Bernadett Szabo / REUTERS Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech at the National University of Public Service in Budapest, Hungary, April 2018.

How Illiberal Leaders Attack Civil Society

What's Happening in Central Europe Is Part of a Larger Trend

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Last month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made his boldest attack yet on civil society. In a speech marking 170 years since Hungary’s 1848 revolution, Orban railed against “media outlets maintained by foreign concerns and domestic oligarchs, professional hired activists, troublemaking protest organisers, and a chain of NGOs financed by an international speculator, summed up by and embodied in the name ‘George Soros.’” Unfortunately, such rhetoric is no longer confined to Orban, who famously calls himself an “illiberal democrat.” Increasingly, attacks on civil society and independent media have become normalized throughout central Europe, threatening the future of democracy in the region.

Through Freedom House’s Nations in Transit project, which has tracked developments in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia since 1995, we have seen an explosion of illiberal smear campaigns in the last five years, with ruling party politicians or the president attacking civil society or the media in 25 of the 29 countries in our survey. Politicians often combine these smear campaigns with xenophobic, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic rhetoric that places civil society groups and journalists outside of the nation.

By doing so, these illiberal leaders redefine what it means to be a citizen and what it means to live in a democracy. In attacking civil society and media in these terms, they are attacking the concept that pluralism of identities and opinions within a society is normal and even beneficial. Without such institutions, demagogic leaders or political parties can pass self-serving laws and accrue ever more power to themselves. This is part of a frightening global trend. If illiberalism becomes normal in countries that have traditions of liberal democracy, then we are likely to see illiberalism thrive around the world.

The inflection point for the contemporary smear campaign in central Europe and Eurasia was Russia’s campaign against nongovernmental organizations, which accelerated after mass protests following fraudulent elections in December 2011. The Russian campaign included a new law labeling NGOs as “foreign agents” for accepting any funding, no matter how small the amount, from foreign sources and engaging in expansively defined “political” activity.

Russia wasn’t the first country in Eurasia to crack down on NGOs—a backlash had been brewing since Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003, which many in the region attributed to foreign support for civil society groups, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan had already eradicated their civic sectors by the first decade of this century—but the importance of the country, and Russia’s efforts to promote its crackdown abroad, accelerated the shift. Ruling parties in some of Russia’s neighboring states proposed similar laws, and even where the measures were beaten back (as in Kyrgyzstan), they changed the framework for discussion, casting NGOs critical of the government as suspect, even subversive.

If illiberalism becomes normal in countries that have traditions of liberal democracy, then we are likely to see illiberalism thrive around the world.

The point of the “foreign agent” designation was never really about the law; Russia already had plenty of legal and extralegal tools to control its civil sector. Instead, the goal was to cast NGOs, first, as inherently “foreign” and acting against national interests and, second, as working from within the country to undermine its unity, especially through their defense of vulnerable minorities.

Russia was especially innovative on the latter point, bringing to parliament the notorious so-called gay propaganda law at the same time as the NGO law. The timing of that law, which criminalized “the promoting of nontraditional sexual relationships among minors,” created an implicit link between civil society and “nontraditional sexuality.” The pairing allowed Russia to isolate NGOs as defenders of an unpopular minority, present the case against NGOs as an effort to protect Russia from enemies seeking to defile it, and build bridges with the far right in Europe and the United States.

Anti-NGO campaigns have since become a normalized part of politics in Russia and Central Asia and, now, in central Europe and the Balkans. Hungary passed its own foreign agents law in 2017, and politicians continue to propose variations on the law in political debates, most recently in the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

When former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico this year came under pressure to resign following the murder of an investigative journalist, one of his first responses was to insinuate that his political rival—Slovak President Andrej Kiska—had taken orders from George Soros, with whom Kiska had met the previous year and who supports various NGOs in the region, to try to topple Fico. In the Czech Republic, smear campaigns accusing Soros of fighting the reelection of President Milos Zeman circulated late last year. And in 2016, while Romania was experiencing another round of protests over corruption, a pro-government broadcaster accused Soros of paying demonstrators (including dogs) to protest.

Wherever these campaigns take place, their proponents use the tactic of associating NGOs with vulnerable minorities. In central Europe, this has taken the form of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The refugee crisis of 2015 opened up a new kind of opportunity for this tactic, and Orban’s Hungary has been the prime innovator.

In his party’s current campaign, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim tropes intertwine and become indistinguishable. Soros is portrayed as a puppet master manipulating opposition politicians or using NGOs to import millions of Muslim migrants into Hungary to change the demographic balance of the country. Caricatures of Soros as a malevolent wizard—or even as some kind of literally reptilian monster—tap into a rich vein of European anti-Semitic imagery. As in his speech last month, Orban tends to conflate all civic organizations with Soros himself. In 2017, the Hungarian government mailed questionnaires to every resident in the country as part of a “national consultation” on the “Soros plan” for settling refugees—even though Soros is not a government official and his ideas about migration have not been advanced by the European Union or the Hungarian government. These attacks embellish the image of the NGO and the journalist as outsiders using the anti-Semitic trope of the Jew in Europe as permanent foreigner, then add the specter of an invasion of Muslim migrants.

These smear campaigns threaten the functioning of democracy because they seek to delegitimize the participation of nongovernment voices in public debate. The logic behind the smears is that only those who have been elected by a majority—that is, the government—are entitled to speak about issues of public interest. All others, including NGOs, journalists, and eventually opposition politicians, have no legitimate role. At the extreme, this majoritarian understanding of politics prepares the ground for one-party rule.

The new illiberal normal in central Europe is part of a larger trend. These are countries that have joined the EU and NATO, and a similar vein of illiberalism is becoming ever more typical in western Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Western politicians who oppose this illiberalism should be absolutely clear about the necessity of adding concrete action to condemnation where possible.

The opening of Article 7 proceedings—the first step toward sanctions under the Treaty on European Union for violations of the EU’s treaty values—against Poland for the damage the country’s recent judicial reforms have done to the independence of the judiciary is a start, but European leaders should not stop there. Hungary should also face Article 7 proceedings for its own systematic weakening of checks and balances, and the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, a bloc made up of national political parties, should expel Orban’s Fidesz.

Even more vital is that politicians stand up for pluralism as a fact and a value at home: something that is both true of every society and good for every society. Behind these sometimes absurd illiberal smear campaigns is a deadly serious assault on the idea that a society is better when it contains different opinions and identities and that liberal democratic institutions, including nonstate ones, are the best vehicles for balancing the desires of majorities with the rights of minorities.

Orban knows what he stands for, and he tells us every day. What we need are other leaders willing to do the same for the basic principles of liberal democracy.

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