When the Hungarian government coerced the Central European University, a leading college in Budapest, into shutting some of its operations in December, it did not do so by threat of physical force. Viktor Orban, the far-right prime minister of Hungary, never jailed a C.E.U. professor or ordered the university to close by government decree.
Instead, the Orban government quietly changed the rules by which all foreign universities like C.E.U. can operate, allowing Mr. Orban to frame its treatment as a merely technical decision, rather than an attack on academic freedom.
It is a recurrent paradox of Mr. Orban’s rule: Despite all the steps he has taken to erode the Hungarian democratic process, Mr. Orban has rarely allowed his government to get its way by blatant force.
And it is this paradox that explains why analysts struggle to judge whether Hungary is still a democracy, and why Mr. Orban’s friends and foes alike ascribe increasing importance to the inner workings of this small and previously marginal country.
Hungary’s path under Mr. Orban has made him an icon to far-right figures such as Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former adviser, and provided a blueprint for the erosion of democratic institutions in countries like Poland.
“The closed regimes of the past were behind barbed-wire fences and police watchtowers, and the repression was overt and clear and unmistakable,” said Michael Ignatieff, president of the C.E.U. But in Mr. Orban’s Hungary, he said, “you can protest, you can leave, you can set up a business and you’re a member of the European Union, which is supposedly a union of democracies.” [Continue reading…]