Once counted among Central European countries making a steady transition from communism to liberal democracy, Hungary is increasingly a cause for concern. Much of that concern focuses on the anti-Semitism and racism of politicians belonging to the country’s far-right Jobbik party, the third largest in Parliament, and the government’s weak or non-existent response to mounting evidence of racism, hate-mongering and outright bigotry.
Last month, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who co-chairs the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. agency concerned with promoting human rights and democracy, spoke out about the disturbing events taking place in Hungary, which is a NATO ally and European Union member.
Before Passover last year, a Jobbik member of Parliament gave a speech in which he wove together anti-Roma propaganda with an anti-Semitic blood libel. Another Jobbik politician reportedly took a DNA test to demonstrate that his blood was free of Jewish or Romani ancestry. Then in November, Marton Gyongyosi, vice chairman of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that Hungarian Jews are a threat to the country’s national security and proposed that Jews in the Hungarian government and Parliament should be registered. Soon after, MP Balazs Lenhardt burned an Israeli flag during a public demonstration.
In his statement, Sen. Cardin described a mob estimated at 1,000 people that converged on a Roma neighborhood in Devecser last August. The mob reportedly included three Jobbik members of Parliament. “The failure to investigate, let alone condemn, such acts of intimidation makes Prime Minister [Viktor] Orban’s recent pledge to protect ‘his compatriots’ ring hollow,” Sen. Cardin said. We agree.
In the face of escalating ethnic nationalism and bigotry, routine denunciations by the Hungarian government amount to nothing more than lip service, and are not enough. Concrete steps must be taken by the Hungarian government to address the troubling escalation of discrimination and hatred.
In that regard, there are a number of things the U.S. government can do to bring attention to the mounting problems in Hungary and to help address them. First, the U.S. can press Hungary to protect vulnerable minorities in an official and public way. There is no reason to wait for the situation to deteriorate further before employing diplomatic intervention. Second, there should be a full investigation into actions like the assault on the Roma in Devecser and real accountability for the perpetrators. This can be accomplished through appropriate international organizations (with U.S. support), such as Hungarian human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European parliament that have the ability to carry out such investigations. Third, the U.S. could telegraph its concern about the state of Hungarian democracy by initiating democracy-building programs of the sort run by the U.S. Institute for Peace. It could reinstate Radio Free Hungary as a way to show we no longer believe Hungary to be free.
Granted, these are all preliminary steps that don’t address some of the deeper cultural concerns that enable a Jobbik party to grow and prosper in Hungary. But the effort needs to start somewhere. Doing nothing is not an acceptable alternative.
We are troubled that the new Hungary is starting to look a lot like the old Hungary. It is painful to see that happen. With prompt, meaningful and serious intervention efforts led by the United States, we are hopeful that changes can be made to bring Hungary back to the path of pursuit of a tolerant democracy and genuine respect for human rights. When we say, “Never again,” we mean it.