The Hungarian government is playing a clever game. To the outside world, including its allies in the European People’s Party and the US Republican Party, it projects an image of responsible – if a little abrasive – government attuned to democratic values but, like many on the Right, hostile to multiculturalism and immigration. Domestically, however, there is nothing remotely conservative or democratic about the efforts of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s efforts to consolidate power and silence critical voices.
Last week, the country’s National Assembly passed a new law imposing requirements on foreign-funded NGOs, with 130 parliamentarians out of a total of 199 supporting the proposal.
Signed into law by President János Áder on Friday, the law is, in many ways, a product of Donald Trump’s electoral victory, which emboldened Fidesz, the governing party, to “sweep out” the NGOs funded by George Soros.
Why? Well, to quote Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, “the people of Hungary have never given these organisations a mandate to represent them, while in contrast the Orbán Government was voted in twice in a row with large majorities.”
Fidesz’s domestic rhetoric about “foreign agents” undermining Hungary’s democracy sounds increasingly paranoid. Internationally, however, the government tries to present the NGO law, as a neutral, technical measure aiming simply at strengthening the transparency of foreign-funding directed of the country’s civil society.
In fact, Hungarian officials have likened the new legislation the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), ignoring the fact that the latter does not apply to foreign-funded civil society groups but only to foreign lobbyists and organisations conducting political activities – and has barely been enforced since 1966. In its provisions, the Hungarian law is closer to Russia’s infamous 2012 requirement that foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents.”
As a result, the legislation has attracted international criticism, including from the European Commission and from the US House of Representatives, where a proposed bipartisan resolution condemns Orbán’s attempts to suppress “free speech and assembly, as well as independent thought from universities, civil society groups, and independent think tanks.”
Earlier this year, the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe specialising in constitutional law, proposed a number of technical changes to the Hungarian legislation. Its overarching concern, however, was that “while on paper certain provisions requiring transparency of foreign funding may appear to be in line with [international] standards,” the law is being introduced in the midst of “a virulent campaign” by “state authorities against civil society organisations receiving foreign funding”.
In minor respects, the final version of the NGO bill heeds the recommendations of the Venice Commission. The original proposal, for example, stipulated that organisations that fail to comply fully with the new rules would be automatically terminated. The final law does not require an immediate dissolution, but rather sets in motion traditional legal proceedings, with penalties proportional to the infraction in question.
Unlike in the original version, organisations receiving foreign support will no longer be required to include a disclaimer regarding their foreign ties in all of their published materials. Likewise, foreign donations not exceeding HUF 500 thousand (around $1,831) can be reported without naming the individual donors – only the total value of donations below this amount and the number of such donors must be reported. Under the adopted law, NGOs can be removed from the register of Foreign Supported Civil Organisations if they do not receive foreign funds for two consecutive years, not three as in the proposal.
But these concessions are just strategic, aiming to appease the critics abroad without changing the substance of the bill. And that substance is simple. All NGOs receiving foreign funding, whether or not they are involved in lobbying or political campaigning, will be treated a priori as foreign agents, subject to registration and reporting requirements going far above those normally applied to all NGOs, and subject to penalties including termination.
No matter how Mr Orbán might try to conceal it in his meetings with Hungary’s international partners, the law is draconian. Furthermore, its ambitions are obvious. Just like the recent “Lex CEU” did not aim at improving university education in Hungary, but simply at driving the Central European University, funded by Mr Orbán’s nemesis George Soros, out of the country, the NGO bill is not about transparency. It is about pushing Hungary further down the path of Putin- and Erdogan-style authoritarianism.
It is past time for conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, and for the leadership of Fidesz’s group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, to see through Mr Orbán’s anti-communist credentials and understand that they are being played.
More importantly, it is time for Hungarians themselves to take a stand, do more than just organise feel-good street protests, and show Fidesz that its actions can come with political costs.