Soros foundation quits Hungary to escape ‘unprecedented’ tactics
Future of Budapest’s Central European University also unclear under Orban reforms
George Soros, founder and the Open Society Foundations. Open Society said Viktor Orban’s campaign had “invoked anti-Semitic imagery from World War II”. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/AFP/Getty Images
The building that houses the Budapest offices of the Open Society Foundations in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images
A major foundation funded by liberal philanthropist George Soros is closing its regional headquarters in Hungary, due to what it calls “an increasingly repressive political and legal environment” under prime minister Viktor Orban.
The move comes a month after Mr Orban won a third straight term in office on pledges to block immigration and introduce a “Stop Soros” law to dramatically tighten state control on NGOs that help the few refugees and migrants in Hungary.
“Faced with an increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary, the Open Society Foundations are moving their Budapest-based international operations and staff to the German capital, Berlin, ” the group announced on Tuesday.
“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, ” said Patrick Gaspard, president of the OSF.
“The so-called Stop Soros package of laws is only the latest in a series of such attempts. It has become impossible to protect the security of our operations and our staff in Hungary from arbitrary government interference.”
Since opening his first foundation in Hungary in 1984, the Budapest-born Mr Soros has spent hundreds of millions of euro in the country on everything from photocopiers for independent media, to milk for schoolchildren and a clean-up operation after a 2010 toxic sludge disaster.
Yet Mr Orban, who received a Soros scholarship in 1989, accuses the billionaire financier of plotting to oust him and bring millions of people from the Middle East and Africa to Europe to destroy its nation states and Christian traditions.
The nationalist leader ploughed tens of millions of euro in taxpayers’ money into an anti-Soros media campaign that critics called anti-Semitic, and he said on Monday that the Stop Soros law is a top priority.
Among a host of restrictive measures, it would force NGOs that help migrants to undergo security screening and pay a 25 per cent tax on all foreign funding.
The OSF said it would “pursue all available legal avenues to defend the fundamental rights that are threatened by the legislation” and “continue to support the important work of civil society groups in Hungary”.
Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, said it was “regrettable” that OSF was “closing its doors in an EU country”.
“Whenever a civil society organisation that helps build vibrant & tolerant democracies is threatened & feels it can no longer do its work, democracy suffers,” he wrote on Twitter.
The European Union has launched legal action against Hungary over its crackdown on NGOs, and education reform that could force the Soros-funded Central European University (CEU) to leave Budapest.
Government pressure shows no sign of easing, however: Mr Orban said recently that he would not “shed crocodile tears” over the OSF, and he backed a pro-government magazine’s publication of a list of more than 200 Hungarian NGO staff, academics and journalists whom it called “Soros mercenaries”.
The CEU – which plans to open a satellite campus in Vienna – has agreed a deal with a US college to meet new conditions imposed by Hungary, but the government is yet to approve the agreement.
“CEU cannot go into another academic year in a situation of legal uncertainty,” its rector Michael Ignatieff said on Tuesday.
“We call on the government to sign the agreement without further delay.”