BUDAPEST — Through eight years of iron-fisted rule, pockets of independence persisted beyond the ever-widening reach of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Even as the government came to resemble the one-party states of old, universities, news organizations, local authorities and human rights groups managed to carve out just enough space to keep alive at least the promise of an open and free nation in the heart of Europe’s formerly communist East.
But perhaps not for much longer.
A month after Orban won a crushing electoral victory, the government is moving quickly to make good on his vow of “revenge” against perceived enemies. The targets of his wrath, meanwhile, are actively preparing for the crackdown to come within this European Union and NATO member.
A human rights group expects to be banned from assisting or even speaking about refugees. A progressive university is planning a possible retreat into exile. And the country’s foremost advocate for a liberal alternative to Orban’s self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” is all but conceding defeat.
The cumulative effect points to dramatically more authority for Orban than he already wields, with fewer credible sources of opposition to his words and deeds.
“It’s all about suffocating civil society and suppressing the remaining critical voices in Hungary,” said Csaba Csontos, spokesman for the Budapest-based operations of the Open Society Foundations.
The George Soros-funded group, which together with its predecessors has advocated for free expression and civic participation in Hungary since communist times, has decided to shutter its Budapest office, the organization announced Tuesday.
“The government of Hungary has denigrated and misrepresented our work and repressed civil society for the sake of political gain, using tactics unprecedented in the history of the European Union,” Patrick Gaspard, the group’s president, said in announcing the move.
Open Society’s Hungary operations are its second-largest, a regional hub with 170 employees and support staffers doling out millions of dollars annually in grants for work in education, human rights, public health and other areas.
Csontos said the grants will continue, but the organization is grappling with how to award them from afar, with its operations moving to Berlin. The decision has been “very emotional” for the Hungarian American philanthropist Soros, who has collectively spent more than $400 million in Hungary through Open Society since 1984. Yet concerns about “the safety and security of our staff,” Csontos said, “are paramount.”
That will cheer Orban, who has made the Jewish investor his personal nemesis and national boogeyman in recent years. Government-funded campaigns have warned darkly of a supposed Soros plan to flood the nation with Muslim immigrants. Orban made hostility toward Soros — who is 87, lives in New York and vehemently denies any such plot — the centerpiece of his reelection bid.
“This apocalyptic vision was the governing party’s only message to voters,” Csontos noted ruefully. “And it worked.”
Orban, who celebrated the start of his fourth term as prime minister Thursday by proclaiming the death of liberal democracy, won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in last month’s vote. That gives him the freedom to pass virtually any legislation or constitutional change he wishes. He has said that a “Stop Soros” bill will be at the top of the new parliament’s agenda.
Although putatively intended to curb foreign influence and stop migration, the legislation also is aimed at limiting domestic dissent — an interpretation the government does not dispute.
“There’s a legally elected and sovereign government,” said Zoltan Kovacs, Orban’s spokesman. When unelected people or organizations lobby or speak out “against the government, that is basically against the country.”
A version of the bill drafted before the election would force any group working on behalf of refugees or other immigrants to apply for and receive national security clearance from the country’s Interior Ministry. Organizations receiving foreign funds, meanwhile, would have to pay a 25 percent tax on those contributions.
Lawmakers have not yet published a revised version of the law. But Kovacs suggested that, if anything, it will be tougher than the original, to counteract the “open and explicit interference on behalf of the Soros organizations during the election campaign.”
Independent monitors who observed the vote reported that any interference was actually from the government. A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the election was marred by “a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources,” as well as by “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric.”
The new law, which could be passed within weeks, is expected to make it even more difficult for government critics to try to counteract such messages.
“The ruling party has a very narrow definition of who gets to have a say in public affairs,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based human rights group. “In their view, civil society is not elected, so it has no right to have a say in politics.”
Pardavi’s organization receives substantial funding from the Open Society Foundations and advocates on behalf of refugees, a combination that makes it a prime target of the legislation. While Pardavi said she would wait for the final version of the bill to decide how her organization will react, she was not optimistic.
“I think we have to work on the assumption of the worst-case scenario,” she said. “It’s a direct threat to our mission.”
The legislation, she said, could go as far as criminalizing public criticism of the country’s asylum policies — “effectively a gag order.”
But Pardavi said one thing was clear: Her organization, which got its start in 1989 when the Iron Curtain collapsed, will not be leaving Hungary.
Another Soros-funded institution, Central European University, can’t make such promises. The school — which is accredited in the United States and Hungary and attracts students and faculty members from more than 130 nations to its sleek and airy campus in the heart of Budapest — has been on shaky ground since last spring, when the parliament fast-tracked legislation imposing new requirements on foreign universities.
The school scrambled to satisfy the rules and reached a preliminary deal with the government last fall to keep CEU in the nation’s capital. The agreement still awaits Orban’s signature, and the prime minister has been coy about whether he intends to give it.
“We’re in limbo,” said the university’s president, Michael Ignatieff.
But that can’t continue for much longer. Without approval this summer, he said, he will be forced to move the university to Vienna.
“If it goes on, you can’t attract students. You can’t make new hires. You start to bleed,” said Ignatieff, a Canadian former politician and Harvard University professor specializing in human rights. “I can’t go into another academic year in limbo.”
If the government forces out CEU, it would mark the first time an accredited university in the E.U. is evicted. Ignatieff said the decision will be “a crucial indicator of the future direction of this government and just how far they’re willing to go.”
Other tests loom in areas such as the media and local government. Soon after the election, the nation’s largest opposition newspaper, a radio station and an English-language news site all closed. Although none cited government pressure, the news landscape has narrowed in Hungary as Orban allies have gobbled up media companies and then shut down titles or turned them into reliable pro-government mouthpieces.
“The biggest problem is the systematic erosion of what the media is in Hungary,” said Marton Gergely, who was deputy editor of an opposition paper when it was bought and closed by an Orban-aligned oligarch in 2016. “The other side produces fake news and then pretends that’s how the whole industry works.”
Authorities in local government also fear the national government will target them as Orban consolidates control. The prime minister has already centralized spending decisions that were once reserved for municipal leaders, including funding for schools.
The trend probably will continue now that Orban and his allies have unfettered power in the parliament, said Gyorgy Gemesi, mayor of a prosperous Budapest suburb.
“Wherever there is still autonomy and independence,” he said, “they will try to close the door.”
Gergo Saling and Andras Petho contributed to this report.