Police raids against Hungarian NGOs

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán takes further actions against the NGOs
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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán takes further actions against the NGOs

Recent actions taken by Hungarian police against NGOs is not a singular manifestation of the excessive use of force; rather, it fits neatly into the concept of an illiberal state and is a logical consequence of the government’s campaign waged against the civil sector.

    Jailed by your heart’s own insurrection,
    you’re only free when you refrain,
    nor build so fine a habitation,
    the landlord takes it back again.

    Attila József, “Consciousness”

A new chapter in the endless war

“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” – this was the last sentence of my latest article about the Hungarian government’s war against civil society. Except for some critical articles and a written question to the European Commission tabled by Pavel Telička, deputy leader of the ALDE group, nothing important has happened since. Neither the European Union nor the international community have taken steps to stop Prime Minister Viktor Orbán taking further actions against the NGOs supported by the Norway NGO Grant programme. These NGOs aim to strengthen democracy in Hungary; most are fighting for human rights or against poverty, corruption and environmental pollution.

On 8 September 2014 without prior notification, a dozen policemen from the National Bureau of Investigation (NNI) raided the offices of Ökotárs and Demnet, two of the NGOs responsible for the distribution of Norway NGO Grants in Hungary. Even the homes of some NGO leaders were raided by the police. The employees were also prohibited from using their mobile phones during the raid. A week later, the National Tax Authorities suspended the tax number of all four organizations responsible for the distribution of Norway Grants in Hungary (Kárpátok, Autonómia, Ökotárs, and Demnet).

The remaining Hungarian independent press and NGOs are talking about a politically motivated attack against the civil sector in Hungary. This was echoed by Norwegian Minister of EEA and EU Affairs, who expressed serious concerns about what had happened: “By ordering the police raid on 8 September, it is clear that the Hungarian authorities are continuing their harassment of civil society organisations, and that they have no intention of fulfilling their obligations under the agreements Hungary has entered into on the management of the EEA and Norway Grants.”

These claims appear to be valid: the main evidence for a political motivation is that the Prime Minister’s Office had previously created a list of about 13 NGOs considered to be “enemies” of the Hungarian government – the same ones that were targeted by the police investigation. The plausibility of the claim advanced by independent journalists is also supported by the fact that Ökotárs and Demnet had cooperated with the authorities from the start, so there was no apparent need for police raid on their offices.

The pretext for the police raids

The pretext for raiding the office of Ökotárs was that the foundation had provided loans on an occasional basis to NGOs. This was no secret: Ökotárs never attempted to conceal its ad hoc lending activity, and all relevant information was published on its website. The reason why the foundation provided loans to NGOs in financial distress was that the latter were ineligible (absent property or equity) for market-based credit instruments offered by banks. Under Hungarian law, only banks can engage in lending activities. When Ökotárs asked the National Tax Authority to validate lending practice, however, the latter formulated the opinion that providing loans on a non-profit basis did not constitute a crime, because this kind of activity was not aimed at generating a profit, but rather at ensuring the sustainable operations of the NGOs in question.

Those working for Hungary’s civic sector know fully well that the complicated rules regulating NGO activities often contradict the everyday pressures weighing on these organisations, and that, consequently, no organisation is able to comply with all of the regulations. The police – acting on orders from the Government Control Office – used this window of opportunity to carry out a politically motivated intimidation campaign aimed at silencing critical independent voices.

The wider context: the building of an illiberal state

On 26 July of this year, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave a speech in Băile Tuşnad which could be considered a historical moment. The prime minister was unusually honest: he used Fareed Zakaria’s term “illiberal democracy” to designate what he believes to be the desirable form of government for Hungary. Orbán mentioned Singapore, China and Russia (and as a democratic exception, India) as examples to follow. That was the first time that an active politician had ever mentioned the term “illiberal democracy” in a positive context. Orbán argued that liberal democracies will be incapable of maintaining their global competitiveness in the coming decades, “and instead will probably be scaled down unless they are capable of changing themselves significantly.”

The Băile Tuşnad speech was not an announcement of a government plan; it was an explanation of what has happened since 2010 when Viktor Orbán and Fidesz gained the first two-thirds’ majority in the Hungarian parliament. As is well known, Fidesz distorted parliamentary democracy in Hungary after the 2010 election: formerly independent institutions such as the Constitutional Court, media authorities, the Fiscal Council and the judiciary were taken over by the governing party, and the election system was modified several times by the parliament. These amendments and the weakness of opposition parties helped Fidesz to win another two-thirds’ majority in the National Assembly in April 2014.

After eliminating institutional barriers and using the new election system to divide the opposition, the Orbán government sought new enemies. These were representatives of Hungarian civil society, who were stigmatised as “paid political activists” by the prime minister in his Băile Tuşnad speech. There is nothing new under the sun: Vladimir Putin, the Russian “godfather of illiberal democracy”, launched much the same attack against NGOs whose activities are supported by foreign funds. Neither Russian nor Hungarian NGOs are political activists, and they certainly are not foreign agents, but nationalist-populist governments like to characterise them as such in order to present themselves as the inexorable defenders of the national interest.

This is an illiberal democracy in action. After defeating political enemies, new ones must be found – and NGOs fighting for democracy, transparency and human rights seem to be perfect targets.

Not an exception

It is important to understand that the police raid on Ökotárs and Demnet is not a single isolated case of the excessive use of power. The oppression of critical voices will continue through pressure on opposition parties, the media and NGOs. Opposition parties are kept under control by the continuous amendment of election rules, the elimination of media platforms and the creation of pseudo-parties. The media are restricted by the advertising tax and the threat of hostile acquisition. NGOs do not need a fair election system or fair media coverage in order to continue their activities, but they are unable to do their work without the foreign funds they used to receive even before 2010. Of course, when it was in opposition Fidesz was not disturbed by the operations of these same NGOs, but as a governing party it is seeking to cut off their resources.

As long as Fidesz has a two-thirds’ supermajority in the Hungarian parliament, even a rational critique of the government seems impossible. Hungary is not Russia, however; no one has been imprisoned for opposition activity. But the police raid on 8 September has brought us one step closer. The leaders of Ökotárs and Demnet will have to make regular appearances in court, and their colleagues will have to continue working with the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. By maintaining this pressure, the government not only seeks to hamper the work being performed by key donors – and, by extension, to diminish the efficiency of the civic sector. It also hopes to discourage citizens from engaging with “dirty” NGOs, and to keep Hungarian society in a state of apathy.

The future of illiberal democracy

Twenty-first-century illiberal regimes do not need the tools of a totalitarian dictatorship. By using money, amendments to the constitution, and intimidation, they can achieve all that could be garnered through the use of violence. The weakness of the opposition and the use of these tools are the main reasons for Fidesz’s popularity. According to the polls, the governing party is going to win the municipal elections on 12 October 2014, and this victory will simply underscore the confidence of Fidesz and Prime Minister Orbán. The next elections in Hungary will take place in 2018, so Prime Minister Orbán now has another three and a half years to build his illiberal state.

Despite this, the popularity of authoritarian regimes rarely lasts forever. A serious question is what a government (which has given direct political orders to the police to harass NGOs) would do if a new kind of opposition were to emerge showing real power. Another important question is the reaction of the international community. The leaders of the European Union should realise that an illiberal democracy inside the European Union could weaken the whole alliance. If left unaddressed, it may well set a negative precedent for other EU governments seeking to maintain their power.