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The Congressional Hungarian-American Caucus: Documents

Today I will concentrate on the Congressional Hungarian-American Caucus which, according to the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, “provides a strong voice for Hungarian-American issues in Congress and seeks to promote constructive dialogue between Hungary and the 1.5 million Hungarian Americans in the United States.”

The Caucus was established in 2003 by the late Tom Lantos, Democratic congressman from California. After his death in 2008, the Caucus leadership was taken over by Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, and Steve LaTourette, a moderate Republican, both from Ohio. At that time, in addition to the two chairmen, the Caucus had four members: two Republicans and two Democrats.

Shortly after the departure of the two chairmen in 2013, the leadership fell into the hands of an entirely new group of people. The Hungarian-American Caucus was “reconstituted.” Three new people took over the leadership: Andy Harris (R-MD), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), and David Joyce (R-OH). At that time, “the co-chairs congratulated Hungary on the adoption of its new constitution which closes an important chapter of its post-communist past and will help secure the freedoms and liberties of all of its citizens.” The press release indicated that the leadership was actually in the hands of Andy Harris, “the only Hungarian American currently serving in Congress.” Indeed, Andy Harris’s father, Zoltán, originally from Miskolc, emigrated to the United States in 1950. His mother’s family came from Poland. Harris feels that “Hungarians and Americans are bound inextricably together by their commitment to freedom and opportunity.”

The Caucus by now has 14 members, nine Republicans and five Democrats. Most of the Republicans in the Caucus are very conservative, beginning with Andy Harris himself. Almost all of them are Trump supporters, most of them are strong gun rights advocates and opponents of abortion and LGBT rights.

Harris, who is a medical doctor, was elected to congress in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave. He joined the House’s Freedom Caucus, a gathering place for right-wing Republicans. He has been a great supporter of Donald Trump, and he endorsed Roy Moore for the Alabama Senate seat. While many conservatives withdrew their endorsement of Moore after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers, Harris stood by him.

Harris has been very active as co-chair of the Hungarian-American Caucus. Last November he and two other Republican members of the Caucus addressed a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In it, he complained about the speech that U.S. Chargé d’Affaires David Kostelancik delivered before members of the diplomatic corps and journalists at the headquarters of Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége/National Association of Hungarian Journalists on October 17, 2017. I summarized the speech in a post written that day, but the complete text is available on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.

We don’t know the exact date of the letter, but on November 20 Magyar Idők reported that “American representatives stood by Hungary.” We learn from Hungarian sources that the letter was signed by Dennis Ross (R-FL), Andy Harris (R-MD, and Mike Coffmann (R-CO). Since the letter was never made public either in the United States or in Hungary, the Hungarian government must have learned the identities of the signatories from the leadership of the Congressional Hungarian-American Caucus.

In any case, on November 14 former senior members of the State Department, who had served both Republican and Democratic administrations, wrote a letter to the members of the Hungarian-American Caucus, standing by David Kostelancik. I’m sure you will recognize at least two of the authors of the letter: Rob Berschinski and Thomas O. Melia. I have written about both, the former in connection with the Bálint Hóman controversy and the latter in connection with the abuse he received from the Orbán government. The letter is reproduced below.

The second document is a so-called Dear Colleague letter, which is official correspondence sent by a member, committee, or officer of the United States House of Representatives or United States Senate and which is distributed in bulk to other congressional offices. This particular Dear Colleague letter is signed only by Andy Harris in his capacity as co-chair of the Hungarian-American Caucus. A day later Magyar Idők jubilantly reported that a “Republican representative urged the immediate improvement of American-Hungarian relations.” News travels fast, especially when there is a direct line of communication between Andy Harris’s Caucus and the Hungarian government.

I hope that the publication of these documents will shed some light on forces working in Washington on behalf of the illiberal Orbán administration.

ormer State Department Officials to Members of the Hungarian-American Caucus

November 14, 2017

Dear Members of the House Hungarian Caucus,

As former senior State Department officials who served both Republican and Democratic administrations, and proponents of a strong and vibrant U.S.-Hungary relationship, we write to express our strong support for U.S. Chargé d’affaires David Kostelancik’s recent remarks concerning the importance of Hungary maintaining a free, diverse, and independent media environment.

Time and again, our experiences in government demonstrated that the United States’ strongest, most durable alliances and partnerships are rooted in a common foundation of shared values and worldview. That premise stands at the heart of the NATO alliance, whose charter begins by affirming that alliance members “are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

The insight underpinning the North Atlantic Treaty underscores why we view with alarm the Hungarian government’s well-documented effort to erode many of the democratic institutions and rule of law-based protections established by the country’s citizens in the wake of Hungary’s emergence from communist rule.

In keeping with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s pledge to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state,” in recent years his government has all but eliminated the judiciary as an independent, co-equal branch of government. It has serially harassed non- governmental organizations, recently passing a law targeting civic organizations modeled on repressive Russian legislation. It has defied common decency in essentially criminalizing those fleeing persecution and war. It has made no secret of its desire to expand bilateral ties with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, whose goals include the weakening of the European Union and NATO, and ending Western sanctions against Moscow. The government of Hungary has also dabbled in state- sponsored anti-Semitism, including by attempting the historical rehabilitation of fascist-aligned World War II-era figures, including the man responsible for the laws that ultimately led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz.

In addition to these actions, the Hungarian government has unquestionably sought to circumscribe what was once a flourishing independent press.

The government of Viktor Orbán and its allies are engaged in a process that is systematically undercutting the country’s independent media outlets, all but a few of which have been shuttered or acquired by government-aligned actors in recent years and forced to censor their reporting.

A final fact is worth highlighting. The proximate context for Chargé Kostelancik’s speech of September 17, 2017 was this: on September 5, 2017, the pro-government Hungarian internet portal “888.hu” and other government-aligned media sources published a by-name list of eight journalists working for foreign media outlets.

These included reporters working for respected news sources like Reuters, Bloomberg, and Politico.

These journalists were described as “foreign propagandists,” and accused of working for George Soros, the American against whom the Hungarian government has launched a taxpayer funded national vilification campaign that has included plastering the country with posters reminiscent of the anti-Semitic tropes of the 1930s.

Among the eight journalists named as enemies seeking to “discredit” Hungary was an American citizen resident in Hungary, who subsequently began to receive death threats.

As you may know, just prior to his arrival in Budapest, Chargé Kostelancik spent a year on Capitol Hill as the senior State Department official at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, where he worked with Members of Congress to advance bipartisan foreign policy objectives through a comprehensive approach to security, which includes promotion of universal human rights.

In publicly defending press freedom as an essential safeguard in any democratic society, Chargé Kostelancik eloquently and responsibly spoke on behalf of a First Amendment value that Americans hold dear. He also stood up bravely for an American facing unconscionable threats. He did so in a nuanced, respectful manner, taking care to affirm the close ties that continue to bind the people of the United States and Hungary. His actions reflect the best in what it means to be an American diplomat serving the United States and our interests abroad.

We hope you will join us in celebrating his excellent remarks, the full text of which we’ve attached to this letter.

Sincerely,

David J. Kramer
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Tom Malinowski
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Thomas O. Melia
Former USAID Assistant Administrator for Europe & Eurasia

Daniel B. Baer
Former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Rob Berschinski
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Attachment: Remarks by Chargé d’Affaires David Kostelancik, “Freedom of the Press: Enduring Values in a Dynamic Media Environment,” as prepared for delivery at the Hungarian Association of Journalists, October 17, 201

 

Andy Harris’s Dear Colleague letter

Request for Signature(s)

SIGN LETTER TO SUPPORT HUNGARIAN-AMERICAN RELATIONS

Overturn Obama Era Policy to Fund Media to Interfere in Hungarian Elections

Dear Colleagues,

Please join me in a letter to Secretary Tillerson urging him to take immediate steps to improve relations with Hungary.

As you may know, the Obama Administration cold-shouldered Hungary and distorted the record of its center-right government led by Prime Minister Victor OrbanUnder Obama, the State Department tried to turn Hungary into a pariah state, denying high-level meetings. Orban has been an outspoken defender of Western civilization and Hungary’s traditional values and cultural heritage – and the leading European voice against mass immigration and the hegemony of Brussels. At the same time Hungarians have ratified his leadership on these issues and his economic policies with repeated election victories. Most notably, under Orban’s direction, Hungary was the first member of the European Union to recognize the security crises represented by the uncontrolled flow of refugees into the EU and the his was the first government to take action to prevent that flow. Though heavily criticized at the time, Hungary’s erection of a border fence is now praised as a prudent and necessary measure to protect the integrity and security of not just Hungary, but the entire EU. Hungary under PM Orban has also been Israel’s strongest supporters in Europe.

Under President Trump, the policy has improved yet the Obama policy course has not been completely corrected. Most shocking, the State Department recently issued a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for a grant of up to $700,000 to support “objective media” to “lead to democratic reforms” in Hungary – in other words, the State Department seeks to fund opposition media in a democratic country that is a member of NATO and the EU. This represents the latest in a string of State Department actions insulting and undermining the center-right government of one of the United States’ closest allies in Europe.

As a co-chair of the Congressional Hungarian-American Caucus, I ask you to join me in encouraging the Secretary to ensure that implementation of the NOFO is immediately suspended and decisively  develop the natural alliance between the US and Hungary. Prime Minister Orban has been a vocal supporter of President Trump since early on in the campaign and Orban’s approaches to many policy issues including defense, security, antiterrorism, foreign policy or immigration closely mirror those of President Trump. Just as President Trump has declared “America First” so too has Hungary pursued its own national interests, many times in the face of liberal, Soros funded, opposition. Throughout that legitimate pursuit, the State Department has often interjected itself with critical statements of domestic policy issued in an official capacity. The NOFO represents an escalation in the State Department’s misguided antagonism of our democratic ally. To be added to this letter, please contact
Timothy.Daniels@mail.house.gov by
COB Wednesday, January 10th.

Sincerely,

Andy Harris, M.D.

January 13, 2018

An exchange of letters between U.S. congressmen and Viktor Orbán

It was on May 22 that thirty members of the U.S. Congress urged Viktor Orbán to reconsider the erection of the Nazi occupation monument in its present form. The letter emphasizes two points. First, that “while there were individuals in Hungary who actively helped those persecuted by the Nazis, it cannot be ignored that there was also a portion of the population at that time that willingly participated in Nazi activities, including the deportation of Hungarian Jews” and, second, that “while we understand and greatly appreciate the desire to honor all Hungarians brutalized during the Nazi occupation, we also believe that Hungary’s remaining Jewish population should participate in determining the appropriate way to remember the suffering of Hungary’s Jews during this period.”

Here is the full text of the letter followed by Viktor Orbán’s reply of June 4, 2014. As you will notice, the Hungarian prime minister did not properly address either of these two issues. Instead, he talked about his great electoral victory and mandate and about his effort at “unifying the nation.” The message is that he and his government have every right to do as they please because “the people” entrusted them with this right.

As for the monument, according to Orbán it is not a Holocaust memorial. It symbolizes “the loss of state sovereignty.” The monument “reminds us all that the loss of our national sovereignty led to tragic consequences.” Thus, Orbán did not move an inch from his original position–the loss of sovereignty that began with the German occupation of Hungary and continued during the Soviet period.

Orbán stands squarely behind the preamble of the Fundamental Law of Hungary that states: “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first elected organ of popular representation was formed.” And this is the crux of the matter. This is what the whole controversy is about. Historical facts do not support that view of modern Hungarian history, and thus the symbol the Hungarian government is erecting is false.

* * *

Dear Prime Minister Orban:

As Members of the United States Congress, and long-standing supporters of Hungary and the U.S.-Hungarian partnership, we are writing to express our deep concern over your government’s decision to move forward with the construction of a controversial monument commemorating the tragedies suffered in Hungary under Nazi occupation.

The Nazi occupation of Hungary was a horrific period in Hungarian history, which caused incalculable suffering and tragedy to millions of innocent people. And while there were individuals in Hungary who actively helped those persecuted by the Nazis, it cannot be ignored that there was also a portion of the population at that time that willingly participated in Nazi activities, including the deportation of Hungarian Jews.

According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the preeminent institutions on the history of the Holocaust, in mid-May 1944, Hungarian authorities in coordination with the Nazis began to systematically deport Hungary’s Jews. In less than eight weeks, nearly 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary, most of whom were murdered in Auschwitz. In total, over 500,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation.

While we understand and greatly appreciate the desire to honor all Hungarians brutalized during the Nazi occupation, we also believe that Hungary’s remaining Jewish population should participate in determining the appropriate way to remember the suffering of Hungary’s Jews during this period. They too share in the Hungarian historical narrative and it is their leadership’s opinion that the current proposal whitewashes the fact that there were Hungarians complicit with the systematic murder of their relatives.

This issue is compounded by the fact that next year Hungary is set to assume the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and the recent rise of theJobbik party, widely believed to be formed, in part, around an ideology that employs anti-Semitism.

Mr. Prime Minister, as a member of the European Union and NATO, Hungary is a friend and key ally of the United States. We greatly value the strong and enduring relations and partnership between our two nations, and it is with that in mind that we urge you to reconsider your government’s current plan to construct this monument against the wishes of the Hungarian Jewish community.

We are confident that a memorial which appropriately respects the sensitivities of all of Hungary’s citizens can and should, be erected to commemorate the tragedy and hardship of the Nazi occupation of Hungary. We stand ready to help find a resolution to this issue, and should you want to discuss this with us at greater length, we welcome the opportunity to meet with you or your designee.

Thank you for your consideration and we look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

ELIOT L. ENGEL                      HENRY WAXMAN                     ERIC CANTOR
Member of Congress             Member of Congress               Member of Congress

CHARLES E. SCHUMER       RICHARD BLUMENTHAL        CARL LEVIN
United States Senator             United States Senator             United States Senator

BRIAN SCHATZ                        BENJAMIN CARDIN                 AL FRANKEN
United States Senator             United States Senator             United States Senator

DIANNE FEINSTEIN               RON WYDEN                             BARBARA BOXER
United States Senator            United States Senator             United States Senator

STEVE ISRAEL                       ADAM SCHIFF                            BRAD SCHNEIDER
Member of Congress            Member of Congress                Member of Congress

SANDER LEVIN                     TED DEUTCH                           JERROLD NADLER
Member of Congress            Member of Congress              Member of Congress

JOHN YARMUTH                  JAN SCHAKOWSKY                  BRAD SHERMAN
Member of Congress           Member of Congress               Member of Congress

DEBBIE WASSERMAN        NITA LOWEY                              DAVID CICILLINE
SCHULTZ                               Member of Congress              Member of Congress
Member of Congress

JARED POLIS                        SUSAN DAVIS                          LOIS FRANKEL
Member of Congress           Member of Congress             Member of Congress

ALAN GRAYSON                    ALAN LOWENTHAL                STEVE COHEN
Member of Congress           Member of Congress             Member of Congress

 

And here is Viktor Orbán’s answer:

* * *

Members of Congress
United States Senators
Washington DC

Budapest,  4th June 2014

Dear members of Congress,
Dear Senators,
Esteemed Friends of Hungary,

We Hungarians are always moved by and grateful for signals received from across the globe that show attention, compassion and sincere friendship. We are proud to have friends around the World, in America as well, who pay attention to the developments  of Hungarian life.

I consider it a gift of fate that as a result of the 2014 parliamentary elections, by the will and mandate of the voters, I have the opportunity to continue the policy of unifying the nation which I started during my first term as Prime Minister, in 1998. Following the guidance of your great president: of the people, by the people, for the people. We Hungarians turned our steps towards a future based on mutual understanding, the culture of respect and the unconditional respect of human dignity.

In Hungary, the decisions to give moral and spiritual restitution to the members of the Jewish community, who had lived with us throughout history and had become an integral part of the Hungarian nation, have been taken. We established the Holocaust Museum, we introduced Holocaust Remembrance Day and we declared zero tolerance against anti-Semitism. As you surely know, we are commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust this year. I can assure you that my government is counting on the opinion and the participation of the Hungarian Jewish community regarding every important moment of the Holocaust memorial year. We consider the Holocaust as an equally dark period in world and Hungarian history.

The monument that you referred to, which we are erecting on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Hungary’s German occupation, and the loss of state sovereignty, is not a Holocaust memorial. Moving Holocaust monuments and memorial sites already exist in Hungary.

The composition erected now is a freedom fighting people’s memorial of the pain of having its liberty crushed. This monument, paying tribute to the memory of the victims, reminds us all that the loss of our national sovereignty led to tragic consequences, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, and brought immense suffering upon further millions, the entire nation.

For Americans, for a nation that celebrates its independence so proudly, the devotion of Hungarians to freedom might seem natural, and the pain caused by the loss of our sovereignty and freedom might be comprehensible. From March 19, 1944 until 1991, occupying troops were continuously stationed on the soil of our country.

The erectors of the monument are thus driven by the pain of losing our freedom, the aspiration to remind generations to come of the importance of freedom, and of the tragic consequences its loss has on the life of a nation. The inscription speaks clearly: “The German occupation of Hungary, March 19, 1944, in memory of the victims.”

In the spirit of respect towards you and the American people, let me please hereby thank you for your interest and your good wishes

Orban signature