Hungary is the EU’s only Putinist state – József Barát

May 12, 2017

“The substance of the law does not give rise to any new obligations, but a new stigmatization comes from the political environment that it encompasses: one of terrorism, money laundering and references to foreign interests in the preamble.” – Tamás Lattmann, lawyer

“Yes.” – Miklós Ligeti, legal expert, on whether or not the adoption of the civil law represents a breach of international law.

Translation of József Barát’s article appearing in the April 27th, 2017 edition of Hungarian print weekly 168 óra under the title “The futile stigmatization law: Hungary is the EU’s only Putinist state.”

Non-governmental organizations across the globe are finding their room for manoeuvre restricted in countries struggling with democratic dysfunction. An unfortunate phenomenon in over 100 countries around the world sees the political elite curtailing freedom of speech and association, or at least stigmatizing NGOs in order to deflect attention from its own failings. The CIVICUS institute reckons this is particularly true of countries where the brand of politics referred to as Putinism has come into play. There is only one EU country where you can come across it: Hungary. However, Viktor Orbán is not content merely to adopt these restrictive practices. He has taken it to a level that even his own political family in the EU is starting to find uncomfortable.

“The substance of the law does not give rise to any new obligations, but a new stigmatization comes from the political environment that it encompasses: one of terrorism, money laundering and references to foreign interests in the preamble.”

This is how the international lawyer Tamás Lattmann described the new civil society bill, which will create in Hungary a new category of “foreign-backed organization”.

Naturally, the Hungarian legislation has its antecedents, but it is unrivaled in its legal pointlessness and futility. In the pantheon of repressive interventions, the Russian ‘foreign agent’ law at least does what it says on the tin, and furthermore limits its scope only to political activities. The Hungarian regulation applies equally to human rights organizations, healthcare and charitable associations, and puts all forms of funding in the same bag, whether it comes from the Pope, the UN, or even George Soros.

The Israeli regulations cited as a reference point by the ruling parties only prescribe obligatory registration in cases where support from states or international bodies constitutes more than half of an organization’s overall revenue. And, let us not forget, we are talking about a country that has for generations been fighting for its very existence while encircled by hostile neighbors. In front of his own people, Putin spoke of the need to halt the expansion of NATO and face up to the all-powerful America, the economic giant, and the European Union. Hungarian NGOs, however, receive support almost exclusively from donors in countries to whom we think of as allies.

Whether through a misunderstanding or in a deliberate attempt to mislead – but in any case, incorrectly – they speak of the American FARA foreign agents act as being similar to Hungary’s law, although it does not apply to the funding of NGOs at all. It requires the registration of organizations that lobby American lawmakers or in government circles in the interests of a foreign state. According to the FARA list, for example, two PR firms and a lobbyist have received a share of Hungarian taxpayers’ money. In less than four months they received more than 300,000 dollars to burnish Hungary’s reputation. We all know how successful they were.

Still, it is a fact that the Russian regulation was one of the sources of Hungary’s law – to the extent that, as the Együtt [Together] party lawmaker Szabolcs Szabó pointed out, several points in the legislation are a literal translation of the law adopted by the Duma. NGOs in Russia were called upon to re-register in the spring of 2005, while they were subject to significantly stricter financial oversight. In Putin’s estimation, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution a year earlier did not occur for internal reasons; according to him it was organized and directed from abroad.

The Russian president also adopted an Israeli idea: at the beginning of the 2000s, a former member of the foreign ministry and prime minister’s office in the Netanyahu government, Gerald Steinberg, set up the organization NGO Monitor to analyze the impact of civil society groups on the development of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He came up with the recommendation that the Israeli state should use civil society groups to fight other such groups who were protesting against military abuse. It would look much better in the global arena if militants were to fire off polemics against each other rather than having government agencies deny the assertions of activists. Thus the solution known as a GONGO (government-organized non-governmental organization) set out on its Frankenstein-like victory march. It was with this idea in mind that Putin channelled considerable state funding towards setting up Nashi (“Our own”) and the Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard) organizations. The idea was that, in times of need, they would also keep the streets safe.

Further strictures were placed on the functioning of NGOs in Russia when Putin’s popularity dropped significantly after the economic downturn of 2007-2008. The ruling party was only able to secure a majority in the subsequent legislative elections through blatant cheating. According to Zoltán Sz. Bíró, at least 14 million votes were diverted, and this did not go unnoticed. A huge wave of demonstrations broke out, whereupon in the summer of 2012 the Duma adopted a series of repressive measures. They tightened monitoring of the internet, the rules on permits to hold demonstrations, and also altered the definition of treason and espionage – whereafter the passing of information to international bodies can count as treason. Also part of this process was the adoption of the foreign agents law, which orders NGOs involved in political activity to register themselves as foreign agents, however minimal the level of support they receive from abroad. This ‘agent’ status must be indicated in all their publications.

The word agent, reminiscent of the communist era, was omitted from the version of the law adopted by Israel last year – just as it was omitted from the Hungarian proposal – and the law masquerades as a transparency measure. As an additional requirement, organizations classed as foreign funded must declare this status in all written or verbal communications with the Jewish state. The original legislative proposal even contained the distasteful suggestion that their members should wear badges, but this was dropped because of the obvious historical connotations. The connection between the Israeli and the Russian laws is stronger than might be obvious to people in Europe. The Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party – which brought with it the votes of Russian-speaking voters from the former Soviet territories – insisted on its adoption during coalition talks. Reflexes instilled in their land of origin meant they were quick to anger when certain organizations informed international opinion about the excesses of Israeli soldiers, that is, of “our own”.

In reaction to the international measures taken against NGOs, an international body was set up: the CIVICUS non-profit research institute, one of whose recent analyses coined the term ‘Putinism’. It refers to macho, conservative politicians who won power in parliamentary elections then used their majority as justification for characterizing all dissenting views as unpatriotic. They promise to restore the former prestige of their countries while primarily looking after themselves and their entourages, which is facilitated by their co-option of the business elite. They pursue patriarchal values, ride roughshod over respect for minorities, and have no care for disadvantaged minorities – for them this is all part of an obsolete political correctness. A Putinist politician has no tolerance for dissent, and it is understandable they they should use all means at their disposal to restrict the activities of NGOs, and especially international networks.

CIVICUS lists Russia, Israel, Turkey, India, South Africa and the Philippines as Putinist countries – and, as the only one in the EU, Hungary. According to their survey, 20 countries around the world have banned NGOs, 35 repress them, and 51 restrict their activities. They found only three such regimes in Europe: Ukraine, Moldova and Hungary. Other countries in our region typically belong to the group where, at most, the sphere of NGO activity is somewhat narrowed, whereas the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia are placed in the entirely free category along with western European countries.

Whether or not the adoption of the civil law represents a breach of international law is a thorny question. For Transparency International Hungary’s legal director, Miklós Ligeti, the answer is clearly ‘yes’.

“In its current form, the legislative text does not stand up to the Strasbourg court’s testing system, as it renders the exercise of a basic human right dependent on meeting unnecessary and meaningless conditions,” the lawyer told this newspaper. His view is that the proposal is a kind of quarantine law that breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, restricts freedom of speech and thought, and places stigmatizing conditions on the right enjoyed by everyone to turn to the public and demand information that is in the public interest.

The Hungarian prime minister has also been inventive in the deployment of GONGOs, or the setting up of government-organized non-governmental organizations. There is as yet no country but ours where the head of the institution responsible for the state funding of NGOs is also the leader of the main GONGO. László Csizmadia is at once the president of the National Cooperation Fund’s Council and the Civil Union (CÖF). The Index news website recently shone a spotlight on yet more inventiveness: the Hungarian GONGO has stepped into the international arena. Or, rather, it has been chased out of it, and was even assisted in its blundering. The foreign affairs ministry called on the embassies of European Union countries to round up partners for the CÖF until 15 May. Thus the CÖF would use Hungarian taxpayers’ money for the so-called European Civil Cooperation Council that it set up with Gazeta Polska clubs. On paper, the organization’s aim is to represent the common good together with nationally minded citizens in EU member states. In reality, it is perhaps more a question of using money from the Hungarian budget to organize fake civil demonstrations in defense of the government’s actions – those against the allegedly fake civil society groups, for example.

The German magazine Der Spiegel recently put some tough questions to Manfred Weber, the leader of the European Peoples Party group in the European Parliament. The newspaper spoke of a policy of appeasement in relation to Orbán, to which Weber stated they would not make bargains at any cost. The EPP will not repeat the mistakes of the social democrats, who are struggling to avoid becoming an irrelevance from France to Holland. The EPP caucus leader also said that membership would not be granted at any cost, and that there are red lines that the Hungarian prime minister cannot cross.

So the question now is whether the civil law crosses that line. And whether Orbán is capable of performing the pirouette that he has already displayed more than once – namely, celebrating in front of the public even when he suffers a defeat.