ban’s un­will­ing­ness to bow to U.S. wishes. The univer­sity has en­joyed strong bi­par­ti­san sup­port on Capi­tol Hill, with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of both par­ties warn­ing that eject­ing the school will harm U.S.-Hun­gar­ian re­la­tions.

CEU was founded by Hun­gar­ian Amer­i­can fi­nancier Ge­orge Soros in a bid to build bridges be­tween East and West af­ter the Iron Cur­tain tum­bled. The univer­sity, which has dual ac­cred­i­ta­tion in the United States and Hun­gary, ed­u­cates grad­u­ate stu­dents drawn from more than 100 coun­tries. Many of its pro­grams are ranked among the world’s best, and it 21-mem­ber board of trustees is stud­ded with top schol­ars from Ox­ford, Har­vard, Stan­ford and be­yond.

But the af­fil­i­a­tion with Soros — the univer­sity’s hon­orary chair­man and ma­jor fun­der — has made it a tar­get for Or­ban, who has turned the 88-year-old lib­eral into his per­sonal neme­sis and po­lit­i­cal boogey­man.

The univer­sity’s trou­bles be­gan soon af­ter Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, in Fe­bru­ary 2017, with a cam­paign against CEU in the pro­gov­ern­ment press. The next month, the gov­ern­ment pushed leg­is­la­tion that appeared tai­lor­made to tar­get the school, re­quir­ing for­eign univer­si­ties to es­tab­lish aca­demic ac­tiv­i­ties in their home coun­tries.

CEU then set up a pro­gram at Bard Col­lege in New York that has been cer­ti­fied by state of­fi­cials. But Hun­gary’s gov­ern­ment has re­fused to ac­knowl­edge it, and the univer­sity’s Amer­i­can-ac­cred­ited pro­gram will be barred from ac­cept­ing new stu­dents as of Jan. 1 with­out a change in the gov­ern­ment’s stance.

Corn­stein, an 80-year-old New Yorker who made a for­tune in the jew­elry, gambling and tele­mar­ket­ing in­dus­tries, and who boasts of a decades-long friend­ship with Trump, was pressed by se­na­tors dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings to pri­or­i­tize CEU’s cause. Dur­ing his first week on the job in June, he paid a visit to the school to show sup­port.

He also pushed the mat­ter be­hind the scenes, putting it high on an agenda that was oth­er­wise dom­i­nated by hard-power in­ter­ests. No­tably, his pri­or­ity list did not in­clude de­fense of tra­di­tional U.S. val­ues, in­clud­ing sup­port for me­dia free­dom and non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, both of which have been un­der as­sault in Hun­gary as Or­ban tight­ens his grip.

When Corn­stein told a Hun­gar­ian mag­a­zine in Au­gust that he saw no prob­lem with hu­man rights or lib­er­ties in Hun­gary, the com­ments were glee­fully re­peated by gov­ern­ment spokes­men and the pro-gov­ern­ment news me­dia.

Yet even as Or­ban reaped the ben­e­fits of Wash­ing­ton’s gen­tler ap­proach — in­clud­ing a long­cov­eted phone call with Trump — the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment snubbed the am­bas­sador’s at­tempts to me­di­ate a deal on CEU.

Af­ter months of ig­nor­ing the univer­sity’s re­quests for a ne­go­ti­a­tion, the gov­ern­ment fi­nally sent a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for a meet­ing at the U.S. Em­bassy. But he turned out to be a rel­a­tively ju­nior of­fi­cial with no au­thor­ity to cut a deal in a coun­try where it is widely known that one man calls the shots.

Corn­stein’s ef­forts to raise the is­sue per­son­ally with Or­ban ended with the prime min­is­ter recit­ing from a long list of anti-Or­ban com­ments made by Soros, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the con­ver­sa­tion.

But Corn­stein clung for hope to Or­ban’s in­sis­tence that the Hun­gar­ian-ac­cred­ited half of CEU would be pro­tected, a fre­quent gov­ern­ment talk­ing point that avoids dis­cus­sion of the true tar­get: the Amer­i­can pro­gram.

In an in­ter­view this week at the U.S. Em­bassy, Corn­stein de­clined to di­rectly crit­i­cize Or­ban — whom he de­scribed as his “friend” — and in­stead blamed Soros for not cul­ti­vat­ing bet­ter re­la­tions with the prime min­is­ter.

He com­pared the univer­sity’s sit­u­a­tion to his ex­pe­ri­ence own­ing jew­elry shops within a depart­ment store.

“I was a guest in an­other guy’s store,” he said. “The univer­sity is in an­other coun­try. It would pay to work with the gov­ern­ment.”

Corn­stein also down­played the univer­sity’s im­por­tance — com­par­ing its 1,500 stu­dents with much big­ger U.S. schools such as Michi­gan or Ohio State.

Ul­ti­mately, he said, the con­flict is lit­tle more than a grudge match be­tween Or­ban and Soros.

“It had to do with two men,” Corn­stein said. “It doesn’t have any­thing to do with aca­demic free­dom.”

That con­tra­dicts pre­vi­ous state­ments from the United States and many of its Eu­ro­pean al­lies, which have cast the univer­sity’s fate as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple.

Zoltan Ko­vacs, a se­nior Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial and CEU grad­u­ate, said there had been no pres­sure from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for Hun­gary to change its position on the univer­sity.

Though some CEU op­er­a­tions are likely to re­main in Bu­dapest — at least tem­po­rar­ily — Ig­nati­eff said the ouster would cause un­de­ni­able dam­age to both the school and the city it has called home for a quar­ter-cen­tury.

“You can’t have aca­demic free­dom with­out the rule of law, and we’re in a lawless en­vi­ron­ment,” said Ig­nati­eff, a Cana­dian hu­man rights scholar. “In a year, if you come back here, you’ll be look­ing at a univer­sity that has been the vic­tim of a pre­med­i­tated act of po­lit­i­cal van­dal­ism.” Gergo Sal­ing in Bu­dapest and Carol Morello in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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