By Joel Gehrke, Foreign Affairs Reporter
A Hungarian diplomat hosting his U.S. counterpart at a Washington event raised eyebrows Thursday with an acrimonious accusation that the Biden administration is meddling in his country’s upcoming election.
Ferenc Dancs, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry’s deputy state secretary for North America, sent a stir through the Champagne-sipping gathering at the tony Cosmos Club with the claim that U.S.-sponsored broadcasts on Radio Free Europe are designed to undermine Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“In the minds of Hungarians, Radio Free Europe is no longer perceived in a positive light; its image has been greatly tarnished,” Dancs said during his prepared remarks, in which he also referred to preserving “our freedom in the face of disinformation and fake news.”
The ostensible context, and occasion for the party, was the commemoration of the 1956 uprising against Soviet tyranny and Hungary’s Oct. 23 Republic Day. But Dancs made clear that he was tying events from nearly 70 years ago to tensions between his country and the U.S. — with Radio Free Europe as a link.
“Many innocent young lives were lost in 1956, believing the communications of Radio Free Europe that help is on its way,” he said. “And yet, the help never came. For this reason, Hungarians remain skeptical. They have learned the lesson that, in times of trouble, we can only count on ourselves.”
That attack on Radio Free Europe, and Dancs’ decision to impugn U.S. fidelity to a fellow NATO member, sent a murmur of shock across the audience. He spoke after State Department Assistant Secretary Karen Donfried, the keynote guest speaker, gave a warm tribute to Hungary’s independence and the two nations’ historical bond.
“Very, very weird,” said a senior European official. “Even if there’s a concern, you wouldn’t put it into a speech like that.”
Afterward, Dancs left no doubt that he regards contemporary Radio Free Europe coverage and Dwight Eisenhower’s refusal to intervene when Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary as “parallel phenomena” that set off alarm bells in Budapest.
“They started broadcasting again, you know, and we cannot think another thing but that it’s a signal of some kind of willingness to interfere in our general elections,” Dancs told the Washington Examiner.
Orban, an anti-communist activist turned prime minister, has been numbered by Biden among “the thugs in the world” and condemned as an “enemy of press freedom” by Reporters Without Borders.
Donfried veiled those tensions with a convivial approach to the event, limiting herself to an oblique exhortation for both societies to keep faith with their democratic traditions.
“The American people and the people of Hungary know that we can never take our freedom for granted,” she said. “We must uphold democratic values at home and abroad, striving always to ensure that our actions are worthy of our ideals and all those who have sacrificed to secure and defend them.”
Later, Donfried’s team disclaimed knowledge of “any basis” for Dancs’ allegation and emphasized that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty enjoys “complete editorial independence” under federal law.
“RFE/RL has been a vital source of objective news and information for the people of Hungary, and an important link between our two countries,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner Friday. “Freedom of expression is a human right and independent media, like RFE/RL and its affiliates, rely on this right to help root out corruption, demand transparency, and amplify marginalized voices.”