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The War on NGOs

Organizations run by Fidesz politicians win Hungarian NGO grants set up to replace Norway NGO Grants

More than half of the top winners of the Hungarian state funding program that replaced the Norwegian Fund are ‘NGOs’ directly controlled by politicians of the governing party, Fidesz. Among the winners of the largest, 15 million HUF grants, it is hard to find any group that is not directly or indirectly linked to pro-government politicians or Fidesz-affiliated business circles.

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The Urban Civic Fund (Városi Civil Alap) was set up by the Hungarian government shortly before the country lost its eligibility for the so-called EEA and Norway Grants. The grants are a part of Norway’s and other European Economic Area (EEA) countries’ EU partnership program, wherein they provide funds for 15 EU nations. Between 2014 and 2021, Hungary was to get a total of 77 billion HUF (approx. 220 million EUR) funding through the grants, however, the government effectively refused the support due to a dispute about allocating funds to NGOs.

Losing the Norway Grants

A part of the EEA and Norway program is that a small percentage of the grants has to be distributed among small local NGOs in each country. Instead of national governments, another NGO nominated by the donor countries is responsible for the allocation of these funds.

In Hungary, the donors nominated the Ökotárs Foundation (Ökotárs Alapítvány) to distribute 4 billion HUF (approx. 11 million EUR) among Hungarian NGO’s, however, in 2014, the Hungarian Government did not ratify the donors’ decisions and nominated the state state-owned Széchenyi Program Office (Széchenyi Programiroda Nonprofit Kft) for the job.

Officials of the Orbán-government dubbed the Ökotárs Foundation a “Soros-funded NGO” and claimed that their previous distribution of funds showed high levels of bias towards “liberal and anti-government” groups.

Hungary continues campaign against NGOs with massive police raid

Police stormed the office of two Hungarian foundations on September 8 in a massive raid worthy of a mob crackdown.

This step violated the rules of the program and the donors withheld all funds until the Ökotárs Foundation is accepted for the role again. The two parties failed to reach an agreement for years, until the last year of the support period. In 2021, the Hungarian government admitted that due to continuing disagreement, they will not get the funding (although they still claim that Norway “owes” that money, and in a government decree even threatened legal action against the donor for the fund).

One-sided support

Around the same time, the government launched a new program to replace the 11 million EUR, this time financed by the Hungarian state budget. The Urban Civic Fund, also worth 11 million EUR is being distributed by the Bethlen Gábor Fund (Bethlen Gábor Alap) to local NGOs.

While the government’s main accusation against the EEA and Norway’s partner was their supposed political bias, the results of the first Urban Civic Fund program seem extremely one-sided. The Bethlen Foundation published a list of around 700 NGOs that were awarded grants, among which we looked at the top winners: those who got 15 million HUF, the maximum amount that can be awarded in the program to a single NGO.

As the table below shows, more than half of such organizations (marked with yellow) are directly linked to the governing parties.

These include organizations whose leaders are Fidesz-KDNP politicians (current or former mayors, members of the parliament and the national assembly, or leaders of foundations) or were recently founded by Fidesz politicians, according to the national NGO register found on birosag.hu. The organizations marked in green are those that are indirectly linked to government politicians: for example, their leaders are entrepreneurs who have won significant amounts of public money from Fidesz-led local governments. Also marked with green are organizations that are run by politicians’ staff members or have campaigned for Fidesz.

Varosi Civil Alap by atlatszo

Only a third of the 81 organizations that received maximum funding were found to have no clear political affiliation with Fidesz, 12 organizations were in the ‘indirect’ category, and 42 had a direct link.

In other words, more than half of the NGOs that received the largest grants from the Municipal Civil Fund are organizations of Fidesz-KDNP politicians or candidates.

Fidesz fronts among top recipients

One of these is the Association for the Development of Dabas (DAFI), whose president is Zoltán Kőszegi, the Fidesz mayor of the town. The organization has been active in local politics for a long time, and Kőszegi stood for DAFI when he was first elected mayor in 1998. Today, the organization is strongly “integrated” into Fidesz: in the last elections, most of the government party MPs ran as joint DAFI-Fidesz candidates, and now the local Fidesz organization can be found on Facebook under the name Fidesz Dabas – DAFI.

The pro-Fidesz corporate sphere is represented by, among others, Tünde Kondás and her “Zemplén for the Csángós” Foundation. Tünde Kondás is an important figure in the business empire of Lőrinc Mészáros: she is currently chairwoman of the supervisory board of Opus Global Plc. She has also been elected as a board member of Tigáz Erdgázelosztó Zrt., a member of the MET Group, and of Magyar Sportmárka Zrt., which runs the 2Rule brand.

The document released by the Urban Civic Fund does not specify exactly what each organization has won public money for. Among the beneficiaries are organizations that have recently campaigned openly for Fidesz, such as the Association for the Citizens of Siófok, for example. The group’s Facebook page largely shares posts by Fidesz and government politicians, and according to local news site Sonline.hu, they organized a so-called “citizens’ picnic” during the 2019 election campaign, where Fidesz party director Gábor Kubatov and Attila Gruber, the governing party’s mayoral candidate, were invited to give campaign speeches.

It is also noteworthy that several organizations that were awarded grants were registered only months before the launching of the Urban Civic Fund.

These include a local media foundation whose registry page seems to include the plagiarized text: when declaring their goals, the organization used almost the same text that can be read on the registry of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEPMF, or KESMA), the massive conglomerate controlling most of Hungary’s pro-Orbán media.

Written and translated by Zalán Zubor. The Hungarian version of this article is available here.

Cover photo: Participants of a pro-government demonstration called Peace March for Hungary walk with a banner reading “We will not be a colony!” from Heroes’ Square to the Parliament building on Andrássy Avenue in Budapest on 21 January 2012. MTI Photo by László Beliczay

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