Ignatieff in HVG's Portrait Column

CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff was interviewed for Hungarian weekly HVG's popular "Portre" (portrait) column. Below please find CEU's translation of the article. While the full text of the original is only available to subscribers to the magazine, you can read an excerpt here:  http://hvg.hu/itthon/20160915_michael_ignatieff_ceu_kozep_europai_egyetem_rektor_magyar_feleseg

“The most important thing to know about me is that my wife is Hungarian,” the 69-year-old Canadian history professor and former politician appointed CEU Rector September 1, discloses about himself. Born in Toronto, his father was a Canadian diplomat of noble Russian origin, and his grandfather was Minister of Education during the reign of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II. “I look like an American, I talk like it, but I’m proud to be Canadian,” he says. He received his history degree in Toronto and then his PhD at Harvard. He has taught in Toronto and at Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. He is considered an international expert in issues of democracy, human rights, and governance. He is also known as an award-winning writer, television personality and politician. “I’m the living example of what happens to someone who cannot concentrate,” he says by way of explaining his versatility. He committed himself to politics at quite a young age: “I’m a passionate liberal.” Between 2008 and 2011 he was not only the leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, but of the whole opposition.

His two children from his first marriage are already adults: his son is a gardener in Toronto, his daughter works as a theater production assistant in England. At the beginning of the 90s, during his more than 20-year stay in England, he met his second wife, Zsuzsanna M. Zsohar, who is also a historian and who was then writing about one of his books for the BBC. “Thanks to Zsuzsanna I’ve become familiar with Hungarian poetry, Budapest architecture, the fine wines of Balaton and the excellent Hungarian soups.” He is most impressed by the Hungarian capital’s musical life: “We will constantly spend our evenings at the Opera House and the Music Academy.”

- Did you take on leading CEU because of your wife?

- There is some truth in that. Since the early 90’s I have been visiting Hungary regularly, and I got to know the country not through Budapest, but a small town, Balatonfured. I know Eastern European history well, I’ve also studied the transformation of the Balkan countries. But I surely would not have undertaken this position if I didn’t think that CEU is a great institution. A special attraction of the job was that due to the redevelopment project, the university campus will be opened to the Budapest community during my leadership. I’ve seen the building many times when I was here, and I was impressed by its beauty. We want to make this 25-year old, Hungarian and American university open to the Budapest community. By this I mean the shoemaker who works two blocks away and the people in the neighborhood are welcome to come in for a coffee.

- You are an ideal choice to lead CEU in these challenging times, as you are a scholar but also familiar in the world of politics – said George Soros, founder of the university. Is it some kind of signal that you were chosen to be President and Rector, as you are known as an expert in human rights?

- CEU has long been exploring human rights issues in depth. It’s important to make one thing clear: it was not George Soros who chose me, but the CEU Senate and Board of Trustees. In any case, I do not belong to his inner circle, although I’ve known him for decades. I believe that there is no single other Hungarian living abroad who has done as much for Hungarians as he did. This is the reason why it especially pains me when he is attacked in Hungary.

- The world got to know you as a liberal politician. Are you liberal in other parts of life, too, such as education?

- According to my wife, I am conservative, which is certainly true in the sense that I like to safeguard tradition. For example, the old façade of the CEU building, or Hungarian family traditions. Liberalism to me means that we must listen to everyone, even if we fundamentally don’t want to. This is a tough task. But it is known of me that I’m deeply devoted to freedom.

- What do you think of illiberal democracy advocated by the Hungarian Prime Minister?

- It is a question whether what is illiberal can be considered democracy at all. The citizens must decide whether politicians have crossed the line or not. The more illiberal a system is, the less democratic it is. Democracy should not only be about the majority, but in equal measure about minority rights, protection by law, the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary.

- Through your Hungarian family, you were able to closely observe the change of regime and the subsequent changes taking place in society. How did this affect you?

- I think at least half of the population lives much better than in 1989. Recently, I had the chance to marvel at the fact that at the Fured wine festival, crowds of people were strolling and tasting the wine – this also signals that prosperity and freedom have grown. True, Fured is a huge beneficiary of EU funds. However, we cannot ignore the fact that many Hungarians are left out [of these benefits].

- Surely the billboards prompting voting in the referendum have not escaped your notice?

- Every politician expresses his or her views in some form. But we must be absolutely clear about one thing: There is zero chance that Brussels will force Hungary or any other country to take in refugees.

- You were a member of the Canadian parliament and party leader for years. Why did you leave politics?

- As a believer in democracy, I acknowledged that the people of Canada back then did not choose my party to lead the country. A sensible person does not continue with politics after this. I do not plan any such activity either in Canada or Hungary. In any case, CEU is not a political party, nor is it an NGO, but a university which must focus on education.

- Your three novels are inspired by your own life. What would you write about your current life in Budapest?

- I mostly write when I can’t find another way to say what’s in my head – not in an essay, not in poetry. I am not at this state at the moment. I will write, for example, if something is very painful, if something’s difficult to go through and I want to express it – or inspired by the opposite, by a very positive experience. Those close to me have been encouraging me for a long time to write a political novel, since politics can sweep a person into the most bizarre, exciting, funny and uncomfortable situations.

- What was the most bizarre political experience during your political career?

- In Canada it can easily happen that you wake up in the southern part of the country, you fly 11 hours to reach a northern territory with 75 people who are potential voters. The plane flies over uninhabited land for the last few hours, in complete darkness, and when it lands the Inuits greet you with rubbing their noses with you. Then another few hours of flying, and I find myself in Vancouver, in a Sikh temple, which I can only enter wearing an orange scarf on my head. This all happens in a day, even though I did not step outside of the borders of Canada. Hungary at least is a smaller country, but just as diverse and interesting.

Ilda G. Toth

HVG, September 15, 2016