Protests in Budapest

All eyes in the academic world are on Hungary. The country’s president, Viktor Orbán, recently proposed a dubious legislative change which would enable him to close down the Central European University. RUG employee Marina van Riel did her master’s programme at this university.
By Koen Marée / Photo by Muhammad Asif / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Last Sunday, almost 100,000 protesters spoke out against Orbán’s new law. Many universities and academics published statements or expressed their support for the Central European University (CEU). The RUG’s University Council sided with the protesters.

On 4 April, the ‘Lex CEU’ was passed by the Hungarian parliament. The new law will forbid foreign universities from being established in Hungary if they do not have any other branches in other countries. The CEU is a university with American credentials. It was founded in 1991 in Budapest by Hungarian-American George Soros.

Critical citizens

‘‘This law was devised solely to go after the CEU’, says Marina van Riel (29, bottom left on the photo). She works at the RUG’s Information Desk and got her master’s degree in comparative constitutional law at the university in Budapest in 2014. She is not exactly sure why the CEU is being targeted, but she can guess: ‘The university is famous for being very activist. Their students usually become very critical citizens. That could be a reason. But there are other independent universities in Budapest, and Orbán has not been targeting them.’

‘It’s also possible that this has to do with Soros. He founded the university and he functions as its philanthropic financier. He runs the Open Society Foundation, his own non-governmental organisation (NGO), and he’s very critical of public policy.’

Van Riel studied Russian in Groningen. Several days before the CEU law was announced, a Russian news broadcast she was watching aired a segment which was very critical of CEU. Almost immediately after the CEU law, Orbán announced another law that would curb foreign financing of NGOs. ‘Orbán is taking his ideas from Russia. A similar law has been in effect there for several years.’

Government monitoring

‘I’m worried about Hungary’, says Van Riel. ‘We normally only see things like this in countries with an authoritarian regime, but this country is in the European Union, for god’s sake. But this has been going on for ages. A few years ago, for example, they passed a law that placed the media under government control. And Fidesz, altered the constitution to ensure their majority in the parliament even when they lose an election. They also limited the power of the constitutional court by making the use of old jurisprudence illegal.’

‘The fact that so many people have taken to the streets is not just because of the CEU. The CEU symbolises what’s going on in Hungary. I wish I could be there. It’s awful to watch this happen in a country I lived in.’

‘I’m sure protests are effective, just not always in the short term. The opposition has had a small victory because they’ve ensured that the law will have to be approved by the constitutional court first. I personally don’t think the CEU will go. If it ever gets that far, the university will institute legal proceedings, all the way to the European Court. It will be a lot of work, but the CEU will persevere no matter what. And besides, the mayor of Vilnius has already offered them accommodations.’

‘I’m definitely going to demonstrate’

Daniël Jurg, an arts, culture, and media student, is currently studying at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. There, he witnessed the protests first-hand: ‘Instructors and students at my university care about the CEU a lot. One instructor started his class by saying that he doesn’t usually go off topic, but that Orbán’s decisions left him feeling pretty shocked and angry.’

‘He said that we, both as students and as people involved with the university, should care about intellectual freedom and that the government should not be allowed to restrict that. He and other instructors were going to the CEU to protest and he invited us to join him and show our solidarity.’

‘I had personally planned to join the protest a week and a half ago, but something came up. I’m definitely planning to go next time. Facebook is keeping me up to date on all the solidarity events being planned. It feels a bit weird to join this debate as a foreign student, but then again, this also really concerns us.’

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