A few things to watch out for in the Orbán vs. CEU war:
I’ve been saying this for a long time: The opposition cannot defeat Orbán. But Orbán can defeat himself. He think so, too. He reminded his followers many times that any lapse in paranoia can lead to a sense of false security – and thus to losing. He lost in 2002 exactly because of such a lapse in caution. He never forgot that lesson.
But there are things in his way of exercising power that set him up to exactly this kind of failure. Firstly, he has a constant need for confrontation. He thrives in it. He picks his own fights. He is better at it than any other politician (and I do not wish the others to get any better). Secondly, there is his complete detachment and lack of feedback from the outside world. He is known to be irritated with naysayers and critiques, and surrounded himself with only a handful of people who would only ever say yes. No one else can talk to him. Lastly, he cannot handle defeat, Any retreat, no matter how small or how rational, provokes an insatiable desire to strike back. And that is when he makes mistakes.
So when Momentum, a youth movement, defeated his Olympic delusions out of the blue – I reached for the popcorn. He was clearly unprepared. He was clearly furious. Momentum snuck through the cracks – as evidenced by the fact that even the Fidesz propaganda machine took weeks to dig up some (lame) dirt on them. And Fidesz was slow to deliver its usual communication flash bomb to distract from that fiasco.
Orbán picked on CEU right now because he wanted to finally get the attention of Trump. It is a crucial battle for Orbán. Not because of a university, but because of his hurt pride. He may have miscalculated the risk – especially the risk of the international waters into which he threw a stone with Lex CEU. He started kicking CEU because he wanted to gain a meeting with Trump. And even if Lex CEU fails to deliver the coveted bro-on-bro meeting, Orbán can not afford to let CEU live.
5 reasons Orbán cannot give up this fight:
- He already said things that would be hard to take back – even CEUs rector admitted that much.
- Worse, he had recently lost a battle he didn’t know he was having. They were so confident about hosting the 2024 Olympics despite its unpopularity – they were taken by surprise when a new movement mobilized public opinion against them.
- This has been the biggest incident to this date. It is in an row of retreats – all bigger and more consequential then the one before:
- Orbán had to let go his favourite president over a plagiarism scandal – even though he really didn’t want to. But that guy was only symbolic.
- They had to retreat from their plans to tax the internetz. But that was just a (stupid) plan to collect more money, not an ideologically motivated move. They went on to tax something else.
- He had to withdraw the Sunday closure of retail stores because it was so unpopular, it threatened to give the opposition a winning referendum question. He had a lot of skin in this game, the subject aggravated so many players for so long, and Orbán bathed in the public anger over the move. Bullying a whole country with something so petty just because he could do it – that’s an autocrat’s way to silence potential future dissent and trigger the sense of helplessness. It actually makes him stronger.
- He had to let go of the Olympics a few weeks ago.
- After that, Orbán simply cannot afford to lose another battle. He picked this fight with CEU right now, and he cannot retreat on something he so openly demanded.
- This may not even be his own idea. He hates Soros for sure. But the closure of the CEU along with the Russian-style foreign agent law proposed right after Lex CEU are clear Russian influences.
And why it might backfire:
His desperation to meet Trump seems to be innate – not suggested by Russians. (Putin obviously has his own links to Trump, he doesn’t need to dispatch a minion like Orbán.) Orbán may seriously believe that his time has come, now that the US elected an ethnic populist and economic protectionist as president. Flirting with Steve Bannon also points in this direction.
The wording of Lex CEU and the following government interviews all confirm that Orbán now wants to meet Trump. But…
- Trump may or may not be willing to expose himself with yet another Russian stooge.
- He may or may not be aware that Hungary exists – and if he was, he could find no use for it.
- And the timing couldn’t be worse. Even if the Putin-Trump constellation would be in Orbán’s favour, it seems to be dissolving after the bombing of Syria. Which soured the much hoped for US-Russia reconciliation on Russia’s terms.
- Soros may be every autocrat’s favourite scapegoat, but American universities elsewhere in the world would also come under fire if CEU were let go easily.
- Orbán’s Fidesz is a member of EPP in the European Parliament. It is his main use for Putin as well as his main point of influence, because EPP serves as an opportunity to meet European leaders. Even those, who find him too toxic to meet one-on-one. Losing that opportunity might sideline Orbán in Europe.
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