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BUDAPEST, Hungary – As a young politician, Viktor Orban won plaudits for championing civil rights and free elections. Now as Hungary's prime minister, Western nations are alarmed at the way he is trying to consolidate power, including a government crackdown on rights groups.
One of the groups being targeted is the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which Orban himself relied on in 2007 to get him acquitted of defamation charges.
To the conservative leader's opponents, the recent moves against the rights groups, including police raids, are attempts to silence some of the last critical voices left against his increasingly authoritarian rule. He had already concentrated power for his Fidesz party over many other institutions in Hungary, including the media, the courts and the central bank.
Fidesz is expected to maintain its dominance in Hungarian municipal elections Sunday, although the left-wing opposition is likely to make some gains in Budapest and the far-right Jobbik party hopes to win in several rural towns. With no other balloting scheduled until 2018, Orban can continue his transformation of the country.
Orban defends his moves against the independent groups, which represent a range of causes, from women's and gay rights to media freedom and anti-corruption campaigns. In a speech in July, he called them "paid political activists attempting to assert foreign interests in Hungary." Orban also went so far as to say in that speech that he wants to turn Hungary into an "illiberal state."
In outlining his plans to make Hungary stronger, he cited Russia, China, Turkey and Singapore as examples of countries that are successful despite not being liberal democracies and "maybe not even democracies."
With Hungary's economy growing, some observers worry that other leaders in the region could be tempted to follow Orban's path. The region, which inspired the world with its peaceful anti-communist revolutions 25 years ago, is already witnessing some erosion of democracy, a problem the White House has expressed concerns about lately.
Western leaders are worried about pro-Russian policies that several Central European countries, including Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria, have taken lately, mainly for economic reasons. In particular the U.S. and EU have been fighting Bulgaria's plans to build a gas pipeline for Russian gas meant to squeeze Ukraine out of deliveries to Europe. There are also concerns about the entrenched corruption in Romania and elsewhere that denies opportunity to many.
"Across the region, the twin cancers of democratic backsliding and corruption are threatening the dream so many have worked for since 1989," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said this month, referring to the year of the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. "And even as they reap the benefits of NATO and EU membership, we find leaders in the region who seem to have forgotten the values on which these institutions are based."
The Hungarian government's clampdown on independent society has focused primarily on 13 groups accused of having ties to the political left and which receive money from a charitable foundation called the Norway Grants. The fund was set up by Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, nations not in the EU but which have nonetheless benefited from integration with the single market and want to give something back to the bloc by helping its less developed countries.
Many of these groups, like corruption watchdogs Transparency International and K-Monitor, are indeed critical of Orban, while some, like advocates for the rights of gays and women, may not fit into his vision of a conservative nationalistic state.
Orban's office asked the Government Control Office in May to investigate how 13.5 million euros ($17 million) was dispensed by the Norway Grants to hundreds of civic groups in Hungary from 2009-2014. Since then, the premises of groups chosen to operate Norway Grant funds have been raided by police, seen their tax numbers suspended and had piles of documents and computers confiscated.
"This current political structure in Hungary does not tolerate the existence of critical voices and has been able to eliminate most of them," said Mate Daniel Szabo, a director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.
President Barack Obama noted in a speech last month that "from Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society."
Hungarian authorities claimed at first that the fund operators for the Norway Grants were tied to an opposition party. But they switched arguments after those charges no longer seemed defensible. Now, the government says its concerns are about accountability, and that the fund managers are politically motivated when choosing winning applicants.
They also argue that independent organizations should stay away from politics since they are not elected by voters.
"The Hungarian government has an entirely clear and firm position on the working of democracy," government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said. "Exercising political power belongs to politicians, political structures, that is, based on representation."
The Norwegian ambassador to Hungary, Tove Skarstein, denies that the Norway Grants are aimed at trying to influence Hungary politically.
"How could this be in our interest?" she said, adding that the effect of the police raids was to make the civic groups feel "harassed and intimidated."
Orban's actions mark a wide-ranging transformation since 1989, when he emerged as a young political star with a speech calling for free elections and the departure of Soviet troops from the country. It was a courageous step that won him the respect of many, given that the communists were still in control.
He remained in the good graces of Western leaders for many years.
In 1998, a few months into his first stint as prime minister, he met in the Oval Office with President Bill Clinton, who said: "We are very, very excited about what is going on in Hungary, excited about his youthful and vigorous and progressive leadership."
Orban, 51, has faced repeated criticism since he returned to office in 2010 with a two-thirds majority in parliament that allowed him to start centralizing power. He overwhelmingly won re-election earlier this year after changing the elections laws to favor his party.
Western leaders almost never visit Budapest anymore, and Clinton has made clear that he is no longer excited about Orban.
"The Hungarian prime minister ... said he likes authoritarian capitalism," Clinton said last month on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show." ''But he's just saying 'I don't want to ever have to leave power.' Usually those guys just want to stay forever and make money."