Hungary: The End of Democratic Illusions?

The government-sponsored attack on the Central European University represents one more step in the country’s authoritarian drift.

Daniel Vegel, CEU / Flickr

In early April, Viktor Orbán’s hard-right government passed a law that would shut down, beginning the next semester, the Central European University (CEU), Hungary’s top social science and economics institution. After rumors about legislative action against the university, parliament passed the controversial bill. The law stipulates that a specific kind of institution — those with foreign affiliations, but educational activity only in Hungary, that grant degrees accepted both in Hungary and their country of origin — must obtain a bilateral governmental agreement to operate. As it happens, the only such major institution in Hungary is CEU.

The following weekend, around eighty thousand people took to the streets in Budapest. The demonstration lasted into the night, as thousands continued to march through the city. One recurring slogan pled with the country’s president János Áder not to sign “Lex CEU,” but he, a long-standing Orbán ally who belongs to the ruling party’s innermost circle, duly signed the law into effect. A spontaneous protest began at the president’s residence and again continued into the night. Two prominent antigovernment activists were arrested after trying to spray the building’s wall with water-based orange paint, as orange is the color of Fidesz, the governing party. Protests have been ongoing since.

George Soros, a Budapest native, founded the private, American-affiliated university in 1991. CEU’s endowment makes it the richest institution in Hungary, and probably the region, offering salaries and scholarships far higher than local universities. Elite Western institutions all recognize its degree programs. Soros stepped down as chairman of the CEU’s board ten years ago, and there have been no signs that he has interfered with the university’s appointments or governance since then.

Most CEU students either come from Hungary or other post-Soviet countries, and the university often functions as a gateway to Anglo-American academia or NGOs. The attack on the university, which a government spokesperson referred to as a “minor theater of war,” takes place amid never-ending anti-migrant campaigns. The government and its media apparatus have elevated Alex Jones–style paranoia to official state discourse, claiming that George Soros engineered the refugee crisis to destroy “Christian” Europe.

Hungary does look somewhat exotic these days, even in an Eastern European context, but its recent authoritarian turn fits well into the gallery of “limited democracies” that have managed the region’s oligarchic capitalism since 1990. Like other post-Soviet countries, these new governments have strong links with interwar authoritarian and semi-fascist regimes. In Hungary, the legitimization of the antisemitic Horthy regime is almost complete. In this context, Victor Orbán looks a lot like Franjo Tuđman, president of Croatia from 1990 to 1999; Vladimír Mečiar, three-time prime minister of Slovakia; and Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s Law and Justice Party.

Throughout the region, authoritarianism is rising. Romania’s permanent state of exception has allowed the secret service and segments of the judiciary to largely overrule electoral politics. The Baltic states openly identify with their former collaborationist regimes and make it difficult for Russian-speaking residents in their own country to obtain citizenship. Even core countries are experiencing an authoritarian retooling, and more repressive regimes have emerged in the semi-periphery, including Recep Erdoğan’s Turkey and post-Maidan Ukraine, where the Nazi far right directly participates in the government. Still, within central Eastern Europe, Hungary has arguably become the most extreme case.

Many Hungarians recognize that CEU’s closure is a milestone: direct state intervention in higher education to wipe out undesirable institutions based on political criteria represents a new evolutionary stage for Hungary’s authoritarian regime. Meanwhile, the state is also enacting a general dismantling of public education, irrespective of political affiliation. This disinvestment will damage even more lives than the attack on CEU.

A Minor Theater of War

Although CEU has served as an important hub of the post-1990 capitalist restoration’s institutional network, socialists should still support it. It has trained the liberal, and in some cases neoliberal, economic, political, and ideological managers of the post-Soviet region. But the bulk of CEU graduates move on to Western academia or NGOs — like graduates from any other academic institution in capitalist society.

At the same time, CEU has hired more radical scholars, especially in political science, philosophy, and its strong gender studies department, which has been the target of an especially vile campaign by the Orbán regime, than public universities in the country. It also runs some affirmative action initiatives, granting access to a small number of Roma students — again, unlike most Hungarian public universities.

Further, the institution hosts the only functional English-language social science library in Hungary, as publicly funded universities and libraries cannot afford to extensively purchase new academic books. Socialists should fight to preserve the valuable knowledge and research activity the institution houses.

CEU’s closure doesn’t stand alone — the government is also defunding public universities, exacerbating ethnic segregation in the school system, and generally rolling back what’s left of the welfare state. While CEU has participated in the region’s “neocolonial” development over the last three decades, this hardly argues against defending the institution, as its shutdown represents another step toward state disinvestment, authoritarianism, and inequality.

The pro-CEU protests have reflected the institution’s place in Hungary. Most of the country’s population had not even heard of CEU before, and mostly middle-class graduates and students in Budapest have joined demonstrations. But the general destruction of social infrastructure — of which shuttering CEU is only a “minor theater of war” — threatens the majority’s livelihood.

Unfortunately, most protesters have been unwilling to engage the broader strata of society, who suffer even more from the ongoing disinvestment of health care and public education. We should not contrast the attack on CEU with the country’s undemocratic policies and its generalized social crisis, as poverty and malnutrition hit record highs year after year. Instead, we must analyze them as aspects of the same authoritarian regime, which has settled in to manage Hungary’s oligarchic capitalism.

Organizers would have to highlight this unity for the protests to reach a critical level, rather than remaining a single-issue movement for relatively privileged groups. So far, nothing seems to indicate that things are moving in that direction. Instead, we hear chants of “Europe! Europe!” and “Russians go home!” (referring to Orbán’s recent rapprochement and nuclear power deal with Putin). Protesters have repeatedly tried to plant the European Union flag on public buildings, reflecting Eastern European liberalism’s self-colonizing “Europeanist” worldview. Worryingly, the anti-Russian and anti-Communist slogans, accusing Orbán of being Putin’s puppet and bringing back Soviet times, have become even more pronounced after the first few protests that had focused on the university’s closure. This is rather bizarre in a country that is a member of NATO and the European Union, with a far-right and rabidly anti-Communist government. By focusing on these issues, the protesters are making themselves vulnerable to the government’s populist rhetoric, which will portray them either as the spoiled children of the well-connected worried about their career prospects, or as foreign agents paid by George Soros.

The demonization of Soros marks another step in the regime’s evolution. The vulgar hate campaign against him has institutionalized thinly veiled antisemitic language, making it part of everyday life. Hungary might be exceptional in that both open and coded antisemitism shapes public discourse. If we replace the word “Soros” with “Jews” in the hundreds of dog-whistle statements the government’s spokespersons and supporters have made, we find the standard tropes of interwar antisemitism: alien parasites and rootless cosmopolitans conspiring against the nation.

We cannot imagine that Orbán and his minions are naive: these jaded cynics know exactly what they are doing. Hungary has a rich antisemitic tradition and many citizens remain susceptible to it. Indeed, the entire Hungarian right has worked to revive this language since 1990, and today it has moved to the level of everyday state discourse. We can find the same language, combining anticommunist and antisemitic imagery, in the rhetoric leading up to the removal of the great Marxist philosopher György Lukács’s statue from Budapest’s Szent István Park.

The Orbán regime is likely ramping up this discourse to fend off the intensifying threat of the far-right Jobbik party, which many suspect benefits from the financial support of Lajos Simicska, one of Hungary’s most powerful oligarchs. A former close friend turned Orbán’s deadly enemy, Simicska vowed to help Jobbik claim electoral victory in 2018 in return for regaining access to state coffers. Clearly, the government will pay any price to win this fight, completely ignoring the potential consequences of its anti-migrant, anti-Soros campaigns. By stoking xenophobia and racism, Orbán’s regime has created an almost civil war–like atmosphere in the country.

With a possible challenge from the far right and amid growing international instability, Orbán seems to have decided to put his political and media followers to the test, binding them irreversibly to his own fate. Those who follow him past this point of no return can hardly find a way back to normal society, which makes staying in power an existential necessity.

Most protesters, it seems, do not recognize or confront the fact that Hungary has, in all likelihood, long ago left the coordinates of parliamentary democracy. New liberal opposition groups, which emerged around the successful anti-Olympics campaign, still begin from the assumption that we can rid ourselves of this government at the next elections. But how plausible is this scenario?

The 2014 elections were already manipulated: opposition candidates faced restricted campaigning, the Fidesz party and Orbán refused to engage in any public debates, and Russian-style pseudo-opposition parties sprung up — not to mention the relentless propaganda machine that the state media has become. Does it seem plausible that the people who are now shutting down a university — and reportedly introducing a bill ruling NGOs “foreign-financed organizations” — will allow the electoral situation to get out of hand and then peacefully hand over power? The opposition must confront the prospect that it may not be able to remove the current government through an election.

If so, what follows? Force can only be met by force, but the opposition’s emotional, political, and organizational resources pale in comparison to the government’s. Historically, regime change in Hungary has happened thanks to external changes, and today that may be the likeliest — however unpalatable — scenario.

Orbán has taken recent steps that could endanger Hungary’s international relationships and the flow of the European Union cohesion funds that keep the country afloat. What strategy the similarly reckless and unpredictable new American administration will adopt vis-á-vis Eastern Europe remains to be seen, and may become the decisive factor in the fate of Orbán’s rule.

But we also cannot exclude scenarios that stabilize his control. After all, Erdoğan’s Turkey is a respected NATO ally, and Hungary remains in the periphery of most world leaders’ points of view. If destabilization deepens due to external pressures combined with domestic upheaval, not even Maidan-like scenarios seem impossible. The far-right Jobbik party has stayed largely silent in recent weeks; we cannot guess what, if anything, they are readying themselves for.

Readers expect articles like this to end on a hopeful note, proclaiming that working class militancy might still somehow arise and that society will surely defend itself. However, it is very difficult to see what the disorganized and unfunded radical left can do in Hungary at this moment, beyond maintaining its intellectual perspective and work. Right now, we can only hope that the protests continue and that more people come to a clearer understanding of the kind of power they are confronting. Who will draw conclusions from that and what they might be remains to be seen.

Thanks to Adam Fabry and others for their comments. The article was written in early April.