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Soros-founded university says ‘forced out of Budapest’

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Agence France-Presse

Hungary’s renowned Central European University announced Monday it had been “forced” to move its most prestigious studies to Vienna after a long and bitter legal battle with Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.

“CEU has been forced out,” Michael Ignatieff, rector of the university founded by US-Hungarian billionaire George Soros, said in a statement.

Set up in 1991 and chartered in the state of New York, the CEU says it was the target of a law passed in April 2017 that placed tough requirements on foreign universities.

Despite taking steps to comply with the new rules, the university said the government still did not yield.

The move is widely seen as part of a wider campaign waged by Budapest in recent years against Soros, 88, who Orban says is orchestrating migration flows.

“This is unprecedented. A US institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally,” said Ignatieff.

The Canadian author and academic said in October that the CEU had had enough of “legal uncertainty” and set a deadline of December 1 for the government to let the university continue to operate.

That date passed without agreement and on Monday the university announced it would begin teaching all its US-accredited programmes at a new site in Vienna as of September 2019.

Vladimir, a 22-year-old CEU student from Russia, said the university’s fate reminded him of how the Russian government had treated a similar institution in St Petersburg.

“Even in Russia, the university was finally given a licence and it can operate now, but here it cannot — that says a lot about Hungary,” he told AFP.

The CEU will keep its Budapest campus and those students who have enrolled there will be able to complete their studies.

It said it also “retains accreditation as a Hungarian university and will seek to continue teaching and research activity in Budapest as long as possible”.

However it is the institution’s US-accredited masters programmes which have done most to attract students from over 100 countries to the CEU, which has long been regarded by the nationalist Orban as a hostile bastion of liberalism.

– Anti-Soros campaign –
Last week, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto insisted in an interview with AFP that the CEU dispute was a purely “legal issue”.

The government said the law was originally brought in as the CEU had an “unfair advantage” over other universities by offering degrees accredited in two countries.

But last year’s education law — denounced by critics as a blow against academic freedom — was cited in a recent scathing EU report on Hungary that prompted the European Parliament to launch unprecedented so-called “Article 7” legal action against Budapest in September.

A “Stop Soros” legal package passed this year targets human rights groups that Orban accuses of being a front for migration.

The laws include a special tax on NGO activities and even potential jail terms for staff deemed to be helping illegal migrants.

In August, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) run by Soros shut down most of their operations in Budapest and moved to Berlin, citing the government’s “repressive” policies.