Hungary, Network 4 Debate

How Serious are CEU’s Troubles? And Why is it Being Attacked Now?

Fidesz’s position seems very strong, but the CEU protests have brought more and more people into actively thinking about political alternatives. Political parties in Hungary are refashioning and realigning themselves, showing signs of waking up. If such energies survive until the elections, there may be the possibility of a slight chance for stripping Fidesz of its majority in Parliament.

Since the Fidesz government began its attacks against Central European University (CEU), Hungary’s streets have filled with protesters in opposition. Marta Tycner of Political Critique sat down with Szilárd István Pap, an anthropologist, political analyst, and member of the editorial team of Kettős Mérce, for a discussion on the meaning and seriousness of the CEU protests, in addition to what possibilities Hungary’s political landscape has in the future.

Marta Tycner: We are talking on the evening of April 4th, after the second big protest against the closing of Central European University took place. Meanwhile, on April 9th a third, even larger protest took place, with participants amounting to about 70,000 people.  

Szilárd István Pap: There were probably some 7 to 8 thousand people on the street. It took place in front of CEU, the protesters made a human chain around the university. After the officially announced protest ended, a couple of hundreds of people went to the nearby Parliament. The protesters wanted to put an EU flag on the building, since the current administration took it off, but of course the police did not let them do it. Most people left after a few hours of deadlock with the police.

It was one of a series of mass protests concerning CEU. That indicates that the university is an important institution, at least for people in Budapest. But what is the institution’s foundational purpose?

CEU was founded by George Soros in the beginning of the transition. The official goal was to help the development of open society in regions that are experiencing transition, to educate political, economic elites, and to create a civil society. The idea was that people from Central and Eastern Europe would come there to study and then return to their respective countries, “spreading democracy” there. And in some sense it worked: With its offer, CEU has been creating transnational, regional solidarity. Or even in a broader sense, as many social scientists, economists and public policy-makers educated in this institution come from Central Asia and the Middle East. CEU is very appealing to students, because it offers high quality education in English, international academic staff, and is much more affordable than any Western European university.

Is CEU really under a severe threat?

CEU has legal trouble now, because it is two institutions at once. It functions as a US-accredited university, and under the same name, of course, in Hungarian translation, as a Hungarian university accredited in Hungary. But it does not conduct any educational activity in the US, per se. Nevertheless, people who study at the Budapest campus may get a diploma accredited not only in Hungary, but in many cases the US as well. What the government is trying to do, is to sever these two legal entities. If it happens, the Hungarian institution will not attract as many people: Students come to CEU from all around the world because of the US-accredited diploma. At the same time, the government wants to require that a foreign university can operate on the territory of Hungary only if there is a prior official agreement between the two states – between Hungary and the US, in this case. These are general measures, but they mostly apply to CEU’s American part, which will not survive the modification of the law.

CEU has been operating under the Fidesz government for seven years. Why is it being attacked now? 

We can’t say for sure, because the internal plans of the government are not very transparent. But we are getting close to the parliamentary elections for spring 2018. The government usually tries to intensify its actions during campaign season to mobilize its own electoral base. They might have also expected that, after Trump’s election, no pressure will come from the US. But it is not that such hostility emerged only recently: George Soros has been a scapegoat for illiberal forces across all of Eastern Europe, since the very beginning of the transformation.

But does CEU produce for Hungary a group of people who are clearly opposed to the current policies or Viktor Orban, who might be a real threat to him? Or is this maybe a concept he invented?

With Orban, what I would call a proto-fascist discourse started, about how healthy Hungarian society is endangered by ‘diseases’ that exist within it.

I’m pretty sure that CEU does not pose any meaningful threat to the government. But, just like in Poland, the government is always trying to identify actors who are not in accordance with the official conservative, nationalistic, Christian ideology and demonize them. One of the biggest issues in pro-government media is that CEU has a gender studies department, and that it “teaches” feminism and other subjects that are against traditional family values. This rhetoric was already present in right-wing politics even before Orban. But with Orban, something started that I would call a proto-fascist discourse, about how healthy Hungarian society is endangered by ‘diseases’ that exist within it. It has been presenting CEU as a cosmopolitan, anti-national foreign element on the body of the nation. Obviously, a lot of Christian academics are working there, and a lot Fidesz’ members also were taught at CEU, including the current spokesperson of the government. One political official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a student there, and the government is paying his tuition. Why would they do it, if they believed that the CEU brainwashes Hungarian students, or makes them into fighters against the government? The general ideology of the university is, of course, different and opposed to the Hungarian government ideology, but it doesn’t mean that there is no pluralism within.

When a government attacks a university, you can suspect that it is part of a general hostility against intellectual circles. But how anti-elitist actually is Orban? Does the government see itself as representing common people against the elite, or is the attack against CEU just part of a fight between two elitist groups with different political associations?

In the case of CEU the government was not much focused on this anti-elitists part, but rather on the anti-foreign and anti-cosmopolitan part. What Fidesz is trying to do is portray the government as representative of the entire Hungarian nation. To criticize the government is to criticize the Hungarian nation. Attacking the government is the same as attacking the Hungarian nation. This is such a dominant, discursive frame that you don’t even notice it anymore after seven years of Orban. But it is not anti-elitist. Fidesz used to be anti-elitist in the sense of overturning all corrupt elites. But after being in power for so long, it is much more difficult to present yourself as anti-elitist, and much easier to keep up nationalist rhetoric. And on the level of public policy it becomes  obvious that they are not on the people’s side. Their entire social and economic policy screams elitism, screams favoring the rich. The elements of the welfare state are being destroyed, and it’s the same with the public education or the public health system. The corporate tax was decreased from 19 percent to nine percent last year, a 10 percent drop, while there were no tax cuts for ordinary people.

If the attacks on CEU should be seen as a purely nationalist fight, in the framework of Hungarian people against foreign influence, does it also mean that it is based on anti-Semitic sentiments?

Of course, anti-Semitism is always present in undertones. But the government doesn’t really speak openly about it. It belongs at the informal level, or you can spot it amongst lower party officials in the countryside. It is sometimes present on the streets. What is very characteristic to Fidesz, is to use any kind of social anxiety and transform it into a battle of Hungarian people against foreign agents, foreign powers and their domestic agents – anti-Semitism comes into play here. This is a pattern they use in any kind of situation, recently, for example, with the refugee crisis: the refugees being sent in by Soros, who were invited by Merkel and by all decaying liberals in the West. It was the same with Brussels threatening national sovereignty, which is also a very interesting rhetoric, considering that the Hungarian government significantly uses EU funding to finance its own corrupt clientele.

Does this anti-cosmopolitan narrative work?

This narrative is very powerful and compelling, because everything, every little piece fits the pattern. There’s a connection between refugees, liberals all over the world and in Hungary, Brussels, CEU, the West, Soros, NGOs, the opposition press – and all this builds one huge conglomerate of ‘the evil.’ You can always connect a particular issue to a subsection of ‘the huge evil,’ and by the logic of inference you can refer to the entire malevolent miscellany. If there is the question of, let’s say, the opposition media, you can easily connect them to liberal elites, and then you can connect those elites to Brussels trying to infringe on Hungarian sovereignty. Another example: every time a protest occurs, the pro-government press finds an individual who can be ‘linked’ to Soros. Hence, at some point, the media and the public stop talking about the fact itself. For instance, that the government is closing one of Hungary’s most popular universities is not so much the focal point of discussion; instead, talks focus on whether there are foreign attacks going on.

But how many people can be convinced by such a strategy when it is obvious that the government is partly inventing these connections?

What is very characteristic to Fidesz is to use any kind of social anxiety and transform it into a battle of Hungarian people against foreign agents.

It does not work in the sense that all of Hungary is brainwashed by it, with people just believing all the crap the government says. This is the case only with a small percentage of the Hungarian population, the core constituency of Fidesz. The problem is that, in parallel with this, and because of the pointless discussions, we have a huge fragmentation and demobilization of the majority. In 2012, there was a large student protest against the introduction of tuition fees, and in defense of the autonomy of higher education. The government immediately found two or three people connected to CEU, or to the discredited socialist party, which is also part of the evil liberal and foreign jigsaw puzzle. In such a case, everybody who is not a committed oppositional activist usually only sighs and feels discouraged to stand up again.

Speaking about the opposition: what about it? From the outside, it looks like the Hungarian opposition is playing a game according to the government’s rules. They call for external help, gather support abroad. This is also the case with CEU. On the one hand, it is an obvious move, on the other hand, it only contributes to the deadlock.

On many occasions the opposition in Hungary indeed plays into the government’s rhetoric. Still, the situation is tricky primarily because whatever you do, the overwhelming media propaganda connects you to something they define as evil.

External help is one thing. But what about other elements of Fidesz’s propaganda? You can’t really say that the opposition is not connected to old, discredited political powers. Or am I wrong?

Partly yes, partly no. Some of the opposition parties are, of course, somehow connected to the parties that governed Hungary before 2010. But some of them can’t be. And even more so, all the protests we had in the last couple of years have not been connected to them. They were organized mostly by young, 21-23-year old people who had never taken part in politics before. They only mobilized against the government in the last couple of years.

Do these protests have any follow-ups on an organizational level? Every couple of months, you have a protest in Hungary and there is this hope – maybe it’s a game changer? Student protests, closing of Népszabadság, the biggest independent newspaper in Hungary, now CEU. And then there is always this big disappointment: people just go home. Is anything actually emerging from these mobilizations?

There is a huge turnover at every protest, and while there are some people who take part in most of them, as a rule every protest is organized by a different group. So, there is indeed a problem with structures, and the non-parliamentary opposition could not solve, so far, the problems with transmitting experience and knowledge, building infrastructures and creating a robust movement that is sustainable in the long run. The current model is that we take to the streets, with about 10-20 thousand people, and shout that we will not let you do what you are planning to do, and then we go home and let the government do what it wants. This picture is a bit of a caricature, but not very far from a realistic characterization of the Hungarian protest culture.

What is the reason for these dynamics? In Poland,  when we have a similar situation, some commentators say that it is because the majority of protesters are against getting political. They say ‘ we have nothing to do with politics, we are just citizens.’ Is this notion also prevalent among the Hungarian opposition? Is there any discussion regarding it?

Reflexes among protesters are often that politics is bad, and the government does everything in its power to strengthen these reflexes.

There are some unquestioned reflexes among the protesters: politics are bad, we don’t want to act politically, we don’t want to admit that we are doing a political thing here, we just want this one particular measure to be withdrawn. And you have also very strong reflexes originating from the 1990s: we want Europe, we want democracy. This can work only for already mobilized groups, but it is not appealing to the large majority. However – and I don’t want to sound like I am justifying the shortcomings of the opposition – you must see that the government does everything in its power to strengthen these reflexes. They suggest that doing politics is the opposite of representing the national interest. So, when they attack CEU, they say that the university is doing politics. They also make use of the general post-socialist de-politicization culture. There is the conviction that the communists were excessively political and politicized everything, they tried to teach us political stuff, like scientific socialism and Marxism. But we were liberated from this in the 1990s. So, we should abolish politics at school, a teacher cannot talk about politics, not even at the university. They are supposed to be de-politicized institutions. And through this we come to the privatization of the self. We want to have meetings and protests like in the West, but we don’t want to do politics. The logical extreme of this is that everything political is bad. An accusation that CEU or anybody else is doing politics is a demobilization strategy.

You have a new party in Hungary now, Momentum. Does this apply also to them?

The Momentum Party  is a very interesting phenomenon. They went public only a few months ago, during the campaign against Budapest hosting the 2024 Olympic Games. But they have been organizing in secret for 2 years, they built up a network of couple of hundred people, and a professional infrastructure. They possess a powerful structure and an institution, which is clearly an alternative to the of-the-cuff protest culture in Hungary after 2010. Momentum is a really conscious and very non-improvised project. In private discussions, its members also verbalize  this. They say they want to be different, because what we have had has so far led us nowhere. Unfortunately, on the other hand, they do not question the political reflexes of post-socialist Hungary. They are again non-ideological, technocratic, attached to ideas and clichés, like ‘we must follow the rules of the European Union’ or ‘globalization is good.’ This is why I am very skeptical about their claim that they would make a difference.

The left in both Hungary and Poland found itself in opposition to a clearly nationalist, right-wing government, hand in hand with liberals. In Poland one of the very vivid questions is whether the left and liberals should go together and build a common front. Some of the leftist circles do and some don’t. We don’t yet know if either of these two strategies are right. But in Hungary one can have the impression that the liberal opposition and the left-wing opposition are always one body. Is this correct or am I just not noticing something?

Again, yes and no. The whole point is that the opposition uses this powerful popular, strong reflex that we should stick together, because we are a minority and a powerful enemy is killing us. We should put aside differences and just move forward. This usually ends up in pushing forward the liberal agenda, while the leftist agenda is pushed to the side. However, in 2009 the party ‘Politics can be different’ (LMP) was formed, which tried to distance itself from this rhetoric. They did not use the word ‘left’ but grew out of the international green and anti-globalization movements, and put forward a very coherent left-wing program. They are still in Parliament, but I am not sure that they will enter it in the elections next year. Their policy was very consistent about not allowing themselves to stick to old liberal elites. In the 2010 elections there was huge enthusiasm about them: people were angry with the old, compromised left-liberal elite, and turned to LMP as a clean, left-wing alternative to that. Thanks to this, the party got good results and entered the Parliament. In the 2014 electoral campaign they were again the only party that did not enter the big opposition block, which was comprised of many compromised old politicians, and ended up as a huge fiasco. This is probably why LMP crossed the 5% threshold and won seats in the Parliament again. Unfortunately, before the 2014 elections, there was a disagreement in the party on whether to join this anti-Orban coalition. Those who were supporting this idea left LMP, and formed a new grouping, which, at the moment, is immeasurable in the polls. So, it ended up even worse. Generally, LMP made a lot of mistakes and did not grow at all; on the contrary, they decreased, which puts the whole paradigm of keeping our distance from the liberals in a new perspective. I am not saying that this strategy is doomed to fail, but at the moment we do not have any promising examples.

And what about the old socialist party? Have they faced consequences as a result of their spectacular defeat by Viktor Orban?

The opposition uses this powerful reflex on sticking together, putting aside differences to move forward, ending with a pushing forward of the liberal agenda, while the left is pushed to the side.

There is a very interesting trend there, which I am very curious about. The socialist party is the old Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party from before 1989, but since the 1990s it has been, in fact, a neoliberal party, which governed Hungary for 12 years and was in the end totally discredited. But recently, one of the party members, László Botka, mayor of one of the biggest towns in Hungary, was elected as their prime ministerial candidate. He put forward a very strong social-democratic program, with a complete restructuring of the tax system and an emphasis on traditional left-wing policies. He also declared that he is not interested in  the old liberal elites: we shouldn’t listen to the liberal intelligentsia, we are not interested in them, we are interested in the people, we want to win back the people, with a program of equality and justice – this was his message to party members. And there is obviously a liberal attack on him, calling what he is doing populism. The old post-socialist slogans appear in these attacks according to which you cannot tax the rich because the rich are producing value and so on. However, there is another aspect which I am very interested in: how this program of justice, equality and solidarity is going to work within the Hungarian Socialist Party. For it is in fact a non-party, in the sense that it lacks a coherent moral code or identity. Half of the members are bought by Fidesz and the government, and many of the members are just playing for survival.  And they still can be legitimately criticized: they did screw up Hungary and then lost the democratic elections in 2010. That happened for a reason, and their downfall still resonates.

I see. So, with this political landscape right now: how do you see the chances to pose a threat to the Fidesz government in the elections next year?

The polls show that Fidesz is still the most popular party, but the majority of the electorate is not content with the direction of the country. Fidesz’s position seems very strong, they dominate huge chunks of the media, they have an electoral system biased towards them, and economically are omnipotent. However, during the CEU protests one could feel that there is something in the air, and that more and more people are actively thinking about political alternatives. The once far-right Jobbik is trying to refashion itself as a moderate right-wing party, and has just initiated a powerful anti-corruption campaign. The Socialists are also showing signs of waking up, as I just said, and I am sure Momentum has a couple of tricks left up its sleeve. So if all these energies will survive until the elections, there is a slight chance of stripping Fidesz of its majority in Parliament. It would still be the largest party, but it would be forced to make compromises, which – considering the last 7 years – would be a revolutionary novelty. But we still have the possibility of yet another 2/3 majority for Fidesz. This is far from being an unrealistic scenario. In the months ahead, we will be able to draw some more concrete conclusions, we just have to wait for the current fluidity to crystallize in some tendencies.

Will CEU be saved?

Well, the bill is passed, and President János Áder signed it, so it enters into effect. The only institution that can still block this is the Constitutional Court, which is strongly biased towards the government, but on a few occasions it has managed to act as a balance to the government. It is yet to be seen what the court will say. Another factor is the US government. The State Department has been vocal in opposing the bill, so the diplomatic background discussions will be important for the future of CEU. And the future of CEU will have an impact on the future of Hungary as well: If the government can really get away with this, everybody in Hungary will be in trouble, and the regime will, most probably, turn for the worse.


This article was created as part of the Network 4 Debate project, supported by the International Visegrad Fund.


Marta Tycner is a historian and member of the Polish Razem (Together) party.

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