Budapest had woken up to fog, so thick that many flights into the Hungarian capital’s Ferihegy airport had been delayed, or cancelled. Mine, fortunately, had made it through: a Wizz Air service from Bucharest. It had been a long time since I had been in Budapest. Imperial, majestic and one of Europe’s finest cities I know it well: I once authored a guide to the city and spent weeks many years ago pounding its streets in search of hidden gems. This time though I wasn’t sightseeing, and there was only one thing in particular I wanted to see: the face of a man not far short of his 90th birthday, laughing at me from an advertising hoarding.
George Soros will be 88 this August. He remains remarkably busy. According to Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, Mr Soros has been working tirelessly to undermine his government for years, so much so that Mr Orban felt the need to pass laws in 2017 limiting the financial independence of NGOs (be they linked to Mr Soros or not) while threats to close the prestigious Central European University (CEU; founded with a generous donation from Mr Soros) have placed a cloud over the institution’s future. Most controversially, Mr Orban also launched an expensive country-wide media campaign, criticised in a number of circles as anti-Semitic, to warn good Hungarians of the dangers posed by Mr Soros and his ‘octopus-like’ network.
“The billboard campaign did not set out to be specifically anti-Semitic,” says Ádám Schönberger of Marom Budapest, a Jewish cultural organisation. “But it quickly stirred anti-Semitic feelings: anti-Jewish slogans were painted on some of the billboards. To then continue the campaign once it became clear what was happening, that could be considered anti-Semitic.”
I did not have long to wait to see the evidence. Hardly had the overpriced taxi driving me to the city centre (Mr Orban kicked those nasty foreigners from Uber out of Hungary in 2016) left the airport slip road than the first billboard appeared, featuring a smiling Mr Soros next to the slogan: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Another 500 metres and another billboard appeared. Then another. It was relentless. Later, while driving in the Hungarian countryside, there were more. There was no escape.
The Last Laugh
“Don’t let Soros have the last laugh” is a reference both to government claims that the philanthropist wants to force Hungary to allow in migrants, and to its ‘consultation’, in which questionnaires asking Hungarians if they agreed with Mr Soros’ alleged policies were sent to every home in the country. The government announced in December that more than 2.3 million of the questionnaires had been returned. Its findings have been used to justify a ‘Stop Soros’ law which could see the philanthropist barred from entering Hungary and NGOs which defend him forced to pay a so-called ‘Soros tax.’
With no truly liberal domestic opposition to challenge him – Jobbik, an extreme right-wing party, is likely to be the second largest parliamentary party after April’s elections – Mr Orban has named Mr Soros as his main adversary ahead of the poll. NGOs supported by Mr Soros will act like political parties during the electoral campaign, he claims.
“The anti-Soros campaign distracts attention from the most pressing issues, such as the disastrous situation of the public health service, education and poverty in rural areas,” says Csaba Csontos, communications officer and spokesperson for the Open Society Foundations in Hungary. “For that reason the government needs ‘enemies’ so it can galvanise its electorate. The government first planted an atavistic fear of migrants, and then accused George Soros of intending to settle migrants in Hungary. So works the government’s propaganda,” Mr Csontos told Emerging Europe.
While Mr Soros has been mentioned in dispatches in Poland – last summer Krystyna Pawlowicz, a lawmaker with the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), called him “the most dangerous man in the world” on Radio Maryja, a Catholic broadcaster, and claimed that his foundations “finance anti-Christian and anti-national activities,” – it is the European Union which remains the government’s bête noire, not least as the current president of the EU’s decision making body the European Council is a former Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, a member of the Civic Alliance (PO), Poland’s largest opposition party. So detested is Mr Tusk in PiS circles that it was the Polish government which last summer tried (unsuccessfully) to nobble his otherwise formality of a re-election to a second two-year stint as Council president.
According to Christopher Hartwell, president of the Centre for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw, attacking Mr Tusk backfired.
“The one time PiS took a small, brief dive in the polls was when they tried to stop Tusk being re-elected as Council president,” Mr Hartwell told Emerging Europe. “Regardless of Tusk’s popularity it was seen as a betrayal of a fellow Pole. Otherwise their support is holding up. Why wouldn’t it? They have done everything they said they would. They have lowered the pension age, they are paying people to have babies, they have taxed the financial institutions. If you voted PiS you have no reason to be disappointed. If an election were held today they might well get a bigger share of the vote.”
That has not stopped large sections of Polish civil society from protesting against changes PiS wants to make to the legal system. The changes could force up to 40 per cent of Polish Supreme Court judges to step down and would hand politicians full control over the body that appoints judges. PiS has also passed laws giving it greater control over state media and is pushing through changes to the electoral system that have drawn criticism from the head of the country’s own electoral commission. Reforms reducing foreign media ownership have also been proposed.
Poland’s political and parliamentary opposition is not as weak as Hungary’s, but it is far from popular. The Civic Alliance is still seen as being tainted by scandal in many circles, and – PiS will insist – too friendly with Germany and the EU as a whole. “PiS portrays PO as not looking out for Poland first,” says Mr Hartwell. “’Look at Tusk’ they say, ‘he went straight to Brussels.’”
The challenge for the Polish opposition now is to find somebody around whom it can coalesce. Mr Tusk need not apply. “His credibility is not good,” says Christopher Hartwell. “And this is the problem the Polish opposition has. No figure has yet emerged to forge a coalition. Until somebody does, PiS gets a free ride from the electorate.”
The Nuclear Option
The European Union on the other hand does not intend to give Poland anything like a free ride. On December 20 it took what has been termed the nuclear option and recommended invoking Article 7.1 of the EU treaty against Poland, a procedure which could eventually lead to Poland losing its right to vote at the European Council. That is unlikely to happen: Viktor Orban has vowed to veto any such action.
Indeed, there are few spirits more kindred these days than Mr Orban and Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of PiS and de facto ruler of Poland. “Hungary can represent Poland,” said Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki when leaving the last EU summit of 2017 early. A further example of the strong ties binding the two countries came on January 3 when Mr Morawiecki’s first act of the new year was to pay Mr Orban a high-profile visit. Creation of a Visegrad Investment Bank (which would include all four members of the Visegrad Group: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) has been mooted.
Later in January however came signs that Poland was ready to hand an albeit small olive branch to Brussels. A major cabinet reshuffle saw a number of controversial ministers replaced, including Jan Szyszko, the infamous minister of the environment who allowed increased logging in the primeval Białowieża Forest, drawing fierce international criticism. The hardline Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro kept his job, however.
Nor will Poland be leaving the European Union in either the short or the long term. There will be no Polexit. Just a fortnight after the European Commission recommended the triggering of the EU treaty’s Article 7.1, a poll showed that support for EU membership in Poland was higher than at any time in history: 92 per cent of the Polish population wants to remain in the EU, up three per cent on the last poll in December 2017.
Neither will Hungary be leaving the EU. Indeed, Mr Orban – who is likely to be re-elected prime minister by a wide margin – has claimed that central and eastern Europe represent the Union’s future.
“The Hungarian opposition is weak and divided,” says Csaba Csontos. “More importantly they are visibly weak, so even their possible electorate can’t imagine them as a possible ‘government-changing’ force. The opposition exists, but with very limited capacity and gravitas. Meanwhile the polls show that there are one million people who want a change in government and are still undecided how to vote. Since it creates uncertainty, the governing party will keep its noisy scaremongering campaign at the highest possible volume and go on attacking Hungarian civil society.”
Socialists in Populist Clothing
Can the governments of Hungary and Poland change their ways? The real question is: Why would they? Until a real opposition emerges in either country they have no reason to play to anyone’s rules except their own. But as Christopher Hartwell warns, the populist (he uses the term ‘socialist’) policies keeping the electorates of both countries happy are expensive. “When the lower pension age kicks in this year in Poland the government will lose out on two fronts: they will have to pay these people their pensions, but they will lose the social contributions they had been paying,” he says.
What saves both Hungary and Poland from authoritarian populism may well end up being nothing more complicated than a failure to pay their mounting bills. With Brussels now reportedly drawing up proposals to ensure that member states which benefit from its new long-term budget have independent judiciaries, that may happen sooner rather than later.