A robust civil society provides a crucial check on government power, so Hungary’s authoritarian ruling party Fidesz is preparing to crack down on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), warns Máté Hajba, director of Hungary-based Atlas Network partner Free Market Foundation. Hungarian officials have raided NGO offices during corruption investigations, Hajba explains, and drafted a law that would mandate personal asset disclosure for NGO leaders, which could enable harassment by government authorities.
“The crackdown on NGOs started in 2014, when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán abandoned the image of a European (although somewhat maverick) politician, did away with all pretenses and declared his intention to build an illiberal state, modelled on the likes of Russia,” Hajba writes in a commentary for the European free-market think tank online publication 4Liberty.eu. “In the same speech, he essentially branded all people tied to NGOs as agents of foreign interests.”
The current U.S. political climate is playing a role in Hungary’s current round of NGO persecution, Hajba notes, because Hungary-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros funds several Hungarian NGOs — and is seen as a political adversary by the current administrations in both countries.
“Orbán simply glosses over the fact that many members of his party, including himself, studied abroad on Soros scholarships, and he still demonizes Soros,” Hajba writes. “Needless to say, it is one thing to disagree with someone politically and another to use force to root them out. And this is what Fidesz is doing, going so far as to claim Soros is a national security threat, though evidence is nowhere to be seen.”
The government’s attack on civil society is a good indication that organizations like Free Market Foundation are making an impact, Hajba says, through their economic education, promotion of liberty and tolerance, exposure of government corruption, and combating the growing influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin over Hungary’s political regime.
“With no independent media, no checks and balances, no civil oversight, one of the most corrupt governments in the EU can expand on its already immense powers and get even closer to Putin’s Russia,” Hajba concludes. “With no competent political parties and only a handful of competent politicians, the gap between citizens and the state will be quite hard to patch up. But it is not too late to act and save what remains of civil society in Hungary.”