Tag Archives: NGOs

Today’s extra: Interview with leaders of three Hungarian NGOs

Republishing this interview with three prominent civic leaders is timely since today the Hungarian parliament discussed a bill regulating civic groups that receive financing from abroad. I will report on the stormy session itself later. I am grateful to The Budapest Sentinel for permission to use their translation.

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Translation of interview with Eötvös Károly Public Policy Institute (EKINT) director Bernadette Somody (pictured left), Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair Márta Pardavi (center), and Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) managing director Stefánia Kapronczay (right) published in index.hu on April 12th, 2017 under the title “This is the logic of tyranny.” Photographed by István Huszti.

After Central European University (CEU) the government submitted a bill targeting far more defenseless civil organizations.  Civil organizations receiving more than HUF 7.2 million (USD 25,000-tran.) annually from sources abroad would have to register themselves as foreign organizations, and those who refuse would be threatened with closure.

CEU appears to be the most important cause, when in fact this is.

  • The interviewees do not want to try to understand the bill, because they do not consider it a basis for discussion.
  • They believe the draft law is not about transparency but about making their work impossible, intimidation, and stigmatizing them.
  • They say that the government is not interested in contrary opinions, but wants to smother debate by eliminating civil society.
  • If government decisions may not be questioned, then they are not legitimate.
  • They promise not to cooperate, and that they will not break.

The bill is about “the transparency of organizations supported from abroad.”  Each can decide for himself whether the three civil organizations operate in a transparent manner: EKINT’s economic data can be viewed here, Helsinki’s here, and TASZ’s here.

In response to criticism from politically active civil organizations, the government repeatedly accuses them of being funded from abroad, which is true.  Why can’t you find supporters at home?

Márta Pardavi: This is true of every human rights civil organization in the region of central Europe.  This is a given.  There are not state resources for such objectives, but if there were, nowadays it is doubtful whether accepting them would not compromise independence.

The other possibility is that the population and society support the legal defenders. But neither the ability of Hungarian society to do so, nor people’s knowledge of human rights and democracy can be compared to that of Holland.  Because those groups whose rights legal defenders try to defend are often poor, stigmatized, and live on the periphery, their ability to promote their interests are low, and the state organizational structure does not help them.

It is due to these external limitations that our work is largely supported by foreign donors.  Which does not cost the Hungarian budget anything, even as civil organizations provide a number of services which the state ought to.

The EU is one source, and there are large foundations, not just the Open Society Foundation, which think it important that human rights be better respected around the world.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never accepted state support, because we always protected Hungarian citizens from the Hungarian state, and one of the necessary conditions of this is that it never happen that the state dictate what citizens we protect. Because it is the state which commits the most legal violations, we cannot accept money from it.

We also have a high ratio of foreign support, and of course the question arises how much support a Budapest-based foundation founded by Hungarians receives in the form of foreign money.  It is also worthwhile adding that there are affluent persons, not only in Hungary but in many places in the world. who want to gave part of their wealth to good causes.  These foundations do not operate here for historical and economic reasons, but rather, for example, in England.

An activity involving somebody giving of their wealth not only to their children or their immediate surroundings but to social goals  should not be stigmatized but appreciated.

Bernadette Somody:  Why is it an accusation if money originates from abroad?  It is false to suggest that if the money is foreign, then the interest is also that.  It does not follow from the fact that foreign sources can be found for these that these are foreign interests, because these are international interests. It reflects badly on the Hungarian government if it regards certain universal values as strange or foreign.  It is not true that there is no value for Hungarian citizens in things for which funds cannot be found in Hungary.

Would it be better if organizations could fund a greater proportion from micro donations or domestic companies?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  A country or society’s level of development is shown by the existence of common goals, values, and the degree of willingness, strength, and money to stand up for social matters or minority groups. There are more and more volunteers in Hungary, and those who donate regularly. But there is a huge difference between somebody who volunteers at their children’s school and if a non-Roma regularly donates to the work of a foundation that stands up for Roma rights.  Also a precise measure is whether a company dares to undertake such matters.  The reason it is possible to maintain the foreign organizations’ interest narrative is because Hungarian society is still very polarized, and there are few values in which the majority, or everyone, believes.

Márta Pardavi: Of course, it would be better if more Hungarian citizens supported (civil society), and for years we’ve endeavored to better explain to them why our work is useful to society.  Unfortunately, the campaign against civil society today is so intensive that the civil activities and their results themselves have come to be questioned.  I think many are contemplating whether civil organizations are even needed, and whether they are turning to a bunch of people suspected working according to political orders if they ask help or extend help.  This is not the fault of civil society but a consequence of the anti-civil government campaign.

Bernadette Somody:  We are talking as though there are three different squares on the map: the state, that is, the government; society, so citizens; and the civil organizations. This is already the product of the government’s propaganda.  There are not three areas but rather two: on the one hand the state organs, the government, the practitioners of public power, and on the other, society.  Civil organizations are part of society.  They are not isolated but rather actors offering experience in the practice of basic rights, for example in order for citizens to express their opinion and undertake charitable social work.

The government justifies the modification to the law on the basis of creating transparency.  What’s the matter with this?

Bernadette Somody: It is not at all a question of whether we would want to operate transparently.  It is important that if we represent a given opinion, our financial background be known.  But this is already entirely the case today.  What we are speaking out against is the stigmatization, against the need to register separately, and the closure of those who do not satisfy this requirement.

Stefánia Kapronczay: In 2015 we even issued an opinion about this.  We try to take seriously the principle of transparency.  We wrote that the supporter can already be known, and whether a given source is international, and what activity is undertaken using the support. In fact, we set forth recommendations as to what operating information should be made available in place of the expected financial accounting.

Bernadette Somody:  Among consolidated relationships it is reasonable to raise the question as to what the motivations are of those who loudly participate in the democratic debate.  The stronger their position, and our position in the media is still perhaps louder than that of a citizen, the more it is necessary to disclose information about itself.  It is precisely for this reason that we still show our budgets going back years.

What principles argue against civil organizations being as transparent as possible?

Bernadette Somody:  The fact that we do not make decisions that are binding on citizens.  We have our opinions, just like any other citizen, but their expression is not associated with any compulsory or public power, and we do not spend public money.  In contrast to the state, there is no reason in the case of civil organizations why the main rule needs to be transparency.  We must not compromise our right to demand, just like any citizen, that there be a constitutional reason to compel us to make information public.  I think people would be outraged to be told by a company to publish their salary on the internet.  Why would they do this?  Under no circumstances do we wish to find meaning in a meaningless concept.  We do not want to act as though we believe that this is a real argument.  The bill is about obstructionism, intimidation, and stigmatization, and nothing else.

How much are civil organizations of this kind required to accommodate the expectations of foreign supporters?

Márta Pardavi: Donors always have expectations: this is called strategy or application and reporting obligations.  The task of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is to protect refugees.  One method of this is to provide legal assistance that enables vulnerable people to navigate the legal maze.  We agree with this, and in this sense it is not about alignment but about a community of values.   Applications involve a huge amount of paperwork and tremendous inspection.  It is mostly the same when it comes to the administration of EU supports and the Open Society Foundation.  But beyond the obligations set forth in the application and the contract, it is not necessary to meet any other expectations.  They do not even say at the UNHCR whether we can appeal in a specific case or what kind of statement we should issue.

Bernadette Somody:  The basis for the relationship with the donor is the community of values in the goals, as well as oversight ensuring that the money is spent properly which must be strictly documented.  But it is not like a road construction tender, where the government says a 50 km-long road is to be built between cities A and B with such and such a foundation and from such and such materials, and the one submitting the cheapest offer (or somebody else) wins the tender.  Our clients do not instruct us in such a manner.  We agree that people should be able to travel more easily and more safely, this is supported by a donor, and we submit a proposal as to what we believe would be a good mode of transportation.  They require of us that we perform what we undertook.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  The organizations have public, easily accessible strategies.  For 22 years TASZ has held decision-makers to account according to the same principles.  To say that we change to suit the expectations of the donors is a lie.  There is never any concrete substantive expectation as to what we are to execute.  Naturally, it matters what applications can be submitted in a given season. But we do not change our values because of this, and we retain the activity for which there is no funding and try to find money for it.  For this reason it is very important that those citizens who agree with our activities support us with a monthly donation, even if it is only a symbolic amount.  If only so that we can stand on several legs, since this is also one of the bases for dependency.

How stable are they financially?

Márta Pardavi:  In an ideal case a civil organization, like every  business organization, should have a stable, reliable income from which it can finance its basic operation, and if it wants to especially focus on something for a few years, say that the same authority that is investigating should not choose legal defenders, then we can obtain separate money for that.  It should not be necessary to worry whether it will be possible at the end of the year to pay the financial advisor or whether the office will have electricity.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain donations for that, and civil organizations must often rely on the current opportunities at hand.  But certainly we are not willing to do certain things.  We do not apply for funds allocated for achieving objectives that are not among our priorities or which do not pertain to our activities.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  If such an organization can see twelve months ahead that its operating costs are covered, then it is very happy.  We could sleep well if we saw three years in advance but the reality is at most one year.

Bernadette Somody:  EKINT is clearly under-financed.  It would be good if we could see one year in advance.  We operate with an extremely small budget but with salaries that are acceptable to committee people,  But it is entirely certain that there are interdependencies with the circles of activities of the Eötvös Károly Institute which are slightly more difficult to illuminate than defending the rights of people.

Yes, it is possible to know more about TASZ and Helsinki, but what does EKINT deal with?

Bernadette Somody:  Originally the institution came about to transform the theoretical foundations of knowledge for use by the government.  Today there is no need whatsoever for this on the part of the government.  But meanwhile it is necessary to confront the fact that the frameworks and the foundations have been called into question.  EKINT did not want to pursue a mission other than the one for which it was created 15 years ago, but changes to our environment made this necessary and forced us to stand up for the boundaries of constitutional democracy.  The government liquidated the institutional system protecting human and basic rights.  This can only be occasionally accomplished in a decorative manner.  For this reason EKINT supervises the institutions and mechanisms overseeing the exercise of public power, and we call attention to when they are compromised, and we try to maintain the need for them so that we do not get used to this like the frog does to hot water in a pot of boiling water.

It is not clear to many people that it is not volunteers but paid employees working at serious civil organizations.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is only necessary to pay our colleagues because the people working here could work at law offices or other companies.  It is not possible to fulfill our obligations with volunteers; only with paid, professional experts.  Just our legal assistance service handles more than 2000 requests annually and involves 120 unique legal cases.  They often ask what my regular job is apart from what I do at TASZ.  At these times I am astonished they believe it is possible to perform work besides this.

Bernadette Somody:  The civil organizations have to pay their colleagues not only because they could work elsewhere but also to prevent them from being compromised.  I can maintain that EKINT employees always promote our values and interests if I can ensure their existential security.  If somebody is forced to live from other sources, then their existential interests may compete with the interests of their civil workplace.

How is it possible to explain to those who do not understand why it is necessary to have civil organizations at all?

Bernadette Somody: The state renders decisions that are binding on us, its citizens.  That we submit ourselves to these even if we do not agree carries a minimal moral condition: that we dispute these decisions.  The draft modification to the law about CEU was adopted a week after it was tabled.  There was no opportunity for debate.

As with the press, civil organizations are capable of amplifying an alternative, often minority point of view, and to keep these on the agenda in order for there to be an opportunity to strengthen points of view contrary to those of the government, and ad absurdum for  governments to be replaceable.  This is the democratic minimum and a condition for a normally working constitutional democracy.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is the task of the government to listen to these opinions and factor them into the decision-making process.  But this does not mean the exercise of pressure that cannot be resisted.  The government, especially one enjoying a two-thirds parliamentary majority or a significant majority, is elected to make decisions representative of the community of citizens having heard these opinions.

In order to make good decisions, it needs to know the point of view of citizens, which civil organizations often reinforce.  For example, when we represent handicapped persons whose voices are weak.

The government believes civil organizations lack democratic legitimacy to be able to have a say in communal matters.  Do they?

Bernadette Somody:  The need for democratic legitimacy, that is, that a plurality or majority authorize a political actor, can be expressed if the actor exercises public power, in other words what the state does: pass laws and impose its will.  Oner of the tricks of state hate propaganda is that it tries to differentiate civil organizations from citizens, where the civil organizations are themselves made up of citizens.

Instead, they are made to appear as though they resemble the state, and exercise power over citizens.  This is a completely false, fake, and malicious thing to imply.   Democratic legitimacy requires from the government that it win its power in elections that are really free and fair, which is doubtful in Hungary, but that is the subject for a different discussion.  But I would turn it around: it should be the condition of the state’s activity that it allow civil organizations to freely operate.  If the activity of the government cannot be challenged, then it is not legitimate.

Márta Pardavi: The visceral response is that a debate on democratic legitimacy essentially means that nobody should interfere in politics who is not a member of parliament.  However, this outrages a lot of people regardless of what they think about politics or the content of political messages.  Whoever has turned out for a protest, or swore when he felt that things were being decided over his head in parliament, understands how much of a false, deceitful claim this is.

Bernadette Somody: The government makes it seem that only the government’s opinion is legitimate because only it possesses democratic legitimacy.  The government speaks for the nation, and anyone who criticizes it is serving various foreign interests.  This is not democracy, this is the logic of tyranny.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is truly aggravating when citizens living in Hungary are deprived of their right to have a say in debates over public issues, where the government refers to the authorization it obtained from them.  The whole thing is a strange and inverted logic.

Of the three organizations, EKINT does not fall under the jurisdiction of the draft law (EKINT operates as a nonprofit foundation, whereas the bill refers to associations and foundations).  Is this really a drafting error, or the result of something?

Bernadette Somody:  I don’t want to call its legality into question, but we would very much like to abstain from seeking for meaning or mistakes in hateful propaganda.  This is a stigmatizing, hateful, step threatening the existence of civil organizations, unsuitable for our looking for realizable constitutional content or principles.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We completely agree.  This law needs to be understood as a campaign to discredit civil organizations, and there is no point in getting into a constitutional or legal debate, because with that we created the notion that there is room for debate.  The draft law has nothing to do with transparency.

Márta Pardavi:  There was no discussion whatsoever concerning the need for the law or its details, and this also shows that they want to deprive us of the ability to serve Hungarian citizens.   They very deliberately denied us the opportunity to state our opinion of the bill, even though this is prescribed by law.  After the five-party discussion, based on the statement of Gergely Gulyás (Fidesz chair of the parliamentary committee on legislative affairs), it was apparent that, following the Putin scheme, the government is no longer in the mood to listen to contrarian points of view.   Unfortunately, the government did not engage in debate with our principles in the refugee matter, which should be a civilized discussion, but decided that it had had enough of contrarian points of view, and would prefer to try and silence civil organizations by stigmatizing them as anti-Hungarian traitors.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never have a problem debating with János Lázár or Fidesz.  When we state our opinion we are not speaking about a party or a politician but rather about what they are doing.  We consider debate to be very important and we would very much like to participate in it, and it is precisely one of the largest criticisms that there is no dialogue and no forums for discussion.  Now they have raised this to the next level.  Not only are they refusing to talk to us but they won’t listen to the points of views of the citizens who are behind our various affairs.

How does the law obstruct the organizations? Why is it a problem if you have to write everywhere that TASZ, for example, is financed from abroad?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  This is part of a long campaign.  Already since 2013 we hear that foreign funding is somehow connected with not serving the national interest.   Such voices appeared in this campaign that called for the organizations to be swept away.  One needs to see that where such a law is adopted, they never stop at the first step.

In Russia they resisted organizations by requiring them to register themselves as foreign agents, and forced them to do so, and when they continued to resist, they closed them down.  This draft law makes possible their closure via a simplified procedure.

Márta Pardavi:  The law does not guarantee the transparency to which it refers, since in our case this is continuously fulfilled, in contrast, say to CÖF-CÖKA (pro-government civil organizations funded by the state- tran.), whose public reports say absolutely nothing.  So it is completely clear that the government is targeting those who criticize it.  The first step was the 2014 affair involving the Norwegian Civil Fund, but legal steps taken against the civil organizations were entirely fruitless.  To the contrary, we became more renowned. Now we have arrived to the second part, and we have to calculate with there being a continuation, if public outrage fails to stop it.

It is still hair-raising that only a few days after the European Council’s commissioner for human rights issued a statement about the narrowing civil field in those places where civil society is subject to greater pressure, Hungary was listed among such countries that are hardly examples to be followed:  Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan.  Often the government claims that Hungary’s draft law parallels that of Israel or the United States, as though they were the same, but they are not.  But when we protest against following the Russian example, it shows just how extremely awkward it is to bear Putin’s stigma.

How will the organizations continue to operate if the law comes into force with the current content?

Márta Pardavi:  We still don’t know but we are contemplating this.  After the Moscow Helsinki group signed the Helsinki closing document in 1978 in the midsts of the most serious dictatorship.  Very brave citizens brought this about, who exposed serious human rights violations to the public, and who kept contact with foreign civil organizations.  Amidst the most serious conditions, there were always those who raise their voices against violations.  In a European Union democracy this can be done amidst a more pleasant environment, but there are times when greater risk taking and bravery is required.   It is not possible to say where we are in the current form.  Greater bravery will be required to stand up but I think our colleagues possess it.  We know each other well and we are starting out in good shape.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  For us the most important thing is that we can help Hungarian citizens to avail themselves of their rights.  As to what the administrative framework will be, we still do not know, but it’s for sure that TASZ will remain and complete its work, our clients can count on that, whether we are talking about mothers suffering from hospital infections, reporters, or special-needs children.

Bernadette Somody:  We don’t know either.  But I would like to sensitize what the law means with an example.  Assume that, just as civil organizations have published their financial information for years, everyone who disclosed personal information  about themselves at some point in time will be required to wear what they said on their clothes.  We would feel that this fundamentally violates human dignity.  The same thing is happening now with civil organizations.

April 19, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s next victims: The civic organizations

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.

April 5, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s rubber bones? No, his master plan

I thought this morning that I would be original if I wrote about a favorite word of both the Hungarian media and the opposition. The word is “gumicsont,” a dog toy made out of solid rubber or sometimes nylon. “Gumicsont” is used as a metaphor for a communication device that is designed to distract the attention of the public from something much more important. Almost everything that happens in Hungarian political life is immediately labelled “gumicsont.”

It seems that I wasn’t the only to find all this talk about “gumicsont” irritating. Almost a year ago Péter Konok, a historian and political commentator, wrote an opinion piece on the subject in HVG. He, like me, thinks that the Orbán government’s constant barraging of the population with political bombshells are not distractions intended to divert attention from something else. No, Konok says, the Orbán government’s chicaneries are genuine because “they are like this.”

Moreover, says Konok, our views on what counts as political distraction depend largely on what we personally consider important. For example, those for whom having stores open on Sunday is important may well think that talk about the size of Antal Rogán’s apartment is trivial, a distraction. Some people were certain that Viktor Orbán’s shocking announcement about the reintroduction of capital punishment was a “gumicsont” to distract attention from the Quaestor scandal.

One could give numerous examples of this Hungarian habit of labeling an action as a kind of sleight of hand to divert public attention from something else. In Konok’s opinion, these so-called artificially created distractions are unfortunately reactions to very real problems. By dismissing them as merely rubber bones to chew on, the Hungarian public fails to acknowledge that the country is in big trouble and that Orbán’s regime is only a symptom of its woes.

I would go further. Almost all of the political strategies introduced by Fidesz and the Orbán government are carefully and methodically prepared ahead of time, having very specific aims in mind. The latest “gumicsont,” according to some journalists, is the attack on the NGOs. This recent “distraction” is allegedly intended to serve up a new enemy since the migrant issue is becoming old hat and has lost its appeal. Dead wrong, I’m afraid. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the same master plan that has been systematically pieced together ever since January 2015.

The Orbán government has been preparing the ground for this move for a very long time. George Soros has been the boogeyman in Fidesz circles at least since 2010. And as far as the NGOs are concerned, Viktor Orbán made it clear in the interview he gave to 888.hu last year that 2017 will be “the year of Soros,” that is, he will get rid of the NGOs one way or the other. A distraction? A rubber bone? Of course not. It is the next step in consolidating his power and bolstering the popularity of his government.

Some observers even called the “migrant question” a rubber bone, which is total nonsense. This was again a policy initiative that Orbán had carefully crafted with a very specific goal in mind. It was designed as a popularity booster which, as Orbán rightly predicted, couldn’t fail. Just as a reminder, Fidesz’s popularity between October 2014 and February 2015 had dropped by 14%.

Orbán is aware that despite all the propaganda, his government is not popular and that it is only the weakness of the splintered opposition that makes his position safe. So, he is ready with contingency plans, the latest being to incite xenophobic Hungarians to turn against organizations that receive money from abroad. Orbán’s advisers have already managed to make Soros’s name a hated household word. Only a couple of days ago Századvég, Fidesz’s think tank, released its findings, according to which “61% of Hungarians have a negative opinion of the businessman.” Eighty-eight percent of the population—on both the right and the left—consider the use of so-called “soft-power” a violation of Hungary’s sovereignty.

The attack on NGOs is a variation on the “migrant” theme. First came boosting xenophobia and simultaneously elevating nationalism. Now the government is impressing on the population that these NGOs are vehicles of foreign political influence and pressure on the Hungarian government, which is a “violation of national sovereignty.”

Another plan Orbán announced yesterday morning was his defiance of the European Union and his fight this time against any “economic interference” of Brussels in Hungary’s affairs. Every time Orbán announces a new fight against this or that, the normal reaction in Hungary is that the man cannot live without battling against someone. That’s his nature. But what if his duels are not merely the results of personal traits but part of a well-designed masterplan which we, the observers, fail to recognize? We naively consign them to the heap of policy “distractions,” claiming that they are just tricks to turn our attention away from healthcare, education, and general poverty. I think it is a big mistake to think in these terms. We must take everything he says with deadly seriousness. No rubber bones here.

Everything Orbán does is designed to ensure the popularity of his government and his own well-being. Since his talents don’t include an aptitude for good governance, he has to rely on the country’s alleged vulnerability as a crutch. The refugees’ arrival in Europe was a godsend to Orbán. The country, he argued, must be defended against the migrants, against Brussels, against George Soros’s “soft power.” I’m afraid that nationalistic Hungarians lap all this up, including even those who wish him straight to hell. As long as Orbán can harness this kind of nationalism, the Hungarian public will never be able to get rid of him. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, Hungarians don’t see the connection between their nationalistic attitudes toward alleged outside enemies and Viktor Orbán’s staying power.

January 14, 2017

Viktor Orbán is back: his views on migrants, NGOs, and the Trump administration

In the last two days Viktor Orbán gave a short speech and a longer interview. He delivered his speech at the swearing-in ceremony of the newly recruited “border hunters.” It was exclusively about the dangers migrants pose to Hungary and Hungarians. The interview was conducted by one the “approved” state radio reporters and ranged over many topics. I decided to focus on two: the Orbán government’s current attitude toward non-governmental organizations and the prime minister’s thoughts on the coming Trump administration.

The migrant question

A few days ago we had quite a discussion about the Hungarian penchant for viewing Hungary as the defender of the West, the protector of Christianity during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. In the last few decades Hungarian historians have done a tremendous amount of work on Hungarian-Ottoman relations, and today we have a very different view of this whole period than we had even fifty years ago. First of all, scholars no longer believe the traditional story of Hungary as a bulwark of European civilization against the Porte. Yet the traditional interpretation of Hungary’s role prevails, and since the beginning of the refugee crisis it has been recounted repeatedly, largely because the Orbán government can use the historical parallel to its advantage.

It was therefore no surprise that Viktor Orbán’s address to the border hunters began with this theme: “you today swore to defend the borders of Hungary, the security of Hungarian homes. With this act you also defend Europe, just as has been customary around here in the last 500 years. To protect ourselves and also Europe: this has been the fate of the Hungarian nation for centuries,” he told his audience.

Although this is certainly not the first time that Viktor Orbán has announced that, as far as he is concerned, all those millions who in the last two years or even before arrived on the territory of the European Union are “illegal immigrants” who “cannot be allowed to settle in Europe,” this is perhaps the clearest indication that for him there is no such thing as a refugee crisis or, for that matter, refugees. No one can force any nation “for the sake of human rights to commit national suicide.” Among the new arrivals are terrorists, and “innocent people have lost their lives because of the weakness of their countries.” In brief, he blames western governments for terrorist acts committed on their soil. “They would have been better off if they had followed the Hungarian solution, which is workable and useful.” In brief, if it depended on Viktor Orbán, all foreigners would be sent back to where they came from.

The rest of the speech was nothing more than pious lies, so I’ll move on to the interview.

Transparency and non-governmental organizations

Let me start by reminding readers that, in the 2016 Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum, among 138 countries Hungary ranked ahead of only Madagascar and Venezuela in the category of government transparency. Yet Orbán in his interview this morning gave a lengthy lecture on “the right of every Hungarian citizen to know exactly of every public figure who he is, and who pays him.”

But first, let’s backtrack a bit. The initial brutal attack by Szilárd Németh against the NGO’s, in which he threatened to expel them from Hungary, was somewhat blunted a day later (yesterday) when János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, assured the Hungarian public that Németh had gotten a bit carried away. The government is only contemplating making these organizations’ finances more transparent, although he added that “the national side” must feel sympathy for Németh’s outburst because it is very annoying that these NGOs, with the help of foreigners, attack the Hungarian government. Németh was told to retract his statement, and for a few hours those who had worried about the very existence of these watchdogs over the activities of the Orbán government could be relieved.

This morning, however, Zoltán Kovács, one of the prime minister’s many communication directors, made an appearance on ATV’s “Start.” He attacked these organizations from another angle. He claimed that they have been assisting migrants and thereby helping terrorists to pour into Europe. If possible, that sounds like an even greater threat to me than Németh’s unconstitutional suggestions regarding the expulsion of NGOs.

So, let’s see what Orbán is planning to do. The reporter asked about “the work of civic organizations that promote globalization.”  Orbán indicated that he finds these NGOs to be stooges of the United States. During the Obama administration, he said, the United States actively tried to influence Hungarian domestic affairs. “Some of the methods used were most primitive,” he remarked.

He is hoping very much that in the future nothing like that will happen. His duty as a prime minister is “to defend the country” against these attempts, but all Hungarian citizens have the right to know everything about NGO’s, especially the ones that receive money from abroad. The people ought to know whether these organizations receive money as a gift with no strings attached or whether there are certain “expectations.” “And if not, why not?” So, what Orbán wants is “transparency.” This demand from Viktor Orbán, whose government is one of the most secretive in the whole world, is steeped in irony.

Viktor Orbán on the future Trump administration

Although initially Orbán tried to be cautious, repeating that it is still too early to say anything meaningful, he is hoping for “a change of culture” after the inauguration. This “change of culture” for Orbán means first and foremost that the Trump administration will not raise its voice in defense of democratic values. Earlier, Orbán didn’t dare to attack the NGOs across the board, and most likely he would have thought twice about doing so if Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama. With Trump, he feels liberated. Whether he is right or not we will see.

What kind of an American administration does he expect? A much better one than its predecessor. The Obama administration was “globalist,” while Trump’s will have a national focus. It will be a “vagány” government. “Vagány” is one of those words that are hard to translate, but here are a few approximations: tough, brave, maverick, determined, and fearless. Trump’s men “will not beat around the bush, they will not complicate things.”

Orbán also has a very high opinion of the members of Trump’s cabinet because “they got to where they are not because of their connections. They are self-made men.” These people don’t ever talk about whom they know but only about what they did before entering politics. “They all have achieved something in their lives; especially, they made quite a few billions. This is what gives them self-confidence.” These people don’t need any political training. “They are not timid beginners. They have ideas.”

Most of us who are a bit more familiar with the past accomplishments of Trump’s cabinet members have a different assessment of their readiness, at least in most cases, to take over the running of the government. Orbán, just like Trump, is wrong in thinking that because someone was a successful businessman he will be, for example, an outstanding secretary of state. Put it this way, Rex Tillerson’s performance at his confirmation hearing yesterday only reinforced my doubts about his ability to run the State Department.

Orbán might also be disappointed with the incoming administration’s “new culture,” which he now believes to be a great asset in future U.S.-Hungarian relations. What if all those virtues of the tough, plain-talking, down-to-earth businessmen Orbán listed turn out to hinder better U.S.-Hungarian relations instead of promoting them? What if those resolute guys in the State Department decide that Viktor Orbán is an annoying fellow who has become too big for his britches? What if the strong anti-Russian sentiment of Secretary of Defense James Mattis prevails and the U.S. government gets suspicious of Vladimir Putin’s emissary in the European Union? Any of these things could easily happen.

January 13, 2017

One of Donald Trump’s first victims may be the Hungarian NGOs

An article appeared today in The Guardian predicting a new crackdown on Hungarian NGOs. The timing is no coincidence. Viktor Orbán’s illiberal government has been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who will not raise his voice in defense of critics of the Hungarian government in the name of democracy.

A few hours after the publication of the article, Szilárd Németh, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, announced the government’s intention to get rid of “the pseudo-civilians” of the Soros Empire. In Németh’s vocabulary, “pseudo-civilians” are foreign political agents who represent the “global plutocracy and the world of political correctness above the heads of the national governments. These organizations should be forced back, and, I believe, they should be thrown out. I feel that the international opportunity for such a move has arrived.” The “international opportunity,” of course, is the election of Donald Trump, as Péter Krekó, an associate of Political Capital, a think tank of political scientists, pointed out to The Guardian.

The announcement of the government’s intentions regarding foreign-subsidized NGOs was not unexpected. Just before the holidays Orbán gave an interview to 888.hu in which he was quite explicit about his feelings toward the NGOs critical of his government. According to him, they are being used by antagonistic powers and their agents, like George Soros, to advance their own interests in foreign countries. Therefore, these organizations must be banished. Not only Hungary will move against them, but “all countries” in Europe. The year 2017 will be about Soros in this sense. “One can feel it coming when each country will trace the source of these monies; they will find out what kinds of connections exist between them and the intelligence communities; and which NGO represents what interests…. [2017] will be about the extrusion of the forces symbolized by Soros.” One cannot be more explicit. The only question was just when in 2017 the onslaught would begin.

It is unlikely that Donald Trump will be upset if Viktor Orbán follows in Vladimir Putin’s footsteps. In 2012 Putin introduced a law requiring non-profit organizations that receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register and declare themselves to be “foreign agents.”

George Soros recently wrote an opinion piece in project-syndicate.org in which he didn’t hide his feelings about the president-elect, whom he called “a would-be dictator.” He described Trump’s cabinet as being full of “incompetent extremists and retired generals.” He predicted that “Trump will have greater affinity with dictators,” which will allow “some of them to reach an accommodation with the US, and others to carry on without interference.”

Soros’s attack on Trump naturally elicited counterattacks on the financier by the pro-Trump media. Articles appeared with headlines like “Soros and Other Far Leftists Instigate Revolution against Trump,” “Billionaire Globalist Soros Exposed as Hidden Hand against Trump,” “Busted! Soros-Backed Pro Clinton Group Caught Funding Violent Protests,” and many more. Orbán can rest assured that no one will be terribly upset in Trump’s White House or State Department about the harassment of Hungarian NGOs. Under these circumstances Orbán can feel pretty safe.

By the time Orbán gave his interview to 888.hu, initial plans for the elimination of NGOs were already in place. On December 14, Zsolt Semjén, who serves as Orbán’s deputy, sent a modification proposal to a 2012 law on non-governmental organizations to the president of the parliament, which apparently will discuss and most likely enact it into law before April. One of the important changes is that “officeholders of non-governmental organizations” will have to submit financial statements just like members of parliament. What’s wrong with such a requirement? In the first place, salaries of officials of nongovernment organizations have nothing to do with the public purse. Second, knowing the Hungarian government’s practices, it’s likely that the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service would immediately begin to discredit those people who are seen as standing in the way of the government. In addition to this change, there is a vaguely worded reference to “the legal environment of the civic association” that will be rewritten. For the time being, officials of NGOs have no idea what this means, but “in light of the Orbán interview” it is worrisome that the proposal includes references to “the adoption of solutions that have worked” in other countries. The fear is that the Orbán government has Putin’s solution in mind.

NGO officials believe that the elimination of organizations will take place in stages. First, the usual character assassination will take place after the submission of financial statements. Second, the NGOs will have far more administrative obligations, which will take time and money away from their useful activities. As a third step, the government might accuse them of espionage and treat them as sources of danger to national security. They could be accused of treasonous activities against the legitimate government of their own country as agents of foreign powers.

According to rumors, behind the scenes the Hungarian government has been trying to convince George Soros “to limit his presence to the financing of the Central European University” and to stop giving any more grants to the 60 or so organizations that are the beneficiaries of his generosity.

For the time being, it looks as if neither the Open Society Institute (OSI) nor the NGOs are intimidated. They insist that they will continue as before. In the first place, some of these organizations, like Transparency International (TI), receive only a small fraction of their funding from the Soros Foundation. In fact, one of TI’s largest contributors is the European Union. The director of TI, József Martin, can’t imagine that the government would dare to ban TI because by this act “Hungary would remove itself from the community of free countries.” In Martin’s place, I would be less sanguine that Viktor Orbán cares what the community of free countries thinks.

The Hungarian Helsinki Commission gets about a third of its budget from OSI. In addition, it receives financial help from the European Commission and the United Nations High Commission. Its position, I believe, is less secure than that of TI. After all, it deals with human rights, something that leaves Viktor Orbán and his friends cold. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) is unfortunately heavily dependent on the Open Society Foundation.

Szilárd Németh’s announcement of the government’s intentions to eventually eliminate NGOs prompted the usual protestations from the left. MSZP couldn’t come up with anything more original than the demand that “Szilárd Németh must leave public life.” Sure thing. He will rush to oblige. DK reminded Viktor Orbán that, no matter how strong a feeling of affinity he has for Vladimir Putin, “this place, in the Carpathian Basin, is not called Russia.”

In the past, we kept trying to convince ourselves that surely this or that move of the government would not be tolerated by the European Union, the Council of Europe, or the Venice Commission. Be it the new constitution, the media law, or the building of a nuclear power plant on Russian money by a Russian company that received the job without competitive bidding. And what happened? Almost nothing. A few sentences were changed in the constitution. So, let’s not try to shift the burden to the EU. There is only one way to put an end to this nightmare: to get rid of Orbán and his minions in 2018.

January 10, 2017

Donald Trump’s victory made Orbán “the man” in Europe

The study of Hungarian politics can take you to the most unexpected places. Here is, for example, a lengthy interview of Viktor Orbán by Gábor G. Fodor, Hungary’s modern Machiavelli and the recently appointed editor-in-chief of 888.hu, a fiercely pro-government tabloid. The title of the interview is shocking enough: “Ki a faszagyerek?—Orbán Viktor.” It sent me to a slang dictionary to be sure of the meaning of “faszagyerek.” Probably the closest translation would be “swinging dick,” but I wasn’t happy using that phrase in the title of this post. And so, from the slang dictionary I moved on to the American film industry, where I learned that a 2005 movie titled “The Man” is called in the Hungarian dubbed version “A faszagyerek.” Good enough. “The man” he is. G. Fodor must have loved the picture or its character because he has a whole series of “faszagyerekek”–for example, Zsolt Bayer, István Tarlós, and, of all people, Connie Mack. By the end of the interview, we learn from Orbán that his own “faszagyerek” is Öcsi Puskás. Who else?

Some Hungarian observers consider this interview to be as important as Orbán’s infamous “illiberal speech” in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 26, 2014. That speech made an incredible splash at the time. Western politicians and members of the media began to understand that Viktor Orbán is a man with dangerous ideas and intentions. I doubt that this interview will create the same worldwide sensation for the simple reason that by now the Hungarian prime minister is widely identified as the “pocket Putin.” So his plans to expel the few remaining NGOs from Hungary will not come as a surprise.

Because this is the main message of the interview. The outcome of the U.S. presidential election has emboldened Orbán. He is sure that his time has come and that his vision of Europe will prevail. He is planning to fight the old order with Trump behind him, cheering him on.

Trump’s name came up early in the interview, with Orbán introducing him into the conversation in connection with the “intellectual excitement” that exists in Fidesz, “which comes not from school learning but from character.” This, he said, establishes “some kind of kinship with the just elected American president” in whom “one can sense the mentality of the self-made man.” Just as “Fidesz is a self-made story.”

Using this spurious “self-made” analogy, Orbán found it easy to link the new United States and Hungary. The old European political elite, who no longer have answers to today’s challenges, look upon Trump as they look upon him, except that the United States is larger and therefore they consider Trump more dangerous.

Note Donald Trump’s picture on the wall of 888.hu’s editorial office

In the past Orbán always refrained from verbal attacks on the United States. He left that job to Péter Szijjártó and the journalists running the state media. But now, with the wind of a new era in Washington at his back, he openly complained about Democratic foreign policy not just toward Hungary but toward all Central European countries. American diplomats believe that in this region there are only two kinds of leaders: one kind is corrupt, the other is Putin’s man. Or perhaps both at the same time. Therefore, they have considered it their business to interfere. Their method has been “soft power, which is not just a theory but a devious action plan.” According to Orbán, this American “soft power” has been implemented through NGOs, foundations, civic organizations, and the media. The American government has believed, at least until now, that this “action plan” could be realized through George Soros.

First, a few words about “soft power,” which is not exactly a new concept. Joseph Nye of Harvard University coined it in 1990 and developed it further in a 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. The idea behind “soft power” is that, instead of coercion, a smart government uses persuasion. “Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction…. The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.”

This is exactly what Orbán objects to when he criticizes the few civic organizations that act as defenders of human rights and democratic values. He is certain that the time has come to go against the Soros foundations with full force because Soros has “activated” himself against Trump’s plans to change the American political landscape. After all, it was only about a month ago that Politico reported that “George Soros and other rich liberals who spent tens of millions of dollars trying to elect Hillary Clinton are gathering in Washington for a three-day, closed-door meeting to retool the big-money left to fight back against Donald Trump.” After Trump is firmly ensconced in the White House, it will be safe to put an end to all those hated foundations in Hungary that day after day complain about the undemocratic nature of his regime.

During the discussion of Soros’s NGOs and their role as transmitters of American soft power Orbán brought up the Romanian elections in which, according to him, there were no anti-Hungarian voices because the Romanian socialists realized that it’s not the Hungarians who are the enemy but George Soros. “The winners campaigned against the Soros regime; the real opposition is not the small, inconsequential parties but the NGOs and foundations supported by Soros.”

I’m not familiar enough with Romanian affairs to pass judgment, but I am not aware of strong anti-American feelings in that country. On the contrary. However, I did find one article describing an interview that Victor Ponta, the former prime minister, gave to a publication called Stiri pe surse—Cele main oi stiri. There he explained why he had adopted an anti-Soros stance. His reasons seem to be identical to those of Viktor Orbán. Soros through his foundations produces “a certain type of people, pseudo-pseudo democrats for whom other countries’ interests are more important than the interests of Romania.” Doesn’t it sound familiar? How widespread this kind of thinking is among Romanian politicians I can’t say.

In Orbán’s opinion, all governments would do well to get rid of Soros’s foundations. “One can feel that already. They will find out where these monies are coming from, what kinds of connections exist with what kinds of secret service organizations, and what kinds of NGOs represent what kinds of interests.”

In addition to his plans for silencing the NGOs, Orbán sees other opportunities for next year. He is “convinced that 2017 will be the year of revolt, but it is another story whether the evil status quo politicians will repress these revolts or not. In Austria they managed to stop a successful march toward the radical right by rejecting Norbert Hofer as the future president of the country. But in Italy and the United States they couldn’t. Next year there will be elections in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. “A lot of things can happen.” Here Orbán clearly identifies his own party with far right parties: Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) of Frauke Petry, Front National (FN) of Marine Le Pen, and the Partij voor de Vrighelheid (PVV) of Geert Wilders. Orbán is keeping fingers crossed for these ultra-radical parties. I don’t know how often I have to repeat: Orbán’s Fidesz is a far-right radical party which is striving to turn Hungary into a one-party dictatorship.

December 17, 2016

Let’s Invalidate the Hungarian Refugee Quota Referendum!

“This is our country: Let’s invalidate the referendum!” is the title of the common statement of 22 NGOs protesting against the inhuman politics of the Hungarian government against refugees.

The Hungarian government has unleashed a xenophobic hate campaign ahead of the refugee referendum on October 2. Twenty-two NGOs are urging citizens to reject the government’s fearmongering and invalidate the referendum.

Hungarians will go to the polls on October 2 to answer the following question: Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?

We, Hungarian NGOs and citizens with a sense of responsibility for our country, believe in a country where our common matters are managed with humaneness, solidarity and mutual respect. We are concerned about seeing the government threaten our common values, therefore we speak out against the referendum scheduled for October 2, as well as the hate campaign surrounding the vote.

We decided to start a campaign to invalidate the referendum, which fails to promote our common concerns and is both pointless and inhuman.

Pointless question

The question put to referendum fails to promote our common concerns. It does not offer a solution either to the situation of refugees or the future of the European Union. It rejects solidarity with our fellow human beings in plight, just like with the other European member states. It has no intention to create a framework for peaceful coexistence. We are convinced that nobody can feel safe in the long run where public discourse is defined by hatred.

The question put to referendum is pointless. No provision on compulsory “resettlement” quotas has ever been adopted, let alone discussed, in the EU. If such a question were put on the agenda in the future, Hungary would have a place at the negotiating table.

Moreover, the response given to the referendum question does not entail any specific legal consequences, nor does it make clear exactly what entitlement the government asks for from the citizens, as this has never been revealed.

Shattered solidarity

The question put to a vote is also inhuman. The goal of the referendum and the accompanying campaign is to incite hatred against refugees. Its only potential consequence is the further weakening of the already shattered social solidarity, thereby reinforcing the government in continuing with its hate campaign.

The real question that is going to be at stake on October 2 is whether this country will ever be able to become a humane community. This is the goal we work for 365 days a year — on October 2 and on every other day.

Some of us will cast an invalid vote, while others will boycott the coerced anti-refugee referendum. Our goal is nevertheless the same: to invalidate this referendum.

Join us, share our statement, talk to your friends, colleagues and neighbors. Convince them, too, thus we can prove together: our country is based on humaneness and solidarity.

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