Rights groups and watchdogs say a Hungarian government campaign against investor and philanthropist George Soros has reached fever pitch, and it is being used to further a crackdown on civil society.
Soros, an 86-year-old who was born in Hungary and is of Jewish descent, has been the focal point of attacks by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party and other far-right nationalist outfits for years.
Yet, recent months have seen a surge in anti-Soros rhetoric, that critics say is rooted in a desire to deflect attention from what they describe as a government crackdown on rights groups and civil society.
Much of the antipathy stems from the policies advocated by the Open Society Foundations, a Soros-founded organisation that campaigns for strengthening civil society, advancing human rights and combating corruption.
In Eastern and Central European countries, the Open Society Foundations has pushed for greater acceptance of refugees and migrants, putting it at odds with right-wing governments and far-right political parties.
In July, the Hungarian government accused Soros of attempting to “Muslimise” Europe. Earlier this year, Orban, who is facing re-election in April 2018, led a campaign to shut down the Central European University (CEU), which was founded by Soros.
On Monday, the Open Society Foundations pushed back, alleging in a statement that Orban and his political allies are orchestrating a campaign of “distortion and lies” about him, pointing to seven of Orban’s statements that attacked Soros.
Among those were claims that Soros hoped to resettle a million refugees in the European Union and allot them thousands of euros each.
Balint Bardi, a Budapest-based Hungarian journalist, says the anti-Soros campaign is part of a broader strategy to “exploit the xenophobic feelings” of many Hungarians in order to “gain popularity for the government”.
“The government has been using this strategy since the beginning of the refugee crisis,” Bardi told Al Jazeera by phone.
“They say there is a threat from our country from the migrants, from the politicians in Brussels or George Soros … and that the government is the only one that can defend Hungarian society.”
He said the overwhelming focus on Soros compounds the anti-refugee propaganda and hostility towards international journalists and press outlets that do not support the government.
“This is very bad for Hungarian society,” Bardi said.
At a press conference on Monday, Gergely Gulyas, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary group, accused Soros of a “full frontal” attack on Hungary.
“So far, George Soros has attacked Hungary and the Hungarian government through the organisations he funds, the European Parliament and his allies in Brussels; but he has now entered the battle in person,” Gulyas said, referring to the Open Society Foundations’ statement on Monday.
“George Soros is now attacking Hungary openly … because in its immigration policy Hungary continues to stand its ground against the forces supporting immigration.”
Gulyas said Hungary “must not become an immigrant country”.
Contacted by Al Jazeera, the Hungarian government’s International Communications Office declined to comment on the issue.
The campaign against Soros has been unfolding alongside an apparent crackdown on civil society, including organisations affiliated with Soros and several that are not linked to him.
In October, the Orban administration ordered the country’s intelligence services to investigate what it called an “empire” of Soros-backed institutions that work in Hungary.
Nora Koves, a Hungarian human rights expert, said the government has increasingly targeted civil society institutions since 2013.
“Now it’s just continuing with Soros. It’s not only the nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) being targeted and not only the migrants,” said Koves, who works for the Budapest-based Eotvos Karoly Policy Institute, which has received funding from Soros-supported foundations.
“He is the perfect enemy because he is invisible and the Hungarian people will never meet him personally.”
In July, the parliament passed a law imposing strict rules on NGOs that receive foreign funding, requiring those that receive more than $26,000 a year from international sources to be registered as “foreign-supported”.
With the strongest opposition groups being an increasingly fractious Socialist Party and Jobbik, an ultra-nationalist party accused of having neo-Nazi roots, Koves is holding out little hope for political pushback against the government’s clampdown on civil society.
“Basically, we are the last critics standing in Hungary. The opposition is completely useless; people don’t believe in them,” she said. “But civil society is a whole different thing. We are the professional criticism of the government.
“They want to demolish it. If you want a perfect autocracy, then obviously you need to do this.”
Many in Hungary say the charges levelled at Soros, who survived the Holocaust, have an odour of latent anti-Semitism.
“The government is denying that is anti-Jewish propaganda against Soros, but many people think this is the case,” Koves said.
For years, governments across Central and Eastern Europe have blamed Soros for unrest and protests.
Earlier this year, Romania’s ruling party claimed that anti-corruption protests were orchestrated by Soros.
In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice Party and a former prime minister, accused Soros-funded organisations of advocating “societies without identity”.
Anti-Soros measures and rhetoric have also become part and parcel of politics in countries including Serbia, Bulgaria and Slovakia.
In the US and Europe, white supremacists and far-right commentators have pushed the widely debunked conspiracy theory that Soros was a Nazi collaborator, an officer in the German Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary and helped confiscate Jewish property for the Nazis and their allies during the second world war.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian government, which has stridently opposed EU quotas on refugee distribution throughout member states, has styled itself as the defender of “Christian Europe” in the face of Muslim refugees, supposedly encouraged to come to Hungary by Soros and others.
Lydia Gall, a Central and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that much of the anti-Soros rhetoric is “reminiscent of Nazi propaganda from the 1930s”.
Gall alluded to government-funded anti-Soros hoardings visible across the capital and in small villages in the countryside, which often show images of Soros “depicted as the traditional grinning Jew” and play on “stereotypes that have been floating around against Jews for aeons of history”.
“The government is creating external enemies by linking refugees and asylum-seekers to terrorism, and claiming they are encouraged to come [to Hungary] by NGOs, which are in turn financed and supported by Soros,” she told Al Jazeera.
Referring to the anti-Soros tone of political discourse in Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia and Poland, among other countries, Gall said it should “prompt some action on behalf of the EU as a whole”.
In Hungary, she said, the strategy has been largely effective. An opinion poll published earlier this month found that the ruling Fidesz party maintains a 61-percent support rating, as reported by Hungarian Free Press.
“When we see these types of illiberal and authoritarian tendencies in Europe and in the middle of the European Union, alarm bells should be ringing,” Gall said.