Early in April, the Hungarian parliament, tightly controlled by the country’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, passed a law aimed at forcing the closure of Budapest’s independent and prestigious Central European University. International criticism of the Hungarian law has been unprecedentedly severe – and that’s saying a lot, given the harsh criticisms Viktor Orbán’s government has received in recent years. The President of Germany has spoken out publicly in defense of CEU, and even President Trump’s State Department issued a critical statement. Meanwhile American news outlets, from the mainstream New York Times and Washington Post, to the conservative leaning American Interest and the leftist Vox, have all covered the story critically.
The severity of the criticism mirrors the brazenness of the law. Although Viktor Orbán has been chipping away at democratic institutions since assuming power in 2010, this newest attack on Hungary’s most prestigious university, a symbol of Hungarian-American friendship, and bastion of high caliber intellectual inquiry, has crossed a line so obvious that even Hungary’s apologists are at a loss for words. If in the past Orbán could work to explain away suspicious legislation, he has been unable to produce even the most superficially plausible explanation for “Lex CEU.” The most frequently offered explanation, namely, that the CEU is the instrument of a world-wide liberal conspiracy orchestrated by the rich, evil genius of Jewish descent, George Soros, is too outrageous to dupe even the most gullible foreign observer. North and West of the Danube, Hungary is universally perceived as an autocratic regime. Freedom House now ranks Hungarian democracy below both Bulgaria and Romania.
To be sure, none of this bothers Viktor Orbán. Emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, Orbán sees a chance to wipe away the last vestiges of Hungarian democracy. Surrounded by flatterers and sycophants, he may even believe he’s a political genius, riding the crest of historic global changes, a man who can now refashion Hungary without the constraints imposed by the international community. In addition to Lex CEU, Orbán has also introduced Putinesque legislation that will force NGO’s in Hungary to register as foreign agents. Over the next few years, as the European Union reconfigures and the flow of money dries up, Orbán will be free, if he wants, to take Hungary out of the EU without facing serious domestic opposition.
And, surveying the contemporary political scene, one sees little reason to suspect Orbán’s deepest fantasies will fall short. The international climate appears conducive to them. President Trump, judged by his public statements, is uninterested in Europe and unconcerned about international democratic norms. The European Union, which has always been an inefficient political body, faces a series of internal challenges that threaten its very existence. And the Hungarian people so far have been either unable or unwilling to resist the steady encroachment on their liberties by a kleptocratic government far more interested in its hold on power than weal of the nation.
Thousands of years ago, the people of ancient Israel demanded that they be given a king to protect them from foreign powers. Samuel, the prophet, warned that even their own king would enslave them, no differently than a foreign one. To be free, Samuel said, the people must rely on themselves. But they refused to listen, demanding a leader to “go out before us and fight our battles.” When after centuries of misrule by unfaithful leaders, their kingdom was destroyed by a foreign power, the people did not look within, but blamed others, and continued to search for a true ruler who could vanquish their enemies. Yet when that true king was finally born, He was forced to flee the people’s king, Herod, to seek refuge in the land of the enemy, Egypt. The true king had come to save the people from themselves.
Having being ruled for centuries by someone else, the people of Hungary are finally free to govern themselves. Now more than ever their future rests in their hands. Yet those who are free can also slip into servitude. To succeed in the conquest of freedom, they, like all of us, will need to rely on themselves.