Embattled Soros foundation to exit politically hostile Hungary

Embattled Soros foundation to exit politically hostile Hungary
Government billboards showing George Soros on the streets of Budapest
By bne IntelliNews April 20, 2018

The global NGO network Open Society Foundations, backed by Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros, will exit Budapest and move its East European headquarters to Berlin, following years of hostility from the Viktor Orban government.

Orban's right-wing nationalist government has stigmatised Soros and the OSF, accusing him of various plots to undermine Hungary, including dismantling its border fence and flooding the country and Europe with immigrants.

Local websites, citing Austria's Die Presse newspaper, reported that the OSF office would shut down by August 31 and move first to Vienna and then on to Berlin.

The ruling Fidesz party had submitted the so-called "Stop Soros" legislation to Parliament before the election in early April, in which it retained a supermajority, and is set to pass the bill in May when the new cabinet is formed as it garnered the two-thirds majority required. The controversial legislation would place a 25% tax on NGOs' foreign income and require a licence for their operations. The draft came under pressure from international organisations as it would further curtail an already restricted space for civil society activism.

News of OSF's planned departure comes just a week after government-friendly weekly Figyelo published a list of people it called "Soros mercenaries", or people it says are paid by the billionaire philanthropist to overthrow the government. The publication of the list of academics, journalists, and workers of NGO's has received international criticism. The OSF removed the names of its employees from its website for fear of retaliation.

Orban repeatedly used the term "Soros mercenaries" in the final weeks of the election campaign. At stake, in his words, was whether Hungary would remain a country for Hungarians or one led by opposition parties financed by Soros who would turn it into a country of immigrants.

George Soros was a key financier for the anti-communists youth movement Fidesz before the change of regime in 1989. He financed the scholarship of Viktor Orban and other Fidesz politicians. Local press reported that Maria Schmidt, who owns Figyelo omitted from her CV that she had spent three years in the US, financed by the Soros foundation.

OSF supported 46 different organisations in Hungary with grants that totalled $3.6mn. Since 1984, total grants in the country have exceeded $400mn, including $250mn for the set up of for creation of the Central European University in Budapest, according to its fact sheet. The Budapest office is one of the regional hubs of the OSF, employs around 100 staff, 60% of whom are locals.