Merkel presses Orban's Hungary over NGOs, media

2nd February 2015, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concern Monday at the treatment in Hungary of civil society groups and the media as she paid her first visit to Budapest under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Since coming to power in 2010 Orban has been accused of undermining democracy in the EU member state, including by muzzling the press and making life difficult for foreign-funded non-governmental organisations.

"Our society thrives on finding the best way through dialogue," Merkel said in a joint and sometimes tense news conference with Orban, whose right-wing Fidesz party has a two-third majority in parliament.

"It is very important in a democracy, including when one had a broad majority, to recognise the role of the opposition, civil society and the media. That should be an important model for Hungary," Merkel said.

Later in a speech at Budapest's Andrassy University, she said: "In a democracy the opposition is not an enemy, the majority must protect the minority... via respect for the constitution.

"Civil society must feel secure, that it can communicate freely. A government should be partner in that, in a strong and successful society a plural and independent media thrives," she said.

- 'Illiberal democracy' -

Merkel and Orban also clashed over the latter's vision of a so-called "illiberal democracy" modelled, he says, on the likes of Russia, Turkey and China, where liberal values sometimes take a back seat.

"Not all democracies are necessarily liberal. If someone says all democracies are liberal, than that means granting privilege to a school of ideas, which we cannot do," Orban told the news conference.

But Merkel said: "Personally I can't really grasp what is meant by illiberal when it comes to democracy... The roots of democracy have always been in liberalism".

Merkel however steered clear of mentioning Orban's close ties with Russia, which have caused some alarm in the rest of the European Union, particularly since the Ukraine crisis began last year.

In 2014 Orban travelled to Moscow to ink a 12.5-billion-euro ($14.1-billion) deal for Russia to expand ex-communist Hungary's sole nuclear power plant, originally built in the Soviet period.

Hungary has backed European Union sanctions against Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis but Orban last year voiced some unease, saying that the bloc had "shot itself in the foot" by damaging commercial relations with Moscow.

Orban also changed laws to smooth the way for Moscow's South Stream gas pipeline project -- which was later cancelled -- to bypass Ukraine en route to Hungary, which relies heavily on Russian gas.

Then, just before winter, Orban switched off reverse gas flows to Ukraine for three months, claiming he needed to top up domestic reserves.

On Sunday some 4,000 Hungarians staged an anti-Orban demonstration in Budapest ahead of Merkel's visit, calling on the German chancellor to press Orban over his relations to the Kremlin.

"I want Merkel to draw a line and to warn Orban not to get too cosy with Russia," Maria Miklosi, a 54-year-old chemist told AFP, holding an EU flag at the demonstration.

© 2015 AFP

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