The Hungarian government made a subtle change in the higher education law that just happens to target Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros in 1991 in Budapest. Lex CEU has been in the air for a while, and the timing tells volumes about Orbán’s underlying motivations.
Orbán is desperate to finally meet Trump
After Trump’s election Orbán was walking on air and obviously saw it as the beginning of a beautiful friendship. After all, both Trump and Orbán follow the same ideology: protectionist, ethnic populism.
“We got permission, if you like, from the highest secular place, that we are also allowed to put ourselves first. This is a huge thing, huge freedom, huge gift…”
— PM Orbán, January 2017
Sadly, however, populism is neither a world view nor a principle. And it is definitely not a basis on which to build alliances. It merely means to say and do what is needed to gain and keep power. But Orbán is yet to learn this lesson.
He is desperate to meet Trump and the decision to push through Lex CEU right now appears to be (among other things) a desperate attempt to finally get daddy’s attention. If Orbán had nukes and missiles, he would shoot them into the nearest sea – North Korea-style.
Firstly, Orbán’s humiliation is palpable. It’s been three months and not only was he not invited to an audience with the “highest secular” power – not even his foreign minister was received in Washington.
This seems to be the reason why Orbán suddenly fired his ambassador to the US, Réka Szemerkényi. She was rumored to have been closer to him than foreign minister Szijjártó – but he let go of her after she criticized Lex CEU. And when the media asked Orbán why the step was necessary, he merely remarked:
“I don’t bother with women’s issues.”
Truly a dick move and it comes naturally to Orbán to kick women – but some argue, this may also work as a stunt to get Trump’s attention.
The second reason Orbán thought Lex CEU would be a great move right now is the Trump-Putin constellation, which he greatly overestimated.
Small minds think that an enemy’s enemy is a friend. Kicking at Soros didn’t only fit in the government’s long history of feverish Sorosing – it didn’t seem to hold any risk at all. After all, not only does Trump hate Soros – so does Orbán’s other “secular” power and apparent handler, Putin. But that was before Trump bombed Syria.
Unconfirmed rumors claim that Putin could have ordered the move from Orbán. After all, CEU has educated many of Putin’s opponents in the Former Soviet Union. The kind of pesky people who stubbornly insist that citizens are not just cattle to be bred and taxed by their feudal overlords, but humans with rights. NGOs and politicians who believe that the law should rule – instead of some power-hungry, middle aged men who twist and devalue it in blatant legalism. Unlike for Orbán, kicking Soros by proxy held no risk for the Russians. They have nothing to lose if Orbán gets burned. It just makes Hungary a weaker satellite.
Thirdly, and more importantly, Orbán’s desperation can be smelt from the wording of Lex CEU. In it Orbán insists that Trump must strike an intergovernmental agreement with him, Orbán, if he wants to keep CEU open. In other words, the little mouse of the Carpathians demands to sit down with the “highest secular place”. Even though higher education is not under federal authority in the US.
“… the requirement that foreign institutions like CEU receive authorization from US federal authorities appears not to understand the US Constitution. US law clearly gives authority for higher education to the states. “
— CEU’s statement about Lex CEU
But the man wants to sit down with his idol. If you want something, you have to come to me now. Government functionaries actually keep repeating exactly this on every available platform.
Orbán is trying to circumvent the EU and hopes to strike bilateral deals with Trump – both in trade and defense. And seriously believes it can be better than being part of a 500 million single market and NATO. He acts as if their shared belief in populism would be enough to get a better deal for the country.
Or maybe he just wants a better deal for his family – like Trump does.
Paranoia and conspiracy theories are also becoming official policy
It also looks likely that Fidesz’ paranoia about “foreign powers undermining the regime” is not just showmanship anymore.
A leaked internal memo for Fidesz members (on what to say to the press) reads:
“It is in Hungary’s interest to have as many internationally acclaimed, autonomous higher educational institutions in order to enhance the Hungarian knowledge-capital, but it is not in Hungary’s interest to allow international attempts to influence and undermine, to attempt the subvert of the legally elected prime minister and president.“
— Leaked government memo, emphasis their own.
The week Lex CEU was passed, another piece of legislation was also tabled: about listing foreign-funded NGOs, Russia-style.
At the same time, the central bank governor started a completely unnecessary attack on the US, claiming that they are somehow behind the unraveling of the biggest Ponzi-scheme in Hungarian history. In order to overthrow the government. No one was accusing him of anything right now – at least not about this particular case.
Conspiracy theories fall on fertile ground in the minds of strongmen who gained power by very similar moves: by threats and blackmail and collecting kompromat.
Finally, Lex CEU also serves as an attempt to win back the political agenda, and find a suitable confrontation in which Orbán can thrive a year before elections. Ever since a youth movement humiliated Orbán’s monumental corruption plans to host the 2024 Olympics, there has been no new communication flash bomb that worked.
Orbán tested and threw in the lame issue of varying product quality within the EU despite regulations – while at the same time launched a shameful campaign to bash the EU. But neither provoked as much satisfactory outrage as Lex CEU. Because for Orbán, tens of thousands on the streets protesting are nothing to worry about. It is even good to mobilize his own followers.
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