April 20, 2018 / 6:19 AM / 6 months ago

Soros foundation attacks 'stifling' Orban law as Hungary exit looms

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The foundation of Budapest-born financier George Soros accused Hungary’s right-wing leadership on Friday of trying to stifle non-government groups, but said it would decide whether to leave the country only after parliament passes a “Stop Soros” law.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose draft law has provoked legal action by the European Union, made clear he would be glad to see the back of the foundation after saying it promotes mass immigration against the will of the Hungarian people.

Critics of the nationalist premier, who scored a landslide election victory this month, said a departure of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) would mark a milestone in a slide towards authoritarian rule as he cracks down on independent centres of thought and activism.

OSF spokesman Csaba Csontos said the organisation was weighing its options. “The government has committed to passing the ‘Stop Soros’ law ... It will be a symbolic step which serves to stifle non-government groups,” he told Reuters.

Asked about media reports that the OSF would move to Berlin, he said this idea had arisen and planning was underway, but he declined to confirm whether an exit from Hungary was definite.

Csontos acknowledged that the draft law, which would affect a number of non-government organisations (NGOs) as well as his own, “will be passed for sure... let’s talk about this then.”

However, the OSF said it remained committed to its work in Hungary, regardless of where it is based.

Orban, a champion of “illiberal democracy” who won a third term on April 8, responded with sarcasm when asked about the prospect of an OSF departure.

“You might understand if I don’t cry my eyes out,” he told state radio MR1, adding that the main issue he and U.S.-based Soros differed on, migration, would remain at the top of the European agenda.

The European Commission has taken Hungary to the European Court of Justice over the NGO draft law, accusing the government of violating the right to freedom of association.

Orban has increased his control over the media and put allies in control of formerly independent institutions, while his stand on refusing to accept large numbers of migrants in Hungary has also put him in conflict with the EU.

Orban said a summit of EU leaders in June should not make broad changes to the way the bloc handles immigration, adding that decisions should be made after elections to the European Parliament next year to ensure voters get a say in the matter.

“Governments must operate of the people, by the people, for the people,” he said. “Therefore to create a framework in the migration issue one year before the elections is unfair, undemocratic. I urge Europe’s leaders to exercise restraint.”

DEEPENING CONFLICT

Soros has promoted liberalism since before the 1989 fall of communism, funding education, scholarship and political movements. His past support included for the now ruling Fidesz party which under Orban has abandoned its liberal origins.

FILE PHOTO: A man rides his moped past a government billboard displaying George Soros in monochrome next to a message urging Hungarians to take part in a national consultation about what it calls a plan by the Hungarian-born financier to settle a million migrants in Europe per year, in Szolnok, Hungary, October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo

Today OSF funds independent journalism and supports NGOs combating corruption and discrimination, spending $3.6 million in Hungary in 2016. Recipients included the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal support to asylum seekers.

Orban and Soros have clashed over the 2015 European migration crisis. Orban says Soros is out to undermine Europe’s cultural identity while the billionaire has accused him of running a mafia state.

The NGO legislation is expected to be one of the first laws to be passed by the new parliament. It allows the interior minister to ban NGOs that support migration and pose a national security risk. The government says the bill, which would also impose a 25 percent tax on foreign donations to NGOs that back migration in Hungary, is meant to deter illegal immigration.

“This fits into the series of steps that allows no sector to operate without the government’s stamp of approval,” said Tamas Boros at the Policy Solutions think tank.

EXISTENTIAL THREAT

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is also concerned. “We are worried because the current draft presents an existential threat to us,” said Marta Pardavi, who co-chairs the group.

Asked about a vote in the European Parliament on Thursday to support NGOs through a new European Values Instrument, Orban said he expected the conflict with liberal civil groups to continue regardless of any OSF move.

“There are always those who want to hurt the community one represents, in this case Hungarians, and, say, want to turn Hungary into an immigrant country.”

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Referring to the OSF, he said: “If they think a strong Budapest presence helps them they will stay. If they prefer to leave and fight from the outside, then they will go. But never think they will give up.”

Additional reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by David Stamp

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