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Viktor Orbán’s Newest Tool for Crushing Dissent

He has created a new office with massive investigatory powers that are vaguely defined and leave everyone on edge. In other words, it’s classic Orbán.

By Sándor Ésik

February 2024

Last December, at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce dinner in Budapest, U.S. ambassador to Hungary David Pressman rose to speak. His audience may have expected a diplomat’s remarks, full of platitudes. But instead Pressman spoke plainly, scolding Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán for “embracing Putin,” and criticizing the Hungarian government in a strikingly undiplomatic manner.

Hungary’s new “Sovereignty Protection Act” was the spark for the ambassador’s ire. In December, Orbán’s government passed this new piece of legislation, with the purported aim of fighting foreign influence on Hungarian politics. The legislation will create a new governmental entity, the Sovereignty Protection Office, and grant that agency unlimited investigatory powers to produce reports on foreign interference that are not subject to judicial review. The new office promises to serve as Orbán’s newest tool to crush dissent under his increasingly repressive regime.

The ambassador isn’t alone in his criticisms. From the U.S. Department of State, to the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, to a group of 10 media organizations and a coalition of more than 100 Hungarian civil society organizations, a wide range of voices have expressed urgent concern about what this new legislation means for the future of Hungary.

For more than a decade, Orbán’s government has played up the threat of foreign influence in its propaganda. U.S. billionaire George Soros was once a favorite target for blame. In 2018, Fidesz, Orbán’s ruling party, used Soros as a central antagonist for their parliamentary election campaign. The party plastered billboards across the country with ominous images of his face and rallied support by spreading conspiratorial rumors about the so-called “Soros Plan” to bring waves of Muslim immigrants to Hungary.

Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, which then adopted a law modeled after Putin’s infamous “foreign agent law” of 2012. The law stated that any NGO that received foreign funding above roughly US$1,500 had to report itself as a “foreign financed” organization. After immense international pressure, the law was repealed in 2021.

Of course, Soros is now retired, but Orbán is still in power. So, in recent years, the regime has continued to turn its sights on domestic recipients of foreign funds. In 2023, the Hungarian government leveled a hefty fine of approximately US$1.4 million against six opposition parties for receiving between US$1 and 2 million dollars classified as illegal during the 2022 parliamentary election campaign season. The Orbán government has taken advantage of the episode to justify rebooting the old finance law in the form of the Sovereignty Protection Act of 2023.

The powers granted to the new Sovereignty Protection Office provide ample cause for concern. The office will likely target not only opposition political parties, but also universities, religious organizations, the independent media, and other civil society organizations. Although it does not possess policing power and is only tasked with producing reports that state whether a person or organization has received illicit foreign financial support, the office has unrestricted investigatory authority. The office may then hand over its findings to other government agencies for prosecution or enforcement.  For investigatory purposes, the office’s agents will be able to access any kind of information possessed by the government and municipal organizations, with the narrow exception of a small subset of top-secret military and national-security related data.

Its investigations are also exempt from any judicial control. This distinguishes the Sovereignty Protection Office from the State Audit Office, which was previously in charge of policing foreign campaign financing. In December 2023, the State Audit Office leveled a fine of approximately US$1.5 million against opposition parties for improper reporting of foreign financial support. But that report is currently neither public nor final because it is subject to judicial review. The reports issued by the Sovereignty Protection Office, in contrast, are immediately final.

Because the investigations by the new Office are not considered criminal, they are not subject to the checks and balances of the Criminal Procedure Code, which has been amended to include accepting “forbidden” foreign funds. The investigations will be beyond the purview even of Parliament.

In Hungary, the political playfield is tilted in the extreme. Messages by Orbán are spread as state propaganda, often bearing the logo of the government of Hungary. In public media channels, the opposition is afforded mere minutes of airtime. (During the 2018 campaign season, a satirical party called the Two Tailed Dog Party sent a man dressed as a chicken to mock the five minutes of airtime allocated to the opposition.) Opposition parties receive state funding that is dwarfed by the funding allocated to Orbán’s own party. In the election system implemented by Orbán a decade ago to skew election results against opposition parties, the discrepancy in state funds alone places victory out of reach for the opposition.

But opposition parties have few alternatives. Companies that support the opposition can expect harassment from state authorities, so multinationals tend to distance themselves from local politics. Most Hungarians don’t have sufficient disposable income to offer significant support for political parties. The only remaining source of funding? Thousands of Hungarians abroad who have more to give, and the countless NGOs who are interested in supporting Hungary’s democratic opposition. Indeed, during the 2022 campaign season, foreign individuals and NGOs provided substantial funding for the opposition. And this, more than anything, explains why Orbán is rolling out the Sovereignty Protection Act now. It represents the government’s best new tool for drying up the opposition’s last bit of financial support.

What exactly is the “forbidden” foreign financial support that is now punishable by up to three years in prison? Hungarian law remains vague on this matter, stating only that a political party in Hungary cannot accept donations from foreign nationals or foreign business entities. The prohibition is capacious. What happens, for example, if a foreign NGO funds a speaker’s series to discuss women’s rights, drug abuse, or minority rights? If a member of a political party is also present, the event organizers could be accused of serving as a front to support the public appearance of a politician.

In some cases, that may be a valid concern. Orbán’s party, for example, supports dozens of government-organized NGOs that host events that profess to be “free political discussions.” Unsurprisingly, these events regularly — and exclusively — feature politicians of Orbán’s Fidesz party. But the strategically vague parameters of the new legislation will allow such events to escape regulatory scrutiny, while providing this new agency ample flexibility to suppress the events it chooses to target.

This is all very typical of Orbán’s regime. A new and ominous law is passed. A new organization is created. There is a redundancy — in this case with the State Audit Office. The legislation is vague. Much remains murky, even if the aim of suppressing dissent is clear.

No one knows the budget or the number of people to be employed by the Sovereignty Protection Office. Its newly appointed director, Tamás Lánczi, has zero investigatory or auditing experience. He is a political appointee who has served previous appointments at various propaganda outlets, including editor-in-chief of Figyelő, a weekly magazine controlled by Orbán’s regime, and CEO of Danube Business Consulting Ltd., the London-based political advisory firm of Árpád Habony, one of the main propaganda gurus in charge of shaping Orbán’s image abroad.

Perhaps, then, the new office is merely a political showpiece that will have little effect. But perhaps it is much more. This ambiguity itself aids in the goal of dampening opposition. Now, NGOs across Hungary are likely attempting to analyze whether different forms of financial support might end up labeled as “forbidden political funding.” Few organizations want to deal with that kind of inconvenience — and even fewer want government officials arriving on their doorstep demanding answers.

The ambiguity and uncertainty this law creates is classic Orbán. For years, a long series of laws like this one has removed the system’s checks and balances, enabling the opposition to be put in a tighter and tighter bind. In fact, the act may already be having its intended effect. Unlike Putin’s foreign agent law, Hungary’s Sovereignty Protection Act is not meant to silence opposition through immediate physical threats. Rather, it is crafted to create a chilling atmosphere that discourages dissent in the first place. For Orbán, the goal has always been to snuff out his opponents without leaving evidence at the scene of the crime.

Sándor Ésik is an attorney practicing in Budapest, Hungary. He is also a blogger and an activist for democratic causes. His English blog about Hungary, the Hungarian Muse, is available on Substack.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Daniel Pier/NurPhoto via Getty Images




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