If NGOs are indeed bridges between the state and the citizens, then the Hungarian government is planning to burn all these bridges. Recently, the governing party Fidesz rang the bell for round two in the fight between the civil sector and the state. The odds at the moment are not in favor of the former.
The crackdown on NGOs started in 2014, when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán abandoned the image of a European (although somewhat maverick) politician, did away with all pretenses and declared his intention to build an illiberal state, modelled on the likes of Russia. In the same speech, he essentially branded all people tied to NGOs as agents of foreign interests.
Orbán is notorious for rampant nationalization, weakening checks and balances, setting the constitutional framework for his power, tampering with election laws and building a vast network of cronies and oligarchs. It wasn’t therefore a surprise that he won again in 2014, when he finally could really lay his cards on the table. And the stakes were high, we Hungarians should know. We paid for them, after all.
With the proper directions set, with Orbán’s envious eyes firmly set upon the power of his role model, Putin, the cleansing commenced. The first victimized NGO was Ökotárs, an organization responsible for distributing the Norway Grants in Hungary. They were subjected to an investigation for presumed corruption – which is rich coming from a government that embezzles even the EU subsidies they receive to fight corruption. The investigation ended with no violations found. Moreover, the court ruled that the police raid on their offices was in fact illegal.
Now, however, comes part two, with the Hungarian government still branding NGOs as foreign agents who should be done away with. There is already a law in the making mandating off NGO leaders to declare their personal incomes, which would make it easier for the authorities to harass them.
The reason for doing this now was, according to the government officials, the fact that with the election of the new U.S. President, Donald Trump, there emerged “an international opportunity” for such actions. The Hungarian government, in a traditional authoritarian fashion, always finds enemies against whom it can rally the people and “protect” them. One of the current enemies is Hungarian-born American billionaire, George Soros, who, in fact, supports many NGOs in Hungary, mostly those devoted to the cause of Roma integration.
Orbán simply glosses over the fact that many members of his party, including himself, studied abroad on Soros scholarships, and he still demonizes Soros. Needless to say, it is one thing to disagree with someone politically and another to use force to root them out. And this is what Fidesz is doing, going so far as to claim Soros is a national security threat, though evidence is nowhere to be seen.
Hungarian PM apparently expects a change in the U.S.-Hungarian relations, which have not been going well, with the election of Donald Trump. President Obama strongly criticized Hungary for its treatment of the civil society. Nevertheless, make no mistake, criticism isn’t only coming from the left, with Soros and Obama in the lead. One of the most strongly worded statements came from Senator John McCain, who called Orbán a “neo-fascist dictator”.
Despite of what Orbán wants people to believe in with his frothing rants against the left, he couldn’t be called a conservative in any Western sense – not with his utter disregard for human rights and the aforementioned rampant nationalization and corruption. Just recently the largest independent Hungarian daily newspaper was shut down as a result of governmental manipulations and now Fidesz enjoys its influence over the majority of the media.
With no independent media, no checks and balances, no civil oversight, one of the most corrupt governments in the EU can expand on its already immense powers and get even closer to Putin’s Russia. With no competent political parties and only a handful of competent politicians, the gap between citizens and the state will be quite hard to patch up. But it is not too late to act and save what remains of civil society in Hungary.