The Orbán government, at least on the surface, is not intimidated by the growing criticism of and demonstrations against its hurriedly accepted amendments to the law on higher education, which makes Central European University’s life in Hungary impossible. On the contrary, Zoltán Kovács, spokesman for the Hungarian government, attacked those who raised their voices in defense of the university. For example, when Ulrike Demmer, deputy spokesman of the German government, expressed her government’s concern over the amendments, Kovács fired back, saying that it looks as if George Soros can mislead even the German government with his lies. He also called it regrettable that a serious and responsible government such as the government of Germany would make such a statement.
In addition to its legislation against CEU, the Orbán government decided to proceed with its long-planned move against those civic organizations that receive financial assistance from abroad. I began collecting information on this issue sometime in February when I spotted a statement by László Trócsányi, minister of justice. He accused the NGOs of being political actors without any legitimacy as opposed to parliament, which is elected by the people. Soon enough Viktor Orbán himself attacked them. By late March the situation seemed grave enough for a group of scholars from the United States and Great Britain to sign a statement, “No to NGO crackdown in Hungary.” What was remarkable about this statement was that a fair number of the signatories came from decidedly conservative organizations and think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Adam Smith Institute. Their concern didn’t impress Viktor Orbán, who in Warsaw at the summit of the Visegrád Four countries accused the NGOs of being in the “migrant business,” which would require new regulations to ensure the “transparency” of their finances.
One didn’t have to wait long for follow-up action. On April 2, 444.hu obtained a copy of a proposal that would regulate all NGOs that receive foreign financial support. The reason given was long-winded and confused. Basically, the government was afraid that foreign interest groups might be able to influence Hungarian civic organizations to perform tasks that don’t serve the interests of the community but only the selfish interests of these foreign groups. Foreign-funded NGOs thus “endanger the political and economic interests … sovereignty and national security of Hungary.” For good measure, the proposed bill cited the danger of money laundering, financing extremist groups, and lending a helping hand to terrorists. The complete text of the draft can be read here.
HVG, with the help of its legal experts, took a quick look at the draft and decided that the bill in its present form doesn’t make the affected NGOs’ existence impossible. It is just nasty and humiliating. One of the humiliating items is that every time associates of these NGOs make a statement, give an interview, or provide informational material they must identify themselves as representing “an organization supported from abroad.” The experts decided that this is not as bad as the original idea, which apparently would have called the associates of these organizations “foreign agents.”
Spokesmen for these organizations were not as optimistic as HVG’s legal experts. According to Amnesty International, this new law can have the same devastating effect as the Russian law had after its introduction. Áron Demeter, Amnesty International’s human rights expert, considers the proposed bill a serious violation of the right of association and freedom of expression. Márta Pardavi of the Helsinki Commission regards the notion of “foreign subsidy” far too vague. It looks as if even EU grants are considered to be foreign subsidies and would thus be viewed as “foreign interference” that endangers Hungary’s national security. Or, there is a fund that was created from the budgets of the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Four countries. Is this also considered to be “foreign money”? She noted that churches and sports clubs are exempt from any such restrictions. Political think tanks and media outlets that also receive sizable amounts of money from abroad are exempt as well, although, as Pardavi rightly points out, they have a more direct influence on politics than, for example, the Helsinki Commission.
As it stands now, any civic organization that receives more than 7.2 million forints (about $25,000) a year from outside of Hungary must describe itself as an “organization supported from abroad.” Each time an organization receives any money from abroad, it must report the transaction to the courts within 15 days. The details of each organization’s finances will be listed on a new website called Civil Információs Portál. If an organization misses this deadline it can be fined and, in certain cases, can be taken off the list, which means that it will be shut down for at least five years.
Gergely Gulyás, one of the deputy leaders of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, invited all those parties that have individual caucuses for a discussion of the bill. At the meeting, held this afternoon, it became clear that none of the opposition parties wants anything to do with the bill, which will be submitted to parliament this week. Even Jobbik said “no” to the proposal. As Gulyás Gergely said after the meeting, “George Soros’s hands even reached as far as Jobbik.” As the Fidesz statement insisted, “every Hungarian must know who George Soros’s men are; what kind of money and what kinds of interests are behind these organizations supported from abroad.” The bill will be voted into law before the week is out.
But, as 444.hu pointed out, by attacking the NGOs the Orbán government is treading on dangerous ground because Hungary in 1999, during the first Orbán government, signed the Charter for European Security of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In the charter we find the following: “We pledge ourselves to enhance the ability of NGOs to make their full contribution to the further development of civil society and respect for human rights and fundamental freedom.” 444.hu predicts that this piece of legislation, if passed, will prompt even greater protest in Europe and the United States than the Hungarian government’s action against CEU.
Given Hungarian political developments in the last seven years, I assume it doesn’t come as a great surprise that one of the key findings of Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit 2017” is that, with regard to democracy, “Hungary now has the lowest ranking in the Central European region,” behind Bulgaria and Romania. The trajectory of Hungary’s fall from grace is shown below.