The name of Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, business magnate, and philanthropist George Soros has been a dog whistle for populists in the region for decades. As the Cold War came to an end, Soros set up the liberal-minded Open Society Foundations, the Central European University in Budapest, and a number of other progressive institutions, which have all proven to be soft targets for conservative and populist politicians in Central and Eastern Europe.
Currently, the most intense animosity comes from Viktor Orban’s right-wing Fidesz government. Their latest move was the decision to issue a ‘national consultation’ questionnaire, which accuses Soros of overseeing a plot to flood Europe with more than one million refugees a year and of manipulating the European Commission the direct the plan. The questionnaire will ask citizens if they agree with Soros’ alleged support for certain measures, such as tearing down border fences.
It’s true that Soros argued in a 2016 op-ed that the EU should guarantee at least 300,000 places for refugees to minimize irregular migration. But he also argued vehemently against forcing European countries to accept refugee quotes. Despite this, the Hungarian government has labelled a 2015 decision by more than 20 EU member states to establish a refugee resettlement program a central part of the so-called “Soros plan.” Most recently, in a speech ahead of the questionnaire’s release, Secretary of State for Energy András Aradszki went so far as to frame his party’s campaign against Soros in explicitly religious terms. Speaking on the floor of the parliament in a discourse called “The Christian duty to fight against the Satan/Soros Plan,” he linked Soros with everything from abortion to same-sex marriage to euthanasia.
Such a ludicrous – and sadly, often effective strategy – of heaping blame on an external bogeyman is emblematic of the political populism that is rising in the region. In Hungary’s case, the timing of the questionnaire has been carefully calculated to harness this populism, as the national consultation comes six months ahead of parliamentary elections. Orban’s decision to put anti-Soros, anti-refugee, anti-EU rhetoric at the heart of the consultation – and of his political platform – is likely to succeed in further firing up Fidesz’s wide right-wing voter base, which is already backed by 55% of decided voters, as well as the radical, far-right supporters of the Jobbik Party.
The leader of Romania’s governing Social Democrats, Liviu Dragnea, has also seen the benefits of blaming some of his country’s most sensitive issues on Soros. The Hungarian-American billionaire is a useful foil for Social Democrats, especially given their lingering anxiety over fallout from anti-corruption protests last winter. Back then, the government-friendly channel Romania TV blamed – who else – Soros for paying protesters and their dogs to demonstrate against the ruling party.
In Romania, Soros is often linked with the ‘deep state’, a concept once prized by conspiracy theorists that has now become widespread. According to this line of thinking, the Romanian deep state is comprised of a select network of journalists, activists, and prosecutors bent on undermining democratically elected officials and sowing turmoil by pursuing anti-corruption efforts.
Piggybacking on this mind-set, a number of ‘deep state’ conspiracy theories have emerged around the Romanian Anticorruption Directorate’s (DNA). The most resounding one revolves around the body’s efforts to extradite Alexander Adamescu, the son of a Romanian business mogul who fled to the UK under charges of corruption. The DNA has issued a European Arrest Warrant for Adamescu, who allegedly bribed judges to avoid being charged for fraud – but the London-based fugitive is claiming that the deep state wants to silence him and has mounted an international lobbying campaign in an attempt to frame the charges against him as politically motivated attacks. His campaign plays well for an audience already primed to suspect the DNA and other state authorities of ulterior motives.
But that’s not all – seemingly every move in Romania can be blamed on Hungarian billionaire. A recent debate over an upcoming referendum that seeks to amend the constitution in order to ban gay marriage has been laced with Soros references. Conservative supporters of the amendment have been attempting to frame the choice as one between a traditional, family-orientated society on one hand, and one manipulated by “Brussels-supported, Soros-financed” NGOs on the other. The debate goes hand-in-hand with the government’s wider political strategy, one mirrored in Hungary and Poland, which aims to promote a conservative agenda focused on protecting the nation from outside threats – such as refugees, gay people or Soros.
Such conspiracy theories, and the tendency to blame them on Soros-funded NGOs, are the symptom of a wide and concerning trend across Central and Eastern Europe – one replicated not only in Hungary and Romania, but also in Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, where populist politicians are manipulating citizens’ fears for their own ends. For more liberal-minded states in the EU and for Brussels, this trend is deeply worrying.
To be fair, when it comes to initiatives like Hungary’s national consultation questionnaire, there might not be much that outside actors like the EU can do. But when confronted with more concrete moves that contravene the European acquis – such as Hungary’s continuing refusal to acknowledge its obligations under the EU’s refugee-sharing program – Brussels should not hesitate to take more decisive action, such as closing off the spigot of structural funds. Otherwise, the anti-Soros campaign and all it stands for now risks snowballing out of control.