Tag Archives: Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights

Miklós Haraszti: Countering illiberal usurpations of democracy

In my post about the visit of the European Parliament’s rapporteur to Budapest, I noted that coincidentally, in Brussels, there was a book launch for a new work by NGOs from Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. The title of the book is Resisting Ill Democracies in Europe. The study is now available online in English, Croatian, Hungarian, Polish, and Russian. It documents the workings of illiberal governments through the experiences of the most important NGOs in the various countries. Hungary is represented by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

The book has five chapters dealing with various aspects of the problems facing civil society in these countries: traditional values and illiberal trends, a case study of illiberal governments, human rights and the rule of law, practices and strategies to inspire civil society, and laying foundations for civil society to resist.

Miklós Haraszti wrote the foreword (“Countering Illiberal Usurpations of Democracy”) to the book, which is republished below. Haraszti is an author and director of research on human rights at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies of Central European University. In the past he wrote two articles for this blog, and, since he is a faithful follower of Hungarian Spectrum, he often contributes discerning comments to our discussions.


In recent years, an epidemic of anti-civil society laws has been hitting many new democracies on several continents. They are made to tighten the conditions for government-independent citizen activities. The latest legislative fashion is unrolling internationally, based on models designed in the Kremlin. It punishes global networking of civil endeavors or international sponsoring for non-profit activism, by labeling its actors as ‘foreign agents’.

The spreading of these restrictive regulations is a clear sign of the degradation of the freshly attained liberal constitutionalism toward illiberal or outright authoritarian governance. It is more than just a side-effect: the crusade against “unofficial” civil associations is basic household cleaning for illiberal regimes. They have set out to transform democracy from a cooperative and pluralistic enterprise into a disguise for a game where the winner sets the rules.

The illiberals have a reason. Civil activism is the nearest thing to the raw energy that fills and regenerates freedom in any society. Citizen activities are both the beginnings and the finest fruits of a democracy. When we see them purposefully hindered, cynically vilified, and even criminalized, this is in fact done to stop them from reaching out to society or from monitoring the government. We should remember that both these public roles are inherent in their independence.

Because populist power grabs are ‘democratically’ justified (“we have elections, don’t we”), it is not immediately clear for the public just how central the assaults on civil society are for the illiberal outcome. The watchdogs need to be silenced so the illiberal actions can go on: the elimination of transparency in the use of public money; the subordination of all branches of power to the executive; the systematic thwarting of autonomies; the streamlining of the judiciary; and the curtailing of the rights to free assembly, association, and media pluralism.

I suggest we take the rage of the illiberals against independent civil society at surface value. When the illiberal rulers stamp NGOs as foreign agents, they do not simply seek to diminish criticism using a nationalist ideology. The illiberals want the citizens to see the government not just as temporary and partial representatives of the nation – they want the government to be identified with the nation, and squeeze out independent activism as alien and even hostile to the nation.

So let’s react accordingly. Civil power, unhindered NGOs – just as a pluralistic media –are the ultimate frontiers in defending freedom in society. Unfortunately, under illiberal regimes, the traditional political process is not anymore able to correct the systematic distortion of competition rules, or put checks and balances back to work. This is because the populist illiberals and autocrats have utilized those very guarantees to first get to the top and then to eliminate the built-in barriers to absolute power.

Where can help come from, when the economy has been turned into a nepotistic fiefdom, political parties into parliamentary padding, and the media into mere decorations of preordained elections? Change could only come from the remaining unchecked, globally rooted social forces, the mercurial civil society, and its increasingly Internet-based communications strategies.

Importantly, the freedom of civil society and free media are growingly the same cause as internet-based connectivity becomes a fact of life. Can you tell apart what the illiberal rulers are angrier with: the fact-finding activities of the watchdog NGOs, or their communications-based ability to actually convey their findings to all citizens, despite that the rulers have occupied all traditional media? Russia’s Alexei Navalny or Hungary’s Márton Gulyás have practically reinvented public-service media, as part of their civic activity, illuminating the way to a reinvented, post-illiberal democracy.

One main weapon of the illiberals is the slogan of ‘internal affairs’, the notion of sovereignty utilized to push the management of global developments back into a territorial matter. Think of the laws aimed to domesticate the global Internet or sometimes simply to stall the growing bandwidth.

The illiberal regimes wage a two-level battle against any form of international togetherness of worldwide civic aspirations. One is, paradoxically, through the established intergovernmental organizations and legal instances. In such fora, they perfectly team up with all other governments that want to send internationalism back to hell. But the words they internally use for mobilization belie the elevated arguments about sovereignty. Domestically, the illiberal rulers are just plain nationalist populists. Their science consists of enhancing and weaponizing the explosive force of age-old basic instincts: ethnic or religious exclusivism and xenophobia.

Therefore, all international friends of civic freedom have to remember what is at stake here: the fate of universal human rights and ultimately, the guarantees of peace. Immanuel Kant, the reclusive philosopher from Königsberg (today Kaliningrad), is right on target, more now than ever. His triple formula of ‘eternal peace’ suggested that, for global peace to materialize, it is necessary but not sufficient to have democracies in all countries. Not even an international alliance of democracies will be enough to secure that goal. The final guarantee of peace must be, he said, the international enforceability of individual human rights.

See the new Berlin Wall erected: the ‘foreign agent’ type anti-NGO regulations. This time, the divides are built of legal provisions, not concrete and steel. But their function is the same: to eliminate the indivisibility of human rights, proclaimed by the international community after WW2 – and in fact, the main lesson of WW2.

I hope this handbook will help us deeper cultivate the rationale for civil society: freedom in peace, at home and worldwide. And that it will make us more mindful in countering the illiberal usurpations of democracy, at home and worldwide.

January 14, 2018