PECS, Hungary (AFP) — Zoltan Mester’s charity was all set to begin work helping sick children, old people and local communities in poverty-stricken southern Hungary, aided by 415,500 euros ($515,400) from George Soros.
But in late 2017, Pecs city council issued a resolution that stopped the “Emberseg erejevel” (“With the power of humanity”) organization in its tracks.
“We, the inhabitants of Pecs, are shocked to learn that a project of US-Hungarian billionaire speculator George Soros’s foundation will try to influence our lives, decisions and choices by setting up a campaign center here,” it read.
The very same evening, the owner of the office that Mester’s decade-old organization was going to rent told them that they couldn’t have it after all.
“He explained that he didn’t want any problems with the authorities,” Mester told AFP.
Such experiences are common for non-governmental organizations under Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who polls suggest will secure a third consecutive term in elections on April 8.
Since 1979, the Jewish Hungarian-born Soros has plowed tens of billions of dollars into his Open Society Foundations (OSF), which in turn fund civil society groups around the world.
In Hungary the money has helped organizations helping refugees — of whom there are few in Hungary — as well as poor people and minorities to get access to health care and education.
But echoing other populists in the region and conspiracy theorists on both sides of the Atlantic, Orban says Soros is part of a “globalist elite” in cahoots to destroy Hungary and Europe through mass immigration.
“They are not national, but international. They do not believe in work, but speculate with money. They have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs,” Orban, 54, thundered in a typical recent speech.
“They are not generous, but vengeful, and always attack the heart — especially if it is red, white and green,” he said in reference to the colors of the Hungarian flag.
Soros, whose money helped fund a young Orban’s studies and helped his Fidesz party get off the ground, rejects the accusations, calling them “distortions and outright lies.”
The atmosphere is such that “children, to insult each other, chant ‘Soros is your grandfather,'” Daniel Renyi, a journalist at the news website 444.hu, told AFP.
Over the summer and in the run-up to the election, Orban’s Fidesz party plastered the country with billboards “warning” about Soros.
One of them depicts Soros, 87, and opposition candidates holding wire-cutters to destroy the razor-wire fence that Orban erected on the Serbian border in 2015 to keep out migrants.
“Clearly his organizations or the organizations that (Soros) has funded are going for a different political agenda,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told AFP.
“We see here a democracy problem.”
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Most NGOs have boycotted a rule introduced last year, similar to one in Russia, requiring them to declare themselves if they receive more than 24,000 euros annually in foreign funding.
But according to Daniel Makonnen, OSF spokesman, the government is applying other forms of “pressure” such as suspending EU funding.
“We get anonymous emails and Facebook messages calling us ‘Soros agents,'” Mester said. “The more horrible ones say ‘you and your wives will be raped by migrants.'”
And Orban’s government has already lined up a new “Stop Soros” package of laws for after the election, which will introduce taxes on foreign-funded NGOs “supporting” illegal immigration.
The package will also see foreigners deemed to support the entry of asylum seekers barred from entering Hungary and NGOs undergoing a security check before being allowed to operate.