Across Eastern Europe, NGOs are accused of undermining national unity for international interests. It seems that some politicians don't want citizens to get organized, the cultural anthropologist Ivaylo Ditchev writes.
"Norwegians, go away! Our children are not for sale!" Placards with these words have been carried around the streets of Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, over the past couple of months. The angry protesters are an amalgam of nationalists, religious fundamentalists and haters of the government. They bitterly disagree with a new draft law on social services in Bulgaria, just as they disagreed at the beginning of this year with the proposed "Strategy for the Child" with measures for improving child protection and, before that, with the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women. They also suspect that the state is planning to destroy the traditional Bulgarian family.
So what the Norwegians have to do with all that? Several NGOs that worked on these three projects for the government were sponsored by the EEA and Norway Grants fund. And tabloids have shocked the public with horror stories about Norway's child welfare service taking children away from their families.
This pattern keeps repeating itself. Nationalism needs enemies, and those aren't associations of Bulgarian parents, patriots, evangelicals and traditionalists, but organizations sponsored from abroad. Insults for such perceived traitors include "Sorosoid" (someone who takes money from the Hungarian-born US billionaire and philanthropist George Soros and thus "serves" him) and "grant artist" (someone who begs for grants).
Since 2017 in Bulgaria, nationalist parties have pushed for a law that would prohibit associations of magistrates from receiving foreign funding. In 2019 they pushed to have funding from outside of the European Union declared illegal. The Russia-allied Ataka party has called for banning professional organizations that deal with the law. This defense of "national sovereignty" echoes the Communist era's fight against Western imperialism.
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In 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that forced internationally funded NGOs to declare themselves "foreign agents." It targeted not only groups that engage in political activities, but also charities and civil society organizations. Nowadays, the NGO run by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny is on the list, as well as the Memorial society, which commemorates the victims of the Communist regime.
Orban vs. Soros
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has instrumentalized the demonization of Soros, a fellow Hungarian. Moreover, laws on organizations financed from abroad and a 25% tax on organizations whose work is related to migration provided a model for the authoritarian leadership of Turkey and the populist one in Italy. They provoked critical reactions from the European Commission — with no consequence.
Certainly, there is a problem with NGOs that double as public institutions and often privatize social services, with unelected and unaccountable people preparing projects that influence laws or educate vulnerable social groups. The shock of their emergence in Eastern Europe during the transition period of the 1990s was linked to the collapse of state institutions and the need for numerous public activities to be transferred to NGOs.
For a considerable part of the intelligentsia, association activities were also a way to earn some money during the difficult 1990s. This still applies today, but salaries in the private or public sector have long ago surpassed what you can make in the "third sector." However, the financial factor has left a trauma; many accumulated envy against those English-speaking people with connections to the West who seemed liberated from the hardships of their country.
Democracy under attack
There should be some consensus as to what sort of activities global sponsors can support: the rule of law, for one. If there is an understanding about common values, the origin of the funding will be less important, especially within the EU or the Euro-Atlantic space. But it is precisely those values of liberal democracy that the extreme right attacks.
Associations of citizens are an obstacle to authoritarian politicians, not only for what they do, but also because of the global public opinion they mobilize against local autocrats. Their main goal is to keep power in check. This was the reason for their import into Eastern Europe during the transition period of the 1990s. Back then, foreign sponsorship was supposed to be combined with and gradually replaced by national sponsorship. Unfortunately, even today you rarely see Bulgarian or Romanian business people sponsoring nongovernmental associations that help minorities or educate civil activists. Instead, they prefer spending their gifts on football or folk festivals. As to the state, it not only has no spare money, but is also unable to deal with the numerous new challenges emerging in our ever more complex East European societies.
So why are nationalists so angry at the foreign sponsorship of NGOs if it compensates for the lack of national funding? They simply do not want citizens to organize. Totalitarian rule, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, is possible when the nation is broken up into atomized individuals who are discouraged, lonely and mistrustful.
Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria.