On 4 April, Hungary’s Parliament passed an amendment to a higher-education bill designed to force closure of the Central European University (CEU), a Budapest-based institution established in 1991 by the billionaire Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.
This draconian move has been driven by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his disdain for Soros – and his Open Society Foundation (OSF) – who he believes has been meddling in internal Hungarian affairs for far too long in pursuit of his liberal agenda.
Since the formation of the Open Society Foundation (OSF) in 1993, Soros has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Hungary and other central European countries promoting democracy and defending minorities.
OSF’s work has regularly brought it into conflict with Orbán’s Government but this got worse after the refugee crisis in 2015 during which the Hungarian government took a hard-line approach, closing the borders and referring to migrants in the most derogatory terms.
The election of Donald Trump in the USA, combined with mounting political difficulties within Western Europe’s democracies, have emboldened Orban to move more assertively against Soros and the OSF.
For Orbán, Trump’s victory was a “historic event . . . a big bang” that gives “the western world the chance to free itself from the captivity of ideologies, of political correctness”.
In his annual State of the Nation speech, in early 2017, he set his sights firmly on Soros: “Large-bodied predators are swimming here in the waters. This is the trans-border empire of George Soros, with tons of money and international heavy artillery…It is causing trouble…they are trying secretly and with foreign money to influence Hungarian politics.”
Orbán went on to predict that 2017 “would be about squeezing out the forces symbolised” by Soros. “One can feel it coming,” he said, “that each country will trace the source of this money, the connections [between NGOs] and intelligence communities, and which NGOs represent which interests.”
In the same speech, he repeated the bogus claim that Soros’ organisations were working on bringing hundreds of thousands of migrants into Europe.
Szilard Nemeth, a vice president of Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party, said the Hungarian Government would use all the tools at its disposal to “sweep out” NGOs funded by the Hungarian-born financier that “serve global capitalists and back political correctness over national governments.”
Soros has become “Public Enemy Number One” for much of the far right on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ten years ago, the now-fired sex predator but then Fox News presenter Bill O’Reilly described Soros as “off-the-charts dangerous” and as “an extremist who wants open borders, a one-world foreign policy, legalized drugs, euthanasia, and on and on.”
The notion that Soros is working to build a one-world government is central to the right-wing attacks on him. At best, this is born of hostility towards globalisation and at worst (Soros is Jewish) it echoes the age-old antisemitic conspiracy theory of Jewish world power.
In recent years, conspiracy theorists and far right cranks have begun to claim that Soros is actually the shadowy figure behind the influx of refugees into Europe. This is a claim parroted by Orbán himself as well as Alex Jones of the fake news outlet InfoWars who went even further stating that “Soros is behind the Muslim takeover of the West”.
The influential American far right media platform Breitbart, along with its UK branch Breitbart London, also has a fixation (bordering on obsession) with Soros, publishing reams of hostile and conspiratorial articles about him and the groups he funds.
This constant barrage of attacks seems to have had wider effect with Politico reporting that anti-Soros feeling has begun to rise in numerous European nations, including Romania, Poland, Serbia, Bulgaria and Slovakia and that “perceived sympathy within the Trump administration for anti-Soros sentiments appears to have emboldened politicians throughout Central and Eastern Europe to intensify their assault on Soros-backed groups.
Breitbart has been quick to claim credit for the anti-Soros backlash with its Jerusalem bureau chief, Aaron Klein, smugly crowing about a Reuters article that claims European leaders have “drawn inspiration” from US media outlets like Breitbart.
In his piece Klein claims once more that Soros is “pushing open borders in Europe and worldwide, with a specific focus on the use of the migrant crisis to achieve policy aims”.
To justify such conspiratorial claims, Breitbart authors regularly insinuate that Soros himself is directly responsible for and, perhaps, even actively orchestrating the actions of the many hundreds of organisations worldwide that the OSF funds. “Soros-funded” or “Soros-backed” have become the prefixes of choice in their hatchet-job articles. He is painted by Breitbart as “The Puppet Master”, a label with sinister antisemitic overtones.
In January, the Stop Operation Soros organisation was launched in Macedonia by Nikola Srbov, a columnist for the pro-government news outlet Kurir, to uncover “subversive” activities by NGOs linked to Soros.
“We’ve witnessed the takeover of the entire civil sector and its abuse and instrumentalisation to meet the goals of one political party. That is unacceptable and goes beyond the principles of civic organising,” Srbov declared at his group’s founding press conference.
“The Open Society Foundation, operating under the Soros umbrella, used its funding and personnel to support violent processes in Macedonia. It has monopolised the civil society sector, pushing outside any organisation which disagrees with the Soros ideology,” he added.
Setting up Stop Operation Soros with Srbov was Cvetin Cilimanov, editor-in-chief of the state-run MIA news agency. He accused the Open Society Foundation of collaborating with “foreign agents” to undermine Macedonia’s government.
Truth has never got in the way of right-wing anti-Soros stories. Last November, it was reported that the Russian government had issued an international arrest warrant for George Soros, for the damage he had done to the Russian economy during the 1990s. While the story turned out to be rubbish, it was widely spread on conservative and far right websites.
In fact, there are so many wild and untrue anti-Soros conspiracy stories that there is now a dedicated Wikipedia page listing them.
Here in the UK, it is former English Defence League leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) who has been among those leading the anti-Soros charge.
In April last year, he absurdly and offensively (especially considering Soros is a Jew who survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary) tweeted: “George Soros is the new Hitler and he [has] declared a genocidal war against us”, and, in August, added, “George Soros has declared war on the world”.
In a similarly hyperbolic outburst, the British-based purveyor of conspiracies and fake news, Paul Joseph Watson, claimed that “George Soros is a financier of domestic terrorism” and called on Trump to “Arrest him, and confiscate his wealth”.
Those opposing Soros have begun to work cooperate and, on 19 March, a conference was organised by the Identitárius Egyetemisták Szövetsége, Identitesz (The Identitarian Student Union) and the Knights Templar International in Budapest Hungary, titled “Stop Operation Soros”.
The event, addressed by former BNP leader Nick Griffin – and attended by leading so-called alt-rightist Daniel Friberg among others – points to how, over a decade of inventing conspiracies, opposition to Soros and the OSF has begun to crystallise into a movement.
Put simply, the international far/alt right and increasingly authoritarian regimes such as Orbán’s in Hungary hate Soros so much because of a fundamental divergence in worldviews.
He has donated an estimated $11bn to progressive causes such as LBGT rights, support for refugees and the defence of human rights.
In short, contrary to the objectives of the far right, many of the organisations and individuals that OSF funds seek to build more open and tolerant societies based on liberal and democratic values. Conspiracies aside, this is enough to draw the vitriolic ire of the international far right.