Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Mate Hajba is director of the Free Market Foundation in Budapest, Hungary.
While Hungary is the United States’ friend and ally, the relationship between the two cannot be based on turning a blind eye toward each other’s failings. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s leadership, the central European nation finds itself on a trajectory that is moving it away from Western democratic values.
In the current edition of the “Freedom in the World” ranking by Freedom House, Hungary lags not only behind its Visegrad neighbors (Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) but also behind Bulgaria, Romania and Tunisia. Emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, Orban launched an offensive against dissenting voices this year. Those include foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, which are to be labeled as “foreign agents” under a law currently under discussion in Hungary’s parliament. A recently adopted bill will make it impossible for the Central European University (CEU), a U.S. educational institution with a charter from the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, to operate in Hungary.
The administration and Congress must respond. Here are five steps that the United States can take to dissuade Orban from emulating the example of other aspiring authoritarians.
First, President Trump needs to appoint an experienced career diplomat as ambassador to Hungary. In the two final years of the Obama administration, the post was held by Colleen Bell, a political appointee and a former producer of soap operas such as “The Bold and the Beautiful.” The position has been vacant since January. As a result, the United States has been unable to react adequately to the deepening ties between Hungary and the Kremlin and to the discovery of Orban’s ties to a recently deceased Saudi businessmen, Ghaith Pharaon, who was on the FBI’s wanted list due to his ties to terrorism. At a time when the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Iran of “provocations that export terror and violence,” Hungary managed to strike a nuclear deal with Tehran — prompting no reaction from Washington.
Second, the administration has to make it clear that Orban is not welcome in the White House. After his phone call with the then president-elect, Orban claimed that Trump had invited him on an official visit to Washington. The invitation likely existed only in the Hungarian prime minister’s imagination. When Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto visited Washington in March, the most senior official he met was Sebastian Gorka, the controversial White House deputy assistant of Hungarian descent. Yet at home Orban continues to project the image of the new U.S. administration standing squarely behind him, including in his efforts to silence dissenting voices within civil society. There is no reason the administration should play along.
Third, bilateral military-to-military cooperation can be temporarily reduced. The United States could impose a moratorium on joint exercises with Hungarian forces under the umbrella of the European Reassurance Initiative and on Hungary’s participation in programs within the International Military Education and Training. While Hungary is a NATO ally on Europe’s eastern flank, it is far from being the most vulnerable to possible military aggression by Russia. Moreover, unlike Poland or the Baltic states, Hungary’s government has long hesitated to treat the Kremlin as a threat. Quite the contrary, Vladimir Putin has received red-carpet treatment in Budapest on regular occasions (most recently in early February), and the Orban government also continues to deepen the country’s energy ties to Russia.
Fourth, if the “Lex CEU” stays in place and the new legislation on foreign-funded NGOs is adopted, Congress ought to respond by imposing visa bans on government officials involved in formulating, adopting and implementing the two pieces of legislation. Again, while Hungary is the United States’ friend and ally, there are precedents for such seemingly harsh measures. In 2014, the United States imposed a visa ban on six officials of Hungary’s tax administration, including its head Ildiko Vida, who were involved in a tax fraud scandal that affected U.S. companies operating in Europe.
Finally, Washington can’t care about Hungary more than policymakers in Berlin and Brussels do. But the administration can urge its European partners to stop being mere bystanders. In addition to the rule of law procedure, the European Commission can turn off the inflow of structural funds into Hungary. As long as it embraces authoritarianism, Fidesz cannot have a political home in the center-right European People’s Party, where it currently resides with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats or Sweden’s Moderates. While European leaders tend to be extremely cautious in their dealings with Orban, they would likely follow Washington’s example.
Ultimately, the future of Hungary is in the hands of Hungarian voters, not policymakers in Washington. However, staying silent while a government of an allied nation dismantles democratic institutions, cracks down on civil society and chases a U.S. university out of the country would leave a shameful blemish on the United States’ reputation.