BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary’s headstrong nationalist prime minister and Hungary’s most famous expatriate liberal billionaire are on a collision course in a battle over the future of a school.
Protesters pledged to keep demonstrating against the government even after Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushed through legislation that critics fear could shut down a university founded by American-Hungarian investor and Democratic Party power broker George Soros.
Mr. Soros has attracted staunch supporters and bitter critics in the U.S. with his willingness to put his fortune at the service of his liberal principles. Republicans in the Virginia gubernatorial race just this week highlighted the Soros family’s major donations to the campaign of liberal insurgent candidate Tom Periello.
The 86-year-old hedge fund trader generates similar levels of support and suspicion across Central and Eastern Europe, where he has spent freely in the service of pro-liberalism organizations and Open Society Institutes. Budapest’s Central European University, at the heart of the clash of wills with the conservative government, was founded and funded by Mr. Soros in his hometown and boasts one of the largest endowments of any university in the region.
“This is my university, the best in Hungary and the region,” said Maria Koosh, a Georgian citizen and Central European University alumna who now works in Budapest at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Ms. Koosh has taken to streets repeatedly in recent weeks as the government bill made its way through parliament. Police arrested her boyfriend, Gergely Varga, for throwing paint at the presidential palace. He was sentenced to 200 hours of community service, she said.
“The Hungarian government ignored the international entities asking them not to pass the bill, and then the Hungarian people asked the president not to sign it, but they still pushed it through,” said Ms. Koosh.
The anger of Ms. Koosh and others stems from a rule signed into law last week that would impose a range of requirements on foreign-affiliated universities, including a mandate that they maintain campuses in their home countries.
Of the 28 foreign higher education institutions in Hungary, only Central European University, which has made it a point of offering educational opportunities to migrants in the country, would run afoul of the rule. The Budapest-based school is affiliated with New York State but has no facilities there. The rule also could prevent the school from offering Hungarian or American diplomas without the permission of the U.S. and Hungarian governments, a mandate that critics said is too onerous and almost impossible to satisfy.
When he proposed the rule early this year, Mr. Orban said the school was a hotbed of political dissent that undermines its supposed academic mission and says the migrants the university aims to help have been a source of terrorism. Backers of the law also argue that it will give other Hungarian universities a “level playing field” to compete with Mr. Soros and his billions of dollars.
It was only the latest attack on anything linked to the financier.
“Large-bodied predators are swimming in the waters, like George Soros and his groups,” Mr. Orban said in his annual state of the nation address in February. “This is the transborder empire of George Soros, with heaps of money and international heavy artillery. They are trying secretly and with foreign money to influence Hungarian politics.”
A former professional soccer player who gained fame as a critic of Hungary’s communist regime, Mr. Orban studied at Oxford University on Soros-funded scholarships in the late 1980s. But he has adopted a more nationalist and anti-immigration stance in recent years and often clashed with officials of the European Union over issues such as border controls.
Mr. Soros founded the 1,800-student university in 1989* as part of his push to promote more open societies in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.
In an April 6 statement, a Soros spokesperson said Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern offered Vienna as a host city for the university, but Mr. Soros said it wasn’t his decision.
“Mr. Soros responded that any such decision was CEU’s alone,” the statement said. “Mr. Soros’ understanding is that CEU has no intention of leaving Budapest.”
Central European University President and Rector Michael Ignatieff said Mr. Orban was unfairly targeting the school.
“We love being in Budapest,” said Mr. Ignatieff. “We remain open to dialogue with the government. But we simply cannot accept this legislation, and we will resist it. And when we resist it, we’re not fighting just for CEU; we believe we are fighting for Hungarian higher education, we are fighting for the academic freedom of institutions across Europe and across the world.”
The U.S. State Department also opposes the legislation.
“We believe it threatens the continued operations of Central European University, which is a leading academic institution,” State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said last week. “It’s an important conduit for intellectual and cultural exchanges between Hungary and the United States. And frankly, it’s at the center of free thinking and research.”
Mr. Orban may be banking on President Trump shifting the U.S. stance because Mr. Soros is a well-known Democratic donor, said Istvan Hegedus, chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society, a pro-EU group. During his election campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly attacked Mr. Soros as part of a “nefarious” group that controlled Washington. Mr. Orban was one of the few European leaders who welcomed Mr. Trump’s victory in November.
So far, the U.S. position has not changed.
“It seems [Mr. Orban] misinterpreted the U.S. way of thinking,” said Mr. Hegedus. “But the new administration, which has nothing to do with George Soros, seemed to react the traditional way. Central European University is partly an American university, and they feel that their interests are hurt. They support academic freedom and all.”
The campaign is classic Orban, Hungarian analysts say. The president’s Hungarian Civic Alliance party, or Fidesz, took a 180-degree turn in the 1990s toward the right, said Mr. Hegedus, a Central European University graduate and former Fidesz parliamentarian who once worked closely with Mr. Orban.
Three years ago, Mr. Orban said he preferred the “illiberal” regimes of China and Russia over Western-style democracies. Since then, the president has been strengthening ties with Moscow and waged a campaign against Syrian and other immigrants who have been flooding into Europe.
“Fidesz always needs new enemies,” said Mr. Hegedus. “These were most recently the migrants, but enemies also include Brussels. “This time, he thought there was room for maneuver to attack those who were still strong in his eyes: the intellectual, liberal elite.”
But the prime minister’s defenders said critics were overreacting.
“No one said the university should be closed down,” said Peter Torcsi, research director of the Hungarian Research Center on Fundamental Rights, a conservative think tank.
University leaders are fighting for the right to continue criticizing and fomenting opposition to Mr. Orban for his supposed illiberalism while claiming they are behaving like disinterested academics, said Mr. Torcsi.
“The problem here is not the kind of values that the university may or may not represent,” Mr. Torcsi said. “Educational freedom is guaranteed in Hungary constitutionally. The problem is when a university or nongovernmental organization starts acting as a political player.”
The European Union disagrees.
Last week, the European Commission launched an investigation, saying the new laws could violate EU rules that ensure the free movement of services and the freedom of establishment. The probe could lead to a case in the European Court of Justice and heavy fines.
But displeasure in the EU corridors of power is unlikely to faze Mr. Orban. His euroskeptic government has launched a new media campaign featuring “Stop Brussels” advertisements in protest of what they said were intrusive EU regulations.
Still, the EU isn’t structured to let Brussels punish member states too severely, said Mr. Hegedus. Mr. Orban has run afoul of EU budget, civil rights and refugee rules in the past. That the European Commission took action on the university’s case proves Mr. Orban has now gone too far, though Mr. Hegedus acknowledged that the censure wouldn’t change much.
“The commission acted quite sharply,” he said. “The question is what European institutions, especially the commission, can do against a member state that regularly breaches European norms and regulations. There is no easy answer.”
Mr. Orban seems eager to escalate the fight with Mr. Soros. Hungarian lawmakers this week began debating a Fidesz-backed bill that would require many NGOs that receive foreign financing to register with the courts and identify their foreign funding sources on the web and in their publications. Among the targets: the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the anti-corruption group Transparency International, which Mr. Orban and his supporters insist are part of a Soros-bankrolled network to meddle in the country’s domestic affairs and promote open immigration policies.
“The Soros empire set out to promote the cause of migrants and mass migration,” Mr. Orban said Sunday on state radio. “This is now about the security of the Hungarian people, the security of Hungary, the protection of the borders, public security and terrorism. On this, there can be no compromise.”
*The date of the university’s founding was incorrectly given in the original version of this story. The school was founded in 1989.