Tens of thousands protest Hungary's education, NGO policies

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) " Tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated Wednesday in the Hungarian capital to oppose government policies that are seen as limiting academic freedom and intimidating civic groups.

After the rally officially ended at Heroes Square, a Budapest landmark, some protesters faced off with police officers blocking access to the nearby headquarters of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party. There were small scuffles when some pushed up against police lines.

By nightfall, thousands of protesters were at Parliament, chanting anti-government slogans.

Student Flora Fekete said she attended the rally because "I don't want the government to follow the Vladimir Putin model for Hungarian society."

Recent amendments to the country's higher education law have been viewed by many as an attack on Budapest-based Central European University, founded by Hungarian-born American financier George Soros in 1991.

Soros' vision of an open society contrasts strongly with Orban's conservative, anti-immigrant views, and Orban sees these groups as working against Hungarian interests.

CEU is registered in Hungary and New York state, but does not have a U.S.

campus, one of the new conditions set in the law signed Monday.

Several large street protests have been held in the past two weeks in support of CEU, while hundreds of Hungarian and foreign academics and many universities have expressed their backing for the institution, which has over 1,400 students.

The U.S. State Department has urged the Hungarian government to suspend the law. Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said the law could not be suspended but that the government is open to holding talks on the issue.

"We are going to have talks with everyone," Kovacs said. "If the Soros university is driven by good intentions, it will be able to solve the problem."

The university said it has not been approached directly by authorities.

"Exchanges in the press are no substitute for sustained direct contact on a confidential basis," the university said. "We look to the Hungarian government to initiate negotiations with CEU so that we can resolve this and go back to work."

The new law calls for a bilateral agreement between Hungary and the home countries of foreign universities from outside the European Union. Universities that fail to comply cannot enroll new students and must end operations by 2021.

Opposition parties are planning to appeal the law to the Constitutional Court.

Lawmakers will soon debate a proposal from Orban's ruling Fidesz party to force non-governmental groups that receive more than 7.2 million forints ($24,450) a year from abroad to register with authorities or face fines or termination.

"The government tolerates it less and less if someone thinks differently," Stefania Kapronczay, managing director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, said at the protest Wednesday.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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