Saturday

31st Oct 2020

US warns Hungary on Russia's 'nefarious influence'

  • Hilary Clinton, the then secretary of state, now a presidential candidate, in Budapest in 2011 (Photo: state.gov)

The European Commission says Hungary’s death penalty talk and its anti-immigrant rhetoric are un-European, but the US is more worried about Orban’s creation of an “illiberal state”.

Hoyt Yee, a US diplomat, listed concerns in a briefing at the foreign affairs committee in Congress on Tuesday (19 May).

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“Perhaps most troubling, from the highest levels of power in Hungary, we have heard rhetoric about building an ‘illiberal state on national foundations’ and praising the superiority of autocracies … Such comments don’t do justice to the democratic values which Hungary is pledged to uphold”, he said.

Yee, who is deputy assistant secretary for European affairs, noted that “over the past five years”, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has piloted reforms “weakening checks and balances and undermining institutional independence”.

His list includes a 2011 amendment which harmed the Constitutional Court’s ability to supervise new legislation and which created “vacancies for government-backed [judicial] appointments”.

He said libel laws, in 2010, have resulted in a “media environment … dominated by outlets that are either state-run or sympathetic to the government and [that] self-censorship seems to have become more widespread”.

He said electoral reforms, ahead of 2014 elections, prompted “restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the state”.

He complained about a 2014 crackdown, including “police raids”, on foreign-backed civil society.

“The groups targeted were notable for their stance of questioning government practices and policies. The situation is at a standstill, with proceedings pending and the NGOs waiting for their names to be cleared, their confiscated equipment returned, and their tax numbers reinstituted”.

He also said Orban has "allowed the problem [of corruption allegations against his government] to fester, protected certain accused officials, and punished the accusers”.

He described Orban’s “ethnic nationalist rhetoric” as being inconsistent with “trans-Atlantic values”.

The diplomat noted that Hungary is “a stalwart ally, valued partner, and close friend of the United States”.

But he warned, alluding to Russia, that “internal weakness invites nefarious influences from the outside. Nato needs all of its members to be internally strong”.

The US, last year, imposed a visa ban on six Hungarian officials linked to the reforms.

A Washington source told EUobserver it might also suspend Hungary’s visa-waiver privileges if the situation deteriorates.

Verbal warnings

For its part, the EU commission has, in recent years, issued several warnings.

But its complaints never led to punitive action, with Orban, also following street protests in Budapest, introducing tweaks to the legislation to get Brussels off his back.

The EU commissioner in charge of the dossier, former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans, in a debate in Strasbourg also on Tuesday, said if Hungary reintroduces capital punishment, it could see its EU Council voting rights suspended.

“We will not hesitate one second on such a case”, he said.

He described the Orban government’s notion that immigrants are potential terrorists as “malicious and simply wrong”.

Orban, who attended the European Parliament debate, said the EU should change its rules, including on the death penalty, if that’s what voters want.

“These rules are created by men and can therefore be changed by men. This is freedom, this is democracy”, he said.

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