Billionaire democracy activist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations announced it will withdraw from Hungary and relocate to Berlin, citing an increasingly repressive political environment and security concerns for its personnel.
Branded an enemy of Hungary’s anti-migrant prime minister, Viktor Orban, the Hungarian-born Soros has been at the forefront of repeated political attacks against civil society actors that support the rights of migrants in Europe.
The decision to move operations out of Budapest comes as Hungary prepares to impose the so-called “Stop Soros” package of legislation, which would enact unprecedented restrictions on human rights groups.
“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,” Patrick Gaspard, president of Open Society Foundations (OSF), said in a statement.
“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.”
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Though the final law has yet to be made public, government officials have said it would block any incoming organisation from advising or representing asylum seekers without a license.
Soros, 87, is a Jewish financial market guru who survived the Nazi occupation during World War II. Since then he has donated billions of dollars to foundations across the world, with the first in Hungary opening in 1984 to promote freedom of speech during communism.
“This is a very significant moment. The fact that OSF feel the need to leave says a lot about where things are going now with a government that is ruthless when it comes to civil society and has made its intentions very clear,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Europe director, adding her organisation is considering a similar move if the proposed laws are passed.
“We are going to stand by our colleagues in civil society, but we are taking it day-by-day and if this package passes and are putting our staff at risk in any way then we are going to have to reconsider.”
According to the Open Society Foundations’ statement, the closure in Budapest will impact more than 100 staff based there, about 60 percent of whom are Hungarian.
The move has drawn criticism from European Union officials who point to a deteriorating state of democracy in Hungary.
“Whenever a civil society organisation that helps build vibrant & tolerant democracies is threatened & feels it can no longer do its work, democracy suffers,” EU First Vice President Frans Timmermans tweeted.
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Orban and his Fidesz party rode a nationalist and anti-migrant platform to secure two-thirds of the seats in last month’s parliamentary elections, securing him a fourth term as prime minister.
Since then, he has declared an end to the liberal democracy that has existed in Hungary since the fall of communism.
Critics say Orban has used his long tenure to systematically eliminate the free media and slide the country towards autocracy.
“Orban is now trying to elevate the conservative revolution in Europe … and they believe this is going to strengthen Hungary’s position in Europe,” said Balazs Jarabik, non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
With Open Society deciding to leave, Jarabik said Orban has now achieved one of his primary goals of forcing out political foes. “It is a very unfortunate situation.”