Activists believe rightwing PM buoyed by election of Trump will target NGOs funded by foreign backers such as George Soros.
Foreign-backed civil society groups in Hungary, including those funded by the billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros, fear they could become the target of a new crackdown from a populist rightwing government emboldened by the election of Donald Trump.
The Hungarian government is planning to force non-government organisation (NGO) leaders to declare their personal assets in the same way as MPs and public officials in what has been described as an “intimidation” of civil society. The proposal is scheduled to go before parliament in April, according to the newly published 2017 legislative agenda.
The move is seen as the latest step in a campaign by Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, to transform Hungary into a self-styled “illiberal state”, which has prompted a chorus of international criticism that democracy is being eroded in a country which joined the European Union in 2004.
Orbán has already faced widespread condemnation over moves allegedly designed to muzzle press freedom and curtail judiciary independence since his Fidesz party took power in 2010.
Some civil activists fear that while the prime minister has previously criticised civil groups as “paid political activists … attempting to promote foreign interests”, Trump’s forthcoming inauguration as US president could create an opportunity for a more focused onslaught.
“As a consequence of the election of Donald Trump, Orbán definitely feels that one of the only two international players – the US and EU – who care about NGOs’ situation in Hungary is now on his side because Trump is a fierce opponent of George Soros,” said Peter Kreko, senior associate in the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute thinktank, one of about 60 Hungarian groups to receive grants from Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
“Orbán expects that if he attacks Soros-funded NGOs this year, the US state department and US embassy in Budapest won’t defend them in the same way as before.”
Hungary was named in a 2014 speech by Barack Obama as one of several countries guilty of “endless regulations and overt intimidation” of civil society, which he said was part of “a campaign to undermine the very idea of democracy”.
Such criticism is less likely from Trump, whom Soros – a financial backer of Hillary Clinton in the recent US presidential election – has branded a “would-be dictator”.
Orbán paid homage to Trump in a recent interview in which he also singled out Hungarian-born Soros, predicting that the coming year would be “about the extrusion of George Soros and the forces symbolised by him”.
“In every country they will want to displace Soros,” Orbán told the 888.hu website. “This can already be seen in Europe. They investigate where the money comes from, what kind of intelligence connections there are, which NGOs represent what interests.”
Ironically, Orbán received an Open Society grant himself to study politics at Oxford University’s Pembroke College in 1989.
“There’s an expectation by Mr Orbán that there will be more space for the Hungarian government to carry out measures that in our view hamper democratic governance and the rule of law,” said Márta Pardavi, the co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO.
“The Trump administration adds to that. Orbán also believes there will be governments or political parties in power in France, the Netherlands and Germany this year that could strengthen Hungary’s position and views within the EU.”
Orbán’s government previously clashed with the NGO sector in 2014 when police raided three groups part-funded by Norway Grants, set up by the EU and Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein to fund projects in less-developed European economies. Some organisations had their tax numbers frozen, effectively crippling their ability to function.
Civil society leaders fear similar bureaucratic obstacles in the future could hamstring groups that play a leading role in highlighting official corruption, defending refugees and migrants, and promoting human rights.
“It’s worrying for us and for our clients,” said Stefania Kapronczay, the executive director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which received about half of its funding from Soros grants in 2015.
“If these administrative requirements have the purpose of steering us away from our true mission, that’s a problem. It’s a trend we see around the world that repressive governments apply against organisations like ours, for example in Russia or Egypt.
“If we have to submit a financial report every three or six months, we don’t have the capacity to deal with it. At the same time, the information will be used by the government to defame civil society organisations and show that they are funded from abroad.”
Chris Stone, president of the Open Society Foundations, insisted the organisation would continue to work in Hungary despite government opposition but admitted the matter could become an EU “test case”.
“It’s not yet but let’s see what Europe does if the situation in Hungary deteriorates,” he said. “That’s a question for the whole of Europe.”
The Guardian sought a comment from Orbán’s official spokesman but there was no response by the time of publication.