The World

The Shadow of Soros

Hungary’s young opposition leaders are fighting back against an authoritarian government, and being labeled as foreign agents.

Protesters hold up EU flags.
People protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin in Budapest, Hungary, on Aug. 28, in a march organized by Momentum.
Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

Katalin Cseh, a 29-year-old opposition parliamentary candidate, has learned the perils of challenging Hungary’s ruling party the hard way.

In September, while visiting France with fellow members of her party, she was photographed with the French president’s wife, Brigitte Macron. Almost immediately, she was labeled a foreign agent.

“State media did a five-minute story about the photo on the national television news,” she said incredulously. “Local media portrayed it that we were playing to French powers and we are part of a conspiracy against the Hungarian people. How do you respond to that? Often we feel it’s better not to respond, it’s not a real debate.”

Cseh is a member of Momentum, a new party trying to take on the entrenched rule of Hungary’s strongman prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and stop what they see as Hungary’s slide into xenophobic dictatorship. Its core leaders are younger than 35, university-educated, and have studied or worked abroad. They use sophisticated social media strategies and consult successful political strategists, including veterans of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche and the Obama campaign.

The government labels them tools of Hungary’s enemies, especially the Hungarian-born currency speculator and philanthropist George Soros, who has poured much of his fortune into liberal causes and become the favorite boogeyman of Orbán’s government. The government has pinned the blame on Soros for opposition to its controversial anti-immigrant policies and consolidation of power.

“It’s just nonsense, absurd accusations, that we are the puppets of George Soros who is an evil overlord who wants to occupy Hungary,” said Cseh. “He’s an 87-year-old man, it’s crazy. We want to put out positive messages as a means to combat propaganda.”

The issue of migration looms over the campaign. In 2015, more than 600,000 refugees flooded into Europe mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; the majority of them heading for Germany and Northern Europe. Orbán responded to the crisis by immediately rejecting claims for asylum and building a razor-wire fence on the border of Serbia to keep out what he called “Muslim invaders.” Today, only two asylum seekers per day are permitted to cross into Hungary.

Ahead of the April 8 parliamentary elections, the government’s heavy-handed propaganda is on display across the capital, Budapest. Billboards depict Soros standing with opposition leaders holding scissors. The message is that they’re ready to cut the fences keeping out hordes of migrants.

“They are pushing this hysterical campaign against perceived enemies of the state,” she said. “The only way Momentum can effect change is to be there and talk to people, hold forums, be a bit rebellious, use common advertising methods. We have to get around traditional media and find a common ground to express our message.”

Like his close ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Orbán has proved a master at playing up the idea of a nation under attack. On March 15, he addressed a crowd of up to 100,000 supporters outside Parliament House. The occasion was the 170th anniversary of Hungary’s uprising against Austrian rule, sparked by a young poet named Sándor Petofi, who called on his countrymen to “rise up” against their enemies.

“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” the prime minister said. “Not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money.” It’s not the first time Orbán has criticized the Jewish philanthropist with language that critics say is thinly veiled anti-Semitism.

Just as Hungary had expelled the Ottomans, Austrians, and Soviets, he assured the crowd he would get rid of “Uncle George.”

Across town at a Momentum rally, party chairman András Fekete-Gyor said that actually Soros wasn’t doing enough to help them.

“He needs to be more visible, this would be my criticism of him,” he said. “He’s almost completely disappeared from the public relations side of things in recent years. He should come back and defend himself and defend his organizations.”

Momentum denies getting any money from Soros. But it’s trying to mobilize the support of institutions he has funded. Since 1984, Soros’ philanthropic group, the Open Society Foundations, has donated $400 million to promote civil society in Hungary. In the words of its website, the money is to “support Hungarian partners working on issues that include promoting independent journalism, fighting corruption, supporting civic participation, and combatting discrimination.”

Orbán in contrast has vowed to end liberal democracy, proclaiming in a 2014 speech that he wanted to build an “illiberal state” along the lines of Russia and China. During his two terms in office, he has seized control of the judiciary and state media and cracked down hard on civil society. Last year the government moved to shut down the Soros-founded Central European University in Budapest, seen by many on the right as a breeding ground for liberals. The university grants scholarships to underprivileged youth across Central Asia and the former Soviet Union.

Daniel Berg, a young Hungarian American whose mother was a political dissident under communism, was one of the leaders of a popular campaign to defend the university that saw thousands take to the streets of Budapest. He’s now a candidate for Momentum in the April elections.

“We were a social movement then we transitioned into a party. Originally there were like, 30 people—a friend group basically—then it went to 240, then 500, then 1,000, and then over 2,000, so we’re a 2,000-strong political community. Our opinion polls are steadily going up. We’re currently polling at 4 percent and the threshold [for parliament] is 5.”

Orbán’s vows to protect Hungary from a migrant invasion have played much better in the rural heartland than in Budapest. His party, Fidesz, controls two-thirds of the Parliament. But the irony is that ever more Hungarians are now looking to escape their country.

“It’s a critical issue that the youth are planning to live their lives somewhere else in Europe,” said Cseh, a doctor. “It’s not just a brain drain. Nonprofessionals are leaving too because they can’t earn a living.”

Despite its immense power, Fidesz has done little to tackle Hungary’s economic problems. Cseh, Momentum’s health spokeswoman, recently installed a large-scale photo exhibition outside the Ministry of Health showing the appalling conditions of Hungary’s public hospitals.

“Basically in the last 28 years none of the governments have managed to undertake a substantial reform of the major social services. Not education nor health care. The country is really divided into two halves, the lucky ones and the unlucky ones. And no one is really taking care of the unlucky ones because they have a lower tendency to vote, so therefore there’s no incentive for helping them.”

Appeals to nationalism have proved an effective distraction from everyday problems. Despite Hungary’s membership in the European Union, the Fidesz government has simply ignored many EU directives. After U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called Orbán a racist and xenophobe on March 6, the government proclaimed it would not be dictated to. Alongside the anti-Soros billboards, authorities have now erected signs declaring: “The U.N. wants to accept migrants on a continuous basis. HUNGARY DECIDES, NOT THE U.N.”

And Orbán enjoys unqualified support from the Kremlin and Poland’s new conservative government. His mass rally was attended by thousands of flag-waving Polish nationalists bused in to show solidarity.

It might seem a hopeless cause to take on a leader who has consolidated so much power. But Momentum sees itself as the true heir of the young poet Sándor Petofi.

“In 1848, a handful of young people in Budapest decided to take their fate in their own hands,” András Fekete-Gyor said. “The country we want to be proud of somehow does not function as it’s supposed to. You should vote for someone you believe in who can bring you hope.”