No Society Without Civil Society: Orban, Putin, and Why the United States Should Resist Hungary’s Attack on NGOs


In 2014 Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban famously declared that liberal democratic states— including his fellow European Union and NATO members—constituted an historical anachronism, and declared that the future belonged to the world’s autocracies. Orban’s policies, both prior to and after he declared his intent to build an “illiberal state,” have held true to this vision.

Central to Orban’s effort to to abandon trans-Atlantic values and remake Hungary in the mold of Vladimir Putin’s Russia is repression of civil society. Shortly after Orban’s Fidesz Party rose to power in 2010, it rewrote the country’s constitution to remove checks on its power, while pushing through a media law restricting press freedoms. After winning reelection in 2014, Orban depicted workers from nongovernmental organizations as traitors—“paid political activists… attempting to promote foreign interests”—and has since used his ever-expanding political, legal, and administration powers to crack down on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and broader civil society.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Orban proudly supported Donald Trump, praising the two leaders’ oft-stated common concern over Muslims and refugees, and noting that “this decent presidential candidate [has] said that the export of democracy must be stopped. I myself couldn’t have said that any better.”

Now, emboldened by President Trump, Orban is intensifying his effort to build his self-described “illiberal state,” expanding an aggressive assault on dissent. Already facing increased scapegoating, Hungarian activists are bracing for legislation that targets NGOs based on their foreign funding.

Adding to their concern is the relatively warm—if also murky and controversial—relationship between President Trump and President Putin, which is likely to encourage further Fidesz-led attacks on civil society. Putin regards the Orban government as a vehicle for expanding its influence, while weakening the cohesion within the European Union and NATO. As an activist told us, “Hungary is Russia’s door to the West.”

This report outlines how Hungarian civil society is being scapegoated by the government, the anticipated fresh crackdown on NGOs, and the deepening influence of Kremlin influence in Hungary. It explains the tactics used by the ruling Fidesz Party to harass and intimidate dissidents, and describes the slide towards authoritarianism in Hungary. It examines current conditions in Hungary, the need for a U.S. response, and potential opportunities for the U.S. government to support civil society and strengthen respect for human rights. The report draws on interviews with dozens of Hungarian human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, diplomats, and clerics, conducted during a trip in March 2017.


Issue Brief

Published on March 30, 2017


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