Thousands in Hungary march in support of Soros-backed university
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Thousands in Hungary march in support of Soros-backed university

Demonstrators in Budapest protest Orban government’s efforts to shutter Central European University, say academic freedom at risk

Protesters hold a banner reading 'Free country, free university' in Budapest on November 24, 2018. ( ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)
Protesters hold a banner reading 'Free country, free university' in Budapest on November 24, 2018. ( ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Thousands of people took part Saturday in a student rally in the Hungarian capital of Budapest to protest against government policies that may force a university founded by US billionaire George Soros to leave the country.

The government says the embattled Central European University (CEU), chartered in the US state of New York, has not yet met the requirements of a law passed last year requiring foreign universities to have a campus in their home country.

The legal dispute is part of a wider campaign waged by Budapest in recent years against the Hungarian-born Soros, 88, accused by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of stoking illegal immigration.

“No university can last in limbo for long,” said Petra Kornel, 18, one of around 2,000 students who took part in the march in Budapest.

Protester march in support of Central European University in Budapest on November 24, 2018. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

The bill’s adoption, seen 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.

CEU says it has complied with the law by opening a facility in New York State that US regulators have confirmed as hosting educational activities.

But a government spokesperson last week called the American site “a Potemkin campus” that fails to satisfy the law.

George Soros speaking in Berlin, September 10, 2012. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images via JTA)

Set up by Soros in 1991 to foster democratic values in post-communist countries, the university’s rector, Canadian author and academic Michael Ignatieff, said last month it had had enough of “legal uncertainty” and that from 2019 it would admit students to a new Vienna campus if no agreement was reached by December 1.

“You will bear responsibility for the harm that your decisions will do to Hungary’s higher education system and to the country’s international reputation,” Ignatieff said last week in an open letter to the government.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto accused Ignatieff Saturday of “political hysteria”.

Attracting students from over 100 countries and mainly offering US-accredited masters programs, CEU has long been regarded by the nationalist Orban as a hostile bastion of liberalism.

In this photo from April 9, 2017, demonstrators hold posters as they protest against the efforts to close Central European University in Budapest, as part of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s plan to transform Hungary. (Janos Marjai/MTI via AP, file)

Soros’s Open Society Foundation invests heavily in promoting liberal democratic values and human rights work.

A frequent bogeyman of the right, Soros has been repeatedly targeted by Orban’s government, which has been widely assailed for using barely disguised anti-Semitic tropes and Islamophobia in its campaigns.

A billboard with a poster of Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros with the words ‘National consultation about the Soros plan – Don’t let it pass without any words’ is seen in Budapest on October 16, 2017. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP)

Billboards and full-page newspaper advertisements in Hungary pictured the billionaire laughing and contained the words: “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh.” Some attached graffiti saying “Stinking Jew.”

Open Society said the posters “invoked anti-Semitic imagery from World War II.”

Hungarian Jewish groups appealed to Orban to call off the campaign, which the government vehemently denied was anti-Semitic.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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