The Fidesz government in European Union member Hungary again falls under international scrutiny with a series of crackdowns against civic organisations funded by non-EU Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.
Last week, police raided the headquarters of the Ökotárs Foundation distributing grants for projects in less-developed economies.
Budapest accuses the foundation of using funds illegally, and of being ‘problematic because of political ties with the left’.
The crackdowns sharpen concern that core democratic values are under threat in Hungary.
Ökotárs director Veronika Móra said: “We find it unnecessary and disproportionate that they come here with huge police forces without prior notice and seize documents. If they had asked us in a letter for the documents, we would have provided them.”
Requests in the past met with full compliance.
Another of the NGOs the Hungarian government is suspicious of is Transparency International. In the past, it has warned of “alarming corruption risks from the close relationship between the political and business elites.”
Transparency Managing Director in Hungary József Martin said: “This investigation is based on political motivations: first, they name a group of NGOs who are, according to them, prejudiced against the government, and then they unleash the authorities on them.”
Spokesman Zoltán Kovács of the ruling centre-right Fidesz party said the government is just doing its job: “It’s easy to make up conspiracy theories, especially if they want to use this for political ends. But these NGOs only make up a small part of civil society, and they are suspected of not using the money for what it was intended, and even partly admitted it. The raids are in no way an attack on all of the NGOs operating in Hungary.”
Many millions of euros are at stake with relations soured. Oslo is concerned that by cracking down Budapest infringes on NGOs critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government, and that it is failing to respect European values.
Tove Skarstein, Norwegian Ambassador to Hungary, said: “The NGO fund is not public Hungarian money. It’s public Norwegian money but it’s not public Hungarian money. And it’s actually not paid through the Hungarian budget, it’s paid directly from Brussels, from the donors’ secretariat in Brussels.”
The crackdowns sparked peaceful demonstrations against the government in Budapest at the weekend, and a message by Twitter from European Parliament President Martin Schulz, calling the “raids in Hungary deeply worrying”, adding that “dissenting voices (are what) keep society vibrant, (and) this crackdown goes in (the) opposite direction.”
Our Budapest correspondent Andrea Hajagos concluded: “Although most NGOs funded by the Norwegian Grants are not affected, such as one that trains dogs to help disabled people [where she is reporting from], many fear they could lose their funding if things don’t improve.”