Statement of Maximilian Teleki, President, Hungarian American Coalition, on the future of U.S. – Hungary relations

Washington, DC – The purpose of the statement is to present the Coalition’s position on U.S. – Hungary relations and clarify any misunderstandings recently stated in the press about what kind of organization we are and how we operate as fully independent advocates of a positive US – Hungary relationship.

The Hungarian American Coalition is a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization founded in 1991.  While the Coalition is an apolitical organization, our members have extensive knowledge and first-hand experience on matters concerning Hungarian-American relations and are active in providing information to U.S. decision-makers on many issues of common interest.

Members of the Coalition believe that all Hungarians are part of the Hungarian nation, whether they live in Australia, Romania, the U.S. or Serbia.  For nearly 25 years, we continue to advocate to Hungarian and Washington decision-makers that the human rights of Hungarian minorities throughout Central and Eastern Europe are of paramount importance for the future of the region’s democracies, whose institutions will be viable only if they earn the trust of majority and minority populations alike.

Our Hungarian American community remains convinced that Central Europe and Hungary represent areas of strategic interest for the United States.  While we don’t always agree with the policies of both Hungarian or U.S. governments, we remain committed to building on the reputation we have earned as a credible interlocutor between the two countries.

I joined the Coalition in 1994, then serving as a Board Member beginning in 2001. I have been Coalition President since 2004.  I am also a founding Board Member of the Tom Lantos Institute (TLI), and continue to work closely with the Lantos Foundation in combatting intolerance and the disturbing rise of far-right factions throughout Europe, even within the European Parliament, and the dangers of a rising xenophobic Jobbik Party in Hungary.

We believe that it is for the Hungarian people to decide what kind of government they choose.  Hungary’s political changes in the past 25 years have been dramatic, oscillating between left and right democratically elected governments.

Since 2010, there have been five national elections held in Hungary.  Three of these elections, namely the national parliamentary elections, the European Parliament elections, and the local government elections, were held last year.  Each time, the Hungarian people expressed their will under democratic circumstances.

In 2010, the newly elected Fidesz-led government faced a Greece-like economic and financial crisis that shook the country’s political system to the core.  In recent years, it has made progress by getting out of the economic doldrums and putting Hungary into the top echelon of EU members with a respectable economic growth.  However, several decades- old challenges remain (poverty, demographics, Roma integration, etc.).  Unfortunately, the inherited deep socioeconomic and moral crises have given rise to voices of intolerance and exclusion by Jobbik (mostly anti-Roma and anti-Semitic) that should be an important concern to Hungarians and friends of Hungary abroad.  The Hungarian government has taken a zero-tolerance policy, but similarly to other countries in Europe, much work remains to be done.

Hungary has also been a reliable Western partner in peacekeeping missions, in the fight against terrorism, the Islamic State (ISIS / ISIL), and now in seeking to contain an expansionist Russia.  As Hungary continues to face difficult challenges as a democratic nation, the positive and steady voice of the United States is much needed.

The bilateral relationship between Hungary and the United States is far from perfect, and Hungary continues to face difficult challenges as a growing democracy.  While constructive criticism is welcome and can provide the right encouragement and incentives, excessive, acerbic and often politically motivated pressures are counterproductive.

Let’s examine the main areas of concern that will shape the future of Hungary-U.S. relations.

These areas include:

  • Russia’s aim of reestablishing of Cold War-era borders and spheres of influence in the region
  • The war in Ukraine as a result of Russia’s military annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine
  • Energy security for the region:  Hungary’s near-total energy dependency on Russia and dire need for energy diversification
  • Corruption and transnational crime: the price paid by Hungarian society
  • The status of civil society in Hungary

All of the above topics have been on the bilateral agenda for the past few years.  However, Russia’s expansionist foreign policy based on military power and disregard for international law have a disproportionate impact on a small country like Hungary, even though Article 5 of the NATO Treaty provides some solace.

Energy security has also been discussed for 15 years, but unfortunately to date the U.S. has done little to assist Hungary in developing a long-term strategy and implementing an effective action plan.  We believe that it is in the strategic and national security interest of the United States to assist countries like Hungary to become far less dependent on Russia’s natural gas monopoly.

Lately, corruption and transnational crime have become hot topics in bilateral relations.  Unfortunately, at times it seemed that instead of discussing ways to eradicate this cancer from Hungarian society, the discussion became a “blame game”, often interpreted as the exertion of political pressure to effect change in certain policies of the Hungarian government.

Many Hungarians felt that their country has been unfairly singled out and stigmatized by the E.U. and U.S. authorities.  Historically, there has been some resentment also about the lack of effective U.S. political support for protecting the rights (including the right to autonomy) of the substantial Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring countries.

The functioning of Hungary’s civil society is another important topic in bilateral relations.  However, this question was not prompted by a healthy discussion on the development and prospects of this important segment of Hungarian society, but as a reaction to the highly publicized, abusive use of prosecutorial power by the government to establish potential misdeeds of a particular group of grant-making NGOs.  For many of us in the United States it is difficult to understand the underlying regulatory and legal rules of European countries.  So, it seems wise to put an extra effort into assessing procedures and issues of legal, constitutional nature.  It is equally difficult for Hungarians to understand our very own rules regulating similar procedures.  One good example has been the attempt by several European countries to understand why the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution(*) provides legal protection for racist, far-right websites targeting audiences in Hungary and elsewhere.

All of the above topics are highly relevant to the positive relations between Hungary and the U.S.  It is incumbent upon the diplomatic representations of both countries to find ways to have an effective, harmonious and mutually respectful discourse to achieve substantive positive results.

We would like to recommend the following actions to ensure the continued successful development of the bilateral relationship:

  • Continue to support educational and cultural programs such as the Fulbright scholarship and others sponsored by NGOs of both countries
  • Provide more opportunities for Hungarian decision makers to visit the U.S., through various programs, including the State Department’s international and voluntary visitors program
  • U.S. officials and decision-makers should obtain first-hand experience by visiting Hungary more frequently
  • Make possible meetings at the highest political levels:  it has been more than 10 years since Hungary’s Prime Minister was received in the White House

The strategic importance and weight of the transatlantic relationship will only increase in coming years.  As a result, we must evaluate and strengthen every element of Hungarian-American relations.  Not only do the decision-makers of both capitals want this relationship to work, but also so do the citizens.  The opportunity exists for us to open a new chapter in Hungarian-American relations that will effectively serve both Hungary’s long-term national interests and the capacity of Euro-Atlantic relations to jointly manage the newly emerging global challenges.

The Hungarian American Coalition is ready to help in this noble endeavor.

(*) Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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