In April 2014, the Hungarian government launched an offensive against the Norwegian NGO Fund operating in Hungary. This issue started with a letter from the government's second-most-influential man, János Lázár, to the Norwegian minister of EEA and EU Affairs, Vidar Helgesen. In his letter, Mr Lázár alleged that the Norwegian Fund’s support was being distributed to Hungarian NGOs by people who have close relations to Lehet Más a Politika (LMP), the green party which received five per cent of votes in the last parliamentary election.
Apparently, the government's criticism came almost out of nowhere. In 2013, Heti Válasz, a pro-government weekly, wrote about the influence of Hungarian-born financier George Soros on the very same financial support, but neither the government nor the governing party, Fidesz, responded to the article. But a year later it has become a pressing problem. Days after Mr Lázár’s letter, the Ökotárs Foundation – the leader of the consortium assessing the tenders – responded in an open letter, arguing persuasively that both the NGOs and the Foundation were independent organisations acting independently of party politics. The response did not convince the government, however: Nándor Csepreghy, the administration's youngest state secretary, claimed that these NGOs were "party-related rogue organisations".
At that point, the whole story might have seemed like a political battle – business as usual – but in May 2014 Mr Lázár urged Norway to suspend the disbursement of grants "until a mutually satisfactory settlement is reached". It is quite unusual for one state to request the suspension of aid from another, and this seems to be at odds with Hungary's interests.
This whole case cannot be separated from the transformation of the government structure, however. Until the end of 2013, the development funds provided by Norway were supervised by the National Development Agency. Subsequently, the system was redesigned: the Agency's responsibilities were transferred to various departments with Mr Lázár overseeing the entire structure. These changes were not discussed with the Norwegians, and this is why Norway decided to suspend financial support for Hungary. The transformation of the government structure caused similar disruptions in connection with grants for Hungary from the European Union.
At the end of May 2014, the government took new steps against the implicated NGOs. At the request of the Prime Minister's Office, the Government Control Office (KEHI) initiated a full investigation of the Ökotárs Foundation and some of the NGOs supported by the Fund. The government started to investigate non-governmental organisations for admittedly political reasons – which is unprecedented since 1989. The Fidesz government is acting like a communist-era one-party state by creating and publishing lists of organisations and persons accused of political bias.
This fact explains why international reactions have been unusually harsh. The Norwegian ambassador and minister Helgesen expressed serious concerns about what happened, activists organised a demonstration in Budapest, and several international NGOs protested against the government’s actions. Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Garry Robbins also expressed his concerns about recent developments in Hungary. These critical opinions were not well received by the government, and, of course, the campaign against the NGOs continues.
The Hungarian government versus the world
The Hungarian government claims that they are fighting against the foreign sponsors of pseudo-NGOs controlled by the political opposition. The feeling of déja vu is no accident: it was pretty much the same justification that the Russian government used when the so-called "foreign agent law" was introduced. This rule obliges foreign-funded NGOs to identify themselves as foreign agents and justifies the government’s investigations of them.
To put it another way, these politically motivated investigations could lead to the demise of NGOs fulfilling watchdog functions in Hungary.
In order to judge how legitimate the government’s criticism of the operation of the Norwegian Fund in Hungary is, it is essential to answer the following three questions:
- Are there real linkages between the NGOs funded by the Norwegian state and LMP, the Hungarian green party?
- Are there any real actors who wish to influence Hungarian party politics by funding and using the NGOs?
- If there is such intent, what is the significance of it? Could such a strategy lead to real political impact? If not, what could the real motivation for the government’s behaviour be?
The first question is easy to answer. Zsuzsa Földényi, one of the co-founders of the Ökotárs Foundation was an LMP candidate for a parliamentary seat. However, she is not known at all in Hungarian political life, and prior to her candidacy she had worked in green NGOs for decades. LMP co-president András Schiffer was a member of one of the Foundation’s awarding committees, and former MP Virág Kaufer started to work at the Ökotárs Foundation after her resignation, which seems to be the strongest linkage between LMP and the Foundation. These relationships are not necessarily based on political interests, however. Földényi, Schiffer and Kaufer all worked in the third sector for many years before taking on any kind of political role, and this could explain their role in the operation of the Foundation. In addition, none of the NGOs supported by the Norwegian NGO Fund engage in activities that would serve the objectives of LMP.
The accusation of foreign political influence does not seem to be justified either. Conspiracy theories suggesting that various kinds of groups are fighting against the Orbán government are much more representative of political campaign slogans than of reality. Right after the 2010 electoral victory, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared a so-called "freedom fight" against the European Union. In 2012, the government even launched a media campaign against the IMF and the European Union with false messages, suggesting that the EU and the IMF were demanding austerity measures in Hungary costing a million euros. This "freedom fight" seems quite controversial in the light of the fact that 97 per cent of investments in Hungary are financed by the European Union, and that the IMF provided a cheaper loan to previous Hungarian government than was available through commercial borrowing.
Neither these organisations nor the NGOs are real enemies of Hungary or even of the current Hungarian government. What is really going on is that Fidesz is bolstering its own legitimacy by creating more and more enemies. After the party’s two-thirds electoral victories in 2010 and 2014, there is no opposition left in the country that could be blamed for the government’s failures, and creating conspiracy theories is obviously one successful way to mobilise voters. The constant warfare of the Orbán government does not advance policy objectives; rather, these made-up attacks on Hungary create the basis of legitimacy for the government’s voluntaristic politics.
Why is the government fighting against these NGOs?
It is not hard to find it symbolic when a government treats NGOs which combat poverty, corruption and environmental pollution as enemies. Left-wing philosopher Miklós Tamás Gáspár wrote that these NGOs are "the real opposition in Hungary". I would argue against this statement. The fact that the Hungarian opposition parties are in a poor moral and political state of affairs does not make the NGOs stronger, especially as the third sector has been traditionally weak in Hungary. The implicated NGOs do not play in the same league as the government, most of them are not well known, and they have little influence on political matters. Even the more active ones, such as the human rights watchdog TASZ (Civil Liberties Union) can only reach a limited number of people. The activity of Hungarian watchdog organisations is more than useful, but their influence on policy-making and politics is negligible.
The financial support for Hungary from the Norwegian Fund amounts to a total of 13 million euros per year, of which NGOs receive around 4 million euros per year – equivalent to not more than 0.02 per cent of Hungary's annual budget. Of course, some of these organisations can operate effectively despite their modest budgets, but it is hard to believe that the government sees a real threat in maintaining such a tendering system.
So why is the Orbán government fighting against the NGOs? There are two reasons. First, it wants to monopolise everything. The government undermines the functioning of independent media while the pro-government media are funded through public procurement. The independent business sector is the enemy of the government in Hungary today. Public procurement contracts are mostly won by Fidesz-related companies. What's more, the governing party has its own network of NGOs, and would prefer to distribute the Norwegian Fund's money to them instead of to the real watchdog NGOs. If this is not possible, then the government would at least like to undermine the financial edifice supporting independent NGOs.
The second reason is of a political nature. As I stated above, the Fidesz government is bolstering its own legitimacy through perpetual media warfare, and NGOs happen to be ideal targets for such a campaign. By using Fidesz's media empire, NGOs can be labelled as "extreme liberals" (whatever that is supposed to mean) who support, for instance, the "gay lobby". Hungary is not among the most tolerant European countries, so most voters would agree that such "extremist" NGOs do not deserve any support – despite of the fact that the struggle for transparency, poverty reduction measures, and increased environmental protection can hardly be seen as "extremist" in nature.
There seems to be no positive resolution to this situation. If the Norwegian NGO Fund is suspended, the watchdog NGOs will face serious – in many cases insurmountable – financial difficulties. If the government somehow succeeds in re-appropriating the Norwegian Fund, it would definitely redistribute it to NGOs with close ties to Fidesz. And even international objections serve the government's objectives, because they corroborate the narrative of a conspiracy against Hungary.
This is not to say, however, that the resistance exhibited by the Norwegian government is useless. To the contrary, because of the weakness and fragmentation of both the political opposition and civil society, any change to the ruling party’s tactics can only be exerted from the outside.
Having successfully monopolised political power, Prime Minister Orbán aims to stamp out all critical voices from the public sphere. International organisations, European political parties and citizens who want to help civil society in Hungary must therefore demonstrate a willingness to stand up to the government's undemocratic actions.