Hungary has led several major anti-Soros campaigns warning against the US billionaire's alleged plan to flood Europe with millions of migrants
Budapest (AFP) - The foundation run by US-Hungarian billionaire George Soros said Tuesday it was closing operations in Hungary and relocating to Germany in response to the "repressive" policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government.
"Faced with an increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) are moving their Budapest-based international operations and staff to the German capital, Berlin," the network said in a statement.
Orban, re-elected last month for a third consecutive term in office, has long accused the 87-year-old Soros and non-governmental organisations he funds of orchestrating immigration and plotting to undermine the cultural and religious identity of Europe.
"We won’t be shedding any crocodile tears," the government's press office told AFP in an email Tuesday reacting to the news of the foundation's departure.
OSF said the decision follows the latest steps by Orban to "impose further restrictions" on NGOs.
Earlier this year, citing national security concerns, the government announced a so-called "Stop Soros" package of draft laws aimed at "shedding light" and clamping down on NGOs receiving funding from abroad.
The proposals include a special tax on such NGOs, secret service surveillance of their staff, and a ban on travel to Hungary's border zones for Hungarians deemed to be involved in "illegal immigration". Foreign NGO staff under similar suspicion could be barred from entering the country altogether.
The OSF decision is "regrettable," said the EU's first vice president Frans Timmermans.
"Whenever a civil society organisation that helps build vibrant & tolerant democracies is threatened & feels it can no longer do its work, democracy suffers," he tweeted.
Rights groups in Hungary and abroad have denounced the proposals as an effort to silence critics.
"The reason why OSF has reached this decision is very telling of how fast our operational context is deteriorating," Marta Pardavi, co-head of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a refugee rights NGO that has come under regular attack by the government, told AFP Tuesday.
Amnesty International, another NGO in the government's crosshairs, said it was not closing its Hungary operations "for now".
Orban, who won by a landslide in the April 8 election, on Monday said the "Stop Soros" package would be among the first bills tabled to the new parliament in the coming weeks.
The package is "one of the most important questions of the election, Hungarians voted for it," Orban said Monday on a visit to Warsaw.
The theme of thwarting Soros's alleged efforts to encourage immigration dominated the election campaign during which Orban said some 2,000 "mercenaries" paid by the billionaire were working in Hungary.
A magazine owned by an Orban ally later published the names of hundreds of NGO staff, academics, and journalists it said were in the pay of Soros.
"It has become impossible to protect the security of our operations and our staff in Hungary from arbitrary government interference," said OSF president Patrick Gaspard in Tuesday's statement.
The organisation will move out "over the summer" with the Berlin office becoming "fully operational from end-August," an OSF source told AFP.
- '100m euro hate campaign' -
The "Stop Soros" measures follow a series of large-scale taxpayer-funded information campaigns in recent years attacking the billionaire, a Jew who left Hungary after World War II.
Last year billboards erected nationwide depicted his face grinning alongside the words: "Let's not let Soros have the last laugh!"
After some of the posters were daubed with anti-Semitic graffiti, Hungary's largest Jewish organisation Mazsihisz worried that the campaign could "stoke" anti-Semitism.
The billboards promoted a so-called "national consultation" in which the government canvassed public opinion on an alleged "Soros Plan" to import a million of immigrants to Europe.
Budapest had funnelled more than 100 million euros in public funds into its "hate campaign" to "spread lies about the Foundations and their partners," said the OSF statement.
OSF said more than 100 OSF staff in Budapest would be affected by the move to Berlin, around 60 percent of whom are Hungarian nationals.
Soros launched his first foundation in Hungary in 1984 to promote freedom of expression during the last years of Communism, the OSF said.
The prestigious Soros-founded Central European University (CEU), located in Budapest since 1993, is also waging a battle against Orban after a higher education law was passed last year that it says threatens its survival in Hungary.
Despite the OSF's departure, the university said that "it reaffirms its determination to remain in Budapest," and urged the government to allow it to stay.
"CEU cannot go into another academic year in a situation of legal uncertainty," rector Michael Ignatieff said in a statement.