An interview with Balázs Gerencsér, the head of the NIOK (Non-profit Information and Training Center) Foundation
2020.03.24.

Soros, Fidesz, civilians, lobby, socialism and the bourgeois values, plus the Vatican and the C8. Through the history of the Hungarian civil society organisations we can in fact trace the journey of Hungarian democracy. And with a little bit of luck, like we have now, our guide making sense of the chaos will be Balázs Gerencsér, the head of the NIOK (Non-profit Information and Training Center) Foundation. AN INTERVIEW BY PANNI PUSKÁS.

Revizor: The thing we call civil society today did not exist before 1989. Following the political changes, however, a lot of civil society organizations sprung up all of a sudden, so we have a reason to assume that some sort of tradition did exist during the one-party system. Is this a fair assumption?
 
Balázs Gerencsér: The researcher Éva Kuti wrote a volume of essays on the subject, with the title Let us call it non-profit. She mentions the women’s and men’s associations of yore, the book clubs of the 19th century, the history of the National Protective Association, an organization founded to support Hungarian products against the Habsburgs. In Hungary there was also a strong tradition of the ruling class supporting the poor. During the time of the communist regime most Hungarian civil society organizations were banned or were able to function under strict control only. After 1956 they were supervised by the Patriotic People's Front. You had your Zither Club, your Folk Song Association – Transylvanian songs were of course no longer allowed – there were associations of firefighters, anglers and hunters. In addition to all those, as the ideology became more and more ludicrous, from the eighties onwards groups of the Young Communists and brigades were less politicized, and they gave people an experience of community. Had world politics gone another way, these would not have been enough for a shift in power, but new spaces were created, where debates could be organized and in the small cracks there was a chance to found Fidesz – or an alternative peace movement, for example the Dialogue Peace Group. 
 
R: Was that a political organization?

BG: The regime certainly thought so, a lot of people who became well known politicians later reported on them to the secret police, but we can regard it as a very early actual civil initiative. 

R: Were these groups driven by a wish for embourgeoisement during the socialist era too?
 
BG: I am no political scientist, so I do not know precisely to what extent those ideas were linked with the bourgeoise or other Hungarian traditions. But obviously, those around sixty in the 60s and 70s still had vivid memories of the era before socialism, they remembered the freer options of cooperation. The demand for that was there during socialism too, but it was stifled. And the regime gave a green light only to activities totally lacking in politics, done for the sole intention of bringing people together in a manner approved by the power. 

R: But politics raises its head everywhere, does it not?
 

BG: And that is obviously why the regime regarded civil society as an enemy, it was crucial to keep all social interaction under control. They even wanted to lift out everyone from their families too: the concept was that they should work during the week, and celebrate the weekend in brigade movements, but under no circumstance in a traditional community or a family. When a child was born, they threw it a name giving party at the parent’s company. The goal was to organize people’s lives around work and the socialist ideology. This sometimes led to quite comical situations: I once knew someone who, before his wedding, turned out to be a member of three “churches”. What happened was that his parents first took him to the official socialist name giving ceremony at the company, then came the first granny, had him baptised a Catholic in secret, and the other granny with the help of the father, a Calvinist. And the parents never said a word about it right up until the wedding, they didn’t even tell each other. 
 
R: Does this mean that families were deemed by the socialist regime to be a form of civil society organization?

BG: Communist parties also worked on the dismantling of families, because they wanted to transform society in a way so that all its units can be supervised from an ideological point of view. So they had similar reasons for wanting to restrict civil society and the family. At the same time, they made a lot of effort to centrally organize communities, so that when the ideology was gone, and the new system was ushered in, people were able to form organizations in various areas, because they had already experienced the euphory of being together.
 
R: So do we have socialism to thank for thinking in terms of communities?
 
BG: No, but the experience of community was there all along. Civilians often recall with nostalgy, how much time people spent together in those days, and they were able to forget that they were there as the party activists in the company. On the one hand this is obviously wrong, because that was the hat they were wearing all the same, on the other hand, it is right, as they did indeed have a sense of community. 
 
R: And so came 1989. Éva Kuti calls the first period the period of tolerance, meaning that the civil society organizations were very lightly regulated. To what extent did that open doors to wrongdoings?
 
BG: In the theories of democracy the role and space of civil society organizations is much debated. It is constantly asked, what authorization a civil society organization has to interfere, for example, with the national regulation of social services. Who are they representing? They can claim to have ten-thousand members, which gives them authority, but their list of members is not public – they may very well have only two members. But even if they do have ten-thousand members, they may not be democratic internally, they may even not communicate, so we have no way of knowing what the members actually think about any given topic. Moreover, nothing is true solely on the merit of being professed by a lot of people. It is constantly debated, as it should be, how in the terms of advocacy of interests the civilian sphere can strengthen as opposed to weaken democracy. How do these processes remain transparent?
And a further problematic area is that of the quangos, something regulation has also failed to solve. The quasi NGOs are organizations without a civil background, they are formed for instance by schools, in order to be able to apply for civil tenders or to collect donations from parents. But they can be founded by other public institutions or even enterprises. For instance, an entrepreneur may have a foundation, a company and an institution, and the same owner can present the collaboration of the three spheres in a beautiful application, describing how he will join ranks with himself. In other words, all this is not yet transparent in Hungary, and the lack of regulation unquestionably enables the authorities to get rid of real civil control, or at least to make it more difficult.

R: On the other side we have the donors. How post-socialist is our attitude to donations?
 
BG: I don’t think it is. Regarding altruism a north-south polarisation is more apparent: in the countries of the south these kinds of motivations are much weaker, the manifestation of communal responsibility is more typical of northern societies. 
 
R: Since the nineties we can offer 1% of our taxes to civil society organisations. What led to the birth of this specifically Hungarian model?
 
BG: The church: the MPs of the Free Democrats wanted to control the state subsidy of churches this way. Following 1989 the state did not want to return church property, so they reached an agreement with the Vatican about 1% of the taxes that can be offered to churches. This was a cultural state fund, and in the beginning beside the churches only public artistic institutions laid claim to it, then came the local public foundations, followed by every cultural foundation, later came the social service foundations, and finally the associations. In the end, all civil society organisations became eligible, and when the churches saw that, they said they wanted a new system, because they did not want to compete with forty-thousand organizations. So Gyula Horn sat down with the papal emissaries and they negotiated the current 1 + 1 % system. 
 
R: As a layperson I find being able to dispose over 1% a good thing. Where do you stand on this as a professional?

BG: I find it good, because it draws attention to civil society organisations. We in the NIOK regard it as the training ground for donations. But there is a drawback: many people feel they can now tick the box of charity, which is not true, as we do not dispose over our own money, but over state resources. Another drawback is that people do not take too much care to whom they give the money, and a lot of it ends up in the hands of conmen. So the system does not help the cleansing of the sector. A further problem is that the state feels it has done its job, even though it would be more beneficial to the organisations if donors got a tax cut. We believe that after a while the one percent system should be progressively done away with, it is not a good idea to have it as a permanent form of donation. 

R: What would happen in Hungary, if all civil society organisations would cease to exist tomorrow?

BG: We would be poorer in many ways, life would be a lot more boring, and government would be more extreme and dictatorial. The civil society organisations have a role of control, just like the press. If people cannot team up under the banner of any cause, that leads to a totalitarian society. 

R: For a long time I did not understand why the government is so bothered by civil society organizations, and now during the municipal elections watching the work that the C8 organization did, I realized the strength such an organization may have. In your view how big an influence does this sphere have on day to day politics?
 
BG: As the opposition was weak, those in power had to go out and look for an enemy. The terrain of civil society was an obvious choice, as they represent opinions and subjects that go against the political agenda of Fidesz. And then you have the issue of lobbying, what kind of influence do certain unelected organisations have on politicians’ decisions. Fidesz was able to take advantage of this murky situation, asserting that these organisations are not really civil, they represent the opinions of certain parties or George Soros for that matter. 

R: And C8 did take a very active part in a campaign…
 
BG: The level to which a civil society organisation can engage in politics, after which it should transform into a party, is debatable. These are valid questions, they should be discussed. But instead of bashing the civil society organisations, it would be a better idea to regulate lobbying. No political leadership since 1989 has tackled that. 
But coming back to the organisations: the whole situation would be less fraught, if there were various donors in Hungary, if many rich people had done something for the invigoration of civil society. Independent donors largely left the country, we have very few of them even compared to neighbouring countries. So as long the Soros Foundation or the OSI represent a well-defined liberal set of values, any support, be it to the victims of the red sludge disaster, will fulfil a political role in the eyes of the government. If we had fifteen further influential charity organisations, polarization would be less prominent.
 Translated by Péter Papolczy

 
Szerző: Puskás Panni