There are fears that the far right could be emboldened by a campaign against the Hungarian-born American billionaire. Shaun Walker reports from Budapest
In 1989 the American-Hungarian financier George Soros paid for Viktor Orbn to study in Britain. Two decades later, he donated $1m to Orbns government to help the cleanup after the red sludge environmental disaster.
Over the years, the billionaire has spent hundreds of millions of dollars financing education and civil society projects in Hungary, the country of his birth, through his Open Society Foundations (OSF).
But now Soros has become the Hungarian prime ministers No 1 political target.
On billboards across Budapest Soros stands accused of being a political puppet master. Last week, in a move seen as directly targeting Soros, Hungarys parliament passed legislation requiring NGOs to declare themselves as foreign agents on their websites and documentation if they receive funding from political sources abroad.
How did it get to this?
Soross reputation in Hungary took a particular hit during the 2015 migrant crisis, when his advocacy for the humane treatment for refugees ran up against Hungarys ultra-conservative government, led by Orbn, a rightwing nationalist.
In recent months, the dispute has intensified. The prime minister has described the billionaire as someone who had ruined the lives of tens of millions of people with currency speculation.
Soros hit back with a speech in Brussels this month in which he referred to the Hungarian government as a mafia state and said: He [Orbn] sought to frame his policies as a personal conflict between the two of us and has made me the target of his unrelenting propaganda campaign.
Orbns spokesman, Zoltn Kovcs, told the Guardian that the Brussels speech was a declaration of political war on Hungary. Soros-funded organisations, Kovcs said, were engaged in political activism camouflaged as NGO work.
Goran Buldioski, director of the OSFs Budapest-based Europe office, said Soross funding for Hungary had been dramatically scaled back since the country joined the EU in 2004. Much of the previous funding was for development and education, with Orbn the recipient of a Soros-funded scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in 1989. Soros also set up the Central European University, based in Budapest, which has been targeted by Orbns government of late.
But Soross foundations spent just $3.6m in Hungary in 2016, said Buldioski, a tiny fraction of what the government spent on promoting a referendum last October aimed at barring refugees from the country.
On his desk at the OSF offices in Budapest, Buldioski keeps a copy of a recent edition of a popular local newspaper, which featured a full-page photograph of Soros on page two, accompanied by the caption Outrageous.
A video recently produced by Orbns ruling Fidesz alliance also uses the Outrageous slogan and complains that the EU wants to change Hungarys tough migration policy, and then says: An organisation funded by George Soros is launching lawsuits against our homeland in support of Brussels.
The video refers to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, partially funded by OSF, which provided free legal assistance to about 3,000 people last year, including many asylum seekers, taking 70 cases to the European court of human rights.
The organisation said it would not comply with the new demands to brand itself a foreign agent, calling the law unconstitutional.
Some government critics said the attacks on Soros were merely an exploitative method of harnessing popular support in the run-up to elections next spring.
Hes a very useful punching bag, because hes both the insider and the outsider, the meddling foreigner and the Hungarian Jew, said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, which is the EU policy arm of the OSF. She added that there were clear antisemitic overtones to the campaign against Soros by Fidesz.
Soros was born Gyrgy Schwartz to a family of Hungarian Jews in 1930, but his father changed their surname to make it more Hungarian. As a young boy in the 1930s, Soros lived in an apartment on Budapests Kossuth tr, the square overlooking the parliament building, until his family was forced to split up and live under assumed identities to escape the Holocaust. He left Hungary in 1947 to study in London, and later emigrated to the US, making billions as an investor and hedge fund manager.
Hungarys Jewish community is split over the question of whether antisemitism plays a role in Orbns grievance with Soros. Adam Schonberger, director of a Jewish organisation that runs the Aurora community centre in Budapest, said he believed the government campaign was not antisemitic, but had the potential to empower others who were.
The Aurora centre was set up in 2014 and acts as a kind of coalition of the vulnerable, housing the offices of NGOs that work on Jewish issues, Roma issues, LGBT rights, migrants, drug use and homelessness. The proceeds from an on-site bar and regular concerts go to support the running of the space, and the centres initial funding came partially from Soros.
Last month, a group of far-right activists defaced the outside of the building, spray-painting Stop Operation Soros on the pavement and plastering photographs of his face with a red cross struck through it on the doorway. Time permitting, we will say hello again, said an article about the attack posted on a far-right website. The centre appealed to police, but authorities claimed there was nothing they could do about it.
One of the reasons theyre behaving more brazenly now is that they have a sense that their time has come. Their mission to save Hungary has become mainstream political ideology, said Schonberger, sitting in Auroras courtyard, which turns into a bar in the evenings.
Buldioski said: In the past, Soros was criticised by the political fringe, rightwing nationalists and some radical leftists. But now, the criticism is moving more mainstream.
Not just in Hungary. In Romania, the chairman of the ruling Social Democratic party, Liviu Dragnea, said Soros and his organisations have fed evil in the country; while a Polish MP from the ruling conservative government has referred to Soros as the most dangerous man in the world. The US right has also joined in: in a semi-coherent rant, radio host and Donald Trump supporter Alex Jones claimed Soros heads a Jewish mafia.
But while Jones is on the edge of the debate, in Hungary, the anti-Soros discourse has become mainstream, feeding into the populist anti-migrant discourse. Andrs Bencsik, editor of the rightwing monthly magazine Demokrata, described Soros as a dangerous man who was destabilising Hungary, first and foremost through his attitude to migration. We said: Thank you very much but we want to close our doors, and Soros said: No, I want you to open the gates.
Benscik, a Fidesz member whose office is decorated with swords, daggers and portraits of Hungarian statesmen, suggested darkly that Soros may have some secret plan to destroy the country, but struggled to explain what this secret conspiracy might be.
Behind his mask there is another person with a goal, we just dont know what it is. He has a special programme in his mind, but nobody knows what it is, he said.