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George Soros: During the 2018 Hungarian election, Fidesz presented him as the symbolic leader of the opposition camp (NICCOLO CARRANTI CC BY-SA 3.0)

On October 25, the Rector of the Central European University (CEU), Michael Ignatieff, announced that unless the Hungarian government regularised the status of CEU by December 1, it would move to Vienna.

As so often with such stories — customarily presented in the Western media as a fight between good (the CEU) and evil (Orbán, Fidesz, the Hungarian government) — reality is infinitely more complex. There is indeed a contest between the CEU and the Hungarian government, but it’s far from being the simplified morality tale that is so widely propagated.

Matters began in 2005, when the CEU did a deal with the then left-wing government that it would be given a unique exception from the Hungarian education law and be able to grant both Hungarian and American diplomas. The American dimension of this arrangement was something free-floating, the CEU was registered in the US, but had no university presence there. But the new Hungarian education law of 2011 modernised the system and, inter alia, declared not unreasonably that all the 28 foreign institutions of higher education operating in Hungary would have to have a mother university in their country of origin. The CEU did not.

So when the Hungarian education office began its quinquennial review in 2016, it came upon the CEU’s anomalous status. Legally there were two CEUs. The CEU granted Hungarian diplomas (quite legally) and simultaneously American ones without the CEU having a US mother university. At this stage, the relationship between Hungary and the CEU was an administrative disagreement, which could certainly have been resolved at that level had there been the will to do so. The difficulty of there not being a US-based mother university could certainly have been circumvented. That’s what technocracies are for.

But at that point, the CEU opted to see dispute not as technocratic, but as political. The CEU is a private foundation supported by George Soros, but Soros also finances a range of NGOs and think-tanks that have moved into the political vacuum left behind the collapse of the left-wing opposition to Fidesz. The CEU was and was seen as a part of this left-wing anti-Fidesz constellation. Thereby, with the coming into force of the new law, a political motive has been neatly attributed to the Hungarian government.

At the same time, for some observers there is an uncanny parallel with the European University at St Petersburg (EUSP), which has faced regular harassment from the Russian authorities. Parallels are meat and drink to the devotees of conspiracy theories, so there are those who readily equate the fate of the two institutions, calmly eliding the differences. Post hoc is not propter hoc; likewise, simul hoc isn’t propter hoc either.

The Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Education and Science, known as the Rosobrnadzor, decided to annul the educational licence of the EUSP. And over and above that, the EUSP has been also facing another dispute over its building lease with the city government in St Petersburg. There are allegations that it made certain alterations to the palace building it occupies without the approval of the historical commission.
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