March 23, 2017 / 10:54 AM / 5 months ago

Soros-funded charities targeted by Trump-inspired crackdown in East Europe

Employees of the asylum rights group Helsinki Committee work in the group's headquarters in Budapest, Hungary, February 13, 2017.Laszlo Balogh

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - When his government lost a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights last week over its detention and expulsion of two migrants from Bangladesh, Hungary's rightwing prime minister blamed the usual suspect: a billionaire in New York.

"It is a collusion of human traffickers, Brussels bureaucrats and the organisations that work in Hungary financed by foreign money," Viktor Orban told public radio on Friday.

"Let's call a spade a spade: George Soros finances them."

Across former Communist states of east and central Europe, leaders with a hardline bent have turned their wrath in recent months against Soros, a Hungarian-American financier who funds liberal charities and non-governmental organisations worldwide through his Open Society Foundations (OSF).

The campaign against Soros in countries formerly dominated by Moscow appears to follow a template set by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose own crackdown on foreign-funded charities drove Soros's foundation out of Russia two years ago.

And now, with President Donald Trump in the White House, anti-Soros campaigners in Eastern Europe say they have also drawn inspiration from the United States, particularly from rightwing U.S. media like the website Breitbart, which has long vilified Soros as a liberal hate figure.

Breitbart's former chairman Steve Bannon now serves as a senior White House adviser to Trump.

"Our inspiration comes from the United States, from the American conservative organisations, media and congressmen with the same views, especially the new administration of President Trump," said Cvetlin Cilimanov, the editor of the main state news agency in Macedonia, who co-founded a group called Operation Stop Soros in January.

"THEY CRUSH YOU"

Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic north of Greece, has been embroiled in a political crisis that began two years ago with street demonstrations and forced nationalist prime minister Nikola Gruevski to resign last year after a decade in power. Gruevski, who still controls the biggest bloc in parliament and is expected to return to power, blames Soros for his downfall.

"Soros turns Macedonian NGOs into a modern army," he told local magazine Republika in January. "They crush you. They make you a criminal, a thief, traitor, idiot, a monster, whatever they want. Then you have to go to elections."

"He doesn't only do that in Macedonia but in a great number of countries."

In Romania, ruling Social Democrat party leader Liviu Dragnea told a TV interviewer in January that Soros and "the foundations and structures that he has funded since 1990 have financed evil in Romania".

Soros has also been attacked by members of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party and politicians elsewhere in the region.

His charity says it is undaunted and has no intention of quitting his native Eastern Europe.

"You cannot export democracy, you can only import it and build it locally," Chris Stone, who runs Soros's charitable enterprises from New York as president of the OSF, told Reuters, explaining the need to keep a presence on the ground.

"We see our work (in Eastern Europe) continuing for decades. That work will ebb and flow."

The OSF said Soros was not available to comment.

THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK

Soros, born in Hungary to a Jewish family that survived the Nazi occupation with fake documents, emigrated to Britain after World War Two and then to the United States.

As a financier, he is best known for "breaking the Bank of England" with a huge bet against the British pound that forced London to abandon a fixed trading range with other European currencies in 1992, earning Soros more than $1 billion.

The Open Society Foundations website says he has given away more than $12 billion as a philanthropist, with activities in more than 100 countries in a vast array of policy areas linked to democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law.

Maria Vasarhelyi, a Hungarian sociologist and opposition activist, holds a picture of billionaire philanthropist George Soros with her late father Miklos Vasarhelyi, who led the Soros Foundation in Hungary in the 1980s and 1990s, in Budapest, Hungary, March 3, 2017.Laszlo Balogh

The OSF mostly gives its money in the form of a large number of small grants to other charities, organisations or individuals for specific projects.

That means hundreds of groups worldwide have accepted its money over the years, allowing conspiracy theorists and other foes to paint Soros as the centre of a vast web. In countries like Hungary, so many human rights groups have sought OSF grants at some point that politicians can use the association with Soros to attack whole swathes of civil society.

"Fake NGOs of the Soros empire are sustained to suppress national governments in favour of global capital and the world of political correctness," Szilard Nemeth, a deputy leader of Orban's ruling Fidesz party, said in January.

"These organisations must be repressed by all means and I think they must be culled altogether. I think there is an international opportunity to do that now."

"PRETTY HUMAN RIGHTS NONSENSE"

Veterans of the dissident movements of Eastern Europe's Communist-era, when dictatorships repressed all organisations outside state control, say the tactics are familiar.

"The fact that NGOs are called the enemy of the government shows these are no longer democracies," said Maria Vasarhelyi, an opposition figure in Hungary whose father Miklos, a prominent Communist-era dissident, ran Soros's foundation in the 1990s.

Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the asylum rights group Helsinki Committee, gestures during an interview in the group's headquarters in Budapest, Hungary, February 13, 2017.Laszlo Balogh

Bojan Maricik, head of Macedonia's Centre for European Strategies - Eurothink, a pro-EU think tank which has received Soros grants, said prosecutors, tax inspectors and police in Macedonia had launched investigations into the funding of charities since an anti-Soros speech by Gruevski in December.

A "de-Sorosization purge" aims to bar civil society groups from participating in public life by delegitmising them, Maricik said.

"There is no dialogue in a context where the government marks you as an enemy of the state," he said.

The crackdown is particularly acute in Soros's native Hungary, where Orban has consolidated his grip on the media and judiciary, and regularly accuses liberals of trying to destroy Europe by flooding the continent with migrants.

A new law proposed by Orban would require groups that receive foreign funding to register, a measure that critics say is drawn straight out of the Putin playbook.

Opposition to immigration has been the core of Orban's political message since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees entered the EU through the Balkans. Hungary was initially their main entry point into the bloc's border-free zone, although nearly all proceeded on to Germany and other countries further north. Orban built a fence to keep them out.

Meanwhile, Soros prioritised support for charities that help migrants and asylum seekers. At the height of the flow in 2015, his OSF put out a statement saying: "The Hungarian crisis demonstrates the dangers radical populist regimes pose not only to the hundreds of thousands of refugees, but also to the values of Europe and to the humanity of the local populations."

The Balkan immigration route has since largely been shut, following an agreement secured by the EU for Turkey to take migrants back. But Orban's message still hammers home the need to keep out migrants, and he portrays rights groups as part of a plot to abolish nation states and flood Europe with foreigners.

Hungary's Helsinki Committee, a rights group founded in 1989 that has accepted Soros funding, helped defeat the government in court in Strasbourg. It argued that two Bangladeshi migrants had been unlawfully detained at a makeshift transit zone on the Hungarian-Serbian border and expelled with no regard to their future safety, in violation of their rights.

Orban has proposed new rules governing asylum due to take effect in coming days that his opponents say ignore the principles of the Strasbourg ruling.

Helsinki co-Chair Marta Pardavi says she expects to file many more cases on behalf of migrants who are in similar positions, which could generate a systemic intervention by Strasbourg and a tooth-and-nail fight with the government.

"Our position, which Orban has called 'pretty human rights nonsense' has just won in Strasbourg," she said. "If I were the Hungarian government I would be considering the necessary legislative amendments now."

Pardavi said her organisation, made up mainly of lawyers, would not be intimidated by a government crackdown, but other groups were likely to be less resilient, and the crackdown could deter activism in the country more broadly.

"Helping refugees has become stigmatised," she said. "Many organisations decide to keep it in the background. Old, trusted, large organisations are afraid to step up publicly to avoid the backlash on their other activities," she said.

"If people feel there is going to be retaliation, negative consequences for their private lives, then this potentially could have a chilling effect, reduce the number of people interested not only taking part in civil society organisations but in general public affairs."

Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in MOSCOW, Luiza Ilie in BUCHAREST, Kole Casule in SKOPJE, Robert Muller in PRAGUE and Tatjana Tancarikova in BRATISLAVA; Editing by Matt Robinson and Peter Graff

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