What do you do with a drunken ally? — Two resolutions on Hungary before Congress

June 22, 2017

As Hungary’s crackdown on independent groups and institutions intensifies, two resolutions introduced in the US House of Representatives highlight America’s predicament when it comes to the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

On June 20, Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio and longtime member of the Hungarian-American Caucus, introduced a resolution “supporting international academic freedom and American universities abroad.”

“Academic freedom is under assault in many parts of the world […] It is essential for the United States Government to support and defend American-accredited academic institutions that are subjected to discrimination, harassment, coercion, unjustified closure or seizure,” reads the resolution.

While clearly designed with Budapest’s Central European University in mind, the text of the resolution does not mention CEU, Hungary, or any other institutions or countries.

The omission of Hungary is not accidental, and reflects diverging views in Washington on how to address the CEU crisis and Orbán’s domestic policies. On May 24, a very different resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives.

“Supporting a democratic Hungary and reaffirming the long-standing and mutually-beneficial relationship between the United States and Hungary” was submitted by four members of Congress, and now has eight co-sponsors: two Republicans and six Democrats.

Unlike the resolution on academic freedom, the latter not only points to Hungary specifically, highlighting the country’s membership in NATO, but goes beyond the issue of CEU.

“Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling party ‘Fidesz’, has increasingly moved towards authoritarianism in word and action, declaring in 2014 that he preferred an ‘illiberal state’ and ‘illiberal democracy’ citing Russia as his model.  Prime Minister Orbán has sought to stifle any opposition to his rule, including by suppressing free speech and assembly, from universities, civil society groups, and independent think tanks,” reads the resolution.

It refers specifically to the October 2016 shutting down of left-wing newspaper Népszabadság, the violation of asylum-seekers’ rights in the transit zone along Hungary’s southern border, and politically motivated criminal defamation charges against journalists and bloggers.

The resolution says Hungary’s new law on foreign-funded NGOs and other policies are “thinly disguised as attempts to consolidate Fidesz control and is modeled on Russia’s foreign agent law which the EU and international rights experts have criticized as a tool to silence independent civil society.”

In a strongly-worded call for action, it “condemns Hungary’s movement towards a less free and democratic society; and urges Hungary to reverse laws and policies that curtail individual rights and basic freedoms.”

While the two resolutions are far from mutually exclusive, they do reflect diverging approaches to Hungary.  The resolution on academic freedom is in line with CEU’s own strategy for tackling Hungary’s higher education bill.

Recognizing that academic freedom is a universal concept —and one much easier to explain to potential supporters across the world than delving into the details of Hungary’s complex internal politics — CEU has constructed a campaign on the idea that the assault on the university is an attack on academic freedom. At the same time, there is an understanding that CEU may have an opportunity to save itself, but cannot on its own reverse Hungary’s broader democratic backsliding.

“This is not fascism,” CEU Rector and President Michael Ignatieff told the BBC in May. “This is a populist democrat, he won a free and fair election. In Budapest, you’re not in the deep freeze of communist Hungary or fascist Germany.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, some officials and lawmakers have been watching Orbán’s policies over the past years with worry. They are well-aware that the government’s move against CEU is not merely an attack on academic freedom but  part of a larger crackdown on independent institutions and civil society.

The second, highly-detailed resolution is thus an attempt to highlight wide-ranging and serious ongoing problems with a NATO ally.

CEU has welcomed the draft resolutions as a positive development.

“CEU welcomes the resolutions and appreciates the unwavering support we’ve received from the US government, including the House of Representatives, high-ranking senators, and the State Department by way of the US Embassy here in Budapest,” Colleen Sharkey, a member of CEU’s communications team, told the Budapest Beacon late Wednesday.

“Those who value academic freedom recognize our battle as one of principle and of defending an American-Hungarian university that has served thousands of students from Hungary and around the world,” she added.

As activity over the issue of Hungary grows in Congress, the US State Department has continued its vocal criticism of Orbán’s policies, issuing formal statements on March 31, May 23, and June 19.

In her latest statement, on the new law on foreign-funded NGOs, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert emphasized that the new legislation is part of a larger problematic trend.

“If signed into law, this would be another step away from Hungary’s commitments to uphold the principles and values that are central to the EU and NATO,” Nauert said.

For the Hungarian government, however, criticism from the US is merely a “double standard.”

“In the USA Soros organisations could never do what they are doing in Europe,” a government statement said on June 20 in response to the State Department.

“The Act on the Transparency of Organizations Funded from Abroad has been subjected to an ongoing disinformation campaign in the international media, strongly assisted by Soros organizations,” reads the statement. “It is regrettable to see even the US Department of State being misled on this issue.”