Biden’s Democracy Summit Snub Highlights ‘Deteriorating Relationship’ With Hungary – Analysis
By RFE RL
By Flora Garamvolgyi
(RFE/RL) — Ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy this week, word trickled out that Hungary was the only EU member state without an invite. Again.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his cohorts thus find themselves on the outside looking in on one of the White House’s signature events, conceived as a bulwark to advance democratic principles in the United States and abroad and to counter creeping authoritarianism around the world. Leaders from 121 countries were invited to the mixed virtual and in-person summit in Washington and four other cities across four continents on March 28-30.
Mate Kalo, a foreign policy analyst and adviser to the European Parliament, says Hungary’s absence reflects a response to a relationship that appears to be going from bad to worse at a crucial juncture in Europe.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has prompted the international community increasingly to view events and actions through the lens of the war’s catastrophic effects and ongoing risks.
But despite Hungary’s NATO membership and its strong economic ties with the United States, Kalo told RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service that “certain political factors — Putinization, antidemocratic tendencies, and the bucking of the cornerstones of Western federalist systems — are deteriorating the relationship.”
A ‘Worsening’ Situation
The summit comes against a backdrop of nearly 13 years in which detractors say Orban and his ruling Fidesz party have used their supermajority in parliament to consolidate control of Hungarian institutions, neuter independent media and civil society, and, more recently, undermine Western deterrence in the face of Russian aggression.
Biden made a Summit for Democracy a priority in his first year in office. But the singling out for exclusion of Orban’s Hungary alone among EU member states was part of that push even before Biden’s inauguration in January 2021.
In 2019, as a presidential candidate, Biden cited “the rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism, and illiberal tendencies around the world — not just in Russia and China, but also among our allies, places like Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary.”
After Hungary was not invited to the first Summit for Democracy in December 2021, Budapest responded by blocking the European Union’s formal participation in the event.
“On the one hand, [Orban was] not even invited to the first democracy summit,” Kalo said. “Not only has the [Hungarian] government’s perception in Washington not improved since then, it has even worsened.”
Kalo said this is unsurprising, given Orban’s ongoing resistance to EU and NATO efforts to help Ukraine fight back against Putin’s invasion. The Hungarian prime minister has repeatedly called for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia imposed over its war in Ukraine.
But the analyst also cited Budapest’s foot-dragging over Finnish and Swedish entry to NATO, which he suggested was perceived as being “directed against the protection of democracy.”
The Hungarian government’s policy of blocking Ukrainian participation in some NATO meetings further soured relations with the Biden administration, Kalo said, adding that it was a new kind of relationship between Washington and Budapest, since “there was no example before of allies showing hostile behavior.”
Bilateral relations took a hit again this month, when the U.S. State Department issued its annual human rights assessments. On Hungary, it cited consecutive states of emergency and the OSCE’s description of April 2022 national elections as lacking “a level playing field.” It also alleged interference with the judiciary, political corruption and intimidation, and threats against racial and sexual minorities.
In response, during a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on March 22 he was “appalled again and again every year” that the United States has the temerity to issue “such excoriating statements about the internal issues and situations about the internal affairs of other countries.”
Szijjarto added that the State Department “should not interfere with our domestic politics, especially not based on biased, one-sided information.”
U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman, a human rights lawyer who was reportedly mocked by Orban as “a press man…instead of a good friend” after his appointment, responded to Szijjarto’s rhetorical question, “How do they come up with this?” Pressman said simply, “Facts. Evidence.”
Pressman later likened Szijjarto’s response to Kremlin pronouncements, saying such a rejection of Western criticism of a country’s human rights record “sounds familiar.”
It was a very public rebuke of Budapest just weeks after Pressman met in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and senior White House officials “to discuss recent developments in the relationship with our Ally, including uniquely anti-American rhetoric from senior Hungarian officials and pervasive anti-American rhetoric in the media controlled by the Government of Hungary,” according to an embassy statement.
Pressman emerged from that meeting to say that “Hungary has reached an important moment in determining its future path,” before adding pointedly, “As Russia’s unjustifiable war rages next door, the time is now for a stronger relationship between Hungary and its transatlantic allies and partners.”
Barbs And Bruises
In some ways, the recent public barbs have marked a return of the increasingly fiery rhetoric between Washington and Budapest that began soon after Orban’s second stint as prime minister began in 2010 but eased during the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump.
The late Republican U.S. Senator John McCain in 2014 described Orban as a “neo-fascist dictator” in a debate over President Barack Obama’s choice of a Hollywood producer as ambassador to Budapest. McCain questioned the appointment at a time when Hungary was “on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator [and] getting in bed with Vladimir Putin.” The statement prompted a summons for Washington’s charge d’affaires in Hungary at the time.
Meanwhile, international watchdogs continued to warn of what they regarded as Orban’s ongoing assaults on press freedoms and democratic governance that prompted one experienced Hungarian observer to dub Hungary a “Frankenstate.”
After 2016, and under the Trump administration, there was a thaw in the increasingly frosty public exchanges. U.S. Ambassador David Cornstein even famously flew in songster Paul Anka to sing the Frank Sinatra classic My Way to Orban and hundreds of other guests at Fourth of July celebrations at the embassy in Budapest. Orban, Cornstein said, was “the perfect partner” and “a very, very strong and good leader.”
But since Biden’s election in 2020, his administration and a Democrat-controlled Senate have pursued a more critical path as Orban extended emergency rule and won reelection in a 2022 landslide as he embraced closer ties to Russia and opposed EU and NATO efforts to arm Ukraine.
In addition to criticisms over governance issues and foreign policy positions, political analyst Kalo said bilateral tensions could persist as Orban and his allies appear eager to build close relations with Republicans hoping to unseat Biden in 2024.
Kalo noted Hungarian President Katalin Novak’s visit to Florida earlier this month to appear alongside governor and early hopeful for the Republican presidential nomination Ron DeSantis.
Afterward, Novak, whose political rise featured stints at the Foreign Ministry, as a lawmaker, and then as Orban’s minister of family affairs, tweeted afterward that “It was great to meet a successful leader of a successful…U.S. state #Florida.”
“A significant part of the Republican voter base and some politicians, too, adore Orban,” Kalo said. “It’s unlikely that they’ll start criticizing him just because of his actions in relation to Ukraine.”
Written and reported by RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service correspondent Flora Garamvolgyi, with contributions from Central Newsroom feature writer Andy Heil
- Flora Garamvolgyi contributes to RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service from the United States. She has been working as a foreign correspondent for more than a decade and previously worked for Magyar Nemzet, Zoom, and Nepszava. Her articles have appeared in the British newspapers, The Guardian and The Observer.