Orbán vs. Soros: The Next Round
Hungary’s ruling populist party, Fidesz, and its charismatic and popular leader, Viktor Orbán, have established themselves as the leading opposition within the European Union to globalism and to Brussels itself since coming to power in 2010, and crossed swords with the Obama administration as well. I have detailed some of their earlier accomplishments in this regard in a previous essay, and of course Orbán’s continuing role in refusing to allow Hungary to be victimized by the migrant crisis is well-known. Orbán’s overall program can perhaps best be summed up in the declaration he made in 2014, in which he stated his intention to remake Hungary as an “illiberal democracy.”
A large part of Hungary’s resistance to globalism has come in the form of its conflict with George Soros and his organizations, who is a Jew native to the country. Indeed, in January, citing the possible opportunities offered by the incoming Trump administration (it is worth noting that Orbán was the first foreign leader to call to congratulate Trump for his victory on election night), Fidesz’s Vice President, Szilard Nemeth, said that they would begin using “all the tools at its disposal” to “sweep out” all those NGOs in Hungary which are being financed by Soros, particularly through his Open Society Foundation. In recent years Orbán himself has been a frequent critic of Soros in his speeches, and in fact accused Soros’ NGOs of encouraging and facilitating the stream of “migrants” into Europe at the height of the crisis in 2015. Fidesz continues to hold Soros responsible for the migrant crisis today.
For observers of Hungarian politics, Orbán’s beef with Soros is rather ironic, as Soros was one of the financiers of Fidesz in its early days, when it first emerged as a liberal-democratic party as part of the political opposition to Communism when the latter was on its last legs in the late 1980s. This wasn’t unusual, as Soros’ Open Society Foundation funded many of the political parties which participated in the transition to democracy in the former Soviet bloc at the time, but nevertheless it is a curious fact. Orbán himself received a scholarship from the Foundation in 1989 to study at Pembroke College in Oxford, although he left after one semester to return to politics in Hungary. Soros’ relationship to Fidesz ended, however, when it became a conservative party in 1993. Whatever Orbán’s past connections to Soros, we can safely dismiss them as the naivety of youth given developments since.
Events of recent weeks in Budapest have shown that Fidesz is serious about making good on Nemeth’s January threat. The latest episode in the continuing war for the soul of Hungary revolves around Central European University (CEU), which was founded by Soros personally in 1991, and it has been operating ever since. Its campus lies in the heart of Budapest, and when one enters the main building, one is greeted by an oil portrait of Soros in the foyer (a lovely sight to behold!). It currently reports to be hosting 1,440 students from 108 countries, mostly pursuing their Master’s or doctorates, but with a smattering of undergraduates and non-degree-pursuing students as well.
I’ve attended a few public events at CEU during my time in Budapest, and it really is as if a typical American liberal university has been uprooted and dropped into the middle of the city. Much of the teaching staff and many of their guest speakers are either American or Western European – the current Rector of the University, Michael Ignatieff, is Canadian and was the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada (currently led by PM Justin Trudeau) from 2008 until 2011. And in fact CEU is the only educational institution in Hungary which is accredited to grant both American and Hungarian degrees. I recall that when I was in a room on the campus waiting for a lecture once, I noticed a sign on the wall informing me that the area was a “safe space” from homophobia, transphobia, racism, and what have you – no mean feat in ultra-conservative Hungary. And of course, whenever there is any sort of protest against the policies of the government, especially during the migrant crisis, CEU and its staff and students are always among the organizations supporting, encouraging, and joining the opposition, feeding the narrative popular in the international media that Orbán’s Hungary is a “dictatorship” and undemocratic. (This is in spite of the fact that Fidesz won forty-five percent of the popular vote and sixty-two percent of the parliamentary seats in the last national election, with the even further-Right party Jobbik winning twenty percent of the vote – meaning that sixty-five percent of Hungarians voted for Right-wing parties.) Given all of this, there is no question that CEU is a vector for Americanization and neoliberalism in Hungary.
So it didn’t come as a great surprise when a new bill was introduced in the Hungarian Parliament on March 28 which aimed to add new regulations for foreign universities operating in Budapest: there would need to be an agreement between the Hungarian government and that of the institution’s country of origin, and the institution would be required to operate a campus in its country of origin as well as in Hungary (CEU only operates in Budapest). Further, all of the institution’s non-EU staff would be required to obtain work visas to remain in Hungary – a problem for a university such as CEU that employs a large number of Americans.
Needless to say, the announcement of the bill ignited immediate indignity and anger among not only the CEU community, but also among Budapest’s liberals (Hungary doesn’t have much of a liberal tendency, but what there is mainly exists in Budapest) and many of its Western expats (who tend to be liberal). The bill quickly became known as the lex CEU (CEU law), since the law would only affect that University. The government defended the action by claiming that CEU enjoys unfair advantages that give it an edge over Hungary’s other educational institutions, and that they were simply trying to correct the situation. The leaders of CEU responded by claiming that the bill was clearly directed at them alone and that if passed it would be an attack on “academic freedom.” The first of a series of protests was held on April 2, and soon signs reading “#IstandwithCEU/#aCEUvalvagyok” began appearing in the windows of the more hipstery, Left-leaning establishments of Budapest. The US State Department also issued an objection.
On April 3, CEU began to challenge the constitutionality of the bill in court, and asserted that CEU would be forced to leave the country if it were passed. Undeterred, on April 4 the Parliament voted to pass the bill, and on Monday (April 10), President János Áder signed it into law to take effect in the next academic year. Protests from the usual suspects have been occurring with regularity in Budapest, with the biggest occurring on Sunday, when it was reported that between fifty thousand and eighty thousand people participated, many of them carrying EU flags, making it the largest protest in Hungary since Fidesz came to power in 2010 according to some reports. Another protest on Monday night ended with a confrontation with the police, leading to the crowd being pepper-sprayed. Support for CEU has also been pouring in from expected sources across the world, including from such liberal luminaries as Noam Chomsky and Kofi Annan, as well as from countless academic institutions and liberal politicians.
While I am sympathetic to the government’s position, I have to admit to having somewhat mixed feelings as I have a liking for university campuses, having spent many years of my life either studying at or working at one. Regardless of the metapolitical agenda being pursued by most such institutions today, an environment where people are free to study and discuss all manner of ideas openly is refreshing to anyone interested in the finer aspects of culture and human achievement, as are the events that such institutions end up hosting. The loss of CEU would certainly be a blow to the cultural life of the city – even though there are several other colleges and universities in Hungary to fill the vacuum. And CEU has demonstrated a bit of openness even to our sort of ideas – they have hosted speakers from the Rightist milieu on occasion, including Márton Gyöngyösi, the Deputy Leader of Jobbik, and my former Arktos colleague Daniel Friberg – speakers who are unlikely to receive invitations from many university campuses in the West.
Nevertheless, as adherents to the principles of the True Right, we must recognize that the Hungarian government, which continues to enjoy great public support across the country, has a right to defend the integrity and identity of its people from outside influences, especially malicious influences that seek to undermine it by attempting to foist mass immigration and other radical neoliberal reforms upon it. Those who see or read about the protests in the media should not be fooled – the protesters do not represent the will of the majority of the Hungarian people, who are overwhelmingly deeply conservative, but only those who wish to see Hungary transformed into a model EU state as one finds in Western Europe.
To provide some examples, on April 2, the day of the first protest, I happened to attend a party at which there were some people who had participated in it. None of them, I noted, were Hungarian, but were rather British. All of them were intensely peeved – one of them was muttering about how “Orbán was clearly opposed to British values” – although why “British values” (which I assume he considered to be synonymous with liberalism) should be obligatory in Hungary was left rather vague.
I also spoke with a Hungarian philosophy teacher who had not attended the protest, but who was sympathetic to it. I explained my own position, expressing my belief that Hungary should stand up for its own identity and not cave in to the forces of Americanization and globalism that are threatening to render our entire planet into a monolithic shopping mall. His response was, “If Americanization means making life more efficient and easier, I’m all for it.” He went on to use the analogy of film: the motion picture was an American invention, he said, but one can tell the difference between American, French, or Hungarian films. They are not the same. I acknowledged that this was the case, but I also pointed out that if you compare the French and Hungarian films of fifty years ago to today’s, the latter are quite a bit more like Hollywood’s, and fifty years from now it seems likely that there may not be any difference at all. And this seems probable in all spheres of human culture if nothing changes.
The Hungarian government continues to insist that it is open to negotiation on the issue, and Soros himself has affirmed that he intends for the campus to continue operating in Budapest, so it seems likely that some sort of compromise will be struck rather than for it to be forced out. I sincerely hope that the authorities take a strong stand on the issue and don’t back down in the face of international pressure. I have also heard that the US State Department will soon be sending a delegation to discuss the matter.
By the Hungarian government’s own admission, they were emboldened to take this step because they believe that the Trump administration won’t attempt to intervene. Given Trump’s foreign policy reversals in recent days, I hope that this confidence isn’t ill-founded. Hungary’s relationship with the US during Obama’s tenure was strained, to say the least. If Trump acts on his campaign promises and bids the US’ many tentacles to stop interfering in the affairs of other countries, this will make it much easier for Orbán and Fidesz to take their project of “illiberal democracy” much further and end Soros’ influence once and for all. If Trump goes back on this, however, then Hungary will be forced into a situation where it will either have to cave in, and get sucked by attrition down the road to becoming like France or Sweden, or it will have to take strident action to begin isolating itself from unwanted foreign influences. With the EU already making (most likely empty) noises about forcing Hungary out of the group if it doesn’t accept more “migrants,” things could get uglier fast if some of the pressure isn’t removed. Hopefully Hungary can have a more constructive relationship with the US instead, rather than looking to China as a possible new partner, as is being considered in some official quarters.
In his recent speech to commemorate Hungary’s entry into the 1848 Revolution on March 15, Orbán quoted the great Hungarian statesman István Széchenyi as saying, “. . . [W]hen the whole of Europe disintegrates, Hungary – rising from its ashes – will, to the glory of humanity, stand guard over order, peace and freedom: just as when it once defended Christianity.” It is my belief that Hungary at present, and its many Right-wing and traditionalist parties and groups, is the beacon of hope for the entire West. Quite frankly, this is a wonderful country which still retains a solid sense of itself and of its continuity with its own history, and the thought that there are people hoping to make it like the West just sickens me. It’s far from perfect, to be sure, and I don’t mean to make Orbán and Fidesz out to be selfless radical nationalists – they’re not. Nevertheless, they are taking concrete steps to secure not just Hungary’s, but all of Europe’s identity, and Orbán has been willing to assume the much-needed mantle of spokesman for illiberal euroskepticism. Here’s hoping that in the coming days and weeks they will be able to deal Soros and his minions a very public and visible defeat – not just for Hungary, but to inspire the rest of us.