The possible closure of the Central European University in Budapest has unleashed waves of denunciations directed at the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in western media. Orbán has been accused of leading an “assault on freedom” in the New York Times, while one Guardian writer has summoned up the spectre of Munich 1938.
Let’s go over a few facts many west of Vienna seem unable to understand. Hungary is a democracy. It has a wide range of political parties (a lot more than, say, the US, which is only one party away from being a one-party state). It has free and fair elections. It has a parliament that passes legislation. The quality of legislation can vary greatly, as in any democracy, but like most legal matters that is a matter of keen debate. If citizens are unhappy about the legislation, they hold demonstrations, as they have been doing.
Orbán has aroused a lot of ire with his talk of “illiberal democracy”. I would like to underline the word democracy in that formula, which tends to get overlooked in the frothing of his critics. It should also be noted that in current Hungarian political usage “liberal” doesn’t have the connotations of “civilised”, “enlightened” or “generous”, it’s a portmanteau for leftwing conventions. I accept that an anti-left stance isn’t going to win Orbán fans among the Guardian’s readers, but I trust they might be willing to accept that someone who has a different opinion isn’t automatically wearing jackboots.
I find the criticism that Hungary no longer has a pluralistic media especially puzzling. That’s a harsh judgment on a country: the sort of judgment that requires evidence. I always find it interesting how people who don’t speak Hungarian feel entitled to accuse Orbán of “muzzling the press”.
For the benefit of those who have no Hungarian, I can give you a long list of television, radio, print and internet outlets that are not only prepared to be critical of Orbán, but devote themselves exclusively to trashing him. Indeed some of the criticism and satire is of a savagery rarely seen in Britain – it has to be conceded there’s very little adult debate when it comes to politics in Hungary.
If I want to know what’s going on in Hungary I check www.index.hu, which is fairly balanced, but enjoys needling the government. If I want some tabloid fun, I go to www.444.hu, which is unrepentantly anti-Orbán. Anyone with a phone can have access to “clean” news or denunciations of the prime minister if they want.
Orbán has also been condemned for his treatment of migrants. Some see his detention of the people flooding in over the border as unreasonable. It might not be the ideal solution, but unlike the EU – which is sitting on its arse in bewilderment – Orbán is actually doing something. I am the son of refugees and I can assure you that if my parents had been detained when they arrived in Britain in 1956, in safety and with regular meals, while matters were sorted out, they wouldn’t have complained: they would have said “thank you”.
The most disgusting accusation made against Orbán is that of antisemitism – as George Soros, the billionaire behind the Central European University, is Jewish. Orbán is the man who introduced Holocaust education into schools, passed a Holocaust denial law and whose government financed Son of Saul, a film about Auschwitz that won an Oscar.
The amendment to the law on higher education that has caused the recent furore affects 28 foreign institutions in Hungary, 27 of which were found to be operating with “irregularities” (largely sloppy paperwork, something that will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with university admin). None has been fined or shut down.
Many, probably most, academics at Hungarian universities disapprove of the amendment, which they feel is bad for research, but the Central European University is not being singled out for punishment: it’s asking to be given privileged treatment.
This is not simply about freedom of speech or independence of scholarship. The CEU is legally a Hungarian university. Under the amendment the same buildings, the same canteen, the same umbrella stands, the same courses, the same bitching about Orbán and his wickedness can continue, and students can get a qualification recognised in Europe. The government can’t touch them.
What can’t continue, without a new deal, is the practice whereby the CEU can also issue a diploma accredited in the US – it is registered in New York – without actually operating a campus. Until now, CEU students have been getting double bubble.
Obviously that was an attractive deal for students so, should the CEU lose that option, it will make the university less marketable. However, if it is so much the centre of excellence that its supporters claim it is, it should still be able to attract students. The issue is bums on seats and dollars as much as anything else.
I have followed the progress of this institution since its creation in 1991, and I know many of the staff. One of the salient themes it has been banging on about for nearly 30 years is the rule of law. Perhaps the CEU should adhere to its own principles and comply with the law. Then everyone can vote against Orbán next year.