Pressure is mounting on Hungary’s right-wing government after it adopted a law that would effectively shut down Central European University, an institution founded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros shortly after the fall of Communism.
An American official and a United Nations expert on Tuesday joined European Union officials in expressing grave concern about the law, which was rushed through Parliament by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Budapest on Sunday to urge President Janos Ader not to sign the law, but on Monday he did just that.
The new law requires, among other things, that foreign-accredited universities provide higher education services in their own countries — meaning the United States in the case of Central European University.
Observers say the law is part of a clampdown on free expression and an effort to create a powerful enemy — in this case, Mr. Soros, a financier who embodies, for Mr. Orban, the influence of global capitalism.
“Almost the only success story the government has at home, I think, is that it built a fence and is not letting in migrants,” said Andras Loke, president of the board of Transparency International’s branch in Hungary, referring to Mr. Orban’s hard-line policy on refugees. “That is to say the people like it, and they say, ‘Finally, somebody has done it.’”
Mr. Orban has also embraced the term “illiberal democracy,” essentially arguing that majority rule is more important than minority rights. “Here is a government that proclaims itself as illiberal, and if it says it’s illiberal, liberals are its natural enemy, especially if they are backed by funds the government has no control over,” Mr. Loke said, referring to organizations funded by Mr. Soros.
The Soros Foundation and later the Open Society Foundations, both founded by Mr. Soros, have financed projects in Hungary and the region in areas like health care and the study of democracy. Some of dthe organizations have found themselves — unwillingly — at the center of attention and framed as part of the opposition.
In pointing out corruption and the erosion of freedoms under Mr. Orban’s government, nongovernmental organizations are simply doing what they have always done, said Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, an opposition lawmaker who in the 1990s was a member of Fidesz, Mr. Orban’s conservative political party. “They don’t see themselves as opposition or political organizations, but as civil rights defenders.”
In the last two years, Ms. Szelenyi said, the government has advanced a “conspiracy theory” arguing that Mr. Soros, who “embodies global capital, has been exerting his influence, through his money, in the entire world.”
Criticism of the law aimed at the university, which has nearly 1,800 students from more than 100 countries and about 370 faculty members, came from several directions on Tuesday.
David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression, said it was “likely to violate the central precepts of academic freedom in a free society.”
An American official, Hoyt Brian Yee, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, also raised concerns, telling Reuters that the law focused on “this important American-Hungarian institution.”
Members of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body, are to discuss the subject on Wednesday in Brussels. They are also expected to talk, more broadly, about efforts by Mr. Orban’s government to curb the authority of the European Union in areas like immigration and the economy.
Vera Jourova, the European Union’s commissioner for justice, said on Monday that, while the law seemed neutral on its face, it was clearly aimed at one university — a criticism that Mr. Kaye echoed on Tuesday.
“The law must be general, but this is a rather legalistic approach,” Ms. Jourova told reporters, warning that Hungary had also moved “to decrease the power and the influence of civil society” and to inhibit “political pluralism,” or the free expression of multiple and competing positions.
Ms. Jourova offered her support to groups resisting the law. “I’m happy to see that the people there are courageous, open, vocal and visible,” she said, a reference to the protests.
But the criticism, especially from Europe, appeared to do little to persuade many Hungarians. Streets and public transportation were full of billboards saying “Let’s Stop Brussels.” The government has turned to nationalist speech in recent years to resist the European Union in areas like migration policy.
“I myself do not believe that any administrative steps or infringements or other measures taken by the European Commission in relation or against some member state will help a lot,” Ms. Jourova said, acknowledging that governments in some member states often ignore legal steps taken by Europe for as long as possible.
To a large extent, it “must be the people” who push back against illiberalism, she said.
In Hungary, the protests have continued, though on a smaller scale than over the weekend. A few hundred people gathered in front of the presidential palace Monday night to support the university, and another rally was planned for Wednesday night.
The country’s top official in charge of education, Laszlo Palkovics, traveled to Brussels, where the European Union has its headquarters, on Tuesday to clarify Hungary’s position with Europe. In a statement from his ministry, he said, “We trust that Brussels will not assist the deceptive Soros campaign and will be capable of forming an objective and unbiased opinion that is free of political interests.”
Michael Ignatieff, Central European University’s president and rector, and a scholar of human rights, said in a statement on Monday: “As I have said before, we are willing to sit down with the Hungarian government to find a solution to enable C.E.U. to stay in Budapest and operate as we have done for 25 years. However, academic freedom is not negotiable. It is a principle that must form the basis of any future agreement.”
Mr. Orban’s government seems unmoved by the criticism. His allies are not hiding their contempt for Mr. Soros.
“George Soros’s thinking on migration is sharply opposed to that of the Hungarian government,” Lajos Kosa, head of Fidesz’s bloc in Parliament, said Tuesday on a morning television show. “We are saying, ‘Let’s stop migration,’ and Soros is saying, ‘Let in as many as possible.’ And he will do everything — including money and energy — to destabilize and weaken those governments who oppose his thinking.”