Autocracies, semi-autocracies, and illiberal democracies are keen on curbing international donors who, they claim, are promoting foreign interests and destabilising elected governments. But is this really what foreign donors, such as George Soros, are doing? The focus of this article is Hungary, but similar trends are visible all over post-transition East and Central Europe.

It is hard to foretell what is going to happen to the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU) in the long-run. Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orbán promised the European People’s Party at the end of April that he would rethink his current efforts to force the shut-down of the Central European University and introduce a Putin-style civil society law, but back in Hungary the government-financed propaganda campaign, that centres around the need to stop Brussels and Soros, is still in full swing. State-funded media outlets – as well as government-friendly papers and TV stations – are still trying to dig up dirt on Soros, the CEU, and almost anyone they deem critical of Orbán. The TV station TV2, for example, reported that Soros (whose foundation supported a euthanasia program for terminally ill people in the 1990s) wanted to kill his own mother. Other outlets claim that Soros (who is of Jewish origin) had as a 14-year-old collaborated with the Nazis. They also claim that the CEU only provides stipends to those who are willing to fight for Soros’ vision of an open society.

It is quite clear that this is all part of a targeted effort against Soros and the organisations he supports: Orbán announced last year that 2017 would be the year to stop the organisations funded by George Soros. The 87-year-old financier is one of the main donors of critical NGOs in Hungary (and the wider region), therefore kicking his foundation out of the country would be to remove life support from many of these organisations. Something similar has happened in Russia, where Soros’s Open Society Foundations are already blacklisted, and are therefore unable to provide funding to local organisations.

Orbán and his supporters claim that stopping Soros is necessary in order to protect the population from uncontrolled immigration and terrorism as Soros is seen as an unscrupulous proponent of the fair treatment of refugees, and the activities of the CEU and Hungarian civil society try to foster pro-refugee attitudes in society. Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, said in a statement to Hungarian press in April that he has received complaints from diplomats of other countries that CEU alumni are engaging in activism after their return – suggesting that other countries in the former Eastern Bloc share similar concerns.

The end of a friendship

George Soros’ philanthropic activities in the region trace back to 1984 when he founded the Soros Foundation in Budapest, which provided stipends and a variety of funding sources for artists, researchers, and pro-democracy activists. Hungarian newspapers have reported that at least 15 people who are either members of Orbán’s Fidesz party, or close aides of Orbán – such as Árpád Habony, Orban’s spin doctor, Maria Schmidt, the director of the House of Terror and emerging media entrepreneur, and the MEP Tamás Deutsch – as well as Orbán himself have received grants from Soros. And even studying at the CEU was not problematic for many years: the government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács, for example, received his PhD from CEU, and Ákos Berzétei, a deputy-state secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs, is still a student of the university (his tuition is paid by the ministry). With the support of Soros, Orbán had the chance to spend a year in Oxford, and prior to turning the Alliance of Young Democrats – Fidesz into a political party, the pro-democracy activists around Orbán received donations from Soros to buy expensive equipment – computers, fax and copy machines, and telephones – that helped them build a national network and open Fidesz offices all over the country right on time for the first democratic elections of the country in 1990.

Orbán and Soros, who are now portrayed as arch enemies in the press, even met in person after Orbán was re-elected in 2010, and Soros pledged to provide support to the country for the reconstruction works after the Hungarian town Devecser was flooded by red toxic sludge, as well as additional support for the integration of the country’s Roma community. But as Orbán’s style of governing turned more and more authoritarian, the cooperation between the financier and the Prime Minister ended abruptly.

Hungary is far from being the only country where Soros has spent money: Soros’ Open Society Foundations reportedly spent 13 billion dollars worldwide in 33 years, on projects in the field of education, public health, democratisation, human rights, and anti-discrimination. In Russia, where the Open Society Institute is listed as an ‘undesirable’ organisation and therefore effectively banned, another Soros organisation, the International Science Foundation, established a grant programme for scientists in the early 90s, which aimed to provide alternative sources of funding, after government funding suddenly disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a recent study, Ina Ginguli, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has found that the grants the foundation provided to 28 000 researchers have prevented a massive brain-drain and enabled a large number of scientists to remain part of Russian academic life.

Additionally, the Media Development Investment Fund, another organisation founded by Soros, is playing a vital role in keeping independent news organisations alive at a time when the press is facing a crisis world-wide. Last year, for example, the company bought into Agora, the publisher of Gazeta Wybocza, a harsh critic of the current Polish government. In Hungary, Soros support for the media is crucial in to countering the voices of the state-subsidised propaganda organisations. And in 1991, Soros also initiated the founding of an international university in Budapest. The goal of these activities was to contribute to the creation of open societies, as envisioned by his former professor Karl Popper, where governments are responsive and tolerant and political mechanisms transparent. The university played an important role in this project: “The separation of powers, free speech, and free elections alone cannot ensure open society; a strong commitment to the pursuit of truth is also required” – Popper wrote once.

Success, as defined by Orbán

The beginnings of Soros’ activities trace back to the times of the so called ‘third wave of democratisation’, a term coined by Samuel Huntington to refer to the democratic transitions in the South of Europe, Latin America, and the former Eastern Bloc in the 1970s onwards.

In the 1980s and 1990s, economic success and liberal democracy seemed to be inseparable –making politicians of transitioning countries believe that the fewer regulations there are on a capitalistic market economy, the more likely a liberal democracy will flourish, and vice versa: the healthier its democracy, the better the country will perform economically. This is most likely the reason why Viktor Orbán started out as a liberal in his early years – his party was the most liberal political force in the early 1990s in Hungary.

Thus, Soros’ support was convenient for Orbán, as long as he believed that accountability, transparency, alongside checks and balances were preconditions of economic success. But the post-transition developments did not confirm those beliefs: in most of Eastern and Central Europe the long-awaited prosperity did not come, whole industries went bust, workers found themselves unemployed, whilst the benefits of the regime change were reaped by the fortunate few.

Hungary – similarly to its neighbours – did not catch up to France or Germany, neither under Orbán’s first term in power (1998-2002), nor during the time of any other prime minister. Not even EU membership seemed to make a difference to the lives of those who saw themselves as the losers of transition, so Orbán started to search for a different model for success – he saw that China is growing, Saudi Arabia is prospering; and neither of them is a liberal democracy. Thus, the idea of the Orbán-style ‘illiberal democracy’ was born (and later declared in a notorious speech in 2014): a form of government which is about securing one’s own position in power, where civil liberties are seen as unnecessary, and the government’s critics are undesirable. And yet, the long-awaited prosperity still did not come; the only reason for the economy’s growth are EU subsidies, and even so a large chunk of those funds is swallowed up by large-scale corruption.

In this constellation, there was no place for a free press or for critical NGOs. However, CEU first seemed to be an outlier. Of course, it irritated many of the hard-liners around Orbán who did not see the need for a university whose colloquium is so different from the official course of the government (the buzzword here is ‘Gender studies’), and why a foreign institution is more successful in applying for European research grants than the established Hungarian universities, but CEU was an important source of income for the city, and its professors had remained apolitical throughout the Orbán years, seeing their role as scientists, not as activists. Without a rationale, the attack on CEU seems like an effort to root out all Soros funding of the country.

This is particularly important for Orbán, as in Hungary there are only two major donors of independent civil society: The Open Society Foundations and the Norway Grants (provided by Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) – and the fate of these two organisations is rather uncertain.

Human rights – such as the freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, equality before law, etc. – have a universalistic claim to validity, but actors engaged in democracy building need to have local ownership and local support for their work; they cannot act behind the backs of governments, as their work will be branded as an attack on state sovereignty. This is the reason why transparency plays such a great role in the activities of these organisations, and why their activities come in bundles: they often get involved in issues such as education, health, and many others that are acceptable even for repressive governments, as they take-over responsibilities from the state. Thereby they tend to close a blind eye to their support for a free press and a strong civil society that may tend to curb the powers of elected and non-elected office-holders. This is the case with the Norway grants, where approximately 90 per cent of the money donated goes directly to the bodies designated by the Hungarian government, the only area where the state cannot get involved is civil society assistance. It seems, however, that even this set up is not favourable enough for the Hungarian government: Orbán seems to be willing to give up funds worth 214 million euros, just to cut off civil society from 21 million.

Donors make a difference; but more has to be done

This is not to say that foreign donors are in all cases acting without self-interest (especially when talking about donor countries), and neither are they infallible: their visions can sometimes be at odds with the realities they encounter. Therefore, it is valid to criticise the foreign assistance provided by foreign donors. One might argue convincingly, that the funds provided to democratising or transitioning countries have only benefited a small number of people, who in turn retreated in ivory towers, without winning the rest of society for their cause or trying to understand the actual misery of the people. Others might say that the grants (even taking into account the operational freedom granted to the local recipients) reflect the values of (only a few) donors, not necessary the recipients, that they divert attention from some issues not covered by grants, or that they make civil society dependent on foreign assistance, instead of helping them become self-sustaining. And a recent article even goes as far as to claim that the CEU has, despite its virtues, been of a part of what some see as “neo-colonial” interference by Western Europe and the United States in East and Central Europe.

The critics may even be right, to some extent – but Orbán’s efforts to kick donors of critical NGOs out of the country also show that, overall, the funding provided by Soros and the Norway Grants has contributed to the immune system of Hungarian democracy. Organisations like the Civil Liberties Union, the Helsinki Committee or Transparency International, as well as the few remaining independent newspapers, have made sure that Orbán’s affronts to democracy do not go unnoticed, and protesters on the streets have made it more than clear to the government that they are not willing to stay silent while democracy gets completely eradicated. In some cases, civil society has even forced those in power to scale back some of their efforts, or to take responsibility for wrongdoings. At the same time, the local opposition was unable to present a viable alternative, and the European institutions (as well as the EPP, where Orbán’s party is still a member) did not take the Orbán threat seriously. Commissioner Frans Timmermans, for example, claimed that Orbán’s way of governing is “not a systemic threat to the rule of law” whilst the Prime Minister is ready to get into dialogue with the EU when necessary. This naïveté has made it possible for Orbán to put on his policy agenda a wide range of unacceptable ideas, from reinstating the death penalty, through to constraining the Constitutional Court’s jurisdiction, and to branding critical NGOs as foreign agents – he might have backed down on some issues and watered down some proposals, but each time he retreats one step, we can be sure that soon he will try to take two, if not three, steps forward.

We have no counterfactual to test how Hungarian democracy, education, or civil society would look like without Soros or other foreign actors (even though it is very likely that things would not look better), but one thing is certain: Europe’s pro-democracy actors (the Hungarians included) are good at building ivory towers, even without foreign assistance.

For progressive forces, it is time to finally overcome their passivity, and finally act. Grilling Orbán in the European Parliament about the state of democracy looks good for the constituencies at home, but it does not lead to change. What we need is, on the one hand, a mixture of credible threats and actual sanctions for those who disrespect European values, as well as serious investigations regarding the use of European funds in Hungary, to make it clear to would-be autocrats that their actions have consequences. On the other hand, pro-democracy forces need to finally leave their comfort zones, try to gain a more accurate understanding of what the people want, extend their networks, and connect the struggles – only this way can we keep Europe open, free, and fair.

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