Thursday

24th May 2018

Feature

Hungary activists defiant after 'Soros Mercenaries' attack

  • Hungary's Viktor Orban (left, with Jean-Claude Juncker) is still a respected member of the European Peoples Party group, despite his attacks on the free press, NGOs, and human rights activists (Photo: European People's Party - Flickr)

Nora Koves takes her phone outside the room we sit in when she starts discussing her future plans. She does not want the Hungarian state security services to have a chance of listening in. She suspects her phone is being monitored. 

The 31-year-old works for the Eotvos Karoly Institute, a think tank focusing on public affairs in Budapest. It is partly funded by US billionaire philanthropist George Soros' Open Society foundation.

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  • Marta Pardavi, of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, says she was not traumatised by being named an 'enemy of the state' (Photo: Hungarian Helsinki Committee)

A few days after the 8 April election, where the Fidesz party of prime minister Viktor Orban won a landslide victory , her name appeared on a list in Figyelo, a pro-government weekly, as a member of the so-called 'Soros mercenaries' - that is, people Orban's government deems as enemies of the state. 

Those around 200 people listed by Figyelo included members of human rights organisation Amnesty International, anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, refugee advocates, investigative journalists and faculty members from the Soros-founded Central European University (CEU).

After the publication of the list, Soros's Open Society Foundation (OSF) removed all names and contact details of its Budapest employees from its website, citing concerns over the security of the staff.

The foundation also pointedly said the list recalled the "darkest times" of Hungarian history.

The OSF is now contemplating moving its offices from Budapest to Berlin, and the university is establishing a campus in Vienna - seen as a fallback option if attacks intensify.

This list was merely the latest move in a series of smear campaigns and attempts to intimidate political activists, human rights defenders, and seemingly almost anyone who criticises Orban's government.

Political analysts have warned that despite his landslide, Orban will not tone down the rhetoric and instead continue his brand of confrontational politics, based on creating perceived enemies. 

Soros is now seemingly the source of all evil for Hungary's prime minister. Orban accuses Soros of wanting to transform Hungary into an "immigrant state" threatening Hungary's Christian identity. 

During the election campaign Orban promised to "seek moral, legal and political recourse" after the elections from those who opposed him, particularly the 'Soros mercenaries'. 

Last month, Orban said on state radio that the government knew the names of some 2,000 members of the 'Soros mercenary army' paid to "bring down the government".

"We know precisely who these people are, we know names … and how and why they are working to transform Hungary into an immigrant country," he said. 

For Koves, targeting activists, NGO workers, academics is simply the logical next step in Orban's self-styled 'illiberal' world view. 

"I'm expecting a heavy crackdown on NGOs after the elections, I cannot imagine that they would lessen their grip on power. They have too much to lose now, we are beyond the point of no return," she told EUobserver in Budapest a day before the vote. 

"After the elections the imaginary enemies like migrants and Soros will have to become more tangible, you can't fight with an imaginary enemy forever," she said.

"They will need scapegoats who live in Hungary and are Hungarian citizens. I take Orban's threat of vengeance very seriously," Koves added. 

Koves, who had been working in Turkey for NGOs defending democracy, has been at the forefront of organising several demonstrations in Hungary against Orban's erosion of the rule of law and democratic values. 

Last Friday (20 April), prime minister Orban encouraged journalists in a radio interview to look into the Soros network, claiming as as pretext that the "core of the European politics is transparency".

Koves' Eotvos Karoly Institute organises conferences on public policy and democracy issues, and publishes analysis on politics and policy.

Its head, Laszlo Majtenyi, was the first parliamentary commissioner for data protection in Hungary, and was a liberal candidate for the country's presidential election last year.

The institute's annual report, including financial details, is available on its website.

Defiance

Yet, despite the stigmatisation and not-so-thinly-veiled threats, there is a sense of defiance and duty that the activists' work needs to continue.

"If we give up, Hungarians will have it much worse, and we can't let that happen," Koves said after appearing on the list.

At the weekend, tens of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets of Budapest for the second weekend in a row, venting their frustration with Fidesz's landslide victory and the inability of opposition parties to unite against Orban.

But civil society in Hungary is likely to see its space shrink once again.

In May, Fidesz plans to present and pass the so-called 'Stop Soros' legislation in parliament, which would place restrictions on NGOs that deal with migration. 

The interior minister would have the right to ban organisations deemed to be a "national security risk", and activists could also be hit with restraining orders.

Echoes of history

In Hungary's fascist and communist past, when the state started drawing up lists of 'enemy' Hungarian citizens, they usually ended up in prison or murdered.

What makes this month's media publication of such a list even more peculiar is that the owner of the weekly Figyelo is Maria Schmidt. Schmidt is a historian, an Orban-ally, but also director of the House of Terror museum in Budapest - and who must be aware of the historical echoes of such a move. 

Since the list appeared, many who have received grants from or supported Soros's Open Society foundation have, in fact, asked to be added to the list, to show solidarity with those targeted. 

"It was personally infuriating [to have such a list], it is unbelievable that the government's hate campaign has sunken this low," said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal services for asylum-seekers as part of its work.

Pardavi and her colleagues were named on the list.

She said she was not traumatised. "Maybe my threshold has become too high," she told Euobserver.

However, Pardavi added that many of her colleagues - and their families, who have tried to keep out of the limelight so far - are now worried.

"Our parents' generation have vivid memories of lists being drawn up in the communist 1950s, and later in the 1970s and 1980s, and also historical traumas from the 1930s and 1940s are being recalled, so they are very worried," she said. 

Pardavi and her colleagues also take pride in being on the list as a sort of psychological coping mechanism.

She added that several organisations were looking into legal measures against the listing of their names as 'Soros mercenaries'. 

No quitting

Even though the list and the increasing stigmatisation had caused anxiety, nobody was considering leaving the organisation, she said.

"I don't think about quitting. It is unacceptable to even have to ponder such a dilemma for an activity which is legal and accepted all over the EU," Pardavi said, adding that the many supporting messages help her keep going.

The US embassy in Budapest, and the ambassadors of Canada and Sweden, have already expressed their support for those named on the list.

Pardavi said she is constantly asked if she fears for her personal security. But she thinks physical attacks against activists are still far away from Hungary's current political reality. 

However, some of those on the list, however, refused to talk publicly about it, fearing they were already highly-exposed.

The European Commission has already referred last December's first tranche of Hungary's restrictive NGO legislation to the European Court of Justice for apparently breaching EU rules.

However, even a positive court ruling in Luxembourg will do little to alleviate the renewed atmosphere of fear and stigmatisation the Orban government has created since the election.

What to do with Orban? EU centre-right ponders

While the majority of the centre-right group in the European Parliament want Orban's Fidesz party to stay, some MEPs argue the xenophobic tone of Fidesz's election campaign is a red line.

Analysis

Orban, the 'anti-Merkel', emboldens European right

Hungary's premier Viktor Orban has inspired 'illiberalism' across central Europe and far-right politicians in the West. His expected re-election this Sunday will further reinforce his standing as a symbol for being tough on Europe's political mainstream.

Tactical voting stands in way of Orban's majority

Hungarians head to the polls on Sunday but high voter turnout and tactical voting could make it difficult for Viktor Orban's nationalist Fidesz to acquire an absolute majority or get a two-thirds majority it once held in parliament.

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