Antisemitism and Authoritarianism in Hungary: 2015 in Review

Ever since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán espoused “illiberal” democracy, Hungary has taken on an antagonistic role within the European Union. Yet even as the Hungarian government hardened its stance on everything from the refugee crisis to Russian energy deals, recent events show that it still makes a difference when civil society and U.S. officials act to oppose intolerant, anti-democratic steps, such as the plans for the antisemitic Bálint Hóman statue. We welcome the Hungarian government’s reversal and hope the shameful statue will never see the light of day.

In light of these events, we’re taking the opportunity as 2015 comes to a close to reflect on this year’s inroads on Hungary’s turn toward authoritarianism, and on the need for U.S. leadership on the challenges that lie ahead.

In January 2015, Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino urged countries to combat the rise of antisemitism globally in an address at the U.N. General Assembly’s Informal Session on Antisemitic Violence. In these remarks, she raised concerns about the rise of the antisemitic and xenophobic Jobbik party in Hungary. Prime Minister Orbán has been borrowing from Jobbik’s playbook as he promotes ethnic nationalism and World War II revisionism.

Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke testified before Congress in May 2015 on “The Future of U.S.-Hungary Relations,” raising concerns about the Hungarian government’s advocacy for “illiberal” democracy and strengthening of Hungarian-Russian ties. He called on the U.S. government to hold Hungary to the human rights standards expected of a NATO ally and E.U. member. Senior U.S. officials including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rob Berschinski and Ambassador Colleen Bell ramped up their critiques of Hungary’s policies later in the year.

Human Rights First jointly launched the Hungary Working Group, a bipartisan forum to bolster voices in Congress and the administration raising concerns about Hungary’s human rights record and its position in regional and multilateral alliances. In 2016, the Working Group plans to release a policy brief analyzing Hungary’s democratic decline, the dangerous rise of right-wing populism, and how the United States can work with Europe to counter threats to democracy.

In mid-December, Hungary backed down from its battle with Norway over the “Norway Grants” funds. Hungary had raided NGO offices and accused them of tax evasion as a means of intimidation. Human Rights First sounded the alarm on this crackdown on civil society, calling on U.S. policymakers to condemn the harassment. Hungary has now reached a “constructive agreement” with the Scandinavian nation.

When Hungary indicated that it would begin building a statue honoring notorious antisemite Bálint Hóman, Human Rights First called for the government to abandon the plans and issued a statement delivered at a seminar in Budapest co-hosted by the State Department. Hungary’s decision to cancel the statue is an important signal that antisemitism will not be tolerated and that any efforts to honor the legacy of antisemitic political leaders only further isolates Hungary from the international community.

In 2016, U.S. policymakers should stand with their European allies and redouble their efforts to bring Hungary back into the democratic fold. Human Rights First will be pushing to see that they do.

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Published on December 23, 2015

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