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Pushed out, but Soros foundation won't give up on Hungary



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The foundation started by US billionaire George Soros may have been forced to leave Budapest after the Hungarian government’s relentless campaigning, but it is vowing not to give up on its work there.

Despite being hounded out of the country where its first office opened in 1984, Open Society Foundations said it has not failed in its mission.

“I’d say that our mission is really tested and challenged, but we’re not about giving up,” said Goran Buldioski, who heads the foundation’s new regional hub in Berlin.

“What we have done is that we’ve moved our hub office but our work in Hungary has not decreased,” he said, adding that “mentally and programme-wise, we didn’t move”.

What has changed drastically for Buldioski and his team is their working and living environment.

Over the last year, employees at the foundation and the Soros-founded Central European University have faced unprecedented pressure from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who himself once received a Soros scholarship to study at Oxford.

Accusing the Budapest-born Soros of orchestrating huge flows of migrants to Europe, Orban branded as “mercenaries” 2,000 people he said worked for the philanthropist.

“It became not comfortable for some people to tell schools or kindergartens where they work because they were afraid in light of the public campaign, bashing and stigmatising that they would be attacked,” said Buldioski.

“There were days we felt like it was Groundhog Day,” the bespectacled Macedonian said, referring to the Hollywood comedy in which the lead character keeps reliving the same day.

“Because we were attacked baselessly… And each day brought a new attack, a new campaign. It was mainly for political reasons.”

The foundation also began questioning if confidential data it was holding on its partners, including contact or bank account details, were safe in Hungary.

“If you don’t trust the system and the democracy, or the eroding democracy in which you operate, you start thinking ‘I’m also responsible towards our partners. I don’t want to leave their data in a place where we can’t secure its integrity’,” said Buldioski.

In May, the foundation, which has a global annual budget of just over a billion dollars and which funds groups working on human rights, justice and democracy, finally decided to close operations in Hungary and relocate to Germany.

In response, the Hungarian government said it “won’t be shedding any crocodile tears” over the move.

More than 80 people are now working out of Berlin, and the headcount is set to grow to between 150 and 200, said Buldioski.

Berlin was a natural choice with its vibrant civil society, he said, noting that not only is it a major European capital but also an iconic one due to its history as a divided city between the communist East and capitalist West.

“Here in Berlin.. it allows us to say the European Union has certain standards, has certain values and they are defended only if they are upheld in the weakest link.

“We feel right now that Hungary is one of the weakest links.”

For Buldioski, too little has been done in Hungary and other former eastern bloc countries since they joined the EU to foster involvement by citizens in bolstering the young democracies.

As some of these nations take a nationalist turn, disillusioned citizens — many well-educated — are also simply leaving, warned Buldioski.

“In other scenarios they would be leaders at home and not immigrants abroad. These are issues that haven’t been addressed.”

Their experience in Hungary was also a cautionary tale for Western societies not to take democracies for granted, said Buldioski.

In Spain, he noted for instance, the previous conservative government had passed legislation branded by critics as a “gag law”. It imposes hefty fines for any unauthorised use of images of police or unauthorised protests outside parliament.

“We should definitely not neglect what’s happening with democratic societies with regards to the suspension of human rights, the emergence of populist politicians and politicians with authoritarian tendencies in western Europe.

“I think this is a pan-European problem.”