Extract from a Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the 31st Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp, 23 July 2022, Tusnádfürdő [Băile Tuşnad]:
We have managed to separate our big debate on the whole gender issue from the debate on EU money, and the two are now moving forward on separate tracks. Here too, our position is simple. We are asking for another offer of tolerance: we do not want to tell them how they should live; we are just asking them to accept that in our country a father is a man and a mother is a woman, and that they leave our children alone.
And we ask them to see to it that George Soros’s army also accepts this. It is important for people in the West to understand that in Hungary and in this part of the world this is not an ideological question, but quite simply the most important question in life. In this corner of the world there will never be a majority in favour of the Western lunacy – my apologies to everyone – that is being played out over there.
Since November 2017, Diana Senechal has taught English, American and British Civilization at Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and guide the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In her recent ‘blog-post,’ she clarified and summarised Orbán’s rather tangled statements while at the same time challenging the more extreme views put forward in his speech:
Moreover, the West itself, through ethnic mixing and other changes applauded and abetted by the international Left (including the “troops of Soros”), has turned into something that could be called the Post-West. In fact, the “true West” now exists in Central Europe alone; the rest has become the Post-West.
As for the family, it is already changing in Hungary, with no help from “Soros troops.” Many young people in Hungary—by which I mean people in their late teens through early thirties—yearn for a more open and flexible way of living. Not all women want to be housewives. Not all men want to be served by their wives. They (women and men) want partnerships, cameraderie, friendship, shared interests, joint projects. Some might not want to marry. And many (though not all) young people, whether heterosexual or otherwise, believe that gay people should be accepted and treated with dignity. Young people have a wide range of beliefs, attitudes, feelings on these issues, but they see that this range exists. Orbán denies this range by asserting the existence of a single Hungarian view. A generation or two ago, that might have been more true. But not now. Hungary is far more diverse (ideologically, personally, even ethnically) than Orbán recognizes.
But he resolves this by writing off the Hungarians who don’t fit his model. Apparently, in his view such people are international leftists, “Soros troops”, etc., not true Hungarians. They are not even true Westerners! The true spiritual West, according to Orbán, lives only in those who will defend the Hungarian peoples from the encroachments of the surrounding world. As proof that he represents the true Hungarian view, he would likely cite the fact that the Hungarian people keep voting for Fidesz. But this conceals a more complex situation: Fidesz itself is not monolithic, and not everyone who votes for Fidesz does so enthusiastically, in full agreement with its official ideology. (Never mind gerrymandering, media bias, etc.)
A Postcard from Multi-Cultural Birmingham:
I had just started a fortnight’s holiday when I read about this speech, even more twisted than his previous pontifications from Transylvania. As usual, he shows his ignorance of ‘Western’ history and culture. Back in the UK for the first time in three years, watching the Commonwealth Games, it’s great to see how my home city of Birmingham is welcoming the world. I’ve never been prouder of its multi-cultural heritage and traditions and refuse to be branded as one of ‘Soros’s troops.’ I had my own motivations in coming to live and work in Hungary in 1990. At that time, I was only vaguely aware of who George Soros was, mainly in connection with his speculation against the pound in the early 1990s.
Opening up Central-Eastern Europe in the Eighties:
By the 1980s, both the liberal and nationalist oppositions to communist rule in Hungary had established links with the leaders of Hungarian minorities abroad and drew encouragement and support from Hungarian emigrés in the West. The New York-based Open Society Foundation was launched by the American businessman George Soros in 1982 and opened a legal office in Budapest in 1987. Since 2010, he has become “public enemy number one” in Hungary, so I became interested in a collection of essays about him published by the Harvard Business Review a few months ago. In his introduction to these, Peter Osnos explains how, over the years, Soros became a primary nemesis to the global extreme Right, which deployed a mix of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes to discredit his activities on behalf of progressive causes and civil society. Osnos points out that:
The bizarre notion that he is mastermind of everything the right-wingers around the world reject is nonsense.
Bizarre or not, these theories led to a bomb being placed in the mailbox outside his home in Bedford, New York. Yet Soros has displayed extraordinary equanimity in almost every way. What did bother him was that in his homeland, the autocratic leader Viktor Orbán, who, in 1989, had studied at Oxford as a Soros-funded fellowship scholar, made him the nemesis of his nativist political strategy. Orbán’s values have always been those of the village pump! Soros’ values came from his unique heritage: the influence of his father, Tivadar, in the war years was a basis for his own daring and risk-taking in finance and in life generally.
By early 1989, however, the tectonic plates in Europe had begun to shift. The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had unleashed perestroika and glasnost but was soon losing control of the Soviet state apparatus and of public opinion in his empire. In Hungary, the régime was losing its capacity to create fear and buy off discontent. A steady stream of samizdat publications, concerts, dance performances, and seminars started a ferment the Communist Party central committee proved incapable of controlling. In the summer of 1989, the young dissident Viktor Orbán made a dramatic public speech at the public reinterment of Imre Nagy, calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Shortly afterwards, Soros funded a scholarship for Orbán to spend a semester at Oxford. Meanwhile, the talk was beginning to circulate, both in the Hungarian Foundation and in the Inter-University seminar which had met at Dubrovnik in March, about the setting up of a new university.
Still, Soros remained sceptical and cautious, believing, to use a phrase of Popper’s, that “piecemeal social engineering was the most effective way to make the change.” Young dissidents like the historian István Rév warned him that the Academy of Sciences only to maintain its privileged position, but Soros stuck with the collaboration, believing that he should work with existing institutions. Historian László Kontler, then a young instructor who attended the 1989 Dubrovnik meetings, remembers that while the creation of a university was on the agenda, no one realised how quickly events were moving in the region. The talk was not, he recalled, about the transition from communism but how to support a university curriculum that would “undermine the credibility of Soviet ideology.”
A Kick up the Nineties – Another Prague Spring:
A few months later, the fall of the Berlin Wall accelerated the plans and discussions. The question ceased to be whether there should be a new international university but when it should start and where. On the latter question, there was only one answer as far as the Hungarian intellectuals were concerned: Budapest. But there were also meetings in the university, where Soros secured a promise from the new Czechoslovak PM, a former dissident, that the university could have a lease on a trade union building in Prague. That seemed to settle the question of location, but Soros still hesitated, and he continued to do so throughout 1990. He vacillated, sometimes thinking he should invest in existing universities, sometimes believing he needed partners to help him finance a new university. But, slowly, he realised that if he wanted to start a new university, he would have to do so with his money alone. In December 1990, at a meeting in Oxford, he finally told the assembled Czech, Polish, British and Hungarian academics that he would fund the foundation of a new university that would open in Prague in the Spring of 1991. Michael Ignatieff, a recent rector, has written of how Soros’ mind suddenly shifted into a higher gear:
Once he made up his mind, his instincts were radical. Once established in Prague, the university should also have campuses in Warsaw and Budapest. For him, it was evident that Central Europe had a common culture and history and should have a university to reflect that identity. … as time went on, the fragmentation of Central Europe became ever more evident, but in this bright and hopeful moment of transition, it still seemed possible to have a university in three capitals in the region.Ignatieff in Osnos (ed.), p. 167.
In thinking about what kind of university the region needed, Soros reasoned that in a time of change, it needed experts in transition: lawyers to write constitutions, more lawyers to privatize state companies, economists to figure out how to unleash the disciplines of a price system on a socialist command economy, political scientists to assist in the creation of free political parties. As Ignatieff has further commented,
Founding a university to change the course of history meant training a new élite to take the place of the discredited and bankrupt communist cadres in government offices, factories research institutes and social institutions. The focus of the education offered should be practical, vocational, and policy-orientated. Soros was enamoured of intellectuals, but he was even more enamoured of ‘doers’. … What the region needed, in other words, was a ‘trade school for transition,’ a place that would train a new élite to manage the shift away from communism…
But that’s not how things turned out … Instead of a training school, the institution George Soros got for his money was… a highly academic graduate school in the social sciences and humanities. … Little by little history and the humanities made their way into the curriculum of Central European University. For someone who thought he was making history happen, for someone whose success with money taught him his instincts were nearly always right, the largest surprise about the university’s founding is that Soros listened and learned.Ignatieff in Osnos, pp. 168-69.
János Kis credits Soros with listening but also ascribes this willingness to listen to his deep motivations:
“It is true that George imagined CEU as a trade school for the transition to democracy. But this is not a complete account of what he had in mind. He also wanted CEU to be the lighthouse of the liberal thought in the region. … So George’s commitment to liberal values, including the value of open society, was a driving force moving CEU away from his other ideal, a trade school for practitians, and in the direction of a graduate school in social sciences and the humanities.”Quoted by Ignattieff in Osnos (ed.), p. 169.
Once Soros gave the go-ahead in December 1990, founding the university in the space of just nine months was an almost inconceivable undertaking. At any other time, it would have been absurd to try, but in the euphoria and state of high energy released by the collapse of the Soviet empire, anything seemed possible. By September 1991, Central European University opened for classes in the trade union building in Prague. The Budapest programmes started with legal studies, history, and environmental sciences and developed with political science and international relations. Soros committed $5 million a year to the CEU. The new governments in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland were reluctant to subsidise what they characterised as an American billionaire’s vanity project. An appeal to wealthy private sponsors in the UK and Europe met with a similar reaction. It began to dawn on Soros that if the university was to survive, it would be with his money alone.
The Re-emergence of Anti-Semitism:
The University grew rapidly throughout the 1990s. Students were flooding in from all parts of Central and Eastern Europe and from Central Asia. At the same time, the dissident political movement of 1989 was replaced by the darker, resurgent forces of nationalism and authoritarianism. This was accompanied, here and there, by a deep current of right-wing anti-Semitism. A disgruntled right-wing Hungarian dissident, István Csurka, wrote an anti-Semitic attack on Soros and the CEU in 1993, describing him and other Western liberals as ‘termites’ undermining the foundations of the Hungarian nation. At the time, it was easy to dismiss Csurka as a radical outlier, but since then, such vitriolic views have been shared by more ‘mainstream’ Magyar politicians. By the end of the century, the politics of the Central European countries had become resolutely nationalist, and the overall regional identity was relatively weak. The university still called itself Central European, but by the late 1990s, it had become a Hungarian institution with US accreditation. Soros secured a magnificent former palace in the heart of downtown Pest that became the university’s home.
But while he was increasingly excited by the institution taking shape, Soros was also immune to the euphoric illusion that the liberal democratic transition was irreversible. On the contrary, he was fiercely critical of the failure of the Americans and Western Europeans to grasp how epoch-making the collapse of the USSR had been and how fragile the prospects for democracy really were, even in America.
Soros became disillusioned by how few governments and foundations followed his lead. As he watched the West missing its chance to link the former Soviet empire to itself and its democratic ideals, as Former Yugoslavia descended into a downward spiral of violence, his public commentary on the region became even darker. In testimony before the US House of Representatives in 1994, he said:
“When I embarked on my project, I was planning on a short-term campaign to seize the revolutionary moment and to provide an example that would be followed by the more slowly moving, more cumbersome institutions of our open societies. But I was sadly mistaken. Now I must think in biblical terms – forty years in the wilderness.”George Soros, quoted by Ignatieff in Osnos (ed.), pp. 175-76.
From an enrollment of seventy-six in 1991, CEU was taking in 674 students by 1998. At first, CEU was an attractive option for students in the region, especially since Soros was paying full scholarships. Many of these students then completed doctorates at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Stanford. Instead of training an élite who would stay in the region and lead it forward, CEU became a means of exiting it altogether. At the same time, demographic growth in the Central European region was faltering, and the number of young people eligible for graduate education began to decline. A university founded to create a transition élite in the region was slowly losing its core student population from the region. In its place, CEU began recruiting worldwide. Whereas in 1991, it recruited students exclusively from the twenty-seven countries of the former Soviet bloc, by 2000, it was recruiting from the USA, the UK, and Western Europe, and after 2010 from Africa, Asia and Latin America. By 2020, it was recruiting students from 120 countries. The CEU story, therefore, is about unintended consequences, which did not surprise its founder. It is no coincidence that the following quotation is displayed in the CEU building in Budapest:
“Reality has the power to surprise thinking and thinking has the power to create reality. But we must remember the unintended consequences – the outcome always differs from expectations.”Quoted by Ignatieff in Osnos (ed.), p. 177.
Joining the European Union – The Era of Euro-Atlantic Integration:
By the time Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Croatia and the Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, Soros could have been forgiven for believing that his investment in transition had paid off. All these countries had been stabilised by the powerful incentives of the Euro-Atlantic integration process. The expectation was that, once inside the Union, the European Council, the European Parliament, and the European Commission, together with the European Court of Justice, would exert a transnational regulatory role, ensuring that these countries remained on the democratic path. Guided by this expectation, the Open Society Foundations began scaling back its investments in the Balkans and Central Europe. Its attention shifted to other regions of the world, particularly to the foundation’s work in the United States and South Africa.
In the USA, over time, Soros was able to change the terms of the debate over social reform and helped enact policy and elect new leadership that made a real difference for millions caught up in the overcriminalization of America. While Soros has fostered these deeper trends, making investments in structures and collaborations that have outlasted campaign cycles in a political world famously addicted to short-termism, he has also played an outsized role in the political careers of young leaders of colour like Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams. They have changed the face of American politics. Soros has played a leading role in the transformation of progressive politics and in the transitions to democracy of numerous countries on virtually every continent.
While the CEU continued to grow, the political climate in Hungary continued to darken. After Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, thousands of Hungarians had taken out mortgages with Western banks denominated in euros. When the financial crisis hit in 2007-08, they suddenly found themselves underwater, and the government struggled to offer any help. Public finances collapsed. In 2010 the socialist government was swept from power, and the Fidesz Party, led by Viktor Orbán, came into office. Orbán had already served one term as PM between 1998 and 2002, preparing the country for EU entry. But after he was turned out of office, he was stung by his defeat and vowed, in a famous speech, that never again would ‘the Hungarian nation’ be in opposition. The faculty at the CEU had never heard the rhetoric of this kind before, especially the idea that Orbán and his party were the incarnation of the nation. During his time out of office, Orbán built a broad ‘civil society’ movement of the right, largely based in the Hungarian churches, and developed an ideology with deep roots in the small towns and rural areas: hostile to ‘Western’ condescension, assertive of Hungarian pride and language. Once in power, the new Fidesz government rewrote the constitution, slapped down the liberal media, and set about exerting party control over the Supreme Court and other vital institutions. From the beginning, the CEU’s professors joined with the liberal media in analyzing and denouncing these trends. The hope at the time was that the university could ride out the radical shift in the political climate.
Into the New Millennium – A ‘Conservative’ Counter-Revolution:
Slowly it became apparent that the Fidesz victory represented a sea change in the direction of the transition itself. Creating a new liberal transition élite had been Soros’s explicit strategy. Still, the problem was that this new élite, drawn from the former dissidents, had been too small to lead a successful transition, let alone the kind of social transformation that Orbán and Fidesz had been planning in opposition. To succeed, the liberal dissidents would have to have made common cause with members of the former ‘reform’ communist élite, who had rebranded themselves as ‘socialists’. For the transition to succeed, this alliance between the socialists and liberal democratic parties entailed many compromises which were especially distasteful to the latter, involving agreements not to prosecute former police informers and security-apparatus members. These compromises doomed both the socialists and liberals alike. The new élite of the transition was also tarnished by the radical economic disruption of the transition itself, which created a political opening to the right throughout Central-Eastern Europe.
By the early 2000s, politicians like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia and Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic were lining up together to accuse the liberal transition élite of weakening national culture and protecting the former communist élite. Dissidents who had been in prison or under surveillance before 1989 were now attacked for being insufficiently anti-communist. Still, the attacks worked, partly because the ‘conservatives’ were more successful than the liberals in building up their support in ‘civil society’: in the churches, small-town professionals and village dwellers who had known stability under the communist régime. These ‘conservative’ social groups now looked at the depopulation of villages with alarm. They vehemently opposed the sale of public lands and properties to a wave of private and foreign speculators. The liberal élite had laid the foundations for a new Central-Eastern Europe: they had written the constitutions, privatised the state companies, created the new commercial law for the capitalist economy and prepared the post-communist states for entry into the EU. But in the process, these changes had cost them the support of voters, who gravitated towards right-wing parties better positioned to exploit their anxieties about identity, community, and religious faith.
Viktor Orbán had himself been a beneficiary of George Soros’s support. Still, the sudden attack that Orbán mounted against Soros, beginning in late 2016, was not part of a personal vendetta, according to Ignatieff. Ignatieff believes that it was purely political in motivation; targeting Soros as the embodiment of everything Fidesz stood against – Europe, multiculturalism, immigration, secular tolerance, the open society – was a brilliant way to reach out to a small-town base disoriented by change. Making an alien US-based speculator public enemy number one also appealed to “the national bourgeoisie,” the urban middle class whose own fortunes depended very much on allegiance to a single party with control of state assets and state budgets. Orbán also understood CEU’s vulnerability as a foreign-accredited university paying high salaries and preaching values of multicultural tolerance and openness. It enjoyed solid support in Budapest itself but not among the small towns and villages of rural Hungary, the political power bases of most Hungarian parties.
The Migration Crisis of 2015 & its Political Aftermath:
Then, late in August and early September 2015, the migration crisis broke upon Europe and shattered the uneasy truce between Orbán and the European Union. A million Syrian refugees left their camps in Turkey and flooded across the Aegean into Greece, then turned northwards through the Balkans and into Hungary from Serbia, eager to take advantage of Angela Merkel’s call to give them a home in Germany. Orbán tried at first to hold the line and then opened the border. Migrants engulfed trains at Budapest’s main railway stations, heading towards Austria and Germany.
Orbán’s poll numbers had been languishing that summer, but he quickly seized the political opportunity that had been handed to him, and he became Merkel’s most vituperative opponent and an even more strident critic of Muslim immigration and the supposed threat it posed to ‘European civilization.’ Soros was among Orbán’s most determined critics. As a Holocaust survivor, an immigrant, and an American citizen, he believed that Europe should respond with generosity to the plight of the Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in their home country. In editorials, he urged Europe to give the refugees a home. From the CEU, students and faculty went to help the refugees camped at the railway stations. Students brought plugs to charge refugee phones, food, water, and maps to guide them to safety in Germany.
A solid two-thirds of Hungarians polled during this period felt that the government was doing the right thing in criticising the idea of quotas of refugees issued from Brussels or Berlin. Soros disagreed, however, and was said to have spent considerable sums during 2015 on pressure groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) making a case for open borders and free movement of migrants into and around Europe. As well as a website called ‘Welcome2EU’, the Open Society Foundation published leaflets informing migrants of what to do. These told them of their human rights in Europe and what the authorities could and could not do, especially at the borders, as the Orbán régime’s controls tightened. In October 2015, Orbán criticised Soros’ university’s circle of activists who support anything that threatened nation-states. In an email to Bloomberg, Soros said that his university was seeking to uphold European values while Orbán’s government sought to undermine those values. He went on to say of Orbán’s policy:
His plan treats the the protection of national borders as the objective and the refugees as an obstacle. Our plan treats the protection of refugees as the objective and national borders as the obstacle.‘Orbán accuses Soros of stoking refugee wave to weaken Europe,’ Bloomberg, 30 October 2015.
The dialogue between the two men ceased almost before it had properly begun. After the traumatic days of the migration crisis, however, CEU sought to establish businesslike relations with the Fidesz régime, and the university’s leaders believed it had succeeded. But that did not mean the CEU’s professors stopped criticising the government. The university’s constitutional experts analysed the gerrymandering of the electoral system, the neutering of the Supreme Court, and the new media laws. At the same time, other scholars denounced the corruption of what one university affiliate, Bálint Magyar, called Orbán’s ‘mafia state.’ When Michael Ignatieff became rector later that fall, however, George Soros flew in for his inauguration and the opening of the new building. The ceremony, attended by key figures close to the government, emphasised the university’s Hungarian associations and pointed to a renewal of good working relationships between the institution and the government. Nevertheless, this was the last time to date that George Soros would set foot in his native land. Then, in November 2016, Donald Trump won the US presidential election, and almost immediately, relations between the Orbán government and the CEU began to deteriorate. The Obama administration had put the US-Hungarian relationship into a ‘deep freeze’ to express its disapproval of the régime’s corruption and its violations of the rule of law. Now the Trump administration began to signal a change of policy, and Orbán felt confident enough to make a direct attack on Soros.
The 2018 Election Campaign & the Demise of the CEU in Budapest:
The first sign of this attack came just before Christmas when Orbán delivered a speech rallying Fidesz members of parliament and supporters to prepare for the 2018 national elections. Orbán declared that his objective in the election campaign would be to drive George Soros and all his works from Hungary. This strategy had been proposed by a US Republican campaign adviser, who urged Orbán to ‘scapegoat’ Soros as the man threatening Hungary with mass migration. This, as Ignatieff comments, is how a populist “politics of enemies” works. Orbán needed an enemy of stature, and the Hungarian opposition was too weak and divided to give him a worthwhile target. It was far more effective to make a man not even a resident in the country responsible for all its woes and to make his ‘open society’ the symbol of everything Orbán was running against. Campaign posters soon filled every available space on the subway, the trams and the outdoor billboards: a picture of a smiling George Soros as a puppet-master pulling the opposition leaders’ strings with the slogan, “Don’t let Georges Soros have the last laugh!” When critics pointed out that the figure of “the laughing Jew” had been a trope of the Nazi newspaper in the 1930s, the régime reacted with indignation:
How dare you accuse us of anti-Semitism!
This ‘new’ kind of anti-Semitism, directed at Soros personally, made its first appearance in post-war Europe. It made shameless use of Nazi-era tropes while indignantly denying that it was doing so. But the campaign of personal defamation was followed by a direct attack on his institution. In March 2017, CEU heard from friends inside the civil service that the régime was planning to revise the higher education law. It was instantly clear that while the law was nominally directed at all thirty foreign higher education institutions working in Hungary, it targeted only one. It required every foreign institution to negotiate a bilateral agreement between its country of origin and the Hungarian government and to maintain a campus on its native soil. CEU is one of many US institutions abroad which does not maintain a domestic campus in the USA. With support from Soros and the board of trustees, the CEU administration publicly opposed the legislation as a discriminatory attack on academic freedom and set about mobilising support in Hungary, Europe, and the USA. In late May 2017, a crowd of eighty thousand Budapest citizens gathered on the Buda bank of the Danube, crossed the Chain Bridge and marched past the CEU building to Parliament Square, chanting for “Free Universities” in a “Free Society.” It was the largest demonstration seen since the heady days of 1989.
Orbán agreed in early June to enter into negotiations with the State of New York to see whether an agreement could secure a way for CEU to stay in Budapest. Over the summer of 2017, the chief legal counsel of the governor of New York met with Orbán’s designated representative, and in late August, an apparent breakthrough occurred. CEU would establish a campus at Bard College and conduct educational programmes there, satisfying the Hungarian requirement for a US campus. The Hungarian government would allow CEU to remain in Budapest. The university signed the agreement and waited for the government to do the same. The signature never came. Soros had never believed that a deal with Orbán was possible. Unfortunately, he turned out to be correct in his assessment. The university’s leadership had been ‘played’ by Orbán. For the remainder of the year, right through to the election of April 2018, the anti-Soros barrage was unrelenting. Not only were subways, buses, and streets plastered with anti-Soros posters, but there were also incessant television attacks claiming that an open society meant submerging Hungary in a deluge of refugees. This strategy had the desired result, and in the election, Fidesz once again secured the two-thirds majority of seats within Parliament necessary to make constitutional changes. Within weeks, Soros ordered the closing of the Open Society Foundation’s offices in Budapest, and by the autumn of 2018, the CEU had succeeded in securing a new home in Vienna. However, the CEU retained its research establishments and administrative functions in Budapest.
Other wealthy philanthropists have chosen to bail out of Central Europe in the face of the unremitting hostility of the national governments and the general darkening of the prospects for an open society in Central-Eastern Europe, and the growing democratic deficit worldwide. The speculator George Soros once was might have done so, but the CEU experience had changed him. He had initially thought of his venture into higher education in Central-Eastern Europe as temporary, risky speculation that might pay off. Over time, he had discovered just how difficult it was to change the political culture of a whole region. His foundations had been expelled from Russia, and his philanthropy had been unable to stop the consolidation of single-party authoritarian rule in Belarus and Hungary. He had sought to mobilise Western European governments to bring down the divides with Eastern Europe and genuinely integrate the two halves of the continent. He had been rebuffed, and instead of his philanthropy drawing support and encouragement from private donors, he had to go it alone. Nothing had turned out quite as he had hoped, but he was not surprised by this. Unintended consequences are the stuff of history, and history is never over. The future of Hungary will have many chapters after the one(s) written by Viktor Orbán.
Meeting the Moment -1989 and All That:
It could be argued that, by the early 1990s, Soros’ ambitions had met the historical moment. And yet, in his tenth decade, the world remains by most measures a divided and disturbing place. While preserving the forms of democracy, too many countries – the USA included – have been drawn to authoritarian rulers and right-wing populist movements that persecute minority racial, ethnic and religious groups and seek to dismantle the collaborative institutions to which Soros has devoted much of his life. In his native Hungary, despite his considerable role in helping the country move past Soviet-era repression, Viktor Orbán’s relentless, anti-Semitic attacks on Soros drove his Central European University out of the country, and it is unsafe for Soros to visit his beloved birthplace of Budapest. Most fundamentally, the core tenets of the open society are challenged as never before. Political and ideological differences are bitterly fought out, as parties and philosophies have their time in and out of power. Soros wants a system that functions but is sceptical when one side has too much power. The cycles of ‘normal politics’ depend upon a shared belief in underlying democratic systems and norms and on a shared understanding of the facts – a transpartisan view that the truth matters. Soros claims that without agreement on that principle, the political contest deteriorates into a shameless manipulation of the truth. As Laura Quinn of Catalyst noted,
“Soros is an emblem of a society which values institutions and norms – the exact embodiment of the enlightenment values they are trying to kill.”
In a further article, Ivan Krastov points out how, after the 1989 Revolutions in Central-Eastern Europe, it was those most impatient to see their countries change who were the first to leave. For many liberal-minded Eastern Europeans, a mistrust of nationalist loyalties and the prospect of joining the modern world made emigration a logical and legitimate choice. As a result, he writes, the revolutions of 1989 had the perverse effect of accelerating population decline in the newly liberated countries of Central-Eastern Europe. From 1989 to 2017, Latvia lost twenty-seven per cent of its population, Lithuania twenty-three per cent, and Bulgaria almost twenty-one per cent. Hungary lost nearly three per cent of its population in the 2010s after the EU’s freedom of movement arrangements encouraged migration, especially to the United Kingdom. In 2016, around one million Poles were living in the UK. This emigration of the young and talented was occurring in countries already with ageing populations and low birth rates. Together, these trends set the stage for demographic panic. Thus, the combination of emigration and the fear of immigration best explains the rise of populism in Central-Eastern Europe, which feeds off a sense that a country’s identity is under threat. Moving to the West was equivalent to rising social status, and as a result, those who stayed behind in their own countries started feeling like poor relations. Success back home was devalued in countries where most young people dreamed of leaving.
Conclusion – The “Soros Affair” & its Lasting Legacy:
In 1989, as in the revolutions of 1848, liberals and nationalists were political allies, a coalition that broke the back of communism in the former Soviet-controlled countries. Viktor Orbán, a nationalist in liberal clothing at first, in the 1990s, was the best illustration of this conjoining of forces. But by the beginning of the current century, as in the last days of the Habsburg Empire at the beginning of the previous century, liberals and nationalists have become the worst of enemies and have remained so into the 2020s. George Soros, who advocates for international governance, universal human rights and a progressive migration policy, is now deemed a significant, sinister threat to the nation-state. What Krastev labels the “Soros Affair” – the obsession of the nationalists with labelling any supporter of the ideas of the open society as a traitor – plays a lamentably similar role to the “Dreyfus Affair” in late-nineteenth-century France. Soros has so far proved correct in his belief that the twenty-first century will be defined by the clash between the ideals of an open society and those of a closed society as an incarnation of old notions of tribalism. Many Central-Eastern European nationalists have embraced the current right-wing Israeli government in order to challenge their most senior and most bitter enemy, Jewish cosmopolitanism, as embodied by George Soros.
A Hungarian Jew who became an American financial speculator is now the fiercest defender of the European Union, and he is defending the Union on two fronts: against political élites in Central-Eastern Europe who benefit significantly from the generosity of the Union’s subsidies and against Brussels bureaucrats who resist the need to reinvent the EU. What makes Soros so infuriating to Eastern Europe’s illiberal leaders is that he exposes their biggest lie: that open society liberalism is an alien import into the region. And to make their fellow citizens believe the lie, the illiberal nationalists have had to turn Soros into a foreigner, a person not from the region. As Krastov concludes, it is clear that if George Soros did not exist, the Eastern European nationalists would have had to invent him. As Soros turned ninety-one, his commitments to the CEU indicated that he had come to an important insight that might not have occurred to him in the 1980s, when he began his efforts to change the history of his native region. He had grasped that régimes come and go, single-party rulers come and go, single-party rulers come and go, but institutions, universities especially, endure. Some of what Soros had tried to create had been swept away, but his institutions may yet endure as his lasting legacy long after Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric has lost any power it once possessed.
Peter L. W. Osnos (ed.) (2022), George Soros: A Life in Full. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Publishing.
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.
Douglas Murray (2018), The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.