Open Society has done good work in Hungary. Why is it being attacked?

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Billboards of George Soros, along with countless radio and TV ads, are the backbone of the Hungarian government’s latest “national consultation” that concerns Soros. [Akos Stiller]

Recently I have taken to counting the billboards attacking George Soros as I walk to my office at the Open Society Foundations, writes Goran Buldioski. There are six along my twenty-minute route and they are part of the latest anti-Soros campaign in Hungary.

Goran Buldioski is the director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.

Billboards like these, along with countless radio and TV ads, are the backbone of the government’s latest “national consultation” that concerns Soros, the founder and chairman of the foundation I work for. What sounds like a form of democratic participation is in fact yet another political campaign being waged by the Hungarian government.

Following his ‘Stop Brussels’ national consultation which brought the first ever official rebuttal from the European Commission to a member state, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has found a new target: George Soros, the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist.

Orban claims there is a “Soros plan” which would force Europe to take in a million migrants a year and forcibly settle them in reluctant countries like Hungary. There is no such plan, yet the government dispatched 8 million forms across the country, each one including seven statements on the “plan” that voters can only agree with.

Hungarian social scientists have pointed out that the statements are manipulative, use pejoratives and fail to offer an alternative opinion.

This is the third campaign of this sort in the last two years, counting the failed referendum on asylum quotas last year. I am used by now to these propaganda salvos, but like many people in Hungary and across Europe, I question the reasoning behind the permanent campaigning, a familiar populist tactic.

Why attack the European Union? Why attack people who have escaped a war-zone? Why George Soros? What are the motives behind such actions? What will be the consequences of this state-sponsored xenophobia?

George Soros created his philanthropic enterprise in 1979, and in 1984, Hungary was the first foundation he set up outside the United States. Since then, the Open Society Foundations have spent more than $400m in aid in the country.

In 1984, Hungary was still under Communist rule and the foundation started by loosening the government’s information monopoly by distributing photocopiers to civil society groups, libraries, hospitals, and universities. Eventually, $4.4 million was spent on 1,000 copiers.

Another initiative designed to open Hungary to democratic influences was the sponsorship of more than 3,200 students to study abroad, one of whom was a young Viktor Orban who attended Oxford University in 1989. Many Hungarians who opted for academia or business and not politics benefited from this scheme.

Communism collapsed the same year, and the Open Society Foundations worked to assist the country in the politically and economically challenging transition from Communism. Between 1991 and 1996, for example, the Open Society Foundations spent $5 million providing free breakfasts for elementary school children.

And in a partnership with the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, 40,000 homeless people were screened for TB.

The Open Society Foundations have continued to bolster Hungary’s civil society while providing emergency aid in times of crisis, like the red sludge pollution in the Danube in 2010. Established by Soros in 1991, the Central European University in Budapest has become a respected centre of higher education.

More than 2,100 Hungarians have attended with scholarships from the Open Society Foundations, many becoming Hungary’s academic and economic leaders.

Today, the Open Society Foundations spend $940 million a year around the world and work in more than 100 countries. In 2016, they spent $3.6 million in Hungary, less than the cost of printing and distributing the forms for the ‘national consultation.’ Any notion of a material, ideological or political threat to the Hungarian nation is ridiculous.

Most observers agree that George Soros represents a convenient target that Viktor Orban can use to rally his forces before the official election campaign is announced next year.

Others refer to the media campaign tinged with anti-Semitism that plays on the dark demons of Hungarian society. And ideologically, the Open Society Foundations stand for freedom of expression, transparency, accountable governments and societies that practice justice equality.

By attacking the legitimacy of people who hold viewpoints other than his own, Viktor Orban justifies his authoritarian measures, ignoring the foundation’s valuable work and inserting a fictitious official narrative in its place.

Some local observers point out that this campaign, and those that came before, cover up the real state of Hungarian society. Since Hungary joined the EU, more than half a million people have left the country, half of those who stayed cannot afford to go on holiday, and the vast majority are affected by the state of the public health and education systems.

Any Hungarian can see that society is closing in front of our eyes, thanks to a government that is a full member of the European Union. And that is bad news for both Hungary and the European Union.