THE STORM OVER HUNGARY: A COMMENT
"As friends of Hungary, we expressed our concerns and particularly called for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency, because it’s important not only for Hungarians that this great democratic journey that our two countries are on – we for somewhat longer than you – but certainly sharing that commitment that we continue to exemplify democratic values and freedoms, first and foremost for the benefit of our own people and for the transatlantic alliance, but also as examples for those who are struggling to define their own democracies now in the Middle East and North Africa....
With respect to Hungary, the prime minister and I discussed every issue that you have raised – the constitutional court, the media law, just the whole gamut of concerns. And obviously, we consider Hungary a close friend, a strong NATO ally. We greatly respect Hungary’s commitment to freedom, the fact that the prime minister has fought for freedom his entire adult life, and we had a candid conversation today. We have encouraged our Hungarian friends to ensure a broad, inclusive constitution that is consistent with its own democratic values and the European values as well. And I underscored the importance, in any government, to enshrine checks and balances. Certainly, we believe in the United States that transparency and checks and balances are absolutely crucial.
And I think throughout the process of implementing the constitution and the accompanying cardinal laws, it is important, and certainly the prime minister made that very clear to me, that he is committed to ensuring that Hungary is very true to its democratic traditions, to protect individual liberties, maintain freedom of the press and the judiciary, and ensure checks and balances. So we had, as I said and as the prime minister has said, a very wide-ranging, comprehensive, productive discussion".
American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Remarks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban." 30th June 2010, in www.state.gov.
"Question: Last year took some very unusual turns as far as the contacts between the United States and our country are concerned. First, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State came to Hungary and she raised some criticism. And then you published some articles where you were very polite, but you also raised some criticism in terms of the operation of the Hungarian government. Then in October came this demarche, as far as I know, oral diplomatic note, and finally, on December 23 Mrs. Hillary Clinton sent another letter which according to some sources even harsher. So, now, how optimistic are you, is the Hungarian government listening to all these pieces of criticism?
Ambassador Kounalakis: Well you certainly laid out the course of events and the progression but I would really like to stress is that in all of these communications that we have been having with the Hungarian government the United States is engaging as a friend. We are not here to tell the Hungarian government which laws to pass, we are not here to determine what the policy should be. But as a friend, and as a country with a long history and reputation of promoting strong democracies, we have had some concerns. And yes over the course of this last year or so we have been consistently raising those concerns with the government.
Question: In your observation, is the government listening?
Ambassador Kounalakis: I can tell you that we felt our engagement was very open; the doors were always open to us. It really did appear as though we were getting our concerns through in a very constructive way. So, I can tell you quite sincerely that we were really surprised at the end of the year when several of the really key laws were moved forward in such a way that appeared not at all to have addressed our concerns. And again, we were promoting these things as a friend, but they were very serious concerns. We‘ve recognized from the beginning that the government came into office with a mandate for change, with a very rigorous agenda for reform in this country and we really respect that. In fact, we’ve taken every opportunity to be helpful as the government has attempted to reform many of the institutions that we agreed could use some reform. But at the same time, attention to the democratic institutions at the core of Hungary’s democracy, well, that’s something that we watch very carefully, we’re very concerned and we’re very interested in. So, as we presented our concerns, they were fairly narrow, we only brought up issues that tipped over the top into this area of Hungary’s democratic institutions and checks and balances. And we thought that there would be a very serious consideration of that and that they would be addressed. So the fact that we got to December and frankly, the concerns really were not addressed at all, is very, very disappointing for us.
Question: Of course we are democratic countries and we have limited means in terms of interfering; we don’t want to interfere in each other’s businesses and it’s obvious that the United States doesn’t want to do it either. But according to some Hungarian media sources, the State Department is so dissatisfied with the Hungarian government that they want to pressure Hungary and the Hungarian government to eliminate the current government and to have a government of experts.
Ambassador Kounalakis: I saw this morning on the Internet that there was a report suggesting that that was somehow U.S. foreign policy. But I can tell you absolutely clearly that is not U.S. foreign policy, that is not our position and those reports are untrue".
American Ambassador Kounalakis. "Ambassador Kounalakis interview with Ildiko Eperjesi, ATV." 6 January 2012, in www.state.gov.
In recent weeks, all of the usual bien-pensant voices on both sides of the Atlantic have been raising the alarm about the actions of the Magyar government of Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. With the rumor mill in Brussels stating that there is an outside possibility of the government in Budapest being officially rebuked or even losing its voting powers in the European Union 1. As per that epitome of bien-pensant logic, Mr. Philip Stephens of the Financial Times, the Orban government is nothing more than a Magyar version of the Putin regime in Moskva:
"This week saw the introduction of Mr Orban’s new constitution. Suffused with ethnic nationalism, it reeks of an ambition for one-party rule. It promises repression of personal freedoms within Hungary and, through an extension of citizenship to Hungarian minorities elsewhere, threatens instability in ethnically-diverse neighbours....The authority of the courts has been limited and the judiciary subjected to closer political supervision. The constitution asserts state control over personal conscience and faith. Abortion and same-sex marriages are outlawed and recognised religions limited. Paradoxically for a politician so visceral in his hostility to post-Soviet Russia, Mr Orban’s version of democracy is one that would surely win plaudits from Vladimir Putin. Much as in Mr Putin’s Russia, the rule of law is subordinated to the entrenchment of one-party rule. As in Russia, Hungarians can still vote; citizens can protest and privately owned media can criticise Mr Orban. But this is faux democracy. State institutions, the courts and the national broadcaster are firmly in Fidesz hands" 2.
Given all the outcry what is in fact the validity of the all this criticism of the new Hungarian constitution? From what can be ascertained in the English language press, it would appear that in point of fact, while certain aspects of the new Hungarian constitution can indeed be criticized (in particular those aspects dealing with certain clauses in the press law), much of the criticism is vastly overdone and indeed has a very clear partis pris aspect to it. To take a few examples: i) the articles dealing with the 'independence of the judiciary'. As per the constitution, judges are to be chosen by a monitor who will be appointed by the current ruling party. For those with a certain degree of memory: how does this differ, if at all, from the British 'unwritten' constitution, circa 1997, when a Cabinet Minister (the Lord Chancellor) not only participated in choosing judges but was also the de jure head of the judiciary? Was the United Kingdom circa 1997 deemed to be 'undemocratic'? ii) a similar objection can be raised to the issue of the 'independence' of the Central Bank. No doubt there are many good reasons for Central Bank independence. No doubt there are many good reasons for Central Bank non-independence. The name of Dr. Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht immediately comes to mind. As does the fact that the 'independence' of the Bank of England after 1997 has hardly given evidence by virtue of its subsequent performance that 'independence' per se is any harbinger of a better running of an economy than otherwise. The fact that the European Union's Central Bank is independent has not proven to be a greatly positive factor in its performance during the financial crisis of 2008 to present (to put it mildly). And to repeat the above referenced question again in a different key: was the non-independence of the Bank of England, circa 1995, evidence of the fact that the United Kingdom was 'undemocratic'? iii) legislation as per abortion, same-sex unions, and legislation towards 'odd', non-Christian sects (the so-called 'Church of Scientology', et cetera), are on the whole well in keeping perceived 'norms' of West European governance, circa 1970. These are more issues of morality rather than democracy or non-democracy. So-called 'Gay Parades', have been banned in various places in Central and Eastern Europe in the past few years: Warsaw, Moskva, et cetera. If one were to seriously use this criterion as a measuring stick to assess whether or not countries x, y, and z are or are not 'Democratic' than by definition all the countries in the West were, circa 1965 / 1970 'non-democratic'. Which by definition is non-sense and rubbish. The very ne plus ultra of bien-pensant idiocy. In short, while a few of the criticism of the new Hungarian constitution are with merit, most are without. This is very much a case, where it is the critics, rather than the object of criticism which stands under a cloud to mind way of thinking. The fact that the egregious American Secretary of State and its dim-witted (and completely unqualified) Ambassador have chosen to beat the drum on a completely extraneous and unimportant issue, speaks volumes about how impregnated is bien-pensant ideology in the foreign ministries of the West.
1. Peter Spiegel, "Can Hungary Avoid a Rebuke? A leaked letter makes the case. The Financial Times. 10 January 2012, in www.ft.com.
2. Philip Stephens. "A Hungarian Coup worthy of Putin." The Financial Times. 5 January 2012, in www.ft.com. Given the rumors running around in Budapest that the American State Department is endeavoring to unseat the current Cabinet in Hungary, the title of Stephen's article reads ironically indeed. For the rumors, see the above referenced interview with the American Ambassador in Budapest.