The Central European University, where I have taught in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology since 2011, has been making headlines globally in recent weeks. Founded in 1991 by George Soros to enable the rebirth of critical social sciences in the post-socialist region, it is an English-language and graduate-only university, registered both in Hungary and in the State of New York. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, decided to engage in a full-tilt assault on the CEU in late March by suddenly presenting a law, and then pushing it through parliament one week later, which makes it impossible for the CEU to continue to function in Hungary.
The CEU story is only one small piece in a larger tale about Hungary’s brutal transition from membership in a multi-ethnic empire to an ethnically homogenous nation-state, its equally brutal transition from a state-run economy to pariah capitalism, and its membership in the European Union, a federation which inadvertently funds Orbán’s crony capitalism while looking the other way.
Like many countries in Central and East Europe, Hungary’s post-socialist economy is far from a success story. It is no coincidence that so many of our CEU students are avid David Harvey readers. Citizens of the post-socialist region experienced some of the purest neoliberal reforms, implemented through local elites who were perhaps true believers, but in many cases, also became very rich in plundering state-owned planned economies.
Hungarians also have bitter memories of foreign powers meddling with Hungarian sovereignty. Hungary was punished heavily by the Treaty of Trianon, signed at the end of WWI to dismember the Austro-Hungarian Empire and which created a diminished Hungarian nation-state. Seventy-two percent of lands considered part of the Hungarian Kingdom within the Austro-Hungarian Empire were incorporated into neighboring countries. Following the forced formation of rump independent Hungary in 1920, Hungarian ethno-nationalism turned inwards, purging itself of the Austro-Hungarian imperial model of a multi-ethnic society, and promoting a distinctly Magyar ethno-national identity. The map of pre-WWI Kingdom of Hungary is ubiquitously displayed today, worn by young and old on T-shirts, belt-buckles, and pins.
Enter European Union membership. For many Hungarians, it is another imperial, cosmopolitan entity to be feared. The refugee crisis percolating through the Middle East and Africa into Europe has presented an opportunity for Orbán to promote his narrative of a homogeneously distinct people clinging to its right to self-determination, against the wishes of an imperial power.
While Orbán has hyped up his nationalist anti-EU discourse, his friends and family have been getting rich by “winning” public bids for EU-funded public projects. Orbán’s Fidesz party is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group within the European Parliament. The EPP is decisive in determining much EU policy. Orbán plays the role of the anti-EU warrior on his national stage, while members of his Fidesz party dependably toe the EPP line in Brussels. The EPP is reluctant to turn on Orbán, one of their own who brings a bloc of votes when they need it.
Orbán’s rule has taken on the dynamics of a mafia boss who needs to constantly perform a show of power, and who needs to repeatedly reproduce his magic to maintain his charismatic legitimacy. It is hard to know exactly why he chose the CEU as his next major target. The CEU’s cosmopolitanism and liberalism, and its support by Orbán’s sworn enemy, George Soros, are all good reasons. Perhaps it was a bid to catch Donald Trump’s attention, something the Orbán regime had already been trying to do to no avail. Regardless, the nature of Orbán’s authority compels him to always perform another act of populist magic. The next targets are NGO’s, such as the Helsinki Committee, dedicated to protecting refugee rights, and now a national consultation, which with an outrageously-worded questionnaire will ask Hungarians to voice their concern regarding EU “meddling” with Hungarian national policy.
This time, however, the compulsion to reproduce his charismatic authority within his party and country might be finally controverting his role as the good EPP member. The threat to the academic freedom of a premier European university has ruffled many feathers in Hungary, internationally, and even within the European Commission.
It is very likely that the CEU will prevail. As a non-national institution with independent funding, it is relatively protected from authoritarian interventions. Its faculty and students are not as vulnerable as academics in Turkish universities today. With one foot in the United States, and another foot in the European Union, the CEU is also not as vulnerable politically as the European University at Saint Petersburg, whose license was recently revoked. Michael Ignatieff, the CEU’s current Rector, has vigorously defended the university’s values and swears to defends its future.
Orbán’s charismatic mafia domination will eventually run its course. One day there will be no more rabbits to pull out of his hat. Perhaps the EPP will finally kick out Fidesz. Perhaps the European Commission will finally take definitive action rather than just “open dialogue,” and will cut off the flow of money that has breathed life into the Orbán regime. But, even then, who says the replacement would be any better?
The far-right Jobbik party is positioning itself as the only organized opposition party. Economic inequality and dispossession would persist. The educated and mobile would continue to leave. Hungarian higher education would remain gutted. Impoverished Roma communities would continue to live in severely ostracized ethnic and economic ghettos. Women would continue to be subjected to pronatalist pressures and misogynistic politics. Migrants trapped at the Hungarian border would continue to suffer through cold winters and live in their existential limbo. Central and East Europe is no longer the darling region of the post-Cold War transition, and no longer the exciting symbol of the European Union’s expansive realization.
Many of us at CEU are deeply moved by the expressions of solidarity from around the world for our small university. But we are sad for this small country, plundered and pauperized by its own, and mostly forgotten by everyone else.