Tag Archives: Central European University

Viktor Orbán’s next target: Central European University in Budapest

One after the other, independent publications have been taken over by Fidesz loyalists. I covered the sad fate of Népszabadság and spent a considerable amount of time on the acquisition of regional papers, which are valuable additions to the growing network of the government propaganda machine.

One takeover I didn’t cover was the purchase of Figyelő (Observer), a highly respected financial weekly established 60 years ago. The new owner is Mária Schmidt, court historian of Viktor Orbán and director of the historically misleading House of Terror. Of course, Mária Schmidt is well known to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, but perhaps I didn’t report sufficiently on her wealth. She inherited a fortune when, in 2006, her husband died suddenly at the age of 53.

Figyelő had been ailing financially for over a year when Schmidt decided to “save” the paper in December 2016. She promised not to intervene in the day-to-day running of the paper or to interfere with its content. A month later, however, she appointed three prominent Fidesz ideologues to head the editorial board. Several journalists promptly resigned. That was at the end of January.

A few days later the new issue of Figyelő appeared with an article titled “Can the Soros-School stay?” Unfortunately, the article is not available online, but from the summaries by other publications we can reconstruct the gist of the story. According to Figyelő, in the summer of 2016 Viktor Orbán and George Soros had a discussion about Soros’s pride and joy, Central European University (CEU), which he established in Budapest. At that meeting the strong man of Hungary apparently reassured Soros that “he will not touch” CEU. But, continued Figyelő, “since last summer the international situation, with the election of Donald Trump as president, [has changed]. The Hungarian government might think that it can risk attacks against the university that it wouldn’t have tried earlier.” Figyelő claimed to know that one of Orbán’s ministers talked about CEU “as the main target in 2017.” He indicated that what they would really like is the departure of the whole institution from Budapest. The article was also full of untrue assertions about CEU, its students, and its faculty.

Michael Ignatieff, the new president of CEU, responded with a dignified open letter addressed to the “editor-in-chief” of Figyelő. He pointed out the benefits CEU has brought to Hungary in the last 25 years and the excellent relationships the university has with other academic institutions in Hungary and abroad. At the end of the letter he noted that the university is proud of George Soros, a Hungarian patriot, but the administration of the university is entirely free from outside pressure.

Anyone familiar with Mária Schmidt’s modus operandi should have known that President Ignatieff would get an answer. And that it would not be dignified as Ignatieff’s was. Instead, it would be a base attack on him, the university, and anything that has anything to do with liberalism.

Indeed, her response is a disgusting piece of prose, at the center of which is an attack on the speech Ignatieff gave at the launch of a project called Re-thinking Open Society. (A summary of the speech is available online.) In her rambling article, titled “An open society and a liberal revolution,” Schmidt talks about foundations financed by Soros as “military outposts of the U.S. State Department” and Ignatieff as “the Canadian liberal” whose “field of operation happens to be” in Hungary at the moment. He is “a passionate liberal.” That for Schmidt is the greatest sin anyone can commit.

Ignatieff is further accused of being soft on communism, which she says is especially disgraceful from someone whose ancestors were refugees from the Red Terror, “a fact that he doesn’t consider especially important.” (Ignatieff’s paternal grandfather was Count Pavel Ignatieff, the Russian minister of education during World War I, and his great-grandfather was Count Nikolay Ignatieff, a Russian statesman and diplomat.) How do we know that Ignatieff, who gives lectures on the subject, doesn’t know the first thing about the horrors of communism? Because “he always talks about communism in connection with Nazism and he always compares Hitler to Stalin.” Until now, Hungarian anti-Communists accused liberals of making excuses for communism and focusing only on Nazism, but if we can take Schmidt seriously they now consider communism even worse than Nazism and the horrors it brought to the world.

Ignatieff mentioned Václav Havel in his speech, who is not exactly Schmidt’s favorite. “Havel is significant for Ignatieff and the other liberals only because he published several articles in their most important publication, the New York Review of Books.” So much for Václav Havel.

Soros himself is accused of collaborating with the communists in the late 1980s and preferring left-wingers and liberals when it came to his grants. (Schmidt herself was a beneficiary of Soros’s generosity.) To quote her precisely: “Soros in Hungary as well as in other countries became the keeper of washed-out komcsik and libik. He is the embodiment of everything that deserves our contempt. Today Soros’s name means liberal and liberal means SZDSZ and SZDSZ means everything that is loathsome, unpatriotic, arrogant, and unacceptable.”

I guess these few lines will give the readers of Hungarian Spectrum a sense of Mária Schmidt’s latest masterpiece. I could go on and on about her defense of populism, Brexit, and Donald Trump, but that would take us too far from our topic: the fate of Central European University. The essence of the lengthy article comes at the very end: “CEU is George Soros’s outpost in Europe.” The implied verdict: Soros’s university has to go.

Schmidt’s attack opened a floodgate. A few days after her article appeared, Magyar Idők reported that CEU is letting 17 faculty members go because the university’s business school will merge with the department of economics. The pro-government mouthpiece claimed that all 17 professors were Hungarians and that they were extremely popular with the students. Magyar Idők also stated that the salaries of foreign faculty members are double those of Hungarians at CEU. A day later another article was published in the same paper, titled “They are cooking something in Soros’s witch’s kitchen.” The same unfounded and unverified accusation that Hungarian faculty members were fired solely because they were Hungarians was repeated. In vain did CEU try to explain that the faculty members of the Business School were not all Hungarians and that there are not different pay scales for foreign and native faculty members. Magyar Idők was not giving up. Today a new article was published in which they try to discredit CEU’s press release that pointed out the paper’s false statements. Magyar Idők claimed that CEU didn’t satisfactorily deny that only Hungarians were fired.

That’s where we are at the moment. What happens to CEU may depend, at least in part, on how successful Donald Trump is at implementing his plans at home and abroad. If he moves American democracy toward an illiberal state and if his followers keep bashing Soros, most likely Viktor Orbán will feel free to banish CEU from Hungary. But if he fails because of internal opposition and foreign resistance, perhaps these attacks will subside. Let’s hope so.

February 11, 2017

The Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives at Central European University

A few months ago I wrote a review of Anna Porter’s biography of George Soros titled Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy, in which I concentrated on Soros’s philanthropic activities in Hungary. Nowadays Soros’s name is frequently bandied about in Hungary, often as a result of Viktor Orbán’s sudden “discovery” that Soros is responsible for the refugee crisis. He is one of those internationalists, along with Jürgen Habermas, the renowned philosopher, who wants to destroy European culture as it exists today. Of course, every time the names of Orbán and Soros are mentioned in the same breath someone will recall that Orbán’s student association benefited from precious copy machines and individual scholarships to study abroad funded by a generous George Soros.

Soros spent both time and money trying to lead Hungary toward his ideal of an “open society,” which is described by the Open Society Foundations as “a vibrant and tolerant society whose government is accountable and open to the participation of all people.” The Foundation seeks “to strengthen the rule of law; respect for human rights, minorities, and a diversity of opinions; democratically elected governments; and a civil society that helps keep government power in check.” As things stand now in Hungary, George Soros’s efforts haven’t borne fruit, but there is one institution he funded and still funds, Central European University, that might be Soros’s most significant Hungarian achievement as István Teplán, one of the co-founders of the university, told Anna Porter.

Originally, George Soros established three campuses of Central European University (CEU): in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest. Shortly after Václav Klaus became president of the Czech Republic in 2003, Soros decided to close the Prague campus due to Klaus’s antagonistic attitude toward both Soros and his idea of an open society. The Warsaw campus didn’t thrive. On the other hand, the Budapest campus has become an important university in the region since its opening.

CEU is accredited in both the United States and in Hungary and offers English-language master’s and doctoral programs in the social sciences, humanities, law, management and public policy. It has approximately 1,400 students and 370 faculty members coming from more than 130 countries. The student: faculty ratio is 7:1. (By way of comparison, the Yale ratio is similar at 6:1.) Forty percent of the students are on a full CEU fellowship and 21% are on partial scholarship. Only 5% of the students pay full tuition. The drop-out rate is low: 2.5% of those who spend one year at CEU and 4% of those who are enrolled in the two-year program. The situation is different in the doctoral program where the drop-out rate for the graduating class of 2014-2015 was 27%.

The crown jewel of CEU is its archives, which as of November 3 is called the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives. Regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum will recall that I wrote a brief review of Vera and Donald Blinken’s book Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return. Donald Blinken was U.S. Ambassador to Hungary between 1994 and 1998, and his Hungarian-born wife Vera did an enormous amount of good work in Hungary in those days. In one short post I could cover only a fragment of the Blinkens’ work in Hungary in promoting closer U.S.-Hungarian relations, but their contribution was noteworthy. Donald Blinken is considered by many to have been the best U.S. ambassador to Hungary in the last 25 years.

Vera and Donald Blinken at the dedication ceremony on Nocember 3, 2015

Vera and Donald Blinken at the dedication ceremony on November 3, 2015

What is the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives (OSA)? It is “one of the world’s most valuable archival collections related to the Cold War, human rights movements and grave international human rights violations.” It holds more than 9.5 linear kilometers of paper records and 12 terabytes of digital records related to communist-era political, social, economic, and cultural life. It also includes the extensive collection of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute, personal papers of a number of political, cultural, and counter-culture figures from the Cold War, and samizdat literature from the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary. The Archives is also the depository of documents related to human rights, such as the investigative material on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, papers of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights as well as the Index on Censorship. It is also the official archives of the Open Society Foundations established by George Soros.

The Blinkens, with their generous bequest, have now made the Archives’ future secure. This, by the way, is not the Blinkens’ first gift to the Archives. Back in 2006 they made a contribution to establish the Donald and Vera Blinken Collection of interviews with Hungarian refugees from 1957-1958, which was digitized on the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. You may want to take a look at these interviews, which are available on the Archives website.

We all ought to be grateful for this gift that will further research on the communist period in Hungary.

Anna Porter: Buying a Better World, a book review

Anna Porter, a Hungarian-born Canadian writer and publisher who since 2004 has been devoting her time to writing, is out with a new book, her third in eight years. All three in one way or another, fully or partially, have something to do with Hungary. In 2007 she wrote Kasztner’s Train, the story of Rudolf Kastner (Rezső Kasztner) and his controversial effort to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann for the release of hundreds of Jews. Three years later The Ghosts of Europe, a history of post-Soviet Eastern Europe after 1990, appeared. And now she has given us an introduction to George Soros’s philanthropic activities, Buying a Better World. Again, Soros is not only Hungarian by birth but also began his crusade for his Open Society in Hungary in 1984.

Soros has spent 12 billion dollars since 1984 “in his efforts to change the way people think,” and along the way he has encountered plenty of disappointment. He established a university in South Africa only to abandon the project a year later. His efforts in Russia also bore little fruit. Viktor Orbán, who has been busily building an “illiberal state” in Hungary, was once the beneficiary of Soros’s largesse. He received a scholarship to Oxford for the academic year 1989-1990 but left after four months to lead Fidesz in the election campaign for the first democratic parliament. By now Orbán has little use for the liberal philanthropist.

PorterI will concentrate here on Soros’s activities in Hungary and his efforts on behalf of the Roma of Europe. Although Soros is disappointed with the results of his efforts in Eastern Europe and in particular in Hungary, I think that in the long run his financial input has not been wasted. Perhaps few people know that Soros was already active in Hungary during the Kádár regime. The Soros Foundation was established in 1984 with the assistance of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Since then the Magyar Soros Alapítvány has supported 40,000 projects and given out several thousand scholarships to artists, scholars, and students.

Perhaps Soros’s best-known activity in Kádár’s Hungary was to supply copy machines to universities and libraries. Until then the few available copy machines belonged to the government and were under strict control. As the number of copy machines grew, the government lost exclusive control over information.

Although Soros may complain about the futility of his efforts, he should be pleased with the Central European University (CEU) he established in Hungary. The original idea was to have three campuses: in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest. After Václáv Klaus became president, the Prague campus’s fate was pretty well sealed. Klaus hated Soros. The Warsaw campus also closed its doors after a few years. The Budapest campus, however, is thriving. Some Hungarians who worked closely with Soros in the early days of CEU think that, although Soros was initially reluctant to establish a university, it may be his most lasting contribution.

According to Porter, “at first Soros rejected the idea of founding a university. He didn’t think it was an effective way to influence a society. The best results, he said, are from inside a society, ‘infusing existing institutions with content’ and allowing local individuals to spend money on causes they believe to be worthwhile.” Yet, he eventually accepted the argument that “there was a need in eastern Europe for a university that encouraged independent thought,” which had been in short supply in the region. CEU has an international faculty, its language of instruction is English, and students come from throughout Eastern Europe.

In the chapter on “The Struggles of the Roma” Anna Porter gives the reader a vivid description of the plight of the Roma in Slovak and Hungarian villages. “This is the grim challenge Soros chose for the Open Society Foundations. Their programs include workshops for the Roma on advocacy and health and education in history, media, communications, and civil and human rights.”  In 2009 alone the Open Society Foundation assisted 30,000 Roma children and 800 university students. CEU is also active in Roma studies. Yet, as Anna Porter rightly points out, “it is hard to see the results of Open Society’s intervention” on behalf of the Roma. She continues: “It is difficult to verify [the] claim that OS has created a ‘heightened level of awareness worldwide, and a sense of urgency’ in Europe.” The Open Society Foundation has put an incredible amount of effort and a lot of money into trying to uplift the Roma population in the eastern part of Europe, but so far it has failed to make a significant difference.

Here I have concentrated on a very small part of Buying a Better World. The book takes us all over the world, everywhere George Soros has been using his fortune to achieve a better, more open society.

Anna Porter, Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy (Toronto: TAP Books, 2015).

Retreat or another “peacock dance” by Viktor Orbán?

Something must have happened between yesterday afternoon and this morning in the Prime Minister’s Office. János Lázár, the minister in charge of the office, has been waging war for some time on at least two fronts, the Norwegian government and the Hungarian Jewish community. In both cases he now seems to be retreating, although his move may turn out to be, as has happened so often in the past, merely a tactical ruse–one step back and, once the glare of the spotlight dims, two steps forward.

Lázár has been trying to make changes in the original agreement regarding the disbursement of the Norwegian Funds, changes that the Norwegian government refused to accept. Then, in order to pressure the Norwegians to release the funds that they had withheld, the Hungarian government began to harass an independent foundation that was in charge of grants given to NGOs by the Norwegian Civic Funds. The latest attack, about which I wrote yesterday, was the most aggressive to date, but it did not shake the resolve of the Norwegian government. By noon today Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian minister in charge of European Union affairs, made it crystal clear that what happened yesterday in the office of the Ökotárs Foundation was unacceptable as far as his government was concerned.

Moreover, yesterday’s raids produced no damning evidence against the foundation. They will not be able to jail Veronika Móra, the director of the foundation, because she has done nothing wrong. At least, according to legal opinions I heard. It was thus high time for the government to throw in the towel.

As we know, Viktor Orbán, because naturally he is the man behind the attacks on the foundation and the NGOs, is not the kind of guy who likes to admit defeat. And he really wanted to stifle the anti-government voices being funded by the Norwegians. But the 45 billion forints the Norwegians were withholding, the bulk of their grant money that goes directly to the government, was hurting the public purse. This morning János Lázár announced that the Hungarian government will ask the European Commission to be the arbiter between the Hungarian and the Norwegian governments. Since a special EU office in Brussels has been supervising the activities of Ökotárs Foundation and has found nothing illegal about its activities, the outcome of the decision is not really in question. But at least Viktor Orbán can tell his people that, although his government is right, the bureaucrats in Brussels decided otherwise. Hungary had no choice but to oblige.

There might have been two other considerations that tipped the scales in favor of retreat. One is that, according to unnamed sources, Tibor Navracsics’s nomination has been unfavorably influenced by, among other things, the Norwegian-Hungarian controversy. Moreover, the raid on the foundation’s office, which was received with dismay abroad, coincided with the appearance of an op/ed piece in The New York Times by Philips N. Howard, a professor at the Central European University and the University of Washington, which only reinforced the commonly held view that Viktor Orbán is a man who cannot tolerate a free media. And, as the Norwegian controversy made evident, he would like to silence independent NGOs as well. The biting illustration that accompanied the article has since been reprinted in several Hungarian publications. If it had not been clear before, it had to be obvious by now that Viktor Orbán had gone too far. It was time to recall the troops.

The same thing seems to be happening on the Hungarian Jewish front. The government alienated the Hungarian Jewish community by making several controversial, unilateral moves. I wrote earlier about these government actions, starting with the appointment of Sándor Szakály as the director of a new historical institute and the designation of Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror, to head a new Holocaust Museum. The final straw was the decision to erect a memorial to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The result was a complete breakdown in communication–and trust–between János Lázár and the leaders of the Jewish community. Then, after months of silence, at the end August it became known that the government was ready to make concessions. The routinely scheduled  September meeting took place today and, indeed, it seems that the Hungarian government finally decided that it was time to come to some understanding with the Jewish community.

The meeting that lasted for four hours was a large gathering, including 60 people representing several Jewish organizations. Yet, according to András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, thanks to the disciplined behavior of the representatives real progress was made on all eight points that were on the agenda. Although the Jewish organizations did not change their attitude on such vital issues as the House of Fates, the government offered several peace offerings. The government promised, for example, to spend up to a billion forints to fix up Jewish cemeteries that are in very bad shape in most cities and towns. Lázár promised to invite the head of the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court, the minister of interior, and the head of the judicial office to talk over practical moves to be taken in cases of anti-Semitic activity. Lázár seemed to be ready to discuss the renovation of the synagogue on Sebestyén Rumbach Street that might serve two functions: it will be a functioning place of worship as well as a museum. Lázár also promised to renovate the synagogue in Miskolc.

The large gathering of the Jewish Round this morning Népszava / Photo József Vajda

The Jewish Round Table this morning
Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Although all these goodies were offered to the Jewish communities, the representatives refused to change their position on the boycott of the government organized events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. They remained steadfast even though the government gave in on one serious bone of contention–the exhibit at the House of Fates. Lázár personally guaranteed that no exhibit will be mounted without the active cooperation of the Hungarian and international Jewish community. Interestingly, the controversial designated head of the project, Mária Schmidt, was not present.

All in all, it seems that there is a general retreat. Whether it is real or not we will find out soon enough.

Public opinion research in the Kádár regime

While Viktor Orbán is showing his compassionate side to the participants of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest I’m moving back for a day to the Kádár regime and its anomalies. One of the oddities not normally associated with one-party dictatorships was a center where sociologists studied public opinion. The work they produced wasn’t made public. Some of it was done at the behest of Magyar Rádió and Television (audience preferences). Other studies were commissioned by the Agitation and Propaganda Department (Agit-Prop) of MSZMP.

The Mass Communication Research Center (Tömegkommunkációs Kutatóközpont) was established in 1969 under the aegis of the Hungarian Radio. They wanted to know what the Hungarian public wanted. Considering that radio and television were a vital part of the everyday life of Hungarians in those days, it was essential that the authorities produce programs that met demands. Eventually, however, the competence of the research center was widened when the party realized that it might be to the advantage of the leadership to have a sense of the mood of the country. However, according to Mária Vásárhelyi, who is largely responsible for the fact that the material the Center produced didn’t perish, the people who worked in the Agit-Prop Department didn’t realize either the work’s value or its possible dangers. She has the feeling that few people ever bothered to look at the highly technical studies the Center produced.

The Center was closed in 1991 and part of its material eventually ended up in the Open Society Archives attached to the Central European University founded by financier George Soros. Currently 500 sociological studies and public opinion polls from the 1969-1991 period are available for study.



The first question we must ask is whether one can take subject responses at all seriously; after all, Hungarians were living in a dictatorship and might not have been forthcoming. Sociologists who either worked there or who are familiar with the sociological methods used then claim that the results can be considered scientifically sound. Surely, there were taboo topics, like the Soviet troops in Hungary, multi-party political systems, and the nature of dictatorship, but the sociologists simply avoided such questions until the second half of the 1980s. At that point they even inquired about a possible political change in Hungary. By 1989, 70% of the population considered the rule of Mátyás Rákosi deleterious for Hungary while only 40% thought the same about the Horthy regime.

Here are a few interesting findings. First, as to Hungarians’ self-image. It is known that most ethnic groups have a favorable opinion of themselves. But, given all the talk about Hungarian pessimism, it might come as a surprise that “there was no sign of pessimism anywhere” in the 1970s. When asked to describe Hungarians they answered in positive terms: jovial people who like to drink and eat; they like parties; they are friendly and hospitable. They also like to work and are diligent. The respondents admitted that Hungarians tend to be jealous of one another and that they are selfish. The overwhelming majority of them didn’t want anything to do with politics.

In 1971 91% of those questioned were proud of being Hungarian. What were they proud of? That Hungary became a “beautiful industrial country from a formerly agrarian one.” That Hungary can boast “a world famous cuisine, musicians, and animal husbandry.” “Because no other country has such a beautiful history.” “We struggled for centuries until we reached this height. We even have a role in world politics.”

What were they not proud of? Hungary’s role in World War II (32%), the human failings of Hungarians (21%), those who left Hungary illegally (15%), 1956 (11.5%), the reactionary regimes of the past (8.1%), the mistakes after the liberation (7.5%), and finally, the territorial losses (5.0%).

It is somewhat surprising that the MSZMP’s Agit-Prop Department was interested in people’s views of Trianon. The question had to be formulated very carefully. Eventually it read: “The defeat suffered at the end of World War I in its way ended the crisis that pried open the framework of the multinational Hungarian state. Do you know about the Peace of Trianon and if yes what do you see as its cause?” It turned out that 61% of the adult population didn’t know what the Peace of Trianon was all about. Mind you, 44% of them didn’t know what the Warsaw Pact was while 21% had wrong information about it; 40% had no idea about the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or Comecon either. 64% didn’t know what the words “nationalist/nationalism” were all about and 76% didn’t know the meaning of antisemitism. Oh, those were the days!

It is not true, despite Fidesz propaganda to the contrary, that during the Kádár period people didn’t even know that there were Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. An overwhelming majority did know. However, they didn’t consider them to be part of the nation. Many, especially people in their twenties, felt no kinship with them.

By 1985 the research center cut its ties to Magyar Rádió and changed its name to Magyar Közvéleménykutató Intézet (Hungarian Public Opinion Institute). Why did the Antall government decide to close it in 1991 and disperse its archives? According to Mária Vásárhelyi, there were at least two reasons. One was that the Antall government (1990-1993) was rapidly losing popularity and the Institute’s results reflected this uncomfortable political reality. The government might also have thought that its researchers were just a bunch of communists whose findings were influenced by their political views. In fact, if anything, the opposite was true. Because these people were in the forefront of sociological research, which itself was a taboo discipline in the socialist countries, most of them were close to the opposition forces of the late Kádár regime. The second reason was practical. The Institute occupied a very valuable building in downtown Pest which the state sold to a German bank. It was at this point that Mária Vásárhelyi rushed to Domokos Kosáry, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who being a historian immediately realized the value of the material gathered by the sociologists between 1969 and 1991. He was the one who rescued the material which otherwise would (at best) have ended up in a cellar.

By now all the material is digitized and researchers can study the dominant opinions of Hungarians during the last two decades of the Kádár regime. Historians claim that it is an invaluable collection that will help us understand not only the Kádár period but, perhaps even more, the present.