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Nov 09, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Hungary’s Fight Against Tyranny

Recently, Foreign Policy published an article about the freedom fighters of 1956 and today's Hungary. It used some pretty strong and unfair language, so I reached out to the editors for a chance to reply. They never answered, so I'm posting my response here.

Tyranny is a strong word. People who live under tyranny are subjected to excessive power that is cruel and oppressive, a rule without legal legitimacy. When it appears in the title of an article, it lends a certain sensational flavor that some writers and editors enjoy.

Recently, Foreign Policy published an article entitled “Hungary Fought for Freedom. Now It’s Content With Tyranny,” by Arch Puddington of Freedom House. One understands that click rates and page views are important to advertisers, but to use the word tyranny in connection with today’s Hungary is deeply offensive to the Hungarian freedom fighters who stood up to real tyranny in 1956, that of Soviet communism, and the people who enjoy the rights and freedoms of a democratic order that they have built since 1989.

We have grown accustomed over the years to Freedom House’s lopsided assessments of Hungary. Whenever they downgrade us, it’s always associated with a center-right government, all the way back to the days of József Antall, Hungary’s first, post-1989, democratically elected prime minister. But when the Socialist-Liberal government sends police to beat peaceful demonstrators, as they did in 2006, or when one of Eastern Europe’s strongest Socialist parties imploded in 2010, rejected by Hungarian voters fed up with its mismanagement and moral bankruptcy, Freedom House had little to say.

As the author of a history of Radio Free Europe, and one of its former bureau chiefs, Mr. Puddington had a front-row seat in the Cold War. He knows, as he wrote, that Hungary’s freedom fighters of 1956 made a huge contribution not just to Hungary’s independence but also to the West winning the Cold War, as their heroic sacrifices exposed the true nature of the Soviet Empire.

Thankfully, the Cold War is over. Radio Free Europe’s operations have shifted to other priorities, and Europe has become a much different place. The change, especially in contrast to the dark days of communism, has been mostly for the better, but Cold War organizations like Freedom House have struggled to keep up with a changing Europe.

Freedom House’s view, and Mr. Puddington’s writing, continue to rely on sources so awfully biased that it seriously compromises their reputation. Here are just a few examples.

Mr. Puddington cannot resist reference to Prime Minister Orbán’s speech that talks of “an illiberal state”. Rather than rely on someone else’s biased account of what the prime minister said, I would encourage him to read the speech in its original (available here) -- afterall, that's what good scholars do; they turn to the original sources. It's in fact a provocative criticism of the liberalism run amok that produced the 2008 global financial crisis, a crisis that nearly sent Hungary's economy over the cliff.

He accuses Prime Minister Orbán of having a “relaxed attitude” toward Putin and Russia despite the recent incident on Russian state media in which a commentator referred to the Hungarian 1956 Revolution as the “first of the color revolutions,” suggesting that it was provoked by the United States and that the freedom fighters were fascists. Yet, his article fails to note that it became a major diplomatic incident between our two countries. Our minister of Foreign Affairs summoned the Russian ambassador to Budapest to make it clear that Hungary will not tolerate talking “in a humiliating manner about the revolution and its heroes.”

The prime minister, according to Puddington, “heaps scorn on the European Union” and talks about, as he did in the October 23 speech, the “sovietization of Brussels.” Yet the informed observer is well acquainted with Prime Minister Orbán’s staunch support for Europe while he justifiably criticizes a European Union in which unelected bureaucrats stifle open debate of difficult issues like migration and attempt to override the will and interests of the member states. The Hungarian prime minister is not alone in that view.

Regarding migration policy, Prime Minister Orbán’s “words and deeds demand condemnation,” according to Mr. Puddington. Which ones, exactly?

Among deeds, would it be building a fence to properly manage and protect the external border of Europe’s Schengen Area because protecting the border is something that all countries on an external border are obliged to do? Would it be giving the citizens of Hungary the chance to voice their opinion on immigration policy? Among words, would it be his calling attention to the link between uncontrolled migration and terrorism, when we know that ISIS and Salah Abdeslam, the organizer of last year’s attacks in Paris, exploited the migration crisis to move fighters in and out of Europe? Which of those words and deeds demand condemnation?

The anniversary of the 1956 Revolution is, we are told, “an appropriate time to look at the issue of refugees” and the article draws the now well-worn but flawed parallel between the 200,000 Hungarians who fled the country then and the wave of migrants coming to Europe today. That’s easy to assert from the comforts of Washington or New York. But no responsible government faced with the huge practical challenge of maintaining law and order and security for its citizens while upholding its obligations under the Schengen Agreement, and while responding to hundreds of thousands of migrants from unknown origins, would look at those two examples and say they’re the same. They’re not.

People will differ in their views on subjects like immigration policy, the importance of the nation state in the EU and even democracy. Reasonable people sometimes disagree. But to have a reasonable disagreement, one has to have a firm grasp of the facts. That’s where Mr. Puddington’s analysis, and that of Freedom House, have fallen far short over the years.

On one point, however, we’ll heartily agree:

On this 60th anniversary, we should indeed “honor the heroes and martyrs” of the 1956 Revolution, the Hungarian freedom fighters who stood up courageously and exposed the ruthless tyranny of the Soviet Union and the depravity of communism.