Orbán vs. the World: The Background Context of the Lex CEU

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Graduates at CEU 2017
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What makes the CEU case exceptional is that it has generated enormous attention

The attack on CEU is one in a series of attempts to eliminate the so-called enemies of illiberal democracy. The government has manufactured a fear-inducing narrative by inventing an imaginary enemy threatening the people of Hungary.

In late March, the Hungarian government announced its proposed amendments to the existing law on national higher education. Although it was presented as applicable to all foreign universities operating in Hungary, it specifically and discriminatively targeted Central European University (CEU). The deadlines for implementing the amendments are tight, and the requirements are either impossible or would deprive CEU of the attractive qualities which in fact make it a prestigious, high-ranking university.

The first requirement is that foreign universities are only allowed to function in Hungary if operating under an intergovernmental bilateral agreement between the university’s country of first registration and Hungary. However, hypothetically, should CEU meet this criterion, the Hungarian government may simply refuse to sign the agreement. Within the span of less than two weeks, the proposed amendments were not only submitted to the National Assembly, but they were also approved, and later signed into law by Hungarian President János Áder.

The Hungarian government’s attack on CEU is one in a series of attempts to eliminate the so-called enemies of illiberal democracy. What makes the CEU case exceptional is that it has generated enormous international attention, and even high-ranking European Commission and US officials have voiced their disapproval of the amendments and expressed solidarity with CEU. Moreover, several demonstrations have taken place, which brought an unusually high number of people out into the streets of Budapest.

The government has manufactured a fear-inducing narrative

The way the government handled this attack on CEU is a model of its well-functioning strategy and communication campaign based on fear-mongering and disinformation, which can be observed in how it has handled the refugee issue since 2015. In accordance with this approach, such attacks are usually camouflaged as legal procedures masking the government’s real intention to manipulate the rule of law. One should also note the presence of the jolly-joker element: the demonisation of philanthropist George Soros, founder of CEU, and his depiction as the evil force behind all attempts to render Hungary vulnerable.

The government want citizens to believe that Soros is the puppet-master pulling the strings of a maleficent masterplan. It is thus extremely important to understand how the government has manufactured and abused a fear-inducing narrative by inventing an imaginary enemy threatening the people of Hungary. Consequently, according to this narrative, it is the government’s fundamental duty to defend its citizens against powerful external threats.

Viktor Orbán framed the migration issue as a security threat

By late 2014, public support for the governing party[1], FIDESZ, was declining due to an underperforming economy, corruption scandals and general disappointment in government policies. The result was that the extreme-right party, Jobbik, benefited from shifting support in the electorate. In this situation, the government needed to shore up its popular support, and the refugee crisis presented a convenient opportunity to do so. In January 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made a statement raising the alarm of a Muslim threat, and asserted that Europe needed protection from “illegal migrants”. In so doing, the latter were implicitly perceived as criminals, and Orbán explicitly blamed the integration policies of Western European countries for the growing numbers of terrorist attacks.

Soon thereafter, the government launched a campaign that framed the migration issue as a security threat in unequivocal terms. A “National Consultation on Migration and Terrorism” was the first piece in the puzzle. A questionnaire with leading questions and biased answer options labelling migrants as terrorists and portraying them as a security, economic and cultural threat, was sent to every eligible voter.

This was followed by a billboard campaign, rhetorically addressed to refugees and migrants arriving in the country. Since the billboards were written in Hungarian, however, it was obvious that the message was in fact intended for Hungarian citizens. The billboard campaign was tied to the “National Consultation”, and portrayed migrants as criminals and even terrorists. By the time refugees began arriving in Hungary in larger numbers and became visible during the summer of 2015, the atmosphere had become fairly hostile toward them, and, more generally, toward the unknown, the Other.

Xenophobia in Hungary has reached a new high

Another significant part of the anti-refugee campaign was a message sent by government-owned and -influenced media outlets, which generated fake news reports accusing refugees of spreading diseases, or depicting them as essentially and inherently uncivilised and violent. All of these assertions have been disproved.

Meanwhile, the government has strengthened its image as the self-proclaimed protector of the Hungarian people, Europe and even Christianity, against Muslims. This type of rhetoric still persists, even though the border has been physically closed since mid-September 2015, and new legislation criminalising irregular border crossings has been introduced, thus making it almost impossible for refugees to enter the country. Only a few months later, another billboard campaign used lines like “Did you know that the Paris terror attacks were committed by migrants?”

This campaign worked so well, that by 2016 xenophobia in Hungary had reached a new high, with 56% of the population looking upon foreigners disfavourably, 46% undecided and only 1% looking upon foreigners favourably. This was the context of the referendum on mandatory EU migrant quotas. Orbán communicated this referendum as a victory, despite the low turnout that rendered it invalid.

Throughout the anti-refugee campaign, George Soros has often been cited as an enemy of Hungary due to his favourable views on migration. Absurd accusations against him range from contending that he is attempting to destabilise the EU to paying refugees individually to come to Europe.

The anti-refugee campaign continues

Despite refugees becoming even less visible in Hungary after the border closure, the issue itself was still hot enough to serve the government’s interests, and FIDESZ introduced legislation targeting the very few refugees still in Hungary or trying to access its borders.

A recent law that came into effect in late March of 2017 allows Hungarian authorities to automatically detain all asylum seekers who set foot in Hungary and are waiting for their cases to be processed. Those who have not applied for asylum can simply be returned to Serbia, from where they can enter the so-called transit zones and then be transferred to a detention camp while awaiting a decision. This legislation has re-emphasised the danger of migration and stigmatised those very few asylum seekers and migrants who were unlucky enough to choose Hungary and hoped for a better life or at least a fair evaluation of their claims.

It is interesting to note that the text of the law states that these provisions would only apply under “a state of crisis due to mass migration”, which in reality is clearly not the case in Hungary. The state of crisis has been in effect since September 2015, and the government have extended it until September 2017 without any grounds in order to justify harsh measures to keep refugees and migrants out of the country, and to maintain the myth of a threat.

This law is not only inhumane, with such unacceptable elements as considering minors between the age of 14 and 18 as adults or disregarding the needs of other vulnerable groups, but it is also at odds with international agreements and EU regulations on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Furthermore, it, again, makes a security issue out of a simple administrative one, as asylum claims should be handled according to international laws and regulations in order to decide who is eligible for protection.

Migration-related NGOs are pictured as threats to national security

Meanwhile, the government have continued their campaign against their enemies, targeting NGOs. FIDESZ’s party deputy has singled out three NGOs focusing on human rights and often working on refugee-related cases, namely the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), and Amnesty International Hungary. These NGOs were threatened with being “swept out”, amid accusations of foreign influence in activities that are, of course, supported by various Soros foundations, among other sources.

Soon after issuing that threat, the government introduced legislation that would target NGOs promoting transparency, in an effort to save the country from so-called “foreign agents”. The proposal links these NGOs to threats to national security and terrorism due to their migration-related activities, and it requires organisations supported by international donors to register as foreign-funded organisations. NGOs which fail to do so will be fined, and may be shut down.

The government’s intention is again camouflaged behind legislative amendments, here seemingly aiming for transparency but actually stigmatising NGOs for receiving money from outside of Hungary. The new regulation will strongly affect human rights NGOs, including those singled out earlier, as these organisations are receiving significant parts of their support from individual and private foundations across borders standing up for fundamental rights and protecting vulnerable groups.

The CEU became FIDESZ’s enemy of choice

The attack against CEU is a logical step in a coherent line of actions. CEU is committed to defending the principles of open society, human rights and democracy. The government identifies it with George Soros, accusing the institution of training agents and soldiers that would fight against the interests of Hungary. Through the efficient promotion of these conspiracy-driven beliefs, CEU then becomes FIDESZ’s enemy of choice, representing everything that needs to be defeated in order to protect the country.

The use of the label “Soros University” to refer to CEU hints at a conspiracy theory populated by dangerous agents of “international finance” and the secret pursuit of foreign interests. Moreover, such portrayal is implicitly infused with semi-coded anti-Semitism, which has long been an aspect of the government’s rhetoric and is deeply rooted in Hungarian society. While overt anti-Semitism is not part of official discourse, a careful analysis of the subtext may reveal worrying tendencies.

In case of the CEU, the government propaganda has clearly failed

What the government did not take into account when attacking CEU, however, was that the enormous support for and solidarity with CEU around the world would fuel dissatisfaction among Hungarians with their government, as manifested in the many protests and demonstrations that were triggered by the Lex CEU but fast outgrew it.

Students from other Hungarian universities joined in. Fake news reports and disinformation are part of the government’s campaign, labelling protesters as violent and accusing Soros of paying participants to protest. Although the media landscape does not allow for an accurate presentation of reality, it is more difficult for government-owned media to depict high school and university students as a threat to the nation.

At this point, it is impossible to predict how strong the protests and the crowds behind them are, but at least the government propaganda has clearly failed. Perhaps the 28 years of Hungary’s democratic transition have been sufficient to create a critical mass of engaged and civic-minded citizens. International pressure and a fast-growing mature civil society may just prove to be the real solution to an unreal problem.

[1] I use “governing party”, government and FIDESZ interchangeably, although officially FIDESZ governs in coalition with the micro-party KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party) but it has not run independently in elections since 2005.