Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó is a bulldog of a man. With Hungary’s foreign relations in tatters, the foreign ministry under his direction has devolved to become the proverbial used-car salesman of Europe. Values-based foreign policy has taken a backseat to economic interests, and the ministry has very little to boast about in terms of strengthening relations with its allies.
This may perhaps offer some explanation why the third Orbán government decided to rebrand the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In terms of Hungary’s reputation in the international arena, the second Orbán government ushered in an era of unprecedented hardships for the small Eastern European nation.
Once the prodigy child of the post-communist era, Hungary has rapidly descended to the status of recalcitrant troublemaker. Complicating relations further is the unfortunate trend that the foreign ministry has undergone several large-scale personnel changes in recent years.
Diplomats now serve three functions:
- Promote the party’s interests (in Hungarian this is referred to as the “magyar álláspont”, or “Hungarian position”);
- Tell everyone that Hungary is open for business; and,
- Vehemently reject any international criticism of the Hungarian government as an attack against a sovereign Hungarian nation.
Any criticism of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or ruling party Fidesz (domestically or internationally) is sold to the Hungarian people as an attack on the nation. This explains why Hungarian opposition parties are often portrayed by the government (and Fidesz’s vast propaganda hinterland) as treasonous.
This week, the US-based Freedom House released its 2016 Nations in Transit report. Freedom House made no illusion of the fact that the quality of democracy in Hungary continues to be on the decline. Hungary’s country report is page after page of details, cases and data.
So how did the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade react to the report?
“The contents … are nonsense, as is the fact that people sitting around in offices thousands of miles away from Budapest want to tell us about the state that Hungary is in,” Szijjártó said.
According to him, Freedom House’s criticism of Hungary’s eroding state of democracy is limited to the fact that Hungary built a fence along its southern border to prevent asylum seekers from entering the country.
“The Minister called it incomprehensible that criticism of Hungary’s response to the immigration crisis is coming from a country that built a wall along its southern border, not just a fence, and in whose presidential election campaign every possible opinion and its exact opposite is being voiced,” reads a statement on the foreign ministry’s website.
Szijjártó likens the report to an attack on Hungary’s sovereignty and the voters who elected Orbán to repel such criticism.
But the report makes no indictment whatsoever of Hungary’s decision to build a fence. With respect to the refugee crisis, the report does point out the length to which the Hungarian government will go to “stir up intolerance” which “contravene international human rights” and deny refugees humane treatment. The report also shows how this intolerance is translated by the government into official policy.
Unfortunately for Szijjártó, the Freedom House report is no way limited to the government’s decision to build a border fence. The report discusses a range of domestic issues which provide an overview as to why the organization chose to downgrade Hungary’s democracy rankings in 2016.
It discusses at length corruption, the weakened rule of law, the revamped election law that allowed Fidesz to seize a two-thirds supermajority in 2014 with fewer votes than it had received in 2010, government attacks against civil society, government-sponsored xenophobic campaigns, restrictions to religious freedom, the use of public media as an outlet for shameless pro-government propaganda, the failed centralization of the public education system, state-support segregation in schools, the neutering and subsequent stacking of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, and the clampdown on media.
Szijjártó would accomplish much more for improving his country’s interests if he provided detailed explanations for the range of issues raised in the report — assuming that is even possible.