World

George Soros Foundation to leave Hungary due to hostile climate

George Soros's foundation is closing its office in Budapest and moving to Berlin, leaving what it called "an increasingly repressive political and legal environment" in Hungary.

PM Viktor Orban has blamed Soros for promoting refugee migration, multiculturalism

Financier George Soros, left, who emigrated from Nazi-occupied Hungary and eventually found success on Wall Street, is an ideological foe of the country's prime minister Viktor Orban, right. (Eric Piermont, Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images )

George Soros's foundation is closing its office in Budapest and moving to Berlin, leaving what it called "an increasingly repressive political and legal environment" in Hungary.

The pro-democracy group made the announcement Tuesday, a day after the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced it would tighten restrictions on non-governmental organizations, under a law dubbed the "Stop Soros " bill.

Orban, who won a landslide election victory last month, has repeatedly accused the Hungarian-born Soros and his organization of encouraging migrants and undermining the national culture.

Soros's Open Society Foundations (OSF) organization said it would continue to support human rights work in Hungary as well as projects linked to arts, media freedom, transparency, education and health care.

But it would move its Budapest-based international operations and staff to Germany.

"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," OSF president Patrick Gaspard said in a statement.

A Hungarian government billboard featuring George Soros, with the words translated to 'Don't let George Soros have the last laugh,' at a transit stop in Budapest on July 6, 2017. (Krisztina Than/Reuters)

Opposition and rights groups have long said that a departure of the OSF would mark a milestone in a slide towards authoritarian rule in Hungary and go against the principles of the EU – a charge dismissed by the government.

Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs declined to comment.

Legislation expected soon

In power since 2010, 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 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.

Before the election, Orban's political campaign vilified Soros, and his activity supporting civil society, on billboards nationwide. Open Society said the campaign had "invoked anti-Semitic imagery from World War II."

Soris, who is 87 and based in the United States, is Jewish.

Michael Ignatieff, rector of the Central European University, is shown March 29 during a news conference after the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban tabled a new bill that could force the 25-year-old school out of Hungary. The school also has campuses in Austria and the U.S. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

The government has repeatedly denied this. The NGO legislation is expected to be one of the first laws passed by the new parliament.

It would allow the interior minister to ban any NGOs active in the immigration field deemed to pose a "national security risk". It would also impose a 25-percent tax on foreign donations to NGOs that back migration.

The Central European University, founded in Budapest by Soros in 1991 after the fall of communism in eastern Europe, said on Tuesday it would stay in the Hungarian capital despite the OSF decision to leave. The CEU, because it issues international degrees, has had to adapt to a new law which required it to open a campus in the United States.

Its rector, former Canadian Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, said new students in 2019 might have to enrol across the border in Austria if the CEU fails to strike a deal with Hungary under the new law, which sparked street protests and an EU legal challenge.

In a statement on Tuesday, Ignatieff urged the Orban government to recognize that CEU now met conditions stipulated in the new law. "CEU cannot go into another academic year in a situation of legal uncertainty," he said.

Shortly after Orban's re-election, Ignatieff said the school's campus in Vienna could accommodate more students if necessary.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which campaigns for human rights and receives funding from OSF, was preparing for tough times ahead. 

"The Helsinki Committee is a definite splinter in the government's eye, so whatever changes they are thinking about, our legal problems will persist," said the group's co-chair, Marta Pardavi.

But Pardavi added that it had no plans to leave Budapest and would not back away from its advocacy of the rights of asylum seekers and other core issues unless forced to do so. 

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