Third in a series of articles about Hungarian civil society.
Dr. Balázs Tóth, a lawyer, has worked for the Hungarian Helsinki Committee for twelve years. He has the day off but suggests we meet at the civil organization’s downtown offices anyway. The lobby is packed with people waiting to meet their lawyers. People are whispering everywhere, the copy machine is running, and staff members are rushing through doorways and corridors. It’s a busy place.
Balázs invites me to the back of the office, where the NGO’s co-chairs have a tiny office overlooking Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Street.
“The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is one of the first human rights NGOs in Hungary,” he says. “It was established in 1989. We provide legal aid for refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers. We also do human rights monitoring of police and other law enforcement agencies, and deal with fundamental human rights issues, such as democratic values and constitutionalism. On top of that, we represent clients before international human rights fora, such as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the Court of the European Union.”
I ask Balázs whether government policies have translated into more work for the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. He says the number of clients his organization represents has dramatically increased over the past 2-3 years.
“Just to give you an idea, prior to this period we had around 600-800 citizens seeking legal advice or legal representation per year. From 2015-2016 this number grew to 2,000-2,400. It tripled. The influx of refugees in 2015 increased our number of refugee clients to more than 1,000. We have been representing over 1,000 people every year for the past two years. So, yes, the new governmental era certainly gives us a lot more work than before,” he says.
Despite the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s activities over the course of Hungary’s post-communist transition, its reputation has been greatly impacted by its involvement in the refugee crisis.
Advocacy for asylum-seekers
Ever since the 2015 refugee crisis reached Hungary’s borders, the organization has been very vocal in its advocacy for asylum-seekers entering the country. The Hungarian government’s rapid response to the crisis, a mixture of draconian changes to the country’s asylum law and inflammatory anti-migrant propaganda, drew sharp international criticism partly because of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s efforts to raise awareness of serious human rights violations taking place in Hungary.
It is no secret that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee receives funding from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. This fact, coupled with Soros’ numerous calls for European solidarity with the refugees, led the Hungarian government to accuse the civil organization of conspiring to admit refugees to Europe.
Tarred by the same brush as George Soros
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself accused Soros and then-US President Barack Obama of deliberately engineering the European migration crisis to undermine European Christianity and the sovereignty of nation-states.
Now that the refugees are gone, the government has turned its sights from the “migrants” to the civil organizations that assisted them, including the Helsinki Committee, by claiming its human rights advocacy work was somehow responsible for engineering the migration crisis in the first place.
“From a strict legal perspective, it hasn’t really become any more difficult,” Balázs says. “There have been no legal changes that have made our lives more difficult. However, because we are one of the organizations which has stepped up against the migration policy of the government and due to the fact that we are a big partner of the Open Society Foundation, the ‘biggest enemy of the Hungarian nation’, we are being targeted in the media. We are being discredited as being one of the organizations which is allegedly working against the interests of the Hungarian nation.”
Balázs tells me Orbán made it clear that organizations funded in part by Soros would be “excluded” from the Hungarian nation in some way in 2017.
“We don’t know how. We don’t know what this means. This might mean only business as usual: press conferences, being discredited in pro-government media, being portrayed as an organization that should not exist at all in Hungary, et cetera. Perhaps we will see some legal procedures as well, as in the Norway Fund fiasco,” Balázs says.
His reference to this scandal illustrates the extent to which the government’s crackdown on NGOs in the spring of 2014 gave rise to valid concerns about attacks on civil society.
“Hungary is not Russia”
But when asked whether the scandal is a sign of Hungary’s eroding rule of law, Balázs likens it to a two-sided coin.
“On one side of the coin, one could easily claim that the rule of law no longer exists in Hungary considering that procedures like those launched against NGOs during the Norway Funds scandal continued for more than a year, because it was clear from the very first moment that there was no evidence at all against anyone. Still, criminal procedures were launched. There were huge police raids of one of the main actors in the Norway Funds story,” he says, referring to Ökotárs, the regranting NGO led by Vera Mora (pictured left).
“On the other side, no one was ever jailed, everyone was acquitted and all the criminal procedures were discontinued because the prosecution found that no criminal acts had been committed by anyone. At the end of the day, we can say that rule of law continues to exist because no one was found guilty.”
But Balázs does think the situation in Hungary is sort of a “mid-term situation where you don’t know which direction this whole political system will go.”
“I’m not an optimistic person but I still believe that Hungary is not Russia. It has never been Russia and it will never be Russia. I don’t think that human rights activists or journalists will be jailed for simply purely political reasons. But, of course, no one knows the future and we are preparing for such extreme developments as well.”
Regarding the general public’s perception of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s work, Balázs says the situation is bad.
“If you read the comments on our Facebook page, if you read the emails we get, or just listen to the defamatory or directly threatening phone calls made directly into the office, then there’s no question that our lives became more difficult. It’s not easy to mentally cope with the knowledge that you are hated by the vast overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population.”
But the smear campaign does take a toll on those fighting for human rights. Balázs says he and his colleagues make a conscious effort to stop reading the negative comments on Facebook. They no longer forward each other defamatory or threatening emails.
“We don’t want to overwhelm our colleagues with these negative messages. So we try to protect ourselves mentally from the adverse impact these can have. Also, we have to stand up against this propaganda. If we have to go to a television interview to defend or justify our position, then we are ready to do that.”
A sense of moral duty
So why do people like Balázs do this work if it is so controversial and demanding? After all, he’s a lawyer who has passed Hungary’s equivalent of the Bar exam, he has a PhD, he’s a smart guy. He could easily make more money working as an attorney in the private sector.
“There is a moral incentive. We have been doing this work since 1989 until 2010/2011 in a more or less peaceful environment. If you get frightened now and quit when the political and public environment becomes hostile, it shows that you aren’t so serious about the work you do. How would that look for someone to do this work as long as it is convenient, only to quit when faced with significant challenges? If you want to think of yourself as someone who is a morally serious person dedicated and committed to the cause for which you fight, then there is no choice but to continue your work.”
There are limits, of course. Balázs says he isn’t sure people in this field would continue their work if there existed a real threat of being jailed for political reasons.
“As long as this is limited to only a negative public smear campaign, I think all of us will continue with our daily work. Somehow you just get used to this,” he says.
Little reason for optimism
In the area of funding, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee struggles with the same problem as many other Hungarian NGOs: Hungary has no real tradition of private individuals donating money to civil organizations.
“We are not really dependent on private micro-donations. Only a very small percentage of our funding comes from such sources, perhaps only 2-3 percent of our annual budget. There is nowhere to drop back to from this level.”
Balázs does, however, say his organization has experienced small spurts of private donations as a result of being in the spotlight.
“There were some months when the number and amount of private donations increased significantly, but it only means that the proportion of private funding went from 2 percent to 3 or 4 percent. So the amount is quite small concerning the total budget of our NGO.”
As far as his outlook for 2017, Balázs says “there is definitely no reason to be optimistic.”
“If you would have asked me in 2010 whether I could imagine the developments that have taken place in Hungary over the past 6 years, I would have said ‘No’. But they did happen, and life goes on. I would say that most people in society don’t like this system, but there is a solid 25-30 percent base of voters who still support this regime, and that is enough to keep them in power. I can’t foresee what is going to happen in the future. We don’t know what Orbán meant when he said 2017 will be the year all the Soros-supported NGOs will be somehow excluded from public life. But if it gets any more serious than what we have seen so far, there may be cause for concern.”