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Remarks & Statements

A Values Based Alliance. Op-Ed by Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis in Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet

August 3, 2011

Early this summer, Budapest celebrated Transatlantic Week, and what Prime Minister Orban called the “values based alliance” between the US and Hungary.  As they stood together side by side, Secretary Clinton explained that Americans “feel a strong affinity with Hungarians because of our mutual belief and commitment to fundamental freedoms.”

Transatlantic week was a great celebration of the ties that bind our two countries so closely together.  We celebrated Ronald Reagan and Tom Lantos, two great Americans who shared a common vision of a world based on freedom and democratic ideals. We celebrated the end of authoritarian rule in Hungary in 1990.  And as always, we remembered the great sacrifices of Hungarians as they bravely rose up against totalitarianism in 1956. 

It was especially notable that these celebrations took place during the last week of the historic, and very successful, first Hungarian presidency of the EU Council.  Through its membership in the European Union and NATO, Hungary works with us in creating political and economic security in Europe and the rest of the world.  Hungary stands side by side with us in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and serves as our “protecting power” in Libya. 

The depth of our friendship, and the breadth of our cooperation, have been cemented over the years, including during the recent visit of Secretary Clinton.  We are friends, partners and allies.  We work closely together on critical issues that affect both of our countries: from energy security, to North Africa, to the Middle East.  As such, it is crucial that we always engage in a full and open dialogue.   During her visit, the Secretary expressed publicly her strong support for the prime minister’s commitment to rebuild and strengthen Hungary’s economy.   She also expressed concern, however, that with the many changes that the government is making with its historic two-thirds majority, Hungary will stay true to its own democratic traditions.  She called for a “real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press and government transparency.”

Why did she say this?

A two-thirds majority is nearly unheard of in politics.  It offers the opportunity to effect badly needed change, but also offers the temptation to overreach.  It allows positive change to come swiftly, and for red tape to be slashed.  But it can also allow for important checks and balances to be swept aside, and valid objections from citizens be ignored.  That is why the United States and other friends are urging Hungary to take the time and effort to get it right when crafting the upcoming Cardinal laws needed to implement the new Constitution.  The most important of these will pertain to an independent media and judiciary, and free and fair elections.  The system cannot be permanently tilted to favor one party or another.  Everyone must have the opportunity to debate openly, be judged fairly, and compete freely.

The United States has been on its own democratic journey for well over two hundred years.  We have made mistakes and learned many lessons along the way.

Some of the greatest moments of change in our country have come when one political party had the Presidency and two-thirds of Congress. In the 1960’s, President Lyndon Johnson used his super majority to enact his “Great Society” program. This led to the advancement of civil rights and the introduction of health insurance for the needy (Medicaid), two achievements that have indisputably improved the lives of all Americans for generations.

But even the best intentioned governments need independent oversight.

In the 1930’s, President Roosevelt used his super majority to pass the “New Deal,” the road map for America’s recovery from the Great Depression. 

Roosevelt took bold, new actions to cope with the country’s severe problems of the time.  And though the New Deal has gone down in history as a great success, some of the other actions he pursued with his super-majority were failures… and struck down by the Supreme Court.  It was the role of the Supreme Court to stand up as reminder that checks and balances are a deeply-rooted and essential part of democracy. 

Every country and situation is unique, and in Hungary it is up to Hungarians to chart their own future and make their own decisions.  But as Secretary Clinton said, “It’s important, not only for Hungarians, that this great democratic journey that our two countries are on – we for somewhat longer than you –continue to exemplify democratic values and freedoms.  First and foremost for the benefit of our own people, and for the transatlantic alliance.  But also as examples for those who are struggling to define their own democracies now in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Hungarians are proud of their transition from Communism and what they achieved twenty years ago. And they should be.  Without violence, they brought an end to dictatorship and the establishment of a vibrant democracy.  Victor Orbán himself has been one of the outstanding leaders of this transition from the start.  That is why Hungary’s allies, including the United States,   look to this country to do more than simply be a democracy -- we look to this country to be a torch bearer, a champion of democracy.

This is why, over the last year, there has been a widespread call for the Fidesz government to be more vigilant, and respectful of its democratic institutions.  These expressions of concern are not just for the sake of this country, but for the example that Hungary continues to set for the world.  In honoring its own democratic institutions, Hungary serves not only its own people, but also can continue to serve as a much needed beacon for others around the world.  A beacon for those in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, who yearn for freedom and who are trying themselves, as Hungary did in 1989, to travel the road from tyranny to democracy.
For anyone to wave aside all 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.  Fidesz’s own members have recognized the importance of listening to voices of criticism and concern.  I was present to hear Fidesz Vice President Pokorni tell a party gathering that Fidesz’s greatest danger was members “thinking that they are more clever than anybody else and that they know everything better.” 

During Transatlantic week, Congressman Kevin McCarthy stated, upon presenting the gift of a compass to Foreign Minister Martonyi, “I am giving you this compass because I believe that the compass of Hungary, and the compass of the United States of America are set in the same direction.”  As Hungary moves toward the adoption of key Cardinal Laws this fall, we urge it to stay the course.  Continue to be the beacon of freedom and democracy that the world admires.