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World Michael Ignatieff’s journey from politician to academic freedom fighter

Michael Ignatieff, new president of the Central European University, sits in his office in Budapest.

Ildikó Fülöp/The Globe and Mail

Michael Ignatieff the academic is in the middle of unwinding a thought about why the refugee crisis looks different in Central Europe than it does in Canada – his body twisting in his office chair as he drops caveats and counterpoints into his argument – when the voice of Michael Ignatieff the former politician cuts in. "This is not good interview practice," he says to no one in particular.

"You poor guy, I keep going on," he tells his interviewer at the end of another long answer. "I've gotta get some discipline. Ask a question. I've gotta be tighter."

Reminded that he doesn't have to condense his thoughts into sound bites any more – that he's safely back in academia – Mr. Ignatieff gives a grateful laugh, exhales, and continues making his point about the challenge to liberalism (small-l, not the political party he used to lead) contained in the Syrian refugee crisis, and the accompanying questions of integration and, on occasions when that fails, extremism.

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The difficulty, according to the one-time leader of the Liberal Party, lies in "reconciling the idea that desperate people have a right to asylum with democratic people's right to control their borders. I don't think we liberals have thought about it very much – and what works in Canada just will not work in Hungary. That's a further challenge, the idea that there's a universal right answer to these questions; there isn't."

Mr. Ignatieff's musings have always been paragraphs-long, and full of words that read well in an essay, but make television cameramen scowl with frustration. His segue-packed ponderings have been called long-winded, but they're how Mr. Ignatieff is happiest expressing himself. During a 90-minute interview (30 minutes longer than planned), the would've-been prime minister – thrashed in the 2011 election by Stephen Harper's Conservatives – refers to himself a "failed politician."

It's a moniker he wears with a certain amount of pride.

"It may simply be that I'm a better teacher than a politician," he offers. "I feel at home in an academic environment where I don't have to weigh every word."

But the 69-year-old Mr. Ignatieff isn't completely leaving the political game behind. The new post he begins this fall as president and rector of the famed Central European University in the Hungarian capital of Budapest is about as politically charged a job there is right now in the world of academia.

The CEU is renowned as one of the most important centres of liberal thought east of the former Iron Curtain. The university was launched in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a time when most believed Europe's fate had been decided, and that liberal democracy had definitively won the argument against more authoritarian forms of government.

Founded and funded by George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist, the CEU was envisioned as a breeding ground for future generations of leaders, all theoretically sharing Mr. Soros's vision of an "open society" of free speech and free markets.

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In many ways, it worked. The CEU today counts Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, as well as many cabinet ministers and diplomats serving around the former Soviet bloc, among its graduates.

But Mr. Ignatieff arrives in Budapest at a time when it's far from clear that open society will prevail. "Illiberal democracy" – a term coined by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to describe the semi-authoritarian system he is building here – is on the rise not only in Hungary, but also in fellow ex-Communist states such as Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

With Donald Trump improbably a serious candidate for the White House – and politics in the United Kingdom, France and Germany sliding towards turmoil as anti-immigrant mood swells and populists rise – the Western model of democracy suddenly looks chaotic. The picture to the east, where Russian President Vladimir Putin remains popular even as he strangles what remains of the country's democracy, can look serene by comparison.

The sensitive timing was part of what convinced Mr. Ignatieff to leave his most recent post at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and move to Budapest.

"The politics of this, which would put some people off, were positively appealing to me," he said in his first interview since taking the new job. "The chance to defend a liberal institution in an illiberal democracy is exciting."

It's not that Mr. Ignatieff expects Hungarian police to shut down the CEU – an institution he says many in the Hungarian government have great respect for – any time soon. While many in Europe are worried by Hungary's slide back in the direction its authoritarian past, Mr. Ignatieff rejects the oft-made comparison between Mr. Orban and Mr. Putin.

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"Putin kills political opponents, Mr. Orban does not," he says with a lift of his storied eyebrows. "I don't think Putin is the model for Mr. Orban. I think Mr. Orban has his own model." But Mr. Orban's illiberal democracy – which has seen a tightening of government control over the press and judiciary – does come into conflict with the open society ideals that the CEU was founded to promote. Mr. Soros, who funds a host of non-government organizations in his native Hungary, has come under sustained attack in government-friendly media outlets.

In the press release announcing Mr. Ignatieff's appointment, Mr. Soros said his new hire was "ideally suited" to lead the university through "challenging times."

"An institution like this is bound to ask critical questions about Hungary," Mr. Ignatieff said, adding that he would encourage students to "above all, be unafraid." But, he cautioned, the university would not and could not get directly involved in politics. "We're not the opposition. That's a job for Hungarian politicians, not for me."

Mr. Ignatieff was also drawn to Budapest and the CEU by the fact his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, is Hungarian-born. While Mr. Ignatieff says Ms. Zsohar was initially reticent to return to a country she left in 1970, her background and family connections give him a useful window into the culture.

He believes those ties have helped him understand why democracy in Hungary and other parts of Central Europe will necessarily look different than in North America.

Hungary and its neighbours are not the multicultural societies that Canada and the United States are. Mr. Ignatieff is a huge fan of Syrian refugee resettlement program launched by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his successor as Liberal leader. But, Mr. Ignatieff says, such an effort would be ill-suited for the more ethnically homogenous countries of Central Europe, which were founded as national homelands following the collapse of the multiethnic empires of the 19th Century.

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"The starting point for political reflection in this part of the world is, you know, Hungary for Hungarians, Poland for Poles, the Czech Republic for Czechs. These are parts of the world where democracy means national self-determination by big, preponderant majorities."

Hungary's majority is about to have its say in an Oct. 2 referendum Mr. Orban has called to ask voters whether they think the country should accept a European Union-set quota of refugees whose asylum cases have been accepted. Given the manipulative phrasing of the ballot question – "Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament's consent?" – there's little doubt Hungarians will answer with a resounding No, strengthening Mr. Orban's hand as he resists taking in the 1,294 refugees that Brussels wants to Hungary to absorb.

Mr. Ignatieff said Mr. Orban's tough line on refugees and migrants is genuinely popular in the country, even among those who don't support the Prime Minister's Fidesz party. Mr. Ignatieff believes the liberal-minded politicians of Central Europe need to accept and address such local realities.

"Liberals inside [Central European] societies are increasingly going to be marginalized politically unless they have an answer… [in a] language that says 'we have a national identity, we are proud of it, you come into this country you have to integrate, you have to learn our language, there is one law for everybody, right, and we will decide how many people come in.' It's a tough liberal language," he said. "It's a language that liberals have had trouble using."

He apologizes again for the length of his answer, and explains that he's been "trying to figure out" how liberals can push back against the rise of populist right-wing politicians such as Marine Le Pen in France and Norbert Hofer in Austria.

In other words, Michael Ignatieff the politician is retired, but Michael Ignatieff the political philosopher carries on. "I felt shut down in political life," he admits. "I do feel freer now."

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He claims that he's not bitter about how his dive into Canadian politics went; he says he doesn't want to be seen as sitting in Budapest feeling sorry for himself. But he does resent the "Just Visiting" attack ads Mr. Harper's Conservatives spent millions on, a campaign that successfully framed Mr. Ignatieff – after decades living abroad as an academic and a journalist – was essentially a foreigner in the country he wanted to lead.

"I'm a Canadian, I've never been anything else. I see everything through a Canadian lens," he said, linking the treatment he faced to a controversial law that stripped millions of long-term Canadian expatriates of their right to vote in the most recent federal election. (The law, which Mr. Ignatieff called "stupid" and "bush league," is being challenged at the Supreme Court.)

"I never thought that Stephen Harper had the right to define who was a good Canadian… if I can say so, I think it's a shame," is as close as Mr. Ignatieff comes to complaining about his time in politics. "The only place my Canadianness has been in question is my own country."

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