Liberalism in Crisis: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Hungary

Liberalism in Crisis: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Hungary

“[Europe] has rejected its roots, and instead of a Europe resting on Christian foundations, it is building a Europe of “the open society”. In Christian Europe there was honour in work, man had dignity, men and women were equal, the family was the basis of the nation, the nation was the basis of Europe, and states guaranteed security. In today’s open-society Europe there are no borders; European people can be readily replaced with immigrants; the family has been transformed into an optional, fluid form of cohabitation; the nation, national identity and national pride are seen as negative and obsolete notions; and the state no longer guarantees security in Europe”

 - Viktor Orbán, 2018, in a speech to ethnic Hungarians in Baile Tusnad.  

The liberal-democratic hegemony that characterised the post-Cold War period is increasingly being eroded. A new, exclusionary politics of reactionary national populism has taken root in countries across Europe, as shown by recent elections in Italy, Austria, Sweden and Hungary. This new politics is characterised by a rejection of cosmopolitan pluralism in favour of exclusionary ethnic nationalism and the promotion of what Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has termed the “Christian values” of faith, family and nation.

In Hungary, academia has become an important battleground in the culture war between Orbán’s national-populist Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) government and the liberal-progressive ideology associated with Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist George Soros and his vision of the “open society”. The forcing out of the Central European University (CEU) from Hungary and the revoking of accreditation for Gender Studies degree programs offered by the CEU and Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) ought to be understood in the wider context of a government campaign to assert ideological control over the nation.

The last days of Hungarian socialism and the “Round Table Revolution”

“To this day 1956 was the last chance for our nation to embark on a Western-style development program"

 - Viktor Orbán in 1989 speaking at the ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy and the other revolutionary leaders killed after the failure of the 1956 revolution. 

 In June 1989, a young Viktor Orbán gave an impassioned speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy, a reformist leader of Hungary who was executed by the Soviet Union for his role as a leader of the 1956 revolution, urging the Soviet forces occupying Hungary to leave and for the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) to allow Hungary the democratic self-determination necessary to align itself with the West politically, economically and culturally. This speech, evoking memories of the 1956 anti-Soviet and 1848 anti-Austrian revolutions, caught the imagination of the present crowd and those who saw it broadcast on television and in the following years Hungary began its transition towards becoming a model Western liberal democracy, following principles of capitalism, liberal rights and individual freedom. 

Following what became known as the “Round Table” discussions, a series of talks that brought together the incumbent MSZMP and new emerging opposition parties like the then classical liberal-oriented Fidesz, Hungary saw the privatisation of much state-owned industry, the establishment of free and fair elections and the institutionalisation of the liberal right of free speech. Alongside this came the end of the restrictions and censorship previously imposed on academic institutions by the state.

In 1991, the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist George Soros, who in 1989 had funded a scholarship for Viktor Orbán to attend Oxford University, founded the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. Tasked with a mission statement of “promoting the values of open society and self-reflective critical thinking”, the CEU aimed to train a future generation of academics and political leaders who could contribute to building open, democratic and liberal societies in former dictatorships. The liberal-progressive leaning of the CEU can most clearly be seen in its Department of Gender Studies, a department offering postgraduate M.A and pHD programs focusing on critical theory and gender-focused research.

 Academic freedom under threat:

 “We’re being forced out of a country that’s been our home for 26 years … We have repeatedly indicated our openness to find a solution that guarantees our institutional integrity and academic freedom. We have waited as long as we possibly can. Unfortunately, we have been forced into this decision by the unwillingness of the Hungarian government to offer an acceptable solution” 

- (Michael Ignatieff), rector and President of the CEU 

 Three decades after the end of the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship and the start of the Hungarian transition towards liberal democracy, a protracted legal dispute between the Orbán government and the CEU emerged over the university’s legal right to operate in Hungary. In April 2017 the Hungarian government signed an amendment to the Law on Higher Education that would force the CEU to leave the country as it would make the CEU’s awarding of both US and Hungarian-accredited degrees in violation of Hungarian law. This was regarded as a targeted attempt by the Hungarian government to force the liberal-oriented university out of the country. The CEU’s association with George Soros also made the university a convenient target for a Hungarian government that had run an election campaign painting the philanthropist as mastermind of a plot to undermine Europe’s “Christian foundations” through mass immigration, promising to fight against his perceived influence in Hungarian and European society. In October 2018 the CEU announced that despite attempts to negotiate a solution it could no longer operate in Hungary and would move to Vienna the following year. Orbán denounced the university’s decision to leave Hungary as a “Soros-style political ploy” and refused to compromise on the university’s legal status. 

A further attack on academic freedom came in August 2018, when the government published a decree, removing gender studies, from a list of approved masters programs with Hungarian accreditation. The CEU, one of the two universities in Hungary that taught M.A gender studies programmes, called the move “a major infringement on academic freedom and university autonomy”. A variety of reasons for this decree have come from different government ministers, including the need to economise taxpayer money, a lack of student interest in the subject and, most significantly, ideological opposition to programs that do not fit with the government’s “Christian values”. Gergely Gulyas, Viktor Orbán’s chief of staff, outlined this opposition in a news conference, saying the government was “of the clear view that people are born either men or women”. Magyar Idők, a pro-government newspaper published an article praising the government decree, arguing that “Gender-faithful liberals have already caused irreparable harm in the souls of generations growing up in the past decades. We need to fight them without compromise and achieve a complete victory, otherwise they will end up destroying us”. 

Indeed, the government’s targeting of gender-critical elements of academia is consistent with Orbán’s rhetoric explicitly advocating the traditional nuclear family and established gender roles as the norm. For example, an amendment to the constitution in 2012 emphasised an ideal of family as being founded on the marriage of a man and a woman, excluded not only homosexual relationships but non-married, cohabiting couples from this conception of “family”.

A new era of Illiberal Democracy?

Viktor Orbán

Image: Viktor Orbán, Leader of Fideszand Prime Minister of Hungary

 This move sets a worrying precedent for government intervention, as it gives the government a legal framework with which it can suppress knowledge on an ideological basis. While similar moves to tighten state control over academia have been made in Russia and Turkey, this degree of ideologically motivated state intervention is unprecedented within the EU. In a country where the government is also rapidly clamping down on media pluralism, with over 500 media outlets controlled by oligarchs with close ties to Orbán’s government, such attacks on academic freedom will rapidly erode and undermine the principle of free expression which plays a vital role as a civic right integral to a pluralist, liberal society. The further Orbán exerts his control over academia, media and the institutions of civil society, the more these groups will come to function as little more than a propaganda mouthpiece for the government and its “illiberal democracy”, while dissenting voices, particularly those speaking on behalf of immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities and the LGBT community, are increasingly suppressed.

Orbán, in a speech in 2018 at Tusnádfürdő, predicted that this year’s European Elections will mark a pivotal moment for the continent’s ideological future. The choice the Hungarian electorate will face in May has been framed by Fidesz as a choice over whether the European Union should become a community of nation-states populated by ethnic Europeans or a rootless, multicultural continent of immigrants. Electoral success for the national populist parties of Europe will serve to legitimise the Fideszvision of a “Christian Hungary” and give the government further mandate to pursue an illiberal policy agenda. However, while Orbán is capable of mobilising huge nationalist support within Hungary, the outcome of the European Elections looks increasingly unpredictable. Despite the popularity of Fidesz’s highly nationalist and Eurosceptic platform, over 60% of Hungarian voters say that their European identity is as important to them as their national identity. Hungary is also finding itself increasingly isolated within the European Parliament. In response to its dispute with the CEU and an aggressive anti-migration billboard campaign targeting George Soros and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker the European People’s Party, a grouping of centre-right parties within the European Parliament, voted to suspend Fidesz membership.

While polling suggests that national populist parties are set to win approximately 30% of the seats in the European Parliament there is little unity among their respective leaders and attempts to build a Europe-wide populist alliance to challenge the European Union from within have had little success.

Regardless, If liberal democracy and rule of law in Europe is to preserve itself, the EU must take action. Where key liberal principles, such as freedom of expression and minority rights, are coming under threat in countries like Hungary the EU has to consolidate and protect them. For example, academic and press freedom must be asserted as fundamental, with sanctions applied to those who would violate these rights. However, given the EU’s silence and inaction in response to the Spanish police violently suppressing voters in the 2017 Catalonia independence referendum it is hard to remain optimistic that the EU will be able to effectively respond to the threats to liberal values today. 

Image from European People's Party.






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