This week, parliament is expected to introduce legislation on foreign-funded NGOs. The government’s bill, whose official text has yet to be made public, will likely require groups to register how much funding they receive from foreign sources.
The government argues that the law is intended to counter foreign meddling in the country’s politics. Critics contend it is just the latest move to restrict political freedom in a country where the ruling party already controls much of the media and judiciary.
“The announced legislation is an unprecedented attack on dissenting voices by an EU member,” said Goran Buldioski, director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe. “European values are now at stake in Budapest … The rule of law and democratic standards, as well as the freedom of assembly and ability of NGOs to work, should be defended in Hungary.”
Zoltán Kovács, a spokesman for the Hungarian government, said NGOs lack “democratic legitimacy” and many of them represent foreign interests.
“In a democracy, political representation comes through democratic legitimacy — elections — that should be void of foreign and nontransparent influencing,” he said.
Hungarian NGOs already report on their funding, but the government has argued current standards are insufficient.
“Those financial reports do not entirely guarantee full and complete transparency since many times the origins, the real sources of the money, remain hidden,” Kovács said.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long been critical of the Open Society and foreign-funded NGOs, but his government’s attacks have intensified of late.
“Hungary cannot afford to allow organizations that remain in the shadows — not declaring who they receive their money from and for what purposes — to continuously encourage migrants to break Hungarian law to somehow get into the country,” said Orbán in a radio address on February 24, adding that “by doing so, international organizations which are primarily linked to George Soros have overstepped a line.”
Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire financier and philanthropist now based in the U.S., founded the Open Society Foundation during the height of the Cold War.
“I began funding dissidents in countries that were under communist rule in the 1980s and helped seed the development of civil society organizations within the former Soviet empire,” Soros told POLITICO. “Their goal is to hold governments accountable to their people, the majority of whom are motivated by the same impulse that led the fall of the Berlin Wall — the desire for freedom.”
The United States has traditionally supported such democracy-building efforts in Europe and elsewhere. But Trump has advocated a more isolationist foreign policy stance and appears unlikely to throw his support behind civil society groups such as the Open Society.
The State Department Human Rights Report for 2016, published last week, said “governmental pressure on civil society” is a problem in Hungary. Nevertheless, unlike his predecessors, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not appear in public to discuss the report.
Orbán has welcomed Trump’s election, saying Hungary’s position had “improved greatly” with his election.
Soros the enemy
The American alt-right website Breitbart, formerly run by Stephen Bannon, now White House chief strategist, has long fixated on Soros, accusing him of trying to bring down Europe’s borders, furthering the migrant crisis and funding Trump’s opponents.
The perceived sympathy within the Trump administration for anti-Soros sentiments appears to have emboldened politicians throughout Central and Eastern Europe to intensify their assault on Soros-backed groups.
“We prepared material detailing Soros activities in Macedonia, which is already being distributed to representatives of the Senate and the Congress, and to officials from the new U.S. administration close to the U.S. president,” said Nenad Mircevski, a founder of the Macedonian “Stop Operation Soros” movement.
These efforts have already borne fruit: two letters, one signed by Republican Senator Mike Lee and the other by six House Republicans, were sent to the U.S. Mission in Macedonia in mid-January inquiring about U.S. funding for Open Society Foundation projects in Macedonia.
Russia has long opposed Soros. In state-controlled media — both domestic Russian-language outlets and foreign language media like Russia Today and Sputnik — alleged nefarious Soros plots are a frequent theme. And in 2015, the Russian general prosecutor’s office declared the Open Society Foundations to be “undesirable” and a threat to the Russia state, banning the organization from the country.
In Romania, the Social Democratic leader Liviu Dragnea told broadcaster Antena 3 in late January “I do take issue with Mr. Soros. This man and the foundations and structures he has been setting up for years now in Romania, since the ’90s, I think, have furthered evil in Romania, he has financed actions, none of which has done the country any good.”
Meanwhile, similar sentiments are emerging in the Balkans.
Soros “is present in all of southeast Europe, where he is trying to establish puppet governments that will implement his aggressive political ideology,” said Mircevski.
Public rhetoric warning of the dangers of Soros’ foundations has also become more frequent among politicians in Poland, Serbia, Bulgaria and Slovakia.
Some observers are worried that the attacks on Soros and foreign-funded NGOs are a further sign of deterioration of democratic standards in Central and Eastern Europe.
Soros “is the perfect enemy. He has come to represent faceless globalization and foreign interference and fits perfectly well the type of dog-whistle politics for populists,” said Zselyke Csaky, senior researcher at Freedom House.
In Hungary, “NGOs are the new migrants now that the refugee crisis is less visible domestically. With the elections nearing, the government has to find new targets, new ‘others’ to blame and to keep its popularity high,” said Csaky.
Author: Lili Bayer