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Viktor Orban has started a personal propaganda war against George Soros, a billionaire US investor and the Hungarian PM's top enemy of the state. DW's Ben Knight explores the new hostility towards the NGO funder.
In the United States it's an alt-right meme, but in Hungary, it's a poster campaign by the ruling party, Fidesz: a photo-shopped image of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire US investor, as a puppeteer manipulating a center-left leader. But in Budapest it's not Hillary Clinton pictured dangling on the end of the billionaire's dastardly strings, but Laszlo Botka, a member of the Hungarian Socialist Party and mayor of Szeged, Hungary's third-largest city.
The billboard was paid for by Fidelitas, the Fidesz youth organization, and it represents part of a sustained campaign by Hungary's government party to demonize Soros, and by association the NGOs that receive funding from the Open Society Foundations (OSF), the organization Soros founded in 1984, when Hungary was still under Communist rule.
Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a migrants' rights NGO that receives funding from the OSF, says the stigmatization has become a dark joke among her friends. "In the past year, it has become a term, an everyday expression, to say 'agent of Soros.' This is like a permanent adjective for these NGOs," she said.
The mafia state
In recent months, Orban has seemed intent on personalizing his clash with Soros - most obviously by launching legislation that could shut down the Soros-founded Central European University. On Thursday, the 84-year-old investor responded in a speech at the Brussels Economic Forum, in which he accused the prime minister of turning Hungary into a "mafia state."
"He sought to frame his policies as a personal conflict between the two of us and has made me the target of his unrelenting propaganda campaign," Soros said. "He cast himself in the role of the defender of Hungarian sovereignty and me as a currency speculator who used his money to exert control over Hungary in order to profit from it. This is the opposite of who I am."
Orban, for his part, hurled the insult right back in a regular Friday morning interview with a public broadcaster, describing Soros and the NGOs he helps to fund as "the real mafia."
The blood wasn't always this bad. Back in 1989, Orban - like other members of his government - received a Soros-funded scholarship to study at Oxford University in the UK. This was not unusual in the early days of the post-Communist era. "George Soros' foundation was very instrumental in creating... basically you could say creating democracy in Hungary," said Pardavi. "He provided opportunities to study for young individuals who were willing to take part in politics around or after the first free elections. It was important to have a new political elite."
That tradition of supporting Hungarian society continued throughout the intervening years, with Soros' Open Society Foundations donating breakfasts to school children, ultrasound scanners to hospitals, and $250 million (222 million euros) to found the Central European University. Nor was the new Fidesz government above accepting $1 million from the OSF in 2010 to help clean up a chemical spillage that contaminated the Danube with toxic red sludge.
Are NGOs ideological?
But now the Hungarian government has clearly come to see Soros as a political threat. And Soros, for his part, has also advertised his intentions - having published books that set out his "open society" vision, which is a clear challenge to Fidesz' nationalist, conservative principles.
As Sandor Lederer, executive director of the corruption watchdog K-Monitor, points out, there are several charitable foundations funding a range of human rights NGOs in Hungary. Indeed, humanitarian civil society represents an entire sector of the country's economy. And yet, while other foundations often back the same organizations that Soros does, they never attract Orban's vitriolic billboard campaigns.
"Soros never intervened in Hungarian politics, but he became present now because the government made him present," Lederer told DW. "He invests in democracy and open society - which is a value, and Orban is challenging this value. And of course it's easier for Orban to give the whole thing a face - he's like Gulen for Erdogan, or Khodorkovsky for Putin."
Needing and hating civil society
Andras Kovats, director of Menedek, is in an odd position, since his organization receives funding from both OSF and the Hungarian government. As a migrants' rights association, Menedek is on the receiving end of the government's anti-NGO propaganda (and Kovats has firsthand experience of the hostility that causes in the public, but the government also pays the organization to help manage its asylum system.
"For example, we provide support for people who are about to leave the country, because they're waiting for deportation - which is clearly something the government is in line with," he said. "A well-managed asylum system is still in society's interests, and the government has not shut down the country's asylum system entirely."
Menedek sees itself as independent, and Kovats dismisses the notion that taking money from the OSF is "political."
"The allegation against Soros is that he wants to make an impact on public life - he can't do it through elected representatives, so he does it indirectly, through unelected actors. I think that's a big, big fallacy," he said. "After all, you have to balance the will of the majority with the cohesion of the totality. If an organization helps social cohesion, then it is legitimate."
The Open Society Foundations paid the reporter's travel costs for this story.