American Embassy in Budapest

“We’re not Nazis, but …”: Human Rights First report on Hungary and Greece

As I reported a few days ago, members of the Hungarian right-wing media and pro-government “political scientists” were outraged because editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal called on the European Union to introduce sanctions against the Orbán government. The occasion was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s July 26th speech in which he expressed his belief in the illiberal state’s superiority over the liberal state. A week or so later Charles Gati, an American political scientist, published an article in which he outlined the very limited options, in his opinion, the U.S. government has in influencing Viktor Orbán’s domestic policies. Again, members of the right-wing press were beside themselves, especially because they suspect Gati, who is of Hungarian origin, of having influence in Washington. They think that he and some other “unpatriotic” Hungarians are the only reason the U.S. government has a less than favorable opinion of the current government in Budapest.

Well, if they were offended by editorials in some of the leading American papers and Charles Gati’s list of modest steps Washington can take, I can’t imagine what kinds of editorials will appear in Magyar Nemzet, Válasz, and Magyar Hírlap after the appearance of a report by Human Rights First (HRF),”an independent advocacy and action organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals.” HRF is one of those non-governmental organizations that Viktor Orbán would like to stamp out in Hungary. And what temerity! HRF calls on the U.S. government, Congress, the European Commission, and the local governments to take steps to restore democracy and combat extremism, racism, and homophobia in the two countries the report deals with: Hungary and Greece.

Human Rights First

In Hungary was the first to report on We’re not Nazis, but … The Rise of Hate Parties in Hungary and Greece and Why America Should Care. The reaction of this online paper was well expressed in the article’s headline: “It has been a long time since Hungary has received such a kick in the behind.” Well, that might be an exaggeration, but the report is very hard-hitting. As the Hungarian saying goes, the government “will not put this in the shop window.”

First, let me start by saying that the report is much more than what the title suggests. Sonni Efron, senior fellow, and Tad Stanke, vice president of research and analysis, are the authors of the study, which I consider the best detailed analysis of the current Hungarian (and Greek) political situation. To give you an idea of the thoroughness of the report: It is 122 pages long, out of which close to 40 pages deal exclusively with Hungary. More than half of the 388 footnotes pertain to Hungary. Every important development, every important detail of the Hungarian far right can be found here. But just as important, if not more so, there is a separate chapter entitled: “Orbán: Increasingly Problematic U.S. Ally.” And here are a few of the topics discussed: Retreat from Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law; Rewrites the Election Law to Favor Itself; April Election: Free but Not Fair; After Re-election, Cracks Down on NGOs; Pursues Revisionist History; Co-opts Jobbik’s Agenda.

So, what are the recommendations that will most likely send the Hungarian government and its media empire into a rage? Here are some of them:

(1) The President should adopt a policy to reverse Hungary’s backsliding on democracy. This policy should be an integral part of the U.S. strategy to reinforce the Transatlantic Alliance  in the face of Russian action in Ukraine. The President in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly should refute Orbán’s notion that “illiberal” nations are better off economically and articulate the dangers that authoritarian regimes pose to peace, prosperity and fundamental freedoms.

(2) The President should instruct the Director of National Intelligence to investigate allegations of Russian and Iranian financial or other support of European far-right parties.

(3) At the North Atlantic Council meeting at the 2014 NATO summit, he should express concern about the rise of neo-fascist parties in Europe and its impact on security and good government in NATO member countries and the strength of the Alliance.

(4) The President should task relevant U.S. agencies with compiling information on corruption by Hungarian political and business leaders as well as government officials suspected of funding violent extremists.

(5) The President should direct the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and State as well as USAID to step up efforts to promote broad-based economic recovery and entrepreneurship in Hungary, with emphasis on combating youth unemployment.

(6) The President should install a U.S. ambassador seasoned in managing the complex relationship with an ally that also has major challenges in democratic governance and protecting human rights.

(7) The President should send senior public citizens, including former U.S. officials from both parties, to Budapest to discuss how abandoning liberal democracy would result in increasing political, economic, and strategic isolation for Hungary.

(8) The President should speak out about the intimidation of independent media and NGOs, and the chilling effect it is having on Hungarian society.

(9) The President should prioritize efforts to support embattled independent media, NGOs, and human rights defenders in Hungary. Develop a communications strategy to reach Hungarians who depend mainly on the state-dominated news outlets for information.

And these suggestions are only for the President. The report also has a long list of tasks for the State Department. John Kerry should convey to senior European leaders U.S. support of EU efforts to hold Hungary accountable for violation of EU law. He should support the implementation of the European Commission’s new framework for addressing systemic threats to the rule of law in the European Union. Hungary should be removed from the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies. Kerry should talk about American disapproval of the government’s intimidation of the Hungarian media. The U.S. should fund programs to support independent media outlets which are on the verge of disappearing. Kerry should take a less charitable view of the Hungarian government’s half-hearted efforts to combat anti-Semitism. He should also condemn the raids on Hungarian NGOs receiving funds from foreign donors. The United States should work with European partners to fund embattled NGOs.

HRF also has suggestions for the U.S. Congress, the European Commission, and finally the Hungarian government itself. For instance, the Orbán government should revise the constitution to allow the executive to be effective while reinstating checks and balances on executive power and should combat hate crimes and discrimination.

MTI did not report on the appearance of the HRF Report, only on Jobbik MP Márton Gyöngyösi’s reaction to the report at a press conference held this afternoon in front of the United States Embassy. Gyöngyösi is the party’s foreign relations expert. He made quite a name for himself when in 2012 he gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle in which he claimed that Jews were colonizing Hungary. In the same interview he questioned whether 400,000 Jews were really killed or deported from Hungary to Nazi death camps during World War II. I wrote at length about Gyöngyösi and his background at the time of this infamous interview.

So what does this Jobbik foreign policy expert think of the HRF’s report? According to him, there is already a program in place in the United States which with the assistance of U.S. national security forces, foreign paid NGOs, and the so-called “independent press” is designed to discipline Hungary and make her return to “the road of neoliberalism.” Given this situation Jobbik calls on Fidesz and the government to stop its double-game and decide whether it stands for Euro-Atlanticism or is on the side of those people committed to the nation. According to Gyöngyösi, ever since 2010 there have been several verbal attacks on Hungarian sovereignty, but to date this is the most savage and aggressive interference in the domestic affairs of the country. He is not surprised that the key target of the report is Jobbik because it is “the most resolute defender of Hungarian sovereignty.” He also wanted to know about the role of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in organizing a spy network.

There is nothing surprising about Jobbik’s swift reaction to the appearance of the report. MTI’s silence does not come as a surprise either, given MTI’s self-censorship of any news that reflects badly on the government. As of now, every newspaper, including Magyar Nemzet, has simply republished MTI’s release on Gyöngyösi’s press conference. However, HírTV was present at Gyöngyösi’s performance, and therefore Magyar Nemzet, which is affiliated with HírTV, had some additional information. Although MTI did not mention it, Gyöngyösi suggested to the Americans that instead of trying to “overthrow Hungarian national sovereignty” they should bring charges against those politicians who commit crimes against humanity. For example, the leaders of Israel. The usual Jobbik answer to everything.

American-Hungarian relations hit rock bottom

I’m continuing the American theme but this time from the point of view of the Fidesz-controlled Magyar Nemzet. It has been evident for some time that the right-wing media’s attitude toward the United States was moving beyond the critical. It was becoming outright shrill.

Of course, Magyar Nemzet has plenty of ammunition as a result of the Snowden revelations of widespread American spying even in allied countries. In the last few days it came to light that Hungary, like almost all European countries, was a target of American surveillance. Magyar Nemzet is certain that it was the American Embassy’s roof that served as the center of U.S. surveillance activities. After all, one of the articles pointed out, the embassy is only 400 meters from the Hungarian Parliament where Viktor Orbán’s office is located.

Almost every day since the second half of October there has been at least one article dwelling on the moral turpitude of the United States of America, which at one time was “moralistic and childlike.” The change came with the presidency of George W. Bush, who so completely lost touch with reality, the paper opined, that “not even Hollywood could help.” According to Gábor Stier, the author of an op/ed piece, the United States is no better than the Soviet Union. Both only defend their own national interests. The lesson to be learned: Hungarians cannot trust their allies and, instead of dreaming, “we must concentrate on enhancing our own strength.”

Uncle sam

The surveillance scandal in Hungary, about which we know practically nothing, immediately prompted wild speculations in the press room of Magyar Nemzet. Was the information gathered by the Americans used “to influence social processes”? Or perhaps the United States was trying to influence the country’s domestic policies.

The answer came on the same day, November 7, in an unsigned article. The well-informed Magyar Nemzet learned earlier that Máté Kocsis, a member of the parliamentary committee looking into the matter, intimated that American surveillance activities might have been more than information gathering. “They may have aimed at gaining political influence.” Hungarian politicians and the right-wing media specialize in “may have” statements because this way they don’t have to take responsibility for their assertions, but at the same time they can plant the desired thought into readers’ minds.

On the basis of that non-information Magyar Nemzet came out with the following rather wild hypothesis, naturally sticking a question mark to the end of the sentence, “Was the United States working for the left-liberals?” The article claimed that the U.S. Embassy was far too interested in Hungarian domestic policies and “showed an interest in the criminal proceedings launched against former politicians and high civil servants.” For example, the U.S. Embassy asked for statistics on these proceedings from the prosecutor’s office. Well, it would be strange indeed if the staff members of an embassy were not interested in the affairs of the country to which they are accredited. To this end, they monitor the media and ask official channels for information. The American Embassy did nothing wrong when they asked for information on the politically motivated court proceedings.

The American Embassy’s communiqué I quoted yesterday upset the Hungarian right wing and most likely Viktor Orbán himself.  The reporters of Magyar Nemzet simply don’t understand why the U.S. is demanding an explanation from either Viktor Orbán or János Áder when in their opinion the Fidesz government had nothing to do with the unveiling of Miklós Horthy’s statue. It was done by a Hungarian Reformed minister with Jobbik sympathies and was attended by a few Jobbik members of parliament. Their claim is that the Americans addressed the request to the wrong persons.

Moreover, the argument continues, the Hungarian government already answered the charges. Antal Rogán, the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, explained that it was “a provocation” aimed at arousing the international left-wing press to launch yet another attack against Hungary. In addition, János Lázár, undersecretary in charge of the prime minister’s office, said that the Horthy period must be judged by historians and not by politicians. He himself is not sufficiently knowledgeable to decide on the nature of the Hungarian regime between the two world wars. What else do the Americans want?

Levente Sitkei, another editor of Magyar Nemzet, was most upset that the American communiqué called Horthy “a Nazi ally plain and simple.” I don’t know whether he disputes the fact that Horty was an ally of Nazi Germany or whether he challenges the phrase “plain and simple.”  Our man has a devastating opinion of all American ambassadors who have served in Hungary since the change of regime. They were ignorant and among themselves they managed to pile up and pass on such political ballast that it’s no wonder American-Hungarian relations have hit rock bottom. The new “rich and beautiful” Colleen Bell will only add her own to that ballast. I myself used harsh words against the former American ambassadors, but while I criticized them for being ineffective, Sitkei condemns them because they were not more supportive, I guess, of Fidesz.

What advice does Sitkei have for the new American ambassador? She should “look behind the surface.” I guess that means that she should not accept the condemnations of the western media and the prejudices of the State Department but look for the real Hungary. She shouldn’t believe all that talk about extremism and anti-Semitism. Sitkei also hopes that she will be open and will listen to all sides as a good democrat should. In plain language, she should believe the Orbán government’s propaganda. “Or, will she be such an American and such a democrat that an hour before this article is published it will appear in English on Colleen Bell’s smart phone?”

And finally, a few choice sentences from an absolutely devoted Fidesz supporter. I assume he is retired by now, but earlier he was a professor at one of the top universities in the country. He is outraged about the American demand for an explanation of the unveiling of the Horthy statue. He is certain that the communiqué was not composed in Washington but that “one of those no good career diplomats who have been loitering around here for years wrote it who have nothing to do and who get their information exclusively from the communists and liberals.” These no-goods send letters in the name of their government against Hungary! In his opinion an American ambassador should know something about Hungary’s history and it would also be desirable to name someone who “has Hungarian roots.” He is certain that the new ambassador has already been approached by the communists and their friends. Just as the State Department is influenced by “inordinately prejudiced old geezers, like Charlie Gati.” Our professor would be very pleased if his words got to Washington because he is a true friend of the United States. So, I obliged.