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Remarks & Statements

A Second Look - Op-Ed by Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis published in the Hungarian weekly Heti Válasz

December 8, 2011

It has been two years since I arrived in Budapest to represent my country as the U.S. Ambassador.  During these two years, I have had the opportunity to work closely with our partners in the Hungarian government on many common goals, such as transition in Libya and stability in the Balkans.  And just as it has been for the last 21 years, the relationship between Hungary and the United States remains strong and vibrant.

It is important to us that our relationship continues to stay strong, and to grow.  That is why, for the last few months, we have worked so diligently to understand the direction of the Hungarian government, particularly relating to the massive reforms that have been underway since it came to power.

Every time I speak about reforms here in Hungary, I am careful to repeat several key facts.  First, Prime Minister Orban and his government were elected through a free and fair election with an overwhelming majority.  We respect that.

Second, Hungary is a democracy, and it is ultimately up to the Hungarian people to decide the direction of their country.  

And third, when the United States expresses concerns about the direction of Hungarian democracy, it comes from us as a friend.  

When Secretary Clinton came to Budapest last June, the government had passed nearly two hundred new laws, including a new constitution, in less than a year since it had come to power.  Hungary was making headlines around the globe for the fast pace and the breadth of these reforms.  

During her public remarks, Secretary Clinton expressed support for the clear commitment to rebuild and strengthen the economy.  However she also urged the government to be vigilant in preserving its democratic institutions by providing the necessary checks and balances.  She called for “a real commitment to an independent judiciary, a free press and governmental transparency.”  

Since Parliament reconvened this fall, it has continued to move forward with a legislative agenda that will ultimately reform nearly every major public institution, including three of the four pillars of democracy: the legislature, the judiciary, and the media.  Calls for reform in Hungary have been heard for many years, from politicians, from professional organizations, businesses and across civil society.  No one can deny that reform is needed.  But with today’s reforms the government is focusing on greater efficiency.  My Embassy and colleagues in Washington have worked diligently to understand the effect these Cardinal Laws will have on democracy.   We continue to be concerned.

Over the next few weeks, the Cardinal Laws will be completed and the new Hungarian Constitution will come into effect.  But before it does, I urge the government to look again.  A number of credible voices are raising questions.  Are there sufficient checks and balances built in to the new system such that the independence of democratic institutions is maintained for future generations of Hungarians?  What is the best way for government to administer and regulate the institutions of democracy like the courts and the media?  Does concentration of authority in the hands of an individual improve efficiency of an institution or hinder its independence?  Does requiring a two-thirds majority to replace a powerful regulator or administrator encourage responsible decision making or provide the opportunity to advance personal or political agendas?  Does the electoral system allow the people to change governments in a free and fair manner?  Does it allow for representation of diverse views?  Do the reforms inspire the trust of the people?

These are not easy questions and they are ones that all democracies must answer for themselves.  And they are not questions that are only asked and answered once.  My own country has grappled with these questions at numerous times in its history, such as during the Great Depression of the 1930s or the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s.  

We want Hungary to succeed.  As Vice President Biden told the European Parliament last Spring, “the United States needs strong allies and alliances to face the problems of the 21st Century….”   and in that spirit, we will continue as a friend to encourage Hungary to find its own way to strengthen its democracy and the shared values that underpin our partnership.