Orban crossed the red line

János Kis in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 8 April 2017

Łukasz Pawłowski: Why has Viktor Orban attacked the Central European University? What political points he wants to score by closing the CEU?

János Kis: The attack on the CEU is part of a larger xenophobic propaganda campaign which aims to mobilize electoral support by telling people that the nation is threatened by an international conspiracy. But independently of this, CEU is a problem for the autocracy in the making. We are the only university in Hungary still enjoying academic freedom. All the other universities are more or less taken under government control.

Is the CEU’s influence over Hungarian society significant enough that Viktor Orban is willing to risk public outrage and probably an international scandal to close it?

You are right. Political moves are assessed in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, and it seems that the benefits of trying to force CEU into exile are not worth the costs.

Destroying a university is a brutal and outrageous act, it is in the neighbourhood of book burning. Orban clearly crossed a red line, and the intensity of reactions is very high both around the world and inside Hungary.

We saw mass demonstrations in Budapest defending the University, but do these demonstrations reflect the social mood in the country as a whole?

There are and there will be demonstrations, and there are protest letters from students and professors and concerned citizens from all over the country, but there is more. Academic institutions up to the level of the Rectors’ Conference and the Hungarian Academy of Science made public statements expressing their commitment to CEU’s continuing its operation in Hungary. It is the first time since 2010 that one can experience such a massive wave of solidarity with a community under attack, whether that of judges, teachers, or journalists. This puts Orban in front of a dilemma. Fear is a pillar of his power. If no punishment follows, the fear might evaporate. On the other hand, the protest movement is too wide – disciplining it may also have unforeseen effects.

Even so, it is true that the expressions of solidarity with CEU are heavily concentrated on the academic community and the intelligentsia. But public opinion is not fixed for good, and we are not at the end of the story yet. As long as the struggle around CEU continues, the mobilization will not die out, and it is hard to predict in what ways it will affect the wider society.

Is it an issue that can really turn the society against Fidesz?

There are so many grievances and reasons for discontent in this country, from the outrageous enrichment of a cleptocracy with Orban at the center to the miserable state of public health and the destruction of general education. And it is an intriguing feature of autocratic regimes in general that they seem rock solid up until the beginning of their irreversible and quick erosion. We cannot know whether this is the turning point. But at least it is a template of how it will come.

Interestingly, the official propaganda lost its capacity to determine the terms in which this issue is publicly presented. On almost all previous occasions, Orban and his people dominated the language of public discussion, forcing their opponents to engage in cumbersome explanations of their position. Now, their opponents speak about “lex CEU”, and they appear as hapless defenders of an indefensible cause.

What kind of reaction can we expect and should we expect from the European institutions?

The EU is usually slow and indecisive when it comes to stand up against violations of its basic principles, but this time the very leader of EPP parliamentary group of which Fidesz is a member expressed his agreement that the European Commission examines lex CEU and his expectation that the Hungarian government complies with the Commission’s judgment. I should add, with sadness, that Donald Tusk, President of the European Commission, keeps silent. That is something a democratic politician in his position, a person with integrity should not allow himself to do.

 What might happen to the CEU itself before any solution of this dispute is proposed? The were some rumours about moving the university outside Hungary…

The rumours about CEU being prepared to leave Hungary are absolutely baseless. The President of the university stated it in non-ambiguous terms that Hungary is our home, and we will fight for our right to continue as a Hungarian-American university in Budapest.