December 5, 2018

IntelBrief: The Continuing Slide Toward Authoritarianism in Hungary

The Central European University, Hungary. 
  • The Central European University, a well-respected academic institution established at the end of the Cold War, is being forced to leave Hungary.
  • The move follows two years of growing illiberalism under Viktor Orban’s autocratic government.
  • The Orban government harangued the school’s founder, George Soros, in a relentless campaign that some believe featured anti-Semitic undertones.
  • The U.S. government failed to pressure the Orban government over the first expulsion of a university from a member state of the European Union.


The slide toward full authoritarianism in Hungary—a member of the European Union—has now witnessed the first university ever expelled from an EU member state. On December 3, 2018, the Central European University (CEU), a well-regarded institution of higher learning founded in the aftermath of the Cold War to help prevent totalitarianism, announced that it was forced to leave Budapest by a government seemingly opposed to intellectual freedom. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made no attempt to mask its disdain for western liberalism, preferring illiberalism, strong-man rule, and demagoguery instead. The CEU, which has dual-accreditation in the U.S. and Hungary and was founded by George Soros to help repair East-West relations as the Iron Curtain fell, will reopen in Vienna. Still, the reality of an EU country expelling a university shows how far the tide of authoritarianism has risen and how much the once-ardent defense of western liberalism has ebbed. The muted U.S. response speaks volumes.

The Orban government has been extremely anti-immigration and stresses that cultural identity is racial identity; former senior Trump advisor Steve Bannon has called Orban a ‘hero’ and Orban’s dismissal of international cooperation and consensus aligns with similar statements from the Trump administration. Orban has focused his autocratic ire on Soros, who has become the go-to figure for all groups seeking an adversary around which to galvanize enthusiastic supporters. Soros’ image and likeness itself have become synonymous with immigration for proponents of the ‘alt-right.’ This is true in Eastern Europe and in the United States. The image of a rich Jewish financier as puppet master is a long-used anti-Semitic trope among far-right groups, including neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other assorted racists. There are valid grounds to debate the ideology of the groups supported by Soros, but these tend to be dismissed as the far right focuses on stereotypes and fear to gain support.

As noted in a November 30, 2018 article in the Washington Post, the Trump administration has attempted to use ‘friendship’ and personal relationships to advance U.S. interests. Current U.S. ambassador to Hungary, David B. Cornstein, blamed Soros and CEU for not currying enough favor with the Orban government. He added that for the U.S., the issue was more about Orban versus Soros and that ‘it doesn’t have anything to do with academic freedom.’ Since taking office, President Trump has said he will not use the bully pulpit to pressure countries into taking more democratic positions. The U.S. stance over the expulsion of CEU from Hungary is one of the more blatant examples of that inaction and apathy. In addition to his moves against the CEU, Orban has consolidated control over much of Hungary’s media including news websites, newspapers, television channels and radio stations. Hungary now joins other authoritarian countries accusing the Western media of promoting ‘fake news,’ even as the outlets controlled by these autocrats peddle dangerous conspiracy theories and give voice to society’s most violent and threatening fringe groups.

Some political leaders have sought to equate loyalty to them as loyalty to the country, in an attempt to create a cult of personality that translates to criticizing the leader as unpatriotic, a dangerous trend that could lead to increasing authoritarianism. Criticism and questioning—the hallmarks of any free society and university—are viewed by the authoritarian as an act of betrayal, even treason. Criticism and questioning are not just expressions of a free society, but rather, they are the fundamental building blocks of a functioning democracy. In the current geopolitical worldview of the U.S. government, the expulsion of a university from an EU country is not seen as an attack on intellectual and social freedom because Soros has been highly critical of the Orban government. The dynamics of simple power—clearly stated by Ambassador Cornstein when he said of the CEU that ‘it would pay to work with the government’—are now the baseline for U.S. foreign policy posture. This trend has been recognized and seized upon by autocratic leaders worldwide in a stunning reversal of the values promoted by the United States throughout the Cold War.


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