It was in July 1988 that my youngest child was born at the First Gynecological Clinic with serious respiratory and visual problems. When I visited her in the unit where premature babies were being cared for, on the incubator in which she was lying was a sign: “this instrument is a gift of the Soros Foundation.” The doctors explained that previously the hospital didn’t have such up-to-date equipment despite the fact that the greatest danger for premature babies is possible blindness as a result of too much pressure being applied in the neonatal ventilator. This new machine, on the other hand, constantly measures and regulates the air pressure. Possibly it was this machine that saved my daughter’s eyesight. Before and after my child, hundreds of premature babies began their fragile lives on this ventilator. They all had the same chance: the premature child of the poverty-stricken Roma, the worker from Csepel, the party functionary, or the street vendor who had his own business. These families had not the foggiest idea that their newborns could become healthy children thanks to the support of the George Soros Foundation.
Today, when the name of George Soros together with the concepts of an open society and liberalism have become dirty words and when newly formed civic organizations are eager to announce that they are in no way supported by the satanic billionaire, it is worthwhile recalling in what ways George Soros helped Hungarian society before the regime change and after. Because it is unfair that when George Soros’s name is being mentioned in connection with his activities in Hungary, even those who try to defend him recall only the support he gave to the members of the opposition to the Kádár regime, including Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz politicians. I don’t think that Orbán and his associates owe Soros any gratitude for the scholarships they received. The Soros Foundation helped the members of the opposition because their goals aligned with the objectives of the Soros Foundation: democratizing Hungary and building the institutional structure of an open society. Neither George Soros nor the board members of the Soros Foundation expected any gratitude for the support given. Moreover, it is particularly unfair that in connection with Soros, pro or con, only those scholarship recipients are mentioned who later became well-known politicians when the activities of the Foundation from the very beginning were much more diverse. The assistance given to organizations and members of the democratic opposition was insignificant in comparison to the amount of money spent on public education, medical science, and educational institutions in addition to cultural and scientific life.
Over two decades (1984-2004) the Soros Foundation spent 150 million dollars (worth today at least 100 billion forints) on the development of the rule of law and civic society, the convergence of disadvantaged groups, Roma integration, education, healthcare, public education, science, and the arts. During those twenty years 40,000 of 90,000 applicants received assistance based on the evaluation of 500 associates of the Foundation and as many outside experts.
During the first five years of its existence, the Foundation supported authors, educators, researchers, and projects deemed worthwhile with grants totaling 3 million dollars (approximately 3 billion forints today). As George Soros said in an interview, “we didn’t pay people for what they had done, we only helped them attain what they wanted to accomplish.” Half of the annual 3 billion forints was given in dollars, the other half in forints. Most of this money was spent not on scholarships but on Hungarian healthcare and educational facilities.
Between 1984 and 1988 the Foundation spent 800 million forints for business management training, 800 million forints for copy machines, 600 million forints for medical equipment, 800 million forints for English language training for high school students and their teachers, 500 million forints for video equipment for educational and scientific institutions, 200 million forints for the propagation of Hungarian culture abroad, 180 million forints for audio libraries for the blind, and 270 million for Hungarian scholars to attend foreign conferences. And these are just a few items that couldn’t have become a reality without financial assistance. For example, in 1987 175 English teachers and English-major college and high school students could study in the United States. In the same year, the Foundation spent 1.5 million dollars on the purchase of medicine available only outside Hungary. The Foundation had a key role to play in the blossoming of Hungarian periodical literature (which by the way has since been destroyed by the present government) by assisting publications regardless of their ideological affiliation. It assisted scores of publications from Beszélő, a famous samizdat publication in the Kádár era, to Vigilia, a Catholic publication. It also assisted specialized colleges attached to universities where talented students received extracurricular instruction by financing the organization of discussion forums, enabling them to invite guest lecturers for their lecture series and so on.
At the same time the Foundation never made a secret of the fact that its primary objective was the support of cultural and communal pursuits that would be the basis of a future civic society that would promote the country’s democratic development. These objectives are antithetical to all dictatorial, autocratic powers, including the current Hungarian government.
The five-ten per semester scholarships that were awarded, although they fit into the Foundation’s philosophy, amounted to a very small portion of the amount spent by the Foundation. They were given primarily to people who, as the enemies of the dictatorship, couldn’t travel abroad and who, for the most part, lived in deprivation and insecurity, being unable to get a job. These foreign scholarships provided them time for peaceful work, for self-improvement and information gathering, in addition to a few months of existential security. Naturally these scholarships created the most political conflict because they widened the opposition’s room for maneuverability and limited the totalitarian power’s pressure on the opposition.
The assistance given to members and organizations of the opposition irritated the functionaries of the dictatorship just as today it irritates the representatives of the illiberal state. But at least the functionaries of the dictatorship had enough sense to realize that “the Soros Foundation’s activities are in a sector where our possibilities have always been limited and which in the future will be even more so…. If we don’t allow the Foundation to function, its termination would create a gap that would produce unmet needs. Creative research possibilities of interesting people would come to naught,” wrote János Knopp, a ministry of interior police officer, in his report to the “Agit-Prop” Department of MSZMP’s Politburo in September 1987.
In 1989—as a result of the political changes—the structure of the assistance itself changed. U.S. law forbids the financing of political parties, and consequently the Foundation’s primary task became the strengthening of the civic underpinnings of the newly-born political parties. In that year, over and above the three million dollar annual budget, Soros provided another million for assistance to democratic organizations and communities in this transitional period. Civic bases of both left- and right-leaning parties received an equal amount of assistance. The person in charge of this particular project was László Sólyom, who led the right-of-center Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF) at the negotiations that resulted in regime change. With this program, the Foundation helped bring to life hundreds of self-governing communities and civic groups. Parallel with this project another one million dollars was spent on a program to provide foreign currency for small businessmen to purchase necessary equipment. (At that time the Hungarian forint was not convertible.)
After the formation of the first freely elected parliament, the assistance structure of the Foundation was once again altered. Although in the 1980s George Soros didn’t want charitable programs to be a major part of the work of the Foundation, after the change of regime, facing rapidly sharpening social tension after the mass impoverishment and marginalization of millions, the focus increasingly shifted to public education, healthcare, unresolved social problems, and Roma integration.
The first large social project was the distribution of free milk to school children, starting in 1991. Every needy child, initially only in Budapest, received at least one glass of milk and a fresh bun daily. The founder insisted, however, that other sponsors and individuals, like better-off parents, should also help with the project. This outside sponsorship not only fizzled out after a few months, but the project was under fire from the right, which accused the project of serving only to popularize Budapest’s liberal leadership. It was also a sad lesson that “in many schools the teachers didn’t want to cooperate, or if they did, they didn’t want to do the work without extra pay, and therefore the delivered milk and baked goods remained undistributed.” A couple of years later the project was revived, and by 1993 134,000 children across the country received a regular free breakfast at school. The history of the milk project says a lot about the attitude of right-wing parties and the majority of the middle class toward those who live in dire poverty. It is not a coincidence that the project, later taken over by the government, was eliminated recently by the Orbán government, surely in the spirit of Christian charity.
The two important projects in the period between 1993 and 2000 were raising the quality of education and Roma integration. During this period the Foundation spent at least 15 billion forints in today’s terms on integration programs. At the beginning the Foundation concentrated on Roma organization projects, which were intended to promote self-governance, the preservation of Roma culture, and a decrease in inequality. Over the years, however, the emphasis shifted to the education of Roma students. During this period 1,691 Roma teachers and students received scholarships within the Teacher-Student Program, 1,212 received rewards for outstanding scholarship, 1,286 Roma families received financial help to continue their children’s education after the compulsory eight grades, and more than 3,000 Roma college students received scholarships from the Foundation.
Another 15 billion forints was spent between 1994 and 2004 on the development of Hungarian higher education. Assistance was extended to college students as well as professors for study abroad, and a considerable amount of money was spent on the development of innovative teaching methods, the creation of alternative schools, assistance to disadvantaged and disabled children, and a number of other projects aiming at the modernization of education.
Deciding whether the amount of money George Soros spent supporting Hungary’s democratic transformation, the strengthening of its civic society, culture, science, arts and education was a lot or a little depends on your viewpoint. If we compare it to Soros’s total wealth or to the amount of money the government spends on these areas in toto, it wasn’t much. But if we compare it to the amount of money the government spends individually on these areas or if we consider that the amount of money Soros spent on Hungarian society would make Soros one of the ten richest men in the country, then it is a lot. If we keep in mind that in Hungary—where the culture of giving, solidarity, and philanthropy even considering the country’s economic development is very low—no other single individual contributed as generously as George Soros did in the last 100 years, then we can surely state that this was more than a lot. We should add that the Foundation’s finances were totally transparent, and during its existence not a shadow of corruption ever fell on it. It can be said that the Soros Foundation, currently under the crossfire of political attacks, was both in its philosophy and its activities an exemplary institution, serving modernization and social solidarity.
It is not only immoral and distasteful of Viktor Orbán and his oligarchs to incite the hate campaign against George Soros because many of them were recipients of the Foundation’s grants but because—over and above hate’s destructive force—to the best of my knowledge up to now none of them gave a penny for the common good and the well-being of Hungary from their own money grabbed from the public purse. We know only too well how government politicians and their family members amassed immense wealth and how János Lázár declared that “mothers with girls should realize that their children can be a very good match” for some eligible young man in twenty years’ time. But I have never heard them say that they would have supported a child who lived in deep poverty in order to make his life a bit easier in the future.
Sometime in the 1990s the brother of George Soros, Paul, who is also one of the richest Americans, said in a documentary film that he gives money only to countries that were hit by epidemics and/or natural disasters. To attain political goals—however noble they may be—he never extends help because sooner or later they take a different turn and become weapons against the donor. At that time I listened to these words with some incomprehension, but by now I have a much better idea what he meant.
March 5, 2017