Amid a government crackdown on NGOs that are co-financed by billionaire George Soros, thousands have protested against a restrictive draft bill. The legislation could drive a university backed by Soros out of Hungary.
Some 10,000 people marched in Hungary's capital on Sunday in support of the Central European University (CEU), founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros in 1991.
The US-registered institute claims that it is being directly targeted by draft legislation submitted by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government last week. The draft bill would see universities from non-European Union countries banned from awarding Hungarian diplomas without an agreement between national governments.
Institutions such as the CEU would also be required to have operations in their home country.
Ranked among the top 50 universities in the world for political science and international studies, the university currently enrolls more than 1,400 students from 108 countries.
The future of the CEU, which does not have a US campus, now "depends on talks between the governments of Hungary and the United States," Orban said on Friday.
The Hungarian Prime Minister considers Soros an ideological foe whose "open society" ideal contrasts with his own efforts to turn Hungary into what he once famously dubbed an "illiberal state."
Orban also accused said the "Soros University" of "cheating" because it can award both a Hungarian diploma and an American one, which the prime minister said gives the institution an "unfair advantage" over local universities.
Thousands of CEU staff, students and alumna descended upon Budapest on Sunday wearing badges reading "#IstandwithCEU" and chanting slogans such as "What do we want? Academic freedom!".
Corvinus professor Daniel Deak said the march was an attempt to defend CEU from what he called a government attack.
The new rules are "a shot coming from the Hungarian government against all Hungarian universities," Deak said. "We strongly request freedom for academia and autonomy for universities."
Russia, Turkey comparisons
Speaking at Sunday's march, CEU student Gaspar Bekes compared Orban's campaign to close CEU to actions by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"It is an attack on our democracy and an attack on the highest quality of education that people around the world deserve," Bekes said.
In a statement expressing "concern" on Friday, the US State Department also criticized the draft bill.
"We urge the government of Hungary to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU's operations or independence," it said.
If passed, the law could force the CEU out of the country. Given that the governing coalition of Orban's nationalist Fidesz party and conservative KDNP currently holds a majority of seats in the parliament, the bill's success is likely. Out of all 28 foreign universities in Hungary, the Soros-backed institution is the only one that does not meet the new requirement.
The proposed new university regulations come amid Orban's crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are co-financed by Soros' Open Society Foundations.
The financier, who was born and raised in Hungary, is considered one of Orban's key political opponents. While the 86-year old billionaire espouses left-leaning ideals, the prime minister has described an "illiberal state," modeled on Russia and Turkey, as his ideal for Hungary.
The staunchly anti-immigrant Orban, who says he believes that Muslim migrants could destroy Europe's Christian values and culture, has also accused Soros of "organizing" mass migration through his support for pro-refugee NGOs.
In an ironic twist, Orban himself was once the benefactor of Soros' philanthropic activities, when he received a scholarship to study at Oxford University in 1989 that was funded by the financier.
ksb/gsw (AFP, AP)