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April 04, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Lawmakers from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party on Tuesday approved an education bill that critics say targets a university founded by billionaire American philanthropist George Soros.

The move prompted thousands to protest outside the Central European University’s campus in Budapest, and drew swift criticism from the top U.S. diplomat in Hungary’s capital. The bill modifies rules regulating the 28 foreign universities in Hungary. CEU says parts of the bill directly target it, and could force it to close.

The legislation would require the governments of the United States and Hungary to agree on new terms for the university’s operations within the next few months. If a deal doesn’t materialize, CEU would be banned from enrolling new students after Jan. 1 and would have to conclude its educational activities by 2021.

“The United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University,” David Kostelancik, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy, said in a statement. “The United States will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary.”

CEU rector Michael Ignatieff met Tuesday in Washington with U.S. Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon. Ignatieff said the institution would appeal to Hungarian President Janos Ader to review the legislation, which it considers to be a violation of Hungary’s constitution

“CEU will continue its operation and maintain the continuity of its program in all circumstances,” Ignatieff said. “We want to remain in Budapest. We’ve done nothing wrong.” Orban, a former Soros scholarship recipient, has been increasingly critical of the Hungarian-born philanthropist, accusing him of trying to influence Hungarian politics.

Orban said last week that CEU was “cheating” because it did not have a campus in the United States, but issued diplomas recognized both in Hungary and the U.S. CEU is accredited in New York state but does not have a U.S. campus.

Despite protestations from the U.S. State Department, Orban insists that the future of the Soros-funded institution should be negotiated with the administration of President Donald Trump. Orban, who wants to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state” while promoting Hungarian nationalism, appears to be trying to ally himself with Trump against the Hungarian-born Soros, a promoter of liberal ideals around the world and a prominent backer of Hillary Clinton in last year’s U.S. presidential election.

However, Washington is not considering negotiating with Hungary over the university because it doesn’t consider it to be a bilateral issue between the U.S and Hungary, said a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

The U.S. supports the university and hopes that Hungary’s government, having created the obstacle to the university’s operation, will find a way for the university to stay open, the official said. Hundreds of academics and universities have expressed support for CEU, founded in 1991. It currently enrolls 1,400 students from 108 countries.

“This law is practically a witch-hunt against CEU, freedom of education and against independent, autonomous and critical thinking,” said Bernadett Szel, a lawmaker from the Hungarian opposition party Politics Can Be Different.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on Tuesday that Europe “cannot be silent if the air to breathe is taken from civil society, and even science, like now at the Central European University.”

Hungary’s Foreign Ministry said it had summoned diplomats from the U.S. and Germany to discuss the new law on Wednesday. Zoltan Balog, whose ministry oversees education, appeared to link CEU to the non-governmental organizations supported by Soros in Hungary.

Speaking at the start of the debate in parliament, he described them as “faux-civic, agent organizations” working to hinder the democratically elected Hungarian government. “Instead of respecting the laws, the Soros university has chosen to keep its privileges at all costs and is using every means to achieve this,” Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources said in a statement.

The deadlines for meeting the new conditions were markedly shortened in a last-minute modification backed by the government. “This is not how a normal democratic society should function,” Ignatieff said. “This is a punitive timetable.”

On Tuesday evening, protesters marched a few blocks from CEU to Parliament, where they stood facing rows of police officers on the steps of the legislature and demanded to place a European Union flag on the building.

Josh Lederman in Washington and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

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