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The year 2014 is marked by a series of persecution actions on NGOs in Hungary. One of members in your Association – Ökotars – was also struck by these moves by the government. In your opinion, what is the reason for those harassment practices and how do you see their development?
To be honest, for us it was a real surprise, while it was happening in Hungary. We were partly informed by Veronika Móra, Director at Ökotars, about this development. But nobody expected that something like that can happen in the 21st century. Briefly speaking, the essence of the story is that our Hungarian office administered the so-called ‘Norwegian Funds’ for the NGO sector in Hungary, like our other member organisations do in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania. So, “Ökotars2 was accused in the first hand of funding an opposition in Hungary and in some non-standard manipulations with money, though the audit which was ordered by the Hungarian government found nothing special. Beside the fact that the Hungarian office was closed by the police in August, the computers were taken away, the memory sticks were taken from the staff, the police came to the home of our Hungarian Director. It was really a very non-standard situation for us, and we were surprised that a private organisation that has a direct agreement with the Norvegian government can be accused of something like that and that the police and the state may attack a private nonprofit organisation in Hungary this way.
How did your Association react to the mentioned persecution practices by the Hungarian authorities?
We contacted our MEPs, we also tried to get support from the NGOs around Europe to express that they know about the situation and that they don’t agree with that.
What do you expect from other NGOs, and the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in particular, to change the situation?
The situation in Hungary is, as far as we know, still unsolved. The NGOs in Hungary are still under pressure of the government. We are scared that the situation can be even worse in the future, and in that situation the expression of support from such an international platform like the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is really crucial. It can help the Hungarian NGOs and can also show to the Hungarian government that the local NGOs are not alone. This makes sense to discuss these issues within such formats as the Forum.
Do you observe the events in Hungary rather as an exception in the Central and Eastern Europe or a tendency? Why did such actions become possible not only beyond but also within the borders of the European Union?
As we see the situation in Europe and Russia, from the perspective of the Czech Republic or the Central European point of view, the freedom in Europe is in danger. It might be that we’ve been somehow coming back, to the end of the 1980s, beginning of the 1990s. I mean the events in Ukraine, Russia, and Hungary have something in common. And it can be kind of alert for us and,, perhaps, we should work more together as a civil society, as a key engine of freedom and transparency of the society. And I see parallels here, because our Environmental Partnership Association in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland was established by big American donors at the beginning of the 1990s, and the aim of the American donors like the German Marshal Fund of the United States was the development of democracy in the region after the fall of the Iron Curtain. And it was really crucial that they had chosen the environmental field, as long as an organisation which supports environment, development of the civil society, is the key one to support the self-confidence of the people to take the responsibility for what’s going on in the region. And now I see that we are somehow in the same situation that democracy is in danger in some regions. And these further investments of the foundation to the development of the civic sector is the key.
Which challenges do you see for the work of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum now? What is the Forum’s value as an NGO platform for your organisation?
I think that the biggest value is the exchange of experience among the operational NGOs in Russia and in the EU, and this value is even bigger now, in the current situation. In the presence of democratic and semi-democratic regimes in Russia and in some other European countries, the dialogue between the governmental structures and the civil societies become more and more complicated.
What would you like to wish to the Forum’s members?
I wish them good discussions at the General Assembly in Tallinn, and we are looking forward to the conclusions.