Populist, nationalist politicians in Central and Eastern Europe are launching attacks on civil society; the aim is to silence criticism and undermine pro-democracy, anti-corruption groups that hold governments to account.
Civil society is under attack in various parts of Central and Eastern Europe. The weapons are rhetorical and sometimes regulatory; the aim is to undermine and impede the operational capacity of human rights organisations and pro-democracy groups. The early skirmishes are taking place in countries where populist, often nationalistic, politics have a strong foothold.
The assault is being led by governments, elected officials and their supporters. They are targeting civil society organisations (CSOs) that receive funding from foreign sources. In some cases they are singling out those that receive money from Open Society Foundations (OSF), whose founder and chairman is George Soros, an individual whose philanthropy focuses on promoting democratic ideals and causes. CSOs that receive foreign funding are being stigmatised as ‘foreign agents’ working against the national interest; this process of deliberate de-legitimisation is potentially laying the groundwork for future crackdowns.
Editor’s Note: IFEX is a grantee of Open Society Foundations.
In December 2016, Viktor Orbán – Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of the right wing, anti-immigrant, populist Fidesz Party – gave an interview to an online publication in which he warned that CSOs would be targeted in the coming year. “Where the money came from,” he said, “which secret services they were connected to, and which [CSOs] serve which interests, all will be uncovered.” Orbán claimed that these CSOs wanted to bring hundreds of thousands of immigrants into Europe.
Fidesz’s deputy leader, Szilard Németh, was even more forthright than Orbán, criticising George Soros specifically. He said: “The Soros Empire’s pseudo-civil organisations are funded to push global big business and the world of political correctness by going over the head of national governments. These organisations must be driven back by all possible means.” Németh also said that IFEX member the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Helsinki Committee and the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International should be “swept out” of the country. Even more worrying were statements by government spokesmen describing CSOs as a ‘security risk’ or as having ‘co-operated’ with terrorists.
These verbal attacks are not limited to the Fidesz Party. An MP for the Christian Democratic People’s Party recently accused CSOs of serving political aims and called for them to be strictly regulated. Preliminary steps have been taken to do just that.
In December 2016, the legislative agenda submitted to the Hungarian Parliament by the Deputy Prime Minister outlined a future amendment to the law which, if passed, would force all CSO leaders to register their assets (as an anti-corruption measure). This was followed by an announcement in February 2017 that the Fidesz parliamentary group would introduce a ‘transparency’ Bill targeting CSOs; the ostensible aim of this draft law would be to ensure that Hungarian citizens “know if these organisations want to exert influence in Hungary by using foreign funding.” Non-compliance on the part of a CSO would result in its tax number being revoked, meaning that it would no longer be able to operate in Hungary.
The HCLU, which has been repeatedly targeted in politicians’ public statements, issued a defiant response in February 2017:
“The government wants to create new obstacles to hinder the work of organizations that are critical of its activities. Under the pretext of transparency, the government in fact questions the legitimacy of critical organizations…. We work for all Hungarian citizens needing support against breaches [of rights] and neglect committed by the government. HCLU protects the rights of those, for instance, speaking up against the deteriorating conditions of health care, or whose disabled children fail to receive adequate education. We do things the Hungarian government should be dealing with instead of questioning the legitimacy of independent watchdog organizations. We have daily experiences concerning the violation of rights; our legal assistance service receives about 2,300 requests in a year. Our duty is to amplify the voice of these people in urging structural changes or representing them vis-a-vis the authorities or harassment by the state. When trying to eliminate and stigmatize us, the government also sends a message to these people, saying they are not important. With the renewed defamatory campaign against civil organizations, the government tries to sweep issues addressed by HCLU and other organizations under the carpet.”
… the bullying of CSOs in Macedonia and Hungary finds an obvious echo in the persecution suffered by their counterparts in Russia – both in terms of the language used to stigmatise them and in the tactics adopted to silence them.
In Macedonia, the authorities are already increasing the administrative burden placed on CSOs in what is a fairly obvious attempt to paralyse their work. This is being accompanied by the kind of verbal harassment seen in Hungary. The former prime minister and current head of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE [Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity] party, authoritarian Nikola Gruevski, has openly called for a “de-Sorosization of society,” saying that “foreign interests” should not be allowed to dominate the public sphere. Gruevski blames CSOs funded by the OSF for trying to undermine his government and for the current crisis that has left Macedonia in political limbo. The crisis has actually come about because the president, Gjorge Ivanov (a member of VMRO-DPMNE) declined to call on opposition parties to form a coalition government following the 2016 elections; his critics say that this is because his party fears investigation and prosecution for its role in a 2015 wiretapping and corruption scandal.
Gruevski’s views are shared by an explicitly anti-Soros movement with close ties to VMRO-DPMNE. Launched in January 2017, Stop Operation Soros (SOS) also calls for a “de-Sorosization” of society and accuses Soros-funded organisations of working with centre-left politicians to foment violent protests and destabilise the country. This witch-hunting language has gone hand-in-hand with the use of smear tactics and harassment. In February 2017, SOS falsely claimed that the non-partisan CSO, Metamorphosis, also a member of IFEX, was receiving “millions” from Soros and working to a political agenda. In January 2017, a talk show host and prominent supporter of VMRO-DPMNE published (on Facebook) the addresses of noted critics of the government, including the former head of OSF Macedonia; alongside the list was an image of a historical figure known for assassinating ‘traitors’ to Macedonia and the words “this picture is not coincidental.” In late 2016, a group with connections to VMRO-DPMNE organised a public intimidation campaign, naming dozens of “mercenary” CSOs and distributing lies about them on flyers.
Recently, Macedonia’s Public Revenue Office launched financial investigations of 21 CSOs, including Metamorphosis. Although the legal basis for the investigations is not clear, the quantity and detail of information requested is vast, requiring the organisations to devote much (sometimes all) of their time and funds to complying with bureaucratic demands designed to bring their real work to a halt. Some of the unluckier CSOs are reportedly under criminal investigation for the alleged unlawful financing of the electoral process.
In March 2017, Metamorphosis was one of 122 CSOs to sign a public statement protesting the co-ordinated campaign to de-legitimise the work of CSOs in Macedonia and calling for support from the public:
“The civil society sector, as an important factor in society, has been a constant corrective of all government since the independence of Macedonia until today, and the direction this country might take if this pillar of hers is jeopardised or weakened is horrifying… firmly believing in the true values of democracy, in the power of the individual’s voice and in the value of different opinions, we reject as incorrect… the accusations against the organisations…which are labelled as ‘destructive installations, mercenaries and gangs. The orchestrated state controls over the financial work of dozens of organisations simultaneously [gives] the impression of intentional pressure, fear and damage to the free civil society sector.”
It’s not difficult to see where what’s happening in Hungary and Macedonia could lead. Harassment of CSOs is nothing new: the twentieth century is littered with examples of authoritarian governments that sought to shackle civil society as a way of cementing political power. But you don’t need to consult the history books to predict the possible future: the bullying of CSOs in Macedonia and Hungary finds an obvious echo in the persecution suffered by their counterparts in Russia – both in terms of the language used to stigmatise them and in the tactics adopted to silence them.
In 2012, Russia passed the so-called ‘foreign agents’ law which requires all civil society organisations that receive funding from abroad and which take part in ‘political activity’ (a very ill-defined notion) to register as ‘foreign agents.’ According to Human Rights Watch, there are currently 103 organisations on this list. In practice, this law does two things: one, it tangles up Russian human rights organisations in burdensome administrative activities, thereby impeding them from doing their work; two, it tarnishes their reputations – the phrase ‘foreign agents’ is associated with spies or ‘enemies of the state’ in the Russian popular imagination: CSOs identified as such are often viewed with suspicion and can be subjected to hostility (including attacks on their property) from nationalist groups.
In 2015, Russia banned George Soros’ Open Society Foundation from working within its borders, declaring it an “undesirable” organisation that undermined Russian security.