Two less than complimentary analyses of Hungary were just published in as many days. The first was Freedom House’s report “Nations in Transit 2016” and the second, the U.S. State Department’s “2015 Human Rights Reports.”
A few prefatory words about Freedom House. It is an independent watchdog organization “dedicated to freedom and democracy around the world.” It was established in 1941 in New York City to battle the isolationist sentiment prevalent in the United States at the time. Freedom House was an “aggressive foe of McCarthyisim” and a “strong supporter of the movement for racial equality.” It was only in the 1970s that Freedom House turned its attention to the erosion of freedom in many parts of the developing world. With the end of the Cold War, it expanded its activities to the study of conditions in the post-Communist world. The annual “ Nations in Transit” report concentrates on former Soviet-controlled areas in Eurasia, 29 countries all told. Freedom House’s headquarters nowadays is in Washington, D.C.
I recommend reading the full report, written by Nate Schenkkan, because it covers several important aspects of Europe’s political and economic problems, in addition to evaluating human rights issues in the post-communist countries. Here I will deal only with Freedom House’s assessment of Hungary, the country that holds the dubious distinction of being responsible for “the decline of the average democracy score for Central and Eastern Europe by 12 percent from its peak in 2006.”
Freedom House divides the geographical area into three regions: the Balkans, Central Europe, and Eurasia. Countries considered to be Central European are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In addition to analyzing these regions as wholes, Freedom House looks at aspects of political life in individual countries: electoral process, civil society, independent media, national democratic governance, local democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and corruption. The final overall “democracy score” is a combined “grade” on all these issues that are essential for the functioning of a democratic society. This “grade” is based on a scale of 1 to 7; the higher the number, the worse the “democracy score.” If we compare this year’s score to those of 2015 there are three countries in Central Europe whose score hasn’t changed: the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Romania. The scores of four countries have improved: Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. Finally, there are three countries with worse records than a year ago: Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.
Sorting the Central European countries from highest to lowest “democracy scores,” we get the following results: Estonia (1.93), Slovenia (2.00), Latvia (2.07), Czech Republic (2.21), Poland (2.32), Lithuania (2.32), Slovakia (2.61), Bulgaria (3.25), Hungary (3.29), and Romania (3.46). In brief, Hungary’s score is getting closer and closer to countries like Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. It is sinking to the level of the countries of the Balkans. Details can be found in a separate section on Hungary.
Hungarian media reactions to “Nations in Transit 2016” were predictable. Opposition sites took the report seriously and pointed out that it was the scores on corruption, freedom of the media, and national democratic governance that dragged the country down to the unenviable position in which it currently finds itself. What really shocked Hungarian journalists was that even Bulgaria received a slightly better score than their own country. If Viktor Orbán remains in power for a couple more years, which is likely, and if he tries just a bit harder, Hungary will become the country with the worst “democracy score” in Central Europe.
Magyar Idők ignored the report and simply published MTI’s story, according to which Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó called the report “nonsense.” How can “people hanging around in American offices thousands of miles away tell anything about the situation in any country?” Well, the multitude of footnotes indicates that most of the material was gathered from Hungarian sources, and it is likely that some of the anonymous authors also live in Hungary. Szijjártó is convinced that Freedom House came out with these figures only because the United States doesn’t like Hungary’s position on immigration. Moreover, it is bizarre that such critical remarks come from a country that erected not a simple fence like Hungary did but a massive wall to keep migrants out of the country. “We were elected by the citizens of this country and it is our duty to act in their best interest.” He added that they don’t care what Freedom House writes about them.
The U.S. State Department’s “2015 Human Rights Reports: Hungary” is just as critical of Hungarian conditions as Freedom House’s analysis. The report is a long, devastating description of the Hungarian situation last year. The Hungarian government’s handling of migrants and asylum seekers is severely criticized, but the report also points to prison overcrowding, lengthy pretrial detention, the politically determined process for recognizing churches, government corruption, media concentration that restricts editorial independence, government pressure and intimidation of civil society, violence against women, inhumane treatment of institutionalized persons, discrimination against Roma, verbal abuse and harassment against LGBTI people, and human trafficking.
The pro-government media’s reaction was again predictable. Pesti Srácok gave this headline to its article on the report: “Washington’s chief problem with Hungary: Migrants couldn’t move freely in the country.” Quite a misrepresentation of the document. Magyar Idők complained that “America again lectures us on human rights.” Tamás Deutsch, currently Fidesz EP MP and one of the original founders of the party, was more expansive. First of all, according to Deutsch, the report “is crawling with factual errors, many half-truths, and a pathological bias against Hungary.” But in Deutsch’s opinion all this is really beside the point. The important question is: “How does the honorable government of the United States of America have the temerity to grade the countries of the world like a screaming home room teacher with a distinct body odor because of his nylon gown who whirls a key ring around his forefinger?”
I suspect that Deutsch’s comments will not be the last on the subject. I expect, especially from Magyar Idők, massive anti-American rhetoric. The editors of Magyar Idők have been specializing in anti-American and anti-German opinion pieces, all the while expressing great admiration for Russia. I am waiting for a juicy editorial on the State Department’s “Human Rights Report.” After all, they haven’t had time to translate it yet.