The Russian prosecutor-general’s office has declared the Central European University (CEU) as unwelcome, accusing the Austrian-based institution of promoting an “anti-Russian agenda.” Founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, the CEU’s stated mission is to promote “open society and democracy” in countries across Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the former Soviet Union republics. However, the Russian prosecutor’s office claims that the CEU’s efforts are focused on discrediting the Russian political leadership and military operations in Ukraine.
According to the prosecutor-general’s office, the CEU conducts programs that deliberately distort the history of the Russian state and downplay the contributions of Russian scientists, writers, and cultural figures. The office also accuses the CEU of promoting pseudo-scientific claims that blame Russia for global catastrophes. Specifically, the CEU’s programs allegedly highlight Russia’s alleged war crimes in Ukraine and propagate Russian propaganda. The prosecutor’s office asserts that these efforts aim to create an “anti-Russian agenda” in the global media, fueled by hatred of Russia and its people.
Established by Soros in 1991 and funded by his network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the CEU was initially situated in Budapest and offered degrees accredited in the United States. However, in October 2018, the CEU announced its relocation to Vienna after the Hungarian authorities refused to extend its accreditation. This move came after Soros’ Open Society Foundations halted their operations in Hungary, citing an increasingly repressive political and legal environment.
In Russia, designating an organization as undesirable effectively bans its activities. Any offices the organization may have in the country must shut down, and engaging in business with the organization can result in fines or even jail time for repeat offenders. The CEU now joins the ranks of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as the first organizations declared undesirable in Russia. The NED, which is funded by the US Congress, received this designation in 2015.
This latest development signals Russia’s growing intolerance towards organizations that it perceives as challenging its political and military actions. By targeting the CEU, Moscow is reinforcing its position on key geopolitical issues, such as the conflict in Ukraine. Critics argue that the Russian government’s actions go against the principles of academic freedom and the exchange of ideas, essential for promoting democratic values.
The CEU’s unwelcome designation by Russia underscores the ongoing geopolitical tensions and ideological differences in the global arena. It highlights the challenges faced by organizations that advocate for open societies and democratic principles in countries with authoritarian regimes. The CEU’s relocation to Vienna is indicative of the narrowing space for civil society actors in certain parts of Europe, where governments are tightening their grip on dissent and curtailing the independence of academia.
The impact of Russia’s designation on the CEU’s operations and future remains to be seen. However, it is clear that this move sends a chilling message to other organizations and individuals that dare to criticize the Russian government or its policies. As geopolitical dynamics continue to evolve, the CEU’s plight serves as a reminder of the importance of defending academic freedom and independent voices in the face of growing authoritarianism.