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Civil Society a Catalyst for Democratic Development of Hungary

Communism was not kind to Hungary. Basic freedoms enjoyed by the West were all but
nonexistent under Soviet rule. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), few as they were, depended
on the state for funding. Even today, Hungarian CSOs have yet to fully establish themselves.
Their vital role in ensuring the success of the country’s free market reforms still depends,
somewhat ironically, on the private sector’s ability to secure their financial independence from
the state.

Civil initiatives impact the political system and the foundations of society. During the Soviet era,
civil society had to follow the regime’s example by supporting the official political ideology of the
time. The freedom of assembly was nonexistent. This situation crippled the development of civil
initiatives. If one were deemed an enemy of the state, he lost not only his job, but also the
opportunity to continue his studies at university. Toward the end of the Soviet system, the
Samizdat movement led a grassroots initiative by distributing illegal papers to inform the society
and try to change the political system.

During the transition period spanning 1988 and 1990, civil movements played an instrumental
role in managing the country’s political transformation. The Opposition Round Table was formed
by Independent Lawyers Forum and associations such as Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Party) while the
SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats) was involved in negotiating the future of Hungary. This body
was to guarantee that the successor of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party would not amass
the same stifling political power wielded by the Soviet regime.

Foremost among all the problems which hindered civil society was the absence of Western know-
how and civil society traditions. It was difficult to reconstruct a country which was economically
feeble and whose civil society was trained to obey the state. The people wanted change, the end
of excessive state power, and the implementation of a free market, but 50 years of Soviet control
had and continues to have a negative impact on Hungary’s democratic transition. People must
now learn to lead the country by founding civil society organizations, staffing them appropriately,
and managing their financial stability. Of particular concern is the ability of these organizations to
establish their financial independence, the most important guarantor of impartiality. If the state
plays an outsize role in determining the source and application of funds destined for civil society,
both freedom of speech and freedom of expression can quickly become compromised.

The privatization of former state-run enterprises did not meet with success. Some were
privatized by businessmen linked to the former regime. In this instance, the greatest problems
were the lack of a Western approach to business management and the absence of a state
institution able to set the direction of companies' operations. The Hungarian economy was in
flux, making it difficult for enterprises to find their place in the then-unfinished free market. In
Western Europe, these enterprises were rebuilt with the US’ aid and management. In Central
Europe, this kind of management was unknown. The role of enterprises in a society is twofold.
On one hand, the state has the unique ability to ensure sufficient financial support for NGOs by
stabilizing the economy. On the other hand, enterprises can give NGOs the ultimate gift: financial
independence from the state. This kind of support encourages the civically engaged to criticize
their political leaders when and where appropriate because they can do so without unduly risking
their financial lifeblood.

In times of financial crisis, as is currently the case in parts of Europe, shrinking capital flows lead
to the weakness of civil society organizations. Meanwhile, NGOs must still perform those tasks
which cannot be effectively managed by the state. Consider, for example, providing marginalized
social groups with the training they need in order to be productive members of society. This vital
role is typically played by NGOs.

Civil society can be the driving force behind social renewal thanks to its special ability to foster
collaboration. While political parties fight for the maintenance of their power, civil society’s
leaders cooperate when rethinking the current situation. They have the special task of allocating
their resources, whether human or capital, to effect a change. Whereas the most basic financial
needs of the NGO are covered by public funds, such organizations take the “investment
approach” to their activities by attracting private capital. In so doing, they ensure not only their
own future but also that of the country by drawing limited amounts of liquidity from public
sources. This has the added function of distancing NGOs from government, enabling them to
operate on a democratic basis while also achieving their ultimate goal: democratic renewal.

Agnes Balla is an expert in international relations at Demokrator Foundation in Budapest and
Brussels.