BUDAPEST — Emboldened by encouraging signals from the Trump administration, populist leaders across Central and Eastern Europe are mounting simultaneous crackdowns on nongovernmental organizations, once protected by Washington, that promote open government, aid refugees and often serve as checks on authoritarian governments.
In Hungary, where the movement has reached a fever pitch, supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Orban are vilifying “foreign-funded” N.G.O.s — especially those succored by George Soros, the liberal American billionaire — and accusing the groups of wanting to flood Europe with Muslim refugees and transform “Christian” nations into multicultural stews of left-wing globalism. Earlier this week, Zoltan Kovacs, Mr. Orban’s chief international spokesman, described the organizations as “foreign agents financed by foreign money.”
Macedonia’s former autocratic prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, has called for a “de-Sorosization” of society, labeling opponents “Soros-oids” and inspiring a “Stop Operation Soros” movement in January. Poland’s governing party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, says Soros-funded groups want “societies without identity,” and backs fresh efforts to regulate them. In Romania, where hundreds of thousands of anticorruption protesters took to the streets in recent weeks, the leader of the governing party charged that Mr. Soros “financed evil” and has vowed to defeat him. Similar efforts have begun or accelerated in Serbia, Slovakia and Bulgaria since Mr. Trump’s victory.
“These organizations must be pushed back with all available tools,” Szilard Nemeth, vice chairman of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party, told journalists. “I think they must be swept out, and now I believe the international conditions are right for this with the election of a new president.”
For more than a half-century, as Europe first struggled from the ashes of World War II and then shrugged off its Soviet shackles, American-backed nongovernmental organizations have been active across Europe, often called upon to explain the West’s style of democratic capitalism to people who have known neither. Their presence often annoyed the Continent’s more authoritarian-minded leaders, who regard many of the groups to be irritants at best, and threats at worst.
Traditionally, United States administrations of both parties have promoted the spread of democracy and stubbornly defended these advocacy groups. But Mr. Trump has said he will not press America’s political system on other countries and has embraced some of Europe’s far-right leaders. He also has criticized the European Union and made disparaging remarks about some democratic principles — including his frequent criticism of the news media.
For populist leaders like Mr. Orban, who has steadily steered Hungary toward so-called illiberal democracy, this new tone from the White House is regarded as a major opportunity.
“They see it as a historical moment,” said Jozsef Peter Martin, executive director of Transparency International’s Hungary branch. “The geopolitical situation has changed.”
For years, populist and authoritarian governments have been targeting “foreign-funded” organizations in many parts of the world, from China to India, and especially in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia. Similar talk was common in Central and Eastern Europe, but now governments in Hungary and elsewhere are pushing beyond political speeches to propose legislation.
“Orban has talked about the Trump era being a new international opportunity for Hungary,” said Marta Pardavi, co-founder of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which gets about 30 percent of its funding from Soros-backed foundations. “He said it was a gift to us.”
Gergely Gulyas, a vice president of Hungary’s governing party, agreed that Mr. Trump’s victory had created a geopolitical climate more attractive to Hungary’s current leaders, but he cautioned against seeing that as the decisive reason for the crackdown.
“I think we would have done this even if Hillary Clinton had won,” he said.
He and other supporters of the Hungarian government say the outcry by civil society is a vast overreaction to what is simply a common-sense attempt to force the organizations to be more “transparent” — effectively turning the language of the advocacy groups against them.
In Hungary, governing party officials first began criticizing foreign-funded N.G.O.s in 2013. The following year, state investigators targeted organizations that received money from the Norway Grants, which the Scandinavian nation uses to promote social and economic equality in the formerly communist East. Agents raided the Budapest offices of three organizations and demanded documentation from dozens of others. But the investigators’ final report, released last fall, found no serious infringements of Hungarian law, and no charges were leveled.
But shortly after Mr. Trump’s election, Fidesz leaders immediately renewed their attacks on “foreign-funded” N.G.O.s, as the new villains were groups sponsored by Mr. Soros, while also proposing new legislative restrictions. Fidesz officials have not unveiled their proposals but say they intend to create a registry of such organizations and force them to disclose their financial details. Some officials have proposed forcing local N.G.O. leaders to disclose their personal finances.
“It is only about transparency,” Mr. Gulyas said. “This is a debate that is taking place around the world. An important debate about the future of democracy.”
But advocacy groups say it is more about harassment and intimidation. Stefania Kapronczay, executive director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which gets over half its funding from Soros-backed organizations, said Hungarian officials were “testing the waters” to see “what they can get away with.” New restrictions would have a “chilling effect,” she said.
“Some small N.G.O.s just quit,” she said. “The willingness of people to cooperate with us decreases.”
Born in Budapest in 1930, Mr. Soros and his Jewish family survived the Nazi occupation with false identity papers. He eventually became a Wall Street financier and ultimately made billions through his own hedge fund, Soros Fund Management. He established the Open Society Foundations as an umbrella group for his philanthropy and has given more than $12 billion to date. His philanthropic work promotes democracy, government accountability and freedom of expression — and, he has said, is driven by his memories of life under the Nazis.
“You couldn’t come up with a better enemy figure today,” said Jan Orlovsky, director of the Slovak branch of the Open Society Foundations. “George Soros brings up all of the stereotypes we have lived with all our lives — about Jews, bankers and, in Slovakia, also about Hungarians.”
Chris Stone, the president of the Open Society Foundations, described the governmental crackdowns as “a campaign by government leaders who are impatient with the institutions of democracy.”
Macedonia, struggling to form a new government in the debris of a two-year political crisis, has taken perhaps the most forceful anti-Soros stance. The Stop Operation Soros campaign pushes the idea that international pressure — from N.G.O.s and Western governments — forced the recent fall of the right-wing government of Mr. Gruevski, who hopes to return to power.
“We believe that, in these murky times, it is really important to take away the mask of the so-called civic organizations and to clearly reveal their political goals and actions, as well as their financing,” said Nenad Mirchevski, a founder of the movement.
In Poland, against a flare-up of anti-Soros statements, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said her government intended to create a new body to coordinate state funding for all nongovernmental organizations. In Slovakia, a far-right-wing party proposed forcing “foreign-funded” N.G.O.s to register with the government. That effort did not succeed, but that did little to slow the tide of anti-Soros speech.
“Demonic forces of evil, represented by Soros, the Clintons, the Bush family and others, have not come to terms with losing the election, so they keep attacking Trump and want to get rid of him,” said a recent article in Hlavne Spravy, a right-wing Slovak daily.
From the moment Romania’s nominally socialist party was returned to power in December, its populist leader, Liviu Dragnea, has pressed for more control over N.G.O.s. “I have something against Mr. Soros,” Mr. Dragnea said in a late January interview. In Bulgaria, both Mr. Soros and organizations that defend human rights have come under attack. A local newspaper, shortly after Mr. Trump’s victory, described Mr. Soros as a “liberal terrorist.” In Serbia, local right-wing and pro-Russian publications have linked Mr. Soros to the Rothschilds, highlighted his Jewishness and described his efforts as an “anti-Trump radical movement.”
“And we are only at the start of the story,” said Laszlo Majtenyi, director of the Eotvos Karoly Institute in Budapest, a Soros-founded organization, and a left-wing coalition candidate for president in April. Once the government has stigmatized the groups as “foreign-funded,” he said, future crackdowns will be easier.
And there is always the chance that authoritarian governments will feel emboldened enough to simply toss out the offending organizations.
“This is where European democratic values will be defended,” said Goran Buldioski, director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe. “In Hungary and Poland, not in Western Europe. Democracy is more than just the ballot box, and it is more than something that happens every four years.”
Source: The New York Times
By: Rick Lyman
1 March 2017