Hungary’s Orban Disparages U.S. on State Graft Criticism

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban disparaged U.S. corruption allegations that prompted it to bar entry to the head of his tax office, showcasing strain in the relationship between the two NATO allies.

A list of corruption cases written on an unmarked piece of paper and delivered by a U.S. embassy official to the Budapest-based Foreign Ministry this week resembled something written by the Hungarian opposition “were it not in English,” Orban said in a public radio interview today.

“One wants to take criticism from friends seriously, especially from such a close friend,” Orban said. “But we’re now at the point where it’s hard to take this seriously.”

The U.S. imposed entry bans on six Hungarian officials suspected of corruption based on “credible information,” its embassy in Budapest said on Oct. 17. The U.S. declined a request from the Orban government to share its information. The head of the tax office, Ildiko Vida, has said she and colleagues are among those on the list. She has denied wrongdoing.

Thousands of Hungarians marched in Budapest on Nov. 9, demanding Vida resign within a week or face a new rally on Nov. 17. Street demonstrations organized on Facebook are growing, with Hungarians protesting against perceived government corruption and a lack of accountability under Orban.

Last month, the prime minister triggered two of the biggest demonstrations since he came to power in 2010, when he proposed imposing a tax Internet use. He withdrew the plan after tens of thousands of people staged country-wide rallies.

Think Hard

“I’d have to think hard whether to accept Vida’s resignation if she were to submit it,” Orban said. “I don’t want to set the precedent of an outside state pointing to the corruption of a government official without giving evidence and then succeeding in ousting that official. It would raise the question of Hungarian sovereignty, which I’ve vowed to defend.”

Orban said he had to “stabilize the operation” of the tax authority “with its current leadership” to maintain confidence in the agency following the corruption allegations.

The U.S. embassy in Budapest hasn’t responded to questions seeking comments about whether Vida received an explanation of the allegations when she visited the embassy this week.

Orban has drawn criticism from the U.S. and European Union for moves that have consolidated his power, including changing the structure of institutions and appointing allies to the Constitutional Court, the media authority, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, the state Audit Office and the central bank.

The weakening of checks and balances under Orban has led to “state capture” by “powerful interest groups” in Hungary, Transparency International said in a report published in 2012. It cited corruption risks stemming from the “symbiotic relationship between the political and business elite.”

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