The Hungarian government turns up the heat on the NGOs

Yesterday I wrote about Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy, which does not endear him to Washington. Another sore point is the Hungarian treatment of certain NGOs and the attacks of late on independent organizations that receive money from the Norwegian Civic Fund. Barack Obama specifically mentioned the importance of NGOs as watchdogs over rogue states like Hungary. One would think that Viktor Orbán might try to mend fences with the U.S. by retreating a bit on this issue and not pursuing the controversial attacks on the Ökotárs Foundation, the distributor of the Norwegian Civic Funds. But no, these attacks have shifted into even higher gear.

In May the government ordered KEHI (Kormányzati Ellenőrző Hivatal = State Audit) to investigate the case. The Norwegians consider the investigation illegal because in their opinion the money Ökotárs distributed among several NGOs was not part of the Hungarian budget. The money never entered the Hungarian treasury in any way. The funds came straight from an office entrusted with the task located in Brussels.

If the Hungarian government had wanted to remove at least this particular sore point from the agenda, they could have quietly dropped the case and simply forgotten about the report KEHI prepared. Or they could have come out with a very mild reprimand for some lax practices. But Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be Viktor Orbán if he had chosen that path. Instead, yesterday KEHI released its 40-page report in which it accused Ökotárs of mismanagement, fraud, forgery of private documents, and unauthorized financial activities.

As usual, Magyar Nemzet was the first publication to write about the report. Their initial article indicated that the KEHI document is already in the hands of János Lázár. From that point on Magyar Nemzet kept publishing shocking reports about the frivolous items these NGOs spent their money on. The one that caused the greatest uproar was the purchase of tampons. It turned out that the Kékpont Foundation was guilty of this particular crime. The foundation, which deals with drug addicts, gave “motivational” hygienic packages to the addicts, and the tampons were in packages distributed to the women. All these stories came out in Magyar Nemzet before the report was made available to the Ökotárs Foundation.

Yesterday at last the document itself appeared on KEHI’s website. Okotárs over the years distributed 500 million forints and KEHI found something wrong with 200 million worth of the grants. Actually, the questionable items amounted to only 10 million (about $41,000). Yet Lázár is outraged and wants to renegotiate the contract with the Norwegian government. He promptly invited the “appropriate Norwegian minister” to Hungary for a friendly chat. Then, perhaps realizing the absurdity of his suggestion, he added that after all he would be ready to meet the Norwegian politician in Brussels.

Norwegian flag

What will Lázár tell the “appropriate Norwegian minister”? Norway should break the contract with the Ökotárs Foundation since it is not worthy of Norway’s trust. The funds should be distributed by “state or private organizations.” The English translation of the report will be sent to the Norwegian ambassador in Budapest as well as to the European Commission.

But not all accusations are in the KEHI report. Népszabadság reported that investigators at KEHI complained about Veronika Móra’s frequent meetings with American diplomats as well as her visits to the Norwegian embassy. These kinds of contacts are suspect in the eyes of the regime, as we know from Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” speech in Romania.

Meanwhile Magyar Nemzet kept attacking both the Norwegian government and Ökotárs. Yesterday morning an article appeared in the paper which claimed, on the basis of information coming from KEHI, that Ökotárs passed on important documents for safekeeping to the Norwegian embassy. And that is not all. Officials at the embassy postdated certain documents. While KEHI investigators were at it, they decided to accuse the Financial Mechanism Office (FMO) that handles the Norwegian funds in Brussels of complicity because its official suggested to Ökotárs that it move all its documents out of Hungary.

Late last night journalists from more independent media outlets began looking at the findings of KEHI. András Földes of Index observed that only in history books could one find examples of such accusations that used to lay the groundwork for show trials in the Rákosi period. And, he added, “the officials are actually proud of it.” The proof presented to the journalists did not convince them, but they surmised that the officials of KEHI simply did what was expected of them by the Hungarian government. The results were preordained. Without going into the details, the KEHI officials, by pasting together parts of different sentences, actually falsified the intended meaning of Ökotárs’s CEO. The reporter for Index cites several dubious practices of KEHI that call into question the validity of the charges.

In light of the above it is no surprise that Veronika Móra, CEO of Ökotárs, said to MTI today that it is impossible to respond to “accusations that are not supported by facts.” If the KEHI officials found irregularities, they should have described them precisely, but in the document one finds only generalizations. It is full of phrases like: “it also happened,” “there was also such a case.” Ökotárs is ready to go to court and hopes for a favorable verdict.

As for the Norwegian response to the publication of the KEHI report, according to a brief English-language article on the Norwegian internet site, The Local, the Norwegian government already considered the KEHI probe illegal and it is unlikely that after this most likely fraudulent report they will change their minds. It is worth quoting some passages from this article:

Hungary’s squeeze on foreign-funded NGOs has been criticized by Norway and the United States…. US President Barack Obama last month included Hungary in a list of countries where “endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.”…  Relations between the US and Hungary sank further last week when Washington issued entry bans to six unnamed Hungarian government officials it suspected of corruption. The US charge d’affaires in Budapest, Andre Goodfriend, told AFP on Tuesday that “intimidation of civil society” as well as “centralisation of authority, lack of transparency, and corruption” could prevent the US continuing as an ally of Hungary.

Norway was tough all along but now it must feel even more hardened since the United States is supporting its stance on this matter.

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83 comments

  1. The idea of pedestrians walking into the US embassy and revealing Hungarian national secrets is ridiculous. A national secret is hardly born in Hungary before it is registered in the computers in Washington and Orbán has bragged about it.

  2. KN, you guys just won’t stop, will you? Are you getting a little nervous or what?

    Do you think all foreign people reading this blog are so stupid as your average CÖF activist?

    Even the idea of investigating NGOs spending Western aid money (not Hungarian taxpayer’s money) is so harebrained that no sane Western European person (unless you pay them directly like that mysterious German friend Orban likes to visit) would believe you. Even your few western “friends” only pretend to like you (but only keep the contacts with you because of personal interests). Normally they would just be flabbergasted what this bullshit is all about??

    Investigating NGOs is something only dictatorships do, in fact it is one of the sine qua non of a real dictatorship. It smells like “Dictatorship” or “Police state” from a thousand miles even to a pre-schooler.

    Without denouncing foreign “agents” (and supplying ample “evidence” in an “official “report”) a country isn’t qualified. Now that you presented this bogus “report” with all the important official must-head and stamps, you have qualified. Well-done. Mission accomplished. You can be proud of your work and career so far, you’re a successful man.

    http://444.hu/2014/10/24/olyan-szinten-erti-felre-a-vilagot-a-magyar-kulugy-hogy-nyugati-diplomatak-elott-pavaznak-a-civilek-elleni-jelentes-angol-valtozataval/

  3. Hungary has three global scandals going on this week: The South Stream, the NGO thing and the internet tax. It seems like the NGO report might be just to distract folks from the internet tax, which is really an international scandal. If Hungary starts doing this, then other countries will.

    Also, I hear that there are two anti-tax Facebook groups in Hungary. A friend says that one is actually government supported. Does anyone know about this? Can anyone give me the link to the groups? Are there any English FB groups?

  4. @gardonista:

    This will be a great test of Evgeny Morozov’s theories about the internet. Instead of being a tool for liberation, dictatorships like Russia perfected the art of controlling the internet through paid trolls, hacking, spreading lies and causing controversies, setting up bogus home pages and the like. What they have done on facebook is symptomatic. I think the Russians reminded their Hungarian colleagues that they’ve gotten behind on this domain and now they are catching up. The government sponsored anti-internet tax demonstration is a classic Okhrana style action. The anger has to be divided, the activists confused and then at least in the state-sponsored “demonstration” also controlled. In addition, people will be very reluctant to join opposition events and organizations for fear of being part of a government sponsored trickery. This is getting crazier by the day and also out of hand, I fear.

  5. Yanko

    “Even the idea of investigating NGOs … is so harebrained that no sane Western European person would believe it.”

    Yes even the IDEA of investigating NGOs having corrupt practices, embezzling money, forging documents (sometimes with the involvement of the Norwegian embassy), stealing, destroying damning evidence MUST be really offensive to Western Europeans. Even before they know anything about the case they will surely condemn the IDEA of investigations into corruption, embezzlement and document forging.

    Hands off the embezzlers and the document forgers!

  6. wolfi stop trolling and start reading. Yanko said that the “idea of investigation is by itself harebraned”.

    He thinks foreigners will not care no matter how many crimes were committed. He thinks even if there was massive embezzlement, stealing, document forging or any other crime, it will not matter anything in the end because foreigners do not care about these crimes.

    They only care about rejecting the “idea of investigation”. This is his view, read it.

  7. KN:”Yes even the IDEA of investigating NGOs having corrupt practices, embezzling money, forging documents (sometimes with the involvement of the Norwegian embassy), stealing, destroying damning evidence MUST be really offensive to Western Europeans.”

    In a civilized country if the above mentioned crimes occur, the plaintiff is that who was affected by them, in this case that would be the Norwegian government, it was their money that was involved, not Orban’s (and I think this is where the Fidesz’s problem is). Why exactly is the government investigating Okotars? Who was damaged? It seems that the Norwegian government is happy with Okotars, so what’s the problem?

  8. KN, you don’t get it.

    Since every dictatorship is different but they are all alike in their efforts to frame NGOs for being “agents” and “criminals” and what not, even if, EVEN IF what you concocted in this “report” was true, nobody would believe you.

    Even the idea from a government to circulate a translated “report” (ie. fiction) about an NGO (especially if that NGO spends foreign money,not even the money of the taxpayers over which said government rules) is so weird and reeks of craziness that normal western people just wouldn’t know how to react, ok?

    They are unsettled and immediately feel some vague gut feeling of strangeness because this is something North Korea, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe and the like do and not an EU member state.

    You are only making a fool out of yourselves and out of Hungarians. That’s what you do.

    It’s a bit similar to when Hungarian plain cloth policemen or spooks are surprised that they were spotted. Because you act your part and you can’t do otherwise.

  9. @a. krüger: I think you are wrong when you assume this is a republican vs. democrat issue in the US. In foreign policy there is generally agreement between the two parties, however, at this point the republicans have a much more aggressive stand in the Ukrainian issue, against Russia. If there is a next republican president, I doubt that Putin will be able to fool him by looking him in the eye.

    As far as money is concerned, politicians from all parties are equally looking for contributions, unfortunately once they are in office, most of their energy is spent to raise money for the next election. It would be nice to see this change, I am not holding my breath. By the way, I think it is illegal to accept money from foreign governments or their representatives.

  10. Commenters from 444.hu. Some points there, I guess.

    Rough translation:

    “I’m beginning to understand why they fu***d us over at Trianon. Hungary had a similarly slimy two-faced vermin of a government back then like now. It’s better that not this government was reigning then though because they only would have left Pest for us for throwing so much shit in each others face.”

    Answer: “Some more time and it will become a reality that the people living in those parts cut off of Hungary actually had the better deal by not remaining part of Hungary. They suffered for it, but they will catch up. At least they will be EU citizens.”

    Tibor Kiss SheldonCooper • 5 órája

    Kezdem érteni, miért basztak úgy ki velünk a Trianoni békeszerződés alkalmával. Ilyen kétszínű, otromba féreg kormánya volt akkor is kis hazánknak, mint most. Még jó, hogy nem akkor regnáltak ezek, mert csak Pestet hagyták volna meg nekünk, ezért a sok szardobálásért.

    Avatár
    darázsfészek Tibor Kiss • 5 órája

    Még egy kis idő, és lassan valósággá válik, hogy az elszakított részek jobban jártak azzal, hogy nem Magyarországhoz tartoznak. Megszenvedtek érte, de beérik. Legalább EU-s állampolgárok lesznek

  11. Some people have the opinion that Corruption, embezzlement, forgery and other crimes do not matter if the criminal involved worked for any NGO. It is exactly as if the crime did not happen.

    They are above the law?

    ” Why exactly is the government investigating Okotars? Who was damaged?”

    This is a different question, because when the investigation started there was no proof yet of Okotars forgery, embezzlement and other crimes.

    The investigation started because hundreds of NGOs who submitted tenders to receive some of this money intended for all Hungarian NGOs encountered the corrupt practices at Okotars in the distribution of money too. Introducing a point system and then giving money to someone with low points and not giving to others with high points. Denying funding with various made up reasons so they could distribute money to their friends (not to mention the part of the money, they stole outright).

    So the investigation started because hundreds of Hungarian NGOs reported the corrupt practices of Okotars in how it distributed the money intended for all Hungarian NGOs.

    “Who was damaged?”

    The NGOs who submitted better projects, had more membership, had more impact and were denied funding for their work because of corrupt practices at Okotars.

    “Who benefited?”

    The friends of Okotars in the NGO sector who received most of the money while 90% of applicants were denied. And Okotars itself by embezzling 5-10% of the money it was entrusted with.

  12. Meanwhile Andre Goodfriend lifted part of the travel ban today. He said:

    “The people involved may continue to travel to the United States, provided they have official business. They are only denied entry if the goal of their travel is private travel.”

    Anyone know anything about this? And on why he said it?

  13. @question

    Dude, if you still think after Georg’s above comment that it’s worth trolling here you are apparently hopeless.

  14. The NGOs are not important by themselves, but today’s post by Eva Balogh revealed something important in the US-Hungary relations:

    “One would think that Viktor Orbán might try to mend fences with the U.S. by retreating a bit on this issue and not pursuing the controversial attacks on the Ökotárs Foundation, the distributor of the Norwegian Civic Funds.

    In May the government ordered KEHI (Kormányzati Ellenőrző Hivatal = State Audit) to investigate the case.

    If the Hungarian government had wanted to remove at least this particular sore point from the agenda, they could have quietly dropped the case and simply forgotten about the report KEHI prepared. Or they could have come out with a very mild reprimand for some lax practices. But Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be Viktor Orbán if he had chosen that path. Instead, yesterday KEHI released its 40-page report in which it accused Ökotárs of mismanagement, fraud, forgery of private documents, and unauthorized financial activities.”

    It is known that Eva Balogh is a very good observer of US politics, and the various moves in play. She writes that “dropping the investigation started in May” would be something to “mend fences” with the United States. This means that the US would view such a step positively and maybe do certain things to try to avoid this goal. Namely stopping the investigation into Okotars and related NGOs.

    This suggests that putting pressure on Hungary shortly before this investigative report was to be released was done on purpose. In order to protect the NGOs involved from subsequent police investigations stemming from the findings of the report. If so, then we can safely say that based on the summary of the situation by Balogh that this plan backfired in a bad way.

  15. Hungarians are dumbs stinky ass people not even the goulash is good. Hungarians only know to hate Jews and whitewash the murder of one million Hungarian citizens Jews during WW2. Let Hungary Suffer For Ever.

  16. @Klark – Goodfried was referring to people travelling as members of official Hungarian delegations. He was just confirming the fact that normal diplomatic procedure will not be broken and that the Hungarian government has the right to delegate anybody it likes to an official trip to the US (incl. the UN, naturally), and the US will simply accept such people as official representatives of Hungary. What he was also saying, however, is very interesting – “the fact that someone is sent to the US by the Hungarian government on an official mission does not mean he’s not on the list.” Everyone can draw their own conclusions from that. It’s even possible to imagine that this government will make someone on that list Ambassador to the US.

  17. N.B. The “quote” above is not a quote from Goodfried. It’s my reading of the meaning of his comments.

  18. @Robert,

    What does it mean to backfire? That you produced a bogus report full of lies?

    A government which starts a bogus and completely unwarranted, frivolous, baseless legal procedure can stop such procedure at any time.

    If it was a smart government, once it stupidly started it and thus made a mistake, upon realizing it was stupid could’ve stopped and correct such error. If not immediately then later when talking to the Americans, at least as a sign of goodwill.

    Now such Hungarian government is a butt of jokes and nobody (I guess outside the Russian advisors who reassure you that you are great) think it is acting smartly. It is acting as a delusional person.

    The Wily Coyote cartoon comes to mind.The coyote was kicked out over the cliff but he needed a couple of seconds to realize that there was no firm footing below him. Only when he realized that he is in the air (we saw it all along), did he start falling. However, at that point, the fall was inevitable and couldn’t be stopped. I do believe that you are over the cliff, only you don’t yet realize it. When will you fall? I dunno. But I think it’s bound to happen.

    Escalation seems only logical because you are still confident that with Russian help and assistance you can keep your power for ever.

    Remember we talk about your ally and “great friend” (to refer to your boss Janos Lazar), while the Russians have been an occupying force for some 50 years, and a crushers of two wars of independence. You are trying to score points against your ally, why is this a smart move, I can’t get.

  19. @Robert “It is known that Eva Balogh is a very good observer of US politics.”

    Right… while I agree with you that Eva is very insightful, she does not have that kind of special insight you are implying.

    What she writes about how Orban could have patched things up with the American government is plain common sense… there is no need for special insights into American politics. The charges against Okotars are trumped up, so it would have been fairly easy for the government to close the investigation.
    Instead, Orban chose to press ahead with the issue, and one can easily guess that it won’t help the already strained US-Hungarian relationships.

  20. Unbelievable:

    “Siklósi hatte 2004 ihren Arbeitsplatz als Fernsehjournalistin in Ungarn verloren, weil sie den britischen Holocaust-Leugner David Irving in ihr Programm eingeladen hatte.”

    Btw, Die WELT is Germany’s leading conservative (almost right wing – I don’t usually read it …) newspaper! You might say it stands for the CDU, German part of EPP – where Fidesz is a member. Ho long will that last?

  21. Robert I agree that Eva is extremely insightful about US/Hungarian relations. I am not sure the US State Department believed its pressure on Hungary relating to the HEHI investigations would lead to the report being put aside, that certainly would have been a nice outcome. There is no reason to believe that the US government in anyway wanted to protect a corrupt NGO, but there is every reason to believe that the US government supports the civil societal goals of these NGOs. A more democratic Hungary is far less likely to become an ally of Putin that’s for sure.

    But did the pressure cause the Orban regime to act even more aggressively towards Ökotárs than it would have had the State Department not openly pressured Hungary about its attacks on NGOs, I would answer to that question with a no.

    Fidesz/Jobbik are on a pathway to the Eurasian union and out of NATO in my opinion. But there is a lot of money involved, not just the EU cohesion funds, social funds, but also the economic relationship with Germany relating to low wage production, so no clean breaks should be anticipated. There is no question that there are investments by US investors at risk in Hungary that temper an aggressive foreign policy that effectively pushes Hungary under Fidesz/Jobbik rule out of the western camp. The situation is deteriorating amazingly fast.

    Just like with Russia I suspect some in the US government hope for a revolt by a significant part of the more wealthy Hungarians tied into the Fidesz project. I think that might be a misreading of the situation. Bálint Magyar’s analysis I think is a deeper one than my own State Department has and it raises real questions at to whether the existing wealthy of Hungary are so linked to the Mafia state that they can’t break with it. When President Clinton referenced Orban he spoke as if he was an isolated dictator that needed to be dealt with, not part of a governing process that corrupts many, down to the village level. Hopefully President Clinton has a deeper analysis that was not reflected in his short comments and so does Sec Kerry.

  22. question: ” ….when the investigation started there was no proof yet of Okotars forgery, embezzlement and other crimes.”

    So far there are only accusations, no proof. Innocence should be assumed until guilt is proven.

    question: “The investigation started because hundreds of NGOs who submitted tenders to receive some of this money intended for all Hungarian NGOs encountered the corrupt practices at Okotars in the distribution of money too.”

    Many parties are claiming to be NGOs. Only those who are harrassed by the government are undoubtedly bona fide NGOs.

  23. Mandiner.hu the most important, influential blog of the young fidesznik generation published an article mildly criticizing the fact that it was on the anniversary of 1956 that some fidesznik politicians compared Brussels to Moscow (which bloodily crushed this very revolution). To see on which side the readers, the young fideszniks are it’s an interesting tidbit that the post is currently “liked” by 34 people and disliked by 161. (These may be small numbers but this is not the facebook “like”, and the article has been ready by thousands.) Five times as many people disagree with the straightforward arguments why Brussels cannot be compared to Moscow. Most kids think Moscow is better than Brussles, this is no joke or sarcasm.

    Moscow is well-liked and the EU is disliked by many people. Unfortunately the EU tolerated being the most hated enemy in Hungarian politics for way too long, now maybe it’s too late.

    http://mandiner.hu/cikk/20141024_balogh_akos_gergely_brusszel_ostoba_moszkvazasa_ilyen_orszag_pedig_nincs_cdv

  24. @KN

    You can spin this whichever way you want it. You can make the Okotars run the gauntlet …

    I can tell you one thing: nobody ever will tell the Norwegians how should they use their OWN money.

    Suck it up.

  25. Every commenter here assuming the legitimacy of the government investigation into Okotars, is a troll. Hungarians know well that the investigation is a farce; and how their government behaves.

    Let’s face it: we’ve been infested here.
    The good news is that some Hungarian (or Russian) politico is irked enough to take these measures.

    Anyone with any Hungarian experience knows that the most valued jobs are with foreign companies. No Hungarian employee would hazard that privilege. What’s more, the foreign employers are diligent as to the character of the people they hire. The smear job is nasty
    KGB-ism: standard fare in how they attack their perceived enemies.

  26. The government attempt to control in-coming funds is nothing more than trying to deprive legitimate ngos of their money…and hence, eradicate them. (KGB, 2+2=3 project…)

  27. Yes Marcel I read the statement about church related NGOs not getting a cut of the funds in the Hungarian version of the report. They tried to make it look like real auditing by giving the total number grants approved and not one to the churches. There was no analysis whether or not the submissions by church based NGOs even met the basic criteria for the grants in their submissions. Really very sad.

    I am assuming Eva will post something about the Goodfriend press conference and Orban’s new comments on the need for the Americans to give the Hungarian government the information on who tried to shake down the American firms so they can consider going after these evil doers.

  28. @Istvan

    “….on the need for the Americans to give the Hungarian government the information on who tried to shake down the American firms…”

    Standard mea-non-culpa nonsense.

    The way I heard it, a Fidesz politico approaches the intended target-CEO and asks for a $10 million ‘donation’ to a particular organization. If the CEO balks, the next person to visit is the
    great O, himself…

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