Egypt

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.