BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Some 70,000 people rallied in Budapest Sunday in support of a local university founded by American billionaire George Soros that is seen as a target for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s illiberal policies.
The Hungarian-born Soros founded Central European University in 1991. Amendments to Hungary’s higher education law approved this week could force it to close or move.
The law, rushed through Parliament in less than a week, would require CEU to change its name and open a campus in the United States. It also calls for binding agreements about the university between Hungary and the United States.
CEU is accredited in New York state and in Hungary and students can earn degrees valid in both countries. The university currently enrolls over 1,400 students from 108 countries.
The U.S. State Department has expressed its concerns about the legislation and CEU’s ability to continue operating in Hungary. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Yee will be in Budapest on Monday to meet with government officials, in part to discuss CEU. Yee is also expected to meet with authorities from the university.
Protesters filling Kossuth Square outside Parliament said they want President Janos Ader to veto the legislation. It was the largest anti-government protest in years. Ader, from Orban’s governing Fidesz party, was re-elected by lawmakers for a five-year term in March.
“Don’t sign it, Jani,” the crowd chanted, using a Hungarian nickname for Ader’s first name. Other chants included “A free country, a free university,” ”Orban get out,” ”Viktator!” and “Europe, Europe.”
“There are moments in the career of every politician when they have a chance to prove that they are public servants, that they are not just foot soldiers of their party but statesmen,” CEU student Daniel Berg told the crowd. “The country where the government closes schools cannot succeed.”
After the main rally, hundreds of protesters marched to the nearby Ministry of Human Resources, which oversees education, and later to the headquarters of Orban’s governing Fidesz party, located near Heroes Square.
Police lines stopped the march near the party headquarters. Some people pushed up against police in riot gear but could not break through.
“We don’t want to resort to violence, but you can’t stop us,” one protester said through a megaphone.
Orban’s plans for an “illiberal state” contrast with Soros’ “open society” ideal.
Orban alleges that non-governmental organizations supported by Soros, including corruption watchdog Transparency International and rights advocate Hungarian Helsinki Committee, are “foreign agents” working against Hungarian interests.
A law expected to be passed in May would force NGOs getting more than 7.2 million forints ($24,500) a year from abroad to register with authorities.