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Hungary's Orban takes aim at critics

April 13, 2018

A pro-government magazine has published the names of hundreds of Viktor Orban critics, including academics, civil rights activists and journalists. Does the news mark a new step in Hungary's ongoing political escalation?

Anti-Soros sign
Image: AFP/Getty Images

On March 15, Hungary's national holiday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared in a speech before tens of thousands of supporters that "after the elections we will take revenge — moral, political and legal revenge." Now, mere days after his overwhelming electoral victory, Orban is apparently about to make good on his threat.

On Thursday, pro-government magazine Figyelo published a blacklist with the names of 200 Orban critics. The list, dubbed "the investors' people" and spanning two whole pages, includes academics, journalists and nongovernmental organization workers, labeling them "mercenaries" of US-Hungarian billionaire investor George Soros. The accompanying article claims that one hundred individuals have been identified who work for and belong to Soros' Hungarian network.

Read more: Viktor Orban's election win leaves Hungary's opposition in tatters

The list includes the names of:

- Numerous academics who teach at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, which is largely financed by Soros' Open Society Foundation.

- The entire staff of several NGOs, among them the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International's Hungarian section.

- Several journalists, including the editorial staff of investigative platform Direkt36, which over the previous three years reported on many corruption cases involving individuals close to Orban and his Fidesz party, leading to a range of investigations by the European Anti-Fraud Office.

- A number of formerly liberal-leaning and conservative politicians and economists who once were sympathetic to Fidesz policies, including Attila Chikan, who served as minister of economic affairs in Orban's first government during the 1990s.

Viktor Orban speaks
Orban and his Fidesz party scored a decisive victory in Hungary's parliamentary elections earlier this monthImage: Reuters/M. Djurica

Intimidation tactics

The blacklist immediately made headlines throughout Hungary and sparked condemnation from many of those named. Major news platform index.hu criticized that drawing up lists with names of alleged enemies of the government was reminiscent of the "darkest days of Nazi and Communist times." In a statement, CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff said that publishing the list was "contemptible" and "a flagrant attempt at intimidation that is dangerous for academic freedom and therefore for all of Hungarian academic life."

Read more: European right greets Viktor Orban's Hungary win

Many NGO workers who have been named also expressed their consternation. Marta Pardavi, co-chair at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, told DW the publication was "shocking" and an "extreme and primitive way of vilifying individuals."

Indeed, the appearance of the list alone — featuring white lettering on a black background — leaves little doubt that its purpose is to intimidate all those named. And the wider political context shows that it was not the coincidental product of some zealous Fidesz supporters. For years, Orban has singled out Soros, directly targeting him with campaigns and political attacks. Orban himself, incidentally, once was the recipient of a Soros-funded scholarship, as were several other government and Fidesz party members.

Today, Orban claims Soros is attempting to destroy the Hungarian nation and Europe's Christian identity by promoting the settlement of millions of Muslim migrants. He alleges Soros employs paid "mercenaries" and in March claimed in a video message that his government knows the names of 2,000 such "Soros mercenaries," hinting that they are being kept under surveillance.

'Enemies of the nation'

Figyelo is owned by Orban ally Maria Schmidt, a historian and intellectual progenitor of the politics of Fidesz. The name of her publication translates to "observer" which, in light of the recent blacklist, acquires a particularly cynical connotation. Figyelo often functions as a organ to pave the way for Orban's contentious campaigns. In early 2017, for instance, an article in the magazine first introduced the notion of a "Lex CEU," a controversial bill that changed the laws regarding higher education, as a way of shutting down Hungary's "Soros university."

Pro-CEU Protese in Budapest
Thousands of people in Hungary have protested against the Orban government's attempts to shutter the CEUImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/MTI/J. Marjai

Accordingly, Attila Tibor Nagy from the Budapest-based Centre for Fair Political Analysis thinks that the recently published blacklist is meant to pave the way for passage of the so-called "Stop Soros" package of laws in early May. The legislation aims to empower the government to limit the activities of NGOs "illegally promoting immigration." Nagy says that by "publishing this list of names, all of which are government critics, they are being cast as enemies." And so, he believes, "this seems to be not all that surprisingly a continuation of the anti-Soros campaign."

Orban's European allies

Nagy insists Hungary is far from the kind of democratic erosion comparable to what has happened in Russia or Turkey. But he, like many other observers, nevertheless regards this as a new low in a process of ongoing political escalation. The latest developments could stir debate within the European Union and the European People's Party (EPP), of which Fidesz is a member, over how to deal with Orban. On Thursday, Judith Sargentini, a Dutch member of the European Green Party in the European Parliament, presented a critical report on the status of Hungary's democracy.

Read more: EU looks away as Viktor Orban stays on in Hungary

After Orban's re-election, fierce debate has once again ensued in the EPP about whether or not Fidesz should be expelled from the political group. Manfred Weber, member of Germany's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and chair of the EPP, vehemently rejects the idea, arguing that Orban could be dealt with better if Fidesz remains in the political group. The Helsinki Committee's Pardavi, in turn, is critical of this approach. "All Western politicians who are still in some way or form defending Orban should now realize in what political direction Hungary is headed," she says.

Figyelo has meanwhile announced it will continue publishing names. And while it has apologized for previously also listing the names of already deceased individuals, the magazine dismissed the "hysteria" and "tsunami of concerns" following the initial publication of the blacklist as unwarranted and unnecessary. It said that anybody wishing to be taken off or added to the list should simply send an email.

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter