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 con