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Thursday, 13 April 2017 19:34

Viktor Orbán, Central European University and Europe’s spent potential

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Photo: zsoolt (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0
Central European University main entrance

A magical thing happened last week in Budapest – Europe became one notch more erratic and even less predictable. Viktor Orbán, the democratically elected leader of Hungary, in a befittingly authoritarian fashion, passed new legislation on Tuesday, April 4, reflecting its maker’s fondness of political control of science. The legal amendment was fast-tracked, with only a few hours given to lawmakers to seal the fate of academic freedom in the country. It was also tailor-made to fit the long-standing desire of the Central European University, one of Eastern Europe’s top-level universities, located in Budapest, to collect its things and beat it. Leaving behind such a gash in liberal values, that given time it can swallow Hungary, the European Union and, eventually, Uranus.

That is not Viktor’s first victory against democracy - ever since he took a two-third majority in Parliament in 2010 he has not been the same, to use a famous horror movie trope. Showered with an outstanding amount of power, Orbán utilized a textbook approach to backtrack the considerable democratic achievements Hungary had made in the past two decades, rapidly transforming the country from a forerunner of reforms to a forerunner in democratic erosion. What followed is a mess - restructuring the political system, roughing up opponents, weakening the Constitutional Court, stifling NGOs and the media. You name it - Viktor has done it. The most recent crackdown on press freedom in 2016 saw Hungary’s leading leftist newspaper Népszabadság closed overnight over purported plummeting sales and losses. Curiously that happened shortly after the media revealed a steamy corruption scandal involving cadres of Fidesz, Victor’s political mainstay.

Why, Viktor, why?!

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Is it?

Photo: Feral78 (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

The Central European University, however, is a different story. For starters, it is largely an international institution, with a varied and rich faculty life, including many personnel and students from the region and abroad. There is hardly a young person in Central and Eastern Europe having academic aspirations that has not at least heard about the university. Furthermore, this time Orbán did it without maintaining the usual poker face, showing little desire to hide his intentions from the outset. He used a fairly conventional tool to bring about the necessary change swiftly and without much ado, by adopting legislation within a parliament controlled by his party. Third, the university was founded by its patron, George Soros, a Hungarian-American philanthropist, who must have thought it was a good idea to establish the academic institution in his homeland back in the 1990s, seeing how well Hungary is progressing towards a functioning democracy. Well, tough luck! Soros is a sponsor of liberal proliferation in Central and Eastern Europe and, as such, a most abhorred name among those that want to take down constitutional liberalism in the region.

Therefore, killing off a university created by Soros bears a deeply symbolic meaning. Make no mistake, says Orbán, this is not just about a closure of a university with a juicy building in downtown Budapest. This is a statement intended to send a clear signal to Europe: the dog does not only bark, it also bites. We are not just talking here, we are ready to act. Many dislike Soros in Central and Eastern Europe, but I, Viktor, was the first to do something about it.

Therefore, killing off a university created by Soros bears a deeply symbolic meaning. Make no mistake, says Orbán, this is not just about a closure of a university with a juicy building in downtown Budapest. This is a statement intended to send a clear signal to Europe: the dog does not only bark, it also bites. We are not just talking here, we are ready to act. Many dislike Soros in Central and Eastern Europe, but I, Viktor, was the first to do something about it.

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Photo: Karli Iskakova (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

In this context, the million-dollar question is how far Orbán is willing to go in order to perpetuate his reign. History shows that such wars of attrition do not just stop like that, they snowball, with the hate machine giving birth to fiеrcer and more hardened spawn. Cue Hungary’s own interwar autocrat Miklós Horthy, who, a Nazi sidekick himself, was actually the deterring force to figures, such as Gyula Gömbös, an outright fascist who was inches away from tearing down democracy altogether. Autocracy, with its inherent gluttony for power maximization does not just one day decide it has had enough. It has to be stopped by equally charged opposing forces before dragging down the entire establishment.

 

 

“Am I the only one around here that gives a sh*t about the rules?!”

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Photo: European Parliament (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

History points towards a few potential ways to counteract a rampant populist regime with authoritarian leanings – a clear signal from a nation’s sovereign that a ruler has to go, a sanction from a transnational organization, or a combination of the two. The first option is already rolling: as much as 80,000 citizens are believed to have attended a protest on Sunday, April 9, urging Hungary’s president to veto the contested bill. This is a considerable increase in numbers from about 2,000 who protested the closure of Népszabadság. Nevertheless, Orbán was sworn in power as a result of being chosen by an overwhelming majority of Hungary’s voters.

The second development is, however, somehow muffled. True, there have been reactions all across the board in the European Union. The usual “deeply concerned” notes have started pouring in, Juncker does not like it, the European People’s Party threatened with a sanction under Article 7 of the EU Treaty and Viktor got berated by Germany’s Kanzler herself. A discussion of the “Lex CEU” amendment in the European Commission on Wednesday, April 12 deliberating on Hungary’s “illiberal drift” yielded an emotional speech by Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and a vague intention to review “these issues” closely in the April infringement cycle.

Thus far the European Union’s response to Viktor’s increasingly troublesome misdeeds can be summarised in an episode of “Aunt EU and little Viktor”. We can almost picture a scene, where the EU, a stern, but generous aunt, scolds little Viktor, the rascal: “No, Viktor, you can’t have the Central European University, you already got the state-owned ones. No, Viktor you can’t play with democracy, you may burn yourself and set the house on fire!”.

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Photo: Babak Fakhamzadeh (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

Yet, thus far the European Union’s response to Viktor’s increasingly troublesome misdeeds can be summarised in an episode of “Aunt EU and little Viktor”. We can almost picture a scene, where the EU, a stern, but generous aunt, scolds little Viktor, the rascal: “No, Viktor, you can’t have the Central European University, you already got the state-owned ones. No, Viktor you can’t play with democracy, you may burn yourself and set the house on fire!”.

Of course, there could be more than heavy bureaucracy preventing the European Union from taking more concrete measures. Orbán does many bad things, but he does one thing very efficiently - keeping refugees at bay. And mainstream political parties in Europe, still goosey from the unprecedented influx of migrants two years ago, may be willing to close one eye to the wrongdoings of peripheral stabilocracies. Moreover, intervening at this stage, after letting Orbán consolidate his power, may have the reverse effect - providing him with even more ground to protect his nation from the encroachments of the EU.

Such shortsightedness, however, directly undermines the legitimacy of the European Union as a meaningful guarantee of the liberal order in Europe. As much as the latter encompasses different approaches to democracy, it is based on a ground consensus regarding the basic rules of the game. This ground consensus did not materialize out of thin air: it was purposefully conceived, reached and intertwined in the very framework of what is now the European Union. It also serves a particular purpose – to contain the advance of regimes that can put Europe at risk of war.

Thus, having a cute little autocracy or two next to the old European liberal democracies does not actually add color to the palette. Quite the contrary, left unchecked developments running so deeply against the established liberal consensus could prove quite devastating for the continent, particularly in a context of growing economic uncertainty, spreading populism and paranoia.

In any case, a crime ceases to be a crime if there is no authority to sanction the transgressor – it merely becomes the status quo.

Identity building, again

Of course, as any meaningful clash of values, the current ruckus goes down to the very core of European identity. Orbán is a nagging falsetto in a choir of doomsayers, decrying Brussels on camera and proclaiming the dawn of a new era. What is at stake, however, is not the bureaucratic behemoth that has come to define the European Union in anti-establishment rhetoric, but the key parameters underlying Europe’s collective space, built over the last fifty years. Claiming to be one step ahead of their citizens and opponents, Orbán's colleagues on the continent declare capacity to engineer a new identity outside the European rationale, one uninhibited by multiculturalism, moral relativism and progressive thought. In this sense, what the promised new era will entail besides old authoritarianism depends on the availability of unexplored areas within Europe’s value continuum, which such self-professed post-Europeans hope to inhabit. Woe unto Orbán’s clique, however, if it gets trapped between the well-inflated expectation of their electorates and the realization that no such unoccupied gaps actually exist.

 

alex headshotABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Neofitov is Bulgarian and is currently stationed in Poland. He did Politics & Security at University College London and specialised at Charles University in Prague for a year.

He is a think-tank activist and a policy analyst with interests in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. A longtime fan of surrealist art, he tries hard to reveal the truly absurd aspects of everyday life in Europe

Last modified on Friday, 21 April 2017 13:22

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