Hungarian Civil Society Fights Back Against Government Attacks

Protestors in Budapest rally against legislation to close Central European University.
Protestors in Budapest rally against legislation to close Central European University.

Co-authored with Dóra Papp

Earlier this month every Hungarian household received a white envelope containing a questionnaire that the government says is part of a national consultation process. There were six loaded questions, and the third and fourth were the latest unsubtle attack on civil society.

Number three says, "Certain international organizations encourage... illegal immigrants to commit illegal acts," and asked if such organizations should be punished or if their "circumvention of Hungarian laws" should be "without any consequences." The next question says, "foreign-supported organizations operate in Hungary with the aim of interfering in the internal affairs of our country,” and asked, "What do you think Hungary should do? (a) Require them to register, revealing the objectives of their activities and the sources of their finances. (b) Allow them to continue their risky activities without any supervision."

Orbán has declared that 2017 is the year to “extrude” NGOs, and he’s unlikely to be bluffing. Three years ago, he directed the investigation of 62 organizations that had received money from Norway Grants or European Economic Area Grants programs. The investigations lasted over a year, with the government’s claiming the groups had used international funds to subvert the country’s political system. Although the inquiries failed to uncover any wrongdoing, the groups were tied up in badgering investigations that sapped resources.

Echoing the Kremlin, Middle Eastern dictatorships, and other repressive regimes, the Orbán government claims that NGOs, particularly those that accept funding from abroad, threaten traditional values. His ruling Fidesz Party is introducing new legislation to restrict NGOs, requiring NGOs receiving $25,000 USD a year from foreign sources (excluding EU funding controlled by the government) to register with authorities and represent themselves to the public as foreign-funded.

President Trump, say Orban’s officials, is encouraging this crackdown, with talk of Trump’s White House representing “a new era and…a different kind of opinion.” Orban says the Trump win means, “We can return to real democracy,” which includes muzzling dissenting voices. He says it’s time to “Make Europe Great Again,” shares Trump’s disdain for Hungarian-American philanthropist and civil society donor George Soros, and has ordered the building of a second wall along Hungary’s border.

Last month his government ordered asylum-seekers to be detained at camps built from shipping containers along the Serbian border. Orbán also looks to Moscow for his inspiration. Like President Putin, he has targeted anti-corruption journalists, drowned out and bought up independent media, and stigmatized activists as foreign agents out to undermine traditional values. At the same time, Orbán has harassed the Krétakör Foundation and other NGOs with draining tax audits. But civil society is fighting back.

In a series of marches thousands of people have rallied in Budapest to protest against the move to close Central European University, known for its promotion of independent thinking and academic freedom. And more than 200 NGOs signed a statement "No Society Without Civil Society.” in which they "reject the Hungarian Government’s aspirations to restrict and stigmatise civil society...We stand up for ourselves and for each other.”

Human Rights First's new report details why the United States should care about Orban’s effort to build a self-described “illiberal state.” Not least: Hungary is Russia’s door to the European Union and NATO. This month's questionnaire is titled “Let’s Stop Brussels!” A weakened, unravelling EU is bad news for the United States, especially given that Russia is behind the destabilization. Last month Orbán’s government got the go-ahead from the EU to proceed with a $10.6 billion nuclear project financed by Russia. Russia’s state nuclear company Rosatom will lead construction of two reactors at Paks in central Hungary.

This questionnaire is triggering a national conversation about civil society - answers are due back by May 20. But the country deserves a higher level of discussion than one based on loaded questions, and NGOs are refusing to be cowed. “Based on past experience,” says their signed statement, “the so-called ‘national consultation’ is an unsuitable method to assess the true facts and state of public opinion,” and “not a substitute for real social debate.”

Dóra Papp in Managing Director of Hungarian NGO The Krétakör Foundation.

Brian Dooley is Senior Advisor at Human Rights First.