The recent attempts by the Hungarian government to shut down the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest triggered a wave of protest and of solidarity from academics and politicians worldwide. The law, which quickly became known as 'LEX CEU', was widely perceived not just as an infringement on academic freedom, but also as yet another move by the government of Viktor Orbán, a self-professed adherent of 'illiberalism', to retreat from the basic principles of liberal democracy and the rule of law. Events in Poland over the summer, especially the recent attempts to eviscerate judicial independence in this other European Union member state, have since further increased the impression that we are witnessing a new phase in a process that is marked by a significant shift away from the political ideas and values that were established after the fall of communist rule in East Central Europe (ECE).
Yet, has the post-communist ’liberal consensus’ that some experts saw actually ever really existed? Do we need to maybe reconsider the narrative of Central Europe’s successful path to stable liberal democratic rule and an open society? In this special focus project of the Cultures of History Forum we seek to place the ‘Lex CEU’ in a broader context, both regionally and historically, and to ask what the state of academic freedom, civil society and liberal values is in the countries that came out of communist dictatorships more than 25 years ago. The contributions we collected reflect not only on local reactions to the 'Lex CEU', but also on anti-Soros sentiments, openly illiberal and anti-liberal policies and rhetoric as well as on the situation of civil society in different countries of the region, spanning from the Baltics to the Balkans. They draw an intriguing and multi-facetted picture of a region that is struggling to make sense of the legacies of 1989.