For almost eight months there was hardly any news about U.S.-Hungarian relations in the Hungarian media, with the exception of stories about NATO troop deployment in Eastern Europe and a U.S.-Hungarian military maneuver that went off without a hitch. In military matters at least, all seems to be well between Washington and Budapest.
In political terms, the stormy relations of the fall of 2014 have quieted down considerably. At least on the surface. The new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, has shown no inclination to roil the waters of U.S.-Hungarian relations despite Viktor Orbán’s occasional anti-American comments in connection with the alleged responsibility of the United States for the refugee crisis.
The prime minister’s more subtle criticism contrasts with the shrill anti-Americanism of the pro-government media. In earlier days it was Magyar Nemzet that led the way in this respect, but since Lajos Simicska and Viktor Orbán decided that their collaboration of a quarter of a century is over and the remaining staff of the paper no longer has to adopt a slavishly pro-government orientation, not only has Magyar Nemzet become a very much better paper but it has also abandoned its pro-Russian and anti-American slant.
There are still some government strongholds, however, especially the newly renamed Magyar Idők and Pesti Srácok. Here and there even Válasz and Mandiner come out with decidedly anti-American editorials, mostly in connection with the refugee crisis, which is usually portrayed as the direct consequence of U.S. meddling in the Middle East and North Africa.
After almost a year of relative calm Mandiner managed to get hold of a so-called non-paper prepared by the State Department, dated October 21, 2014. András Stumpf, the new star reporter of Mandiner, didn’t research his story thoroughly enough because otherwise he would have discovered that this non-paper was most likely handed to Péter Szijjártó himself during his meeting with Viktoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs. At least the dates match. So, all the talk that has appeared in the last few days in the Hungarian media about Chargé D’Affaires André Goodfriend’s “demands” handed to one of the diplomats in the Hungarian foreign ministry is a lot of nonsense. The “suggestions” or “demands,” as the pro-government media calls them, don’t contain any new revelations. It has been no secret what the United States thinks of the Orbán government’s anti-democratic policies. It also seems that, although a whole year has gone by, the Hungarian government hasn’t responded to any of the points made in the non-paper. Viktor Orbán has no intention of changing his undemocratic ways.
Stumpf indicates in his introduction to the document that they “learned about the existence of the document from a Washington source,” which was then confirmed by someone in Budapest. Most likely the Americans had had enough of the deafening silence from Budapest and decided to make the document, handed to Szijjártó a year ago, public.
There is nothing wrong about publishing such a document. In fact, I personally wish there were more such diplomatic revelations, but Stumpf’s or the editor’s decision to write a strongly anti-American headline is unfortunate. It reads: “This is how America would make the Orbán government its bitch” (Így csicskáztatná Amerika az Orbán-kormányt). The message is that because of the Orbán government’s steadfast refusal to oblige, the United States didn’t succeed in its attempt to curtail the country’s sovereignty.
Magyar Idők went even further. In its interpretation, the United States’ problem is that Hungary’s prime minister happens to be Viktor Orbán. Magyar Idők names André Goodfriend as the author and deliverer of the non-paper in question. In the view of the paper, Goodfriend was not at all concerned with the alleged corruption of Hungarian government officials because this non-paper didn’t deal with it. Written in the middle of the “corruption crisis,” the absence of the topic is telling. Ottó Gajdics, the editor-in-chief of the paper, also wrote an editorial. He pretty well denied the existence of any corruption in Hungary and accused the United States of being worried about “corruption only when no American interests prevail in a country.”
Válasz also chimed in, heralding the wonderful news that the Orbán government didn’t fall last October and November, although many people believed that it would because of strong U.S. pressure on the Orbán government. In the author’s opinion, the United States “got caught” (lebukott) with the publication of the non-paper. It never occurred to him that officials in the U.S. State Department might have wanted to make the document public.
János Lázár, who is naturally a diligent reader of Magyar Idők and other pro-government papers, is convinced that this list came from an ordinary chargé d’affaires, whom he called “insolent.” According to Lázár, Goodfriend while he was in Hungary “used his time to poke his nose into the affairs of Hungary.” His spokesman, András Giró Szász, added that “André Goodfriend is always welcome in Hungary but only as a tourist.” Lázár is either ignorant of diplomatic protocol or, more likely, wants to minimize the weight of this non-paper.
Meanwhile, Népszabadság tried to set the record straight by pointing out that on October 22 Péter Szijjártó was in Washington and had a meeting with Victoria Nuland. It is a mistake to name André Goodfriend as the culprit. The non-paper was most likely handed to Szijjártó by Nuland herself.
The debate continues. This time between Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman for the Demokratikus Koalíció, and András Stumpf, the Mandiner reporter. Gréczy raised objections to the title of Stumpf’s article. In DK’s opinion, “it is difficult to criticize the contents of those 27 points the non-paper raises, which are exactly those that the Hungarian democratic opposition demands week after week.” Unlike me, Gréczy believes that the non-paper was made public by the Hungarian government. With its release it intended to incite anti-American feelings. He called on the government to cease and desist. Stumpf answered with ad hominem attacks on Gréczy. Otherwise, he denied the charge that the document came from the government.
And finally, here is the infamous non-paper:
– End harassment and intimidation of independent civil society, including by ceasing investigations, audits, and raids of organizations receiving European Economic Area-Norway grant funds and Swiss funds, returning seized documents and IT-equipment (and other seized property) to reided and audited organizations, and immediately reinstating suspended tax licenses.
– Publish online all information of KEHI audits and government investigations of NGOs in order to make it available to the public.
– Publicly promote civil society, human rights, checks and balances, and unrestricted space for political opposition.
– Allow civil society to operate freely and independently.
– Broaden incentives for private and corporate donations to NGOs.
– Require meaningful input from an inclusive sprectrum of civil society and the business community in public policy development and implementation, including on human rights, equality, and transparency in government.
– Ensure unbiased and transparent functioning of National Cooperation Fund with nonpartisan board and clear guidelines for grants and evaluations.
Inclusiveness – give opposition and other non-Fidesz loyalists a role in public policy (enhances checks and balances):
– Require oversight bodies to be made up of independent subject matter experts rather than political nominees, and that a certain number of slots be reserved for appointment by opposition.
– Constitutional Court appointment process should revert to pre-2010 ad hoc committee requiring agreement of two-thirds of the parties.
– Implement clearly defined and transparent procedures requiring issues of public interest to be addressed through meaningful consultation and input from all relevant experts and stakeholders.
– Legislative process: Build in hearings, debates, meaningful consultations with subject experts and civil society, and opportunities for amendments.
– Pass law that ensures long-term economic commitments and other matters of public interest are decided with transparency, substantive public input, and realistic opportunity and sufficient time for open debate and feedback.
– Rescind advertising tax, which is discriminatory and market-distorting.
– Require that state advertising budget be distributed evenly across major media outlets rather than to outlets aligned with the government party.
– Require all-party representation on media council and shorten terms.
– Amend legislation on criminal penalties for libel, including to rescind all criminal penalties for defamation and make it a civil matter.
– Remove media council’s ability to levy fines and penalties for unbalanced coverage, which gives media council excessive control over content.
– Remove regulations that allow state broadcasters to run campaigneads but oblige commercial media to run ads for free.
– Incentivize diversity in ownership and pluralism of views in media.
– De-consolidate management and funding of public media and shield public media outlets from political pressure on content, to encourage independence.
– Ensure the political independence of the media council.
– Implement all OSCE/ODIHR election recommendation, including: Amend law to ensure election commissions enjoy broad political consensus.
– Put in place safeguards to ensure a clear separation between the state and party. „Campaign finance”.
– Courts and administrative rules
– Rescind law that civil servants can be dismissed without justification.
– Strictly enforce prohibitions of political pressupure of influence on judges.
– Reinstate the right of Constitutional Court to rule on substantive constitutionality of proposed amendments to the Fundamental Law.
– Reinstate the right of Constitutional Court to use jurisprudence from 1990-2011 as case law.
– Move appropriate matters from cardinal laws into regular statutes.