George Soros, the billionaire investor, has denounced a campaign waged against him by the Hungarian government, accusing Viktor Orban, the prime minister, of casting him as an “external enemy” in a bid to mislead voters and cling to power.
Mr Soros, who has allocated billions of dollars to his pro-democracy and human rights foundations, told the Financial Times he had resisted responding publicly to the attacks from Mr Orban but it was time to speak out. He said he now fears for the safety of civil society groups that his foundation supports after Mr Orban said he would press the country’s spy agencies into monitoring their activities.
“It’s a tragedy for Hungary that its government seeks to stay in power through hate-mongering and misleading the population,” Mr Soros said in a telephone interview. He described the campaign against him as a “deliberate misrepresentation” of his views, designed to distract voters from poor education and healthcare standards.
The toxic row between Mr Orban — who studied at Oxford university thanks to a Soros-funded scholarship — and his one-time benefactor has become totemic of the Hungarian leader’s rejection of the liberal, western European political mainstream. Critics say the campaign against Mr Soros, who was born in Hungary, has echoes of 1930s anti-Semitic propaganda. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament’s liberal group, said it was “not compatible with the values we share in Europe”.
Mr Orban’s government in July launched a nationwide television and billboard advertising campaign, accusing Mr Soros of masterminding Europe’s refugee influx. In October, the government began posting 8m letters to Hungarian citizens, detailing allegations against him. Mr Orban this month told supporters that “Soros troops” had infiltrated opposition parties and EU institutions and were promoting “globalist” values, saying:
“They act like Soviet agitprop agents once did. We old warhorses know them by their smell.” I can’t remain silent any more because . . . there is a danger that not only organisations but individual leaders will be persecuted George Soros At the same time, the government has tightened rules for Hungarian universities and NGOs with foreign links, including the central European University — a Budapest-based postgraduate institution founded by Mr Soros.
EU authorities have launched legal action against Budapest over the laws, describing them as discriminatory. Mr Soros said he was breaking his months-long silence after official confirmation that Hungary’s spy agencies would investigate a so-called Soros network that opposes government policies.
The statement has raised fears for prominent Hungarian human rights activists critical of Mr Orban. “I can’t remain silent any more because I fear [that] the recent announcement that the Hungarian intelligence services will start an investigation means there is a danger that not only organisations but individual leaders will be persecuted,” Mr Soros said.
“That’s why I felt there was a need to set the record straight in order to defend these groups and individuals who are going to great lengths to defend European values against persecution.” Mr Orban has described western liberalism as “spiritual suicide” for central Europe and called for increased authority to guard against “turncoats” and “internal destructive elements”, that threaten Hungarian interests.
His reshaping of Hungary’s political and judicial systems since 2010 has drawn admiration from the Polish government. Both Warsaw and Budapest stand accused of undermining the EU’s legal commitments to liberal democratic values. Mr Orban has deepened his criticism of Mr Soros and EU officials ahead of April elections, despite warnings from his political allies in the European People’s Party — a grouping of Europe’s largest centre-right political parties, including German chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU.
The Hungarian government strenuously denies allegations of anti-Semitism in its criticism of Mr Soros and says its claims against him are based on his own statements. Officials say they have evidence of a “Soros network” that seeks to damage Hungary’s reputation abroad.
A poster in a train station in Budapest depicts George Soros and exhorts Hungarians not to let him ‘have the last laugh’ Budapest claims Mr Soros favours opening Europe’s borders, despite his stated support for “regaining control” of borders, and accuses him of supporting the EU’s mandatory refugee resettlement programmes, even though he has opposed forcing countries to accept refugees against their will. In a written rebuttal released on Monday, Mr Soros’s office said the government’s national consultation contained “distortions and outright lies”, intended to mislead Hungarians about his views.
Mr Soros conceded he had revised some of his views on migration. In 2015, he predicted Europe would need to accept 1m refugees fleeing violence in Syria and elsewhere annually, but he later reduced this number to 300,000 in a 2016 article. At the heart of Mr Orban’s allegations is the claim that the billionaire philanthropist has manipulated European politicians to boost immigration and destroy Europe’s Christian culture.
Mr Soros said he had outlined his views on the subject at several points since 2015 but that the EU had not followed his suggestions. “One of the major differences is that I advocate that the EU should use a matching system, which sends refugees to countries that want to receive them and where the refugees want to stay. The point is that the allocation should be purely voluntary — that is diametrically opposed to what the Hungarian government is accusing me in their propaganda campaign.”
Recommended Hungary’s assault on Soros and EU values When German power meets Polish nationalism Poland leads the way in normalising the far right Mr Soros said he admired Ms Merkel’s decision to welcome into Germany hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, despite a political backlash over immigration that led to record levels of public support for the far right AFD party in September elections. “I think she really acted in a strong belief that she was doing the right thing. I think that was perhaps a reflection of the values she absorbed from her father, who was a pastor,” he said.
“Unfortunately it was not properly prepared and there was a pull factor that she did not fully appreciate.” The 87-year-old investor, who has ended his regular visits to Hungary since the attacks began, defended his initial support for Mr Orban in the 1980s, when the student leader co-founded Fidesz — an anti-communist youth movement that would later become Hungary’s dominant political party:
“At the time when I supported him, he was a leader of a young student’s group who attended special classes and organised against the prevailing regime, so they deserved it,” Mr Soros said. “It’s really Orban who has changed, from being a leader of the rebellion against the then-prevailing regime to having converted into the leader of a mafia state.”
Mr Soros said the time had come for other EU governments to respond more strongly to Mr Orban’s treatment of civil society and address fears over the rule of law in Hungary. “They are showing signs that the current regime in Hungary has gone too far.”