In the trap of illiberal autocratisation, all walls are closing simultaneously around the independent civil society.

The issue of closing spaces for civil society – government policies that have cracked down hard on civil society organisations which are either critical toward the illiberal power holders in Central Eastern and South Eastern Europe or used as scapegoats by them – has become an inseparable part of the region’s autocratisation process from Hungary and Poland to Romania and Serbia.

The legislative and administrative measures in these and other countries that intimidate representatives of civil society, defining them as foreign agents and security threats while placing them under legal or even illegal intelligence surveillance and hindering their day-to-day work show remarkable similarities. A hardly surprising fact if one considers that the above anti-CSO policies follow the same – mostly Russian – blueprint.

Illiberal Social Engineering

The above prevalent practices have often been commented on. However, it is rare to consider that these targeted authoritarian measures probably do not pose the biggest threat to an independent and critical civil society (at least not directly) but buttress the illiberal social engineering in a broader sense.

Illiberal regimes discipline a wide range of social, economic and other actors to demonstrate at least passive political loyalty, institutionalise the primacy of politics over the social subsystems of law, economy, media and academia, and to a significant extent, deprives these sectors of their functional autonomy.

In such a social environment, where political loyalty is perceived as the key path to professional success and the regime is ready to instrumentalise existential pressure to ensure political compliance, critical civil society becomes desperately isolated.

Solitary confinement

A well-functioning civil society is built on partnership. But what if government-friendly media, even at the local level, does not provide the necessary publicity for civil initiatives? If civil society is straightforwardly demonised? If the social problems that drive NGOs are not even recognised as problems, as this would undermine the illusion of the paternalist state and break the political monopoly of the power holders to define what the problems in the country are? If companies refrain from supporting NGOs or deny to provide them services even on a market basis?

If the partnership with local governments, the media and the business sector breaks down, the impact of civil society engagement significantly diminishes.

It is not an accident that illiberal social engineering focuses on the creation of networks of existential dependencies and the enforcement of at least passive political loyalty. If a company would like to participate successfully on public tenders, or even just would like to avoid the frequent harassment of the tax authority or other regulatory bodies, it cannot afford to provide financial or in-kind support for critical civil society organisations. If public employees intend to keep their job and pursue a career, it does not appear to be a good idea to demonstrate critical civic engagement.

Legal Peril

Taking a look at Hungary, the government led by Viktor Orbán passed several legislative acts to crack down on the civil society. Following suit from the Russian foreign agent law, the “lex NGO” in 2017 obliged civil society organisations to register as “foreign founded entities” if they receive more than HUF 7.2m (EUR 22k) in donations from abroad. The failure to comply with the registration requirement can result in fines and other sanctions, reaching even to the potential dissolution of the organisation.

Protest in support of academic freedom in Hungary and CEU.

The 2018 “Stop Soros Act” penalised the support of asylum seekers; it introduced an “extraordinary tax for the support of immigration” for organisations active at the field and amended the criminal code to establish individual criminal responsibility. Both acts constitute a clear breach of the post-1989 Hungarian legal tradition and are subjects of the European Commission’s infringement procedures.

Although both the “lex NGO” and the “Stop Soros Act” are explicit authoritarian measures that would have been long rooted out by any functioning and independent Constitutional Court, the implementations of the laws is rather surprising. According to public record information, no civil society organisation faced any prosecution for failing to register as a foreign founded entity or due to the alleged support of illegal migration to Hungary.

Breaking the Net

Obviously, the lack of prosecution is no reason for a sigh of relief. It only explains that the legislation is intended to work through a more complex impact mechanism than simply cracking down on the civil society by the justice apparatus, which could easily backfire on the Hungarian government at European level.

Primarily, the laws act as tools of intimidation and demonisation. They face civil society leaders and activists with existential threats and serve as political orientation tools by framing critical civil society as a public enemy. Politically loyal fellow citizens, entrepreneurs, journalists, public employees should of course possibly avoid any positive contact with traitors and public enemies.

Therefore, these two laws indeed play a non-negligible role in creating the closing spaces for the Hungarian civil society, even if they are not implemented according to their wording. Through their working mechanisms, they tear down the partnership networks with other social sectors that would be essential to the effective functioning of NGOs. They isolate critical initiatives within the fabric of the Hungarian society and effectively fulfil the main goal of illiberal social engineering. But they are only individual items in a complex system of political and social subjugation.

All or Nothing Game

As the Hungarian civil society leader Veronika Móra argued in the civil society renewal edition of respublica, the redistribution of public grants for the civil society follows clear political guidelines; critical organisations or those active on sensitive areas like gender issues or drug prevention are practically chanceless.

Veronika Móra

Unfortunately, due to the enforcement of political loyalty in business and other sectors, these organisations face enormous difficulties to secure the required support from other sources as well. That demonstrates well that in the trap of illiberal autocratisation all walls are closing simultaneously around the independent civil society.

In contrast, in this all or nothing game, CSOs close to the ruling party, its entourage and the traditional churches not only benefit from public funding but also enjoy the benefits of partnership with the increasingly politically controlled business, media and academic sectors.

Of course, the Hungarian civil society is still far from the full enforcement of political loyalty and uniformisation, but the situation is not rosy either.

There is a significant cleavage between Budapest and by and large the rest of the country. There is a similar gap between the big, highly professional NGOs that can secure their funding and other important non-material resources – like access to media and partnership with international organisations via their international networks – and smaller CSOs and initiatives mostly in cities other than Budapest that very often suffer under the significant lack of material and networking resources.

Civil Glow

The main, highly-professionalised critical CSOs have been the real light bringers of Hungarian democracy in the past few years. They have stuck to the norms of humanity, freedom and openness and strictly opposed the position of the Hungarian government even in periods when the political opposition has been much more reluctant to challenge government policies, like during the refugee crisis.

However, international partners and donors have to bear in mind that without a revitalisation of the free civil society outside of Budapest, at least in the big and middle-sized Hungarian cities, a political change in democratic ways is largely implausible. Donors and potential grantees have not only to focus on providing appropriate resources for civil society initiatives but also on creating politically impactful synergies through the reestablishment of social partnerships that were largely cut off by the illiberal social engineering and the ongoing autocratisation process.


Rethink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Central European Futures

Over the past several years, it has become ever more apparent that the post-Cold War era of democratic reform, socio-economic development and Western integration in Central Europe is coming to an end.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German-Marshall Fund of the U.S..

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