DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Hungary, there has been a wave of anti-migrant sentiment, and that country's government has been drafting laws to curb people from entering the country illegally. But critics of Prime Minister Viktor Orban charge that the real motive here is to cripple philanthropic organizations, especially those that are linked to Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this report from Budapest. And we should just note here that the Open Society Foundations, funded by George Soros, financially support NPR.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: George Soros and his foundation sent Viktor Orban to Oxford on a scholarship. In his 1988 application, the 25-year-old university graduate gushed about the opportunities the Open Society Foundations could provide him as communism was collapsing here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) To spend some time in Oxford would be very fruitful in order to survey this problem of East Central Europe from another aspect.
NELSON: Three decades later, Prime Minister Orban called Soros a threat. During a recent speech to his Fidesz party, the Hungarian leader accused him of trying to get migrants to overrun Europe, destroying the continent's security and identity.
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PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBAN: (Through interpreter) What we did not tolerate from the Soviet empire, we shall not tolerate from the Soros empire. We shall defend our borders. We shall stop the Soros plan, and eventually, we shall win.
NELSON: But Soros claims that it is the prime minister and his autocratic ambitions that pose a danger to Hungarians. The 87-year-old recently spoke at the Global Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
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GEORGE SOROS: Orban has been very successful in making the mafia state work efficiently. He has actually bought up the leaders of the social democratic party, and he has put (ph) spies in every emerging, clean party that could attract the electorate.
NELSON: Why the former allies have become bitter foes is complicated. Neither Orban or Soros agreed to be interviewed by NPR, but supporters for each accused the other of changing for the worse.
ZOLTAN KOVACS: What we see on behalf of Mr. Soros and the organizations he and others are financing is rather something that is against the interest of Hungary, the entire central European region and, as a matter of fact, the entire European Union.
NELSON: That's Orban's spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, who is a graduate of the Soros-funded Central European University in Budapest, which the Hungarian government is also trying to close down.
KOVACS: These organizations definitely don't have the democratic mandate because they have never been voted for. Nobody elected them.
NELSON: Patrick Gaspard, who is president of the Open Society Foundations, rejects the Hungarian allegations. He says the work Soros-linked NGOs have done for the past 30 years is strictly limited to building up civil society and democracy, and Gaspard doesn't think his boss should be attacked for that.
PATRICK GASPARD: You can't get more personal than billboards with George Soros' face all over the country, with his image being put onto the floor of public transportation. George Soros has a thick hide, and he can certainly absorb these attacks with grace, as he has for some time now, and will not be dissuaded.
NELSON: Hungarian analyst Botond Feledy says what Orban is doing isn't as personal as it seems, nor is it anything new. He says Orban's strategy has worked well for populists across central Europe - shift voter attention away from domestic issues by finding a foreign bogeyman.
BOTOND FELEDY: First, it was IMF. Then, it was the EU. Then, the migrants, and now, we have George Soros. This is actually a continuing campaign which keeps the majority of Hungarian voters at bay not to take their own government as the forum against which they should protest.
NELSON: Under the proposed laws, the Interior Ministry would have a wide latitude to ban foreign-funded NGOs it deems to be a security risk or supporting undocumented migrants. Hungarian lawmakers say a vote on the measures isn't expected before April. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Budapest.
[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio version of this story incorrectly states that the Open Society Foundations, funded by George Soros, financially support NPR. The Open Society Foundations ceased funding NPR on Sept. 30, 2016. ]
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