The Central European University may have been an American institution, but for many Hungarians, it represented a bright future for young Hungarians. Now it has been lost to Budapest forever.
By Rafael Labanino
The Central European University (CEU) is my university - and now it will be lost forever. Yes, the CEU will survive as an institution when it moves to Vienna but it will have lost its soul along the way. Let me explain.
I decided that I had to study at the CEU when I used its uniquely equipped library – which was free for students from other universities to use - for the first time over a decade ago.
I cannot remember which book I read. What I can remember though is that the CEU enthralled me: young, intelligent people from around the world seemed to be having interesting discussions with each other and their professors mostly in English - the language of the university - but also in other languages such as Russian, Hungarian, Romanian and Serbo-Croatian. I instantly wanted to belong to this community.
In a year that changed my life, I eventually studied political science at the CEU. I found a new research area (which I have been working on ever since), I learned the necessary criteria to make scientifically relevant claims and I learnt English. At the CEU, a new world - new authors, new perspectives - opened up for me. At the CEU, I lived in an international, multicultural, interdisciplinary and multilingual community; all of this thanks to a tuition waiver and a scholarship as with most of students from Central and Eastern Europe.
An institution of such quality and broad perspectives, with such a tolerant and diverse community, does not have a place in Orbán’s Hungary.
Although an American university, for me, the CEU has never represented the West; rather it showed what Hungary - indeed what Central and Eastern Europe - could have been in reality had it not been ripped apart by two world wars, genocide and several subsequent murderous, tyrannical regimes. Too many Central and Eastern Europeans had to leave their homeland during the 20th century to be able to live up to their potential - or even just to stay alive. Too many perished.
Between 1989 and 1990, our parents believed that all of this was finally over. They thought that the nations of Central and Eastern Europe could at last take the opportunity that they missed; partly because of the interests of the great powers and sadly, partly because of the siren songs of their own nationalist movements after the end of World War I. By the early to mid 2000s, after the deep social and economic crisis of the 1990s, after semi-authoritarian governments in many countries and after genocidal wars in the former Yugoslavia, it seemed as if the post-communist transition would really make good on its promise.
Now it seems that it did not. Due to EU membership, an escape route out has never been so easily accessible. Millions of Central and Eastern Europeans, among them hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, have already left and are still leaving for Western Europe.
For the past 8 years, my home country has been gradually vanishing. My Hungary is being purposefully dismantled. A country is not equal to the sum of the terrain and the buildings within an imaginary boundary but of institutions, professional, cultural and civil communities. A country is its people; each and every one of us.
Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party are gradually dismantling everything that is important to me; everything that I identified my country with – newspapers, theatres, schools, universities, clubs, associations, foundations, statues, and with them, the communities that created them and were created and sustained by them. They deny, smear, and falsify everything that is important for me from the history of my country. Orbán and his cronies exclude half the country from the nation.
The CEU in Vienna will not be the same because it cannot be what it was in Budapest. It will continue to be a world-class university. Indeed, it might easily be better as it is much easier to attract students and professors to Vienna than to Budapest. But that CEU was a very particular and special institution that embodied a Central and Eastern Europe; one that always existed only as a possibility but still represented by the best of us. Despite being an English language institution, it was a Budapester and Hungarian university - and will be lost forever.
Of course, the moving of the CEU is only the effect and not the cause. It is a symbol of the wasting of yet another historic opportunity. In Central and Eastern Europe, all of our family histories are full of tragedies, of perpetrators and victims (often the same person), of émigrés, of those who could never live up to their potential because of political and/or economic circumstances, and this will not change in the foreseeable future.
The Central and Eastern Europe for which so many fought in October 1956 in Hungary, in the spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, in 1981 in Poland, and throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 will remain unrealised. In our lifetime, we can only fight for it - and must fight for it - to become a possibility once again for the coming generations.
Rafael Labanino is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Political Science at the Goethe University Frankfurt.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.