BUDAPEST – The list was spread across two pages, white type on a black background.
There, plain for all to see in a prominent pro-government magazine, were the names of 200 academics, journalists, human rights advocates and others.
They were the “mercenaries” of Hungarian American financier George Soros, the accompanying article explained. And this was an enemies list.
At once it was a relic from a darker time in Hungary’s history and a modern-day symbol of just how far the country has veered toward a rebirth of autocracy under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The prime minister has spared little effort in vilifying Soros. Orban has made the Jewish philanthropist the heart of numerous government smear campaigns, countless xenophobic speeches and several pieces of punitive legislation. Before Hungary voted last month, he vowed “revenge” against Soros and his allies for their role in a supposed plot to flood the country with Muslim refugees.
Publication of the list, just days after Orban won a sweeping electoral victory, seemed to be confirmation that the prime minister intended to make good on his pledge. The magazine’s owner, after all, is a close Orban ally and would have been unlikely to publish it without encouragement from top levels of the government.
The list was met with a tide of condemnation, including from Michael Ignatieff, president of the Budapest-based Central European University, who called it “a flagrant attempt at intimidation.”
But if that was the goal, evidence soon grew from Ignatieff’s own faculty at the Soros-funded university that it hadn’t entirely succeeded.
Miklos Koren, a mild-mannered CEU economist, was outraged when he saw the list. First, because it existed. Then, because he wasn’t on it.
Not that he had done much to deserve inclusion. He said he generally avoids politics. But others on the list didn’t seem to merit their spots, either. Some were even dead.
“The only common theme among the 200 names was that at some point, they had all received money from an organization that was Soros-funded,” Koren said. “I could imagine this kind of document in the dark corners of the Internet. But it was shocking to see it in print.”
So Koren took to the Internet and launched a petition to have his name included among the enemies. He encouraged anyone else who wanted to be added to sign as well.
Weeks later, nearly 8,000 people have added their names.
Many have left comments:
“My husband is on the list. They excluded me. I demand equal credit.”
“Liberal democracy should be defended.”
“Wherever there’s a list, I want to be on it.”
Some signatories pointed out that Orban himself qualifies as a Soros “mercenary,” having received a scholarship from the billionaire to study at Oxford as a young man.
The reaction, Koren said, “was heartwarming.”
It was also revealing about the state of modern Hungary, where Orban exercises near-total control and bullying tactics are common. But there’s also free expression, with opponents speaking out on television, in newspapers and on the streets. On May 8, the day the new parliament was sworn into office, thousands of opponents rallied against Orban just outside.
“It’s not Turkey. It’s not Russia,” said Gabor Klaniczay. “It’s a new form of autocracy.”
Klaniczay, a medieval studies professor at CEU, was on the list. But he’s used to it. He was on enemies’ lists during communist times as well.
Back then, he said, it was because he would occasionally sign petitions circulated among dissidents who sought changes to the regime.
This time, there appears to have been a more prosaic reason: He was included in a Wikipedia entry of notable CEU faculty from past and present, which had been copied name for name. Hence the names of the dead.
“It was very lazy,” he said.
Other organizations had their entire staff lists copied and included, right down to the administrative assistants.
At the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, most of the staff members rolled their eyes at the list, said co-chair Marta Pardavi. They’ve grown accustomed to being targeted.
But that wasn’t true of everyone. An administrative assistant reported that her parents were getting abuse from their neighbors, who wondered why they had a Soros mercenary in the family.
“It’s an extreme example of harassment, and it does impact people,” Pardavi said.
It also comes in the context of a very real crackdown on civil society, with the government using legislation to make it very uncomfortable – if not impossible – for many independent organizations to operate.
And even if the government has not gone nearly as far as its counterparts in Turkey or Russia in suppressing dissent, some fear that’s where it’s headed.
“Let us not underestimate such petty and shameful projects like this list,” wrote one signatory to Koren’s petition. “Who knows where hate speech ends and political terror starts?”
The magazine that published the list – Figyelo, which means Observer in Hungarian – has dismissed such talk as “hysteria.” It has said that anyone who wants to be removed from the list should simply email the magazine and ask.
It’s not clear if anyone has done so. But Koren recently emailed the magazine with the names of thousands of people who want to be added.
“Could you please print these names in a 20-page special edition?” Koren said he asked.
There has been no reply.
Gergo Saling and Andras Petho, editors of the Hungarian investigative news website Direkt36, contributed to this report. Both were on the list.