Budapest Beacon: Chargé d’Affaires André Goodfriend, thanks for taking the time to meet with me today.
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: A pleasure.
Budapest Beacon: I’ve got a quick question for you, just to put everything in context here. You are not the Ambassador of the U.S. Embassy, you are the Chief of Mission?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: That’s right.
Budapest Beacon: What’s the difference?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: The ambassador is the presidential appointee for the United States. After the President nominates an ambassador, the candidate has to go through a process in the Senate because our Constitution requires that people at ministerial level, including ambassadors, are appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate.
After that, after a hearing in the Senate and confirmation, the person comes here with all of the authority of being a presidential appointee who’s been confirmed by the Senate.
I’m a State Department employee. I’ve been working with the State Department since 1987 and would normally have been the Deputy Chief of Mission, with the Ambassador being the Chief of Mission. In the absence of an ambassador, whoever is next in rank becomes the Chief of Mission, which in French essentially is the Chargé d’Affaires. So, in the absence of an ambassador I’m the Chargé d’Affaires. If I happen to leave the country. whoever is next in rank becomes the Chargé d’Affaires.
Budapest Beacon: Why doesn’t Hungary have a U.S. Ambassador?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Like I mentioned just a moment ago, the process requires that the appointee be appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate. So right now within the Senate there are over 50 candidates for ambassadorial positions that are going through this process, that are awaiting confirmation. Since the beginning of the year the Senate has been requiring a roll call vote on the ambassadorial confirmations rather than a voice vote, which has caused the process to last longer than it normally would. There are some candidates who have been waiting for over a year. The nominee for Hungary, Colleen Bell, was nominated last November, so it’s been almost a year. She’s one of, like I said, about 50 different candidates that are caught in this process.
The Secretary of State John Kerry, in fact, commented in an OpEd, something unusual, last July on this slow-down, this obstacle to our having full representation around the world at our embassies. That’s a large number of ambassadorial nominees that are stuck in the Senate right now.
Budapest Beacon: Is that an obstacle for the State Department or an obstacle for the various embassies around the world?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Well, we’re all part of the U.S. government so it’s an obstacle for the U.S. government being able to represent itself effectively in the countries where we don’t have an ambassador, where we don’t have the President’s designated appointee in those countries.
Budapest Beacon: Recently Bill Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, and President Obama made some remarks about Hungary. Let’s not talk about Bill Clinton’s remarks because you’re representing the State Department —
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: The U.S. government.
Budapest Beacon: – the U.S. government, but President Obama made some remarks and he spoke about the Hungarian civil sector, that is its relationship with the Hungarian government, vice versa. What are some of these concerns that President Obama was speaking about?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: We’ve been noting concerns with regards to civil society in Hungary for some time. Each year USAID publishes a report on civil society sustainability, and for the past few years the civil society sector in Hungary has been deteriorating. There have been more challenges.
Since the beginning of this year, around April or so, there have been greater constraints on civil society with regards to audits of some of the civil society organizations. So in June of this year our OSCE representative made a statement about the intimidation of civil society and media in Hungary. He was not alone. That particular statement essentially reiterated some of the findings of the OSCE Medial Special Rapporteur in her report on media and civil society around the world.
These constraints, this intimidation, did not slow down. In fact, it increased with the audits in fact continuing to take place now, and some of the civil society organizations here having had their tax numbers removed. There have been statements by very senior Hungarian government officials essentially calling the civil society sector foreign agents if they are receiving funding from outside of Hungary.
So all of this very public intimidation, this very public trial of civil society organizations has created great concern not just in the United States but in other countries as well.
In September, just last month, we issued another statement in the OSCE because of this continuing intimidation. We were not alone. Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Canada all issued similar statements with regards to the increasing threat to civil society in Hungary.
So at the Clinton Global Initiative when President Obama made his speech on our standing with civil society around the world, the focus was not just on Hungary. What we do is we support civil society as an important element of a democracy. When he made his speech he was also identifying around the world where civil society is under threat, and given the obstacles, the intimidation currently that we’ve noted before, directly to the Hungary government as well as through public statements, given that intimidation, it’s reached the level where the President included Hungary in a list of countries where there is this decreasing space for civil society.
Budapest Beacon: In your opinion, do you think these acts of intimidation on behalf of the government are politically motivated?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: I don’t want to talk about motivations because for the motivations you would —
Budapest Beacon: You would have to be that person.
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: That’s right.
Budapest Beacon: What does it look like?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Well, there are a series of facts such as the ones I just mentioned. Whether it is conducting an audit, and the reasons for the audit have changed from time to time.
Budapest Beacon: Many times.
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Yes. Like I said, these reasons are all fairly apparent. So the reasons for the audit have changed from time to time. The rhetoric in the media with regards to the role of civil society and whether civil society is acting in the interests of the society where it’s based as these organizations are, whether it’s the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, whether it is Atlatszo, and other Hungarian organizations, organizations that are acting on behalf of vulnerable communities within Hungary, whether it’s the LGBT community or those acting on behalf of women’s rights. All of these organizations have essentially come under fire as their funding sources have been questioned, and the interests that they serve have been questioned when they’re acting, as far as we can see, on behalf of Hungarian society itself.
So this very public intimidation, calling into question the reasons why they’re here, auditing their finances, making accusations against them at senior government levels in the media rather than through a court process. This is what intimidation looks like.
Budapest Beacon: After President Obama’s remarks, you appeared on Egyenes Beszéd with Olga Kálmán and you shared some of these very same concerns. One of the examples you gave was when you talked about friends. Would you like to say that again? We were having a hard time trying to hear the English out of the Hungarian voice-over that they gave you.
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Well, Hungary and the United States are friends. We’re allies. We believe we share common values. So the analogy was when you’re with a friend, if your friend is doing something that is going to hurt your friend, if your friend is going out without clothes or is doing something that is going to make your friend very sick. Again, really something damaging and you’re concerned about your friend’s welfare. You speak to your friend directly. You say you’ve got to stop doing this. You’re hurting yourself if you continue doing this. This is something serious. And if you continue this way you’re going to, it’s going to result in you either not surviving or being very sick.
Budapest Beacon: Or losing friends.
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Or losing friends. Essentially, talking as a friend to a friend to say I’m concerned about you, and that this behavior is causing you damage. So that’s the analogy.
Budapest Beacon: After that interview you were summoned to the Ministry of, it’s now Foreign Trade and Foreign Affairs.
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Budapest Beacon: Foreign Affairs and Trade. That generated quite a bit of attention here in Hungary. What was that like? Why did they summon you? Can you tell me anything about that conversation? Who did you speak to?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Well, I speak with people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade fairly regularly. Sometimes once or twice a week. So in this case the day following the interview the Ministry called the Embassy and asked whether I could come there as soon as possible so that we could discuss the comments made by the President, the speech made by the President, as well as my own interview. I went to the Ministry, I went with a colleague from the Embassy. I spoke with Deputy State Secretary Levente Magyar who conveyed the Hungarian perspective that they didn’t see what facts I was referring to. If you look at civil society within Hungary there are 60-80,000 different civil society organizations and that should indicate that civil society is healthy in Hungary. So what facts are there that concern us?
I responded in the same way that I’m responding to you, that the facts are very clear. That beginning earlier this year with very public audits and with essentially a trial in the media rather than through the appropriate processes, with statements made at senior levels, it’s clear that there is this intimidation taking place, and the facts are apparent and these are the facts that we were referring to. So it was a discussion like that.
Budapest Beacon: Russia is one of those countries now where civil society organizations that receive funding from overseas automatically have to register as foreign agents, and Prime Minister Orbán’s speech at Tusnádfürdő back in June or July —
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: July, I believe.
Budapest Beacon: – end of July – he referred to some organizations as serving foreign interests. What I’d like to know is what is so alarming to the United States State Department about a statement like that?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Essentially, it calls into question any organization that receives funding from outside Hungary. Many of these organizations, they either receive funding from the government itself, or in order to continue to survive and act independently of the government they receive funding from elsewhere. Within Hungary there’s very little public direct support for civil society. I’ve heard various reasons why it doesn’t exist, but the concern then raised by the Prime Minister was with regards to those organizations that are not receiving their funding from the government, essentially are acting on behalf of foreign interests.
For us, this was a criticism of independent civil society, of any civil society organization that was not receiving funding from the Hungarian government but was trying to act independently, perhaps keeping government accountable which many of these organizations such as Transparency International try to do, dealing with corruption in government, dealing with protecting of civil rights within Hungary, dealing with ensuring that the rights of vulnerable communities are safeguarding, protecting freedom of speech, holding government accountable. These were the types of organizations which were being demonized by the government. And that raised concern because as noted by the President in his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, a strong independent civil society is necessary for the stability of a democratic society, and that’s what raised our concerns.
Budapest Beacon: In 2011 the Hungarian government passed the Religion Law. It’s got a much more complex name than that but it’s frequently known as the Religion Law. That Religion Law drew a lot of criticism because it delegitimized religions that had a so-called church status. Several weeks ago the US State Department released a religions freedom report. In that report, the section concerning Hungary raised this issue. I’d like to know your opinion on whether independent civil society and religious freedom have a relationship with each other. Are these two things that are contingent on each other?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: I don’t know if contingent is the right word but there is a relationship between freedom of assembly, between the right of citizens to act according to their beliefs, act according to their interests, between the two. Generally a society where people are able to congregate freely is one where civil society is encouraged and it’s also one where the ability to worship freely and gather together is respected.
The issue with regards to religious freedom in Hungary, though, is not that people are not able to gather together and worship freely. They are. But as you mentioned, the religion law, it derecognized a number of religions and in order to receive funding from the government in the same way that I’ve noted that civil society receives funding from the government, churches also receive funding from the government. By derecognizing these churches and making them no longer official churches, they no longer receive funding in the same way from the government. So they’re not able to support their schools, they’re not able to support their place of worship as effectively as those churches that are recognized. So it’s more of a discriminatory action on the part of the government towards some religions versus other religions.
Budapest Beacon: There are two organizations that come to mind right now, two churches, that lost their status. One is the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood, it’s a Methodist denomination, which was recognized as a church back in the early 1980s. Another group that lost their status was the Reform Jews. Do you have any insight as to the reasoning why these churches lost their status?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: As to, again, the why, this is something which needs to be addressed to the Hungarian government. After many of the churches lost their status they were told that there would be a procedure through which they could apply and they could regain their status. These churches, as far as I know, went through that application procedure and the big issues with the Religion Law is that it politicizes the process. It’s not simply an objective process where if you go through it, if you meet the criteria, at the end you receive church status. It’s not simply based on number of congregants or upon the services performed, but at the end of the process it requires that you receive approval by two-thirds of the parliament. In this case those denominations, those churches that you mentioned, did not receive that approval from the parliament. And this becomes a political issue, that the parliament, essentially, is deciding which churches are legitimate and which ones are not. Despite the number of followers they may have, despite the fact that they are performing religious services, despite the fact that they meet the objective criteria. At the end of the process there is a political decision and that is the issue that we raised most significantly. And it’s one that the EU has raised as well. That’s the issue with the Hungarian Religion Law, it’s that politization of the church recognition process.
Budapest Beacon: Last month you Tweeted, “Hungary’s expansive nationality law and inflammatory rhetoric can create cross-border and inter-ethnic tensions.” This was a link to remarks made in Warsaw recently. Can you tell me a bit about this Tweet?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Actually it’s the link that’s the important part. It was a link to a statement made at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting which is run by the OSCE. The Human Dimension focuses on human rights, so there are a number of NGOs there. The OSCE , which is very much a values-based organization, and its members all accept basic similar human rights, human values. We have these shared values. It’s a good organization to be part of. At the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting the state of these types of human rights and human development are discussed, comparisons between different countries are made; areas where there can be improvement are discussed. This was a statement issued by the United States at the event with regards to minority rights. We strongly support minority rights. We believe that minority rights are a matter between the state and its citizens and that all minorities within a state should have those rights safeguarded by the state.
The statement that you reference and that I cited in my Tweet was with regards to Hungary. It was one made by our representative at that conference saying that Hungary’s expansive citizenship law when combined with inflammatory rhetoric can lead to destabilization. It’s particularly with reference to the situation in Ukraine now where Russia has essentially used its claim to be acting on behalf of ethnic Russians within Ukraine as a reason for taking, for invading Ukraine and taking part of that country and changing the borders of that country unilaterally.
Hungary has also expressed its concern about the Hungarian ethnic minority in Ukraine and there have been recent calls for autonomy for that ethnic community within Ukraine.
At this time, while Ukraine is struggling for its survival, having been invaded by an aggressive Eastern neighbor, Ukraine is being torn apart. This is not the time to make claims like this and statements like this with regards to other minorities, other ethnic communities within Ukraine also seeking autonomy rights or separate, claims to separate governance. And that was the basis for that Tweet. That was the reason for the citation of Hungary within the Human Dimension in Warsaw, there are concerns about how Hungary’s rhetoric with regard to the ethnic minorities in neighboring countries, particularly within Ukraine, was leading to tensions and friction and destabilizing the situation in Ukraine.
Budapest Beacon: The plight or condition that ethnic minority communities living outside of Hungary, so in the Carpathian Basin, it’s not just in Ukraine. There are ethnic Hungarian communities in Romania, Transylvania, Serbia, in Croatia. Why are these minority rights such an important issue for a national government outside of that country?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Again, you’re asking a question that really should be addressed —
Budapest Beacon: I’m just curious as to why this is something that you have to talk about.
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: There is a difference between the U.S. approach towards minority rights and the Hungarian approach towards minority rights. And in fact most countries will view minority rights as rights that are guaranteed by a state towards its citizens. Not dealing with communal rights and treating an ethnic community or any type of community as having rights as a community, but as members of that community having rights individually that are safeguarded by the state.
Hungary’s position is more that these should be seen as communal rights with the nationalities having the ability to govern themselves. That’s the approach it takes within Hungary. Within the Constitution I believe that there are 13 nationalities that are defined and have separate rights that are not granted as individuals, but as communities, and it would like to have that same approach within the neighboring countries. This is an area where we have a lot of discussion. But making these claims now, particularly with regards to Ukraine, and seeking autonomy for the ethnic community there while Ukraine is essentially fighting for its survival is something which leads to further destabilization in Ukraine.
Budapest Beacon: I’m not sure whether there’s a formal end to this chaos that’s happening in Eastern Ukraine but can you tell me anything about it? I know that’s not your posting but what can you tell me about the situation over there, just to kind of help give context to what’s happening in Hungary’s neighboring country?
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: Well, we’re working with our allies, with those with whom we share values, and this is again why shared values are so important. Our best allies are those that see democracies, that see the role of citizens in a way similar to us. So we’re working with the EU, we’re working via NATO – which is also a values-based organization – to hold Russia to account for what it has done.
The EU has agreed to sanctions. The United States has agreed to sanctions. These sanctions are having a very strong effect on Russia now, on the Russian economy, on Russia’s ability to hold itself out as a member of the international community, abiding by international norms, abiding by international standards, because it’s not. And the united front of the EU and the United States and other countries together in imposing these sanctions and saying that we won’t tolerate this type of 19th-Century, early 20th-Century behavior from any country is making a strong statement. It’s helping move the process down towards a political solution where Russia has to come to the negotiating table, together with the different groups, with the separatists in Ukraine and the government of Ukraine to try to come to a peaceful solution.
Budapest Beacon: We’ve talked about some complex topics so far. Tell me a bit about your experiences thus far in Hungary. I’d like to know some of the positive things you’ve been able to experience.
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: I try to get out and talk to people. I think for me that’s the biggest pleasure. I studied Hungarian for a year before coming here, and my Hungarian is passable now for a conversation. So being able to go and either walk the streets and talk to people or join in to various different meetings of people is a great experience.
To try to spread U.S. culture via music is also something that I’ve tried to do. Every month at the American Corner we’ve had essentially a folk song sing-along of U.S. folk songs. I’ve been also to see Hungarian folk music. I was surprised and impressed to see an American country music festival down by the Danube only about a month or so ago, and to see the range of American-type bluegrass country music groups that exist here.
And of course the other things that are standard with regards to enjoying everything about Hungary, the beauty of the scenery, the food. I enjoy eating as well.
So there have been just many different things to see at a cultural level. The diplomatic community and the government as well is very engaging. Despite the disagreements or despite the open and frank conversations we do have, we actually speak informally and we get to know each other as people as well, to be able to discuss these same types of topics over a table like this and try to understand each other’s perspective. That for me as a diplomat is perhaps one of the most fulfilling things, trying to understand the perspective of the person I’m talking to.
Budapest Beacon: Thank you very much for your time.
Chargé d’Affaires Goodfriend: My pleasure.