Hungary hints at Soros university deal as protests continue

Thousands return to streets in Budapest against Viktor Orban’s populist government

People shout slogans against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s government in front of the parliament building in Budapest on Wednesday night. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

People shout slogans against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s government in front of the parliament building in Budapest on Wednesday night. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

 

Hungary’s populist government has suggested it may be willing to compromise in a high-profile standoff with Budapest’s renowned Central European University (CEU), amid major street protests against the country’s leader, Viktor Orban.

Thousands of people marched through Budapest again on Wednesday evening, in the latest in a series of big rallies against the Hungarian prime minister’s alleged autocratic tendencies and crackdown on civil society.

The European Union and United States have criticised Hungary for passing legislation that could force CEU to close, 26 years after it was founded by Budapest-born financier George Soros, whose support for open, liberal societies in the former communist bloc is at odds with Mr Orban’s vision of “illiberal democracy”.

The fourth major demonstration in a fortnight against Mr Orban – with another planned for this weekend - appears to have had an impact on a usually implacable premier whom critics have dubbed “Viktator”, leader of “Orbanistan”.

Mr Orban says the new education law is only aimed at providing fair competition in the Hungarian education sector, by preventing CEU from offering degrees registered in Europe and the US while only operating in Hungary.

The Hungarian leader – who once received a grant from Mr Soros to help him study in England – insists he does not want to shut down CEU, which currently teaches some 1,440 students from 108 countries.

Leading academics from around the world, as well as EU and US officials, have denounced the changes, however, and said they appear to be part of a broad campaign to put pressure on civil society – especially groups funded by Mr Soros.

In the first sign that the government may want to defuse the row, education secretary Laszlo Palkovics said CEU could continue to work broadly as it does now if it expanded operations conducted through its existing Hungarian-registered school.

“CEU is open to any lawful and long-term solution that would ensure academic freedom and institutional integrity. The solution evoked by state secretary Palkovics in the press does not appear to be legally and operationally coherent and certain,” the university said in response.

“CEU has not been approached directly by secretary Palkovics with this information. We look to the Hungarian government to initiate negotiations with CEU so that we can resolve this and go back to work, with our academic freedom secured, without limits or duration.”

The US state department called on Budapest this week to suspend the changes to education law, and the EU expressed serious concern over the reform as well as proposed changes to Hungary’s legislation on NGOs and the country’s draconian asylum policy.

“Taken cumulatively, the overall situation in Hungary is a cause of concern,” said Frans Timmermans, said first vice-president of the European Commission.