As It Happens

Ignatieff says Hungary's PM 'hijacked' his university to settle score with billionaire George Soros

Michael Ignatieff says Hungary's prime minister is targeting the Budapest university he runs in a misguided attempt to settle a personal beef with its billionaire founder.

'We've been hijacked:' Ignatieff says Hungary's PM targeted his university to settle a score with billionaire

Michael Ignatieff, president and rector of the Central European University, attends a news conference after the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban passed legislation that could force the 25-year-old school out of Hungary. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

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Michael Ignatieff says Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is targeting the Budapest university he runs in a misguided attempt to settle a personal beef with its billionaire founder.

"He's targeting a free institution. I think he just is worried that we are a threat to him," the former Liberal leader and current president of Central European University (CEU) told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"In fact, we're not any kind of a threat to him. We're actually a university. We get up every morning and do those thrilling things like medieval history and analytical philosophy."

Hungary on Tuesday passed education legislation that would force CEU to close or leave the country — a move that has caused tens of thousands of people to take to the streets in protest.

A woman shouts as she protests Hungary's new higher education bill. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

The school, which Ignatieff has helmed since last fall, is funded in large part by its founder, Hungary-born U.S. billionaire George Soros. The business magnate and philanthropist is one of the 30 richest people in the world, according to Bloomberg.

Hungary's ruling Fidesz party considers Soros an ideological foe who is working against the country's interests by funding liberal institutions and supporting refugees and migrants.

Orban, who received a Soros-funded scholarship in 1989 to study at Oxford University in England, has publicly vowed to go after Soros and "the powers that symbolize him."

"I think there's some weird, uncontrollable, father-son dynamic here that I actually don't understand, don't care about," Ignatieff said.

"I think he thinks that he can take a Soros institution hostage, but we're not actually a Soros institution in the sense that I don't answer to Mr. Soros. I answer to trustees, and it's an independent institution."

Financier George Soros, left, who emigrated from Nazi-occupied Hungary and eventually found success on Wall Street, is an ideological foe of the country's prime minister Viktor Orban, right. (Eric Piermont, Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images )

The new rules demand bilateral agreements with the home countries of universities from outside the European Union, and require schools to establish campuses in their home countries. 

CEU will be the only school in the country that faces closure when the law comes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.

"I honestly feel we've been hijacked," Ignatieff said. "The government wants to get the attention of Washington, the attention of its allies, in support of its refugee and migration policy ... and so they've taken an American institution hostage as if to say, 'Hey, pay attention to us!'"

The government, meanwhile, says the new rules are aimed at combating fraud and foreign influence, and to stop CEU from having an unfair advantage over other local schools by allowing its students to earn both U.S. and Hungarian diplomas.

The CEU has been getting support from Western governments and universities. Both the U.S. and the EU have condemned the new legislation

In Budapest, some 70,000 people rallied in support of CEU on Sunday. It was the third rally in eight days in support of the university, which enrolls over 1,400 students from 108 countries.

People protest in support of Central European University, a liberal graduate school of social sciences, located in Budapest. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

"It's been a very moving and emotional time for us," Ignatieff said. "We haven't started those demonstrations. We don't have any part of them. But boy, when you're in a university and somebody's parading out your window saying, you know, 'Free universities, free country,' it's pretty, pretty strong stuff."

With files from The Associated Press