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The Hungarian Government’s Chase of “Foreign Agents”: The Orgy of Hypocrisy

The Hungarian Government’s Chase of “Foreign Agents”: The Orgy of Hypocrisy

No. 3, Jan.-Feb. 2017 » UNCOVERstory

Last month, Hungary made headlines in the international press again by making further steps towards Viktor Orbán’s illiberal dream, which was highlighted three years ago at an event in Băile Tușnad in Romania. Viktor Orbán’s government recently passed a law that enables the authorities to shut down the Central European University – the university established by George Soros, and operating in Hungary for more than two and a half decades.

While the Hungarian government denies that this move targets the Central European University, this is obviously the case, as it is the only entity meeting the bill’s requirements. Governmental politicians repeatedly called Central European University the “Soros-university”, and the attacks fit in the more general pattern of building up George Soros as the archenemy for Hungary. In a related move, the Hungarian authorities aim to pass a law next month, that forces NGOs to reveal their foreign financial sources, and the ones that are receiving foreign funding should call themselves “foreign funded organizations”. Organizations failing to meet this obligation can see the courts order their closure. Governmental politicians are not even hiding their hopes that it will make the life of organizations financed by George Soros more difficult. Also, they do not make a secret out of the fact that the election of Donald Trump encouraged their move – which proved to be huge misunderstanding, given that the US foreign policy has much more continuity due to its dedicated civil service then they assumed. But, despite some criticism that comes from the European Union and the United States, the government can do a lot to make the life of CEU and Hungarian NGOs more difficult.

While the government is constantly referring to Hungarian national interests when implementing these regulations, these moves seems to be inspired and encouraged by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The legislative proposal on NGO finance is practically the translation of the Russian legislative project on foreign agents passed in 2012. The governmental broadsides against the CEU began only one day after the meeting between Viktor Orbán with Vladimir Putin in Budapest.

While the government is constantly referring to Hungarian national interests when implementing these regulations, these moves seems to be inspired and encouraged by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The legislative proposal on NGO finance is practically the translation of the Russian legislative project on foreign agents passed in 2012. The governmental broadsides against the CEU began only one day after the meeting between Viktor Orbán with Vladimir Putin in Budapest, in February this year. And, given that the majority of the students in the CEU are coming from the post-Soviet countries to learn in a university which promotes the idea of the “open society”, and some of them are becoming diplomats opposing authoritarian leaders in the region, we have a good reason to think that the attacks against the University (that does not pose any kind of political threat, overt or otherwise, to Orbán) are at least as important for Vladimir Putin as for Viktor Orbán. Soros’ Open Society Foundations are among the “undesirable” organizations – the donor organizations that practically cannot operate and award grants legally. And George Soros is also an ardent critic of Putin’s Russia, and has a hardline position on the Ukranian conflict.

But these new laws are not only doing a disservice to Hungarian national interests because they are inspired and demanded by Russia. They can pose a threat to the ethnic Hungarian communities in the region, and set a dangerous precedent. Ex-Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, inspired by the “lex CEU”, wrote a Facebook post that is praising the law and recommending that a similar legislation should be implemented in Romania – which could make the situation of Hungarian Universities more difficult in Romania. Also, similar regulations to the act on “foreign agents”, in surrounding countries, would put organizations financed by the Hungarian state in jeopardy. Viktor Orbán referred to the Romanian campaign as well, where George Soros were also painted as the public enemy – this sounded a bit strange from a Hungarian nationalist politician, given that the conspiracy theories about George Soros, in some cases, have anti-Hungarian undertones as well in Romanian political and public discourse.

To assess the harm that these regulations could bring to ethnic Hungarians, we can even quote politicians of Fidesz. When, half a year ago, the Hungarian opposition party Jobbik recommended to implement a law on foreign funded organizations (a proposal that Fidesz rejected back then), an MP of Fidesz argued against the regulation in a parliamentary committee in the following way:

“I agree with the need for transparency, but I do not agree with the stigmatization of these institutions which the bill proposes. The Hungarian state, for historical reasons, and due to its geographical position, finances quite a lot of foreign organizations. These are all Hungarian organizations outside Hungary. This is important for national political considerations. Furthermore, these are not private foundations, but the Hungarian state itself that supports Hungarians in Ukraine, Slovakia, Romania and Serbia. Now let’s imagine that, encouraged by your bill, the Slovakian Parliament or the Romanian Parliament would make a bill, stigmatizing these institutions as foreign agent organizations. (...) in Transylvania for example, the Sapientia University and several other organizations receive direct funding from the Hungarian State”. (...) So, I can only say that while transparency is needed, but what you propose afterwards, is simply horrible”.

Of course, we should not be naive, based on our experiences so far: the same politician that argued against this regulation, Róbert Répássy, will support almost the same regulation with his vote just a little while later. In Fidesz, any kind of divergence from the party line is seriously punished. But when passing the law, Fidesz politicians will be totally aware of the fact that it can bring damage to ethnic Hungarians in surrounding countries.

While the government claims to be engaged in “freedom fighting”, it is more and more subservient to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including by emulation, fulfilling all of its hopes and wishes.

The case of the “lex CEU” and the regulation on NGOs reveals something inherent and typical about the nature of the populist nationalism of the current Hungarian government. While the government justifies all of its moves with references to the “national” interest, these laws bring even more harm to the image of Hungary in the World, takes the country further from Europe, significantly harms academic life in Hungary, and exposes the ethnic Hungarian communities to nationalist political, and probably legal, attacks. While the government claims to be engaged in “freedom fighting”, it is more and more subservient to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including by emulation, fulfilling all of its hopes and wishes. While these laws are catastrophic for Hungary, they are beneficial for the Kremlin. And given that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is strongly interested in provoking ethnic conflicts in the region – as we could read in the leaked emails of Putin aide Vladislav Surkov – we can only hope that the political class in surrounding countries will be more responsible, and not borrow from the Putin playbook with implementing similar regulations.

 
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