The strength of civil movements shows how healthy a society is. NGOs matter for the state, because they can shape public opinion and provide valuable research to politicians. When civil movements are being attacked it is a clear sign that something is direly wrong. It means that the government wants to strengthen its power even despite of how the people feel. Russia is a typical example of this and now, so is Hungary.
On the morning of 8th September policemen of the National Bureau of Investigation swarm into the offices of the Ökotárs Alapítvány (Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation) unannounced. The Hungarian foundation is responsible for distributing NGO funds of the Norway Grants. The policemen sealed off the offices, only letting those working there pass, but not letting them use their phones. This is the latest occurrence in the series of harassment the civic foundations have to endure from the Hungarian government.
The scandalous affair started in April, when János Lázár, a Minister of the Prime Minister’s office expressed his dismay over the distribution of the Norway Grants, saying that the government should have the decision of who the beneficiaries are. Since then, several attacks have been conducted towards the Grants.
The Norway Grants is a financial aid provided by Norway to developing regions of the European Union as part of an agreement between Norway and the EU to set up the European economic Area. Other countries have similar agreements with the EU, for example Iceland and Lichtenstein. Switzerland has a grant as well, set up as a part of another deal with the EU. Hungary has receives the second largest funds while Poland is the biggest beneficiary.
First Ökotárs was accused of being positively biased towards groups associated with the opposition, green-liberal LMP party. Then the scope of accusations was expanded saying that non-liberal not anti-government organizations are being discriminated. When these claims proved to be false, the Government Control Office (KEHI) tried on another front. They said that Ökotárs embezzled money. Recently the foundation is being investigated for illicit loans.
These loans were given to NGOs which were the winners of the Grants but did not receive the actual funds yet. In order to help them start their projects, Ökotárs has given them loans. The complications are caused by the debate, whether these grants are public funds or not.
Ökotárs has so far been cooperative with the authorities, handing over the necessary documents on request. This is why it is baffling that without any notice the police burst into their offices and even escorted the director of the foundation to her home to get her laptop. She said, she would have given the documents to the police if asked so the whole upheaval was unnecessary. The police also raided the offices of a partner organization as well as their accountant.
These assaults understandably pressed their mark on the relationship between Norway and Hungary. The recent abuses came after an article published by the New York Times claiming that Norway has paid think tanks in the United States in order to influence US foreign policies. This plays well into the hands of Hungary’s Prime Minister Vikor Orbán, who has accused Hungarian civil activists of being the agents of foreign powers. However this is a different case. While for Norway grants are openly paid to NGOs, in the US foreign governments paid think tanks secretly with the sole purpose of lobbying. The irony is that many countries have done this beside Norway. Yes, Hungary too.
In Hungary, as PM Orbán has openly declared, an illiberal state is being built. Now more than ever a strong civil sector is needed, which unfortunately has to combat the undemocratic attacks of the government. Europe’s eyes are on Russia, but they should glimpse over to Hungary, lest it follows the example of Putin too efficiently.