Colleen Bell: Civil society and media plurality vital to democracy

January 19, 2017

In a farewell interview published yesterday by online daily index.hu, outgoing US Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bradley Bell talks about her main accomplishments over the past two years, the importance of civil society and media plurality to Hungary’s democracy, and her future political plans.

The full text of the interview can be read here.

On her Senate confirmation hearings:

Criticism of me was a combination of political and economic interests and sexism.  . . . If you enter the political arena, you have to suck it in and be very prepared.

I did not doubt for a minute that I would be an effective American ambassador in Hungary.  Not for a minute.  I am perfectly aware of my abilities, as are those people who know me or even President Obama himself who nominated me for this task.  But I also know that I had to learn a lot and had to properly prepare, and that is precisely what I did.  We should also add that it is a tradition for the US president to choose ambassadors from the private sector to all parts of the world. 

On Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán:

Prime Minister Orbán was respectful and cordial, and willingly shared his knowledge about Hungary.  He was extremely professional and supported my efforts here.

On future US foreign policy:

Foreign policy tends to be extremely values-based and consistent. . . . I believe the next administration will continue the same road and will continue to promote trade, security, law enforcement.  Hungary is a reliable and important ally in the fight against international crime and terrorism.

Freedom of expression, media freedom, human rights – these are universal, fundamental democratic values and cornerstones of our foreign policy.  At the same time I believe we will continue to promote policies committed to their maintenance and support.

On Fidesz deputy chairman Szilárd Németh’s recent declaration of war on Hungarian NGOs funded by George Soros:

When we talk about civil organizations, we are talking about groups of Hungarians who love their country and joined together in order to improve the country in certain areas.  Or in order to give voice to certain matters, like the problem of corruption and the promotion of tolerance, or improving education.  They do not constitute a threat to Hungary, but are vital to a democracy.  For this reason I would encourage the government to cooperate with these civil organizations in the matters they consider important.

Civil organizations are fundamental to the operation of any democracy, as I mentioned earlier.  They need to feel that there is room for them to complete their work.  Who devotes their lives to serving a cause are driven by good intentions.  They are not foreign agents, they do not want to bring the government down, and they do not want to influence the outcome of elections.

On press freedom and media plurality:

It is important that the Hungarian people have access to a broad scope of opinions and information in order for them to be informed citizens.

I think the decrease in independent media is a general trend we need to calculate with.  It is not my task to decide whether a concrete organ [Népszabadság] was closed for political or economic reasons.  But I value people’s opinions and the fact that they concerned themselves with the reasons behind the paper’s closure, and how this could potentially impact society.

On US-Hungary relations:

Hungary is a partner and ally of the United States.  We are bound together by NATO, OSCE, and the UN, and we have a close relationship through the European Union as well.  These organizations are all based on mutual values like democracy and freedom of expression and human rights.  Naturally, friends and partners can hold each other to account within these organizations.  Naturally, they are only free to do so in the spirit of respect and partnership.  On the other hand, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge any problems that exist.”

On her main accomplishments:

I am extraordinarily satisfied in terms of what I accomplished as American ambassador.  I focused on the three pillars of our cooperation – security, law enforcement, and trade and economic relations – and these worked very well.  This was a very awkward and sensitive period in this region with the migration crisis, the Ukrainian situation, with Brexit, and even with the attempted coup in Turkey.  But with regard to these three pillars, I found the Hungarian government to be a reliable partner.

On her future political plans:

I thrive on fierce competition, and the political arena is full of challenges and unpredictability. I am a “political animal.” . . . The Democratic Party is a solid, effective and strong political party.  Even if the election result was not favorable for it, this is an occasion to reflect and reconsider what you can do in the interest of performing better and addressing the people more effectively.  There will be a lot of discussion about this, and I suspect that I will also play a role in this.