Conference report by our interns: Academics Facing Autocracy: Alternative Modalities and Transnational Resilience in Higher Education

The event took place at CEU Vienna:

Autocratic and illiberal practices are present at many levels in numerous societies, even outside their countries of origin. Academic circles across the globe have been victims of a sustained autocratic effort to suppress their freedom in order to consolidate power and eliminate the seeds of opposition and alternate thought.

This is why CEU Democracy Institute’s “Democracy in History” workgroup organized the “Academics Facing Autocracy” program and a workshop to discuss possibilities of resistance.  The OSUN Global Visiting Fellowship for the ‘’Academics Facing Autocracy’’ scheme has brought together academics with a variety of experience in the struggle against autocratic oppression in order to discuss strategies to oppose authoritarian regimes, particularly through alternative modes of education. The programme is hosted by the Democracy Institute at the CEU Budapest campus, which had to transfer its graduate programmes to Vienna as a result of illiberal Hungarian policies. As a global trend of autocratic suppression of academic freedom emerges, it is imperative that alternative and viable strategies are discussed in order to preserve and perpetuate intellectual integrity all over the world. The workshop was carried out in three different parts, starting with the transformative movement of autocracy including the different modes of autocracy in academic institutions. Then it proceeded to a discussion about the implementation of alternative pedagogies as a strategy to combat autocratic interests. Finally, autocracy and academic alternatives were considered regarding the diverse contexts, to which our strategies must be tailored to, across the world.

On the 17th of April, the following academics convened for a workshop at the CEU Vienna campus to discuss how to make academic initiatives that provide alternative education to universities occupied by autocratic regimes resilient as well as transnational. The following academics were in attendance both in-person and online and contributed to a nuanced discussion:

·   Almira Ousmanova (European Humanities University, Vilnius) 

·   Renata Uitz (Central European University, Vienna & CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Alexandr Voronovici (CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Lourdes Peroni (Paraguayan Institute of Constitutional Law, Asunción) 

·   Noémi Lévy-Aksu (Hafiza Merkezi/Truth, Justice, Memory Center, Istanbul) 

·   Balázs Trencsényi (Central European University, Vienna & CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Daniel Palm (University for Continuing Education, Krems & CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Nurzhamal Karamoldoeva (American University of Central Asia, Bishkek) 

·   Thiago Amparo (FGV School of International Relations, Sao Paolo) 

·   Milica Popović (Global Observatory for Academic Freedom) 

·   Alexander Etkind (Central European University, Vienna) 

·   Michael Kozakowski (CEU Yehuda Elkana Center for Teaching, Learning, and Higher Education Research, CEU) 

·   Rafael Labanino (University of Konstanz) 

·   Orli Fridman (Center for Comparative Conflict Studies, Belgrade) 

·   Vladimir Petrovic (University of Belgrade & Boston University) 

·   Tena Prelec (London School of Economics & University of Ljubljana) 

·   Ligia Fabris (FGV Faculty of Law, Rio de Janeiro & Humboldt University, Berlin) 

·   Aysuda Kolemen (Bard College Berlin & Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative) 

·   Ostap Sereda (Central European University, Vienna & Imre Kertesz Kolleg, Jena)

·   Oleksandr Shtokvych (Open Society University Network)

The first panel discussed the “Autocratic transformative moments and Anti-authoritarian resilience”. In the initial stages of the workshop, Alexandr Voronovici provided a highly effective framework through which the stages of academics facing autocracy can be defined and categorized in order to more effectively identify the precursors of autocratic practices before they occur. The ‘softball, hardball and wrecking ball’ modes of autocracy presented by him serve as an effective lens through which the dynamics between academia and autocracy can be observed in order to identify patterns.

Considering the precedent set by the dynamics between the Hungarian government and CEU, a potential framework for a solution was suggested by Daniel Palm in the form of a multi-legged organization. This locational diversity would allow an organization’s weight to be shifted in response to autocratic pressures from certain regimes. The trans-national paradigm of academic reform brought about many colorful and insightful perspectives from the various participants regarding the nature and consequences of alternative pedagogy.

The second panel discussed “Pedagogical innovations in alternative educational projects”. A noticeable perspective was introduced which pressed upon the nature and form of alternative educational spaces, with convincing arguments made for both the traditional classroom and contemporary online learning environments. In a progression of nuance, alternative education was also discussed as a tool to combat inequality and as a vehicle for more progressive trauma-informed pedagogy. The role of legal infrastructure in empowering both autocracies and academics, as well as the global nature of autocratic legal influences highlighted the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to empowering academics worldwide.

Throughout the third panel the “Transnational synergies and (In)compatibilities”, from Russia to Brazil, to Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan, this workshop illustrated a global and interconnected network of autocratic influences threatening academic agency in every part of the world. From the great number of opinions, insights and perspectives presented, it was made clear that a trans-national strategy to combat autocracy and illiberal policies is essential to preserve academic and intellectual freedom.

Personal takes by interns of the Democracy in History workgroup


Even the university is part of liberal democracy’s epistemic foundation where students can be critical, but it did not happen in Laos where pedagogies are formed by the government, bythe  Ministry of Education in particular. Students are made to follow the pedagogy chosen by the government with the cultural and mental mind-sets ingrained therein. The problem is not only present in higher education but in the entire ingrained education structure starting with primary education. Lao education pedagogy does not encourage critical thinking. The education system affects the students with non-opinion regime.

University professors cannot teach or write about politically sensitive topics, not even foreign teachers invited from abroad to teach in Laos. Similarly to Russia and Turkey, universities do not protect students, especially not with regard to political topics. Laos is a country where every freedom is restricted, especially freedom of speech and academic freedom both offline and online. Moreover, university lecturers and administrators are perceived as civil servants who are subservient to government rules and regulation. It is very difficult to shift the control of higher education to the private sector and/or nongovernmental board.


One aspect which is highly relevant to the current and historical sociopolitical climate of Pakistan which I noticed was the need to identify autocratic influences prior to their oppression taking hold. There is currently a vast amount of ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan which are focused around the unconstitutional authoritarian interference of the military in the affairs of the civilian government. As is my own experience, academic material which is used in schools presents a highly biased and historically inaccurate narrative of Pakistan’s military which largely overlooks its role in perpetuating the pattern of political instability and incompetence in Pakistan, as well as actively hiding human rights abuses that institutions have committed against citizens. This control over academic material has allowed the military to maintain the favor of the masses for many years, which is a spell which is only just being broken at a large scale due to a former Prime Minister’s actions.

The “ball” model provides a good framework to help recognize the initial stages of interference in academia before it is too late, and the general discussion also provoked thoughts about how different the country may have been now if the populace had collectively come to its current conclusion much farther in the past. Early interception of such illiberal forces is necessary and so is alternative pedagogy which deviates from the traditional educational systems, which are tied to larger compromised political institutions. It is crucial to intellectually liberate the masses so that they are allowed to make well-informed political decisions.

However, much of alternative pedagogy is tied to technological advances and a country such as Pakistan is sorely lacking in both the infrastructure and technological literacy required to engage with such practices. In a country in which alternative pedagogy which deviates from the accepted political and religious narrative is extremely dangerous and technological systems which provide much-needed anonymity are inaccessible, how can illiberal influences be viably fought in the short term?

New Lecture Series dedicated to Jenő Szűcs

The Democracy Institute’s historians launched a public lecture series–Jenő Szűcs Lecture Series–to bring together international as well as local scholars of history and related fields in Budapest as well as online to exchange their results on the interplay between democracy and histor(iograph)y in a broad sense. The series’ title honors the legacy of Jenő Szűcs historian, an advocate of recognizing Central Europe as a historical region and a major critic of the misuses of national past in his native Hungary. The series was launched on February 21, 2023 by CEU professor Gábor Gyáni who discussed dilemmas of public history and the marginalization of professional history writing in his talk: Telling the truth (or not) about history.

“Lost in Transition” – Closing conference

On March 3-4, 2023, the Democracy in History working group hosted the closing conference of a four-years long (2019-2023) research project entitled Lost in Transition: Social Sciences, Scenarios of Transformation, and Cognitive Dissonances in East Central Europe after 1989 coordinated by the Centre for Advanced Study in Sofia, financed by the Porticus Foundation. DI’s lead researchers Violeta Zentai and Balázs Trencsényi served as senior facilitators in the project which placed place the current anti-liberal and anti-democratic backlash in Eastern Europe, into a comparative historical perspective.

Sport and politics conference


On the 15th of November we hosted a conference (in Hungarian) co-organized by the Institute of Political History and CEU’s Democracy Institute about the popular and timely topic of the relationship of sports and politics. The lectures concentrated on the 20th century, several of them on the role of sports in Cold War politics. Balázs Trencsényi and Ágnes Kelemen from the Democracy Institute’s working group served as panel chairs. The last panel of the event was a roundtable discussion by Róbert Takács historian, Péter Pető and Viktor Egri journalists and Ferenc Dénes sport economist where mainly the football world championship of 2022 and the current Hungarian government’s sport-related policies were discussed. The video recording of the roundtable is available at the YouTube channel of the Institute of Political History.

History as Democracy: Memory Cultures of Social Democracy and Trade Unionism


The Democracy in History Workgroup of the CEU Democracy Institute invites you to a conversation with Stefan Berger.

Moderator: Jelena Tešija, PhD candidate, Department of History, CEU


Please note that it’s an online event. You will be able to follow it here.


Social Democracy is sometimes used to describe a family of political parties. However, it can also be seen as a political outlook which seeks to extend democracy to the social and economic spheres. It stands as a historically important addition to the tradition of political democracy. Between 2017 and 2021 Stefan Berger chaired a commission of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) on the topic of ‘Memory Cultures of Social Democracy’. The task was to examine knowledge on those memory cultures in Germany, locate the specific gaps, and assess how useful memory cultures were as a political resource for the contemporary trade union movement. In this conversation, Berger will present some of the key results of the commission’s work and report on some of the initiatives that have been taken since to strengthen the memory cultures of social democracy, both in Germany and transnationally. Together we will examine how memory historians can be active as engaged historians and intellectuals intervening in public political discourses and discuss the merits of such engaged history writing, which has a long tradition in relation to the history of the labor movement.


Stefan Berger is a Full Professor of Social History and Director of the Institute for Social Movements at Ruhr Universität Bochum in Germany. He is also executive chair of the Foundation History of the Ruhr – a public-private foundation with support from major German companies, trade unions, and the state of North-Rhine Westphalia. Furthermore, he is an honorary professor at Cardiff University in the UK. After taking his Ph.D. at the University of Oxford, he worked for more than 20 years at different British universities. His last position was Professor of Modern German and Comparative European History at the University of Manchester. In 2011 he moved to Bochum. He has published widely on the history of the labor movement, social movements, the history of deindustrialization, industrial heritage, memory studies, nationalism studies, the history of historiography, and historical theory. To date, he has published 7 monographs and edited more than 40 special issues of journals and edited collections. His most recent monograph is: History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2022.