Massive protests in Budapest against government closing Soros-funded university

Posted on April 20, 2017

70.000 demonstrated for Central European University. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to close it as a clampdown against civil society.

In the beginning of April 2017 Viktor Orbán rushed a new law through Parlament.  It may lead to closing down of the Central European University with its 1500 graduate students from 100 countries.  The formal reason is that CEU does not have a campus even in the US.  The real reason is that Orbán sees this international university and also many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) supported by George Soros as arenas for developing liberal attitudes and opposition against his government.


This may indeed be true.  When the Central European University was established in 1991 right after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the two Hungarians may have been close in their critical attitudes against Soviet communism.  But in the 26 years which has passed since then, they have indeed moved quite far apart.


George Soros (1930 - , now 87) comes from a well-to-do, non-observant Jewish family in Budapest.  His father fought in WW1, escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia and saved many Jews from deportation from Budapest during WW2.  George Soros survived Holocaust, emigrated to Britain in 1947 when the Soviets took power in Hungary, studied at London School of Economics, established himself as an investor and gradually developed into one of the 30 richest men on the planet.

  At the same time he started supporting financially the causes he believed in: American progressive and liberal politics, dissidents in Eastern Europe (among them Solidarity in Poland, Charta 77 in Tscheckoslovakia, Andrej Sakharov in Soviet), transition into democracy and education of a new leading elite (CEU for graduate and doctorate studies).  Between 1979 and 2011 he donated 11 billions dollars to various causes.


Viktor Orbán (1963 - , now 54) benefited from a Soros scholarship as a young promising oppositional dissident.  He graduated from Law School in 1987, and became in 1989 - as a leader of “The alliance of Young Democrats” (Fidesz) - nationally well known when he openly demanded withdrawal of Soviet troups from Hungary.  After the transition to democracy in 1990 he was elected to Parlament and became as a leader of Fidesz prime minister 1998-2002 and again from 2010 until present.  During these years he reoriented Fidesz from its original classical liberal, integrationist platform toward center-right national conservatism.


Who will come out as the winner in the present battle about the Central European University?  It is still an open question.  Like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Erdogan in Turkey Viktor Orbán has massive popular support - backing from almost 2/3 of the members of Parlament.  He can get through any laws he wants. 

But at the same time he may this time have miscalculated the reactions.  70.000 protesting in the streets of Budapest are a lot.  It has been clear and distinct reactions from authorities abroad - vice president Frans Timmerman in the EU-commission, the German president Frants-Walter Steinmeier and chancellor Angela Merkeland a spokesman for the US-Trump administration have all warned Hungary against disturbing CEUs operations in Budapest.

Surprisingly Norway is also directly affected by the further development.  According to the European Economic Area agreement we are paying yearly amount of money to the EU - and 1,3 billion NOK of this goes to Hungary.  A part of these money is distributed by the agency Ökotar to projects supporting democratic values, minority rights and vulnerable groups.  In September 2014 the Hungarian police made a razzia in Ökotar’s offices and even in the private households of some of its employees.


The Norwegian Foreign Ministry delivered a sharp protest, but Hungary defended their actions and said that contrary to the agreement Ökotar had both directly and indirectly used the money for party political purposes.  As a respons to this incident Norway is now withhol-ding the yearly support of 1,3 billion NOK to Hungary. 


Hungary’s handling of the CEU case are part of the same type of conflict.