Last month the Open Society Foundations (OSF), the international network founded by Hungarian-born financier George Soros to support civil society around the world, declined to confirm reports that it might close its office in Budapest. This morning, however, the OSF officially announced the closure of its operations in the Hungarian capital.
Faced with what it describes as an increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary, the Open Society Foundations are moving their Budapest-based international operations and staff to the German capital, Berlin, the OSF says in a press release sent to the Budapest Business Journal.
Together with other international funders, the OSF says it will continue to support the important work of civil society groups in Hungary on issues such as arts and culture, media freedom, transparency, and education and healthcare for all Hungarians.
The decision to move operations out of Budapest comes as the Hungarian government prepares to impose further restrictions on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) through what it has branded its “Stop Soros” package of legislation, the OSF adds.
“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 OSF President Patrick Gaspard. “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 legislation, invoking national security interests, would block any organization from advising or representing asylum seekers and refugees without a government license. The government has indicated that these new laws are intended to stop the work of leading Hungarian human rights organizations and their funders, including the Open Society Foundations. The OSF will pursue all available legal avenues to defend the fundamental rights that are threatened by the legislation, the press release says.
Moving operations out of Budapest will have a significant impact on the more than 100 staff based there, most of whom are engaged in international grant making. Around 60% are Hungarian nationals, including several who have worked for the OSF for over a decade. The organization is taking appropriate steps regarding the safety and well-being of those affected by the office relocation, the press release notes.
Soros set up his first non-U.S. foundation in Hungary in 1984, distributing photocopiers to universities, libraries and civil society groups in a bid to break the communist party’s grip on information, according to the OSF website.
To help train a new generation of political and economic leaders, Soros later founded the Central European University in 1991 as “a center of research and policy analysis that promotes the principles of open, democratic societies.” The CEU in Budapest - routinely dismissed by the Hungarian government as the “Soros university” - has also been targeted via amendments to legislation on higher education, passed by Parliament last April, prompting mass protests and condemnation both at home and abroad.
In addition, the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against Hungary due to the amendments, a procedure that has moved as far as the EC referring Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in December.
Most recently in March, CEU and the City of Vienna announced negotiations over a plan to open a satellite campus in Vienna.