George Soros foundation leaves Hungary amid government crackdown

A foundation founded by Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros is moving its Budapest operations to G...

Posted: May 16, 2018 12:57 PM
Updated: May 16, 2018 12:57 PM

A foundation founded by Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros is moving its Budapest operations to Germany following the right-wing Hungarian government's crackdown on civil-society organizations and targeted attacks on Soros.

The Budapest branch of Open Society Foundations (OSF), which works to combat authoritarianism and promote human rights around the world and has outposts in more than 100 countries, will move to Berlin because of the "increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary," according to a statement 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 OSF President Patrick Gaspard.

Responding to that accusation, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the foundation "is fleeing from transparency." In an emailed statement Wednesday, the spokesperson said, "They don't want the public to know exactly what they are engaged in and in what way and thanks to what financing they are supporting immigration."

The announcement by the foundation came one day after Orban pledged to submit a new legislative package known as "Stop Soros" to parliament as soon as the new government is formed. Parliamentary elections last month saw Orban's Fidesz coalition win a supermajority, giving it the power to make sweeping changes to the country's laws and constitution.

During an official visit to Poland on Monday, Orban described the "Stop Soros" package as one of the most important issues in the election.

The bill would tighten an existing law adopted last June that imposes restrictions on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding. It's almost identical to Russia's Foreign Agent Law, which has been used to crack down on opposition voices and independent media.

Claims of 'national security risk'

Hungary is currently being investigated by the European Court of Justice over last year's legislation, which could breach European Union laws on the free movement of capital and violate freedoms enshrined in the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The law was one of a slew passed during Orban's past eight years in power that tightened regulations on the media, central bank, constitutional court and NGOs. European Union leaders have warned that these laws would undermine the country's democracy.

According to Reuters, the updated legislation would also allow Hungary's interior minister to ban NGOs working in the area of immigration that are considered to pose a "national security risk." Last year, Peter Szijjarto, the country's foreign affairs minister, accused Soros himself of posing such a risk, claiming the philanthropist wanted to "settle hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in Europe and Hungary." Soros' spokesman said at the time that his views had been misrepresented.

Soros' support for refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East in recent years has made him a target for Orban's right-wing coalition, which is now entering its third consecutive term and campaigned on a virulently anti-immigrant and anti-refugee platform.

The official campaign included posters and billboards depicting the billionaire next to the slogan, "Let's not allow Soros to have the last laugh," and accusing him of supporting illegal immigration and plotting to take control of the country. Soros supporters argued the campaign also had anti-Semitic overtones, a claim the government rejected.

In the emailed statement Wednesday, Orban's spokesperson accused the foundation of wanting "to create an immigrant continent and an immigrant country."

Addressing the "Stop Soros" legislation, the OSF's Gaspard said that it had "become impossible to protect the security of our operations and our staff in Hungary from arbitrary government interference."

According to the OSF statement, the organization will continue to support Hungarian civil-society groups on issues such as education, transparency and media freedom following the move to Berlin.

Move follows $18 billion investment in OSF

Soros fled Hungary for Britain in the 1940s to escape Nazi occupation. His family later immigrated to the United States, where Soros became one of the most successful investors in the world.

He launched OSF in 1979, with the Hungarian office opening five years later. Since then, according to its website, OSF and its predecessor the Hungarian Soros Foundation have funded breakfasts for schoolchildren, supported programs to modernize the country's healthcare system, provided $8.6 million for Hungarians hit by the 2008 financial crisis and donated more than $250 million to help fund the Central European University in Budapest, which is also facing threats from recent legislation.

Last October, Soros moved $18 billion -- the majority of his estimated $24.6 billion fortune -- to the Open Society Foundations.

More than 100 staff members will be affected by the move to Berlin, 60% of whom are Hungarian nationals, according to OSF. "The Foundations are taking appropriate steps regarding the safety and well-being of those affected by the office relocation," the organization said in a statement.

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