Hungary's right-wing president has signed controversial legislation on foreign universities that critics warn could force the closure of a top international institution founded by U.S. financier George Soros.
The approval Monday by President Janos Ader came less than a day after tens of thousands of protesters rallied in central Budapest against the legislation, which is seen as targeting Central European University.
Soros founded CEU — an English-language institution of about 1,400 students from more than 100 countries — in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that time, the financier's move was widely hailed as helping Hungary transition from decades of communism to democracy by providing exposure to democratic ideals.
The legislation signed Monday requires all 28 foreign universities operating in Hungary to have campuses in their home countries, as well. Critics have for months pointed out that CEU is the only university among the 28 with no overseas branch, fueling widespread fears the law aims to deny young people access to the Western-leaning CEU and its pro-democracy curriculum.
The new law further bars colleges and universities based outside the European Union from awarding Hungarian diplomas without the consent of the respective governments.
Without such consent, the law will ban the university from enrolling new students after Jan. 1, 2018, and force it to close in 2021.
State media quoted the president Monday as insisting the new law "does not infringe [on] freedom of learning or of teaching" enshrined in Hungary's constitution.
However, last week the U.S. embassy in Budapest issued a statement critical of the legislation, while accusing lawmakers who backed it of targeting the Soros-founded university. Embassy Charge d' Affaires David Kostelancik also said that Washington will continue to advocate for CEU's "unhindered operation in Hungary."
Prime minister viewed harshly in West
Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose ruling Fidesz party crafted the legislation, is viewed in much of Europe and beyond as an autocrat and a xenophobe who has long viewed the liberal internationalist Soros as an ideological foe.
Orban is an outspoken critic of EU migration policy and has loudly criticized sanctions against Russia that were imposed by the EU and the United States after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
The online U.S. publication Politico described him in 2015 as "Europe's new dictator."
Last October, thousands of demonstrators marched in Budapest to protest the sudden closure of the country's largest-selling opposition newspaper, Nepszabadsag.
Those protests also targeted Orban, who has long been accused of stifling press freedoms and isolating private media outlets critical of his controversial anti-migrant stance.
The newspaper's shutdown came just weeks after it published reports alleging widespread corruption within Orban's ruling party, including close allies of the prime minister.