Hungary Passes New Law Targeting George Soros-founded University, Drawing U.S. Condemnation

University founded by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros is being pushed out in move critics describe as a clampdown on independent institutions.

Participants during a rally organized by the Freedom for Education movement against the new legislation in downtown Budapest, Hungary, April 2, 2017
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP

Lawmakers from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party on Tuesday approved a draft education bill that critics say targets a university founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

The move prompted thousands to protest outside the Central European Uuniversity's campus in Budapest, and drew swift criticism from the top U.S. diplomat in Budapest.

The bill modifies rules regulating the 28 foreign universities in Hungary. CEU says parts of the bill directly target it, and could force it to close.

The bill requires the governments of the U.S. and Hungary to agree on new terms for the university's operations within the next few months. If a deal doesn't materialize, CEU would be banned from enrolling new students after Jan. 1, 2018 and would have to conclude its educational activities by 2021.

"The United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University," said a statement from David Kostelancik, the charge d'affaires at the embassy. "The United States will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary."

CEU rector Michael Ignatieff said the institution would appeal to President Janos Ader to review the legislation, which it considers to be a violation of Hungary's constitution, the Basic Law.

Ignatieff has said that the bill aimed to "send a chill through Hungarian higher education and eliminate one of the few remaining institutions in Hungary that can stand up to the government."

"CEU will continue its operation and maintain the continuity of its program in all circumstances," Ignatieff said. "We want to remain in Budapest. We've done nothing wrong."

Orban, a former Soros scholarship recipient, has been increasingly critical of the Hungarian-born philanthropist, accusing him of trying to influence Hungarian politics.

Orban said last week that CEU was "cheating" because it did not have a campus in its country of origin and because it issued diplomas recognized both in Hungary and the United States, giving it an undue advantage over local institutions. The CEU is accredited in New York state but does not have a U.S. campus.

Despite protestations from the U.S. State Department, Orban insists that the future of the Soros-funded institution should be negotiated with the administration of President Donald Trump.

Orban, who wants to turn Hungary into an "illiberal state" while promoting Hungarian nationalism, appears to be trying to ally himself with Trump against the Hungarian-born Soros, a promoter of liberal ideals around the world and a prominent backer of Hillary Clinton in last year's U.S. elections.

Hundreds of academics and universities have expressed support for CEU, founded in 1991. It currently enrolls 1,400 students from 108 countries.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on Tuesday that Europe "cannot be silent if the air to breathe is taken from civil society, and even science, like now at the Central European University."

Hungary's Foreign Ministry said it had summoned diplomats from the U.S. and Germany to appear on Wednesday regarding the new law.

Zoltan Balog, whose ministry oversees education, appeared to link CEU to the non-governmental organizations supported by Soros in Hungary. Speaking at the start of the debate in parliament, he described them as "faux-civic, agent organizations" seeking to hinder the democratically elected Hungarian government.

Balog's Ministry of Human Resources said CEU was misleading international public opinion.

"Instead of respecting the laws, the Soros university has chosen to keep its privileges at all costs and is using every means to achieve this," the ministry said in a statement.

Some Hungarian opposition parties said they would ask President Ader to refrain from signing the bill.

"This law is practically a witch-hunt against CEU, freedom of education and against independent, autonomous and critical thinking," said Bernadett Szel, a lawmaker from the opposition party Politics Can Be Different. She said the law was reminiscent of Hungary's communist era which ended in 1990.

The deadlines for meeting the new conditions set in the law were markedly shortened in a last-minute modification backed by the government.

"This is not how a normal democratic society should function," Ignatieff said. "This is a punitive timetable. It makes it virtually impossible for any university, let alone CEU, to comply."