Warnings from the Future? Central European University and the Fate of Europe

From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”

Photo by Ines Zgonc, licensed under CC BY.

In the spring of 2017, Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz government passed legislation to shut down Budapest’s Central European University (CEU). Founded by George Soros in 1991, CEU is an American-style graduate institution dedicated to promoting democracy and open society. It draws faculty and students from around the world, with some of its programs ranked among the top one hundred internationally. The legislation—dubbed “Lex CEU” in the press—amends Hungary’s Higher Education Act by, among other things, threatening to terminate CEU’s license unless it fulfills a new requirement that foreign institutions provide educational programs in their country of origin (CEU is based in Hungary but registered in New York).

Since election to office in 2010, Fidesz has systematically attacked the institutions of liberal democracy. Led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, the government rewrote Hungary’s constitution, weakened its judiciary, and reorganized the media landscape to favor outlets that it controls. It also made global headlines for its harsh treatment of asylum seekers from the Middle East, culminating in the erection of a border fence that limited refugees’ ability to pass through Hungary on their way to Western Europe.

With Lex CEU, Orbán set his sights on George Soros as the next target. Soros’s support of refugees and NGOs that advance open society makes him the very personification of European liberal values in the eyes of Fidesz. For Orbán, the fight against Soros thus contributes to its ongoing populist struggle to protect Hungary’s national sovereignty from hostile others that include both so-called illegal migrants and the EU policies that support them.

Battles about symbolic geography—about Europe as a set of values and an institution—are also debates about the politics of time and history. Hungary and its former Soviet Bloc neighbors have long struggled to be recognized as Western Europe’s contemporaries. Despite Hungary’s accession to the European Union in 2004, Western politicians and media outlets continue to stigmatize Hungary as backward, burdened by unpalatable pasts of fascism and communism. Recent historical controversies—such as the government’s erection of a memorial that disavows Hungary’s participation in Nazi Germany’s deportations of Hungarian Jewry—have only heightened this perception. Now, in a postcrisis Europe where both economic liberalism and liberal multiculturalism have been thrown into question, Lex CEU is part of Orbán’s broader attempt not to catch up to the West, but to be at the vanguard of European history. Arguing that the European Union’s openness to immigration has doomed Europe’s future, Orbán claims to be rescuing democracy in new illiberal form by abandoning political correctness and reflecting the true will of the people.

Unlike Fidesz’s refugee policy, however, Lex CEU’s attack on academic freedom has encountered opposition on the right as well as the left. Last spring, the U.S. State Department condemned the law, frustrating Orbán’s desire for direct negotiations with the Trump administration. Some of Orbán’s fellow members of the European People’s Party also turned against him, rejecting his bid to lead Europe’s center-right into an illiberal future. Meanwhile, there were mass demonstrations in Hungary in support of CEU, and academics across North America and Western Europe joined these efforts with public statements, petitions, and solidarity marches.

Currently, the European Commission is pursuing infringement proceedings against Hungary. Yet Orbán has not backed down. His government refuses to acknowledge an agreement that CEU signed with Bard College last October to provide educational activities in New York. Instead, it has only extended the deadline for compliance. CEU is now planning to open a satellite campus in Vienna. With Fidesz’s recent victory in the April elections, the fate of CEU in Budapest remains uncertain.

The strength of the reactions to Lex CEU suggests that Orbán’s opponents have implicitly accepted his temporal claim: rather than reviving the authoritarian past, Fidesz’s Hungary prefigures the West’s illiberal future. Indeed, voices from Hungary have recently gained new prominence as their current experience of authoritarianism no longer represents unwelcome baggage but provides a newfound source of insight regarding political upheavals elsewhere. (For example, after Trump’s unexpected victory, CEU professor and former dissident Miklós Haraszti offered predictions and advice in a Washington Post op-ed.)

As the West looks to Hungary and other illiberal democracies in order to divine its own fate, it is important to complicate this temporal politics by attending to other historical sensibilities that motivate not only Lex CEU, but also protests in Hungary against the measure. For example, Hungary’s state-socialist past remains a crucial point of orientation. Many Hungarians critical of Fidesz have observed to me that life under Orbán resembles late state socialism, during which the perceived impossibility of political change led citizens to retreat to private concerns. With the fragmentation of the left-wing opposition and Fidesz’s 2014 reelection, they tell me, they similarly felt forced to resign themselves to making peace with the regime and looked for what one artist termed “islands of freedom” within an increasingly authoritarian state. In this context, while the fate of an elite international university may touch relatively few Hungarians, the attack on CEU as one such island of autonomy inspired greater resistance than earlier Fidesz actions.

As the West looks to Hungary and its neighbors as either a threatening future or an opportunity to regain confidence in its own liberal past, the strategies of some of Fidesz’s Hungarian critics have thus deployed a different temporal logic: returning to the experience of twentieth-century authoritarianism in the hopes of breaking with it anew.

Moreover, Western coverage of these protests focused on the future of Europe and Hungary’s place within it. Demonstrators who insisted “we belong to Europe” and “we won’t give up our future, we’re staying here!” appeared to reaffirm European liberalism at its moment of crisis. But other forms of political imagination have also come into view. The humorous Two-Tailed Dog Party held an Illiberal Pride demonstration that mockingly endorsed Orbán’s authoritarian ambitions, with slogans like “long live Orbán, long live Putin!” and “we don’t need Brussels, we don’t need money!” Such techniques of political estrangement through overidentification borrowed from both other contemporary humor parties and the late Soviet tradition of stiob (Yurchak 2005). As the West looks to Hungary and its neighbors as either a threatening future or an opportunity to regain confidence in its own liberal past, the strategies of some of Fidesz’s Hungarian critics have thus deployed a different temporal logic: returning to the experience of twentieth-century authoritarianism in the hopes of breaking with it anew.


Yurchak, Alexei. 2005. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.