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Under friendly fire

August 15th, 2011

Left wing commentators welcome the unequivocal warnings addressed to the Hungarian government by various Western sources, while right wing analysts deem accusations of anti-democratic tendencies directed at Hungarian leaders unfair.

This is an unpleasant letter. What is even more unpleasant, is that it has been published,” – writes Jenő Veres in Népszava, commenting on State Secretary Zoltán Kovács’s reply to an editorial in the Financial Times. But the commentator believes the letter was not actually intended for readers of the Financial Times. It was meant for domestic consumption: the state secretary “intended to soothe and stimulate supporters of the government, who will thus learn that the ‘imperialists’ have again received a severe beating.”

In an earlier spat, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia voiced concerns over the direction which legislation in Hungary was taking, with direct reference to the new Media Act and the Law on Churches. As BudaPost reported (on August 2nd), Hungarian commentators discovered several mistakes in his statement, some of which were then also spelt out in a letter to Mr Melia by the president of the Hungarian Media Authority. The same allegations continue nevertheless to be repeated in the international press, including the FT editorial. But the main emphasis was on the ambition of ruling Hungarian political forces to hold former officials to account for the country’s debt crisis. Official statements to this effect were interpreted both at home and abroad as expressing the intention of passing retroactive legislation to punish former heads of government for deeds which were not defined as criminal offences during their time in office. Commentators, including pro-government analysts, have been quick to denounce the idea of retroactive legislation (Budapost, August 9th) and such a solution has been ruled out since by several government officials, including the State Secretary in his letter to the Financial Times.

In an editorial in the pro-government Magyar Nemzet, Miklós Ugró does not exclude the prosecution of former politicians, but only if they broke laws that were in force during their time in office. Retroactive legislation, he believes, would do more harm than good, for it would undermine democracy. “No one can be tried solely for his or her role in indebting the country,” the commentator of the leading pro-government daily contends.

Csaba Szajlai, the business analyst of Magyar Hirlap deems it “politically understandable that officials feel the urge to name the culprits, but in today’s critical situation something more is needed: clear messages to the markets, the investors and the citizens of this country.”

Charles Gati, a Hungarian-American professor at Johns Hopkins University and former advisor to the State Department tells 168 óra that the critical remarks coming from Washington are not isolated incidents. In a lengthy interview, he says he has no direct access to the State Department, but mentions that he met Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Melia as recently as August 4th. At an earlier stage, he recalls, the US Ambassador to Hungary used to be milder in her criticism than the administration in Washington, but now they are acting in unison, as illustrated by Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis in an article in Magyar Nemzet. Ms Kounalakis warns that dismissing criticism “as politically motivated, or based on misinformation, is not fair to all those who have an interest in the continued strength and vibrancy of Hungary’s democracy.” Professor Gati says that Washington’s future response will mainly depend on the content of the new electoral system to be adopted later this year.

The ambassador’s article sparked an angry response from István Lovas, a passionately right wing commentator and Brussels correspondent of Magyar Nemzet. In a riposte entitled “Hands off Hungary” he accuses the ambassador of  “direct and crass interference in Hungarian domestic affairs.” Before trying to teach Hungary a lesson, Lovas argues, the United States should have criticised a few other countries, including Italy for the limits it tolerates on press freedom, as reported by Freedom House; India for opening fire on peaceful demonstrators, or Saudi Arabia for executing gays.

In a less passionate comment in Heti Válasz, entitled “The pot is calling the kettle black“, István Szőnyi reacts to Ms Kunalakis’ advice that Hungary should maintain a system of checks and balances. In her article, the ambassador referred to the example of the Supreme Court in the United States “as a reminder that checks and balances are a deeply-rooted and essential part of democracy.”

Szőnyi remarks that she also mentioned the late Ronald Reagan as a champion of democracy. President Reagan was, however, also famous for nominating Supreme Court judges on the basis of their conservative affiliations, thus thoroughly changing the composition of the Supreme Court over his two terms in office

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