Hungarian lawmakers from Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party approved a law that could force a university founded by financier George Soros out of the country despite a protest against the plan in Budapest and condemnation abroad. The legislation passed with 123 votes in favor and 38 against, while 38 deputies did not vote. Voting was briefly interrupted by the sound of a siren blaring from a megaphone held up by an independent lawmaker in protest.
Addressing parliament before the vote, Orban's human affairs minister said institutions backed by Soros were trying to undermine Hungary's government by "averting democratic rules".
The bill passed despite days of protests (sponsored by Soros' very own Open Society according to some skeptics) and culminates a conflict that’s become emblematic of concerns that "liberal democracy" according to Bloomberg, or at least George Soros' influence, is in retreat in the eastern European nation.
On Friday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a staunch critic of Soros and his various liberal civil organizations said the Central European University had violated regulations in awarding its diplomas, an allegation the college firmly rejected. Parliament, where Orban’s party has a commanding majority, approved the bill tightening regulation on foreign universities on Tuesday, the same day legislators had the first chance to debate it. Ruling-party lawmakers on late Monday amended the bill, tightening deadlines for universities to meet new regulations. The bill modifies rules regulating the 28 foreign universities in Hungary.
Orban has regularly blamed the Hungarian-born billionaire investor and philanthropist, who also funds organizations that seek to promote human rights and government transparency, for trying to undermine him.
This weekend, thousands of Hungarians marched to protest for academic freedom in response to the legislation. The government denies it’s targeting Central European University, the institution Soros "founded to train a new generation of democratic leaders in eastern Europe after decades of communism."
Soros' Central European University said parts of the bill directly target it, and could force it to close. Orban, a former Soros scholarship recipient, has been increasingly critical of the Hungarian-born philanthropist, accusing him of wanting to influence Hungarian politics. Last week the PM accused the CEU of "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.
The U.S. State Department as well as hundreds of academics and universities have expressed support for CEU, founded in 1991. It currently enrolls 1,400 students from 108 countries.
As Bloomberg adds, 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. "We are committed to preventing this activity with every legal means," Balog said.
Meanwhile, leaders at CEU have vowed to keep the university open. "If the bill passes, it would mark the first time that a member of the European Union dared to legislate an attack on the academic freedom of a university," CEU rector Michael Ignatieff said in an opinion article in The New York Times on Sunday. "It would also mark the first time that an American ally, a member of NATO, openly attacked an American institution on its soil."
Ignatieff added 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."
The draft 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.
Balog said Hungary's government was ready to negotiate with the U.S. government on an agreement about the university. However, he added that “We are committed to use all legal means at our disposal to stop pseudo-civil society spy groups such as the ones funded by George Soros.” It does not appear that there will be an amicable resolution.