Sunday

4th Dec 2022

Opinion

The university so disliked by Orban

  • Entrance to Central European University, Budapest, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the region. (Photo: CEU Hungary)

I came to Central European University (CEU) in the autumn of 2015 after taking a tough decision to leave behind my career as a television journalist in Bulgaria.

Coming from a media environment still sick from every possible post-communist disease, I moved to Budapest with the hope of joining a community of free minds, to have a chance to conduct in-depth academic research, to learn and to teach.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Liberty Square, Budapest, hosts a statue of Ronald Reagan, a Red Army memorial, and a Nazi occupation monument - a signal of Hungary's mixed past. (Photo: Adam Fagen)

This is what CEU is all about.

One of the first places I walked to in the city centre was Liberty Square.

The square hosts a statue of Ronald Reagan, a Red Army memorial, and a controversial monument remembering the Nazi occupation - all sharing the same space.

While looking at these symbols, you can get a feel for the whole spectrum of identity crises and historical moments that Hungary has experienced.

Reagan never once visited Budapest, but his efforts against communism have endeared him to the Hungarian people.

For this reason, the ex-US president achieved his second statue in the country - unveiled in 2011 by the government of Viktor Orban, the current prime minister of Hungary.

While trying to bring an end to the Cold War, Reagan famously said that "freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things."

A phrase like this should be valid in an EU country like Hungary, regardless of whether or not the latest government likes the questions that it raises.

At the time, when America's 40th president was fighting to end the Cold War, there was no such a conversation about liberal and illiberal democracies.

However, today’s government in Hungary, led by Orban, put this conversation on the table in an attempt to redefine what freedom and democracy are.

These redefinitions are not a new phenomenon to me, as a person who comes from the ex-Soviet country Bulgaria.

Politicians in this part of the world have always believed that the world begins with them. They cannot survive without such redefinitions and bronze monuments.

They also need to have an enemy in order to sustain themselves politically.

The perfect enemy

Thus, Central European University is the perfect enemy.

The university, founded straight after the end of the Cold War, is today a subject of Orban’s political ambition to redefine the world.

By proposing a new piece of legislation, aiming to regulate foreign universities in the country, the Hungarian government has unambiguously shown its desire to prevent the existence of CEU in Budapest by all possible means.

But CEU expected this slap.

After months of political vows expressed in the Hungarian pro-government media, the ruling right-wing party, Fidesz, is ready to take further action against CEU and get rid of the most prestigious university in Central and Eastern Europe.

Although the government officially says it supports the university and does not want it to go, the proposed amendments simply make it impossible for it to function and stay in Budapest.

While writing this article, I am sitting on a bench in Liberty square wondering: is this the taste of illiberal democracy? Is it how it smells? No. It would be such a compliment to Orban, who is a big fan of this phrase.

(Un)innovative authoritarianism

It would also be a mistake because his political approach is not as innovative as he would wish it to be.

We are familiar with this authoritarian style, from decades of living under communist regimes.

The whole spectrum of practices – from opposition newspapers, to political intrusions into the intellectual sphere – Orban’s actions remind people of our Soviet past.

It is certainly nothing new.

However, the closure of CEU will not be as easy a task as putting pickles in jars and sending them to Moscow.

As an Eastern European, I can probably understand how the presence of intelligent students and professors from 130 countries coming to Budapest each year might bother a government that prefers silence.

But academic freedom, for which CEU is being forced to fight, is not a mere ideological battle. Rather, it is a fundamental value with enormous importance in every society.

It’s about not having to ask any government for the permission to think, research, or critique. Nor will the students or professors of CEU ask for such permission.

We are not your enemy, Mr. Orban - although we know you need one.

Asya Metodieva is a Bulgarian journalist. She worked for the Bulgarian National TV for 7 years. Asya is currently pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Central European University.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Soros-linked NGOs defy Orban purge

Hungarian NGOs funded by philanthropist George Soros have vowed to defy prime minister Viktor Orban’s plan to “sweep them out” of the country.

Anti-Soros university bill sparks protest in Budapest

Thousands gathered around the Central European University on Tuesday to protest against a legislative bill that targets it, while the US embassy and the German president expressed their support for the institution.

MEPs vote to start democracy probe on Hungary

The European Parliament took the first step towards launching the Article 7 procedure against Hungary for backsliding on democracy. The process might lead to sanctions, but Orban is not backing down.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. EU must break Orbán's veto on a tax rate for multinationals
  2. Belarus dictator's family loves EU luxuries, flight data shows
  3. How Berlin and Paris sold-out the EU corporate due diligence law
  4. Turkey's EU-funded detention centres ripe with abuse: NGO
  5. In green subsidy race, EU should not imitate US
  6. EU Commission proposes suspending billions to Hungary
  7. EU: Russian assets to be returned in case of peace treaty
  8. Frontex leadership candidates grilled by MEPs

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  6. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us