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Feature 18 Apr 17

Balkan Students Join Battle to Save ‘Soros University’

As the Hungarian government tightens the noose around the CEU, current or former CEU students from Balkan countries have joined the international outcry.

Maja Zivanovic, Sven Milekic, Maria Cheresheva
BIRN
Belgrade, Zagreb, Sofia
Tamara Kolaric (second from the right) holding her VETO against passing the law up high. Photo: curtousy of Stefan Roch

Rastislav Dinic, an assistant at the Faculty of Philosophy in the Serbian city of Nis who studied political sciences and philosophy at theCentral European University between 2006 and 2010, has joined the international campaign to save the threatened university in Budapest.

“It's hard to misjudge the importance of this experience for my education and intellectual maturation. Not only did I have the opportunity to attend lectures from top experts but also to meet colleagues of different nationalities and interests with whom I still keep in touch,” he told BIRN.

The save-CEU movement started after the Hungary’s parliament, controlled by Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party, passed a law tightening controls over universities in terms of registration.

Calls for action:

In an open letter to Bulgarian MEPs in the European People’s Party, EPP, the centre-right bloc to which Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party belongs, Bulgarian students and alumni from CEU have urged them to support the threatened academic institution.

“You and your colleagues have a moral duty to come up with a common position in support of the CEU,” they wrote on April 7, calling on MEPs to prove they are ready to protect “European values, principles and norms”.

Currently, 22 Bulgarian students are enrolled in CEU programs, while the total number of Bulgarian alumni of the university number over 150.

In Croatia, 55 opposition MPs on April 7 signed an appeal to Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic to invite the CEU to move to Croatia – an idea that was apparently floated in the 1990s but was opposed by the nationalist then President Franjo Tudjman.

In Romania, mayors of cities in western Romanian have also invited the CEU to move there, partly due to the large number of Romanian students at the university.

Earlier this month, it was reported that Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern was negotiating to move the CEU to Vienna. 

In Croatia, during Hungarian President Ader’s visit to Zagreb on Thursday, rights activists gathered in front of the Hungarian Institute and protested holding signs against Hungary’s moves written in Hungarian.

However, there have also been counter-moves in support of Orban. A Madrid-based conservative advocacy group, CitizenGO, on April 10 started an online petition in Croatian calling on the petitioners not to support the opposition MPs, gathering almost 2,000 signatures in three days.

In the petition, CitizenGO notes that Soros-financed NGOs have already been curbed or banned completely in Poland, Russia and Macedonia.

They call on the Croatian government “to conduct an investigation of organisations funded by Soros and, if necessary, ban the work of civil society organisations funded with his money”.

 

Although the law affects various universities, it is generally accepted that Orban’s main target is the CEU, which the billionaire Hungarian-born financier george Soros founded and endowed.

Orban’s hostility to Soros, seen as a propagator of liberal, anti-nationalist values, is well known.

In the past, the CEU functioned as a partially American institution, to avoid coming under the control of the Hungarian state.

The new law orders the CEU to set up an American campus if it wishes to retain part-American status. If not, it will effectively prevent the CEU from enrolling students from 2018.

Orban told national radio on March 31 that the “Soros university” had enjoyed an “unfair advantage” and accused the CEU of operating outside of the system. “In Hungary, one cannot be above the law, even if you’re a billionaire”, he added, clearly pointing to Soros.

Despite complaints and protests, Hungarian President Janos Ander ratified the new law on April 10.

Dinic said this was not only an attack on an important educational institutions but also a blow to Hungary.

“No one who really cares about Hungarian culture would expel an institution that not only opens up this culture to the world but also allows for meetings and the rapprochement of educated people from around the world with it [Hungarian culture],” he said.

“The regime in Budapest has shown it doesn’t care about the welfare of Hungary and its culture but only about consolidating its power, which is leading to the suppression of freedom of critical thought and speech,” he added.

It was not only international students at CEU who have protested against the state’s decision but thousands of Hungarians who hit the streets of Budapest in recent weeks.

One foreign-born resident of Budapest who joined the protest was 33-year-old PhD candidate Tamara Kolaric from Zagreb.

She enrolled for an MA in political sciences at CEU in 2008 and moved to Budapest full time in 2011 when she enrolled in the PhD program at the University.

Jana Kujundzic receiving her diploma on CEU. Photo: curtousy of Jana Kujundzic

“It should not surprise anyone that CEU, a space for free thought and argument-based debate, would eventually become the target of a leadership that prides itself on twisting facts and shamelessly re-framing important debates so as to spread panic, and thriving on reclaiming an old-fashioned concept of sovereignty,” she told BIRN.

The CEU, she said, “is not a ‘liberal conspiracy’. It is the production of knowledge – and by taking it away, you are taking away the future of your youth,” Kolaric said.

“I even met my partner in the MA program. I grew up academically here; I learned how to expand my academic horizons,” she explained.

She believes that the CEU has left a signficiant imprint on Croatia and on the rest of the region, since many prominent intellectuals from the region are CEU graduates.

The university has played a role in post-communist societies by offering a place for studies of such sensitive or neglected issues as nationalism or gender politics, she maintains.

This has allowed people to slowly start rethinking “what has happened in our societies in the 1990s and how we can move forward, while also recognising the deeper structural issues that were previously ignored”, she told BIRN.

Another former CEU student from Zagreb, Jana Kujundzic, 27, today works as a project coordinator at Brave Telephone, a Zagreb-based NGO helping victims of violence.

In the 2013/14 academic year, she studied gender studies at the CEU, successfully defending an MA thesis on wartime sexual violence in Croatia.

Daniel Penev also joined the protests. Photo: curtousy of Daniel Penev

“For me, CEU was a fantastic experience … I spent a year there, learning a lot; it was definitely a life-changing experience,” she told BIRN.

“It made me think critically, which I wasn’t generally encouraged to do in my Faculty in Zagreb,” she said, adding that CEU offered "a broader picture” than the one that could be seen from the local perspective.

Kujundzic explained that at CEU students had an opportunity to learn about criticisms of capitalism and neo-liberalism, the fall of socialism, the events that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and about patriarchy – approaches she considers non-mainstream in general.

“My studies there were extremely important for me because in Croatia there are no gender studies as such,” Kujundzic noted.

She said she was shocked – but not surprised – by the move of the Hungarian authorities.

“It would be such a shame if something like this vanished, a world-class university, offering such scholarships … This is important because not everyone can afford to go and study in Sweden or England if they don’t get full scholarships, which is very hard,” she said.

Daniel Penev, a Bulgarian student pursuing a MA in international relations at CEU, said he was disappointed by the failure of local and EU politicians to respond to the government's assault.

“Remaining silent when democratic freedoms and values are being brutally violated is equivalent to acquiescence,” he told BIRN.

Penev said the CEU was hugely important for the Balkan region as it offered students from Balkan countries a high-quality education just a few hundred miles away from their homelands.

“Once they finish at CEU, the students from Balkans can easily return back home and use their knowledge, skills, and connections to the benefit of their home societies,” he explained.

“This not only prevents the brain drain that so many people are talking about these days but makes these societies more democratic, open, connected and economically versatile,” he concluded.

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