Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
On March 20, the Arbitration Court of St. Petersburg in Russia revoked the license of European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP), leaving its small body of mostly Russian students in limbo as to whether they will be able to complete their studies. The decision came after unscheduled inspections revealed 120 violations of the building code and other regulations. Apparently, renovations had been made without the right city filings, there was no fitness room, and the required pamphlets against alcoholism were missing—not to mention that the number of “teacher-practitioners” in the political science and sociology departments failed to meet the requirements set by the Russian Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science (Rosobrnadzor).
Appalling as this incident is, independent centers of thought with ties to the West expect such government harassment in Russia. One would not expect the same type of behavior in an ostensibly democratic member of the European Union, but that is precisely what is currently happening in Hungary. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is poised to put Central European University (CEU), founded and funded by the Hungarian-American investor George Soros, out of operation. With his support for refugee charities and progressive causes, Soros is the nemesis of the current government, notwithstanding that in 1989 Orban himself spent a semester in Oxford on a Soros scholarship.
Unlike their Russian counterparts, Hungarian authorities are not bothering with bureaucratic trivialities. On April 4, the Hungarian government rushed a bill through parliament that will make it all but impossible for CEU to continue operating in the country. Less than a week later, President Janos Ader signed the bill, popularly known as the Lex CEU, into law.
CEU is a much larger and arguably more prestigious university than EUSP. It is home to the best programs in humanities and social sciences in the former Soviet bloc (ranking 42nd worldwide in political science and international studies), it boasts a world-class academic press, and it is a focal point for researchers and intellectuals throughout central and eastern Europe.
The new law, if it goes into effect, will make it impossible for CEU to maintain its dual legal status. Currently, the school has a charter issued by the New York Board of Regents and has received accreditation for its Hungarian legal entity, KEE (Kozep-europai Egyetem, or Central European University). According to the government, that dual status, which allows CEU to issue both Hungarian- and U.S.-accredited degrees, is an unfair source of advantage over Hungarian universities. Under the Lex CEU, the university’s American entity is required to open a campus in the United States, which would then have to negotiate a bilateral treaty with Hungary in order to operate in the latter.
At the 80,000-strong protest against the law in Budapest on Sunday, some participants joked that the bill might be motivated by Orban’s desire to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, supposedly to conclude such an agreement. Other speculations point to the remarkable alignment of interests between Orban, a consistent critic of the EU’s sanctions against Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited Budapest in February on a rare trip to an EU member state. CEU-educated leaders and activists, of course, have been at heart of pro-Western movements across eastern Europe, including in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia.
The U.S. State Department quickly rebuffed the law. So did Tibor Navracsics, an appointee to the European Commission of Orban’s own Fidesz party. Budapest saw large public protests on two consecutive weekends in April. In addition, over 500 U.S. and European academics—including 20 Nobel laureates—urged the government to reconsider, and an online petition demanding the same has so far attracted over 53,000 signatures. Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, Reka Szemerkenyi, will be leaving her post early, in June, allegedly over her unwillingness to defend the Lex CEU. (Orban has refused to comment on Szemerkenyi’s departure, saying that he “doesn’t deal with women’s issues.”)
Comparing Orban to Putin might once have been hyperbole. But when Fidesz seems determined to expel a high-quality educational institution from the country on the grounds of political views of its funder, it is hyperbole no longer.
The attack on CEU, furthermore, is not happening in isolation. It is part of a broader effort to squeeze out “Soros and the powers that symbolize him,” to use Orban’s own words. In January, Fidesz deputy chairman Szilard Nemeth said, referring to Soros-funded NGOs, that “these organizations must be pushed back with all available tools, and I think they must be swept out.” He even named three specific organizations: the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Transparency International.
The Hungarian parliament is currently considering a draft law submitted by the government that will label NGOs that receive foreign contributions above $25,000 as “foreign agents.” Such organizations will be forced to register with the government and be subject to close monitoring, as well as having to comply with already existing rules on NGO financing. Organizations would only be removed from the list if they forego foreign funding for five years.
When three weeks ago a group of conservative and free-market scholars, including me, addressed an open letter to the Hungarian government warning it against a crackdown on civil society, the response was superficially reassuring. The government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs, a CEU graduate, wrote that stories of an NGO crackdown were a “ruse,” adding that the new legislation would be less strict than the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), introduced in 1938 to contain the rise of German-funded Nazi propaganda by requiring “foreign agents” to disclose their activities and sources of financing.
Tellingly, the Kremlin used the exact same argument in 2012 when it introduced a very similar piece of legislation. In both cases, it was a lie. FARA has resulted in zero successful criminal prosecutions since 1966, and applies narrowly to organizations involved in political activities such as lobbying, not to NGOs that receive foreign funding at large, as do the Russian and Hungarian laws.
One does not need to agree with Soros’ politics to condemn the current moves undertaken by Orban. In that sense, it was heartening to see the pushback from the U.S. State Department, which urged the Hungarian government “to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations.”
Over the past week, similar expressions of concerns have come from Brussels. However, Hungary’s European partners are cautious in using the substantial leverage they have over Budapest. In per capita terms, Hungary is the third-largest recipient of EU funds. And in the European Parliament, Fidesz remains a member of the solidly centrist European People’s Party (EPP), together with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Unless they turn their outrage into action by threatening to turn off the spigot of EU funds and to expel Fidesz from the family of Europe’s center-right parties, both the EPP and the EU at large risk becoming complicit in Hungary’s descent into a Putin-style authoritarian kleptocracy.