VIENNA — Forced out of Hungary, Central European University marked its relocation to Vienna on Friday with a bittersweet ceremony that amounted to a victory for Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban, in his campaign against liberal values.
Founded and endowed after the fall of the Iron Curtain by George Soros, the billionaire financier and philanthropist, the university promoted democracy and liberal thought in a region where they had been suppressed for a century under fascism and communism.
But it ran afoul of Orban’s increasingly authoritarian and nativist government, which has turned Soros — a Jew who was born and raised in Hungary, but has lived most of his life in the West — into a kind of all-purpose boogeyman.
Soros announced Friday that his Open Society Foundations had committed 750 million euros, about $825 million, to an effort by Central European University and Bard College in New York to build a global network for colleges and universities to work together and support each other.
Orban has changed Hungary’s laws and political environment in ways that have silenced independent voices by making it steadily harder for the university and other civil society institutions to operate. More than seven decades after its founder decided to leave Hungary, the university was forced to do the same.
Central European University will maintain a presence in Budapest, Hungary, “out of a sense of moral obligation” because of the support it has received there, Soros said in an interview Friday as it formally inaugurated its new Austrian home. The move will be a gradual one, starting with a small number of programs but with most programs scheduled to be based in Vienna by autumn 2020.
Soros has for decades poured money into Eastern Europe, supporting civil society organizations, sponsoring research and promoting the transition to open, pluralist democracy. But that project has run headlong into the growing power of autocratic and nationalist right-wing movements across Europe, particularly in Hungary.
“Under Viktor Orban’s autocratic rule, no independent institutions are tolerated,” said Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of international affairs and sociology at Princeton. “So it was only a matter of time before Orban’s attention turned to CEU.”
In 1989, Soros funded scholarships for Orban, then a rabble-rousing young liberal from provincial Hungary, and in 1993, the fledgling university he founded put down roots in Budapest.
The university took pride in attracting émigré Hungarian scholars back to their native land to teach and research. It has almost 17,000 alumni, faculty from more than 40 countries and students from more than 100.
The university estimates that it contributed almost 24 million euros annually to the Hungarian economy, a benefit that will now go to Austria.
Orban served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002 but had moved far to the right by the time his party, Fidesz, returned to power in 2010. He has said he is on a mission to build an “illiberal democracy,” and similar shifts have occurred to varying degrees in several eastern European countries.
Orban has sharply curtailed the independence of the courts and Hungary’s prosecution service. Nearly all of the Hungarian media is now under the control of allies beholden to him. His government has rewritten election laws to favor Fidesz, and opposition parties are routinely under pressure from state authorities.
As Orban has cemented control over Hungary, his government has stepped up attacks against critics. It has demonized immigrants, curbed academic freedom and assailed international structures like the European Union as threats to Hungarian sovereignty.
The U.S. ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, has said that Central European University’s clashes with the state boil down to a personal conflict between Orban and Soros.
Soros rejected that description vehemently, adding, “Orban would love to make it a personal issue between us.”
The Hungarian leader is not ideological, he said in the interview, arguing that Orban uses nationalism as a tool to hold power and cover for systemic corruption.
“He’s an ambitious man, and in the course of gaining power he developed a system of enriching himself and his assistants,” he said.
Soros has for years been the target of sweeping state-funded propaganda campaigns that tap into anti-Semitic tropes reminiscent of the interwar period. The Hungarian government has blanketed the country in ads featuring a black-and-white photo of Soros, with text reading, “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh.”
In 2016, Orban said: “The next year will be about squeezing out Soros and the powers that he symbolizes.”
The government enacted legislation that targeted civil society groups that receive foreign funding — many of them beneficiaries of Open Society Foundations, which was forced to stop operating in Hungary — and made Central European University’s future in the country uncertain.
Changes in law created an assortment of new requirements for foreign universities operating in Hungary and specifically took issue with U.S. degrees issued by Central European University, which is incorporated and accredited in New York.
The university’s efforts to come into compliance with the law were in vain, despite bipartisan backing in Congress and statements of support from the State Department. An agreement between Orban’s government and the state of New York, which might have allowed the university to remain in Budapest, was never signed by the government.
Last December, the university announced it had to leave and would move its headquarters and the bulk of its operations to Vienna.
Even so, Soros, who reminisced about his father teaching him to ski in the hills outside of Budapest, said, “I have always had a special spot for my native Hungary.”