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The university with a laboratory for democracy

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BBC News

In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communist regimes in Europe, a unique university was created.  It was going to be a laboratory for democracy.  George Soros, the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist, funded the creation of the Central European University, with the specific aim of promoting the values of an open society and democracy.

The university in Budapest in Hungary is still going strong, with graduate students from more than 100 countries studying courses taught in English.
But the challenges have changed. If the university was created on a rising tide of democracy, it now has to examine liberal values under pressure. In parts of Eastern Europe, the voices of authoritarianism and nationalism are getting louder.

The president of the Central European University is John Shattuck, an American human rights lawyer, law professor, diplomat and former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.

'Horrific ideologies'

The university, he says, was founded to "resuscitate and revive intellectual freedom" in parts of Europe that had lived for decades under the "horrific ideologies" of communism and fascism.  But if Budapest is a crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, he says that we're now living in an era approaching its own crossroads.

"We're in another period of time, which is as disruptive and complicated as it was in 1991 when the university was founded."
The financial crash, the loss of confidence in party politics in the West, the rise of the "Putin model" of government, the weakness of international institutions are all raising "a set of questions that haven't been asked for 25 years".

"We see very dangerous trends at work," he says, such as the rise of "xenophobia" and antagonism towards immigrants.

The university is addressing some of these big questions in a project called "frontiers of democracy". What does freedom mean in an era of digital information? What is the place for local identity in a globalised economy? How can an open society be defended?

It also wants to put principles into practice. There is a university access project for students from the Roma community. A digital learning project is opening up debates and the idea of free speech with universities in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Kazakhstan.   This is an institution with departments with titles such as the Centre for the Study of Imperfections in Democracies.

Insecurity

Prof Shattuck says too many universities have lost a sense of moral purpose.  The pressure on funding has turned universities into places turning out products rather than ideas, he says. It means students are not being exposed to the
"traditions of democracy and political philosophy".

Prof Shattuck says the challenge is to "understand what is appealing about a more authoritarian approach, why racism is re-emerging".

He believes it is driven by "fear of change, fear of economic retrenchment... and when you feel insecure you want someone to solve your problems without having to think about them yourself".

"Or you start demonising, making immigrants the targets. This is what happens in society."
Prof Shattuck says he remains an optimist. He has faith that an open society in the end will prove the most successful and efficient. He believes in the capacity of law to hold powers to account.

As a young lawyer he put this in to practice, successfully suing Richard Nixon for wiretapping in 1976. He also worked on the legal pursuit of human rights violations in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

'Illiberal democracy'

But there is no escaping the sense that some old and uncomfortable ghosts are coming back to life.  In Hungary, the prime minister has promoted the idea of an "illiberal democracy", looking eastwards to Russia rather than westwards to the European Union.
There are even more extreme ultra-nationalist voices, with the Jobbik party growing in strength.

Wolfgang Reinicke, dean of the university's school of public policy, says the traditional model of Western democracy is in "deep crisis".
"It was easy to look good," he says, when the contrast was with the Berlin Wall. But in the following decades it has become more difficult for democracies to remain relevant and representative.

"We had the audacity and the hubris when the Soviet Union collapsed to bask in our victories, without realising that it was not the end of history - and the problems were only about to begin."

He warns that too often national governments lack the capacity to control a globalised economy and sophisticated financial markets. It means they run along behind events, looking more and more powerless and discredited, only able to offer "crisis management".

Politics of prosperity

The city is a reminder that there is nothing inevitable about what happens next. There are Turkish, Austro-Hungarian and Soviet era buildings, from regimes that must have seemed permanent but were swept away.

The university occupies a building that began as an aristocrat's palace before becoming state-owned offices for a planned socialist economy. It's now filled with the American English accents of bright young cosmopolitan students.  In the university's business school, the dean, Mel Horwitch, says many of the debates about the future of democracy now lie within the business sphere. An open society needs to deliver.

"When you throw off an authoritative regime there's all this hope," he says, but without prosperity there will be "profound disappointment".
"If you have a stagnant economy, if you're not competitive, it doesn't work."

There was euphoria after the wall fell, but not much business strategy, he says. And in the financial crash, Hungary's fledgling market economy was hit harder than the bigger, more resilient Western financial centres.

"It had a much more permanent, pessimistic impact," says Prof Horwitch.  The country is "stuck" economically and now has to navigate a more "volatile world".
The university is looking for ways for the region to compete. It's setting up a course in managing big data, wanting Budapest to become a knowledge hub like Boston, London or Berlin.

Many of the students at the university were not even born when the Berlin Wall fell. And their debates are about how democracy works in an age of Twitter and identity politics. How much have the economic problems of free markets raised doubts about the political value of free speech?
A student from Norway says she grew up in an era of prosperity, but now sees a changing landscape. "You realise how vulnerable democracy is."
 


Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent, 03/12/2014

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