Ignatieff Interviewed in Magyar Nemzet

Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet published an interview with President and Rector Michael Ignatieff on November 5, 2016. The Hungarian article can be found here, and the English translation is below.

“George Soros Can Defend Himself”

We have to have good relations with the government – said Michael Ignatieff, Central European University’s new President and Rector, in an interview with our paper. The professor, who arrived to Budapest from Harvard, used to be a leading figure of Canadian politics as the leader of the Canadian Liberal Party. Although he admitted that leading CEU also has a political element, this should not be overemphasized, he believes. He feels it is not his task to protect George Soros, but at the same time he states: the founder of the university is indeed interested in Hungary’s situation.

Did John Shattuck, the previous President and Rector, give you any advice regarding how to lead CEU?

John said it is very important to maintain good relations with the Hungarian government. Just like him, I also have to do everything for our cooperation to be good. Besides being academic, this work has a political element, which I believe is a good thing, but it is important to understand that we are a Hungarian institution. I received my credentials from President Janos Ader and I had a good discussion with him. Our programs are accredited in Hungary, we have hundreds of Hungarian students, and many Hungarian faculty. CEU is not a political party, not an NGO, it is a university. This means, we do not take a position as an institution regarding any matter of the country. Since several Hungarian governments, including this one, understood that, I can state that we have quite a good relationship.

This does not always show. Your Founder, George Soros, had been criticized harshly several times by the Hungarian government. “Soros mongering” became a concept. This then is only a political rhetorical trick?

George Soros can defend himself, this is not my task to do that. At the same time, I wish to highlight that Hungarians often forget that George Soros is honestly interested in Hungary’s situation. Many Hungarians went to live abroad, but only a few have devoted so much energy, money and time to help this country. You may not agree with his methods. Some might have completely legitimate reasons for judging some of his decisions. But George Soros could have established this university anywhere, still he chose Budapest.

Those who attack George Soros do not challenge his patriotism. They believe he tries to have a say in the country’s matters from the outside, through his money.

I do not want to interfere. I know that the Ministry Spokesperson and part of the media is also critical towards him. This is their own matter. However, that must be taken as a fact that George Soros honestly cares for Hungary’s situation.

You left Harvard for CEU. Why was this position attractive for you?

I do not mean to be disrespectful towards any other institution, but CEU is the best university of the region. This attracted me first of all. Secondly, its open society mission. The core of it is how we can sustain freedom not just in Central and Eastern Europe, but worldwide. It is meant to examine the connection between intellectual and political freedom. A university is not a propaganda machine. It can have one goal, which is to teach students what knowledge is and how it can be used to solve society’s problems. This is the essence of the mission. I love Harvard. I could have stayed there for the rest of my life, but this mission was more exciting for me. The third reason is my wife, who is Hungarian. I have Hungarian relatives. Although not permanently, but after all I have been living in Hungary for 25 years now. We have an apartment in Balatonfured.  

You mentioned that your position has a political dimension too. Did this attract you as well?

Yes, but let’s not overdo this dimension. I do not feel at all like I am in a hostile environment. Believe me, I would tell you if felt that way, but this is not the case. Several ministers of the government had paid a visit so far, just like prominent advisors and financial personalities. They all understand what we do here. They all understand that it is good for Budapest that CEU is here, and we have told them that Budapest is good for us. It is that simple. There are very strict rules that I enforce to prevent us from being dragged into any political conflict. What happens in this country depends on the Hungarian people. I understand if people of a country do not like being told from the outside what to do. This is the case everywhere. At the same time, a confident country also listens to what others say. If I have an opinion about a topic and I’m asked about it, I say it, but that is my private opinion and not the standpoint of CEU or George Soros.

Your mandate is for five years. Do you have any goals that you want to achieve by all means by 2021?   

We have the possibility to rethink and match education to the 21st century. We have to examine what is that knowledge that we need in our world today. Without knowledge democracies fall apart after a time. I was a politician and I know that in democracies when making decisions great many factors play a part. Some sometimes can be hearsays and lies. Those decisions, however, that we base on real knowledge we need to regret the least rarely. The only thing that a university can do to move the situation forward is that it trains people who are aware of what knowledge is. This is our aim.

You were the leader of the Canadian Liberal Party for years. What is your opinion of the current Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? Do you know him personally?

Of course. For a couple of years I was his boss. What do I think of him? That he is a very good politician. He is a much better politician than I was. I am an academic, a professor, but based on my political experiences I honestly respect those who have skills for politics. I emphasize this because so many people hate politicians. They say they are thieves and rogues who only keep their own interests in mind. I’ve been a politician. Good politicians can save countries, while bad politicians can ruin countries. This is a very important role that deserves respect. Trudeau is young, dynamic, he is able to make decisions. What is there not to like in this?

You’ve said several times in interviews that you will be a liberal as long as you live. Your uncle, however, in a famous political conservative thinker, John Grant. Did this result in any family quarrels?

It is very interesting that nobody had asked me in connection with my uncle for 20 years. Well, yes, John Grant was the brother of my mother. Imagine a huge, bearded man who had an antagonistic attitude towards liberalism due to his conservative philosophy. He thought that there are two problems with liberalism. One is that liberals are too partial towards capitalism, and he considered capitalism a morally destructive economic system. He furthermore believed that liberalism in the 60s had coalesced too much with the empire of America. Thus, liberalism for him was capitalism and imperialism at the same time. He was a religious man who liked the countryside, small settlements, and he was afraid that Canada, as a neighbor of a capitalist empire would lose its freedom. I am a liberal but I loved my uncle very much. He was a great man and he was right in many of his ideas regarding liberalism. When liberalism becomes unscrupulous capitalism, selfish individualism, or an apologia for empire, then it really can drive societies astray. He was right in that.  

And in what ways was he wrong?

The challenge is to create a liberalism that cares about poor people, strengthens social bonds, respects religion and people’s faith, while at the same time defends the sovereignty of nations against empires. I believe in this liberalism. In a liberalism that respects traditions and through the power of the state strengthens them, while at the same time assures social, political and intellectual freedom. It respects religion but does not let it be too dominant, and it grants sovereignty to countries in a way that does not make cooperation between countries impossible. The type of liberalism I represent aspires for this. But in politics, if you do not argue with those you disagree with, then, really, you are not doing politics but just talking to yourself. The great thing about my uncle was that he was debating me while he was really good to me. I learned a lot from him.

The referendum in Hungary about the compulsory quota took place exactly a month ago. How did you see this with an outsider’s eyes?

In general, I’m against referendums, be it about the quota, Brexit, the Scottish or Canadian referenda on independence. I believe in representative democracy. We elect politicians so that they make decisions instead of us in such matters. If we let the wider public decide on these things, usually bad things come out of it. The topic makes people oppose each other and the results can be falsified. Therefore, according to my views, referendum within a democracy is always a symptom that the function of Parliament had emptied out.

Many criticize Hungary’s repulsive policy on migration, although Canada has strict rules on who may enter its territory, or can stay there for a longer time.

Every country has the right to protect its borders. Without this, we could not talk about countries. Canada had chosen a different path regarding refugees than Hungary. I’m very proud that we had taken in 40,000 people. But this is fully compatible with the strict border control. If you travel to Canada, you will be checked. In Hungary’s case the problem is not with the fence either. The questions is, is there any compassion towards those asking for help. In September at the Keleti Railway station it was visible that there is a lot of compassion in the Hungarian people, and I believe many would probably like the migration policy of the country to be more generous than it currently is. But at the same time they want to maintain the national identity of the country and they are worried about radical Islam too. The type of multiculturalism that works in certain countries does not work everywhere. I understand all of that, however, the reality of the 21st century is that these people will continue to come. We need to come up with an immigration policy that does not let people drown in the Mediterranean Sea, or suffer for years in Greek refugee camps. I do not make moral judgements, I only say that what we have currently cannot go on forever. We have to let every country decide how many people they take in, but countries have to cooperate in finding the solution. The idea that a wall or a fence in itself will keep the problem away is simply not believable. This is only the export of problems.


He was also Justin Trudeau’s boss

The President and Rector of Central European University (CEU), Michael Ignatieff, had a colorful life path. The Canadian professor taught at Harvard before taking on the leadership position at CEU, however, previously he also taught at the University of Toronto, Cambridge and Oxford. Although he holds 11 university honorary doctorate titles, besides academia, he played a significant role in the world of journalism and Canadian politics. As a war correspondent, in 1992 he reported about the Croatian-Serbian war, in 1994 the Burundi war, and in 1999 the horrors in Kosovo. Although there were cases when he was shot at, according to him, he was never in a real life-threatening situation. For a while he was a parliamentary representative, then from 2009 he led the currently ruling Canadian Liberal Party. He resigned from this post after the party lost severely at the elections in 2011. As he shared with our paper, he personally knew current liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - he was even his boss for a while. The interview was conducted in the Rector’s office. Among others, on the wall there is a drawing of his grand-grandfather on his father’s side, Nikolai Pavlovich Ignatyev, who was a minister of Tsar Alexander III. His son, that is, the grandfather of the President and Rector, was Minister of Education during the First World War. During the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution the family immigrated first to France, then to Canada, although their real estate is visible in St Petersburg to this day. One of them currently functions as a Palace of Marriages. To our question whether it had ever occurred to them to regain these properties, he laughs and says: “Oh, Lord, no way! Do you know how much it costs to maintain real estate in St. Petersburg? I’m crazy, but not that much!” According to him, due to his family history he is able to associate with those who are hit hard by history but are able to stand up again. He has respectable lineage from his mother’s side as well: George Grant, Canada’s definitive conservative philosopher and political commentator was Michael Ignatieff’s uncle. The President and Rector has not lived permanently in Hungary before – he has been visiting Balaton regularly for decades, as his wife is Hungarian. He has two children from his previous marriage.


About CEU

CEU, founded by George Soros in 1991, is a US- and Hungarian-accredited postgraduate institution. It is a significant center for discussing current issues in economics, society, and politics. Its website says that the institution is the supporter of building open and democratic societies that respect human rights. The students of the university are from 110 different countries, and the faculty is strongly international too.