In case you haven’t heard of GONGOs, here is the definition of the term: “Government-organized non-governmental organizations which are set up or sponsored by a government in order to further its political interests and mimic the civic groups and civil society at home, or promote its international or geopolitical interests abroad.” According to Moises Naim, former editor of Foreign Policy, although quite a few GONGOs are established abroad, “the more dangerous GONGOs grow at home. They have become the tool of choice for undemocratic governments to manage their domestic politics while looking democratic.”
The term GONGO is not yet widely known in Hungary, but I’m sure that soon enough it will be because Hungary’s undemocratic government has its own GONGOs, the largest being CÖF or Civil Összefogás Fórum (Forum of Civic Alliance). People had suspected ever since its founding in 2009 that CÖF was a GONGO, but finally there is evidence that the government has generously endowed CÖF through Magyar Villamos Művek (MVM), a state-owned utility company. In addition to the MVM grant, CÖF admits to having received two donations from Szövetség a Polgári Magyarországért Alapítvány, a Fidesz foundation. The grants were allegedly small–in 2012 40 million and in 2013 20 million forints. So, contrary to the Hungarian Wikipedia entry, which claims that CÖF is a bona fide NGO supported by civic groups, its main source of funding is the Hungarian government and Fidesz.
CÖF’s main activity used to be the organization of the so-called peace marches, six in all between January 2012 and March 2014, to bolster Viktor Orbán’s hold on power. We also know that CÖF plastered the country with thousands of billboards, campaigning months before the official start of the election campaign for the 2014 election. The cost of that ad campaign must have been enormous.
CÖF’s finances have been fishy for a long time, but László Csizmadia, a lawyer who is the president of the organization, consistently refused to answers questions about its sources of funding. Then he changed his mind. A year ago Csizmadia released a long list of supporters, claiming that between 2013 and 2015 CÖF had received almost 620 million forints in the form of gifts from organizations and individuals. When Népszabadság investigated the alleged gifts, however, it found that most of them were bogus.
Given the Orbán government’s recently intensified attack on NGOs that receive grants from abroad, the independent media decided to return to the finances of CÖF. At the end of April HVG published an article about CÖF, which unfortunately is still not available online. Information reached HVG that CÖF’s large budget is funded by the government via MVM. The cover of that issue tells it all. A dog dish filled with money with the caption: “Domesticated civilians—the bought and the attacked.”
CÖF’s leadership, which consists of four individuals, was outraged and released a statement which I’m sure they found ever so clever. They explained that there are different types of dogs: watch dogs, hunting dogs, and rabid dogs. CÖF is a watch dog which defends the homeland. Therefore HVG, which for years has been attacking them, must be satisfied with criticizing one of the other two categories.
But a few days later MVM fessed up: they admitted that in 2016 alone they gave 508 million forints to CÖF. Obviously, Csizmadia and his friends couldn’t admit that this money will be spent on the next Fidesz campaign. They had to come up with a couple of innocent-sounding projects. But their creative juices didn’t seem to be flowing. Their first brilliant idea was to establish an entirely new branch of the social sciences, which they decided to call “civilitika/civilitica.” Wow, that’s ambitious! The other undertaking will be the creation of “complete meals based on biological-dietetic principles,” which would then be served in school cafeterias. The chef who has been working on the project explained the meaning of a “complete meal.” It would be a meatloaf-like mixture that would also include the necessary vegetables. Why meatloaf? Because, according to the chef, children like it while they may not like eating vegetables on the side. I wonder how long these children would be satisfied with meatloaf every day, with or without vegetables. As for civilitica, I wouldn’t presume to guess what that could possibly be.
MVM’s grant of 508 million Hungarian forints is approximately $1.8 million. This may not sound like an extraordinary amount of money, but we have to keep in mind that in Hungary every party over a certain size, including Fidesz of course, receives a certain sum of money from the central budget. The money MVM gave to CÖF in 2016 is more than any of the opposition parties received. Jobbik got 476 million forints; MSZP, 427 million; LMP, 174 million; Együtt, 134 million; DK, 132 million; Párbeszéd, 107 million; and MLP, 71 million.
I should add that CÖF isn’t the only GONGO in Hungary. Szövetség a Nemzetért Alapítvány (SZNA), the organization behind the civic groups Viktor Orbán came up in 2002 after his failure to win the election, received 340 million forints last year from the state-owned HungaroControl, a company that offers air navigation services. Thus, says András Stumpf of the conservative Válasz, between these two GONGOs 848 million forints, approximately 3 million dollars, has already been stashed away, “and we are still at the very beginning of the campaign.”
Naturally, the opposition parties are up in arms, as they should be. However, both MVM and Fidesz insist that the contributions are legal because money received from state-owned companies is not considered to be public money. MVM, after releasing the information, explained to Átlátszó that “MVM in the last twenty years has spent several billion forints for projects important for society. This money all came from MVM’s own resources.” They also wanted to make sure that Átlátszó understands that in 2016 the MVM Group paid 130 billion forints in taxes.” Balázs Hidvéghi, the latest Fidesz spokesman, sees nothing wrong with CÖF campaigning for the government from “state money.” He also supports CÖF’s latest appearance in Brussels, where a group of about 20 people demonstrated against the bureaucrats of Brussels who had a few questions for Viktor Orbán about his undemocratic ways. The trip to Brussels “served a public function,” claims Hidvéghi.
MSZP is filing charges against MVM for engaging in forbidden party financing and misappropriation. DK is convinced that this is just the tip of the iceberg and wouldn’t be at all surprised if “the pseudo civic activists” receive more money than all the opposition parties put together. Jobbik remarked that “CÖF is less independent from Fidesz than Hazafias Népfront (Patriotic People’s Front) was from MSZMP” in the Kádár regime. I heard more than one person agree with this claim.