Is the Central European University a good school

Hungary - How students at a private university became enemies in their own country

How students at a private university became enemies in their own country

The expulsion of the Central European University (CEU) founded by George Soros from Hungary has become a bone of contention between the EU and Viktor Orbán. The state is also taking action against a Jewish cultural center. A visit to those affected.

Tibor Rácz was smoking a cigarette in front of the CEU building in Budapest's fifth district when a cyclist stopped in front of him. The man began to rant: mercenary, Soros slave, enemy of Hungary, off with him abroad. The man put one bad word after the other. At some point Rácz had enough of the insults, put out his butt and disappeared through the glass door into the interior of the building. Eszter Szedlacsek once forgot to adjust her privacy settings on Facebook. Immediately the comment: "Soros slave" appeared under the post. Szedlacsek hit erase and closed her notebook.

The two students meet in front of the university entrance on Nádor Street. The architecture of the campus extension looks like a spaceship has landed. At a height of a few meters, the three letters CEU rise above a base. When the 24-year-old Eszter Szedlacsek was a student at the State Corvinus University in Budapest a few years ago, the abbreviation CEU was a promise for ambitious students like her.

The private university, founded in 1991 by US billionaire George Soros, awarded scholarships to talented people. The best jobs were open to those who left the CEU mostly with an American degree. Szedlacszek lets Rácz give him a light. At 37 years of age, he is something of a late caller at the elite university. Before the CEU accepted him, he worked as an investigative reporter for the liberal weekly newspaper “HVG” and as a Hungary correspondent for the “Tageszeitung”. According to the self-image of the CEU, both should become managers for the economy, administration or the media in Hungary. Szedlacsek only says: "I'm leaving this country, that's for sure."

The enemy image of a government that needs enemy images

Chance meant well with Szedlacsek and Rácz. Both will graduate in summer 2019. A little later, the CEU will move its teaching operations to Vienna. The Hungarian government passed a law in 2017 that was soon to be called “Lex CEU”. It only allowed foreign universities to operate in Hungary if there was also a branch in the home country. The American CEU found Bard College in the US state of New York as a partner university and met the new condition. The state of New York offered itself as a contractual partner for an agreement.

The Orbán government refused to ratify the agreement with the state. The CEU then announced in December last year that it would move to Austria. A shock for students who have a few more semesters to go. The planned move will be expensive and the university has not yet stated whether it will adjust its scholarships to the Austrian cost of living. “I couldn't afford a life in Vienna, and I don't think most Hungarian and international students either,” says Szedlacsek. Your fellow student Rácz nods.

The two students report on a climate of fear on campus. The confidence to belong to the best has given way to fear. When students open the newspapers, they see their professors listed like criminals on mug shots. “These are the Soros mercenaries” reads the headline. Eszter Szedlacsek avoids hatred on the Internet by avoiding social media. Tibor Rácz says that as a journalist in Rome and Hungary he had long since learned to react to trolls and their tirades with humor.

Rácz and Szedlacsek have different explanations as to why the Hungarian government is showing the door to a gifted elite university and the top people trained in it. Rácz ponders: “For one thing, they don't like the kind of manager that is being trained here. At the CEU we learn to double-check everything before we believe anything. Many graduates opposed the government as journalists or human rights activists, ”he says.

If the CEU disappears, not only Hungary but all of Central Europe will lose a forge in which a critical spirit is being formed. Not only Orbán, but many governments in the former Warsaw Pact states that is fine.

The EU is the new hegemon

But there is one more important point, he says. Viktor Orbán's government lives from mobilizing against enemies. First, the post-communists of Hungary were evil. When the Socialist Party MSZP was on the ground, Fidesz discovered the Muslim refugees and the EU's refugee policy. But the Muslims from Syria remained largely an invisible specter after the wave of refugees moved to Germany in 2015 and the Hungarian borders were closed.

“So Orbán finally found Soros. He was once a speculator, and even better, he's a Jew, ”says Rácz. Orbán linked different enemy images of his constituents in a unique way: the distrust of the EU as the new hegemon, the fear of the loss of traditional values ​​through globalization and immigration, the disappointment with western capitalism.

Szedlacsek sees another motive behind the campaign against the CEU. Not all university graduates would have found posts in non-governmental organizations after graduating. Former CEU students can also be found in the ranks of Orbán's Fidesz party, she says. Fidesz was founded in 1988 as a protest organization by liberal and western-oriented intellectuals against the communist dictatorship. Orbán went to Oxford in 1989 on a Soros-funded scholarship. “Now they want to erase their ties with Soros. It's a witch hunt, ”says Szedalecsek.

Rácz wants to apply to study at the American elite Stanford University at the end of the year. He leaves it open whether he will return to Hungary. Szedlacsek is leaving for Great Britain at the end of the year and plans to say goodbye forever. The student is convinced that her once prestigious CEU degree in Hungary is worthless. "I don't know if, given the mood in the country, anyone would even dare to invite me for an interview." The stigma of having studied at the “treacherous university” cannot be erased with a click of the mouse like an insult on Facebook.

The moving boxes are already in Professor Zoltan Miklosi's office. The 42-year-old scientist expects that he will soon only see his wife and children in Budapest on weekends. But just a few weeks ago the Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder conjured a white rabbit out of the top hat. The Bavarian state government brought a cooperation between the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the CEU into play.

Manfred Weber, the top candidate of the European Conservatives and CSU politicians, even made an amicable solution to the dispute over the CEU a condition for Fidesz's return to the table of the European People's Party (EPP). It did not become a member of the Orbán Party until March put on hold because of the posters against Jean-Claude Juncker. The Bavarian car manufacturer BMW got involved as sponsor for the marriage of the two universities. Orbán suddenly showed himself ready to talk.

Professor Miklosi is not surprised. "He once said himself that he would perform a peacock dance when he was negotiating with the Europeans." The Hungarian peacock puffs up and watches how Brussels reacts to its provocations. If he gets a headwind, he gives way a little. Until the other side has something else to do. If no one is looking, Orbán might use some cosmetics to implement what he originally wanted. "The key to the future of the CEU is now in the hands of Markus Söder, because the relationship with Bavaria and the business with BMW and other German companies are important for Orbán," explains Miklosi.

His economic policy has little to show apart from German investments. And Orbán used the previous support from the CSU for Fidesz to remain in the EPP as evidence of his democratic harmlessness. Germany could now show this strategy limits by declaring the preservation of the CEU in Budapest to be the red line. That would be in the German interest, Miklosi is convinced. "Otherwise, Hungary is going to be a school everywhere in Europe," says Miklosi.

Cultural center is referred to as a drug center in the media

According to media close to the government, the “Soros conspiracy” has a second base in Budapest. An aging building houses an alternative cultural center on Auróra Street in the eighth district. The Jewish youth organization Marom runs the meeting point. It shares 600 square meters with Roma lawyers or the organizers of the Budapest Pride. A few old sofas, folding chairs and tables occupy the inner courtyard of the “Auróra”. The audience wears brightly colored scarves, rolls their own cigarettes and drinks “Club Mate”. It seems as if a black hole swallowed a common Kreuzberg bar and spat it out in Budapest.

The Budapest Fidesz administration has never had a thing for subculture. It threw the predecessor of the Auróra, the SRLY on Király Street, out of a municipal building in 2012. Marom rented a private property for her new project so that she was no longer dependent on the city administration. Now the Auróra seems to be doomed that the cultural center also took money from the Soros foundation "Open Society Foundation" for its new beginning.

Adam Schonberger feels like he's caught in a time warp. When he was still in charge of the SRLY, the 39-year-old experienced police raids, visits by the drug search or controls by the hygiene department of the health department. Seven years later there is the Auróra instead of the SRLY, but nothing else seems to have changed.

At the same time as the first posters showing EU Commission President Juncker alongside George Soros, the pro-government media targeted the Auróra as an alleged second Soros base in Hungary and made it an object of hate for right-wing trolls. "They call us George Soros' drug center," says Schonberger. And every report mentions that the Auróra is run by Jews.

Schonberger does not consider Viktor Orbán to be an anti-Semite. He sees in him a politician who has no qualms about exploiting the 90,000 or so Jews in Hungary. Orbán emphasizes his good relations with a small Orthodox community in Budapest. "Most of the Jews in Hungary are liberal and against Orbán," says Schonberger. He believes that Orbán is giving the Hungarian Jews the choice of whether to fit into his system or to feel how he lets the dogs off the chain.