When michael Ignatieff moved to Budapest in 2016 to become rector and president of the Central European University (CEU), he had two main tasks to attend to, only one of which was likely in his job description.

The CEU was founded in 1991 by the Hungarian American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros as part of his long-running effort to promote free expression and liberal values. Home to 1,400 students from 120 countries, the university offers a range of graduate-level courses, including ones in economics, environmental science, and law. In the face of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian government, Ignatieff was hired to safeguard the CEU’s status as a home for academic freedom.

The unwritten mission—which the writer, academic, and former politician chose to accept—was to stand up for the very things the CEU symbolizes, namely the primacy of an open, tolerant society. Securing the future of the CEU in Budapest would send a message to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, to Europe, and to the world that member countries of the European Union are the natural habitat of progressive ideas.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Today, the CEU—which Orbán calls Soros University—is under constant attack by the prime minister, who claims to be willing to have it stay in Budapest but has consistently refused to give it the legal right to operate there. Whether out of frustration or as an attempt to pressure Orbán into relenting, or both, the CEU board of trustees announced on October 25, 2018, that incoming students for the 2019/20 academic year will start their studies at a new campus in Vienna. “They will have forced a free institution out of a European member state,” Ignatieff said when I spoke with him shortly after the announcement. “It’s a scandal.”

The fate of the university remains unclear. American diplomats, international scholars, and European technocrats are working behind the scenes to reach some kind of academic détente. But the CEU is currently unsure of its place in the world, where it’s going next, and how much power its core values actually hold.

The same might be said for Ignatieff, the man perhaps known best in Canada for parachuting into the country and into the Liberal Party leadership race after three decades abroad, only to get thumped by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the 2011 federal election. In a career marked by both high accomplishment and humbling defeat, the next year may well decide the final interpretation of his life’s work, in that it will either support or alter the sense that his political instincts have not always been in step with his political effectiveness. Not that that’s ever stopped him trying—not when he took on Harper and not now that he’s taking on Orbán. “I didn’t start this thing. They did,” Ignatieff told me when I spoke to him in Budapest in late May. “But my gut is telling me, ‘Fight.’”

Ignatieff is fighting for the CEU, but in many ways, he’s fighting for his legacy. It seemed the perfect fit at the start, a job that called for academic credibility, which he has in spades, as well as political savvy, which, if you trust the maxim that you learn more from your losses than your wins, he also possesses. It also required a certain public-relations gift and deep international connections. Again, Ignatieff—who has travelled the world as a thinker, writer, and speaker, and has rubbed shoulders with a who’s who of the Anglo-American cultural elite—checked those boxes easily. On top of all that, in 1999 he married Zsuzsanna Zsohar, a Hungarian Canadian with deep ties to Hungary. Budapest is emotionally, and literally, his home now. The CEU was, he told me, the right job in the right place at the right time.

Today, however, the CEU is preparing to move. Which means that, in what could be his last major role as a public figure, Ignatieff, now in his seventies, is wondering how it came to this and what he can do to turn things around.

Few observers were surprised that on April 8, 2018, Viktor Orbán was reelected prime minister of Hungary. The victory—a third consecutive term and fourth overall—was total: Orbán’s Fidesz party retained its two-thirds supermajority. As a result, Orbán secured a mandate to pursue almost any course that pleases him, a fact that has moderate Europe jangling with anxiety.

Orbán is a populist who openly demonizes Muslim foreigners and has built a fence along the border with Croatia and Serbia to keep them out, who undermines the media and has been blamed for the closure of the country’s two main independent newspapers, and who will go to war with anyone not aligned with his stated goal of achieving illiberal democracy in Hungary—that is, a governance model that may adopt the structures of democracy but rejects liberal values and democratic norms. Orbán isn’t distracted by frivolities like collaboration and dialogue; power is the point. If we are witnessing a march against tolerance and openness in European politics, Hungary is holding one of the bullhorns.

During the 2018 campaign, Orbán relied primarily on one symbol to represent what he characterized as the dangerous tidal wave of immigrants spilling into the country to steal its jobs and rape its women: George Soros. A Jewish émigré who has lived in the United States for many decades now, Soros has to date plowed close to $30 billion (US) into efforts to create a tolerant and liberal world order. He has done this through various activities but primarily via the creation of the Open Society Foundations, which last year alone spent more than a billion dollars funding organizations around the world. Throughout Orbán’s campaign, Hungary was rife with photoshopped billboards showing a grinning Soros—a long-time advocate of more broad-minded immigration—using wire cutters to let in a surge of Muslims. The words “Stop Soros” dominated the signage.

Soros wasn’t always so vilified in Hungary. He moved the CEU to Budapest shortly after it opened in Prague partly to reinvigorate his former homeland and partly to provide people from the former Eastern bloc with access to a Western-standard academic institution. Soros also handed out significant financial assistance to many nascent centre and left-of-centre political parties (Fidesz among them) and supported the education of young activists and intellectuals. Orbán himself attended Oxford on a Soros scholarship in the late 1980s.

That was then. In recent times, the fate of the CEU has increasingly emerged as a referendum on the validity of the entire European experiment, which is itself a test of the power of progressive values (such as a free judiciary, an open press, and political choices for citizens) to shape national and international interests. Orbán, through policy and practice, is trying to erase these principles in Hungary—which means that the CEU is in his way.

But who can check Orbán? The opposition on both the left and the right is in tatters. Soros is eighty-eight years old. The Open Society Foundations has left Budapest and relocated to Berlin. The free press has been curtailed. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin cheered Orbán’s rise. Angela Merkel is due to step down in 2021. In a bid to sanction Hungary, the EU Parliament voted in September to trigger Article 7 of its constitution, which could result in the country losing its EU voting rights, but the move has not altered Orbán’s behaviour. If he isn’t reined in somehow, even symbolically, it will be one more signal to every politician with an authoritarian streak that civil societies are in retreat.

Which is where Ignatieff comes in. Early in Ignatieff’s tenure at the CEU, Orbán announced that his government was going to table legislation in the spring of 2017 that would force Hungarian universities to comply with a set of onerous conditions by January 1, 2019. Everyone knew the intended target was the CEU.

The university pursued a strategy of framing the issue of its jeopardized legal status as one of academic freedom. In theory, this seemed a wise move, in that it offered Orbán a simple out: he could renew the CEU’s operating licence and claim the strife was all simply a bureaucratic misunderstanding around ensuring the university followed Hungarian regulations.

Unfortunately, this proved to be about as appealing to Orbán’s realpolitik nature as suggesting to Attila the Hun that he could catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Back channel, front channel, public statements, rallies, letters of support from political and cultural figures around the globe: Ignatieff deployed numerous tactics in the latter part of 2016 and early 2017 to save the CEU. Orbán essentially ignored it all.

Photography by Lam Duc Hien

Ignatieff responded by playing a key role in orchestrating a protest in April 2017: some 80,000 people marched through the ancient cobbled streets of central Budapest’s east bank, near the parliament. There were calls for action against Orbán’s higher-education reforms, demands for justice, and cries of warning about the advancing autocratic state. Orbán was unmoved, and, as scheduled, President János Áder signed the legislation the next day.

Up to that point, the battle between Orbán and the CEU had been largely rhetorical. But the moment Áder signed the legislation and the CEU became unlawful, the campaign moved to legal and technical grounds. In order to comply with Hungarian law, the CEU now had to find a bricks-and-mortar campus in the United States and offer courses at that campus in order to retain its ability to grant US-accredited degrees on Hungarian soil. Through a preexisting relationship with Bard College in New York state, the CEU soon had an American building and curriculum. Despite the CEU having apparently met the law’s conditions, Orbán’s government refused to sign off on the agreement that would allow the university to continue to operate as usual.

This state of affairs frustrated Ignatieff on many levels. For starters, it was already making it harder to recruit students, faculty, and staff. But he also seemed exasperated at his inability to influence Orbán. In May, as we were seated in his corner office at the CEU’s downtown campus in Budapest, I asked him why he thought Orbán continued to target the CEU. “It’s pure politics,” he said, leaning back in his chair and looking a bit like an older, dishevelled Daniel Day-Lewis. “I think the way he thinks about it is that a politician at his level needs an opponent at his level. There is no domestic opponent at his level or stature, he has dominated the political scene, so it turns out to be very useful to him to have an important enemy. Useful and satisfying. But,” Ignatieff insisted, “I am not Mr. Orbán’s opposition. I do one job here, which is to train people to know what knowledge is.”

Michael Ignatieff has been in fights before, though at times (as in his vocal support of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq) he backed the wrong side, and at other times, when the opponent was more clearly defined (Stephen Harper), he didn’t win. Born in Toronto in 1947, Ignatieff lived the peripatetic childhood of a diplomat’s son. After more than ten years working in London, England, as a high-profile journalist, Ignatieff became, in 2000, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Ignatieff is a writer with genuine ideas and a fluid style, and his intellectual life—whether he is exploring genocide, nationalism, human rights, or ethics—has been marked by a keen, if unsystematic, inquiry into the moral shadings of most every situation. It is a trait with considerable value in academia but one which would ultimately be politically damaging.

After 9/11, Ignatieff began arguing in magazines and books that America should pursue a strategy of “empire lite,” that the Iraq invasion was justified, and that “coercive interrogation” could be defended if it was properly overseen. In 2007, as it emerged that George W. Bush and company had lied about Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, Ignatieff published a mea culpa in The New York Times Magazine. In some ways, the essay came across as conveniently timed, given that, by then, he’d returned to Canada to pursue a political career, but it offered insight into his thinking on Iraq as well as his take on the realities of politics. The essay also revealed a tendency—which he seemed at least partially aware of—to intellectualize matters of real-world consequence.

“I’ve learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life,” he wrote. “In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources.” He continued: “In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way.” Politics is a world so literal, he wrote, that even the slightest gap between what you say and what you mean is space enough to have “the knife driven home.” The game, he added, “usually ends in tears.”

Ignatieff couldn’t have known at the time that many such tears would be his. The triumphant return to Canada did not go according to the grand design. He ran for leader of the federal Liberal Party and lost to Stéphane Dion. After Dion got blitzed by Harper and resigned, Ignatieff assumed the leadership—and then lost his own seat in the 2011 election. Not only did the Liberals have their worst-ever showing in 2011, Ignatieff was exposed as something less than the sum of his parts, whereas success in politics requires the opposite. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the smartest or most ethical or hardest-working or best-looking or most articulate candidate (and Ignatieff arguably held all of these cards over Harper). What matters is whether you add up to one single idea a voter can believe in (which is not to say that that one idea is always a good thing). Ignatieff overcomplicated things. Canadians didn’t like being lectured to. They smelled ambition unpaid for and punished him for it. “Let’s not put too fine a point on it,” Ignatieff told me. “I got beat up pretty good in Canadian politics.”

But was there anything, I asked him, that he’d learned in Canadian political life that he thought might help him at the CEU? “I’m a Canadian liberal,” he said. “And I’d say one of the weaknesses of this Canadian liberal is that I sometimes didn’t know that there were moments I had to fight. It comes late to you in life that you have to draw a line.”

The kind of line, I asked, that he’d been trying to draw with Orbán? He nodded. “Observer or actor, I’ve struggled with it all my life,” he said. “I think the lure of the CEU was to be an actor again, to be in the arena.”

Ignatieff deserves credit for putting himself on the front lines, but is that public service or overconfidence? It’s hard to forget the devastating “just visiting” ads the Conservatives launched against him in 2009; the message stoked voter suspicions that Ignatieff was an arriviste who—after spending decades outside the country as a professor, journalist, and author—had deigned to enter politics as a favour to his country. But whether he took the CEU job for reasons of political idealism, ego, or, more likely, a stew made of both with a bay leaf of intellectual curiosity thrown in for flavour, he’s now in an arena with an adversary who combines the experience of Stephen Harper, the views of Donald Trump, and the methods of Tony Soprano.

A soccer star when he was younger, Victor Orbán today is an older version of the athlete he once was, a stocky bodyguard type with a blunt haircut and a pugnacious presence. He doesn’t just create tough legislation, he also looks tough, the kind of street brawler you’d want on your side. A family man with a wife and five children, Orbán inspires love among the people of the heartland who don’t see an authoritarian. They see a paterfamilias trying to protect his country’s Christian heritage.

Yet Ignatieff also feels that his experience going up against Harper has given him the tools to continue this fight and has drilled him on the contingency of history. “Let me make it clear,” Ignatieff said. “Orbán is not going to be pushed or bullied into anything. I’m not interested in being anybody’s punching bag or enemy. But this country has moved away from communism and not towards liberal democracy. It’s headed more towards what looks like a single-party state ratified by a democracy. And so who is going to step up?” Ignatieff added later, in October, with perhaps a touch too much belief that Orbán is even listening, “What he’s doing is a gratuitous act of self-harm.” He continued, “Orbán does it because this need to control, this need to dominate, is overpowering. And it will eventually lead to his downfall. It’s called hubris.”

Zoltán Kovács is a former cabinet minister and now spokesperson for Orbán’s government on every issue. In May, he invited me to his office, which is situated in the corner of the third floor of a baroque building a block from the Hungarian parliament. He ushered me to a chair in a light and airy room with windows looking west onto both the Parliament and the Danube. A large flat screen TV mounted to the wall played CNN. After switching off the sound, Kovács, whose Euro-stubble and trendy spectacles create the impression of someone able to toggle effortlessly between henchman and philosopher, offered me coffee and began to speak. As someone who received two degrees from the CEU , he had nothing but praise for his own education, but in the last decade, he said, the CEU has changed.

“The education at the university has become ideological,” said Kovács, who accused the CEU of “camouflaging” political operatives and training a new generation of activists. “Everybody knows that the university itself—or certainly those organizations that are being established and financed by Soros—basically perform political activity in this country.”

To what end? I asked. What was Soros’s objective? “Mr. Soros or Mr. Ignatieff would tell you that they are doing it for humanitarian or other high-minded reasons,” he said, rubbing his shaved head. “But, from our point of view, there is always political intent.” (I shared these views with Ignatieff the next day. He took exception to the characterization. “What Mr. Kovács says is manifestly false. The university would not have the reputation it has if it was simply some kind of opposition NGO fronting as a university. And I wouldn’t have taken the job.”)

To Kovács, however, Ignatieff’s appointment was just another indication of the university’s sinister political designs. “He called himself a ‘failed liberal politician,’” said Kovács, referring to a two-year-old newspaper interview given by Ignatieff. “And he behaves like and acts like a politician at the head of the university.” I asked if that’s why he thinks Ignatieff was hired. “In that world, I don’t believe anything happens by accident,” Kovács replied.

But even if Soros or Ignatieff have their political beliefs, I asked, what’s the threat? “The danger,” Kovács said, “is that the state’s capability to handle migration is being undermined. It is clearly undermining the existence of borders, without which there is no country.” Kovács’s suggestion became clear: Orbán believes that Soros and Ignatieff are using the CEU to train activists to overthrow populists and establish a liberal open society, which, for Orbán, can be equated to a tsunami of Islamic migrants diluting Hungarian cultural purity.

Kovács went on to accuse the EU of selling Europe as an open continent everyone should come to. Such a perception, he explained, jeopardizes the rule of law and cultural inheritance. He argued that waves of migrants who have come to Europe in the last couple of decades have started “parallel societies”—communities of outsiders who live in their own neighbourhoods according to their own rules. Fidesz, Kovács said, wants to avoid that. “It’s not Islamophobia but a description of the fact that is happening on the ground,” he went on. Kovács insisted that Islam isn’t integrating and that it is impossible for such an “alien culture” to do so. “When you talk about this, obviously, you are called all kinds of nasty things. But we named it for the past eight years. They don’t like it, but facts are facts.” He paused to finish the last of his coffee. “And we got reelected,” he concluded, standing to indicate that my time was up.

Five months later, within hours of the CEU releasing its announcement that it was being forced by the Orbán government to initiate the process of moving to Vienna, Kovács released an official government response, which explained that the CEU was still a registered university in Hungary. “It’s called,” the statement read, “the Közép-európai Egyetem (also known as KEE), and its [sic] fully accredited here. KEE has been delivering courses as a Hungarian institution of higher education. It continues to do so today and, as far as we know, will continue to do so in the future. Technically, then, the rector’s declaration of an intent to relocate the CEU’s issuing body to Vienna only affects the US-registered CEU and leaves KEE intact.”

The statement went on to claim that the CEU’s planned move had “nothing to do with ‘academic freedom’” and called it “another wily maneuver, a Soros-style political ploy.”

When I asked Ignatieff about Kovács’s statement, he agreed that no one has ever questioned the right of KEE to operate as a Hungarian university, but he pointed out that it has already suffered academic restrictions. “The government has removed gender studies from the list of accredited, legally offered courses in Hungary,” he said. “So we can’t teach gender studies in Hungary. And any attempt to teach migrant studies, or offer services to migrants and refugees, may subject us to penal taxes of 25 percent. So they are saying, ‘You’re welcome to stay, but you can’t teach this, you can’t teach that, you can’t teach those people,’” he said. “And as for Mr. Kovács, he’s a man who received degrees from us, and a man who betrays the institution, betrays his education, is not a man to be believed about anything.”

Orbán may be using time-honoured autocratic methods to remove the choices available to his fellow citizens, but, Zsolt Enyedi argues, he is far cannier than his detractors sometimes credit. Enyedi is a political-science professor at the CEU who is also currently acting as the pro-rector for Hungarian affairs. I met him in a newly renovated building on the CEU campus, the interior space of which is full of Escheresque angles sculpted from beechwood and poured concrete. “Orbán is an unusual populist politician,” the soft-spoken Enyedi told me. “He started as a very bright and brave young activist during communist times, and then he drifted to conservatism and then further to populism, then an extreme right politician. An authoritarian.”

Orbán currently doesn’t see any reason why he should limit himself, Enyedi told me, given that he has a mandate. This is what, for Enyedi, makes him such a great threat. He is manipulating the electorate to make gains he can then use as a rationale to enact his illiberal goals. In its own way, using democracy to create something profoundly undemocratic is a revolutionary gambit. But make no mistake, Enyedi told me, Orbán is “a charismatic leader, a born leader, and probably one of the best politicians in the world.”

Nick Thorpe has been an eastern Europe correspondent for more than three decades, working mostly for the BBC. He knows Ignatieff, but more crucially, he knows Orbán. Thorpe and I met for breakfast at the Kelet Café, on Béla Bartók Street on the southwestern, more gentrified, less touristy side of Budapest. Around us, people sipped espressos as they leaned into their conversations. “I first met Orbán when he was a skinny young activist,” Thorpe recalled. “Very passionate, very committed to political change.” Thorpe now describes him as a combative figure without a particularly strong belief system or ideology of his own, outside of retaining power. “He likes an enemy. He loves a good fight. He’s a master of coming to power and holding on to it. I think it’s a physical as well as a psychological need for him to be battling something. He gets bored of everyday politics.”

Knowing what he now knows of Orbán’s nature, I asked Ignatieff in late October if he thought there was a compromise available between the government and the university. He seemed skeptical. “These are the kind of people who go into negotiations and then basically walk away,” he said. “You want to do business with a guy you negotiate with for three months and then a year later he turns around and says, ‘Well, I don’t think so’?” He added,“It really does depend on whether the Americans are willing to escalate this or not.”

And the EU? “That’s actually one of the big lessons here,” said Ignatieff, recalling the EU vote against Orbán in the early fall. “That the legal and institutional mechanisms Europe has to defend democratic institutions inside EU member states are much weaker than people realize. And Orbán fully understands that, unfortunately.”

Despite the turmoil of the moment, and what sounded like a defeated attitude over the phone, I put it to Ignatieff that no matter what transpired in the coming weeks and months, he would still, in fact, be the rector and president of a university in Budapest, even if it could no longer offer American degrees on its campus there. “Of course,” he said. “Regimes come and go, but universities remain. They are the oldest self-governing free institutions in the world. We are not the first university to face pressure, and we won’t be the last. I just don’t see how we can remain solely as a Hungarian institution in an atmosphere of intimidation. We’ll try to keep a presence in Budapest, but I don’t know yet how that’s going to play out.”

No one really knows at this point how it will end, probably not even Viktor Orbán. Given his unpredictability, he might reverse course. Or he could introduce a holding-pattern compromise. Or he could march in and shut the CEU’s doors tomorrow.

But even if Ignatieff somehow finds a way to keep the CEU’s main campus based in Hungary, the truth is that it’s unclear how much of a win that would be. Having Orbán sign a deal today would hardly make such a deal secure or enforceable; he could easily manufacture a reason to revoke it if conditions change. Getting a new licence to operate might just mean Orbán has decided to keep the CEU around in case George Soros passes away before the next Hungarian election and Orbán requires a Soros proxy to foment voter grievance. If the CEU ends up staying in Budapest, it will only be because Orbán has decided it’s advantageous to him.

Why even bother fighting, then? The answer is that Ignatieff is up against a politician who is a flagrant threat to Western values of tolerance and freedom. Whether the CEU’s on-the-ground struggle is cast as one of politics or academia, the university’s fate is tied to larger sea changes across Europe. Russia is openly destabilizing wherever it sees the opportunity. Britain, via Brexit, is opting out. Italy, Poland, and Austria have all tacked to the right or far-right. The meaning of Ignatieff’s battle for the CEU can be condensed into a single question: Will the world lean toward civil societies run by their citizens or one-party states run by ruthless strongmen? Once events tip past a certain point, it’s going to be hard to reverse them.

Ignatieff insists he’s up for the fight, perhaps for no other reason than to prove he can—though being in the midst of the action hasn’t stopped him from playing the observer, even, or especially, when it comes to himself. “I’ll be frank with you,” he told me when we first spoke in Budapest, “there are moments when I feel I’m really struggling with this, just as I was struggling in politics.” He stopped and thought about it for a minute. “No, this is a real struggle. And there are days when I just don’t know how it’s just going to turn out.”

Curtis Gillespie
Curtis Gillespie has won seven National Magazine Awards and is the editor and cofounder of Eighteen Bridges magazine. He lives in Edmonton.
Lâm Duc Hiên / Vu'