The Hungarian prime minister is completing his authoritarian hybrid regime at a rapid speed: the government is about to dismantle the Hungarian Science Academy a lá the Russian method.

 

According to the annual ranking by the US-based NGO Freedom House, Hungary has be downgraded to a “partly free” country after having suffered the largest fall in the history of the survey.

With the magnitude of its democratic backsliding, Hungary represents a unique model in the European Union and has become part of an ever-expanding club of autocratic countries such as Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Singapore.

Unsurprisingly, the Fidesz government has immediately condemned the report by saying that Freedom House is an agent of George Soros that is attacking Hungary because “the Hungarian people do not want to accept migrants”.

With most of the Hungarian media outlets already captured by the government, this conspiracy theory could overshadow the fact that the Orbán regime has turned its dissecting, critical eye towards one of the country’s last autonomous institutions.

End of an era

The very principle of academic freedom is seriously being compromised again in Hungary as the Hungarian Science Academy (Magyar Tudományos Akadémia {MTA}) has come under imminent threat.

László Palkovics, photo from hvg

Recently, the Central European University had to move most of its programmes from Budapest to Vienna, and now the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has become the subject of a structural reorganisation by the government which will lead to the complete loss of academic independence for the academy specifically and for scholarship in Hungary in general.

The realignment started this past May when the Hungarian government created a new ministry, the so-called Ministry for Innovation and Technology, led by Minister László Palkovics. Then, in July, 70% of the budget of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for 2019 was suddenly moved to this ministry. 

According to the new model, created just days ago, the research centres of MTA must apply for their entire budget by submitting tenders which are assessed according to unclear and unspecified evaluation procedures, allowing for arbitrary, politically-motivated decisions.

The opaque evaluation system of the project-based tenders, which also extends to public universities and state-controlled research centres, constitutes a break from the standard practice and a violation of the fundamental principles of academic freedom in the European Union.

Placing basic research under governmental funding and direct political control means that pro-government organisations such as Századvég will be able to squeeze out many academic researchers and platforms as well as take over most of the funding in the long run.

Empty gestures

Although the government has officially argued that it is not their intention to separate the entire research network from MTA, Palkovics has apparently already broken this promise.

According to a leaked document published by Index, Palkovics claimed that the research networks have to be totally independent from the academy and that the management of MTA could not have any direct influence on the entire system.

The message is clear: if you show resistance, the government will demolish you.

There were obvious signs that this was going to happen, though. Before the elections, government officials made clear in statements published in several right-wing media outlets that the government would intensify efforts to put the research institutes of MTA under government control because these foundations had not been unquestioning in their loyalty to the government.

This follows a tried-and-tested method seen numerous times before. First there is a well prepared defamatory campaign: in this instance, Figyelő – a pro-government mouthpiece – published an article where they were named, listed and pictured academics who were considered to be “too liberal”. The anonymous author claimed that the respective researchers were focusing on gender issues and the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities.

With this kind of political control over scholarship and research in Hungary, they are jeopardising the livelihoods of thousands of employees.

Following the model of the reorganisation of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2013–14, the fundamental goal of Palkovics’ manoeuvrer against the MTA President was to reduce MTA to an innocuous “academic club” of mostly retired members.

The most valuable asset of MTA – its network of research centres with approx. 5,000 active staff members with an average age of 41 – would either be transferred to universities and state-controlled research centres or simply terminated.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin

Entire institutions – mostly in the human and social sciences – would be labelled “unproductive” and dismantled. Permanent employment contracts would have to be broken and 60-70% of current employees would have to be let go.

Of course, labour lawsuits could be brought against the government, but MTA does not have money for any legal action nor will it receive any money from the Ministry of Innovation and Technology for severance payments.

Political inertia

The severity of the situation has drawn the attention of the Slovak Academy of Science, among others, that expressed solidarity with the Hungarian Science Academy, but they are in need of more international support.

The president of MTA will hold a meeting  on Tuesday which promises to be one of its most crucial gatherings in recent decades: they will decide whether they accept the government’s decision or will choose resistance. The Staff Forum of MTA is organising a demonstration to form a human chain around the building – a similar one was been trying to protect CEU two years ago.

In Russia, a analogous process occurred in 2013-2014 when Vladimir Putin bled out the Russian Science Academy with similar methods.

After the Lex CEU and the Stop Soros legislative pact, no one should be surprised to see Orbán cherry picking from the Kremlin’s playbook.

Ever since Orbán came to power in 2010, the question has been lingering whether his regime will shift towards a more unifying stance with a less combative approach towards anyone who opposes his perspectives. This is obviously not going to happen: in order to keep the country polarised by constantly amplifying fears, internal and external enemies have to be permanently presented.

Today, those facing Orbán’s wrath are Soros, Brussels, civil society organisations and scientists, among others. Tomorrow, it could be the rest of the independent judiciary.

As long as the European Union keeps providing such a hospitable environment, Orbán’s authoritarian regime is safe to do as it pleases.

Apparently, Germany is not willing to be openly confrontational, a position mirrored by the recent V4-Merkel summit in Bratislava, where the German chancellor did not even touch upon the issue of rule of law.

Moreover, Angela Merkel’s successor at CDU, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer has also stated that it is better to have Orbán within the European People’s party in order to maintain dialogue.

This kind of “engaging” strategy has not only shown its limits, but the increasing level of Foreign Direct Investments along with the EU funds are reinforcing the long-term sustainability of the regime.

Even more worrisome and driven by short-sighted political power considerations, the EPP has been selling off democratic freedoms vote-by-vote for years. Certainly, feeding and tolerating such a toxic authoritarian political culture will have serious implications for the state of democracy and the future of European integration as a whole.

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was also published in Polish on Polityka.

Foreign policy analyst, PhD researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Formerly with the Political Capital think tank. Focusing on illiberalism, V4 and EU affairs.


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