The United States imposed a travel ban on ten Hungarian officials and businessmen, the Hungarian media reported Friday morning. By early afternoon chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Budapest, M. André Goodfriend, called a press conference and confirmed that the United States revoked the visas of “less then ten” persons.
After my inquiry, Department of State deputy spokesperson Marie Harf also confirmed: “We have applied Presidential Proclamation 7750 to certain current and former Hungarian officials.”
Proclamation 7750 is an executive order signed by President George W. Bush in 2004, giving the State Department the power to exclude foreign kleptocrats, their families and friends from the United States.
In his press conference Friday afternoon, Goodfriend said that those targeted are “government officials” but in the evening news program of the state TV channel M1 he mentioned “public figures and members of government.” The embassy would not release the names but said that they notified all those targeted by the travel ban last week. They also notified the Hungarian foreign ministry but did not tell them the names either.
The story broke when newspaper Napi Gazdaság reported Thursday night that certain officials and businessmen, including some from the tax authority, were banned from the U.S. The paper said it was retaliation for the Hungarian tax authorities having launched inquiries into the dealings of American companies.
This narrative based on retaliation was soon countered when one of the businessmen whose visa was revoked was quoted by TV channel ATV saying that he was called into the embassy and told that his visa that allowed him unlimited entry into the U.S. was revoked based on Proclamation 7750.
The Hungarian source requested anonymity but the website said that he is a well-known businessman who makes frequent media and public appearances. His company has won many government tenders recently. He thinks three other people targeted work for the Hungarian tax authority called NAV, and two others are also well-known businessmen. He did not know who the others were. Ha also added that tax authorities have never initiated an inquiry into the business of his company.
Shortly after the news broke, Goodfriend was called into the Hungarian foreign ministry. Press officer Judit Fülöp said they requested that the embassy hand over all the evidence that the decision about the travel ban was made on, because, she said, all corruption allegations have to be properly investigated by Hungarian authorities. Foreign minister Péter Szijjártó also asked the U.S. officials for the evidence. Otherwise, he said, the U.S. might be suspected of trying to “influence certain matters.”
In the meantime names started to appear in the media. It was reported that Péter Heim, president of a think tank close to the governing party was banned from the U.S. It was also reported that the prime ministers’s closest advisor, the enigmatic Árpád Habony was banned. They soon denied the reports. The news portal Index reported that the president of the tax authority, Ildikó Vida, was also banned.
Another news portal, 444.hu had unnamed sources saying that the case might be connected to the fact that in the past 18 months many Hungarian government officials and businessmen tried to extract bribes from American companies. The source mentions a case where a huge American company wanted to apply for EU funds for R&D. Their application was disqualified by the Hungarian government on formal grounds. Some time later the company was informally approached and was told that the matter “could be resolved” if they employed certain “advisors.” These advisors would have been paid a huge amount of money for work they never completed.
There is another story mentioned by the sources where an American company was told to commission studies from a certain company and that would ensure that the U.S. firm will continue to receive contracts from the Hungarian government. The portal adds: they cannot prove whether it were these stories that led to the travel bans.
Most Hungarian analysts and media outlets see this as another step in the process of deteriorating Hungarian-American relations. The State Department has criticized the measures of Viktor Orbán’s government many times since its election in 2010 and re-election in 2014. Relations have been especially tense since in the summer the government started a crackdown on NGOs that even President Barack Obama mentioned in his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. And Orbán made rhetorical mistakes, too: in a speech in July he said he wanted to make Hungary an “illiberal” state, which caught the attention of the U.S. media.
Anita Komuves is a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at the University of Maryland, studying recent innovations in digital media and data journalism. She has been a reporter for Hungarian newspaper Népszabadság for 7 years.