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Politics and the Environment in Eastern Europe

Eszter Krasznai Kovacs

Part I

1. The Dismantling of Environmentalism in Hungary

Eszter Krasznai Kovács et György Pataki

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1In contemporary Hungary, environmental movements and concerns are treated by government agencies and their representatives as oppositional to mainstream politics. There is a long history of such antagonistic positioning from around the world, particularly as dominant political ideologies premise economic growth and social development through technological innovation and the commodification of nature. Most environmentalisms, particularly those that combine ecology with social justice (Sachs, 1995), question and challenge the ideology of this developmentalist mentality and the sustainability of these goals for nature and society. This chapter will explore the ways in which the state has effectively dismantled and eliminated the independent as well as public environmental sector in Hungary. Its dismantling has been achieved by the Hungarian government at a number of scales and forms: through closed, personal, targeted and insidious means that aim at the destruction of individuals and what they represent; as well as through outright, aggressive displays of violence and legal overreach that have served to intimidate and silence.

2In the eastern European (EE) region environmental issues’ perceived legitimacy and their relation to formal government have changed drastically over the past thirty years. During authoritarian-socialist times, both official ideology and state practice were adversarial towards any bottom-up civic activities beyond seemingly apolitical cultural, sports-based, and some leisure and recreational pursuits. Not surprisingly, environmentalism was typically realised through conservation activities that remained ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’, such as synchronised bird-watching along the Danube river. These ‘hobby’ activities did not threaten or contest political relations and state power, as they did not mobilise groups or engage in commentary on governmental actions (Harper, 2006). These divisions cemented scientific and political divides, as political decision-making was not linked with environmental consequences or risk (Pavlínek and Pickles, 2000). Authoritarian-socialist regimes demonstrated no difference from free market societies regarding their developmentalist mentality, in that nature was instrumentalised for the sake of human progress.

3In the 1980s, local environmental struggles in the EE region emerged, typically related to the siting of hazardous industrial plants, and pollution incidents that endangered the health of local residents (e.g. waste incinerators and processing plants, highway construction, etc.; Snajdr, 2008; Vári, 1997). These environmental conflicts were unusual at the time because of their politicised nature, even if the apparent politics of the given conflicts typically focused on local opportunities for public participation in siting decisions (see, e.g. Faragó et al., 1989). These local environmental actions were characterised by a temporary coalition between experts of diverse kinds (ecological, medical, engineering) and local residents focused on human welfare at the local scale without explicitly advocating or articulating a systemic political-ecological critique (Vári, 1997).

4The first environmental movement in Hungary that created a space for explicitly political participation was the Danube movement ( “Duna Kör”) from the late 1980s. This environmental movement assembled a broad popular protest against the Slovak-Hungarian Gabčikovo-Nagymaros dam on the Danube. The Danube movement targeted the government’s legal-political restrictions around access to environmental information, free speech and free civic organising—in short, democratic political rights. Their powerful framing provided an opportunity for all kinds of opposition towards the authoritarian-socialist regime to unite and march together (Buzogány, 2015; Kerényi and Szabó, 2006). Haraszti (1990) considered the Danube movement as the first real movement beyond environmentalism and as an archetype of democratic pluralism (see also Corry, 2014; Reynolds, 2020).

5Immediately preceding and rapidly after the collapse of the Soviet system, environmentalism moved into the political mainstream, as both an interest that required representation and defence, and as a form of ‘party’ politics (Szabó, 2000). The adoption of multi-party democracy meant a proliferation not only of civic organising but outright activism that was frequently led by local residents. Environmentalism thus became more widespread, with local groups attempting to influence concrete development decisions and projects that gave rise to new webs of emerging stakeholders with broader political agendas. During the parliamentary election of 1990, a ‘green’ agenda was integrated into the programmes of many new political parties (for example in Hungary, Mikecz, 2017; Slovakia, Snajdr, 2008).

6Regime change also brought a new legal infrastructure and political space for civic movements. A process of professionalisation and internationalisation unfolded, including the appearance of Hungarian branches of international green organisations (Greenpeace, WWF) and the establishment of environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs) with special attention to and competence in particular policy fields (e.g. energy, mobility, waste, etc.). Harper (2006) sees this as a “post-socialist political ecology” that changed from a dissident and protest-style movement towards a “globalisation-from-below” (a Seattle-type alter-globalisation). During the 2000s, activists established explicitly eco-political organisations, most notably “Védegylet” (Protect the Future) and “Zöld Fiatalok” (Green Youth), which introduced to the Hungarian environmental scene participatory democracy, a critique of capitalism and consumerism and, at the same time, a call for social transformation towards sustainability. Beyond the performative acts of protest, two other roles were institutionalised: the role of ‘citizen watchdogs’ (Protect the Future coordinated a collaboration of green civil organisations for a ‘civic ombudsman for future generations’ that issued annual reports) and of ‘think tanks’ (Protect the Future coordinated a wide spectrum of experts producing policy briefs for particular policy fields for a sustainability transformation) (Vay, 2004). These worked to develop and demonstrate ecopolitical alternatives to a consumerism-based market society.

7Accession to the European Union (EU) in 2004 strengthened these trends and opened up new possibilities (Buzogány, 2015). The EU’s Acquis required the adoption of environmental legislation that introduced and made compulsory cross-sectoral standards and increased the political visibility and financing streams of ‘green’ civil society groups, which by implication increased the policy influence of ENGOs in Hungary (Cent et al., 2013; Mertens, 2013). In their historical review of Hungarian nature conservation policy, Mihók et al. (2017) claims that during the 1990s “the position of nature conservation within the state” was strengthened, “which resulted in the expansion of protected areas […], conservation instruments, measures and actions” (Mihók et al., 2017: 69). The ‘heyday’ of environmental representation and activism in Hungary occurred before the 2008 Global Financial Crash (GFC), when the conservation sector (i.e. national park directorates) received peak financing directly from the state (Kovács, 2017), and the renowned environmentalist László Sólyom (ex-president of the Constitutional Court of Hungary, formerly involved in Duna Kör) was elected President of the Republic of Hungary in 2005.

8While the GFC resulted in reduced monetary support, the election of the current Orbán-led Fidesz/Christian Democrat party coalition government in 2010 led to a shift in attitudinal relations towards environmentalism from state institutions and emerging public policy. Orbán is today well known for his aspirational declaration in 2014 of his desire to turn Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy’. The meaning of this undertaking in relation to natural resources and the ideological ‘place’ of environmental values and assets has become apparent in the intervening period.

9We unpack these shifts, and how they have taken place, in three parts: first, we examine the interpersonally motivated, emotionally charged and selectively targeted operation of power directed by Orbán through the reasons for the closure of a research institute. Second, we look at the structural elimination of environmental interest representation through the silent dismissal of experts from within public institutions. Third, we recount the aggressive use of violent institutions of the state against environmental civil society groups. We argue that the elimination of the environmental sector is deliberate, an outcome of direct policy and decisions within the civil service, a manipulation of media narratives, targeted sectoral attacks and denial of environmental science and expertise. These machinations reveal insights into the workings—the exclusionary practices and logic—of the Orbán-led Fidesz/Christian-Democrat super-majority government. The deliberate re-orientation of formal institutions that manage natural resources has resulted in the relaxation of environmental governance regimes that then aids elite accumulation and questionable development works, and limits public accountability and oversight of these same institutions.

10We begin below with an overview of illiberal democracy and theoretical conceptualisations for the composition and workings of the Hungarian state. We then position environmentalism and environmental expertise in relation to authoritarian state power.

Deliberate Dismantling and Authoritarianism

11In 2014, PM Viktor Orbán outlined for Hungary a politics and goal of “illiberal democracy” (see Tóth, 2014 for an English translation of PM Orbán’s speech). Also termed ‘electoral democracy’, in practice, this idea refers to a state that holds regular elections, but frequently violates the civil liberties of its citizens (Nyyssönen and Metsälä, 2021). Fundamentally, Orbán’s vision held Hungary as a nation to be constructed and organised around a set of principles that set it apart, that defined it as ‘Hungarian’ (see Tóth, 2014). In this, the Hungarian nation-state’s primary role was not to realise democracy or liberal principles such as freedom (or even the well-being of its citizens!), but to construct this community of Hungarianness around other central principles. These principles have proven, over time, to consist of a re-affirmation and organisation of society around the (heteronormative) nuclear family, Christian religiosity, and to insist that membership to such a society is predicated on a shared white ancestry. These elements are emphasised through a reimagining of history within education and public discourse; public policy campaigns against ‘Others’ who take variable forms, from foreigners to refugees; and a slew of lucrative economic and tax incentives to families to procreate, and to churches to increase their reach.

12Crucially for our purposes in this chapter, we turn our attention to the ways in which the Orbán regime has come to realise this illiberal democracy—in practice a form of soft or hybrid authoritarianism somewhere between “defective democracy and electoral authoritarianism” (Bogaards, 2009). Fundamentally, the Hungarian state’s violation of rule-of-law norms and civil liberties relies on there not being a broad public coalition that demands them, or a public that can effectively develop or protest their infringement. Far from the immediate post-Soviet period assumptions around the ‘inevitable’ route to the development of democratic and rule-of-law norms, Hungarian society has been greatly economically (neo) liberalised over the past three decades, while societally it has remained relatively closed. Its civil society sector is made up of numerous local groups that are again increasingly apolitical and focused on activities that are deemed to have minimal political risk, such as sport and leisure (Szalai and Svensson, 2018), as the Orbán government tries to administratively and financially reign in the activities and power of these groups away from politically sensitive subjects (Cox, 2020).

13In Orbán’s Hungary, public politics is undertaken through party allegiance, where there has been only one party and one (coalition) government, that of Fidesz and the Christian-Democrats. For the best part of this decade this government has controlled Parliament through a two-thirds super-majority, empowering them to change the constitution. In many ways, therefore, the state is the dominant political party, and vice versa. Key decisions and processes are not decided within transparent forums such as Parliament, but merely announced there after having been decided within closed party meetings. A dominant trend of this form of government has been state capture and repurpose, through which rent extraction for the benefit of the elite and emergent uppermiddle classes has been consolidated (Gottfried, 2019; Innes, 2014).

14This incarnation of the state has also been described as “network-building, mafia-like”, akin to an octopus, with tentacles of control everywhere (Magyar, 2013). Alternatively, the state may be conceived as an “illiberal polypore state… like a fungus, it feeds on the vital resources of the previous system at the same time as contributing to its decay” (Pető and Grzebalska, 2016). Octopedal and fungal allegories emphasise how the state operates through the interstices and elides exact capture, as the agents of authoritarian order are everywhere, and their connections are hidden. While decision-making is thus made invisible and centralised to within party and elite members’ interests (to borrow Magyar’s mafia concept, the government is an “upper-world” with a “godfather” at the top and “adopted family” below), the processes and governance of the state are at the same time made informal and widely distributed. Comfortable survival within such a nation-state for an ‘average’ citizen becomes entirely circumstantial, enormously dependent on who you know, what you know, and what resources (social, financial) a person can mobilise to get by (Polese, 2014; Polese et al., 2015; Stepurko et al., 2015).

15The maintenance of such a system relies on the ability of the central state to control key facets of its citizen’s choices, from media consumption to political alternatives. Recent geographical scholarship has highlighted the ways in which the environmental sector has been deemed a source of challenge to hybrid authoritarianism (McCarthy, 2019). This arises largely as environmentalists challenge the development status quo, seeking the prevention or minimisation of large infrastructure projects, advocating for the maintenance of nature areas, pollution controls, and so on, in order to curb the nepotistic and non-transparent ways in which mafia-states further the interests (and personal fortunes) of the few. Environmentalists also often pretend to hold democratic ideals such as transparency in decision-making and planning, insisting that citizens have a place at the table with decisions that impact them.

16We proceed below with attention to three kinds of power: first, interpersonal, second, institutional (the silencing and hollowing out of environmental expertise from within the civil service and key governmental institutions); third, societal-structural (outright attack and propaganda against civil society). All three examples demonstrate how the Orbán regime positions and values loyalty to the party line above public interest. Our consideration of the targeted attacks on a single individual as part of the demise of environmental research at St István University (within this the KTI Institute) shows how the intentions behind key decisions were not necessarily the decimation of a part of the environmental sector, but rather the elimination and ruination of a previously successful individual, with a wider institution or public being mere collateral damage. Our consideration of the silent dismissal of environmental expertise from public institutions reveals how the Orbán regime has eliminated formal environmental consultation. Outright, aggressive attacks on the civil sector demonstrate the regime’s willingness and ability to use state-funded propaganda, law and violent arms of the state to intimidate and repress. Furthermore, a reckoning with the lack of broad societal protest or response to the events described below is key to understanding how authoritarianism has emerged and been consolidated in Hungary. We will return to some consideration of (the lack of) societal responses to the events we describe in our Discussion.

Embedded in the Collapse

17Before commencing our review of the environmental sector’s decline in Hungary, a word about our own positionalities, information access and sources. For the time period covered, we have both been university-based researchers, with active fieldwork engagement, sites, and in one case, daily life in a rural area of Hungary. As individuals with personal passions for conservation and the environment, our research interests have intersected directly with the experiences and changes the environmental sector has undergone over the past decade. Alongside meeting and interviewing, independently, hundreds of farmers throughout the country, we have each engaged, in different capacities, with informal and formal work consultancies and opportunities through the different incarnations of the Environment Ministry and various national parks, and we have hobbies that are organised through civil volunteer organisations and national park directorates. One of us was also deeply involved in ecopolitical civic activism from the 1990s until 2009. For full disclosure, we also both worked as part of a small research team (one formally and one in an affiliated capacity) at the KTI Institute that is the subject of analysis below.

18Due to these personal histories, in many cases we and our close acquaintances have lived through, witnessed and directly experienced the decisions and consequences of government closure, dismissal, de-financing, and de-legitimation. Our access and histories also enable us to compare—from our own memories and experiences, but also through those of a number of generous interlocutors—the aspirations and environmental work of a decade ago, to that of today. For the purposes of this chapter, we draw on a number of conversations and interviews with colleagues at KTI, formerly (and currently) of national park directorates and ministries, and with individuals from within these fields with whom we have continued personal friendships. We have complemented assertions made regarding budget cuts and ministerial decisions with external sources, drawing from widely circulated and publicly available governmental speeches, blogs and press coverage to piece together what may at first appear to be a fragmented story.

Interpersonal Workings of Authoritarian Power: The Demise of KTI

19During the summer of 2014, media reports filtered through the following decision released by the St István University Senate under the title “rationalisation”:

There is ongoing organisational restructuring […] that aims to produce organisational units of a professionally clean profile. Within this restructuring, the scope of duties of the six departments of KTI will be reorganised into two institutes […] which enables a more rational and manageable operation from a management and governance perspective
SzIE, 2014

20This official text, appealing to rational management and efficient governability, signalled one of the most irrational decisions made by a Hungarian university in the post-transition period. The decision of university administration to “restructure” and thus effectively eliminate a successful academic unit cannot be understood through common higher education measures of success. The call to rationalisation made invisible and diminished KTI’s academic and professional achievements. At the time of the announcement, KTI was the only institute of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences that contributed a positive financial balance to the faculty budget. Researchers at KTI brought in more EU-funded projects than all other institutes of the university together. Two education programmes run by KTI (agri-environment and nature conservation engineering) were the most popular bachelor’s and master’s qualifications in terms of applications; and KTI faculty served as policy advisors to public administration at multiple levels in Hungary. The decision to close the institute and the way in which this closure occurred can only be understood with reference to the interpersonal relations between the institute’s director and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and the latter’s prerogative of maintaining Fidesz party loyalty.

21KTI was formed in 1990 as an interdisciplinary institute at the intersection of agriculture, rural development and sustainability studies, singular in the country for its policy-oriented research and interdisciplinary education and commitment to rural revival that aligned nature conservation with small-scale sustainable agriculture. The remit of the institute was unique in the Hungarian—and arguably regional—context, as the institute aimed to train not agricultural technical specialists, but people who could think about the countryside holistically. This holism was clearly manifested in the agri-environmental engineering education programme, which attempted interdisciplinarity through integrating ecological, biological, engineering, environmental, social scientific and humanities approaches to farming and rural development.

22KTI’s director from the mid-1990s was Professor József Ángyán, who had a reputation not only academically, but as a prominent advocate for farmers’ rights and rural sustainability. Ángyán was a widely recognised national figure. He personally spearheaded public-policy programmes for rural development that focused on the interests of small-scale, less commercially oriented family farmers. Further, he had a widely documented role in organising successful farmer protests in 2005 against the then Gyurcsány government’s handling of new EU agricultural payments (direct EU support for farmers commenced after Hungary’s accession to the EU in 2004). As two rural field researchers ourselves, we personally experienced the wider recognition and esteem for Ángyán’s name during our own fieldwork, where even in the most remote and far-flung places we were asked, “Do you know Professor Ángyán?!”

  • 2 Ángyán has now given a series of public interviews about this time and its promises, for example, s (...)

23Ángyán’s Christian-democratic ideological stance and recognised commitment to the agricultural community were crucial to the political uptake of KTI’s academic ideas. His renown led to his being approached directly by Orbán and Fidesz representatives to stand within the Fidesz faction for the 2010 parliamentary elections (he had been an independent MP since 2006), and to give his name and rural development strategy to Fidesz as its own policy. The hope was that Ángyán’s standing within a crucial demographic of rural voters would provide an aura of authenticity to Fidesz in the countryside. After Orbán’s win, Ángyán was appointed Under-Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, where Ángyán hoped that his appointment would give rise to an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration between agriculture, nature conservation and rural development in public administration.2

24Such high hopes receded as it became clear that there were enormous discrepancies between Ángyán’s rural development vision (which was available on the ministry’s website until early 2019) and the actual operation and realisation of its agenda. From 2011, EU agricultural and rural development funding was redirected towards agribusinesses. Land policy also presented an opportunity for elite capture, as twenty-year government leases expired and required renewal at this time. In contrast to Ángyán’s public statements about making this and other land available to family small-holders, a high proportion of state lands were first leased and then sold to those with demonstrable ties to the political elite, and who were in fact neither local, nor farmers (Ángyán, 2018, 2016; Gonda, 2019).

25As an MP Ángyán contested and highlighted this divergence. According to interviews and personal accounts provided since, this scrutiny was regarded by Orbán as an act of ‘betrayal’ of Fidesz, for which Ángyán experienced real consequences. Soon after Ángyán’s public resignation, the communications about the KTI restructuring and rationalisation began within the university. Over a single summer, legislative policy was passed by the Hungarian Parliament whereby all higher education institutes were deprived by law of the autonomy to choose their own academic (rector) and economic (later called chancellor) managers. These positions were subsequently appointed by the government: the Dean of St István University immediately initiated “organisational restructuring” that led to the “professionally clean profile” whereby KTI was closed down, and one man’s career achievement was erased. In addition to KTI’s closure, the Ángyán-developed ‘agri-environmental engineering studies’ was removed by government decree as a recognised bachelor’s diploma from the official list of higher education programmes. Over the following two years, KTI workers were gradually released from contract and disbanded to different departments and institutes, while others resigned and left St István University as an act of protest.

26KTI’s closure may be read as a highly individual, personalised story of revenge against a single person, as Professor Ángyán broke ranks and attempted to draw widespread public attention to Fidesz’s rural development policy and nepotistic land allocations. The decimation of Ángyán’s achievements served as an example and warning to continuing Fidesz party faithfuls, many of whom were also duly rewarded for their parts. For example, Csaba Gyuricza, a former student of Prof. Ángyán, became the University’s new dean in 2014. Soon after Gyuricza oversaw the closure of the institute in which he had studied, he was next appointed to the directorship of the National Agricultural Research and Innovation Centre (today he is the appointed Rector responsible for the restructuring of the now renamed St István University—from January 2021 known as the Hungarian University of Agricultural and Life Sciences).

27The lack of personal solidarities or public protest in response to the undermining of a respected individual and of a successful, internationally recognised institute are also integral parts of this narrative: fellow parliamentarian ministers admitted to not having the “freedom” to speak in Ángyán’s support (Nagy, 2020); critical accounts of KTI’s closure only appeared in independent blogs and not the wider media (see e.g. Greenfo, 2014). This speaks to the systemic, ingrained nature of these power plays and decisions. KTI’s closure was significant in Hungarian educational and research life, as the institute had been the most successful of its kind in the country: the place that farmers’ kids went to train. In turn, these events merely preceded similar actions by the Orbán regime to institutionally re-develop (and effectively privatise) the wider higher education and academic sector, a process that is ongoing today (see the fate of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and—as of January 2021—almost all public universities in Hungary).

28Thus within three years of Orbán’s re-election, state power was informed by personal enmity and vengeance rather than any ‘rational’ decision-making process. Within Fidesz party meetings, Orbán let it be known that Ángyán would be “punished”: Orbán did not publicly fire nor even reprimand Ángyán, as he allegedly told Ángyán that, “we will not make a martyr out of you,” (personal communication, see also Nagy, 2020). This is the realisation of Magyar’s mafia-state theory against ‘traitors’ who fail to adhere to the party line, and who must be punished: Ángyán’s punishment was to see the institutional decimation of his life’s work in education. The concept of the mafia-state transposes the internal logics of mafia networks, where fealty to the ‘family’ takes precedence above all else and is enforced. The ease with which university institutions and degree programmes were re-ordered administratively and bureaucratically is a result of the absolute majority the Orbán government enjoys in parliament, which allows them to rule by decree. This case also demonstrates the extensive reach, personal connections and ability of this government to transpose and allocate new roles to party acolytes willing to undertake actions deemed necessary by superiors.

Institutional Take-over: Dismissal of Experts from within Public Administration

29This section summarises and documents the ever-more direct elimination of environmental expertise and evidence-based decision-making systems from within formal state environmental institutions in Hungary, such as its ministries and the country’s national park directorates. It should, however, be emphasised that the weakening of the actual implementation capacities of environmental regulation had started much earlier than the second Orbán government. Previous analyses have shown that several institutional adjustments stemming from the environment-related legal requirements of the EU accession process resulted in higher workloads and fewer available resources for environmental street-level bureaucrats. In particular, field-level environmental activities, including site controls, had previously lost out owing to institutional restructuring (Jávor and Németh, 2008; 2007). The ruling socialist-liberal coalition governments of the early 2000s gave clear policy priority to economic growth and investors’ interests over environmental values and community needs (e.g. by loosening the control capacity of environmental regulation over large infrastructural investments, declaring them to be of national interest, etc.).

30From 2010 onwards, the second Orbán government aimed to trim the number of people working within the civil service. In practice these changes were carried out at great cost to the environment sector. In 2010, the Ministry for Environment and Water was closed, and responsibility for water-related public administration was transferred to the Ministry for Internal Affairs. The competency and power of environment and nature conservation efforts were seriously reduced as they were transferred to the Ministry for Rural Development (currently the Ministry for Agriculture). The political representation of nature conservation suffered the most: since these changes, “there has been no separate deputy state secretary position for nature conservation” in the Hungarian government (Mihók et al., 2017: 70).

  • 3 Prior to 2015, governmental environment offices worked at the regional level, which was the same ad (...)

31Regional environmental agencies came to the same fate. The Hungarian environmental street-level bureaucracy consisted of a regional system of environmental state authorities and national park directorates. The former exercised power to monitor industrial plants and factories and to initiate on-site inspections. There are ten national park directorates organised regionally across the country, that used to hold state legal authority (implementation power) for nature conservation. In 2015, regional environmental agencies were deprived of their organisational autonomy for implementation and decision-making as a result of government restructuring and were integrated into county-level government offices at a department level. Essentially, these changes meant that local oversight was eliminated, with responsibility for any local issues placed within more ‘macro’ institutions that were also responsible for other issues.3 This constituted a clear downgrading of regulatory power of the environmental sector and has made it easier for governments to overrule advice and assessment regarding the environment and nature conservation. County office managers are today politically appointed, often without environmental qualifications, expertise or experience, in contradistinction to earlier times. They frequently override the professional environmental opinions of their lower-ranked colleagues. These changes have not been remarked upon by the European Commission and other EU institutions.

32In addition to these losses in regulatory oversight powers, the Hungarian government has financially starved the environmental sector. In 2012, the ombudsman for constitutional rights commissioned a study on the impacts of economic-crisis management by the Orbán government. The report concluded that, among other vulnerable and marginalised social groups (e.g. the homeless) and social sectors (e.g. health and social policy), a major economic loser had been the environmental sector (Szajbély, 2013). The dramatic decline in budgetary support can be demonstrated through national park directorates: in 2008 government finance amounted to 52.2 % of park expenses; in 2011, the same figure was 15.9 % (Kovács, 2017). Conservation projects today exist almost entirely through European Commission grants, specifically from LIFE, LIFE+, and less frequently Horizon 2020 financing (ibid.). Centralisation has also increased: all revenues from environmental charges and fees have been redirected to the central government budget instead of being earmarked and used by state environmental agencies, as was previously the case.

33There have been sizeable staff lay-offs between 2012 and 2019: in 2012, 25 % of staff were made redundant from the environmental under-secretariat of the Ministry for Rural Development relative to 2011; in the autumn of 2018, in the name of “reducing unnecessary bureaucracy”, 44 % of nature conservation experts at the Ministry of Agriculture lost their jobs (this was characterised as a “bloodbath” by the few independent blogs that covered the story).4 The most recent dismissals have been devastating to ongoing projects and the continuity of programmes. The immediate outcome has been a skeleton staff working on projects, and a lack of environmental expertise to draw from in public policy decisions. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture no longer has a Natura 2000 taskforce (as a result of contract termination and resignation), such that these areas no longer have a management group at the national level, and local managers are unclear as to their point of contact. The concrete reasons for staff dismissal from these areas are open to conjecture. The Orbán government has frequently stated that its civil sector is bloated, but the environment sector has been disproportionately cut. This has had significant consequences for the systems of oversight relating to nature areas and land users, and has led to the diminishment of environmental protection voices from the wider public arena.

  • 5 2020 XL law on the settlement of land ownership of producer cooperatives plots and amending certain (...)

34These patterns within the Ministry in Budapest are replicated across the country. As the Hungarian government sought a sleeker civil service, numerous hiring freezes were instigated over the past five years, such that governmental agencies have often been unable to hire individuals to work on even externally-funded projects. As the majority of conservation initiatives today are externally funded, undertaken by national parks, the parks’ inabilities to employ staff mean that they are unable to complete these projects. In 2010, the second Orbán government changed the directorship of a number of national parks, instating in leadership roles individuals without backgrounds or training in conservation. Over time, leadership changes from the top gradually gave rise to changes throughout regional offices. Several office managers describe a greater push from ministerial levels to make a profit from national-park managed land, in particular from forests and agricultural areas. Consequently, national parks have heavily invested in agricultural mechanisation and livestock on their own territories, effectively instigating competition with surrounding land users. National parks were formally recognised as agricultural land users in the updated 2020 land law, which designated them “agriculture producer organisations”.5

35Biodiversity and mapping assessments and production plans for arable lands and forests are no longer circulated in-house within national parks, due to perceptions from management that biologists’ opinions on plans are ‘obstructionist’. As a consequence, the ratio of technical staff (i.e. agricultural engineers, foresters) has grown relative to those with biology or ecological skills. Formerly prevalent decision-making pathways within national park offices have been sidelined, if not formally scrapped.

36The dismantling of the governmental environmental sector through dismissal, financial starvation and dilution of expert opinion and decisions has widespread practical consequences. These include inadequate or negligent management of conservation areas, and the greenlighting of formerly protected areas for the benefit of private or large infrastructure projects. Many former workers in the environment sector have moved into non-governmental or entirely unrelated roles, or taken early retirement, suggesting a significant brain-drain of expertise and commitment.

37The weakening of the sector has been the work of successive governments. While the primacy of business interests over environmental ones, corruption and non-transparent decision-making pathways have been features of all governments (whether conservative, liberal or socialist) from the 1990s onwards, the period after 2010 has seen an acceleration and normalisation of these trends: “a stronger fusion of economic and state power” (Scheiring and Szombati, 2020: 727). Cuts to the civil service have also effectively streamlined numerous development proposals of the “accumulative state” (Scheiring, 2019) that were previously caveated or obstructed by environmental considerations. The concept of the accumulative state describes Hungary’s developmentalist path since 2010 as a new alliance between domestic and foreign capital and the political elite. Orbán has effectively chosen an authoritarian strategy to intensify the embeddedness of the Hungarian economy in the neoliberal operation of global value chains dominated by transnational companies (Scheiring and Szombati, 2020). The authoritarian re-structuring of governance institutions ( “the foundations of Hungary’s polity, society and economy”, Scheiring and Szombati, 2020: 722) led to the gradual dismantling of independent state bureaucracy and its associated expertise (including all levels of environmental administration), democratic checks and balances. This was accomplished through the purchase of the majority of available media, with the active assistance of domestic and foreign investors, which enabled an effective governmental propaganda machine to take root (such that alternative or dissident voices are not aired or heard). Orbán’s parliamentary super-majority has led to the government’s rewriting of the Hungarian constitution into a modifiable, so-called “fundamental law”, which no longer contains effective protections for the rights of citizens to a healthy environment. A further prong in this authoritarian consolidation was the limitation of the independence of courts, which has had dire implications for the enforcement of community and citizen environmental interests through the law (see Pech and Scheppele, 2017 for an overview of these processes).

38The accumulative state builds smoothly upon a mantra of economic growth and transnational capital interests, which are hindered by a strong environmental sector (as well as environmental expertise within state bureaucracy and civil society organisations). In the same vein, all direct democratic institutions, and those that lobby for citizen participation, transparency and control over decision-making, pose the same hindrance to the accumulative interests of the state and transnational capital. Below, we outline the current status of the civil society sector and the aggressive displays of power it has endured in recent times.

Attacks and Silencing: The Civil Society Sector

39In many countries, the most articulate and passionate environmental campaigners are found in the non-governmental and civil sector. Under emergent authoritarian regimes, the legitimacy of civil society organisations is questioned as they are demarcated as foreign and unelected and thus ‘undemocratic’.

40With hindsight, the 1980s environmental movement held promise that never materialised in the region. During the 1990s, globalisation saw the establishment, expansion and influence of international conservation organisations. These agencies are typically headquartered overseas, are better-financed than local, organic outfits, and have brought in conservation projects and financing forms, with the expectation that local conservation actors would adopt and play catch-up. This model of development and mimicry, termed “projectification” by Adrian Swain (2007), is one where development and conservation operate only project-to-project and are financed almost entirely by external funding sources. Throughout eastern Europe this sort of projectification has appeared in the form of the European Commission’s LIFE projects, or through the CAP’s rural development or Leader Programme.

41The Orbán government applies a political rhetoric that questions the existing NGOs’ representative nature within Hungarian society. This approach has extended to accusing groups financed by foreign foundations of meddling in domestic affairs by importing foreign expectations and norms. The best example of how such accusations have played out is the fate of the Norwegian Foundation (NF). During late 2014 (as KTI was also ‘rationalised’), after months of public statements from the then deputy PM János Lázár questioning the integrity and mission of the NF, the police-led National Bureau of Investigation raided the offices of NGOs that were the recipients of financing from the NF, such as Ökotárs (the Environmental Partnership Foundation). The raids were conducted to intimidate: inspectors and detectives used force to access offices, and raided the private homes of NGO directors (actions that were later found to be illegal and a breach of due process, as there was no accusation of criminal activity). The allegations against the NF (and its selected in-country representatives, such as Ökotárs) from the Orbán government were that it only financed Hungarian organisations that were politically aligned with its left-leaning, progressive ideals. These outfits acted in ways oppositional to the ruling government, and as such, the NF allocated money in a biased, subjective way. Second, recipients were accused of spending their grants non-transparently and failing to follow due procedure with their funds.

42Due legal inquiry cleared the NF and NGOs of wrong-doing, and these actions were never about criminal liability. However, the scandal set the stage for the next phase of governmental attack. First, these organisations’ names were besmirched and widely questioned by a partisan media. Political criticisms of NGOs’ lack of embeddedness within society are somewhat founded, and several environmental NGOs do struggle to demonstrate local support for their conservation messages. In this context, environmentalists can be relatively easily delegitimised through government-controlled press and spokespeople, through an ideological positioning of them as working for the ‘Other’—and thus by extension being an ‘Other’. They are branded as not operating in the interests of the nation or Hungarian civil society, but as bought out (and brought in) by foreign interests.

  • 6 In February 2021, the European Court of Justice initiated further proceedings against the Hungarian (...)

43Second, claims that NGOs operate under a democratic deficit were a core component of Orbán’s ‘illiberal democracy’ outlined in late July 2014. A new system of government oversight into foreign funds to NGOs was passed by the Hungarian Parliament in 2017 (Lex NGO, Act no. LXXVI): this legal package requires all CSOs to publicly brand and register their sources of finance, even from individuals, and to state that they are recipients of foreign financing on any correspondence, advertising or marketing. These rules apply compulsorily to NGOs working in the human rights and environmental fields, while other sectors (such as business or private companies, or those financed by the Hungarian government), are exempt. The law also created a public list of all organisations registered under this act.6

44An important feature of the outright aggressive disciplining of the civil society sector is that the Orbán-led government controls definitions and narratives, determining who is viewed as ‘in’ or ‘out’. Today, the government has gradually co-opted civil society by financing organisations that are its allies, such that an “uncivil” illiberal society has emerged (see Molnár, 2020). The lack of local connections and societal buy-in for most NGOs has facilitated the increased use of repressive tactics such as those documented above, and the expanding reach of Orbán’s rightist and Magyar-centric ideology. The aggressive machinations of intimidation and closure were trialled and executed by the Orbán government initially on the environmental sector, and subsequently extended to any other sphere that may hold independent or critical (and thus potentially anti-government) collectives (see for example the current machinations around the higher education sector).


45The environmental sector experienced a difficult decade in Hungary between 2010 and 2020. It has been subject to political attack and greatly reduced state financial (and ideological) support, mass redundancies and a hollowing out of research and governmental institutes, which has also resulted in the dismantling or dilution of decision-making pathways within environmental agencies.

  • 7 This regulation explicitly referred to the effective implementation of EU-funded projects, but has (...)

46In this context, large infrastructural and development projects requiring environmental assessments become mere rubber-stamp additions to plans. It is important to recognise that Fidesz has only built on and expanded the legal inventions of the previous socialist-liberal coalition government, which simplified and sped up investments deemed to be of national economic significance (see Act no. LIII of 2006).7 Underpinning the success of the Orbán regime’s moves against the environmental sector is its communications strategy, achieved through a media coup of TV, radio, newspapers and increasingly even online media, via the purchase of these outlets by domestic and foreign Fidesz-friendly entrepreneurs and capitalists. In addition, key government figures frequently speak mockingly of environmental issues, belittling the perceived “urgency” of climate change relative to other changes they deem more of a threat, such as immigration (as for instance uttered by the Speaker of the House, László Kövér; see Simon, 2020). These derogations underscore the weakness of the environmental sector, which due to its inherent fragmentation, lack of social embeddedness and media access, struggles to respond or gain ground.

47Societal responses have also been muted or absent. A notable exception were the responses to Lex NGO in 2017, when an NGO umbrella organisation launched petitions and a number of street demonstrations, appealing to Europe and Europeans for solidarity.8 On the whole, however, these protests remained localised in urban centres. While the Orbán government seeks to diminish the voice, reach and strength of the environmental community, it is also crucially able to do so because of the current economic and social divisions and state of Hungarian society, wherein environmentalism is not a widespread, shared concern.

48Political attacks on the sector serve not only to sideline environmental messages, but also to socially fragment and silence parts of society that are viewed as oppositional to government. Political ecology conceives of social, economic and environmental alternatives as having “their own bases in power complexes situated in social movements, trade unions or the forces of civil society, and are distinctive in their use of more informal media of thought, discussion and dissemination” (Watts and Peet, 2004: xiv). Clamping down on these alternatives and their methods of communication; questioning and undermining their very legitimacy removes the option for the promulgation, let alone adoption, of alternatives. The lack of development of the environmental sector is an outcome of the deliberate undermining of the civil society sector as a whole, and thus represents a telling case study for ‘illiberal democracy’ realised.

49Achieving an ‘illiberal democracy’ in the Hungarian context requires the redirection of the country’s economy and development trajectory down a deeply neoliberal pathway as well as clamping down on any third sector that jeopardises or effectively criticises that pathway. The dismantling of the environment sector has had broad socio-political and environmental consequences. Ineffective government agencies today rubber-stamp decisions and deflect attention from otherwise valid environmental considerations, leading to a reduction in environmental standards and management, and the degradation of conservation areas. Natural resources are largely ‘up for grabs’ as established systems of oversight (and even European-level protection, as with Natura 2000 areas) no longer have the capacity to enforce rules (or are granted outright permission to build on protected Natura 2000 wetland, as in the case of an Audi factory near Győr). The re-allocation of resources and industries is also in full swing—see the land issue over which Ángyán resigned from his post—with the rules written and modified to suit the access of local elites.

50Our documentation of the progressive weakening and effacement of environmental expertise in higher education, public administration, and the civil or third sector in this chapter makes clear the authoritarian state’s obsession with all-encompassing power. The story of KTI in particular underscores the naivety of expectations that positive societal visions or values are required for the operation and realisation of governmental plans. The seemingly interpersonal clash between Ángyán and Orbán includes instead a general message and, perhaps more importantly, a warning to those inside the ruling elite about the costs and risks of speaking out, as compared to strategies of party and personal loyalty.

51The deliberate dismantling of environmental public administration demonstrates the same synergies between the interests of an authoritarian state and global corporate actors. This synergy is not at all unique to the Hungarian case and, most probably, provides an answer as to why this dismantling has gone virtually unnoticed within the European Union. Despite the authoritarian turn and some negative attention and rhetoric around Hungary’s ‘rule of law failures’ from the EU, there is at the same time a strategic alliance between the Orbán regime and European and other multinational corporations. In the current context, where environmental administrations are resource-poor and politically controlled, any environmental commitments by these global market players may be deemed remarkable: the underlying dynamics of the “accumulative state” is one primarily interested in “having more” and “growing bigger and faster”, as opposed to any concerns for the general well-being of citizens (Scheiring, 2019).

52The neoliberalised Hungarian context is also evident if we look at the struggles of local communities. The power of capital, legally backed by the Orbán regime, has overwhelmed the playing field against the rights of citizens for a healthy environment. Contemporary environmental struggles tend to mirror those of the socialist-authoritarian era of the 1970s and ’80s: local residents try to bring forward their own well-being interests against the profit accumulation interests of the alliance between state and big capital. The politically threatened and resource-weakened ENGO sector cannot be of much help to these local environmental struggles. Apolitical tendencies have reemerged amongst Hungarian ENGOs, instead of explicitly political ecological commitments. Therefore, the dismantling of environmentalism in Hungary shows that authoritarian political institutional arrangements may well serve both the accumulative interests of global market actors (private corporations) and the state.



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2 Ángyán has now given a series of public interviews about this time and its promises, for example, see Nagy, 2020.

3 Prior to 2015, governmental environment offices worked at the regional level, which was the same administrative unit as the national parks. With the elimination of regional offices, only the county-level oversight offices remain. Importantly, environmental expertise within national parks has remained at the regional level, meaning that coordination has become difficult, with county offices not solely responsible for environmental oversight, meaning these issues have become watered down, and with overall fewer people working on these issues.


5 2020 XL law on the settlement of land ownership of producer cooperatives plots and amending certain laws on land matters, see

6 In February 2021, the European Court of Justice initiated further proceedings against the Hungarian government for failing to address its earlier June 2020 judgement, which found that Lex NGO breached fundamental freedoms contained in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, namely, the free movement of capital, right to privacy, and freedom to associate. See and

7 This regulation explicitly referred to the effective implementation of EU-funded projects, but has in practice contributed to reductions in transparency and accountability for all government-supported development projects.



Lecturer in Environment, Society and Politics at University College London. Her research looks at how conservation and environmental management are thought about and realised between ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’, such as between the urban and rural, the European west and east, the Global North and South. She has a particular interest in farming and food systems and agricultural policy’s effects on biodiversity, water and farmers’ livelihoods.

Senior Researcher for the Environmental Social Science Research Group (ESSRG), an independent research SME. He belongs to the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE) and is interested in diverse research streams ranging from biodiversity and ecosystem services to solidarity economy and social innovation. He is committed to participatory and action-oriented research methodologies and practices.

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