Calm before the storm for Hungary's NGOs

Calm before the storm for Hungary's NGOs
By Dan Nolan in Budapest March 10, 2017

The government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban began 2017 with a threat against foreign-funded NGOs. On January 10, a senior government official said a number of NGOs would be "swept out" of the country by a law due in the spring. However, on March 8 the bill was delayed.

Hungary’s NGOs have been kept in a state of uncertainty ever since the start of the year. Details of the bill, which will put further transparency demands on a handful of Hungary’s tens of thousands of NGOs, have remained elusive. So much so, that the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union TASZ last week asked the government to release the text of the draft bill and hold consultations.

However, the ruling Fidesz party has announced that the bill has been delayed, because it has not yet found the threshold required to impede "Soros' hired hands", while not inconveniencing "decent" NGOs. Again, that leaves the targets of the legislation largely in the dark.

Nevertheless, statements from numerous government figures have given the NGOs clues as to what requirements they should anticipate. That includes a wealth-declaration requirement for their leaders and extra registration requirements. NGOs who receive funding from the US-Hungarian financier Gyorgy Soros can expect to be in the very centre of the crosshairs.

"One of the main communication points of the government campaign is that these civil society organisations get money from Gyorgy Soros, who is a very divisive figure in Hungarian politics," Gyula Mucsi, project manager at anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, told bne IntelliNews.

Bence Tuzson, the communications state secretary of Fidesz, said on March 8 that the bill will be submitted within a fortnight and MPs will vote on it in the spring session. The delay, Tuzson said, was because the government wants to wait for the results of a "national consultation" to show voters that it is interested in their opinions. The cabinet office is finalising the text of the consultation, which will be sent to households the week after next, Tuzson added.

This week three NGO leaders questioned the logic of the government's campaign in a joint interview with Magyar Narancs, a liberal weekly that was closely connected to the early-1990s incarnation of Fidesz. Julia Ivan, interim director of Amnesty International Hungary, said "I don’t even understand the definition of foreign funds in an EU member state. Do EU-funded NGOs count as foreign or Hungarian funded? Hungary is part of the union, although it’s not a net contributor," Ivan pointed out. 

"Under this definition," Stefania Kapronczay of TASZ noted, "Hungary is a foreign-funded country, because a lot of money comes into the budget from EU cohesion funds."

Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said "'foreign' is slowly becoming 'anti-Hungarian'. There is a kind of anti-Semitism in the government’s use of the term Sorosation," she added.

Bogeyman

Budapest is not alone in demonising Soros: 600km to the south, the nationalist Macedonian VMRO-DPNME party has also made him its bogeyman. After it won the December 11 election, albeit without a majority, leader and former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said he will work for the "de-Sorosation of Macedonia".

Gruevski also accused Soros of financing opposition groups, including those that took part in the months-long "Colourful Revolution" mass protests of last summer. They followed a wiretapping leak that apparently exposed widespread corruption in the VMRO government. Several government-critical NGOs in Skopje, including the Open Society Foundations (OSF), have been subjected to daily inspections by the Macedonian tax authority.

Meanwhile, a civil organisation opposing OSF dubbed “Stop Operation Soros” has been established by three pro-VMRO journalists. “We urge all free thinking citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, gender or political persuasion to join our fight against single-mindedness in the civil society designed and run by George Soros," the founders announced. 

The co-founder of Stop Operation Soros, Cvetin Cilimanov, has openly accused OSF of coordinating its activities with the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and several diplomatic missions in Skopje, the (pre-Trump) US in particular. When approached by bne Intellinews, Cilimanov said: “I did a group-unblocking of everybody I had blocked months ago, but apparently in your case it was a mistake. Bug off.”

Back in Hungary, on March 8 Fidesz blamed the EU and "Soros organisations" for the international criticism of the recent bill that reduces the rights of asylum-seekers in Hungary.

"They want to punish Hungary" because "we do not want to let immigrants through here," Fidesz caucus spokesman Janos Halasz said. "Hungarian police and soldiers defending the border are assailed with lies and the Soros crew have written those lies," he added.

Mucsi says that the government’s rhetoric against the NGOs actually misrepresents the reality of the financing process. "What people don't realise is that when Soros gives money to these organisations they are basically public procurements—the NGOs create and pitch these projects. But the government says foreign investors are paying to smear politicians with unfounded accusations of corruption."

The government campaign is already having a tangible effect, he added. "Since it began, a lot of people seemed to be very critical of us, which was never the case before - just take a look at out Facebook page," Mucsi said. "It is not reasoned criticism. It is rather 'you should get out of this country'."

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