Kester Eddy in Budapest -
A leading US NGO has urged Washington and the EU to exert more active vigilance over growing anti-Semitic and far-right influence in Hungary, and warned of the erosion of democratic norms.
In a 130-page report published on August 14 entitled: "I'm not a Nazi, but .... The rise of hate parties in Hungary and Greece, and why America should care," Human Rights First (HRF) details the rise of the far right in both countries, and call for urgent and wide-ranging action in order to counter what it sees as the emergence of far-right culture into everyday politics and institutions.
On Hungary specifically, HRF - which insists it is funded entirely by private donations - makes a direct appeal to US President Barack Obama. The NGO urges him to "adopt a policy to reverse Hungary's backsliding on democracy and to advance the rule of law, independent democratic institutions, human rights protections, and greater transparency".
That challenge, it says, should be an integral part of US strategy to reinforce the transatlantic alliance in the face of Russian action in Ukraine, and combat what it termed the "growing electoral strength of anti-Semitic, racist, pro-Russian parties in EU states."
The report comes four months after Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his nationalist-conservative Fidesz party won a second consecutive constitutional majority in parliamentary elections held in April. The Hungarian premier's first four years in office were characterised by numerous clashes with the European Commission and other EU bodies over changes initiated by the government within state institutions and systems, including education, the judiciary and media.
It is also not three weeks since Orban delivered an infamous address in which he claimed to be building an "illiberal state". Speaking to ethnic Hungarians in Romania, the PM declared liberal democracy a failure, and held up Russia, China and Turkey as models for Hungary if it wished to stay competitive globally. Unsurprisingly, the address was widely condemned by western political commentators, most particularly in the US.
The HRF report notes that Orban and his government maintain good relations with Israel, and play an active role in Nato. However, it also claims that the former anti-communist student dissident has, since 2010, taken Hungary steadily towards authoritarianism, while repeatedly adopting policies first proposed by Jobbik, the leading Hungarian party on the radical right, which saw significant success at the polls in the spring.
"In Hungary, Jobbik has helped Prime Minister Viktor Orban to become more authoritarian, pursue historical revisionism, violate European norms of constitutional democracy and human rights, and most recently, declare that Hungary rejects liberal democracy and will become an 'illiberal' state," the report reads.
The report also takes an apparent swipe at the ambassador-designate to Budapest - Colleen Bell, a political appointee whose performance at her Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last January was lamentable. HRF advocates the installation of "a US ambassador seasoned in managing the complex relationship with an ally that also has major challenges in democratic governance and protecting human rights."
At the same time, it calls for senior public figures from across party lines to be sent to Budapest to discuss "how abandoning liberal democracy would result in increasing political, economic, and strategic isolation for Hungary".
Alongside the notes to Washington, HRF also has advice for the EU. The NGO urges the European Commission to enhance measures intended to keep Orban's government operating within European democratic norms. In particular, it suggests a good start for Brussels' new framework designed to address systemic threats to the rule of law in the bloc would be to send a "Rule of Law" opinion to Budapest.
The report was published too late for the Hungarian government to respond for this article. However, the Orban administration has in the past insisted that it has introduced stringent legislation against the far right and hate speech, and it has taken numerous measures to combat anti-Semitism.
The PM was back pushing his statist vision on August 14, insisting that Hungary's leadership of EU economic growth - 3.9% in the second quarter on an annual basis - shows that a system that’s “democratic but not liberal” can be more effective, according to Bloomberg. Hungary’s political system is being built for the “public good” and still respects freedom and human rights, Orban stated.
The government has also defended its efforts over the past four years to overhaul Hungarian institutions. It says foreign media criticism is biased, with journalists failing to grasp the full meanings of the original Hungarian texts. At the same time, it complains that media repeatedly criticise Hungarian measures and models already employed in other EU states. It cites, for example, the international outcry over the media law introduced in 2011, which it claims has proved entirely groundless.
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