Aiming at the Heart of Civil Society
BUDAPEST. With national elections set for the 8th of April, Hungary’s government is running a campaign that focuses on demonising foreign-funded NGOs, which the officials claim are threatening to flood the country with migrants who will overrun the hapless Hungarians. The government has poured a reported EUR 100 million of taxpayers’ money into a “Stop Soros campaign”, an advertising blitz against billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who funds many of the NGOs in the country. The ruling Fidesz party’s rhetoric is aimed at building fear of Soros and NGOs that help migrants.
Alongside this rhetoric, Fidesz is taking legislative action. After passing a law last year requiring that NGOs receiving foreign funding must register, the Hungarian Government has prepared a bill that could essentially prevent NGOs from working on behalf of migrants.
Fidesz’s efforts to appear tough on foreign influences may seem timed to match the xenophobic platforms of their closest competitor in the upcoming elections, the far-right Jobbik party. But NGO representatives say that these moves are more than simple electioneering. They say that Fidesz is likely to continue its campaign against civil society, and they vowed to fight back in court. According to observers interviewed, Fidesz fundamentally opposes civil society as a potential source of criticism and an obstacle to greater government control over all facets of life in Hungary.
“The government doesn’t like anything that is not under their control”, said Máté Szabó, director of programs at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU, also known as Tasz), in explaining the The Law on the Transparency of Organizations Funded from Abroad. That law went into effect in June 2017 and requires NGOs receiving foreign funding to register with authorities. “Because NGOs who receive a certain amount of support from abroad are financially independent from the Hungarian Government, they are more likely to act as well-functioning public watchdogs in comparison with those whose financial basis is controlled by the government”, Szabó explained.
New bill could allow closure of NGOs
This legislation has been followed by a new bill that would give the interior minister power to shut down NGOs that support migrants or are otherwise deemed a threat to national security. Under the bill, any NGOs that help migrants and are not closed down would be taxed 25% on foreign donations. That proposal was introduced in Parliament for discussion in February, but it will apparently not be voted on before Hungary’s general election next month.
“The new drafts aim to silence those NGOs who are critical and dare to speak up when they document human rights violations”, according to Áron Demeter, a media representative for Amnesty International Hungary. “This is a full-frontal attack on the freedom of association and expression and risks the very existence of watchdog NGOs like Amnesty.”
According to Veszna Wessenauer, an analyst with Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank, Fidesz will try to pass the proposal after the election, as long as they win enough seats in Parliament.
“If the governing party gained the necessary support, they would forcibly dissolve NGOs critical of the government no later than after the general election”, Wessenauer said. “Government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács confirmed this to the Financial Times when he said ‘Mr. Soros believes civil society should act as a check on executive power,’ but ‘only elected representatives can legitimately do politics.’ ”
Opposition to NGOs comes from the top
Most of Fidesz’s main policy platforms are apparently driven by the party leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has shown an affinity for top-down government – and for the silencing of opposition voices. As soon as his party swept into power with two-thirds control of the Parliament in 2010, he moved to create a new media law that gave the Hungarian Government more control over the press. Combined with his party’s efforts to manipulate media ownership, this law has helped ensure that the majority of newspapers and broadcasters, and many internet sites, are uncritical of the government.
According to Wessenauer, the effort to control NGOs is also driven by Orbán and is also meant to silence criticism – and like the effort to control the message in the media, it is based on the model of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Back in 2014, when Orbán declared his goal was to follow Russia’s example and make Hungary an illiberal democracy, “The prime minister also stated in this speech that the state must dissolve the part of civil society that serves ‘foreign interests’ in the frames of these efforts”, according to Wessenauer. “Therefore, this proposal does not come out of the blue, it fits into Orbán’s state-building process.”
The Hungarian Government says it has a duty to oppose NGOs that help migrants and to oppose Soros’s support of those NGOs, because the refugees who began pouring into Europe in huge numbers in 2015 endanger Hungary’s existence. Prime Minister Orbán has said that Hungarians must “protect our wives and daughters” from the threat of Muslim men, and warned that Muslims will overwhelm the country and end its Christian way of life.
Mr. Soros believes civil society should act as a check on executive power, but only elected representatives can legitimately do politics.
In fact, many more people are emigrating from Hungary than moving into it. Most refugees entering Hungary during the major migration wave of 2015 left as soon as possible, passing through on their way to Austria and Germany. Since 2015, when Orbán ordered construction of a fence along the border with Serbia, few migrants have even entered Hungary. According to the International Migration Organization, in 2017 some 1,291 refugees were granted asylum in Hungary. Meanwhile in 2016 a total of 29,400 Hungarian citizens moved abroad, with hundreds of thousands more already gone or planning to go, according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. Most of those leaving Hungary are said to be taking jobs elsewhere in the EU.
Although migrants may not actually pose that much of a threat to Hungary, Soros’s funding of groups such as Amnesty International and others assisting asylum seekers make him an obvious mark for a government seeking to demonise civil society, according to Wessenauer.
“The government argues that the ‘Stop Soros’ legislative package would defend national sovereignty. In reality, the Orbán Government copies Putin’s approach in taking another step against NGOs critical of the government. Following the law labelling civil society organisations ‘foreign agents’ in Russia, the second step there was also banning certain organisations with ties to Soros”, she said.
And while they are portraying Soros as the enemy, Fidesz also seeks to suggest that their political opponents, on both the left and right, are funded by the billionaire and that they will join him in supporting NGOs that help migrants.
Similar moves before 2014 election
Apparently the first step in Orbán’s campaign against NGOs that he saw as “foreign agents” came shortly before the 2014 election, when Fidesz claimed that the so-called Norway Fund was unfairly backing liberal NGOs that were critical of the government.
“Initially, the campaign was conducted only in the form of public statements and pronouncements. In 2014, the campaign arsenal was expanded to include investigations by official authorities as well as criminal investigations against foundations and associations involved in the operation of the EEA/Norway NGO Fund”, said Szabó of HCLU.
The investigations of Norway Fund-backed groups included tax audits, a prosecutor’s review of seven organisations, and a house search and seizure of documents and computers. None of the accusations panned out, and one investigation was determined to be unlawful.
“Subsequently it was revealed that the Government Control Office had carried out its investigations at the order of Prime Minister Orbán”, Szabó stated.
Fighting through courts
HCLU, Amnesty International and other NGOs are fighting back with legal challenges.
The HCLU conducts much of its work through the courts, and the organisation has achieved some successes in legal challenges to Hungarian legislation that it deemed unjust. For this particular legal challenge, HCLU is pointedly refusing to comply with the law requiring that they register as a foreign-funded NGO.
“We have much more remedies if we do not comply with the law in the proceedings to be initiated against us”, explained Szabó of HCLU. “We already initiated two proceedings against the law: We made a constitutional complaint before the Constitutional Court, and we also requested the proceeding of the European Court of Human Rights. When the proceedings against us start, some more redress mechanisms will be available that we will use.”
Amnesty has also chosen to disobey the law requiring registration, according to Demeter. “Amnesty amongst other NGOs announced publicly that it will not comply with law after it had entered into force in June 2017”, he said. “Together with more than 20 NGOs, we submitted a constitutional complaint to the Constitutional Court and also claimed remedy at the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights).
Both Szabó and Demeter stressed that the civil disobedience their organisations chose was not viable for every NGO. “We do not advocate the non-compliance with the law among other NGOs, because this is a dangerous path. However, we offered and gave free legal support and representation for those who wanted to act legally against the law”, said Szabó.
According to Demeter, “NGOs are different with different capacities and duties, so the decision should belong to the organisations only. There is no right or wrong decision; registration or boycott are both valid answers.”
During eight years of controlling the government, Fidesz has been able to appoint many judges and achieve some sway over the judiciary branch in Hungary, critics have said. Nonetheless, Szabó said he was optimistic that the law could be defeated in Hungary’s courts.
“The Hungarian court system, despite the centralisation of its administration, is still an effective instrument for protecting fundamental liberties” he stated, noting that European bodies are already weighing the legality of the law. “There is an ongoing infringement proceeding against Hungary initiated by the Commission. Some weeks ago the Commission already submitted its petition to the European Court of Justice (CJEU) alleging that the law is not in harmony with not only some human rights norms but also with the basic rules of the European Union, such as free movement of capital. We expect a favourable decision from the CJEU in this case.”
Pressure on NGOs likely to continue
While the courts may provide remedies, the pressure on NGOs is likely to continue as long as Fidesz is in power.
“After having delayed the vote on the legislative package, Fidesz is telling their voters that they need to go to the ballots in the largest possible numbers on 8 April to grant another two-thirds majority to the party, so that they can approve the law”, according to Wessenauer.
Szabó agreed, saying: “We have no reason to think that this bill will not be held on the agenda after the election if the political situation will be similar to the present.”
Of course if Fidesz loses the April 8th election, NGOs could get a reprieve, but polls show Fidesz has a good chance of at least keeping a simple majority in Parliament. And their closest competitor, the far right Jobbik party, expresses xenophobic platforms and has promised to be even more anti-migrant than Fidesz.
While analysts have suggested that a coalition of left-leaning parties may at least make inroads into the right-wing leadership in Hungary’s Government, it still seems likely that the demonisation of NGOs in Hungary will continue, at least for another four years.