The latest scandal: The Orbán government and the Norway Fund

On May 9 we learned that Norway had suspended €140 million of aid funds to Hungary. Most Hungarians, I’d wager to say, have no idea that, in addition to funds coming from the European Union, Hungary receives aid from Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein. In fact, Hungary is the second largest beneficiary, after Poland, of the so-called EEA and Norwegian Grants. The money that Hungary receives is the result of an agreement that Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein signed in 1994, the “Agreement on the European Economic Area,” which allowed these three non-EU states to join the common market of the European Union. Joining the large EU market was financially advantageous to these countries because within the EU their products were no longer subject to tariffs. In return, the three countries agreed to extend aid to less developed countries of the Union. After 2004, a large portion of the funds went to former Soviet-bloc countries. EEAUnder the arrangement Hungary will receive €153.3 million over the next few years. A large portion of the money that has already been received was under the supervision of the Hungarian government, while a smaller amount, the Norwegian Civic Fund, was handled by an NGO called Ökotárs Alapítvány (Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation). This organization was chosen by a Brussels-based office to be the lead NGO in disbursing funds within Hungary.

For reasons unknown, the Orbán government unilaterally decided to change the way it handled the aid received from the EEA and Norwegian Funds. As of January 1, the office that had been in charge of the distribution of the grants closed its doors and a private non-profit organization took over its duties.  This new organization has strong ties to Századvég, a Fidesz-related think tank.

The Norwegian government considered the move a breach of  the agreement the Hungarians signed with the Norwegian government, which supplies 97% of the funds. The Norwegians did not mince words. Vidar Helgesen, minister of EEA and EU Affairs who is also the chief-of-staff of the prime minister’s office, said that “Hungary’s actions in this matter are unacceptable” and added that “the Hungarian government has shown little willingness to find solutions that comply with the agreements entered into. We have therefore decided to suspend payments until this matter has been resolved.” He insisted that “the monitoring and implementation tasks in connection with the programs and funds under the EEA and Norway Grants scheme must be transferred back to the central government administration in Hungary, in line with the practice used in all the other beneficiary countries.” Up to now there is no sign that the Hungarian government is ready to oblige.

And that is not the only issue in dispute between Norway and Hungary. The Hungarians are also unhappy about Ökotárs Alapítvány’s administration of the Norwegian Civic Fund. According to Origofriction between the Orbán government and Norway over the Civic Fund goes back to 2012 when Tibor Navracsics complained to the Norwegian foreign minister about Ökotárs Alapítvány. He alleged that  this so-called independent organization has strong ties to LMP, the Hungarian green party, and therefore its distribution of funds favors the opposition forces.

The Hungarian government also complained about the process that selected Ökotárs as the lead NGO. Indeed, Ökotárs was the only organization that was found to be acceptable by the members of the jury, although originally there were seven applicants. Some of the groups had close ties to the government, while others were brand new creations with neither history nor reputation. Two were actually owned by the Hungarian state. The owners of two others were involved with CÖF, the government-created Civic Forum, the organization of the peace marches and sponsors of the pro-government election campaign. In any case, Navracsics’s complaint fell on deaf ears. The Norwegians were satisfied with Ökotárs.

Then, sometime after January 1, János Lázár again tried to convince the Norwegians to “renegotiate” the agreement on the basis of the new status quo. In addition, he wanted to take the Norwegian Civic Fund out of the hands of Ökotárs. The Norwegian government wasn’t impressed. So, Lázár began harassing Ökotárs Alapítvány. First, the government released nine names from the 50-60-member staff who, according to them, had had some kind of relationship with LMP, MSZP, or an anti-government university organization that was active for a short while in 2012. What they neglected to mention was that several employees had had close relations with Fidesz. Second, the government compiled a list of recipients who, in their opinion, should not have received any financial support from the Norwegian Fund, including the Roma Press Center, the Association of Liberal Youth, Women for Women against Violence, Transparency International, TASZ, the investigative journalism portal, Foundation for Democratic Youth, and two gay organizations that received small sums of money, Labris Lesbian Association and  the Rainbow Mission. Obviously, for the Orbán government, grants should go only to pro-government organizations. Critics should not get a penny as far as they are concerned.

Since neither Ökotárs Alapítvány nor the Norwegian government was intimidated, this morning the Hungarian government ratcheted up its campaign against the four NGOs that have helped Norway disburse the grants. It said that it would audit Ökotárs, the lead NGO. And today employees of the state audit department appeared at two partner organizations. At Autonómia Alapítvány, employees cooperated with the auditors but announced that they found the procedure illegal. The Hungarian State Audit Department does not have the right to investigate non-state funds, and clearly whatever small amounts of money these organizations received came from Norway. At the second organization, Demnet, the two men who showed up claimed that the investigation might take weeks. Demnet also put its objections in writing, claiming that the State Audit Department lacks jurisdiction.

Already on Friday Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, wrote: “To János Lázár, the non-government sector is just another area to occupy. LMP rejects the charges.” And board member Attila Mong told Reuters that the government had set out to “cut that lifeline from the organizations it considers unfriendly, adding there were almost no other financial sources to replace these grants. Orbán’s message is clear: he wants his hands to be the only ones to feed NGOs. If you don’t want it, you will starve.”

This is where we stand now. Another unfinished chapter in the endless war of independence. Shameful, utterly shameful. Viktor Orbán and his henchmen have been systematically ruining what little remains of the reputation of Hungary.


  1. afrojack
    June 3, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Based on this, they were less like NGOs and more like political party foundations or similar. One thing they were surely not: independent.

    It will be very hard to find qualified, “independents” who never in their life were one way or another affiliated with any political idea (I carefully choose the word idea versus party).
    Now, I think your and Fidesz true problem is that the number of Fidesz affiliates do not outnumber those who have something “liberal” in their background.
    PLease do not forget that it was actually Fidesz who denied any political affiliations for that matter with COF, until of course everyone figured out that they are pumping money into the “independent” body. So, please you should be a smarter than mix-up the informed readership of this board with the uninformed or mislead masses of the Orban crowd.

  2. The Fidesz trolls are getting more aggressive – but stupid too …

    Isn’t Fidesz the master of putting up “Pseudo-NGOs”? And bussing hundreds of thousands of people to Budapest in case of need?

  3. @ GW

    “This is not a land of law and order.”

    What was your first clue?

    Actually, the Fidesz gnomes have been busily deconstructing civil society almost from the moment they got into power.

  4. I like that comment by the troll about Hungary as a runaway train…(clever).
    And I suppose Csatary–not really dead–is conducting it, right?

  5. @petofi:

    I think Csepregi has written a satire: Hungary as a high speed train and “the cinemas, where Israelis show only American movies, not truly valuable Hungarian or Russian films” …

    At least I hope so …

  6. @ wolfi

    But I’m astounded by what Hungarians will tolerate under the umbrella of,
    “We are the greatest/ Everyone envies us/We will be proven right.”

    The words are different but the tone, the certainty, the self-belief…certainly is Hitlerian.
    And the only thing I’d say in Hitler’s favor in this comparison is that at least he didn’t mock is own people. To me, there’s a sneaking suspicion that Orban is well aware of the ridicule he brings down on the country and the people.

  7. I have complained here about the passivity of Hungarians when facing outrage. But I’m very pleased to see there has been quite a substantial protest in support of the editor of Origo who was booted out, apparently as a result of pressure from Lázár. I know people who have worked there and left because they experienced political pressure from the government so the story is entirely credible.

  8. The sculpture of Istvan Tisza will be re-erected by tomorrow morning at the Parliament.

    Tisza approved and later supported Hungarian participation in WW1, which resulted in Trianon.

    Nationalistic elements have celebrated the loss of 2/3 of Hungary since 1920, since it always helped maintain their autocratic, antidemocratic way of governing.

    The Orban government also likes Tisza for his vehement opposition to general suffrage.

  9. Yes HiBoM the number of people who showed up on the street in response to the call over the editor of Origo being booted out on short notice was very impressive. There are photos floating around social media that appear to show several thousand people.

  10. Wolfi,

    haha, I totally agree! I also thought Csepregi’s comment was meant to be a joke – either that or I have really lost the plot with what’s hapening over there.

  11. Nandor Csepregi,

    You wrote: “…the cinemas, where Israelis show only American movies, not truly valuable Hungarian or Russian films, and Orban still doesn’t own”

    Do you ever visit Hungary? I see plenty of Hungarian films playing, but there just aren’t enough of them to keep Hungarians happy, and many of them just aren’t as interesting to the average Hungarian. The owners of cinemas are interested in making a profit, just like most business owners (whether they are all Israeli or not, I don’t know, but I seriously doubt it). They will show the movies that attract the most paying customers, regardless of their origin. Therefore, your criticism about what movies are being played is misplaced – you should address the Hungarian moviegoer, not the owners who are meeting the demand.

    There aren’t so many “valuable” Russian movies, as far as I can tell. The last one I saw was truly bad, and too often they are highly nationalistic. Why do you single out Russian films? Depending on the genre, there are good movies from every country in Europe, including Hungary. I’ve even seen a good comedy from Germany (though it was many years ago). Your choice of country is telling, though, since you want to force-feed Russian propaganda to Hungarians. I wonder if maybe you are more sympathetic to Jobbik’s ideology than to Fidesz, regardless of your defense of Fidesz policies.

  12. Tobias,

    You wrote: “If a website writes obvious propaganda, idiocy, stupidity, people can easily see through them just as your comment.”

    That has to be one of the most naive things I have ever read/heard! Of course, it only sounds naive, it could be an outright lie. Either way, you are completely wrong. Some people will easily see through “obvious” propaganda, but most will not. For a recent example, see the Russian media’s coverage of events in Ukraine. That civil war is being fueled mostly through the blatantly biased, lying, inflammatory Russian propaganda machine, which seems to exclusively use “obvious” propaganda. Similarly, in Hungary, people consume the right-wing propaganda without chewing – critical thinking seems to be the prerogative of a small minority.

    Anytime a government can achieve a 2/3 majority in a legislature by receiving only 41% of the votes, yet not trigger mass protests and unrest, it’s clear that propaganda has done its job well. Even if you support Fidesz, you should be aware that, eventually, such tactics can be used against you. Only a generation after communism fell, and the majority of people have already forgotten! Maybe that’s wrong – they remember the good parts of dictatorship, but forget the bad parts.

  13. During many years in Hungary I have NEVER seen anyone reading a copy of Nepszava in public. So those circulation figures don’t surprise me at all. Pretty tragic, as it has a number of excellent writers and columnists. It’s usual in other countries to access well-written opinion that one disagrees with (Tories subscribe to (and write for) the UK Guardian, for example) but not in Hungary – that would be treason. But really.

  14. István Tisza was the most educated politician of WW1. He was the only who tried to avoid the war.

    István Tisza was the son of Kálmán Tisza de Borosjenő, prime minister of Hungary between 1875–1890 from the Liberal Party. The Tiszas were originally a Calvinist untitled nobility (regarded as equivalent to the British gentry). His uncle, the childless Lajos Tisza received Count title from Emperor Franz Joseph in 1897, however Lajos Tisza conferred his new title for his nephew István with the consent of the monarch. His mother was a southern German aristocrat Ilona Degenfeld-Schomburg, from Baden-Württemberg (born: Helene Johanna Josepha Mathilde Gräfin von Degenfeld-Schonburg). Tisza took legal studies in Budapest, international law in Heidelberg University, economics in Humboldt University of Berlin, where he received PHD, and political science in Oxford University, where he received a doctorate in political science.

  15. Tisza opposed the expansion of the empire on the Balkan (see Bosnian crisis in 1908), because “the Dual Monarchy already had too many Slavs”, which would further threaten the integrity of the Dual Monarhcy.

    In March 1914, Tisza wrote a memorandum to Emperor Francis Joseph. His letter had strongly apocalyptic predictive and embittered tone. He used exactly the hitherto unknown “Weltkrieg” (means World War) phrase in his letter. “It is my firm conviction that Germany’s two neighbors [Russia and France] are carefully proceeding with military preparations, but will not start the war so long as they have not attained a grouping of the Balkan states against us that confronts the monarchy with an attack from three sides and pins down the majority of our forces on our eastern and southern front.”

    On the day of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Tisza immediately traveled to Vienna where he met Minister of Foreign Affairs Count Berchtold and Army Commander Conrad von Hötzendorf. They proposed to solve the dispute with arms, attacking Serbia. Tisza proposed to give the government of Serbia time to take a stand as to whether it was involved in the organisation of the murder and proposed a peaceful resolution, arguing that the international situation would settle soon. Returning to Budapest, he wrote to Franz Joseph saying he would not take any responsibility for the armed conflict because there was no proof that Serbia had plotted the assassination. Tisza opposed a war with Serbia, stating (correctly, as it turned out) that any war with the Serbs was bound to trigger a war with Russia and hence a general European war.[7] He thought that even a successful Austro-Hungarian war would be disastrous for the integrity of Kingdom of Hungary, where Hungary would be the next victim of Austrian politics. After a successful war against Serbia, Tisza adumbrated a possible Austrian military attack against Kingdom of Hungary, where the Austrians want to break up the territory of Hungary.[8] He did not trust in the Italian alliance, due to the political aftermath of the Second Italian War of Independence. He felt the threat of Romania and Bulgaria after the Balkan wars and was afraid of Romanian attack from the east.

  16. The preceding two comments consist of very selective quotations from wiki:
    But wiki also says less nice things about Tisza:

    “Tisza became prime minister again on 7 June 1913. During this period of international insecurity, he wanted to solidify the government. He limited the rights of association and passed a law limiting freedom of speech.”

    It seems he also was a big fan of Magyarisation …

  17. In July 1849, the Hungarian Revolutionary Parliament proclaimed and enacted the first laws on ethnic and minority rights in the world. It gave minorities the freedom to use their mothertongue at local administration, at tribunals, in schools, in community life and even within the national guard of non-Magyar councils. However these laws were overturned after the united Russian and Austrian armies crushed the Hungarian Revolution. After the Kingdom of Hungary reached the Compromise with the Habsburg Dynasty in 1867, one of the first acts of its restored Parliament was to pass a Law on Nationalities (Act Number XLIV of 1868).

    The situation of minorities in Hungary were much more better than in contemporary Europe. Other highly multiethnic /multinational countries were: France Russia and UK.

    See the multi-national UK:

    The situation of Scottish Irish Welsh people in “Britain” during the English hegemony is well known. They utmost forgot their original language, only english language cultural educational institutions existed. The only language was English in judiciary procedures and in offices and public administrations. It was not a real “United” Kingdom, it was rather a greater England.

    See the multiethnic France:

    In 1870, France was a similar-degree multi-ethnic state as Hungary, only 50% of the population of France spoke the French language as mothertongue. The other half of the population spoke Occitan, Catalan, Corsican, Alsatian, West Flemish, Lorraine Franconian, Gallo, Picard or Ch’timi and Arpitan etc… Many minority languages were closer to spanish or Italian language than French) French governments banned minority language schools , minority language newspapers minority theaters. They banned the usage of minority languages in offices , public administration, and judiciary procedures. The ratio of french mothertongue increased from 50% to 91% during the 1870-1910 period!!!

    The situation in German Empire was well known (Polish territories)

    What about Russia?

    Russian Empire was even more multiethnic state than Hungary, without the existence of minority rights. The forced russification is also well known

    Just look the contemporary pre WW1-era Europe:
    Magyarization was not so Harsh as western European situation, because the minorities were defended by minority rights and laws. Contemporary Western Europe did not know the minority rights, therefore they covered up their minorities. Were there state sponsored minority schools in Western European countries? NO. How many official languages existed in Western-European states? Only 1 official language! Could minorities use their languages in the offices of public administration in self-governments , in tribunals in Western Europe? No, they couldn’t. What about minority newspapers? etc.. etc…

  18. According to that contemporary preww1 newspapers, present-day Germany USA and UK France the freedom of the press has limited the rights of association aand freedom of speech.

    Professor Zoltán Maruzsa:

    The freedom of the press

    István Tisza can be considered the initiator of modern press regulation and the supporter of quality-journalism. Though contemporary press harshly criticised the press law of 1914, it should not deceive anyone: with some exceptions, it is primarily today’s top-newspapers, which belonged to the political opposition in Tisza’s time, who attacked the new press law. It is hard to prove the right of those judging if it is taken into consideration that Tisza’s government modified the previously loose press law after half a year of discussions: in fact, the XIV. law coming into force on April 11, 1914 increased the severity of the cases of adjustment only by preventing the tabloids from writing fake news and it codified the liability for compensation. It is not surprising that the press – being involved financially – and the opposition were not fond of the new regulation, but it must be admitted that correction and compensation are also working legal principles today. The views of contemporary critiques become especially untrustworthy if we study their own press operating system of 1918 or analyse the later press politics of their party family.

    We are convinced that István Tisza was an honest follower of the freedom of the press, but not that of loose press. The new law applied to Tisza’s own paper called ‘Nemzeti Figyelő’ as well as to the extreme tabloid in opposition called “Az Est”.

  19. Is Ostvan the loonie who used to comment as Adam … ?

    Copying&pasting texts without giving the source is stupid, to say the least!

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