Three weeks ago one of the pro-government newspapers published a list of 200 people considered enemies of the state. I am on that list. When a regime starts putting people on the nation's enemies list, nothing good ever comes out of it – we talk about the situation of Hungarian NGOs with Nóra Köves, a human rights expert at Eötvös Károly Policy Institute.
Nóra Köves: – “Stop Soros” is a package of bills. It contains three kinds of legislation. The first one establishes a new term: “organisations supporting migration” and forbids them to act without the permission of the government.
“Stop Soros” is the actual name of the bill. I need to stress this, because in Poland everybody was surprised that this is not a colloquial name, but an actual title of a proposal submitted to the Parliament. You don’t have to be a lawyer to see how crazy this is.
What does it mean to “support migration”?
We don't know this either, because the definition of this new term is really vague. The proposal states that: “any association or foundation having a seat and registered in Hungary which, in the interest of providing international protection, sponsors, organises or supports in any other way the entry, via a safe third country, or the stay of a third-country national in Hungary shall be qualified as an organisation supporting migration”.
Basically, it lists some NGO activities, but it contains very general things that virtually any NGO does, like “spreading information”. In the end it also states: “or supports in any other way…”. So, anyone could be affected by this law.
There are just a few organisations helping migrants or refugees in Hungary. Why did the government decide to create three legal documents concerning the migration?
The thing is that this just a political message. This law isn’t only applicable to those who are actually working with refugees. Because the whole legislation is so unclear and uncertain, it can be used against any organisation. And it’s very clear that they will target the NGOs criticising the government. This is their most likely goal.
For example, if your field of work is tracking and fighting corruption and you’ve never been involved in migrant or refugee issues, the government can claim that you are attacking it because of the corruption, therefore you are withdrawing general attention from the migration. By extension, you are supporting migration. They can do anything because the term “supports in any other way” can mean virtually anything. And if you raise you are saying about human rights, they can say that you are encouraging the migrants to come here. Those are absurd examples, but this legislation is so absurd, that every next step can just as absurd.
What an organisation supporting migration should do?
If you come to conclusion that your NGO supports migration, you need to apply to the ministry for a work permit. If you apply, the investigation process will start in order to verify if you can work as an organisation supporting migration. This process includes tax and national security investigation.
If you get the ministry’s permission, your NGO can work as an organisation supporting migration. But it also means that you need to pay 25 % tax on all financial contributions from abroad. These are basically the only sources of money the NGOs are left with. The government stopped its support a long time ago because we are enemies of the state. Moreover, the new bill mentions “any financial or property benefit either directly or indirectly from abroad” — again, it’s really hard to tell what this means.
And you can’t take this money from project budgets of projects because these are the funds for specific actions.
Yes, for some NGOs it could be millions of forints. Many NGOs will probably go bankrupt.
You don’t have to pay this tax if you can prove, that you haven’t used the money to support, but we really don't know how we could prove this. The definitions are so vague, that the government can do whatever they want.
What will happen if you don't apply for permission?
If your NGO doesn't apply for permission, but the government believes that you actually support migration, they can fine you. They can also suspend your tax number, so you can't really work. And then they can shut the NGO down.
How long can the procedures last?
Half a year, and then it is possible to prolong them for 3 consecutive months, but we don’t really know how all this is going to work. The whole legislation doesn't meet the standards of law. It should be clear, and its consequences should be transparent for all the people affected by it. And we really don't know what will happen after the bills come into force how they will be used. We will of course take this legislation to the Constitutional Tribunal, but it’s already controlled by the ruling party. The only real option is Strasbourg, but that could take years. So, it's a very long process.
And the third piece of legislation?
The government can ban people from an area 8 km off the Schengen zone border. This includes international airports, and actually whole Budapest as well because of the shipping port on Danube. It’s located 8 km from the city centre. We have no idea as to how this law is going work in effect.
How advanced are the works on this legislative package in the Parliament?
They submitted it to the Parliament before the elections, and then they won with ⅔ majority. Then they said this was a great victory, and it means that Hungarian citizens support the government’s actions against Soros’ NGOs. Therefore, they may toughen this law, because it’s not strict enough — that's what they said. The Parliament session will start on May 8th. Most likely they will push it through the Parliament as fast as possible. We will probably get to see the final version of the text mere days before it passes.
Do you think it will pass?
They have a ⅔ majority, they can do whatever they want.
Will the organisations be able to appeal?
Yes, but this is in fact meaningless. There is no rule of law in Hungary any more, nor the tripartite separation of powers. We don’t have and independent Constitutional Tribunal, nor an Ombudsman. Our judicial system is still partly independent, but it will probably be the government’s next target. There is no room for independent courts in an authoritarian regime. You shouldn’t think of Hungary as of a democratic country.
Why are the migration issues being used in the fight against the NGO sector?
They just combined their hate campaign and the NGO issue. Because as you probably know, since 2015, there’s been a huge hate campaign against migrants and refugees in Hungary, and the government has been very successful at it. They simply decided to connect the NGO sector with something that people are already afraid.
Within this narrative migrants and refugees are terrorists, therefore the organisations helping them are a threat to national security. Whoever supports the organisations — the European Union, Soros, anyone — also supports terrorists coming to the country.
This is interesting, because there are many national minorities in Hungary.
Not so many. And we never had many refugees in Hungary. We’ve always been a transit country. Refugees pass through Hungary to get to other EU countries. Not many migrants come here to work or study either. Hungarians have had very little contact with refugees. This is why this anti-migrant propaganda took off in the first place.
This is a political game. It’s in the nature of an authoritarian regime to destroy the NGO sector because it acts as an independent voice. Many of the organisations check and monitor the government, it’s their job. But the regime doesn’t like being monitored, so it wants to destroy the NGOs.
What comes next?
The future is very uncertain, but we are suspecting further change for worse. I believe we’ve already reached a point from which it will be extremely difficult to come back.
When an authoritarian government reaches such a point, there really is no return and it must constantly search for new enemies. Orban is creating new foes all the time, he is always at war with someone. They need enemies and after a while the abstract, imagined foes are not enough any more, so they start to point at certain people. This is why we suspect it will be a very rough time for NGOs as well.
Have the attacks encouraged anyone to start supporting NGOs?
This attack has definitely urged people, who cherish democracy, to donate even more.
On the other hand, many people have got scared and withdrawn their donations. When we organise events, many people refuse to sign the registration forms or ask us not to take pictures.
Hungary already has an active law covering foreign agents. How does it work in practice?
Yes, it’s been in effect for a year now. It is almost an exact copy of a Russian law. To pass it, the government played up the issue of transparency. They said we weren’t transparent enough, and the people needed to know our background. If your organisation receives more than 24,000 euros a year from foreign funds, you have to register it as supported from abroad. If you register it yourself, you have the information about this on your website and every document. If you don’t register, you’ll get fined and your organisation will be shut down. Still, I think this “Stop Soros” bill is far, far worse.
And you don't know what comes next.
No, we don’t. Even if the constitutional court does something about this legislation, the ruling party can submit a new one, and another — they can do this even each week.
Are there any other consequences of Fides government for NGOs, apart from the legislative?
Yes. They’ve also started attacking people working for NGOs. Two weeks ago one of the pro-government newspapers published a list of 200 people, who work for NGOs and the Central European University, as well as some journalists, and called them enemies of the state. I also got on that list. The piece was titled: “People of Soros”.
What does it mean?
This means that according to the government we are a threat to the nation. So we expect the worst. Last time such lists of enemies were created was when the fascists or communists were in power. If a regime starts putting people on enemies lists, nothing good ever comes out of it.
We are under permanent psychological pressure. It feels pretty bad when you are being called a public threat all the time, while you’re in fact working for the benefit of the public.
Then there is the uncertainty. You never know what’s going to happen in the next few moments. All you can do is brace for the worst. For the past few weeks the government has stopped calling us “NGO workers”. Instead, they say we are foreign soldiers, pawns of Soros, Soros organisations, that we want to relocate migrants and influence Hungarian policy.
Are there many NGOs in Hungary receiving funds from Open Society?
There are quite a few, but you can’t call them “Soros organisations”. Open Society is just one of our funding sources, and there are many others. And no one is telling us what to do.
Last year there were a lot of attacks on NGOs in Poland, but they sizzled out pretty quick. Many people think it’s over for good.
In Hungary, it was the same. They started in 2014, then they stopped for a while. People thought: “OK, it’s over, they’ve found a new enemy”. Most of the people. And then the attacks started again, heavier than ever.
All around the world NGOs are the biggest critics of governments’ abuse of power. The government won’t stop, they will attack you again. This is for sure. As long as this illiberal turn lasts, as long as Kaczyński follows Orban, NGOs will be under attack. You need to take this very seriously. Polish NGO sector should be aware of what’s happening in Hungary.
In Poland many organisations think they won’t be affected, because they aren’t involved in politics or don’t receive foreign funding.
It’s the same in Hungary. They will think so until they’re attacked. The NGOs criticising the government were the primary target, but for instant “Stop Soros” bill can be applied to anyone. They may think that they aren’t opposing the government in any way, but that actually doesn’t matter. If some organisations go bankrupt or are shut down, it creates a threat to the others. It always concerns the entire sector.
Is the Hungarian government creating their own NGOs?
Yes. They’ve started to divide the non-government sector into “good” and “bad” organisations. Typical, and we can find example of it in Russia.
What can we do?
You need to strengthen yourself, you have to prepare for something similar happening in your country. This is the reality. You need to communicate with people, inform them of your job, of what you do, so they are aware of NGOs. If they are familiar with you, they will stand for you in case of attack. But if they don’t know what the NGOs do, they won’t back you up, because they won’t care. Really, now is the time to prepare, to work together and form a coalition, to strengthen each other.
Do you think you’ve made some mistakes?
Yes, we didn’t prepare. Many people wouldn’t believe such thing could happen in Hungary. If someone was pessimistic and predicted some pretty grim scenarios, they dismissed them as paranoid and told it was impossible because we are a member of the European Union. They believed the government wouldn’t dare go so far, and if so, that the EU would intervene.
Really, prepare for things to get worse, and expect the worst. Anything can happen. You have the advantage of knowing what happened in Hungary and using us as a warning. Because we were the first. We had examples like Russia and Turkey, but they are not in the EU. And that’s why everybody would try to convince us that something like this can't happen in the European Union. Turns out it very well may happen in the EU. Now you know. Be prepared.
That was our mistake. Of course, it was a kind of self-defence mechanism. A lot of people lived in denial. They didn’t want to believe this. Don’t make the same mistake.
How can we help you?
International solidarity is always very important, and it really means a lot to us.
Spread the news about what’s happening in Hungary. Protest in our name if you can, use social media to show our government that international community doesn’t approve of destruction of the non-government sector.
She started her studies at BKF (now Metropolitan University), and continued them in Turkey at Istanbul Aydin University and in Hungary at ELTE where she studied international relations with human rights specialization. Besides her studies she worked as a volunteer and later an activist and an expert for several civil and international organization in America, Turkey and Kosovo, dealing with various groups of vulnerable people. In France she participated in the work of the Permanent Delegation of Hungary to the UNESCO. She was the Hungarian UN Youth Delegate for one and a half year and she also worked for the Regional Office for South Eastern Europe of Terre des Hommes. Since 2013 she has been an editor of Fundamentum human rights quarterly.