By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Hungarians protested in central Budapest on Sunday against new legislation that could force the Central European University (CEU), a school founded by U.S. financier George Soros, to move out of the country.
A bill passed in Parliament this week by the ruling right-wing Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a critic of liberal civil organizations funded by Soros, targeted CEU by setting numerous new conditions under which it must operate.
The bill has led to criticism from hundreds of leading academics worldwide as well as from the U.S. government and the European Union.
Hungarian President Janos Ader must now sign the bill by Monday to make it law. The protesters said they wanted to convince Ader to reject the bill and refer it to a constitutional review.
"What do we want Ader to do? VETO," the crowd chanted. "Free country, free university!"
"The government wants to silence pretty much everyone who doesn't think the same as them, who thinks freely, who can be liberal, can be leftist," protest organizer Kornel Klopfstein, a PhD student at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, told Reuters.
"According to the government one of the centers of these people is at CEU... We should stand up for academic freedom and for CEU."
The government has been tightening up on dissent in other ways as well, proposing tighter rules on non-governmental organizations, which will have to register with authorities if they have a yearly foreign income of 7.2 million forints ($25,000).
The Hungarian premier has often vilified Soros, whose ideal of an open society is squarely at odds with Orban's view that European culture is under an existential threat from migration and multiculturalism.
Orban has often said NGOs are doing Soros' bidding.
"The government is always looking for someone to fight with, and Soros seems like a perfect person for this because he funds NGOs in Hungary and he funds CEU as well," Klopfstein said.
CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff has said the school would continue operations as normal and demanded that the law be scrapped and additional international guarantees of academic freedoms be added to current legal safeguards.
The U.S. State Department will send diplomats to Budapest next week to address the CEU crisis, said Ignatieff, who spent several days in Washington to lobby the U.S. government, lawmakers and the media.
"They want to completely undermine and eradicate what remains of civil society," Bara Bognar, a 40 year old finance professional, told Reuters. "This is the first protest I have ever participated in. There is a level at which you must be present, so here I am."
"The method, the lack of dialogue, the efforts for years to annihilate all democratic institutions, this cannot be the future of us nor our children."
(Editing by Hugh Lawson)