The Specter of Soros Hovers over Central Europe

In recent years, Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has become a semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian country. A very important element of the Hungarian regime’s propaganda is the demonizing of George Soros.

At the beginning of 2019, Freedom House, an American foundation that has been evaluating political systems in the world for nearly 50 years, dividing them into non-free, partially free and free, downgraded Hungary to the category of partially free states. This is an unprecedented situation in the history of the EU. Moreover, these negative trends can be expected to continue, as Fidesz, Viktor Orbán’s party, who has been Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010, enjoys the support of more than half of the citizens, while the opposition is divided into several weak groupings.

The phenomenon of Orbán’s popularity has various sources, including dramatic restrictions on media freedom, most of the media being a propaganda mouthpiece of the government. Mass propaganda is based on a xenophobic and anti-immigrant politics of fear. The national community is built on this foundation, proclaiming the unity of all Hungarians, but in reality it has only identified Orbán’s own electorate (“true Hungarians”). It is defined as an ethnic monolith of conservative Christians, allegedly always threatened by powerful external enemies working or conspiring with the “liberal” and “cosmopolitan” fifth column.

George Soros, an American-Hungarian businessman and philanthropist of Jewish origin, is at the heart of this propaganda. He is presented as Hungary’s eternal enemy due to his long-time support for the idea of liberal democracy and rule of law. His demonizing indirectly alludes—although Orbán’s regime denies it—to anti-Semitic motives. More worryingly, Soros is becoming the number one public enemy for other Central European politicians, including even Social Democrats.

An anti-immigrant politics of fear

Orbán’s obsession with Soros at present is paradoxical, given that the Hun- garian Prime Minister was a liberal who, thanks to a scholarship funded by the American-Hungarian philanthropist, was able to study at Oxford. Orbán was only one of the thousands of people around the world who received financial support from Soros. Soros has spent USD 32 billion to support civil society. Born and raised in Budapest, Soros treats his former homeland with special attentiveness. The Open Society Foundation and the Central European University were established in Budapest. Since the end of the 1990s, however, Orbán and his party have definitely changed, moving to the right and adopting a nationalist-populist agenda.

Soros is becoming the number one public enemy for other Central European politicians, including even Social Democrats.

The 2015 refugee crisis made Fidesz adopt the anti-immigrant politics of fear as the cornerstone of its political identity and the main tool for building public support. It was then that Soros became the target of very brutal attacks by government propaganda depicting him as a hidden demiurge provoking the refugee crisis in order to radically change the religious structure of Europe. According to Orbán, Soros’s aim is to undermine the identity of genuine European Christian society—to hollow out Europe from the inside out. Soros’s support for the civil society is allegedly secretly indoctrinating Hungarians in a bid to make them acquiesce to mass migration.

In 2017, the government put up thousands of posters with Soros’s face twisted in a diabolical smile, with the captions “don’t let Soros have the last laugh” and “99 percent oppose illegal immigration”. As Orbán explained in one of his speeches, “Those who do not halt immigration at their borders are lost: slowly, but surely they are consumed. External forces and international powers want to force all this upon us, with the help of their allies here in our country.”

Against globalist elites and Soros-type networks

The attacks on Soros invoked anti-Semitic clichés. In March 2018, speaking during a Hungarian national holiday, Prime Minister Orbán, describing Soros, stated: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward, but crafty; not honest, but base; not national, but international; he does not believe in work, but speculates with money; he does not have his own homeland, but feels he owns the whole world.”

Orbán’s nationalist rhetoric has been gradually radicalized, shading into crypto-racism. According to Orbán, “We must state that we do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed: we do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others. We do not want that. We do not want that at all. We do not want to be a diverse country.”

The 2015 refugee crisis made Fidesz adopt the anti-immigrant politics of fear as the cornerstone of its political identity and the main tool for building public support.

In November 2017, during a party congress at which he was elected by acclamation as President of Fidesz, Orbán declared: “This is also well understood by globalist elites, the bureaucrats who serve them, the politicians in their pay, and the agents of the Soros-type networks that embody their interests. […] Let’s not beat around the bush: in order to implement the “Soros Plan”, across the whole of Europe they want to sweep away governments which represent national interests—including ours.

In recent years, Soros’s NGOs have penetrated all the influential forums of European decision-making. They are also present in the backyards of some Hungarian parties. They operate like the activists of the Department for Agitation and Propaganda of the old Soviet Communist Party. We old war horses recognize them by their smell.” These are the words of a Prime Minister of an EU country. Associating Soros with communism is not uncommon in the propaganda of Orbán, who, using war rhetoric, stated, “What we did not tolerate from the Soviet Empire, we shall not tolerate from the Soros Empire.”

From words to deeds

The campaign against Soros has been used to harshly restrict media freedom. As Orbán frankly admitted, “We are up against media outlets maintained by foreign corporations and domestic oligarchs, professional hired activists, trouble-making protest organizers, and a chain of NGOs financed by an international speculator, summed up by and embodied in the name George Soros.”

In 2018, Orbán moved from words to deeds. Hungary passed what the government dubbed the “Stop Soros” law. The new law, drafted by Orbán, created a new category of crime, called “promoting and supporting illegal migration”—banning individuals and organizations from providing any kind of assistance to undocumented immigrants. The government pushed out the Central European University from Budapest on grounds that it corrupted Hungarian society. The University decided to move its international section to Vienna. The Open Society Foundation also closed down its Budapest operations and transferred to Berlin.

Orbán’s ruthless anti-Soros campaign was helped by the fact that the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu approved it. Netanyahu, looking for allies in Europe and taking advantage of ideological affinities, became one of the best friends of Prime Minister Orbán, despite his downplaying the responsibility of Hungarians for their participation in the Holocaust and the affirmation of the Hungarian politicians ruling the country during World War II.

The attacks on Soros invoked anti-Semitic clichés.

Leaders of the Jewish community in Hungary appealed to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2017 to end the poster campaign against Soros. Orbán rejected the appeal and suggested that Hungarian Jews should do much more to oppose Muslim immigration to Europe. Israel’s ambassador to Hungary initially denounced the anti-Soros posters, stating that the campaign “sows hatred and fear”, but then Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued its own statement critical of Soros. According to the Israeli media, the change in position was ordered personally by Netanyahu. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained that the philanthropist “continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself ”.

Left-wing politicians are also playing the anti-Soros card

Anti-Soros themes are not limited to Hungary. They are present in the rhetoric of nationalist-populist groups across the world. In Central Europe they can be found in the identity policy of the Law and Justice (PiS), the ruling party in Poland, which treats Orbán’s Hungary as the main source of inspiration. At the 2016 party congress, Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of PiS, presented a narrative about Soros which was very similar to the one promoted by Orbán. According to Kaczyński, “We are told to change radically, to create a multicultural society, to create a new identity.

Anyone who knows what the situation is in many Western European countries also knows that this means a radical deterioration in the quality of life. And this is what we are being offered. There is pressure. This is about sovereignty. If we maintain it, we will defend ourselves. We must defend ourselves. The ideas of Mr Soros, the concepts of societies that do not have an identity, are concepts that are convenient for those who have billions [of dollars], because it is extremely easy to manipulate such a society. If there are no strong identities, then everything can be done with a society.”

More depressing is the spectacle of left-wing politicians playing the anti-Soros card in Central Europe, which definitely makes this region distinct in the European Union. In 2018, after the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Prime Minister Robert Fico, the leader of the socialist SMER party, had to resign under pressure from mass demonstrations. Fico said that Soros, together with Slovak President Andrej Kiska, were behind the demonstrations.

During a press conference in March 2018, Fico said: “I want to pose a simple question to Mr President. On 20 September 2017 in New York, on 5th Avenue, I am asking why the Head of State would pay a private visit to a person who has a questionable reputation and this person’s name is George Soros. [..] Why has he not taken any representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to this meeting? What happened after the murder of the journalist suggests that there is an attempt in this country at total destabilization.”

Some leaders surpassed Orbán in his paranoia

The leader of the Romanian socialists, Liviu Dragnea, who had been given a suspended prison sentence for corruption and vote rigging, when confronted with huge demonstrations against changes in legislation undermining the rule of law in Romania also stated that allegations of corruption against him in the media had been spread by Soros, whom he called “a malefic character”. In August 2018, Dragnea told a pro-government TV station that four foreign men had stayed in Bucharest for three weeks in April 2017 and “got close to him”. He did not provide any further details, but stated that the four had been paid by “a very famous person in the world”. Asked by the journalist if he was thinking of Mr Soros, Dragnea replied, “I am not thinking of him, he is thinking of me.” It has to be admitted that Dragnea has even surpassed Orbán in his Soros paranoia.

In February 2019, Orbán inaugurated another huge poster campaign against Soros before the European Parliament elections. This time Soros appeared on billboards with Jean Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission. The billboard says that Hungarians “have the right to know what Brussels is about to do” and then it claims, “They want to introduce mandatory resettlement quotas. They want to weaken member states’ right to border protection. They would ease immigration with migrant visas.”

All these claims have nothing to do with reality. The situation is surrealistic, because Juncker represents the European People’s Party, of which Fidesz is a member. The poster campaign made many parties from this group demand the exclusion of Fidesz. Finally, the membership of Orbán’s party was “merely” suspended. In consequence, a continuation of his ideological evolution towards the extreme right should be expected, which means increasingly brutal nationalist propaganda, including that directed against Soros.

Adam Balcer

is a political scientist, expert in Polish foreign policy. He works as a Project Manager at WiseEUROPA and a National Researcher at the European at Warsaw University.

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