Skip to main content

Bold Dialog Needed in Budapest

Tibor Purger

Eastern European Studies Scholar, Tibor Purger, writes about the challenges faced by the U.S. Ambassador in Hungary and the need for bold dialog.

The new U.S. Ambassador to Hungary arrived in Budapest after an 18-month hiatus in American diplomatic presence on the highest level. Colleen Bradley Bell, a television producer (most notably of the wildly successful The Bold and the Beautiful) turned political appointee, has a considerable task in representing American and transatlantic interests and defending common Western values. She plunged into high-stakes diplomacy in a frontline NATO ally bordering war-torn Ukraine, and an EU member state whose Prime Minister is building ever closer relations with Vladimir Putin and other Eurasian autocrats.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been long criticized by experts and officials in Washington and Brussels for building an “illiberal democracy” – as he labeled his ideal political system. Earlier, he had declared he was “tying the hands of the next government, and not only the next one but the following ten.” The results are known as democratic backsliding caused by four years of supermajority-based legislative frenzy, including a new constitution that enabled him and his followers to occupy all, nominally independent, state agencies, courts, and enterprises. Many Hungarians have had enough; protests are more frequent than ever before. But the fragmented center-left opposition is too weak to offer meaningful balance, while the extreme right is gaining in popularity.

Just before Amb. Bell’s arrival, Mr. Orbán had once again ruffled continental public opinion. Minutes after marching in Paris with four dozen dignitaries to commemorate the victims in the Charlie Hebdo attack, he declared that “Economic immigration in Europe is a bad thing. It must not be viewed as anything useful, it only brings grief and peril onto Europeans, so it must be stopped.”

Never mind that, at least 350,000 Hungarians have become economic immigrants in other EU states since Mr. Orbán returned to power in 2010. Their exit from Hungary’s domestic labor market clearly helped reduce unemployment in a country of ten million.  However, it also proved instrumental for  Mr. Orban’s 2014 re-election: The new electoral law made it much more difficult for economic emigrants to cast votes from abroad than for half million ethnic Hungarians around the globe who had been granted an easy road to Hungarian citizenship, by the Orbán Government, without spending a single day in the country.

While a week later Mr. Orbán explained that his condemnation of economic immigration did not include intra-European migration, back in Paris he had, in fact, gone even further by declaring that “We don’t want to see among us significant minorities with cultural characteristics and backgrounds different from ours. We would like to keep Hungary a Magyar land.”

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with maintaining the “cultural characteristics” of one’s country. Most U.S. citizens would also choose to protect their American heritage. But Hungary is not threatened by outsiders. It has a significant Roma minority (officially 3.3 per cent, while estimates go as high as ten per cent) with “cultural characteristics and backgrounds” arguably different from the Magyar majority, for which it suffers heavy discrimination. Although the now small Jewish minority has long integrated into, indeed co-shaped, Hungarian culture, it is also frequently branded in the pro-government press as an “alien element.” To make Orbán‘s exclusionist remarks even more puzzling, large ethnic Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine consider themselves as having different “cultural characteristics and backgrounds” than local majorities. Tens of thousands of those Magyars, especially from Serbia and Ukraine, now work in Hungary. Should they fear discrimination as economic immigrants in their EU-member kin state, or as “culturally different” elements back at home?

This brings us back to Ukraine where the pro-Western government does not ethnically differentiate among conscripts when calling up reserves to defend the country. Many ethnic Hungarians there feel trapped between loyal citizenship and aversion to a seemingly Ukrainian–Russian ethnic conflict. They have the sympathies of the Hungarian Government, which cannot protect them by preaching against cultural differences at home.

Prime Minister Orbán has only reluctantly followed U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian aggression, but he will soon have a chance to clearly demonstrate his position. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Budapest in early February, followed by the Russian President later in the month.. Even though Mr. Orbán has not so far participated in the negotiations between Kiev and Moscow, the fortuitous sequence of the upcoming visits may put Budapest back on the map for finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis: It was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, after all, that specifically guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity, now violated by Russia.

As one of four signatories, the United States should make sure not just that the spirit of the Budapest Memorandum is reinvigorated, but that one of our frontline allies, Hungary, not be blackmailed through gas prices or induced by Mr. Putin to undermine Western unity. It is equally important to maintain a high-level dialog with Budapest on issues of democratic backsliding and tolerating diversity, both of which also lie at the heart of the Ukrainian crisis. The new American Ambassador in Budapest may have a unique chance to boldly promote an active dialog – especially since the Orbán Government has swapped its anti-Western rhetoric for beautiful words to greet her with “great love and openness.”

About the Author

Tibor Purger

Tibor Purger

Former Title VII Short Term Scholar;
Journalist; Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science, Rutgers University
Read More

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more