The Thermometer Interview: Lili Bayer

November, 09 2017
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Welcome back to The Thermometer Interview, a series of conversations testing the temperature of Europe.

As Moment covered in last month’s conversation with Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Israel correspondent Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, Sebastian Kurz won Austria’s legislative elections in October, capturing 31.5 percent of the vote. Troublingly, his center-right People’s Party is currently in negotiations to form a government with the far-right Freedom Party, which has been out of power since 2007. They may be handed control of the Interior Ministry, allowing the far right to shape security, asylum and migration policy. In more bad news for Austria’s left, the Greens—once Europe’s strongest ecological party—were wiped out after receiving only 3.8 percent of the vote.

The American philanthropist George Soros has become the bogeyman for the alt-right, ultra-nationalists and anti-Semites in Europe and the United States—but nowhere more so than Hungary. Since 1984, his Open Society Foundations have been working there, promoting civic participation and combating discrimination. In June’s Thermometer Interview, Moment spoke with Anton Pelinka about attempts to shut down Budapest’s Central European University, founded by Soros in 1991. In recent weeks, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has ramped up its rhetoric, alleging Soros is “planning to inundate Europe with Third World refugees.” One government minister denounced Soros as “Satan,” a man who “hates Christian Europe’s traditions and civilization.”

This month, Moment talked to Lili Bayer, an American journalist reporting out of Budapest for Politico and The Forward. She broke the story that alleged former Donald Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka was a formal member of the Vitesz Rand, a Hungarian Nazi collaborationist order. The Hungarian government, at a time when critical journalists are being investigated by domestic and foreign intelligence, has blacklisted Bayer. We spoke about this too, contextualizing Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign within his broader attacks on civil society and Hungary’s creeping authoritarianism.

When and how did the Hungarian government’s campaign against George Soros begin?

During the migration crisis in the summer of 2015, the government started developing this conspiracy theory that Soros was behind it—that he orchestrated the crisis himself using a web of organizations that he controls. This has become the formal position of the government. Viktor Orbán talks about it in every major speech.

Now the government has launched a national consultation on the “Soros Plan,” claiming Soros has a plan to bring a million migrants to Europe to replace the Christian population with Muslims. The government decided to send a questionnaire to every Hungarian by mail, asking if they agree with the plan as if it were fact, with a series of questions that are factually baseless. Billboards of Soros’s face are all over Hungary with the slogan, “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.”

And why Soros, of all possible targets? 

He has become a target in surrounding countries like Romania and Poland, but in Hungary he’s really the perfect enemy. He was born in Hungary, he’s a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and he lived in Budapest.

Soros has invested a lot in this region, especially in Hungary. He loves Hungary. Going back to communist times, he helped free the flow of information by donating copy machines to different groups, used by the opposition to make copies of illegal materials. In the 1990s, he donated meals to school children and equipment to maternity wards. He also invested in young leaders for the new democracy, and Orbán and others went to Oxford on Soros scholarships. He founded the Central European University, which gave very talented and ambitious students from the former communist world access to a western education.

Do you consider the campaign against Soros to be anti-Semitic? Does it work in Hungary because there is fertile ground for these conspiracy theories?

The government keeps repeating the word “speculator” and refers to him as trying to undermine Hungary’s national sovereignty. This has clear echoes of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories—the Jewish Hungarian who is incredibly wealthy, working in finance, portrayed as nefarious and invisible.

Anti-Semitic sentiment is deeply ingrained in parts of Hungarian society. By saying Soros is conspiring against Hungarians, the government is knowingly appealing to sentiments they know are there.

How does the campaign against Soros relate to the climate of creeping authoritarianism in Hungary?

This spring the government passed a law on foreign-funded NGOs, who deal with refugee rights and civil rights in general, as part of a big push to undermine their credibility. If they receive a certain amount of foreign money, they need to register as foreign-funded and every leaflet they produce needs to have this little stamp on it. The anti-Soros campaign is part of a much larger campaign against independent voices and institutions. The government has shut down newspapers and some NGOs have been raided by police and targeted by tax authorities.

Is this what happened to the Aurora Jewish community center (which was raided by police in June)? 

Aurora is more complicated because it’s a home and provides space for NGOs. Besides that, as an institution it’s also very active in a variety of causes. It’s a haven in Budapest for independent civil society and free speech. The attack on Aurora was different. The government used local authorities and the police to raid them under drug violations—it was administrative harassment.

Independent journalism has been one of Orbán’s targets. Can you talk about what’s happened to you as a critic of the government living and working in Budapest?

Hungarian media has been under a lot of pressure for years—people have lost jobs, newspapers have been shut down and people have left the profession. There are not a lot of places that do independent journalism. As well as total control of state media, the government spends a ton of money on advertising that all goes to pro-government media outlets owned by oligarchs close to Orbán.

Recently, the government has started to go after journalists for foreign media. They started verbally attacking specific journalists like myself, calling us fake news and saying we are selectively covering Hungary. We were accused of making things up. In my case specifically, in September the government spokesman decided he would no longer talk to me, that no department or agency will communicate with me. I’m in effect banned from press conferences, I’ve been taken off mailing lists, I no longer receive invitations—I’m essentially blacklisted. The government spokesman went on live television to say I’m not a journalist, I’m an activist, and admitted to pressuring my editor. He also said I “come from the universe of George Soros.”

Do you know over what stories the government decided to target you?

I’ve been attacked in the pro-government media for months, but certain topics I write about tend to get more criticism: Russian influence, anti-Semitism and police violence against refugees or treatment of refugees in general.

It doesn’t appear as if Europe is able or willing to do much, if anything, about creeping illiberalism in Hungary. What’s the way out? The next parliamentary elections in April or May next year feel like a fait accompli.

When Hungary joined the EU, there was this belief that it would only move forward—that it was the beginning of a much more open and democratic future. This has not been the case. There is growing pessimism in Budapest among government critics about whether Europe will do anything. It’s not the number one issue on Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron’s plate, and maybe that’s part of why things are the way they are.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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