The Biden administration’s latest hostile move against Hungary has provoked a backlash in the Central European nation. Conservative media are outraged that the U.S. is punishing Hungary and its people for their conservative views and stance on the war in Ukraine.
The United States imposed restrictions on Hungarian passport holders under its Visa Waiver Program on Tuesday, August 1st, saying Budapest had not addressed security vulnerabilities repeatedly raised by Washington. Under the program, Hungarian citizens can travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for 90 days or less without a U.S. visa but must also have an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval before travelling. In its statement, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest announced that the ESTA validity period for travel by Hungarian passport holders is being reduced from two years to one year, and the validity of an ESTA will be limited to a single use.
The embassy claims that Hungary’s government had not “fully addressed” security concerns raised by Washington. The conservative government of Hungary, led by Viktor Orbán, which came to power in 2010, made it easier for Hungarians and people of Hungarian origin living abroad to obtain a Hungarian passport. The move was primarily a sign of solidarity with ethnic Hungarians who live in neighbouring countries that had once belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary. This so-called ‘simplified naturalization process’ granted Hungarian citizenship to nearly one million people between 2011 and 2020. However, the U.S. Embassy claims this procedure was done “without adequate security measures in place to verify their identities.”
Questioned by journalists on Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that “valid Hungarian passports were fraudulently obtained by criminals and individuals with no connection to Hungary.” Hungarian Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Bence Rétvári reacted on Wednesday, August 2nd, emphasising that all crime-related concerns were addressed by his government, and all lawbreakers were stripped of their Hungarian citizenship. Rétvári also said that Hungary expressed serious concerns about handing over data on Hungarian citizens living abroad, especially in Ukraine, for fears that the U.S. would divulge that information to Kyiv. That would have grave consequences for Hungarians due to the ban on dual citizenship in Ukraine, stressed Rétvári, making it clear that Budapest would not comply with Washington’s request, as it is clear that they are taking revenge on Hungarians.
According to the Hungarian weekly Mandiner, the U.S. requested information regarding all Hungarian dual citizens living in Serbia and Ukraine and threatened Budapest with taking Hungary off the Visa Waiver Program altogether. Analysts from Alapjogokért Központ, a conservative think-tank, believe the U.S. is trying to pressure the Hungarian government to change its opposition to migration, gender ideology, and its stance on the war in Ukraine. Speaking to Mandiner, they stressed that, with regards to obtaining Hungarian citizenship, Hungary had already put safeguards in place to protect its own national security, therefore U.S. security concerns were baffling.
“This is obviously a politically motivated move. U.S. Democrats traditionally don’t sympathise with right-wing governments, especially the Orbán government,” said Levente Boros Bánk of the think tank Nézőpont Intézet in a statement to the conservative newspaper Magyar Nemzet. The Biden administration and the U.S. Ambassador David Pressman have only made matters worse, he added, saying the latest move is to exert pressure on Hungary, the only member of the European Union not to align with the U.S. on sending weapons to Ukraine in the fight against Russia.
The relationship between the United States and Hungary, NATO allies, improved vastly under the presidency of Republican Donald Trump. The Biden administration has taken some unfriendly measures against Hungary, whose leader Viktor Orbán publicly endorsed Trump’s reelection bid for the U.S. presidency in 2020. President Biden excluded Orbán from his so-called ‘Summit for Democracy’ in 2021 and 2023, making him the only EU member state leader not to get an invitation. Hungary has been hounded by the American foreign policy establishment over its alleged lack of support for Ukraine, as well as over internal policies promoting social conservatism. As Shea Bradley-Farrell, a foreign policy and national security expert pointed out last year, the appointment of David Pressman calls into question whether the goal of Biden’s administration is to engage in foreign diplomacy or to antagonize a democratic republic and NATO ally.
In its country report on Hungary, the U.S. State Department attacked its NATO ally for “serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media” amongst other things. The newspaper Magyar Nemzet noted on Tuesday that these values don’t seem to apply to David Pressman’s embassy, which took offence at the publication calling the latest visa restrictions “visa sanctions,” requesting that the paper change the article’s title. This led the paper to ask, “What exactly does a title of an article in a daily newspaper have to do with an embassy?”