The democratic transition is not over in Central and Eastern Europe and we will continue our mission of training people and creating “free minds, people who think”, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian academic and president of the Central European University, told EURACTIV Slovakia.
Michael Ignatieff is an academic, journalist and a former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. For the past three years, he has been the president and rector of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. Under pressure from the Hungarian government, the CEU is now moving much of its programmes to Vienna.
As of next year, most of CEU’s activities will move to Austria. What does the move from Budapest to Vienna mean in a larger sense for the University?
We have to operate all our US degree programmes in Vienna. First students will arrive there on 30 September (the interview took place on 25 September). We want to maintain a strong presence in Budapest at the same time. We are currently working out what the law will allow. It’s a complicated question, at the moment I do not know the answer. This is bi-campus university for some time, because Viktor Orbán has forced our degree programmes out of Budapest.
But he hasn’t forced the university to leave. I don’t want to pull down the flag, because it would send a terrible message to the country which has been our home for 25 years. We cannot defy the law. But we have a beautiful campus and a lot of great teachers in Budapest, so I am trying to balance that out.
One of the ideas behind the establishment of the CEU in Budapest was certainly helping Central Europe to democratise. Isn’t this idea being side-lined by the move to Vienna?
No. It’s funny how people look at the geography of the region. In Vienna, they say they are in CEE, in Budapest they say Vienna is in Western Europe. My view is that we will be in Vienna and Budapest and we will continue to be a university that stands for open society, meaning free minds and free institutions. I do not think moving to Vienna will change that. We will maintain the commitment we have had since 1991.
You are asking what happened to the democratic transition in this part of the world. It is certainly taking a direction we did not anticipate. But it does not invalidate our mission. We have about 17,000 graduates. Many of them come from this region and are now spread out around the world. Every one of those graduates has spent at least a year or two years in a free institution. That has an effect. That’s what counts.
Spending a year with us, if you come from Azerbaijan, Albania or Bulgaria, being in a place where you are asked to think for yourself, has a life-long impact. This is not a university to indoctrinate people in a certain vision of democracy. It is a place centrally focused on the idea of creating freedom, free minds, people who think. I know what I’ve been told, I know the rumours, what the official media are saying, what my friends are saying. But what do I think? That approach assists in a transition.
Obviously, the democratic transition has gone in an unexpected, sometimes frightening direction. CEU can’t change the direction of history. All we can do is train people to be free. And we do that every day and year. And I believe in that mission passionately.
Will you want to continue in this mission in post-Communist Europe while you are in Vienna?
Sure. I don’t think adding a location changes the mission. The mission has become more important, not less important. We are coming away from the illusions that people had in 1991 about transition. We thought transition would be easy, it is hard. Transition is not over. Poland will not go in an authoritarian populist direction forever, Hungary will not be consolidated into a single-party state forever. History is not over. There is a lot of future up ahead of us in Central Europe which remains the centre of what we care about. But it is important to notice that we have students from 88 countries. It’s a global university, no longer a regional one.
Western countries invested a lot of energy and money into democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). You have already said that we made a mistake in expectations. But has a mistake been made in actions? Has the Western world failed in trying to transform the region?
The West is fractured. Europe and the U.S. were tied together in security cooperation and a common democratic commitment in the face of the totalitarian Communist challenge. They are now economic rivals. They are still security partners, but only just so. And the U.S. has decided it no longer has the will or the capacity to structure a rules-based international order. Therefore, it has steadily decreased investment in the security and transition in CEE.
The high point was the Dayton Peace Agreement (that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995) or the Kosovo intervention in 1999. Since then, it has been steadily declining – not just under Donald Trump, but under Democratic and Republican administrations alike – because the American political consensus behind the engagement has vanished. You can’t sustain it in this part of the world, if the people of the U.S. think we’d rather be doing something else. There is still a commitment on the geostrategic side. Poland has got some missiles and Baltics have some troops.
Trump is talking about new US military bases in Poland.
Indeed. The security commitment remains, but the democracy commitment has slipped back. That’s a shame, the two are to go together.
Has the US policy of democratisation failed in this region?
The question is not whether they succeeded or failed. They pulled away from it. The truth about any democratisation policy from outside is that it has its limits. If Poland has made a democratic transition, it’s because of the heroes of Solidarity and of the Polish internal resistance. They got help from the outside, but the key drivers were inside. Likewise, in the Czech Republic and Hungary. I have never believed you could do this from the outside. Two things are happening: the Americans have disengaged from the democratisation efforts and the 1989 transition elites are ageing out.
Two weeks ago, we had the death of György Konrád (Hungarian novelist) and László Rajk (Hungarian architect and political activist), wonderful people who represented the best of the Hungarian transition generation. Adam Michnik and Lech Wałęsa are still alive, but their historical role has diminished. A new generation will have to arise and decide: Do we really want to be a democratic society? Or do we want to recreate all the dreary single-party corrupt kleptocratic Central European mediocrity that has played this region in the past. This is a question for your generation.
Do you see the current Central European politics as an ideological clash between liberal democrats and conservative nationalist populists?
CEE has always resented Western Europe in lots of ways – for the condescension that Western Europe displaced towards Eastern Europe. I personally dislike that, because CEE taught Western Europe lessons in freedom which they ought to remember. The change in 1989 started in a shipyard in Poland and with the arrest of Charter 77. The free thinking started, among other places, in Budapest. Western Europe has forgotten. The script in which Eastern Europe is authoritarian, conservative, religious, anti-democratic seems to forget that story of freedom.
But political parties representing small towns, rural districts and conservative elements in society have put together winning electoral coalitions in Poland, to some extent in the Czech Republic, definitely in Hungary. They have ridden to power feeding on the resentment that Eastern Europe has always felt towards these condescending superior Western Europeans. These conservative Christian elements have also played on fears in CEE of demographic decline, departure of their young people, the spread of liberal, secular values like gay marriage that alarm them as they alarm some people in Western Europe.
You portray this basically as an issue of identity politics. But aren’t these politicians the representatives of losers of the democratic transition?
No. Fidesz has been very successful in representing winners. On Friday night, you look at Fidesz middle class getting into BMWs, loading their children into seats, strapping them into super-modern and super-expensive baby carriages. These people are not the losers. The liberal transition generation is beginning to die off. There is a new Conservative middle class in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic that has done just fine from transition and is doing just fine with the integration of these parts of Europe into the supply chains of Western European corporations. Hungary is one big assembly platform for German industry which spread out a lot of wealth. A lot of managerial talent is Hungarian. The economy is growing 4 – 5%. But there is a contradiction here. The ideology of the region is very pro-capitalist on one hand, and very anti-liberal, anti-democratic and against the evolution of cultural norms on the other hand.
Orbán is a very skilled politician, but he has to keep that coalition together. And if Europe goes into a recession, that new middle class may suddenly hit the limits and feel insecure. The question, whether this regime can manage that, is complicated. They will have to find some enemy they can cultivate to keep people distracted. It’s a very skilful regime. But the fundamental point is that transition is not over.
In Hungary, it’s no longer a liberal democracy, it’s a different regime. Under what condition can this regime change?
It depends now almost entirely on whether the economic boom that has underlaid Fidesz’s hold on power begins to crack up. In such a case, new discontents would start. The real drama with Fidesz is that this is a regime without a succession plan. It depends entirely on one man. The regime is worried about losing power if it had a free election. Then comes the question whether there is an opposition sufficiently credible to defeat them. We don’t have an answer to any of these questions. We will have some indication after the Budapest elections in mid-October (local elections are taking place in Hungary on 13 October).
In Slovakia, the presidential election was won by Zuzana Čaputová, who hardly represents the Western clichés about Eastern politicians. She is a proponent of liberal democracy, rule of law and fight against climate change. Is this an exception to a trend or a beacon of hope?
Certainly a beacon of hope, but it was produced by an atrocity. The murder of a journalist and his fiancée that shocked Slovakia produced a very strong public reaction. It was not just that, but also a sense of gathering disgust of the political elite in Slovakia. She is the beneficiary of that. All I can say is: Long may continue. But I would have to say that the political systems of all these countries are extraordinarily local.
I am not sure Hungary pays much attention to Slovak or Polish politics, just as I am not sure that Slovakia pays to Hungarian politics. In Western Europe, people like these opinion pieces about CEE politics, neglecting just how different and self-enclosed these places are. Čaputová [the new Slovak president] is a very interesting figure and I don’t mean to disrespect her, but I would think her influence in any other Eastern European country is small.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]