Photographer: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Hungary Backs Away From Vow to ‘Sweep Out’ Soros-Funded NGOs

  • Cabinet still plans to tighten rules on foreign-funded groups
  • Minister’s comment contradicts senior ruling party official

Hungary’s government retreated from a pledge to “sweep out” charities funded by billionaire George Soros, but it’s still planning to tighten rules on non-governmental organizations, according to the head of the prime minister’s office.

A senior member of Premier Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party vowed this week to use “all tools at its disposal” to crack down on the 86-year-old billionaire’s network of charities and accused it of “serving global capitalists” and backing “political correctness over national governments.”

The official, Szilard Nemeth, said on Thursday that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s election victory had created an opportunity to target groups including those that fight for civil rights and against corruption. Another party official, however, backed away from that position.

“We’re not going to sweep out anybody,” Janos Lazar, the minister in charge of Orban’s office, told reporters in Budapest on Thursday. Still, he said foreign organizations’ books would be audited because “every Hungarian has a right to know who wants to influence them” from abroad.

The threat against foreign-funded NGOs follows criticism from the European Commission and U.S. President Barrack Obama’s administration against Orban in his pursuit of a self-described “illiberal state” modeled on authoritarian regimes including Russia and Turkey. In 2014, Orban said civil society groups financed from abroad were covers for “paid political activists,” and lawmakers will start debating a bill this year to let authorities audit NGO executives, according to parliament’s legislative agenda.

‘Power Structure’

“The Open Society Foundations are not the opposition, neither in Hungary, nor elsewhere,” said Christopher Stone, president of the Open Society Foundations. “We are promoters of open debate.”

OSF, Soros’s main conduit for aid to more than 60 Hungarian NGOs, has spent more than $1.6 billion on democratic development in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the past 30 years. In 1989, Orban was among those who received scholarships funded by Soros to study abroad.

Like Trump, who has accused Hungarian-born Soros of being part of a “global power structure” that has “robbed” the working class, Orban has frequently denounced the U.S. Democratic Party supporter as he centralized power since returning to power in 2010.

“The American citizen Gyorgy Soros has decided that he will be Viktor Orban’s opponent and opposition in Hungarian politics,” Lazar said. “I think people have the right to know which organization he’s doing this through.”

Other countries have also targeted the charity. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration banned it in 2015, saying that it threatened the country’s security and constitution. Authorities in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan shut down the group’s local office in 2004. In Israel, lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring foreign-funded NGOs to disclose the source of donations from abroad if such payments make up more than half of their funding.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.