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Editorial: Soros still the same, and still needed

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George Soros and Viktor Orbán used to agree on a lot of the problems that plagued communism, including government control of the media, the judiciary and certain markets. Now that Orbán is prime minister, he has decided that government control can be good, and that Soros is bad.

George Soros speaking at the Festival of Economics in Trento, Italy in 2012. (Photo: Wikimedia/Niccolò Caranti)

Orbán says Soros has changed his viewpoint, and suggests that Hungarians now oppose the philanthropist’s causes. But Soros has been pretty consistent. In fact it is Orbán who has shifted his politics.

Born in Hungary and a resident of Budapest’s Újlipótváros, Soros survived the Holocaust as a boy and fled the Soviet occupation here. He became a banker in London, made his way to America, and made billions in finance. Then he returned to Budapest, a city where many people once would have murdered him simply because he was born Jewish, and sought to help Hungarians by loosening the grip of communism and supporting pro-democratic activities.

Soros has said that an “open society”, with equality of rights, education, information and opportunity, will strengthen democracy and foster unity. The hundreds of millions of dollars he has poured into this country have yielded benefits like Central European University, which provides an economic boost to Budapest’s downtown while producing graduates who are now among our leaders in business and government.

Soros was a student of Karl Popper, and he summarized that philosopher’s thoughts in an October 2009 lecture at CEU: “Since perfect knowledge is beyond the scope of the human intellect, a society characterized by the freedom of speech and thought and free elections is preferable to a society which imposes its ideology by force.” Soros then explained why he agreed with the philosopher: “Having been exposed to Nazi persecution and communist oppression, I found this argument very persuasive.”

While his goals are often considered liberal, the philanthropy that Soros supports has consistently favored free speech, thought and elections.

As a young liberal, Orbán also used to speak in favor of those ideals. Orbán once took Soros’s financial support, which was presumably meant to encourage development of a post-communist government. When Orbán was the head of Europe’s only youth party and a darling of the left, Orbán’s anti-communist views coincided with those of Soros.

Then Orbán steered his Fidesz party to the right in the early 1990s. According to those around him who left Fidesz at the time, the shift was a blatant effort to capture Hungary’s large centre-right voting bloc. Orbán continues to seek the support of the right by blasting liberal democracy and espousing isolationist views. He also embraces communist-style government control of key businesses and the media – concepts that are not really in keeping with right-wing ideals but are in keeping with Orbán’s desire to run an authoritarian government.

Recent complaints against Soros by Orbán and his government have included the frequent charge that, by seeking to assist refugees, the groups that Soros supports in Europe are somehow opposing the will of Hungarians. Then there is the “problem” of NGOs pushing for transparency: In late March, Cabinet Chief János Lázár demanded that the Soros Foundation and the groups it supports get out of the country. “It is time for those who get paid every day to prove that the Christian-conservative government is corrupt to leave Hungary,” Lázár explained.

Lázár was apparently suggesting that Hungary follow the lead of Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has banned Soros-backed NGOs and other groups working to promote democracy. Fortunately for Hungary, our current government’s war on democracy is nowhere near as advanced as that of Putin, but it is not for lack of trying by some members of Fidesz.

At a time when this country’s government seems intent on consolidating its control over various aspects of the economy, politics and society, we need the work supported by Soros – just as we needed it under communism. We hope that Soros and his foundation never change, and never leave Hungary.

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