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Participants walk during a rally in downtown Budapest, Hungary, on April 2, 2017. (Zoltan Balogh/AP)
Participants walk during a rally in downtown Budapest, Hungary, on April 2, 2017. (Zoltan Balogh/AP)

Thousands rally in support of university under attack in Hungary Add to ...

A global wave of support for Central European University is growing, with academics, Nobel Prize winners and the U.S. State Department pressuring Hungary’s government to back down in its fight with a key independent liberal voice in the Central European country.

Last week, Viktor Orban’s conservative government introduced amendments to education legislation that would require all foreign universities operating in Hungary to also have a base in their home country. Almost 30 universities would be affected, but the CEU is the only one that does not already meet the requirement. The conflict is not only a fight over one school’s academic freedom, but raises questions about Hungary’s future and the future of democracy in the region, analysts say.

“Since 2010, Hungary has been going through what can only be called a revolution. It’s a revolution aimed at completely remaking Hungary, given the experience from 1989 to 2010,” said Robert Austin, associate professor at the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian studies (CERES) at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. The CEU is a target partly because it has remained independent even as other institutions, including Hungarian universities, have come “under the thumb of the government in Budapest,” he explained.

Read more: Michael Ignatieff appeals to Canada, Europe to save university in Hungary

On Sunday, thousands of students and faculty rallied in Budapest in support of the university. Multiple international petitions of support have been released, including one signed by 17 Nobel laureates. University rector Michael Ignatieff was set to meet with American government officials Sunday to lobby for their help in persuading the Hungarian government to withdraw the proposals. The legislation represents such a severe infringement on the university’s independence that no negotiation is possible, Mr. Ignatieff, the former Canadian politician, has said.

“This university was established with a very specific purpose of promoting open dialogue and free exchange in the newly democratized countries of Central Europe,”’ said Randall Hansen, the director of CERES. “It’s an assault on what I would regard as universal values and it’s an assault on some of the great democratic achievements of Hungary and Central Europe since 1989,” he said.

Mr. Orban’s government is one of several in Europe regressing from the liberalism that had been embraced in the first two decades after communism. Poland’s government, for example, has moved to centralize control, replacing the heads of civil society organizations and passing legislation to cement power.

“[Hungary] is another example of elected populist governments in liberal democracies using democratic institutions to undermine democracy and to destroy liberal values,” Dr. Hansen said. “There is a Hungarian case, there is a Turkish case, there is a Polish case, and to a degree, the American case, frankly.”

Since taking power for the third time in 2014, Mr. Orban and his Fidesz party, which enjoys a legislative majority, have cracked down on the independence of NGOs, built fences with Serbia and Croatia to stop refugees from entering, and last month announced that refugees would be detained in camps built of shipping containers at the border.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama was not reticent in criticism of the populist leader. But the relationship between Mr. Orban and Mr. Trump is much warmer, with the two reportedly bonding over their shared status as “black sheep” in American politics.

Hungary may now feel that the end of Obama means the “end of moralizing,” Dr. Austin said.

At the same time, the U.S. State Department – where many career civil servants oppose the Trump administration – released a statement Friday in support of CEU.

Supporters of the university maintain that the legislative proposals were crafted to specifically target CEU, which is largely funded by donations from philanthropist George Soros, a key critic of the government.

A second provision would require the school to apply for work permits for faculty recruited from outside the European Union. The vast majority of its professors are Hungarian, but the school is also home to many American and Canadian faculty. A work permit application would impose severe limits on recruitment.

“I am not sure how the CEU can figure its way out of the legislation. … The key thing is [to] ensure its independence; that is key for any university in any setting,” Dr. Austin said.

Ironically, Mr. Orban and his party were born precisely out of the kind of training students now receive at CEU. Fidesz began as a party of anti-communist radicals, which shifted to the right over time. In fact, in 1989, Mr. Orban himself studied at Oxford with the help of a scholarship from the Soros Foundation.

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