Besieged Open Society Foundations to move to Berlin from Budapest

Citing “an increasingly repressive political and legal environment" in Hungary, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations announced on Tuesday moving their Budapest-based international operations and staff to the German capital, Berlin. OSF is one of the world’s largest financiers of non-governmental organisations working in Hungary since 1984.
After winning his third consecutive term in a landslide last month, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seeks to complete a break with liberal democracy, and build an “illiberal democracy" - or as he has recently put it: “an old-school Christian democracy" - inspired by Turkey and Russia.

He won the April parliamentary election on a fierce anti-migration campaign, also aimed at Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros, he built a border fence to keep out mostly Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers, clipped the wings of courts, increased the government’s media influence and started targeting civil society groups.

OSF’s decision to move operations out of Budapest comes as the Hungarian government prepares to impose further restrictions on NGOs through what it has branded its “Stop Soros" package of legislation.

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 Open Society Foundations.

“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," he added.

The legislation, invoking national security interests, would block any organization from advising or representing asylum seekers and refugees without a government license, the OSF said.

“The government has indicated that these new laws are intended to stop the work of leading Hungarian human rights organizations and their funders, including the Open Society Foundations. The Foundations will pursue all available legal avenues to defend the fundamental rights that are threatened by the legislation," the organisation said.

77 university professors and academics from 28 countries around the world have recently stood up against the "Stop Soros" bill they say poses an "imminent existential threat" to the independent Hungarian civil society.

The OSF reminded that over the past two years, the Hungarian government has spent more than 100 million euros in public funds on a campaign to spread lies about the Foundations and their partners.

The government’s hate campaign has included propaganda posters and billboards, invoking anti-Semitic imagery from World War II, and a supposed “national consultation" attacking George Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, and Hungarian human rights groups, it added.

Last month, pro-government weekly Figyelő published a list of over 200 names that it claims are "mercenaries" paid by Soros to topple the government. Those on the list include members of rights organisations such as Amnesty International, anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, refugee advocates, investigative journalists and faculty and officials from CEU, some of them deceased.

The paper basically had no choice but to come up with such a list, after Orbán said during his election campaign that his cabinet knew the names of some 2,000 members of the "Soros mercenary army," paid to "work toward bringing down the government."

“Those connected to Open Society have been targeted by clandestine and fraudulent recording efforts aimed at fueling the government’s misleading propaganda campaign," the OSF said.

The latest proposed legislation on nongovernmental organizations follows the passage of a 2017 law that imposed burdensome reporting requirements on Hungarian human rights and civil society groups receiving funding from abroad. This law has been challenged by the European Commission before the European Court of Justice as a breach of EU treaty law on the free movement of capital, and a violation of the freedom guaranteed by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Moving operations out of Budapest will have a significant impact on the more than 100 staff based there, most of whom are engaged in international grant making

, the OSF said. Around 60% are Hungarian nationals, including several who have worked for the Open Society Foundations for more than a decade. “The Foundations are taking appropriate steps regarding the safety and well-being of those affected by the office relocation."

Click here for a factsheet of the OSF’s work in Hungary.

The OSF vowed that together with other international funders, it will continue to support the important work of civil society groups in Hungary on issues such as arts and culture, media freedom, transparency, and education and health care for all Hungarians.

The Hungarian government is actually gearing up to adopt a tougher version of its “Stop Soros" law, Orbán’s chief of staff Antal Rogán told reporters on Monday. The cabinet will seek to amend the constitution to make the legislation tougher.

The plan may threaten the ruling Fidesz party’s membership in the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s biggest bloc, Bloomberg reported.

EPP chief Manfred Weber said pursuing NGOs and the Soros-founded Central European University (CEU) in Budapest are "red lines" Orbán shouldn’t cross, according to a May 10 interview in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.

Rogán brushed off the threat, saying the EPP needed Fidesz in elections for European Parliament next year.

Front page photo by Shutterstock

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