How Illiberal Leaders Attack Civil Society

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

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

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

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