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New US sanctions against Hungary

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Hungary – Relations between Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and the Biden administration in the United States continue to deteriorate. In a new move against its Central European NATO ally that is currently governed by conservatives, Washington has now decided to restrict Hungarian citizens’ access to its visa waiver program for holders of passports issued between 2011 and 2020, citing “security concerns”.

Since 2011, Viktor Orbán’s government has been granting Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians (Hungarian speakers who can prove Hungarian ancestry) residing in those formerly Hungarian territories that were carved out of the Kingdom of Hungary under the Treaty of Trianon. This is very similar to Germany’s old citizenship policy towards those in Central and Eastern Europe, including in the former Soviet republics, who can claim German ancestry, but also to Romania with some Moldovan citizens, Croatia with its minorities abroad, and the Republic of Ireland with people from Northern Ireland.

In the case of Hungary, however, the US has demanded that it provide data on all Hungarian citizens in Subcarpathia (aka Transcarpathia, in Ukraine) and Vojvodina (Serbia), two regions outside Europe’s border-free Schengen zone. But Budapest has refused to comply.

According to the American ambassador to Hungary, David Pressman,

There are hundreds of thousands of passports that have been issued by the government of Hungary as part of the simplified naturalization program without stringent identity verification mechanisms in place.”

As a result, starting August 1 Hungarian citizens’ registration in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) database allowing for visa-free stays in the US for up to 90 days in a row will only be valid for one year (instead of two) and for a single entry into the United States (instead of several). Here is the explanation for the move given in a special press release from the American embassy:

The Government of Hungary’s simplified naturalization process granted Hungarian citizenship to nearly one million people between 2011 and 2020 without adequate security measures in place to verify their identities. 

In light of the Government of Hungary’s decision not to fully address the security vulnerabilities created by its earlier implementation of its simplified naturalization process, procedures for all Hungarian passport holders to utilize the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) have been modified.

[…] This change will go into effect immediately and remain until the security concerns underlying it are addressed. This reduction in ESTA validity will only affect new ESTA applications received after the effective date of this notice and is not retroactive.

The Hungarian government does not seem to agree with the assertions made by the American administration, however. Bence Rétvári, a State Secretary at the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior, has said that “the statement by the US foreign affairs spokesman is misleading and untrue, as Hungary has complied with all the specific requests made by US law enforcement agencies, criminal proceedings have been initiated, and the offenders have been stripped of their Hungarian citizenship. However, 

the US government is requesting the data of Hungarians abroad [… and] there is no guarantee that, if we were to accede to this request, data concerning the Subcarpathian Hungarians would not be communicated to Ukraine.

The Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet reported that it had received a letter from the US embassy inviting it to speak not of “sanctions” but of “changes in the visa regime”.

In the United States, however, conservative and Republican Party figures have condemned what they in fact consider to be sanctions against Hungary. They point out that the security argument being used to cancel the privileges that were previously offered to Hungarian citizens does not hold up in the face of the Biden administration’s lax policy towards massive illegal immigration arriving in the US via Mexico.

These new sanctions come on top of previous ones, against a backdrop of mutual distrust between the Hungarian and US governments, which have disagreements over Ukraine and the LGBT agenda that is being propagated by the Biden administration, specifically the imposition of the radical new American understanding of “LGBT rights” upon other countries that has become an official priority of US foreign policy since 2011.