Citing the election of Donald Trump as an “opportunity” to consolidate nationalist sentiment, the vice president of Hungary’s ruling party recently denounced the Open Society Foundation, an American civil society group founded by billionaire financier George Soros. Vowing to “use all tools at its disposal” to “clean out” Soros-funded NGOs like the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Transparency International, and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, according to reporting by Bloomberg’s Zoltan Simon. The OSF spends more than $1.6 billion supporting pro-democracy groups in the post-Soviet space; in Hungary alone some 60 groups receive funding from the Foundation.
OSF president Christopher Stone, for his part, seems unperturbed by the government’s confrontational stance. “The Open Society Foundations will continue to work in Hungary despite government opposition to our mission of fairer, accountable societies. In Hungary and around the world we are more focused than ever on working with local groups to strengthen democratic practice, rights, and justice.”
The Hungarian government’s most recent announcement against OSF hardly comes as a surprise. The current ruling party has long struck a pose of anti-Western sentiment, earning denunciations by the European Commission and American policymakers. Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared in 2014 that his intention was to build an “illiberal” nation-state on the model of Russia or China within the confines of the European community. And as Simon points out in his Bloomberg piece, legislation before the parliament this year will propose greater government involvement in NGO management.
After reports of the crackdown on OSF activities spread earlier this month, government spokesman Janos Lazar appeared to walk back his colleague’s earlier comments, saying that, “We’re not going to sweep out anybody,” though he did insist that foreign NGOs would have to submit to audits. But even if OSF escapes the scrutiny of Hungary’s bureaucrats, other countries have targeted the group in recent years: Russian and Uzbekistani governments moved against the Soros network in 2015 and 2004, respectively. In Israel, a newly passed law imposes heightened scrutiny on civil-society groups that receive more than half their funding from abroad.
What is all this to do with American civil society? Soros, an American citizen, is just one of many philanthropists with one foot firmly planted on either side of the Atlantic. Such activists form an important part of American soft power, whether they come from the political left (like Soros) or right (like the equally reviled Koch brothers). A healthy civil society should have room for groups that support open debate and the rule of law, no matter where they get their money from. And when foreign governments pick fights with groups that aim to support these principles, the typical partisan gamesmanship shouldn’t prevent American defenders of civil society from siding with activists. After all, it’s unlikely that OSF will have to shut down or scale back operations in Hungary in coming years; but how many other, smaller groups have been discouraged from even entering the scene because of the way they see larger groups getting treated?
The current wave of populism, nationalism, and retrenchment rolling across the West only threatens to amplify this chilling effect.