NEW YORK—Faced with an increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary, the Open Society Foundations are moving their Budapest-based international operations and staff to the German capital, Berlin.
Together with other international funders, Open Society will continue to support the important work of civil society groups in Hungary on issues such as arts and culture, media freedom, transparency, and education and health care for all Hungarians.
The decision to move operations out of Budapest comes as the Hungarian government prepares to impose further restrictions on nongovernmental organizations through what it has branded its “Stop Soros” package of legislation.
“The government of Hungary has denigrated and misrepresented our work and repressed civil society for the sake of political gain, using tactics unprecedented in the history of the European Union,” said Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations. “The so-called Stop Soros package of laws is only the latest in a series of such attempts. It has become impossible to protect the security of our operations and our staff in Hungary from arbitrary government interference.”
The legislation, invoking national security interests, would block any organization from advising or representing asylum seekers and refugees without a government license. The government has indicated that these new laws are intended to stop the work of leading Hungarian human rights organizations and their funders, including the Open Society Foundations. The Foundations will pursue all available legal avenues to defend the fundamental rights that are threatened by the legislation.
Over the past two years, the Hungarian government has spent more than 100 million euros in public funds on a campaign to spread lies about the Foundations and their partners. The government’s hate campaign has included propaganda posters and billboards, invoking anti-Semitic imagery from World War II, and a supposed “national consultation” attacking George Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, and Hungarian human rights groups. Pro-government media recently began publishing false accusations about individual academics, civil society members, and Foundations staff. Those connected to Open Society have been targeted by clandestine and fraudulent recording efforts aimed at fueling the government’s misleading propaganda campaign.
The latest proposed legislation on nongovernmental organizations follows the passage of a 2017 law that imposed burdensome reporting requirements on Hungarian human rights and civil society groups receiving funding from abroad. This law has been challenged by the European Commission before the European Court of Justice as a breach of EU treaty law on the free movement of capital, and a violation of the freedom guaranteed by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Moving operations out of Budapest will have a significant impact on the more than 100 staff based there, most of whom are engaged in international grant making. Around 60 percent are Hungarian nationals, including several who have worked for the Open Society Foundations for more than a decade. The Foundations are taking appropriate steps regarding the safety and well-being of those affected by the office relocation.
The Open Society Foundations have a long legacy in Hungary, where Soros was born and where he began his philanthropy in Europe. He launched his first foundation in Hungary in 1984, using it to promote freedom of expression and thought during the last years of Communism, and then to support the transition to democracy. Within its first decade, Open Society funded milk for schoolchildren, brought equipment to hospitals, and helped the country’s poorest and most vulnerable. In 2010, Soros gave nearly one million euros to help Hungarians affected by the catastrophic “red sludge” industrial disaster.