Sunday

21st Jan 2018

Interview

Polish government in bid to defund NGOs

  • Participants of an NGO fair in Poland. The government plans to open its own "national centre for the development of civic society". (Photo: Adam Rostkowski)

Poland's Law and Justice government wants to clean up the country's civic sector, but NGOs fear a crackdown is coming.

Prime minister Beata Szydlo has announced the opening of a "national centre for the development of civic society," which will set priorities and oversee the financing of charities by public means.

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The government has already prepared a bill, which has not yet been published on the parliament's website. Authorities said they would consult the text with NGOs, who say they are still waiting for the opportunity.

According to a leaked draft, however, the centre will administer all public funding going to civil society. It will open its doors early next year, with Szydlo to appoint the director.

Szydlo told reporters last week that a reform was needed because "billions of zlotys… go to foundations which are subordinate to the politics of previous ruling regimes." She didn't specify to whom she was referring.

Ewa Kulik-Bielinska, a leading human rights campaigner, told EUobserver that the reform was likely a pretext to transfer public money to pro-government groups.

"Law and Justice lost power in 2007 because they hadn't realised the value of media and NGOs. In the decade since, they have been building up an alternative civil society, which helped them to power," said Kulik-Bielinska, who directs the Warsaw-based Stefan Batory Foundation, named after a 16th-century king of Poland.

She said the government was subverting civic society through sponsoring their own organisations and presenting them as representative of society at large.

"One could say that organisations such as Solidarni 2010 or Ordo Iuris are civil society, because they engage many people in their actions. But they aren't civic in terms of values," Kulik-Bielinska said.

Solidarni 2010 promotes conspiracies around the 2010 aeroplane crash that killed then-president Lech Kaczynski and a hundred other well-known figures. The association has a side project for monitoring elections, but only contests the ones that PiS loses.

Ordo Iuris is a religious fundamentalist think tank which recently tried to push through a blanket ban on safe and legal abortions. Its chairman, Aleksander Stepkowski, was deputy foreign minister in the PiS government until August.

"Democracy consists of being open to others; allowing for differing opinions," Kulik-Bielinska added.

NGO funding

She said the government will likely put pressure on their counterparts in Norway, one of the largest donors to civic life in Poland.

Oslo and Warsaw are currently negotiating an €809 million scheme for initiatives aiming to reduce social and economic disparities in Poland.

Batory has played a key role in previous rounds of the cooperation, administering a €37 million fund allotted to Poland for 2009-2014.

Kulik-Bielinska fears the government will try to use the opportunity to try and hijack the Norway grants for their own agenda.

"The Norway grants are a problem, because a lot of money is at stake, and it's going to 'wrong' priorities," she said.

Some of the money goes to watchdog activities and projects against discrimination and hate crime, which has been deemed special priorities for Poland.

"These funds are crucial. Almost nobody else is funding such initiatives in Poland," Kulik-Bielinska said.

Norway's mission to the EU told EUobserver the next operator "will be selected by an open tender process".

It said the administering body will have to be "independent of government, have regranting experience and knowledge of the sector."

Norway funds

But in the end, Norway will have to seek approval for its choice of administrating body with the Polish government, which will likely want the role to be filled by its national centre.

"The Norwegians have stood up to government pressure in the past," Kulik-Bielinska said, and cited the case of Hungary's Viktor Orban when he tried to subvert Norway funds in 2014.

"But Hungary was an exception at the time; now it's part of a global trend. Will Oslo run the risk of worsening relations with Law and Justice?" she said.

Maybe the current developments could inspire the EU to find new ways of supporting NGOs in member states, she said. Many organisations currently find it too cumbersome to apply for EU funding.

"But the EU should act, or it risks that the few NGOs we have in Poland will disappear, and there will be nobody to oppose the government," Kulik-Bielinska said.

NGOs are also under pressure as Poland's public broadcasters - recently reformed into “national media" - have been staging a defamation campaign to portray them as acting against Polish interests.

Batory has itself come under attack for its links to American financier and philanthropist George Soros, who established the foundation together with a group of Polish opposition leaders in the 1980s.

Kulik-Bielinska, who in the 1980s spent time in jail over her activities in the underground Solidarity movement, said the efforts to discredit NGOs smell a lot like communist propaganda.

“That regime also tried to label us as the lackeys of Western powers,” the rights campaigner said.

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