Hungarian Nonprofits Voice Concerns of Governmental Harassment

Nongovernmental organizations in Eastern Europe have become the focus of government actions that are raising troubling questions about the future of democracy in the region, the Washington Post reports.

In Budapest, the head of an NGO that distributes millions of euros to watchdog groups arrived at her office to find two dozen police officers prepared to comb through her files and download data on organizations that had been critical of the Hungarian government. Although the government described the action as part of its efforts to monitor the groups and hold them accountable for mismanagement and financial irregularities, NGO leaders in the country viewed it as harassment. Indeed, Hungarian officials have singled out at least seven NGOs for special tax investigations and have conducted audits on dozens more, including many that had been producing critical reports on everything from corruption to abuses of human rights in the country.

According to the Post, the crackdown mirrors similar efforts in Russia, which for several years has been at odds with NGOs whose goals do not align with the Kremlin's priorities. "What we are seeing is another attempt to dismantle the system of checks and balances in Hungary," said Veronika Mora, CEO of the Ökotárs Foundation, a Hungarian group that works to promote environmental improvement and awareness among civil society and the general public.

The campaign against Hungarian NGOs began in April 2014 after Janos Lazar, a top lieutenant of three-term prime minister Viktor Orban, criticized a cluster of NGOs that received special funding from Norway. Many of the NGOs, including Transparency International — one of the targeted NGOs — had issued reports critical of government moves to shrink the size of parliament, gerrymander districts, and violate campaign finance laws. In June, government authorities began auditing the NGOs, including the Ökotárs Foundation. The organization is now fighting a move by the government to revoke its tax identification number — an action that would seriously limit its ability to continue operating in Hungary.

"The role of an NGO is to promote fairness and help speak for those who have no voice," said David Vig, an official with the Rainbow Mission Foundation, which sponsors Budapest's Gay Pride event. "We are the easiest target. Voters here will simply see them as promoting traditional values."

Anthony Faiola. "Hungary Taking Aim at NGOs and, Critics Say, Democracy." Washington Post 02/22/2015.