VIENNA (Reuters) – Billionaire George Soros opened the new main campus of his Central European University in Vienna on Friday, saying it would not halt its struggle to defend academic freedom from Viktor Orban, the right wing leader he says hounded it from Hungary.
CEU’s decision last year to move the bulk of its courses out of Hungary followed a long struggle between Hungarian-born Soros, who promotes liberal causes through his charities, and Orban’s anti-immigrant government.
Since it was founded by Soros in 1991, CEU has been a gateway to the West for thousands of students from eastern Europe, offering U.S.-accredited graduate degree programmes in an academic climate that celebrates free thought.
But after sustained public campaigns to vilify Soros, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party changed the law in 2017 to ban foreign-registered universities that do not also offer courses in their home country.
“CEU has steadfastly defended the principle of academic freedom against a concentrated attack by the corrupt government of Viktor Orban, who was hellbent to destroy it,” Soros said at the inauguration of CEU’s Vienna campus.
“CEU’s epic struggle against the repressive regime generated worldwide support. That struggle is still ongoing,” he added.
The university has moved its U.S.-accredited courses to Vienna. It has maintained a presence in Budapest, which Soros said was in recognition of the support shown by other academics.
The move to Vienna was supported by the city’s left-wing government led by Mayor Michael Ludwig of the Social Democrats.
“An academic institution was told that it was no longer welcome in a nation’s capital city,” Ludwig said, describing the situation as “something that I believe to be unthinkable and should in fact have no place in a united Europe”.
The European Union has long criticised Orban and his Fidesz party for policies it says threaten the rule of law by imposing party control over the judiciary, media and other institutions.
Many European politicians have also condemned Orban’s attacks on Soros, who is Jewish, as anti-Semitic. Fidesz rejects those accusations.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Peter Graff)