New Report Examines Crackdown on Hungarian NGOs, Ties to Russia
Washington, D.C.— Human Rights First today released a new report analyzing Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban's close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government’s systematic assault on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media. The report, “No Society Without Civil Society,” comes as Orban’s far-right party Fidesz is threatening to shut down Central European University, the American university founded by philanthropist George Soros that was created to promote the values of an open society and liberal democracy.
“The U.S. government can't afford to sit on the sidelines and watch Orban drag Hungary back to its authoritarian past. Orban’s obsession with creating an illiberal state modeled on Vladimir Putin’s Russia is dangerous for Europe, and dangerous for the United States and NATO. It means institutionalized corruption, attacks on the free market, on internal critics, on independent media, and on minorities," said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley, author of today’s report. "Almost every week brings a fresh new shock as the Fidesz government goes after its critics, whether they're lawyers, refugees, academics, or activists."
Based on a Human Rights First fact-finding mission earlier this month, the report details how independent media is being bought out or closed down, and individuals who criticize the government are routinely targeted. Local NGOs report they are often harassed via exhaustive tax audits.
This week’s news that Central European University is being targeted is a major assault on both academic freedom and democratic ideals in Hungary. The university provides post graduate education for students from more than one hundred countries. It is officially registered in New York, but as it is without a physical campus there, the Hungarian government argues it is operating in violation of the law. If parliament agrees by passing the proposed legislation, the university will be forced to cease operations until it can build a campus in the United States.
“Adding to civil society’s 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,” added Dooley. “Putin regards the Orban government as a vehicle for expanding its influence, while weakening the cohesion within the European Union and NATO. Activists have warned that Hungary is Russia’s door to the West.”
Today’s report recommends steps the U.S. government can take to protect Hungarian civil society and guard against the forces of far-right extremism and anti-democratic Russian influence including:
- The Trump Administration should immediately suspend White House Aide Sebastian Gorka while it investigates credible allegations of his affiliations with, and support of, the Historical Vitezi Rend. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should comply with congressional calls to investigate whether Gorka falsified his U.S. naturalization application by failing to disclose his membership in the group.
- The Trump Administration should publicly defend the right of local NGOs—in Hungary and elsewhere—to accept international funding in support of their work on democracy and human rights, and articulate why no government should fear or oppose such activities.
- The Trump Administration should appoint a seasoned foreign service officer to Budapest as ambassador as soon as practicable. Once nominated and confirmed, the new ambassador should immediately affirm the embassy’s support for human rights defenders.
- Members of Congress should publicly and privately express concern—through hearings, resolutions, and other means—at how Washington is facilitating the return of authoritarianism in a country that the United States successfully encouraged toward democracy after the end of the Cold War. This should include opposing any invitation from the White House to Prime Minister Orban for an official visit, unless and until his attacks on civil society cease.
For more information or to speak with Dooley, contact Christopher Plummer at PlummerC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3310.