Hungary's right-wing leader finally drove out George Soros' philanthropic group

Viktor Orban's fierce public campaign had smeared Soros for undermining his staunchly anti-immigration platform.
May 15, 2018, 11:30am

Viktor Orban has finally forced George Soros out of Hungary.

Hungary’s authoritarian strongman has waged a very public war against the billionaire liberal scion for a few years now, branding him an enemy of the nation in high-profile billboard campaigns and introducing “Stop Soros” laws to clamp down on his philanthropic activities — especially the ones seen as undermining Orban’s anti-immigration platform.

On Tuesday Soros’s pro-democracy organization the Open Society Foundation announced it’s shutting its office in Budapest and moving to Berlin in response to the “increasingly repressive political and legal environment” created by Orban’s illiberal government.

“The government of Hungary has denigrated and misrepresented our work and repressed civil society for the sake of political gain, using tactics unprecedented in the history of the European Union,” the foundation’s president Patrick Gaspard said in a statement.

“It has become impossible to protect the security of our operations and our staff in Hungary from arbitrary government interference.”

In the past three years, Orban’s right-wing Fidesz government has launched an unprecedented campaign of character assassination against the Budapest-born financier, accusing his foundation of seeking to undermine European governments and eroding Hungary’s national culture through its support for migration.

Orban has framed Soros, whose philanthropic work focuses on strengthening civil society and promoting human rights, particularly in former Communist countries in Europe, as the antithesis of his government’s nationalist, illiberal and staunchly anti-immigration platform. His party said last year it wanted any groups funded by Soros to be “swept out” of Hungary.

Orban’s campaign for re-election in April featured billboards depicting Soros’ face and telling voters: “Don't let Soros have the last laugh.” The Open Society Foundation said invoked anti-Semitic imagery against the 87-year-old, U.S.-based philanthropist, who is Jewish.

Hungary is pushing through laws targeting non-government organizations that work with migrants and has also targeted a Budapest university founded by Soros by introducing tough new restrictions on its activities.

Orban’s crushing electoral win in April has only emboldened him to press further ahead with his nationalist agenda, which has seen his government repeatedly clash with Brussels and the United Nations over its growing control over the media and judiciary, and refusal to accept European Union-mandated refugee quotas. On Monday, Orban’s cabinet minister Antal Rogan announced that the government would further tighten restrictions on civil society groups under the “Stop Soros” bill, without providing further details.

Despite its relocation, the Open Society Foundation has pledged to continue supporting civil society groups in Hungary from its Berlin base. But some of the recipients of that support say that the foundation’s departure highlights that Hungary is lurching closer to authoritarianism, and their work will only become more difficult.

“Our situation is likely to get tougher,” Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Soros-funded human rights organization, told Reuters.

“The Helsinki Committee is a definite splinter in the government’s eye, so whatever changes they are thinking about, our legal problems will persist.”

Cover image: Activists from the Egyutt (Together) party tear down an ad placed by the Hungarian government against George Soros, in Budapest, Wednesday, July 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Gorondi)