On September 6 The New York Times published a long article by three investigative journalists entitled “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks.” According to the article, a lot of foreign countries, especially smaller ones, use think tanks located in Washington, D.C. for lobbying purposes. These countries’ lobbyists find direct contact with members of Congress or officials of the State Department difficult to come by, and thus they lobby indirectly through the non-profit organizations to influence official and unofficial opinions. Many of the examples the article cites are connected to Norway’s gifts to the Brookings Institute and the Center of Global Development. The reason for the focus on Norway is that Norway is a country with very liberal transparency laws. Thus, it was relatively easy to get information on the Norwegian government’s relationship with American think tanks. Some of these gifts were used to combat global warning, others to convince Congress to spend more money on foreign aid. Some of them clearly served Norway’s direct interests–for example, to promote plans to expand oil drilling in the Arctic. Hungary, by the way, was listed as being among the many countries that use think tanks to advance their lobbying activities. Hungary has such working relations with the Atlantic Council. The size of Hungary’s contribution was not revealed.
This report did not go unnoticed in Budapest. Today Magyar Nemzet carried an article entitled “Norway’s 22-Million Dollar Mask.” They called attention to The New York Times article, reminding their readers that the Kormányzati Ellenőrzési Hivatal (KEHI/National Bureau of Investigation) is currently investigating the Ökotárs Foundation, which is responsible for the disbursement of grants provided by the Norwegian Civic Funds. The harassment of this foundation as well as of the NGOs that received grants through it has been going on for months, but the article that appeared in The New York Times came in handy for the Orbán government. In the article several people were cited who criticized this kind of lobbying activity by foreign governments. It was easy to extend this criticism to foreign meddling in Hungary. If the Americans find the activities of Norway harmful from the American point of view, then surely the Hungarian government has every right to investigate what is going on in Hungary with the Norwegian Funds.
Of course, the two cases are quite different. It is one thing to fund so-called independent think tanks in order to influence lawmakers and opinion makers and quite another to fund NGOs whose spending on specified activities is carefully monitored. But, from the Orbán government’s point of view, the latter is undoubtedly more dangerous than the former.
This morning around 9 o’clock a dozen or so policemen attached to the Nemzeti Nyomozó Iroda (NNI/National Office of Investigation) appeared at the headquarters of the foundation. They sealed the office, told employees they could not use their cell phones, packed up all the documents they could find, and by 6 p.m. led the director of the foundation straight to police headquarters. I assume that the appearance of the article in Magyar Nemzet and this morning’s raid on the Ökotárs Foundation are linked. Of course, the harassment of Ökotárs is not new. It has been going on for months. Over the last few weeks charges leveled against them have been varied. First it was preferential treatment given to certain groups that are close to LMP; later the complaint was that certain civic groups that don’t represent liberal, anti-government sentiments are being discriminated against. The latest accusation is that Ökotárs has been engaged in illegal banking activities.
What are these alleged illegal banking activities? This latest charge involves a common practice of organizations that disburse subsidies or grants. It often happens that an NGO’s application is approved but that it takes a few months before they actually receive the money. These organizations are on a shoestring budget, and a couple of months of delay may mean that they cannot pay their employees. It is customary to give them a bridge loan. This is, for example, what both the Hungarian government and municipalities do when there is a delay of subsidies from Brussels. And this is what Ökotárs did in the past few years when some of the grants did not arrive on time. They used their own money for these small loans and charged a minimal interest rate. It is perfectly legal. This latest charge is just another pretext to eliminate all independent sources of funds for any civic activity not serving the interests of the government. Earlier this year KEHI was instructed to investigate and could find no evidence of fraud or any other financial crime, but the government is persistent.
Ökotárs was not the only victim. Police occupied the offices of Demokratikus Jogok Fejlesztésért Alapítvány (Demnet/Foundation for the Development of Democratic Rights). Apparently the police “ransacked both headquarters,” according to the Hungarian Free Press. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) condemned today’s police raids against the Hungarian NGOs and criticized the passivity of the European Union. This afternoon they released an English-language statement, the final paragraph of which read:
In July, Prime Minister Orban made a speech in which he said Hungary is aiming to become an illiberal state. The EU Commission declined to comment on his words. Today’s actions prove again that the Orban government is challenging the core values and fundamental principles of the European Union. The HCLU agrees with Vidar Helgesen, the EU minister of Norway, who said, “When the Hungarian government is challenging these values it challenges the EU itself.”
Tonight about 500 people gathered in front of the offices of Ökotárs to protest the government’s latest attack on independent civic organizations.
The Orbán government’s behavior should remind us of the sustained attacks against civil society in Russia and elsewhere, for example, in Azerbaijan, as HCLU pointed out. Putin clamped down on nongovermental organizations during the winter of 2011-2012. Now, after the Ukrainian crisis, he instructed the Federal Security Office to be doubly vigilant when it comes to local groups working for “destructive” purposes. NGOs receiving financial support from abroad already have to register as foreign agents. Surely, Orbán does not want to go that far and be that obvious, but perhaps he can achieve the same goal through ostensibly legal means, like a charge of “fraudulent misuse of funds.”
We should follow this case very carefully, especially since it seems that Viktor Orbán’s latest speech at the Kötcse picnic was even more threatening than his talk in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad. We still know very little about the details of the speech since it was not open to the media, but as a Hungarian journalist friend of mine said, if the report that appeared in Magyar Hírlap is accurate, “this is the program of a dictator.” It is time to wake up!