U.S.-Hungary Relationship Evolving as Ambassador Critiques Corruption and Civil Society Repression

By Timothy Meyers

U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bell, speaking in Budapest last week, described the U.S.-Hungarian relationship as strong—but expressed concern that Hungary is regressing toward an illiberal state, citing the government’s corruption, crackdown on NGOs, and restrictions on press freedom. “To maintain a bridge with solid foundations, we need to address the structural integrity of the bonds that link our two countries together and the shared values that undergird any strong democratic system,” she said.

Her remarks follow a visit by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rob Berschinski, who publicly criticized Hungary’s increasing authoritarianism. Together their comments indicate that the U.S. government is taking a leadership role in calling for Hungary’s return to a democratic path.

Ambassador Bell made clear that corruption in Hungary is an extensive challenge that the ruling party, Fidesz, must confront. Bell warned, “Wherever systemic corruption has effectively undermined fair governance, it creates an environment ripe for civil unrest, resistance to the government, and even violent extremism.”

Her words align with Human Rights First’s recommendations: We urged the ambassador to speak openly on the dangers of official corruption and called on the U.S. government to continue to refuse visas to Hungarian officials accused of corruption and to share our intelligence on such officials with other European allies.

The ambassador also highlighted the crackdown on NGOs that received aid from the Norway Grants initiative, a program the government accused of colluding with the political opposition. The investigation into the fund’s recipients concluded that the organizations operated lawfully. Ambassador Bell noted that the while the Hungarian justice system provided some protection to the persecuted NGOs, the problem is not resolved: the tax licenses of four NGOs continue to be threatened, seven are still subject to a tax audit, and police have yet to return private property taken from the NGOs during the investigation. Human Rights First calls on Hungary to cease any and all harassment of NGOs.

Bell also noted that multiple international watchdogs have observed a decrease in press freedom since Fidesz took power in 2010. She criticized media ownership practices and subsidies to state media, arguing that they undermine impartiality. We share the ambassador’s concern that Hungary’s Media Council, an oversight body with power over content in broadcast media, is filled with appointees representing only Orbán’s Fidesz party. This council is beyond hope of repair; we recommend abolishing it and revising the 2013 Media Law to remove restrictions on independent media.

The Hungarian government’s response to Ambassador Bell’s remarks has not been kind. Minister János Lázár called them “irritating” and Prime Minister Orbán declared, “This is already naked national or imperial interest.”

The U.S. embassy should be commended for its strong defense of democratic values. It should continue to voice its concerns, especially as Hungary pushes back against E.U. proposals to resolve the refugee crisis.

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Published on November 4, 2015

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