(Bloomberg) -- George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, one of the world’s biggest funders of non-governmental organizations, will leave Budapest in response to a crackdown by Hungary’s government that has become a focal point in a clash of democratic values in Europe.
OSF cited the safety of its more than 100 employees in Hungary as well as the security of its operations there, which fund dozens of NGOs in the country of 10 million. The step raises the stakes in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s standoff with the EU as he seeks to complete a break with liberal democracy after winning a third consecutive term in elections last month.
Orban, a nationalist who declared he would build an illiberal state based on Russia and Turkey in 2014, is one of the main challengers to the bloc’s vision of multi-cultural democracy and has inspired anti-immigrant populist movements across the world. He has spurned checks and balances, accumulating more power than any predecessor since the end of communism.
“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,” OSF President Patrick Gaspard said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
OSF’s decision comes as Hungary, which joined the EU in 2004, seeks to approve a so-called “Stop Soros” bill, which aims to register, penalize and possibly bar people from the country who are deemed to be helping “illegal immigration.”
“We won’t be shedding any crocodile tears,” the government said after OSF’s decision.
OSF vowed to continue supporting Hungarian NGOs working in diverse fields from poverty reduction to media freedom. Its exit marks a further retreat for Soros’s organization, which has championed liberal democracy, human rights and transparency around the world.
Russia banned the group in 2015, saying it threatened the country’s security. Uzbekistan shut down OSF’s local office in 2004. In Israel, lawmakers required foreign-funded NGOs to disclose the source of foreign donations. Soros, 87, is also a target of criticism among right-wing groups in the U.S.
Orban has moved to silence dissent by undercutting media and judicial independence and to crack down on universities and civil society. Central European University, established by Soros in Budapest to train future leaders in ex-communist Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain, is also in legal limbo after the government tightened regulations. It’s considering moving to a newly created campus in Vienna.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive, has filed several lawsuits against Hungary and the European Parliament is debating whether Orban’s measures constitute a systemic breach of democratic standards that would warrant potentially suspending Hungary’s EU voting rights.
Fellow EU leaders meanwhile are debating whether some EU funding in the bloc’s post-2020 budgets should be linked to rule-of-law, possibly stripping countries like Hungary and Poland, which has mimicked Orban’s moves, of billions of euros of financing.
“Whenever a civil society organization that helps build vibrant and tolerant democracies is threatened and feels it can no longer do its work, democracy suffers,” European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said on Twitter.
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