Tens of thousands of people have protested in Budapest against legislation that could force the Central European University, founded by the financier George Soros, to move out of Hungary. Organisers said up to 80,000 people took part in the rally, making it the largest anti-government protest in years.
A bill passed in parliament by the ruling rightwing Fidesz party of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a critic of liberal civil organisations funded by Soros, targeted CEU by setting out numerous conditions under which it must operate. The bill has led to criticism from hundreds of leading academics worldwide as well as the US government and EU.
The Hungarian president, János Áder, must sign the bill by Monday to make it law. The protesters said they wanted to convince him to reject the bill and refer it for constitutional review.
"What do we want Ader to do? Veto," the crowd chanted. "Free country, free university."
"The government wants to silence pretty much everyone who doesn't think the same as them, who thinks freely, who can be liberal, can be leftist," said Kornel Klopfstein, a protest organiser and PhD student at the University of Bielefeld.
"Don't sign it, Jani," the crowd shouted, using a Hungarian nickname for Ader's first name. Other chants included "A free country, a free university", ''Orban get out", ''Viktator!" and "Europe, Europe"/
Daniel Berg, a CEU student, told the crowd: "There are moments in the career of every politician when they have a chance to prove that they are public servants, that they are not just foot soldiers of their party but statesmen ... The country where the government closes schools cannot succeed."
"According to the government, one of the centres of these people is at CEU ... We should stand up for academic freedom and for CEU."
The government has also looked to combat dissent by proposing tighter rules on non-governmental organisations, which will have to register with authorities if they have a yearly overseas income of 7.2m forints (£20,000).
Orbán's view that European culture faces an existential threat from migration and multiculturalism is at odds with Soros' outlook. The prime minister has often said NGOs are doing the bidding of the billionaire investor.
Klopfstein said: "The government is always looking for someone to fight with and Soros seems like a perfect person for this, because he funds NGOs in Hungary and he funds CEU."
The CEU rector, Michael Ignatieff, said the school will continue operations as normal and demanded that the law be scrapped and additional international guarantees of academic freedoms be added to current legal safeguards.
The US state department will send diplomats to Budapest this week to address the CEU crisis, said Ignatieff, who spent several days in Washington to lobby the US government, lawmakers and media.
Bara Bognar, 40, a finance professional involved in the protest, said: "They want to completely undermine and eradicate what remains of civil society.
"The method, the lack of dialogue, the efforts for years to annihilate all democratic institutions – this cannot be the future of us or our children.
"These people at the top, they don't realise that we don't live in Russia, but in Hungary!" a protester, 23-year-old IT expert Viktor Szakal, told the AFP news agency.
"We have to show strength with our numbers. I'm glad that so many people showed up. Orban understands only the rules of power, and our power comes from our numbers."
Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs denied in a blog post on Thursday that the CEU was being singled out, saying that irregularities had been found with 27 foreign higher education institutions.
"It's noteworthy that all of the other institutions have accepted this modest minimal condition of university equality and fairness. Only CEU has protested because the university insists on its unfair privileges," Kovacs said.
The legislation has attracted widespread criticism abroad, including from Washington, Brussels and university professors - more than 900 academics around the world, including 18 Nobel prize-winning economists, have signed an open letter calling for the proposal to be withdrawn.
The main pro-government outlet condemns Sunday's mass demonstration in Budapest as a move inspired by the 'Soros empire against the government', while a leading left-wing commentator thinks that, over and beyond the future of CEU, what is at stake is Hungary's membership of the European Union.
In Népszava, Miklós Hargitai accuses the government of steering Hungary out of the European Union and into Russia's orbit. In his interpretation, the new law on higher education does not just aim at closing CEU but to 'prepare for life outside the EU'. To support this conclusion, he argues that the government's case 'cannot be won as long as we are within the Union'. In his closing sentence Hargitai hints that if the opposition doesn't defeat Fidesz at next year's election, Hungary will find itself outside the EU. 'We have one year left, at best', he writes.
In its report on the demonstration held on Sunday with several tens of thousands of people protesting against last week's amendment to the Higher Education Act, Magyar Idők notes the presence of opposition politicians and writes that the march quickly turned into an anti-government demonstration. After the organisers declared the end of the closing rally in front of the Parliament Building, a 'hard core' of a few hundred people scuffled with police and chanted strongly worded slogans, including demands to put leading politicians behind bars. Magyar Idők also quotes a few angry Facebook comments by supporters of the demonstration. In its headline, the pro-government daily characterises the pro-CEU march as part of an offensive by 'the machinery of the Soros Empire against the government'.
Source: AFP; The Guardian; MTI; Magyar Idok; Nepszava
Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 April 2017 06:19