BUDAPEST, Hungary — Major cities throughout Hungary are publicly condemning foreign-funded NGOs as a regional response to the Hungarian government’s current march towards illiberalism, joining the crusade of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán against Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros.
Since December, municipal leaders of Kaposvár, Debrecen, Miskolc, and Pécs have been targeting human rights organizations on the grounds of receiving financial aid from abroad, especially those supported by Mr. Soros.
“The mayor Zsolt Páva warned people about a local Soros-funded organization who will join the election campaign and bring migrants and refugees to the city,” said András Nyirati, director of ‘With the Power of Humanity’ Foundation in the southern city of Pécs. Here, the municipal council recently issued a statement calling out its citizens to bar any local organizations from their premises which are connected to the Soros-founded Open Society Foundation (OSF), one of the world’s largest foundation promoting rights and freedoms. The OSF has been supporting people in need across the globe including Hungary where they are active since 1984.
“They were very careful not mentioning our name directly, but they certainly talk about us,” Mr. Nyirati told The Globe Post as “With the Power of Humanity” was the only NGO in the region who received funds from the OSF at the time of the statement. “With the Power of Humanity” Foundation has been working for more than 10 years supporting children in deep poverty and educating citizens on human rights and democracy in the region. They received recently an annual budget of $500,000 from the OSF to empower and finance the work of other NGOs and civil group in the South-Western part of the country.
The foundation declares on their website to be an independent, autonomous organization, which does not interfere with local or regional policymaking. Therefore, labeling them as “Soros campaign office” or “Migrant Center” is not only false, says Mr. Nyirati, but seriously misleading and hinders their work. After the statement came out, the owner of the premise they were about to move their new office into withdrew from the lease agreement. The organization invited the mayor several times to showcase him their work and assure they only support local people, but Mr. Páva declined.
The Globe Post also reached out to Mr. Páva and the municipality of Pécs for comment but hasn’t got any response.
“Like a dog with a bone, the Hungarian government is not willing to let go of this opportunity to artificially connect foreign-funded but locally working NGOs with the migration crisis,” Csaba Csontos, Hungarian spokesperson of the Open Society Foundation, told The Globe Post. With the upcoming elections, creating fear, stigmatizing actual people and organizations fighting for human rights and alienating them from their communities go along perfectly with the government’s current anti-refugee and anti-Soros narrative, he explained.
In a statement, the OSF compared the situation to the darkest times of Hungarian history and highlighted “the statement of the municipality of Pécs is an open violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and association.”
Mr. Orbán, alongside with state and pro-government media, has been pouring its energy into a campaign against Mr. Soros and his foundation for more than a year now. The government installed series of giant EU-blue billboards with the face of Mr. Soros over the country, claiming his liberal support on policies regarding asylum seekers will “Islamise Christian Europe” and destabilize Hungary.
Last April, Mr. Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party also passed a higher education law designed to shut down the Budapest-based Central European University, also founded by Mr. Soros.
“We are not as big and powerful as you are and as big and powerful as George Soros — the American financial speculator attacking Hungary, who has destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans with his financial speculations, who has been fined for speculation in Hungary, and who is an open enemy of the euro,” Mr. Orbán said when the European Commission questioned his actions in Brussels.
After this, the government passed a law in June last year aimed at foreign-funded NGOs forcing them to register with a court, and state the origin of their fundings on their website and official publications. It applies to all NGOs and other civil groups receiving more than €24,000 ($29,000) a year. An international uproar followed immediately. But the European Commission only took legal actions in October against Hungary over these restrictions. The case against the Central European University was only referred to the European Court of Justice in December.
“Initially, we received several threats online such as we should be deported to Africa or my daughters will definitely be raped by migrants on the street,” Mr. Nyitrai said. But later, messages of solidarity poured in, and the ‘With the Power of Humanity’ Foundation has already found a new place for their office. The foundation has already taken legal actions and filed a civil lawsuit against the mayor and the municipal council of Pécs for defamation and discrimination.
Both Mr. Nyitrai and Mr. Csontos believe the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the citizens of Pécs proves the majority of Hungarians don’t actually believe the government’s propaganda and hopefully will keep up with their humanity in the future.
Municipal leaders from all over Hungary met last Friday to discuss a national statement similar that of Pécs municipality.
“We don’t know how all this will end, but this trend against civil organizations spreads just like a virus across Hungary,” Mr. Nyitrai said.