Barack Obama on the threat to civil society in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Hungary

American presidents are lining up against the Hungarian prime minister and his illiberal state. On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Bill Clinton said that “there’s the authoritarian capitalism model which is Russia and in a different way China, and it has some appeal. Like the Hungarian Prime Minister – they owe a lot to America; he just said he liked authoritarian capitalism, just saying ‘I don’t ever want to have to leave power’ – usually those guys want to stay forever and make money. And there’s the democracy model …” This was not an off-the-cuff remark. A few days earlier he said essentially the same thing in an interview with James Bennet in the Atlantic Magazine. He talked about different political models, among which “there is a contest here in the world today…. There’s autocratic governments trying to take advantage of market opportunities—what [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán embraced the other day.” Clinton was obviously familiar with the Hungarian prime minister’s by now infamous speech, which was described in a footnote as “a headline-grabbing speech” calling for Hungary to abandon its “liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world.”

The official Hungarian reaction to Clinton’s remarks was predictable. Péter Szijjártó, who at the time was not yet minister of foreign affairs and trade (which he now is), said that the former president “was conned.” It’s been a long time since Bill Clinton visited Hungary and therefore, I assume it follows, he is ignorant. Period.

Viktor Orbán’s “headline-grabbing speech” reached a lot of people, including the current president of the United States, who addressed the 2014 annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. His speech concentrated on the importance of civil society. He pointed out that “it was citizens here in America who worked to abolish slavery, who marched for women’s rights and workers’ rights and civil rights. They are the reason I can stand here today as President of the United Sates.” Moreover, support of civic groups is in the interest of the United States. “Countries that respect human rights–including freedom of association–happen to be our closest partners. That is not an accident. Conversely, when these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism.  So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.”

Which countries suppress human rights?

From Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive.  In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate.  From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.  And around the world, brave men and women who dare raise their voices are harassed and attacked and even killed.

Obama Clinton Global Initiative

A Hungarian blogger who happens to be a conservative took the president’s words seriously. He entitled his post “Hungary at a crossroads” and added, “Obama said that Hungary had decided already: it fixed its place next to Russia, China, Kenya, Egypt, Burma, Azerbaijan, etc.”  Moreover, he wrote, Obama made it clear in his speech that “there is no gray zone, there is no Hungarian trickery, there is no double talk. We either stand next to Burma or next to the United States.”

In his address Obama announced a series of new steps that the United States will take to strengthen civil society where there is need. Yesterday he issued a presidential memorandum in which he instructed federal departments and agencies to pay close attention to civil society groups. Specifically, the United States “will oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression.” The United States will create “new innovation centers to empower civil society groups around the world.” NGOs will be able to use these centers “to network and access knowledge and technology and funding that they need to put their ideas into action.” Finally, the United States will increase “support to society groups across the board [and] will increase emergency assistance to embattled NGOs.” The Treasury Department will be instructed to “finalize regulations so it’s even easier and less costly for your foundations to make grants overseas.”

All that is good news for the embattled Hungarian NGOs and the four distribution centers currently under attack. Norway will no longer have to stand alone in its defense of Hungarian civil society. It also may mean that more funding will be forthcoming from American sources to Hungary. After all, Hungary is a unique case. The other countries Obama referred to are in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia. Hungary is the odd man out in this company, and that might attract the attention of donors in the United States. The importation of Putin’s methods into the European Union would be a dangerous precedent which, especially given the current international situation, should not be tolerated.

Obama spoke and Hungary’s shaky reputation abroad received yet another blow. How did Hungarian politicians react to the news that Hungary was compared to some of the worst dictatorships in the world? The usual way. Szijjártó basically called the American president a liar because the president’s remark about “the Hungarian government’s placing any restriction on Hungarian civil society lacks all foundation … because the Hungarians are freedom-loving people.” When Lajos Kósa, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, was asked to comment on Obama’s inclusion of Hungary on a list of countries that harass NGOs, his answer was that “Obama is most likely not entirely familiar with current Hungarian affairs.” For example, it is unlikely that he knows what the third largest city of Hungary is. Then he turned to the reporter from Klubrádió and asked him whether he knows which city it is. The reporter gave the wrong answer when he said it was Miskolc. (Actually it is Szeged.)  Kósa triumphantly exclaimed, “You see!” I assume that means that he did not know the correct answer either. The botched moral of the story: if you don’t know which city is third largest in Hungary you are most likely totally ignorant of everything that goes on under Viktor Orbán’s rule.

Magyar Nemzet is silent. So is Magyar Hírlap. But the Orbán government’s new so-called English-language online paper added these sentences to the news about the speech itself. “Obama has criticized Hungary because of the recent scandal of the Foundation ‘Ökotárs’…. Barack Obama could have the opportunity to share his concerns with János Áder, since the Hungarian president is on official visit in New York this week.” The fault lies with Obama; he should have consulted with Hungary’s president to learn the truth about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the civil groups before he spoke. One could laugh at all these pitiful reactions if the situation weren’t so terribly serious.


  1. Well it’s about time my President showed some anger in relation to Hungary’s evolution towards a Eurasian block led by Putin. But he had his chance to seriously move against Hungary for breaching democratic principles at the recent NATO summit where he could have raised the question of suspending Hungary from NATO. The Soros Foundation or other US based can’t fix the civil society issues in Hungary without the population of Hungary grasping what an international rouge nation Hungary is seen as internationally. Something more dramatic than beefing up NGOs is required.

    I would also say that former President Clinton does not seem to grasp that we are not talking about just authoritarian capitalism in Russia and China, but rather what can be called state capitalism similar to the fascist corporative state or gangster capitalism. A new economic form has evolved out of the socialist economies that may actually be subject to different economic cycles and downturns than western capitalism. I think a fundamental intellectual error is being exhibited in President Clinton’s presentation on authoritarian capitalism, it’s not just about free elections and civil freedoms it’s about how the economics of these societies are linked to the political superstructure of these nations.

  2. Orban won’t stop persecuting the NGOs, see today’s cover article in the – decidedly moderately positioned- weekly government mouthpiece Heti Válasz.

    Hint: the cover picture shows – gasp, jewish – George Soros. The jewish conspirators can’t seem to rest for a minute.

    See, it turns out real NGOs deal with sports and recreation not with “politics” and “human rights”.

    Orban will escalate because he knows that the west has only one “weapon”: appeasement.

    Obama can say whatever he wants but he doesn’t give us money, the EU and Russia do. Just like say Belgians or Portuguese don’t ultimately care about Russia because they are far from Russia, the US is far from Hungary so Orban doesn’t care.

    Let’s note that Orban hasn’t retreated on any, on any policy once he made his mind up. (Although he may change his mind about the media law sooner or later, it seems RTL’s news shows does work.) He made up his mind and he won’t rest until he pushes the “foreign agents” out of Hungary just like Russia and Israel did. He wants to deliver to his voters, including Jobbik voters who represent his reserve army of voters. Retreat is for losers and westerners, winners and heroes never ever retreat.

    To be continued.

  3. ” winners and heroes never ever retreat.”

    When was the last war that Hungary won?

    Is this some kind of specific Hungarian masochism to want to always be on the losing side? Whatever the future brings for the “Authoritarian Gangster State Capitalism” (I think that expression combines everything that needs to be said …) of Russia and China – Hungary won’t profit much from it …

  4. wolfi: re TrollBéla yes. But this is the mindset of Orban and the people around him. It’s carzy, but that’s the case.

  5. Istvan,

    For Obama to propose suspending Hungary from NATO, he would have to do the same for Turkey, which is not going to happen. Being in NATO does not require full democratic credentials or even low corruption – it only requires being against Russia and having no territory disputes (to join, that is). At this point in time, especially, any nation that is at all interested in joining will likely get a fair hearing, including former Soviet republics. Expect Georgia and Ukraine to join in the next decade.

    Besides, this is the EU’s territory, so Obama is not going to do anything that interferes with that. If the EU is willing to tolerate Hungary, the most the US will do is small-bore rhetoric and grants to NGOs, just like they do almost everywhere else you will find a democracy deficit. This is an important step, and it’s crucial not to jump to action too quickly, lest they be accused of “attacking” Hungary without sufficient provocation, at the behest of international capitalist cabals (these accusations will of course be levied, but will have less traction now that Orbán has essentially provoked them).

    Clinton is no ignorant fool, though foreign affairs was never his strong suit. Plus, he is good at relying on his friends and advisers for information and analysis. Therefore I would say that he is not at all unaware of the nature of the politico-economic systems in place in China (for decades), Russia (for at least a decade) and now Hungary. There are things he can’t say if he wants to be able to move freely throughout the world, giving expensive speeches and having a positive impact on his wife’s presidential candidacy. Hungary, however, is relatively fair game, since the Tusnádfürdő speech, so he will include it among the others. He still can’t feasibly describe the leaders of China and Russia as thoroughly corrupt gangsters, which they are, of course (see the corruption trials recently held for top communist officials in China), but if he equates Hungary with them, then anyone connecting the dots can clearly see that he is saying that Orbán and his cohorts are thieving parasites on the body politic of Hungary.

  6. Sad state of things in Hungary. No goverment for the last twentyfour years or so could lead the country into the modern era. Hungary remains in a premodern state for now. How long I do not think enyone knows. That makes me sad.

  7. Now all we need is another CÖF-organised Bekemenet – to ‘prove’ to the US how freedom-loving and strong Hungarian civil society is.

  8. President Obama knows nothing: Hungarian civil society is alive and well. Numerous new grass-roots (and below) organizations are thriving, such as:

    – the László Kövér Mustache Awareness initiative;
    – the Maria Schmidt Historical Society for Garbage Recycling;
    – the Fekete György Figurative Stumpwork Clubs;
    – the Turanian Space Exploration Project;
    – the Association for the Convergence of Rising and Arrow Crosses;
    – etc.

  9. And then there are the real efforts that Orbán uses to influence the US: the Friends of Hungary Foundation, the Hungarian Initiatives Foundation, and Hungary Today. I get them on my FB account: happy/cheerful with only beautiful clouds in the sky. I assume that they are all related in some way. This has been noted before–about the money being spent in the US for positive influence. It all looks like travel brochures.

  10. I wonder if Lajos Kósa does know what is third largest city of the USA? Does he know what is the third largest city of Norway is? If he does not , I guess he must admit that Norway is right about the Hungarian NGOs. LOL I wonder if Szeged is largest based on population and on area too? WHat is the fourth?
    Unbelievable on what stupidity Hungarian politicians justify their way of thinking.

  11. Well, if we’re going to base it on population and area, then I’m guessing that perhaps London and maybe even Vienna are going to knock Debrecen down a few places on the ‘biggest Hungarian city’ list.

  12. @Bowne, I believe the second largest “Hungarian” city is Toronto but yeah, London must be making significant gains on that list.

  13. “the Hungarian government’s placing any restriction on Hungarian civil society lacks all foundation … because the Hungarians are freedom-loving people.”

    Well, at least Szijjarto has a sense of humour- no freedom-loving people would have voted for an Orbanist regime not once but three times.

    Obama’s words, alone, have no practical effect. However, the Orban regime should now assume that the US itself directly will now be helping the NGOs and charities which the fascists are trying to intimidate into closure. Note the word “directly”.

    How are NGOs (not just those being threatened) continuing to do their work? How are the, admittedly few, independent news sources managing to survive? A new internet news channel manned by those Origo journos opposed to the Lazarisation of Origo was set up yesterday? Who is paying their wages? Something which, no doubt is occupying the regime’s supposed *clever lawyers* and *great thinkers* as we speak.

    But what can they do?

    The regime knows full well that it cannot shut down civil society without resorting to violence.
    The moment they do that, a whole new can of worms will be opened and one which will not have a good result for the Orbanist fascists.

  14. @D7 Democrat:

    The more direct the US involvement, the easier the labeling of the NGO people as “spions”. The spy mania is currently anyway at full throttle with KGBéla, the very same background people will start another project this time with the NGOs as the target. Well, the project has already started and is going ahead with full steam.

    Forget violence, the entire countryside is completely pacified via existing power structures. (Of course violence against gipsies, immigrants or homeless is permitted, but that’s another issue.). Nobody dares to say a word and more importantly nobody cares. People were taught to mind their own business only.

    Magyar Narancs’ article today about the repulsive oligarch/strohman/ mayor of Felcsut was very enlightening in this respect. Or also today the news about the “sheriff” of Százhalombatta who was gotten rid of after he was a bit too professional with local strongmen.

    While Budapest is a bit different, pacification is no problem. Intelligent people can be persuaded to behave surprisingly easily.

    I hope the NGO people will resist, but I am not too optimistic, Orban and Lazar will escalate: they have to and they usually do anyway, just because they get off on being jerks.

  15. “Orban won’t stop persecuting the NGOs, see today’s cover article in the – decidedly moderately positioned- weekly government mouthpiece Heti Válasz.

    Hint: the cover picture shows – gasp, jewish – George Soros. The jewish conspirators can’t seem to rest for a minute.”

    – Couldn’t be the same George Soros who sponsored Viktor Orbán’s studies in Oxford, could it? Those conspirators seem to be everywhere, giving away monies indiscriminately – and look what happens!

  16. “I hope the NGO people will resist, but I am not too optimistic”

    Then you know absolutely nothing about the NGO sector in Hungary.
    The imtimidation has been non-stop since 2010 and not one NGO has surrendered to the regime because of it

    “-Forget violence, the entire countryside is completely pacified via existing power structures”

    You completely misunderstood me, I was talking about state violence against NGO and charity workers, not about the Hungarian sheep rising up Animal Farm style against their self-appointed shepherd.

    Truth is Orban has hit a brick wall in his war against the NGOers and charity workers.
    Unlike the rest of the craven cowards in the judiciary, media, public sector etc they are refusing to be intimidated by his bully boys and, more importantly, they are continuing and will continue to be funded internationally.

    But if you think Obama or the US State Dept would be stupid enough to write a public cheque to make sure they continue that operation then you really do not know how these things work internationally. Read Adam Le Bor’s book on how Milosevic was brought down for an idea. Ironically the idiots in the first Fidesz government at the time were completely unaware that the top floor of the Budapest Astoria was being used by various state and “non-state” (3 guesses whom I am talking about there) actors to direct operations.
    Illuminating, well worth a read.

  17. While the US and president Obama indeed quite far away from Hungary to have direct effect on our little freedom-fighter Hero, they may have effect on those who have closer relationship with both Hungary and the US.

    The influence of the US exponentially bigger than Hungary ever had, and you know, if there is the intention there are certainly a way.

    Well, unless they got discouraged by Pérter Szijjártó’s bravado, that is.

  18. Spectator your point about Soros promoting Orban through his scholarship is well taken. Orban looked at the time like a rising star to fight the communists, but then so did Osama Bin Laden look that way when the CIA was trying to push out the Russians in Afghanistan. As an American in his 60s believe me I have some very deep regrets about some of the choices my nation has made in the foreign policy field, I suspect Soros has the same regrets about Orban.

  19. D7, thanks, I will obtain the book. Seriously I have currently no idea who those non-state actors could be. I wasn’t clear: what I wanted to say was that no violence is needed from the state at all, people were pacified anyway easily. On the other hand I never thought non-Jobbik people are capable of or dare to be violent in Hungary and I hope nobody will actually get violent.

  20. the Orbán government’s new so-called English-language online paper added these sentences to the news about the speech itself.

    What does “so-called-English language online paper” mean?

  21. 1. Szijjarto argued:

    „A magyar nép egy szabadságszerető nép, ezért nem viselné el szabadságának semmilyen korlátozását”

    — > “Hungarians are a freedom-loving nation, therefore they wouldn’t put up with any restriction on their freedom”.

    He probably means that the lack of protest is proof that there is no restriction on the freedom.

    But Hungarians have protested and demonstrated against taking away the freedom of these NGOs.

  22. The Norwegians are not all that innocent. Norway gives over 50 million dollars to the Clintons. Sums like that never come free of any strings attached. The Norwegians are betting heavily on the Clintons and it paid off so far. Norway is not completely stupid, they do expect something in return for the 50 million dollars.

    What can that be, that Norway buys with giving so much money to the Clintons?

  23. Gabe

    “I wasn’t clear: what I wanted to say was that no violence is needed from the state at all, people were pacified anyway easily.”

    But that is my point, the NGO and charity workers aren’t giving up as did the teachers, the judges, the students etc etc. The regime is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them- NAV raids, intimidatory late night phone-calls, thugs hanging outside their doors etc etc. So if the NGOs and charities stand firm and continue to be funded and operate, what is the regime’s next step to silence them?

    I agree that the use of violence is exclusive to the Fidesz/Jobbik right wing in Hungary but I realy do believe if push came to shove, then Orban would use physical force to attack people in the NGO/charity sector.

    Re the “non-state” actors, best you read the book to find out their identity, I wouldn’t want to fuel any further over-active Fidesz/Jobbik imaginations;)

  24. @Istvan
    Well, part of my comment indeed aimed to the rather naïve approach of the US in general, it’s true. However, I would like to point out a typical Orbán characteristic: obviously he deliberately try to eliminate his past and everyone within in the most mundane and rude ways.

    In my opinion most of present days problem in Hungary – one way or another – connected to Orbán’s character-shortcomings as a human being. He is extremely petty and narrow minded regarding the defence of his imagined “honour”, authority or/and might. Whoever ever ignored him as an almighty leader has to pay dearly.
    Let me remind you to the case of rev.Gábor Iványi, who actually wed the Orbáns, has christened their kids and now officially a pariah in spite of his – and his church – invaluable charity work.

    Unfortunately one can not ignore the low down and personal sides of a person in case when the person is the singular ruler of a country, when decisions based on gut feelings and utterly personal interests, even if they camouflaged as the “interests of the nation”.

    Otherwise one should seek and find other viable explanations just why a nations main interest should be to invest billions in nonexistent and uninteresting activities (soccer), why the political structure should resemble of two opposing supporter groups – of soccer – and why the leader of the nation should use terms of the same activity and behave as any of them lowlife country boys kicking the ball on the grassy fields of Felcsút, oh, why?

    Because we are talking about Hungary, I suppose.

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