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Mar 21, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

Prominent US and European think tanks taken in by the “NGO crackdown” ruse

The government of Hungary is not the only one concerned about foreign meddling to influence domestic political outcomes, and we’re not the only ones who believe that it’s the citizens’ right to know.

Earlier this week, a group representing several, prominent US and European think tanks issued an “open letter to the government of Hungary regarding the proposed legislation on non-governmental organizations,” published under the title “No to NGO crackdown in Hungary” on the fittingly named ngocrackdown.com

Among the signatories, we find a number of prominent organizations from across the spectrum, and it circulated widely on the think tank twittersphere. It merits a specific response.

I would begin with a question to the signatories of the open letter, particularly those from the United States: When a foreign foundation or government is suspected of funding activities to influence political outcomes in your country, it stirs controversy. Am I right? I mean, if a foreign group is trying to influence your politics, you want to know that, don’t you? And you’d probably call for greater transparency.

I understand the concern expressed in the letter. After all, an “NGO crackdown”! It sounds terrible and would be legitimate cause for worry. But that’s not what’s happening in Hungary.

The NGO legislation that’s currently under consideration calls for greater transparency, particularly transparency of groups operating with international funding, as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó pointed out in his statement. Civic groups remain an essential part of every democratic society, but when they’re carrying out activities funded by a foreign interest, they should be transparent about that.

The Hungarian government never stated its intention was to “root out” any kinds of NGOs, as the letter claims. We’ve been talking about this need for transparency.

“Hungarian citizens must be given the right to know about all public actors, who they are and who pays them. We have the right to know,” said Prime Minister Orbán. “So we want transparency.”

The government of Hungary is not alone. Less than a week ago, a group of US senators asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “to investigate claims that U.S. taxpayer money is being used to back left-wing billionaire George Soros' political meddling and similar efforts overseas.” The letter refers to claims of “Soros-backed organizations pushing for certain political outcomes.”

We’ve seen a number of examples in Hungary. We know for a fact that in the run up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, the party of an opposition figure and former prime minister received assistance from the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a group founded by John Podesta and itself a Soros grantee. The European edition of POLITICO recently described Soros as “pushing an anti-Orbán agenda” because, in our government’s insistence on tight border security in response to the migration crisis, some of the most vocal critics include NGOs funded by Soros.

They have a right, of course, to disagree with our policy and to criticize it, but when operating affiliate NGOs in Hungary, they should be open about who’s funding them to do what. The citizens have a right to know.

Incidentally, the Hungarian group that organized this open letter, the Free Market Foundation, is closely affiliated with an opposition MP in the Hungarian parliament. The group has a right to express its opinion, of course, but it cannot claim complete nonpartisanship when it does.

The United State has a federal law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. It says that people and organizations that are acting "at the order, request, or under the direction or control" of a foreign government or organizations or persons outside the country must report their relationship with the foreign power. The report must disclose the related activities and finances. FARA is strict.

The new NGO regulations under consideration in Hungary are less strict than those of FARA.

If I were one of those asked to sign the letter and to lend my name to the cause, I would have wanted to know all of the above. I suspect that many did not know. They just signed it without checking.

They got taken in by the “NGO crackdown” ruse.