BUDAPEST — Veronika Mora was getting ready for work when her home phone rang. “I’m at your office,” she recalls a policewoman telling her. “Where are you?”
Mora, the head of a nonprofit agency that distributed millions of euros in grants to government watchdogs including Transparency International, arrived 30 minutes later to find two dozen officers waiting for her on a crisp Budapest morning last fall. For hours, they combed through file cabinets and downloaded data on organizations that had been deeply critical of the Hungarian government.
The government called it part of an operation seeking to watch the watchdogs, holding them accountable for potential mismanagement and financial irregularities. But to Mora and others, it smacked of harassment. It also signaled a new normal in a country that has emerged as a troubling portent for Europe’s future.
From France to Finland, right-wing nationalists are gaining at the polls, with a radical new coalition of the far left and far right taking over in Greece last month. Across the continent, it is raising a disquieting question: How might European nations change under this rising club of new nationalists?
For one answer, look no further than Hungary, where — from the foothills of the wild Carpathians to the art nouveau quarters of old Budapest — Prime Minister Viktor Orban is building what he calls an “illiberal democracy” that blends both nationalist and populist ideals. Citing Russia and China as models, he is heralding the benefits of the strong state and, critics say, challenging the independence of the courts while reining in the free press.
The crackdown on nonprofits — an effort that mirrors a similar move in Russia — is the latest example. Authorities have singled out at least seven NGOs for special tax investigations — and conducted audits of dozens more — including many that had been producing critical reports on everything from corruption to human rights in Orban’s Hungary.
“What we are seeing is another attempt to dismantle the system of checks and balances in Hungary,” Mora said.
As a shaggy-haired dissident, Orban electrified the nation at a historic 1989 protest where he famously took the dais and called for the pullout of Soviet troops. Those events would help precipitate the fall of the Iron Curtain, setting up a new democratic system that was bestowed with Europe’s highest honor in May 2004: membership in the European Union.
Even during its days as a Soviet satellite, Hungary had practiced “goulash communism” — mixing free market policies with state ownership. But the country was hit hard by the financial crisis that swept the globe in the late 2000s, and the devastated population began to lose faith in the new system of governance. One 2009 poll surprisingly found three in four Hungarians dissatisfied with the way their new democracy was working.
Enter Orban, who was elected to his first term at age 35 in 1998. His move to change Hungary, critics say, began in earnest after his reelection in 2010. It has steadily continued since his Fidesz party won elections in April, propelling the 51-year-old to a third term.
Orban has promoted an increased role for the state in industry, and closer ties with Russia. He also took on the powerful Constitutional Court, adding at least three party loyalists while limiting its ability to overrule his mandates. He used his super majority to change the constitution to legally define a “family” as a married heterosexual couple with children and to restrict free speech if it harmed “human dignity” — both measures the court had previously rejected.
At the same time, critics say, the government has sought to infringe on press freedoms and free speech, exposing it to sharp criticism from the European Union. New advertising taxes, critics say, have reinforced government power over the media. Orban strengthened partisan control of Hungary’s Media Authority, which regulates competition as well as content, giving it the power to sanction outlets for reporting considered a danger to “public morality.”
Such rules, media experts say, have not been widely applied. But the threat, along with fears that the government may withdraw all-important official advertising from private outlets, has forced what critics call a new sense of self-censorship in the Hungarian media.
Critical reporting on the government increasingly carries risks. In one instance in June, Gergo Saling, an editor who contributed to this article, was fired from the online outlet Origo after green-lighting a story about the costly travel expenses of a top government official. A majority of the staff resigned in protest, although the management of the outlet, in a statement, denied political pressure had factored into its decision.
“It’s not a democracy anymore,” former Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány said. “But it’s not a dictatorship — yet.”
The move against NGOs first began in April, after Janos Lazar, a top Orban lieutenant, criticized a cluster of NGOs that received special funding from Norway.
Many of the NGOs had raised serious questions about government ethics. Transparency International’s office in Hungary — one of the targeted NGOs — had issued blistering reports about government moves to shrink the size of parliament, gerrymander districts, and violate campaign finance laws. Another group, EnergiaKlub, has been deeply critical of the Orban government’s plan to accept a $12 billion loan from Russia for a new nuclear power plant.
In June, government authorities began auditing the NGOs, particularly targeting Okotars, Mora’s organization, which distributes grants from a Norwegian fund to other nonprofits. Part of the government’s outrage seems to stem from the sense that a foreign government is fueling domestic accountability.
“My government sees this as part of the harassment of NGOs, a way to silence critical voices,” said Tove Skarstein, Norway’s ambassador to Hungary.
Okotars is now fighting the government in the courts against a move to take away its tax identification number — something that would strictly limit its ability to continue operating in Hungary.
Government officials, however, say Hungarian authorities are simply doing their job, and insist that Orban’s democratic ideals remain strong. “What we are calling for is the kind of transparency from the NGOs that they are asking from the government,” said Zoltan Kovacs, a Hungarian government spokesman.
But the NGOs view the audits as a pressure tactic, not only against criticism, but against ideals that clash with the government’s ideology. Among the targeted NGOs are gay rights groups. They have spoken out against Orban’s move to define a family in a way that excludes same-sex couples, saying it limits the prospects for such unions in the future.
“The role of an NGO is to promote fairness and help speak for those who have no voice,” said David Vig, an official with the Rainbow Mission Foundation, sponsors of Budapest’s Gay Pride event. “We are the easiest target. Voters here will simply see them as promoting traditional values.”
In December, Orban called for a new registry of NGOs funded by foreign donors and bluntly pushed back against critics, saying Hungarians would decide what kind of democracy they wanted.
The notion of “checks and balances is a U.S. invention that, for some reason of intellectual mediocrity, Europe decided to adopt and use in European politics,” he told Bloomberg News.
Gergo Saling contributed to this report.