Hungary warns of US interference in bid to oust premier Viktor Orban

Hungary’s government on Thursday said it expected the US to try to interfere in elections next year in an effort to unseat premier Viktor Orban’s rightwing populist Fidesz party, adding Washington held a grudge against Budapest for its close ties to former President Donald Trump.

Foreign minister Peter Szijjarto said that he expected Washington to deploy the Magnitsky Act, which can be used to impose sanctions and other measures against foreign nationals for corruption or human rights abuses, before the central European country’s general election next April.

Fidesz faces its toughest challenge yet as Orban runs for a fourth successive mandate in elections next year. Szijjarto said Budapest was would fend off attempts to defeat the government.

“We don’t live on the Moon. We live in central Europe. Of course there will be attempts,” he said. “We have already detected preparations . . . I want to reassure Hungarians that all relevant institutions are doing their jobs to fend off external interference attempts in the elections.”

The US left Hungary out of its planned Democracy Summit, an international conference next month with 110 nations, a move that observers say reflects Budapest’s reputation for eroding democratic principles and human rights and failure to tackle corruption.

Hungary was alone in the EU to be snubbed, which Szijjarto said was “disrespectful”.

The US state department said on its website: “Leaders will be encouraged to announce . . . domestic and international initiatives that counter authoritarianism, combat corruption and promote respect for human rights.”

Hungary has fallen foul of all of those points in recent years, western officials and critics contend, which led to a cooling of relations with the US as well as the EU. Brussels has threatened to withhold billions of euros to get Orban to respect democratic standards.

“We are committed to supporting democratic institutions, human rights, the rule of law and freedom of the press,” the state department told the Financial Times. “We look forward to working with governments, including Hungary’s . . . to address democratic backsliding, advance human rights, and defend against corruption.”

It did not respond to a request for comment about whether the US would apply the Magnitsky Act against any Hungarian officials.

As Hungary covets close ties with Russia and China, President Joe Biden has yet to send an ambassador to Budapest nearly a year into his administration.

“Hungarian-American relations were at their peak during the Trump Presidency,” Szijjarto told the FT when asked about the snub at a press briefing.

“We have a great deal of respect for the former president, a respect that is mutual. We give the same respect to every elected US president — regardless of what we get in return — but it is clear that those who were on friendly terms with Donald Trump were not invited.”

Washington deployed Magnitsky sanctions against several Bulgarian individuals earlier this year just before elections there, which contributed to the fall of strongman premier Boyko Borisov.

The American actions were a “serious reinforcement of the Biden administration’s assessment of Orban’s anti-western and anti-EU policies over the last 11 years”, said Eurasia Group analyst Mujtaba Rahman. “It might even presage stronger pushback and criticism of Orban as he faces re-election next year. The US is close to the end of its tether with Orban’s continual cosying up and double games with Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes.”

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton put Hungary on a par with Russia and Turkey and compared the leaders of those countries to Trump.

“Trump and his enablers and those who invaded and attacked our Capitol [in January 2021], they don’t like the world we’re living in and they have that in common with autocratic leaders from Russia to Turkey, from Hungary to Brazil, and so many other places,” Clinton told MSNBC on Wednesday.

Hungary’s Szijjarto said Clinton’s remarks about the Democracy Summit proved that “the event has a domestic political character, with invitations withheld from countries whose leaders had good ties with former President Donald Trump . . . We need nobody to judge the state of Hungarian democracy as if in a school exam.”

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