Hungary’s Viktor Orban cracks down on ‘meddling’ NGOs

September 10, 2014

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Viktor Orban
Viktor Orban

BUDAPEST: Critics in the past have accused Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of muzzling the press, neutering the opposition and undermining the judiciary. Now foreign-funded non-governmental organisations are feeling the heat.

In a campaign reminiscent of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on “foreign agents”, 58 NGOs funded from abroad in EU member Hungary have had to hand over documents since June as part of a large probe.

The situation escalated on Monday when some 20 officers from the Central Investigations Office (NNI) — Hungary’s FBI — and a dozen police turned up unannounced at two NGOs in Budapest.

The two, Okotars Foundation and Demnet, distribute funds provided by oil-rich Norway since 1994 in order, they and Norway’s government say, to reduce social and economic inequalities in eastern Europe.

By providing this money — some 12 million euros ($15.5 million) since 2009 — Oslo is “meddling in Hungarian politics”, Orban’s powerful chief of staff Janos Lazar told the Norwegian government in an open letter in June.

But Budapest denies that its probe is politically motivated.

Election posters (right) are affixed to a pole in a street in Jardim Sao Luis near Sao Paulo, Brazil.—Reuters
Election posters (right) are affixed to a pole in a street in Jardim Sao Luis near Sao Paulo, Brazil.—Reuters

Police told AFP that Monday’s raids were part of a probe “against unknown person [s] suspected of misappropriation of funds, and illegal financial activity”, but gave no further details.

“These are normal procedures when you have an investigation into fraudulent behaviour,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told reporters.

But for Veronika Mora, head of the Okotars Foundation, the raids are part of a blatant attempt to discredit NGOs, particularly ones critical of the government.

“The government is mixing up politics and policy. Yes, there are NGOs advocating policies, but they are not political in the sense that they are not working for parties,” said Mora.

The Norwegian government, meanwhile, is incensed. It has suspended the transfer of funds and on Tuesday EU Affairs Minister Vidar Helgesen slammed the latest raids as “completely unacceptable”.

“The Hungarian authorities are demonstrating with this raid ... that the harassment of civil society is continuing,” Helgesen said.

Human Rights Watch called the raids “further evidence of Hungary’s authoritarian slide” and “yet another step to intimidate civil society”.

‘Foreign activists’

Orban, 51, a former democracy activist in the dying days of communism and now a conservative, family-values patriot, has turned his gaze on NGOs since being re-elected in a landslide in April.

In a speech in July calling for Hungary to become an “illiberal democracy “and paying tribute to China and particularly Russia as a “successful model”, Orban labelled NGOs “paid foreign activists”.

Some have refused to cooperate with the probe. This risks them losing their tax numbers, however, meaning they will no longer be able to operate, and many smaller NGOs don’t feel strong enough to resist.

With just four full-time staff, women’s rights group NANE, for example, which set up a domestic violence awareness programme with Norwegian money, is both one of the oldest and smallest NGOs under investigation.

“Since we began 20 years ago, we have always been viewed by the government of the day as part of the political opposition,” said Gyorgyi Toth of NANE.

“It’s a bit Kafkaesque. So far no one has told me why exactly we are under suspicion,” Toth added.

Checks and balances

Government spokesman Kovacs said that “some NGOs have actually been monopolising and influencing opinion particularly abroad and that’s undemocratic”.

But nonetheless he said the probe is about “technical irregularities, not political ones”.

Activists are not taking it lying down, however. On Monday several hundred held a demonstration after the raids.

“Orban is now using similar tactics to intimidate civil society as in countries run by autocratic governments like Russia or Azerbaijan,” said Stefania Kapronczay, head of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), itself under investigation.

“Civil society is the last bastion in the system of checks and balances in Hungary,” she said.—AFP

Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2014