U.S.-Hungary relationship reaches new low, with public rebukes and snubs

BUDAPEST — It’s a relationship that has become defined by snubs, sanctions and public rebukes. But in recent days, U.S.-Hungarian relations appear to have reached new levels of post-Cold War lows.

In a blunt speech Thursday, U.S. Ambassador David Pressman accused Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of acting to “undermine trust.”

“This is not a government that is responsive to dialogue, and démarches, and offers to work together to constructively address problems,” Pressman said in an interview ahead of the speech that marked the 25th anniversary of Hungary’s accession to the NATO alliance. For that reason, the United States is committed to “unflinchingly” calling out Hungary, he said.

In the speech, Pressman criticized Budapest for cronyism, muzzling opposition voices and the takeover of independent media — in effect expanding on an assertion by President Biden last week that Orban is “looking for dictatorship.”

Hungarian officials had already taken strong offense to that comment, with Hungary’s Foreign Ministry urgently summoning the U.S. ambassador on Tuesday.

Biden made the remark during a protocol-breaking trip to the United States by Orban last week. An avowed nationalist who has led Hungary since 2010, Orban did not receive an invitation from the White House or meet with any administration officials, but instead visited former president Donald Trump — walking a red carpet, flanked by U.S. and Hungarian flags — at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.

Afterward, Orban hailed Trump as a “president of peace,” adding in a post on the X social media platform, “We need him back more than ever!”

Pressman said in his speech, “Prime Minister Orban, who on one hand baselessly claims the United States government is trying to overthrow his government, publicly calls for the political defeat of the President of the United States”

Orban has taken to referring to the current U.S. administration as the “Democratic administration,” seeming to deny it full legitimacy. Hungarian officials have made clear that they see Biden as a lost cause and are pinning their hopes on a Trump win in November.

“We regard the Republicans as the real America,” said Zoltan Kovacs, international spokesman for the Orban government. With the Democrats, he said, “you have this ideologically driven approach, represented not only by the central administration but also by the ambassador here, and constant pressuring to do things we are not going to do.”

Hungary has taken an unforgiving approach to foreign policy, repeatedly dragging its feet on multilateral efforts to support Ukraine and sanction Russia. Orban delayed approval of Sweden’s entry into NATO for nearly two years.

While isolating Hungary from many of its allies in the European Union and NATO, his railing against progressive globalists has won him fans among U.S. Republicans and inserted the central European nation into America’s domestic politics.

“He’s punching way above his weight for a leader of country of 10 million people,” said Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor at Princeton University who formerly worked at Hungary’s constitutional court.

“He’s getting attention, he’s getting an increasing amount of power,” she added. “He’s gotten it by breaking all the rules on civility and politeness.”

In a fawning interview with Tucker Carlson last summer, Orban said Trump’s return was the only way to end the war in Ukraine and accused Washington of interfering in Hungary’s electoral process.

Washington had tried to seek official clarification from Orban, Pressman said, describing the comments as “unrecognizable to the United States.”

The letter has not received a reply.

Budapest is unapologetic.

“Why answer obviously politically motivated and ideologically biased pretentious and remarks and pressures?” Kovacs said. Late last month, a bipartisan congressional delegation visiting Hungary was also snubbed.

Hungary only responds to action, Pressman said, citing U.S. sanctions against the International Investment Bank in Budapest, dubbed the “spy bank” due to links to Russian intelligence, which finally got it shut down.

The United States has also restricted access for Hungarians to its visa waiver program amid concerns that foreign nationals have fraudulently obtained its passports, saying Hungary has not responded to security concerns.

Budapest sees the political winds moving in its favor on both sides of the Atlantic. Polls show Europe lurching toward the right ahead of elections for the 27-member bloc’s parliament this June.

“While Hungary tries to wait out those that it disagrees with, whether in the United States or in the European Union, the rest of the world is moving on,” Pressman said.

Hungary’s new president finally signed off on Sweden’s NATO membership last week, removing one source of friction with the United States. But Hungarian officials are already rankling allies and throwing succession plans into disarray by saying they will block Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte from becoming NATO’s next secretary general. Rutte has been one of the leading advocates of withholding E.U. funds from Hungary due to concerns about democratic backsliding.

“What Orban has learned is that in most of the exclusive clubs that he belongs to, like NATO and the E.U., a lot of things are done by unanimity,” Scheppele said. “So Orban is now going to hold out and leverage whatever he can get.”

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