Critical decision George Soros’ NGO leaves Hungary for Berlin

The billionaire philanthropist will reluctantly move his Open Society Foundations organization to Berlin after years of repression in Budapest.
Hungary’s leaders have run an anti-Soros campaign.

The Open Society Foundations closed its doors in Hungary today, as George Soros’ NGO said it could not maintain its work supporting freedom of expression in an increasingly repressive environment.

Its head, Patrick Gaspard, said in a press release that the foundation could no longer protect its 100-member staff. “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 announced the decision as Budapest tightens its policies governing NGOs with the so-called "Stop Soros" legislation, expected to be passed this month. The legistation would require NGOs register with the government, and any activities related to migration would face a 25 percent tax rate.

Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister and a right-wing populist, has clashed repeatedly with Mr. Soros. He has railed against the American investor as a member of a global elite who is undermining national culture by encouraging migrants, and blamed his foundation for creating Europe’s refugee crisis. Most recently, Mr. Orbán’s latest election campaign was criticized as anti-Semitic, featuring billboards of Mr. Soros calling for him to be stopped.

The witch-hunt against civil society organizations in Hungary continues.

In the eight years Mr. Orbán has been in power he has repeatedly clamped down on the media and NGOs. A regulation in 2017 governing universities threatens the work of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, also launched by the billionaire and philanthropist. The CEU’s future in Hungary remains unclear.

The clashes between the two men underline the growing divide in Hungary between a liberal minority — Mr. Soros supports policies that would welcome refugees — and a majority opposed to foreign influence. And it echoes the split within Europe, as right-wing populism gains power in countries from France to Poland, challenging the European Union's ability to resolve critical issues such as refugee policy.

Born in Hungary, Mr. Soros fled Nazi persecution with his family in 1943. He set up the aid groups in 1979 to fund human rights and democracy, media freedom, transparency, education, arts and health care, channeling $32 billion into the network. Surprisingly, Mr. Orbán himself received a fellowship from Mr. Soros’ foundation.

European politicians expressed support for Mr. Soros and his foundation’s work. Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian politician and member of the European Parliament, tweeted “The witch-hunt against civil society organizations in Hungary continues. We shouldn’t tolerate such illiberal behavior by an EU Government. This is why from 2020 onwards cohesion funding must be conditional on the rule of law and European principles.”

Speaking in Berlin Tuesday, Vera Jourová, the European commissioner of Justice, said she felt “great regret” at the decision taken by Mr. Soros and the continued pressure he faced in Hungary.

Allison Williams is deputy editor at Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]