BUDAPEST, Hungary – Investor George Soros hit back Thursday against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban over the leader's attempts to shut down a Budapest university which Soros founded after the fall of communism.
In a speech in Brussels, the Hungarian-American billionaire accused Orban of building a "mafia state" in Hungary. In doing so, he reached for a term that has gained currency among Orban's critics, who see the prime minister as leading an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt political system in which he and those in his inner circle are growing richer, often with European Union funds.
Soros praised the Hungarians who have staged large street demonstrations in past months in defense of the Central European University, a graduate school which Soros founded in 1991 in order to strengthen rule of law across the region. Orban's Fidesz party passed new legislation in April that threatens its continued existence in Budapest.
"I am full of admiration for the courageous way the Hungarian people have resisted the deceptions and corruption of the mafia state that Orban has established," Soros told policymakers and economic leaders in a speech at the Brussels Economic Forum.
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said Soros' words reveal he "has his own political agenda."
"Who exactly is George Soros and what does he have to do with Europe and its fate? Why should what he says carry any weight? The democratically elected representatives of the member states will decide," Kovacs said.
Soros, an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor from Hungary, has emerged as one of the global figures most hated by populists and nationalists. They denounce his support for liberal causes, including LGBT, women's and refugee rights, and fault his financial speculation as a cause of the pain felt by many in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Soros' admirers praise him for the many good causes he has supported and feel is being used as a scapegoat by authoritarian politicians, noting troubling parallels between the language used against him and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the past.
In late April, Orban described Soros to the European Parliament as a "financial speculator ... who is now attacking Hungary."
Soros decried how Orban "has made me the target of his unrelenting propaganda campaign."
"He cast himself in the role of the defender of Hungarian sovereignty and me as a shady currency speculator who uses his money to flood Europe, particularly his native Hungary, with illegal immigrants as part of some vague but nefarious plot," Soros told his Brussels audience.
"That is not who I am. I am the proud founder of the Central European University that has, after 26 years, come to rank among the 50 best universities in the world in many of the social sciences."
Gera reported from Warsaw.