Sunday

29th Mar 2020

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.

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  • 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.

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