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INTERVIEW Deputy Assistant Secretary Melia with Magyar Nemzet Newspaper: Hungarian Democracy is an American Interest

Budapest, Hungary



Thomas O. Melia, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary in charge of democracy and human rights is in Budapest for official talks. His name became well known here as a result of the criticisms he formulated in connection with Hungary. In the interview he gave to our daily he said the issues of concern have not been settled yet, although there have been positive steps on the Hungarian side in terms of reviewing certain measures and laws. The State Department official stressed that the U.S. always expresses an opinion based on a number of different sources and as far as Hungary is concerned he said the most important U.S. interest is democratic progress.

MN: Do we have a reason to be afraid? Have you voiced new concerns during your visit?

DAS Melia: I think Hungary should be grateful it has so many friends in the international community who support its democratic transition and who are convinced Hungary will strengthen its democratic potential. I am spending a few days here at the invitation of some of your government officials, including Zsolt Nemeth, who kindly invited me when they were in Washington. I have not been here for 6-7 years and it is good to see some of my friends in the government again and update my knowledge about what is going on here. It is time for an update so to speak.

MN: In your opinion, is there a difference between personal first hand information or information through various channels of yours that many Hungarians think are biased?

DAS Melia: My primary source of information about developments in Hungary is our embassy in Budapest. We have very good political officers and an energetic ambassador, so most of the information I have comes from them. They are in daily contact with all parties, read all papers, including yours, so I think we gather a wide range of views on the situation in Hungary. After twenty years of experience, since the time of the transition, I have a special attraction to and interest in this country. Probably more so than in the case of other countries and I think this is an advantage or I certainly hope so.

MN: Going back to my question, do you see a difference between what you see and hear for yourself and the information you obtain in other ways?

DAS Melia: Of course we hear different stories. If one talks to five different politicians one hears five different commentaries, if one reads three different papers, then one reads three different descriptions of the same story. That’s what we do. That’s what you do as a journalist, you do not rely on one person’s opinion, one source only. As diplomats we do the same. We do our best to listen to all sides, and we know everybody will come up with parts of the story, and we try to piece those together as we move forward. That is what everybody does in a relationship.

MN: Let’s give our readers a still shot of the present situation. Many things happened over the most recent period, or to be more precise since the entering into office of the second Orbán government. How has the GOH addressed your concerns and are you now satisfied with the responses?

The concerns that we have raised over the past year in private and then publicly during Secretary Clinton’s visit last June coincided with those raised by other friends of Hungary in the EU and the Council of Europe. I think what we have seen over the past couple of months is a review of the questioned laws. I do not think there was any direct response through December last year to the questions we had raised or that those concerns would have been placed on the agenda. But since the Venice Commission and some EU Commissioners spoke up we have definitely seen some revisiting. There are amendments in development as to the laws concerning the judiciary, and the media law and the church law has changed to allow the registration of more religious communities. So there have been some responses to the international reactions. Are we satisfied? It is not about us being satisfied, that is not the issue. We continue to follow processes closely and look forward to seeing the details of the revisions. We’ll see what will be submitted to parliament and what will be passed by it. And the long-term point of reference is how the laws are implemented, how the media law will work, how the Media Authority will work, and the various organizations of the judiciary. Time will show that. I am glad that as a response to some of the issues raised by the friends of Hungary a reviewing process has started, and we’ll now see where those changes lead and how they work.

MN: Can we say though that the trend is positive as far as your concerns and the Hungarian responses given are concerned?

DAS Melia: The fact that some revisiting is in progress is definitely good. I don’t think however we can judge the reaction until we see what it is they are about and until those are adopted in laws. A number of things are happening at the same time, meda authority, courts etc. We’ll see. I could not say that anything has been resolved really but it is good that some things are being rethought.

MN: Our readers are very interested the method and the mechanism on the basis of which the United States voices its concerns to other countries, even to allies. When an assessment of the situation in Hungary is prepared, you as a democratic government official, to what extent can you feel the influence of factors like Professor Gati?

DAS Melia: As I have said before we receive information from all directions. From people who have a positive opinion of things and from people who observe things critically. Professor Gati is one of the people in Washington who know a whole lot about Hungary, he has been writing about the country for three or four decades, so we take him seriously. But as I said it is important to put this in context. We listen to a number of opinions each time and it is not one person who decides what we do. The U.S. government looks at things from many perspectives and we have a lot of debates about them, we do not act thoughtlessly rather in a deliberate manner. It would be a mistake on the part of your readers if they suspected some kind of a conspiracy plot against Hungary. I sometimes read in the Hungarian media and I hear that from some people that there is a group that is out to get Hungary. This of course is not true about me, my government, my colleagues in the State Department or about Ambassador Kounalakis. It would do a disservice to your readers if they were left believing that there is a small group that wants to smear the name of Hungary and influences large powers in order to do that. This simply does not work that way. To go back where I started, Hungary has friends, friends who know a lot of people here, come here regularly, they are interested in the success of this country, and who voiced some concerns last year. To reject the opinion of these friends because of these conspiracy plots does not serve the interests of the Hungarian voters, of Hungarian citizens.

MN: Going back to the operational mechanisms of U.S. criticism. Don’t you think that because of the foreign policy of the past decade including the unresolved case of Guantanamo, you do not have the moral grounds or certainly a very weakened one to continue your criticism?

DAS Melia: There is a lot of debate going on in the U.S. about Guantanamo. In 2008 I myself published a book on the state of freedom in America, describing the strengths and weaknesses of our system, including the restriction of the civil liberties of American citizens, the electronic surveillance done in the context of the war on terror, and the infringements in the proceedings against Guantanamo detainees. These issues are broadly debated in the U.S., in Washington, in the Congress, and before the courts. These are issues that I have raised my voice about in the United States. I do not think that these controversial issues weaken our moral authority. I hope they rather remind us how complex the issues relating to the balance between personal freedoms and security are. The disputes about hundreds of foreign nationals in Guantanamo are very intense. Their civil liberties have received more attention than any other group of 200-400 people in U.S. history ever. I do not think a belief prevails that we know everything. We try to approach these issues with utmost humility and attention. So in one word we know very well how difficult it is to build a democratic country, and we are still working on it in the U.S. Many arguments are voiced every decade by every generation on what could be done better. When we talk to our friends throughout the world we alwas do it in the context that every democracy is a work in progress. We certainly do not lecture Hungary, we speak to you as friends, in a calm and honest way, and not at all arrograntly. It is important that your readers know how we are trying to talk to our Hungarian friends.

MN: Hungarians tend to believe, based oin their historical experience, to approach things from the directions of national interests. Not necessarily their own national interests, but those of the large powers. They think that when a large power takes foreign political steps then it does so because of national interests. What is the U.S. interest in Hungary, a small country, that has no oil, its geographical value questionable? Is there a connection between your concerns and your interests?

DAS Melia: Yes. It serves our interests and our national security if other countries are successful. We would like to live in a peaceful and prosperous world. The more stable, peaceful and democratic other countries are, the better for us, so that our own citizens may be free, can trade freely and can live in a prospering world. Therefore the policy of the U.S. government is to support democratic transition and consolidation because we believe that strengthens Europe, even if Hungary is not a dominant world power. Hungary is part of Europe, because it has become democratic. So we continue to want to see Europe improve its democracy in the entire region in which Hungary plays a critical role. So yes, we are interested in Hungary’s democratic consolidation and not only out of altruism but also because that enhances our well-being, our security and stability.

MN: Some say the Orbán government’s actions can be described in a simplified way as an attempt to reduce the effects of globalization and mutual interdependence in our economy. Are you worried about Hungary seeking its own way?

DAS Melia: It is entirely up to Hungarians how they want to organize their economy, whether they want to become even more integrated into the world or prefer to be more independent. If Hungary wishes to be more separate from the world economy, then it could decide to do so. It is hard to imagine how that would increase Hungary’s prosperity but I am not an economist. Europe’s experience is that open borders to trade have strengthened its prosperity and its security. A basic tenet of the European Union the French-German thought that achieving economic interdependence prevents the possibility of war has worked for 60 years now. That is what Hungary subscribed to and that has been the consensus among Hungarians for the past twenty years. Joining Europe equals joining an integrated economy. If now they decide this is no good for them, and want to go in a different direction, it is fully up to the Hungarian voters and their elected officials to do so.

MN: How do you feel about the Hungarian Prime Minister signs an at least for us significant agreement with your emerging Asian rival, China?

DAS Melia: We also have plenty of dealings with China. We think it does good to China if it integrates into the world and exchanges ideas as well as goods. So we actually hope that Hungary will sign even more agreements with China and of course with us and its European neighbors as well We support international trade

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