May 15, 2018; Al Jazeera
A long battle between Hungary’s authoritarian leader and American billionaire George Soros ended this week when the Open Society Foundations announced plans to close operations in Budapest, in advance of a “Stop Soros” package of bills promoted by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party. The shutdown could have a ripple effect on other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across the European Union and beyond, as civil society reckons with the rise of autocracy around the world.
We’ve reported on the crackdown on civil society in Europe over the past few years, as Orbán consolidated power through new restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs and educational institutions, which targeted the Soros-funded Central European University and Open Society Foundations in Budapest.
Although the University was officially reaccredited earlier this year, thanks to protests and pushback from the executive arm of the EU, its legal status—and future—is still unclear.
The Open Society Foundations pointed to the “increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary” as cause for the move of 100 staff members, most of whom work in international grant making, to Germany.
“The government of Hungary has denigrated and misrepresented our work and repressed civil society for the sake of political gain, using tactics unprecedented in the history of the European Union,” said Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, in a press release. “The so-called Stop Soros package of laws is only the latest in a series of such attempts. It has become impossible to protect the security of our operations and our staff in Hungary from arbitrary government interference.”
The Open Society Foundations have a mission to “build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens” in more than 100 countries around the world.
As an editorial in the Economist deftly summarized, the Soros-Orbán matchup is personal—and worthy of an opus:
Mr. Soros, who is Jewish, was born in Hungary and experienced totalitarianism there under both the Nazis and the Communist regime, before emigrating to America. His philanthropic efforts began in the 1990s as an effort to help post-communist countries such as Hungary transform themselves into liberal democracies.…
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The conflict between Mr. Soros and Mr. Orbán could not be more symbolically perfect. Mr. Orbán began his political career in the anti-communist protest movement of the late 1980s as a free-thinking student with liberal convictions. At one point he received a scholarship from Mr. Soros’s organisation to study in Britain.
His turn against his erstwhile patron has something of an Oedipal quality, or perhaps “Paradise Lost”, with Mr. Orbán playing the rebellious angel. In 2014, in a speech that has become famous, he declared that he wanted Hungary to become an “illiberal democracy”—as complete a rejection of Mr. Soros’s philosophy as one could imagine. More recently, he has turned to the term “Christian democracy.”
Al Jazeera reporter Philip Heijmans quoted an Amnesty International leader who was also questioning the future of the organization’s Hungarian operations in light of the possible restrictions on foreign-funded human rights groups.
Meanwhile, European Commission officials are weighing action, including tying aid to democratic functions of member states, which Hungary calls “political blackmail,” according to the New York Times.
Although there have been some bright spots recently in democratically-challenged countries like Armenia, where a significant protest movement is building, there’s no shortage of pessimistic analysis of the current conditions for sustaining civil society.
A sweeping assessment in Foreign Affairs argued that the democratic century is over as the economic output coming from authoritarian states grows rapidly. Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa write,
In 1990, countries rated “not free” by Freedom House (the lowest category, which excludes “partially free” countries such as Singapore) accounted for just 12 percent of global income. Now, they are responsible for 33 percent, matching the level they achieved in the early 1930s, during the rise of fascism in Europe, and surpassing the heights they reached in the Cold War when Soviet power was at its apex.
As a result, the world is now approaching a striking milestone: within the next five years, the share of global income held by countries considered “not free”—such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—will surpass the share held by Western liberal democracies. In the span of a quarter century, liberal democracies have gone from a position of unprecedented economic strength to a position of unprecedented economic weakness.
And, the authors assert, that past progress is slipping away: “To make things worse, emerging democracies have historically been much less stable than the supposedly consolidated democracies of North America, western Europe, and parts of East Asia. Indeed, recent democratic backsliding in Turkey, as well as signs of democratic slippage in Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, and the Philippines, raises the possibility that some of these countries may become flawed democracies—or revert to outright authoritarian rule—in the coming decades.”
Globally, young activists have sparked optimism for future resistance movements, but in the meantime, civil society must create new rules of engagement and find pathways to carry out mission-driven work in this new landscape.—Anna Berry