Vidita Priyadarshini is a graduate student in political science at Central European University. Here we talk about current events at Central European University.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is happening at Central European University now?
Vidita Priyadarshini: It started around March last year when the government, who has a super majority, tabled a bill in the Parliament which would make it impossible for our university to operate in this country.
It was random. Nobody saw it coming. They were making regulations about universities that had dual-accreditation. We have accreditation in Hungary and the United States. They decided to make changes and additions to this accreditation process in Hungary.
They tried to hide behind saying, “This is a general rule which is applicable to every university that operates with dual accreditation.” However, the rules were built in a way that only affected one of the many such universities operating in Hungary, and given the political climate, it was obvious that it is part of a concerted attack.
It went through. It became a big issue. A lot of Hungarian civil society was against it. The opposition, which is highly fragmented, treated it as part of their election campaign. We had support from international academia, European, American, and even from the global south – India and Pakistan. The situation mirrored what happened in Turkey and Russia before.
However, despite all this support, and the CEU having met the requirements painstakingly over the last year, they have not signed the agreements. They are trying to keep us in this tricky position, where you cannot decide if you want to stay in this country or move.
They are trying to hit us where it hurts the most. The university is seen as a liberal university and with a mission such as open society, is seen as an enemy of Hungarian prime-minister’s concept of ‘illiberal democracy.’
The background of the university is that it was founded by George Soros in 1991 to be one of the centres of academic excellence in this region after the fall of communism. So, for him, George Soros and this liberal university represents everything against him.
They were trying to figure out ways to take us down, any perception of opposition was considered harmful. Even though the CEU never gets involved in Hungarian politics directly, it is constantly projected as a major threat. When that didn’t work, they tried subtle ways. For example, through intimidation of NGOs.
They project George Soros as some mastermind who controls everyone. Our university is not controlled by George Soros. That is the narrative that they want to push.
Jacobsen: What has been some of the reaction to Budapest, within Hungary, and within Central Europe itself, with regards to this back-and-forth between, on the one side, a liberal democracy stance, and, on the other side, a more conservative or even ultra-conservative stance?
Priyadarshini: In Budapest, we were surprised last year. People who do not normally take part in political debates took part in protests. We were going around, we were organizing. We were talking to a lot of people. We were surprised when one of the bigger protests had 80,000 in a city of only 2,0000,000. All age groups, it was surprising to me.
One possibility, as I am told by my Hungarian friends is that they might not care that much. The debate might be irrelevant to them – whether to be a liberal democracy or an illiberal democracy, but they agree education should not be attacked. A lot of people probably hated this while harbouring anti-Soros sentiments. Probably, the bottom line was that it is taking opportunities away from Hungarians.
I do not know about the countryside, but in Budapest the sentiment was strongly in support of the university because they felt Hungarians do not have a good education system in general; and that this should not be politicized so much.
They believe educational spaces should not be politicized. You may have opinions about that [politicization of universities], but that seems to be the opinion here. In Central and Eastern Europe, as with everywhere, there is a rise of the Right.
At the same time, there was a shock about this because the Right also might disagree with these policies. With the debates in the European parliament, we saw that there was some pressure on the European Peoples’ Party to push the Hungarian government to not let this legislation through.
However, he has been powering through it in general. The fate of the university remains to be seen as the government continuously refuses to sign the agreement after all new requirements have been met. One can only hope for the best.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Vidita.