Orban’s expansion of state power hits Hungary’s academy of sciences

Defying the EU, nationalist government now dominates swathes of public life

 Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban: will formally appoint members of the council heading  the new organisation that will take over the academy of science’s 15 research institutes. Photograph:  Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/EPA

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban: will formally appoint members of the council heading the new organisation that will take over the academy of science’s 15 research institutes. Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/EPA

 

Hungary’s government is poised to tighten control over the country’s venerable academy of sciences, in what critics call another attack on academic freedom and independent institutions by nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban.

Hungarian deputies voted on Tuesday to create a new organisation to take over the academy’s 15 research institutes and all their buildings and other assets. The government will nominate half the members of the council that will oversee the new network, all of whom will be appointed formally by Mr Orban.

Thousands of people have demonstrated against a move that the academy says would “effectively provide for complete governmental and political control over the research network” and “potentially jeopardises the independence of scientific research and science, which is otherwise guaranteed in the constitution”.

Another protest was planned for Tuesday against Mr Orban, whom critics accuse of dramatically expanding government influence over the economy, law courts, NGOs, media and education in Hungary, at the expense of autonomous agencies and checks and balances on his power.

Hungarian president Janos Ader is expected to sign into law a Bill that the government proposed despite facing EU legal action over its education reform, which is forcing the liberal Central European University to move most courses from Budapest to Vienna.

The EU is also taking Hungary to court over its hardline policies on asylum and NGOs, and it has launched disciplinary proceedings against Mr Orban’s government for allegedly undermining democratic values and the rule of law.

“These worrisome developments, part of the broader rule of law backslide in Hungary, underscore the importance of the political sanctions process against Hungary’s government triggered by the European Parliament last year under Article 7 of the EU treaty,” Human Rights Watch said after the Bill was passed.

“The next step is for the EU Council of member states to scrutinise Hungary’s record, but the council has yet to have a hearing on the matter. The incoming Finnish presidency should schedule a council hearing on Hungary as soon as possible.”

Court challenge

The academy has vowed to challenge the changes in Hungary’s constitutional court, and on Tuesday it alleged that the government’s plan “contrasts with basic European research funding principles and seriously endangers academic freedom”.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs has accused critics of “hyperventilating” over the reforms and said the nearly 200-year-old academy is “underperforming”.

“Our goal is to promote research that contributes to Hungary’s economic growth and overall development, one that turns knowledge into tangible results,” he insisted last month.

“And in order to do that, the existing system that is now hindered by division and inefficient management, should be brought under a new, more productive structure and made more accountable.”

In a rare setback for the government and apparent concession to EU concerns, deputies confirmed in a vote on Tuesday that Hungary was indefinitely postponing the creation of administrative courts.

The system was intended to operate under the ultimate control of the justice minister and replace the supreme court in handling cases of alleged state wrongdoing, including on politically sensitive issues like elections, corruption, police behaviour and protests.