US Senator warns of risk to democracy in Hungary

Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, co-chairman of the US Helsinki Commission, has placed a statement in the Congressional Record warning of threats to Hungary’s fragile democracy through excessive nationalism since the rightwing Fidesz party came to power last year.

Cardin writes:

One of the government’s first acts was to amend Hungary’s citizenship law to facilitate the acquisition of Hungarian citizenship by ethnic Hungarians in other countries–primarily Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. This expansion of citizenship was pushed through even though, in a 2001 statement submitted to the Council of Europe, the Hungarian Government firmly renounced all aspirations for dual citizenship for ethnic Hungarians.

In a further escalation of provocative posturing, a few weeks ago Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament Laszlo Kovar said that military force to change the borders with Slovakia–a NATO ally–would have been justified and, in any case, he added, the ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia are “ours.”

If one side of the nationalism coin is an excessive fixation on Hungarian ethnic identity beyond the borders, the other side is intolerance toward minorities at home. For example, one increasingly hears the argument, including from government officials, that while the Holocaust was a 20th-century tragedy for Jews, the worst tragedy for Hungarians was the 1920 Treaty of Trianon–the treaty that established the borders for the countries emerging from the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This comparison is offensive and disturbing. Ethnic Hungarians were never targeted for extermination or subjected to mass murder by Trianon. Moreover, this line of argument presents Hungarians and Jews as mutually exclusive. But more than 400,000 Jews were sent from Hungary to Auschwitz, and more than 10,000 Jews were shot along the banks of the Danube–were they not also Hungarian? How could this not be a tragedy for Hungary?

Cardin also warns about the threat to press freedom from a new media law and about the use of “super majorities” rather than simple majorities in parliament.

He concludes

In 1989, Hungary stood as an inspiration for democracy and human rights advocates around the globe. Today, I am deeply troubled by the trends there. I understand that it sometimes takes new governments time to find their bearings, and I hope that we will see some adjustments in Budapest. But in the meantime, I hope that other countries looking for transformative examples will steer clear of this Hungarian model.

(Hat tip: Karl Pfeifer)