You may recall that on October 20 I wrote a post with the title “Entering a new phase in U.S.-Hungarian Relations?” in which I expressed my belief that “Washington will soon be more active than it has been since January of this year when the new ambassador, Colleen Bell, arrived in Budapest.”
There were several signs of a change in U.S. strategy as far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned. At the end of September Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Berschinski spent three or four days in Hungary, during which he gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet. The reporter interpreted the recent silence of the United States as a sign of satisfaction, or at least of having fewer reasons to criticize the Hungarian government. But Berschinski corrected her. “I can assure you that the ambassador will also make more public statements in the future.” Therefore, I’m somewhat baffled at the great surprise with which the Hungarian media greeted Ambassador Colleen Bell’s first major speech last night. The speech contained the most outspoken and least diplomatic criticism of the Hungarian government in time immemorial.
The first twenty minutes were spent on niceties, mostly praising military cooperation, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism, but what followed was not so nice. Her message on energy security contained the following crucial sentences: “The United States understands that Russia is an important energy supplier–it will continue to be important in the future. But Russia and all suppliers–including the United States, by the way–should compete at market rates, on market terms. No nation should be kept dangerously dependent on any single source for its energy needs.”
She returned to the same theme a few minutes later when she discussed the Paks II nuclear deal in connection with public trust and the lack of transparency. “It would change the game in the energy sector if members of the public could see the details of the Paks II nuclear deal. We look to the Hungarian government to increase transparency, starting with the details of this deal.”
From here she moved on to the “investment climate” in Hungary. Some investors talk about “significant obstacles to investment…. Some investors are concerned about stability in the tax and regulatory environment…. Investors must be able to predict regulatory and tax effects on their business. Otherwise, the costs of uncertainty will price many potential investors out of the market.”
After a long introduction came a list of “concerns” of the United States, which “have been echoed by the European Union, the OSCE, international organizations, and groups who track levels of freedom and adherence to rule of law in countries around the world. You will hear all their voices, and perhaps your own, in my comments tonight.”
The first of these concerns is corruption. “Corruption stalls growth, stifles investment, denies people their dignity, and undermines national security. Corruption in Hungary is a serious concern–quite clearly a top concern of average Hungarians, as I have heard, and as public polls consistently show. Wherever systemic corruption has effectively undermined fair governance, it creates an environment ripe for civil unrest, resistance to government, and even violent extremism.”
Washington has a few suggestions about how to combat corruption. “The best way to restore public confidence in the rule of law, and to show that the playing field is level, is to publicize prosecutions [of the guilty ones]: the names, the crimes, the indictments, the dollar amounts seized, and the convictions and penalties.” I’m sure that by now Ambassador Bell knows, as do most of us familiar with the corrupt Hungarian government, that no convictions of either government officials or friends of Fidesz will ever take place as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister and Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor.
Then came the Hungarian government’s attack on the independent civil society, which in the American view “is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy.” It is clear, Bell continued, that “wherever governments introduce restrictions on civil society organizations, to restrict the space for voices that might differ, we do not see a truly free society.” The crackdown on more than 50 NGOs, starting in 2014 and continuing until recently, signals, in the opinion of Washington, that Hungarian society is not really free. It is true that “the Hungarian justice system has provided some protection and last year the authorities ceased the criminal proceedings against them but the situation is not fully resolved…. The chilling effect of these governmental investigations is widespread, and it casts a long shadow on Hungary’s reputation in the international community. We urge an immediate end of heavy-handed tactics against civil society organizations.” In this connection Bell brought up “the diminished independence of the Hungarian Constitutional Court” and the fact that the appointment of the justices is now the sole prerogative of the ruling party.
From here Bell turned to the topic of media freedom. “Hungarian politicians, intellectuals, and members of civil society speak of a marked decline in press freedom.” Hungarian journalists are not jailed as in some other countries “but rather, the concerns have take the form of concentrated media ownership and pronounced subsidies to state media.” She mentioned that Freedom House as of this year declared Hungarian media only partially free. Note that Bell here is not talking about public media (közszolgálati) but state media, which MTV and MR have become.
The next topic was the refugee crisis. She repeated what she told the journalist of Origo about a month ago: “every sovereign nation has the right to protect its borders,” but she added “every nation, as a part of the international community, also has a fundamental obligation to help refugee populations seeking safety.” She said that words of intolerance and the xenophobic labeling of refugees as invaders and antagonists “have no role in our efforts to find a solution.” The solution is working together within the European Union “to come up with a comprehensive, practical, and compassionate solution to this crisis.” She called upon Hungary to focus “on saving and protecting lives, ensuring the human rights of all migrants are respected, and promoting orderly and humane migration policies.”
I think I summarized the most important points Ambassador Bell made in this speech, so now I will turn to the reaction of the Hungarian government.
The first surprise was that MTI (Magyar Távirati Iroda) simply did not report on the event. Some naive Hungarian journalists interpreted the absence of such a report as a sign that the Hungarian government wasn’t aware that the ambassador would deliver a speech. As journalists they should know that news agencies are normally informed of such an event ahead of time. It is hard to imagine that the U.S. Embassy in Budapest and Corvinus University didn’t inform MTI about the ambassador’s forthcoming speech.
It seems, however, that the state television MTV’s M1 channel was there because during the early morning news today they reported extensively on Ambassador Bell’s speech from the event itself. I might add that the summary was detailed and accurate. On the other hand, MTI handled the news only in an indirect way. At 7:00 a.m. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó made a statement to MTI in which he minimized the importance of the speech by claiming that there was nothing new in it. In a way he was right. These concerns have been expressed by the United States to the Hungarian government in private. The difference was that everything was now aired in public.
Szijjártó added that “since Hungary is not one of the states of the United States but a member state of the European Union, we discuss the questions mentioned by the ambassador with the European Union. Moreover, we had discussed them earlier [with the EU] and in fact we settled them.” A huge understatement of the real situation. In Szijjártó’s opinion “the United States would like to see many more immigrants in Europe and since Hungary is the only European country which could stop the flow of migrants at its borders the United States decided to bring up this issue now.” As far as I know, only the extreme right thinks that it is to the advantage of the United States to weaken Europe by encouraging millions of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
MTI’s second news item that touched indirectly on Bell’s speech was a report on János Lázár’s regular Thursday press conference in which he made the following remark: Hungary will not “even at her request allow migrants to pass through the country or allow any migrants to settle.”
Tomorrow I will describe the response of the non-state Hungarian media to this important event. One thing is certain: Colleen Bell’s reputation has gone up quite a few notches in the eyes of journalists and political analysts in Hungary.