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With EU and U.S. Distracted, Central and Eastern European Countries Crack Down on Civil Society

Hungarian NGOs could soon be forced to make additional reports on their foreign funding.

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Across Central and Eastern Europe -- in Macedonia, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, and Hungary -- governments and political forces are cracking down on nonprofit organizations, and particularly against those groups and movements seen as tied to Hungarian billionaire George Soros.

Many of these places have long struggled with civil society and free discourse. And the high-profile, vocal Soros has long been viewed in Hungary not just as a political opponent, but, per Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, “as an enemy.”

But now there are efforts afoot to pass laws aimed at undermining NGOs, particularly ones with foreign ties.

Across Central and Eastern Europe — in Macedonia, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, and Hungary — governments and political forces are cracking down on nonprofit organizations, and particularly against those groups and movements seen as tied to Hungarian billionaire George Soros.

Many of these places have long struggled with civil society and free discourse. And the high-profile, vocal Soros has long been viewed in Hungary not just as a political opponent, but, per Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, “as an enemy.”

But now there are efforts afoot to pass laws aimed at undermining NGOs, particularly ones with foreign ties.

In Hungary, the government threatened to produce a piece of legislation this week that would require “foreign-funded NGOs” to register what funding they receive from foreign sources. Since Hungarian NGOs already report on their funding, and since government officials have said NGOs lack “democratic legitimacy,” the legislation was widely seen in the NGO community as a way to crack down on civil society.

The legislation has been tabled, for now. While the government is holding its cards close to the vest, many expect them to hold a “national consultation” — a referendum on the matter, like the kind they held last fall to close the borders to refugees (it passed, but was invalid due to low voter turnout).

To a certain extent, this, too, could perhaps be seen as a natural continuation of previous measures. “It’s kind of been brewing for a time,” said Richard Youngs of Carnegie Europe told Foreign Policy. Goran Buldioski, director of Soros’s Open Society Initiative for Europe, agreed, and said the attack on civil society — and organizations funded in part by Soros — is “not unprecedented.”

But Youngs also noted that previous measures have been more intermittent and informal. “Several countries in the region, they’ve been using let’s say surreptitious measures, particularly with anything to do with Soros people … Now basically it’s a question of formalizing or making it more explicit,” he said.

This raises the question: why now? The answer may be found not in Central or Eastern Europe, but in Brussels and Washington.

Perhaps the perpetual anxiety of Central and Eastern Europe — the “constant feeling that the region is on the edge of backsliding, because it’s never fully institutionalized good quality democracy” — is coupling with the so-called global illiberal revolution and backlash against liberal elites that is playing out across Europe.  “The more we talk about” global illiberalism, “the more it becomes counterproductive,” Youngs said. “Regimes feel empowered. They’re doing what everyone’s doing, and they’re getting away with it.”

Another reason they’re getting away with it: those normally charged with making sure they’re not are otherwise occupied. “The election of Donald Trump as a president has provided a new opportunity to be seized,” Parvadi said. There is now an expectation that there will be less U.S. attention on what other countries are doing to protect human rights, she said.

And while the European Parliament is looking at the issue of how to deal with, as Youngs put it, the EU’s “club of illiberals,” those countries “argue that for years and years the old member states have not allowed room on the EU agenda for values and social concerns prominent in Eastern Europe.” In other words, they claim their illiberal actions are in part the EU’s fault.

The EU also has its eye off the ball. It’s really hard to see what the European Union could do, or will do, when it’s really debating its very existence,” said Stefania Kapronczay of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups the Hungarian government has said should be “swept out” of the country.

It is, of course, possible that Hungary won’t have the national consultation, or that it, too, will produce insufficient voter turnout to be valid. It’s possible that Macedonia’s “de-Soros-isation” campaign will come to naught, and that claims that anti-corruption protests in Romania were paid for by Soros won’t stifle efforts to weed out corruption.

But it’s also possible that harm has already been done. Government agencies that work with human rights organizations and media owned by those close to Hungary’s ruling party have already received the message that NGOs are not to be considered Hungarian.

The irony there, said Pardavi, is that, in a Hungary “without these NGOs, the voices and concerns of these groups in society wouldn’t be heard at all.” While the United States is under Trump and the EU grapples with its existential crises, “It’s ultimately Hungarian society who would suffer.”

Photo credit: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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