(Bloomberg) -- Eastern Europe still needs people like George Soros to prevent a slide back into the authoritarianism of the past, said Karel Schwarzenberg, a diplomat prince who’s known the financier for 30 years.
Schwarzenberg, who himself was exiled under communism, chided Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban for lashing out against Soros. Orban has accused the Budapest-born billionaire, who’s donated billions to undo the damage to countries during decades behind the Iron Curtain, of undermining democratically elected governments and encouraging Muslim immigration to Europe. Without Soros and his influence, eastern Europe would be “a lot poorer” and “stuck in Communist thinking,” Schwarzenberg said in an interview.
In what Orban’s critics call a crackdown on academic freedom, Budapest-based Central European University, founded by Soros, is threatened with closure because of legislation pushed through by the premier’s Fidesz party. The move has triggered a backlash in the form of the biggest wave of anti-government protests in a decade, and a rebuke from the European Union. While the government doesn’t plan to withdraw the law, the ruling party may postpone deadlines for foreign colleges to meet its criteria, the ATV television network reported on Wednesday.
“A regime like that of Orban, who has unfortunately, in front of our eyes, turned from a liberal into a nationalist, needs enemies and hates independent institutions in his country,” Schwarzenberg said in Prague last week. “It would be a great pity for Hungary and all of central Europe if this intellectual center disappears.”
The government denies that the university law poses a threat to CEU. Still, a vice president of Orban’s party called Soros “the devil” in March, according to 168ora.hu news website. The philanthropist has also been splashed on billboards across the country depicting him as a puppet master.
Schwarzenberg, whose aristocratic family fled Czechoslovakia after the 1948 communist coup, swept into the spotlight after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Long a supporter for the late playwright-turned-President Vaclav Havel, he was his aide in the early 1990s. He later served as Czech foreign minister and lost a runoff in the 2013 presidential election. Now 79 and with an estate that includes castles and vast tracts of forest, he shares a personal bond with Soros, a Jew who survived Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II and left after the Communists took power.
Soros, 86, has given $13 billion to his Open Society Foundations around the world, with part of the money going to rebuild democracy, encourage free elections and end the segregation of and discrimination against the Roma minority in eastern Europe. Still, he has recently come under attack from critics ranging from the U.S. to Hungary, Poland and the Balkans by nationalist politicians who disagree with his multi-cultural, pro-European ideas.
The European Parliament pushed to punish Hungary on Wednesday for backsliding on democratic standards, a move Orban’s foreign minister blamed on Soros’s “network.”
Schwarzenberg said such moves won’t deter people like him or his friend.
“You know, people who have survived Hitler and Stalin won’t be scared by an Orban or similar characters,” he said. “We have survived much bigger heavyweights.” As for Soros, “He managed to change hatred into an open society.”