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Pompeo says US to be more engaged in East Europe, warns Russia trying to divide West

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers remarks to the press at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 1, 2019. (Ron Pryzsucha/U.S. State Department)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States must be more engaged in Central and Eastern Europe as Russia tries to divide the West.

On the first day of a five-country European tour that will focus on opposition to the growing influence of Russia and China in Central Europe, Pompeo met with Hungary’s right-wing populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, on February 11 to stress the importance of promoting democracy and the rule of law.

Washington sees those issues as key to countering Russian and Chinese moves to sow discord in the European Union and NATO.

“We must not let Putin drive wedges between friends in NATO,” Pompeo told a joint news conference in Budapest with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.

Pompeo specifically pointed to Central Europe’s reliance on Russian energy as well as the presence of the Chinese telecom firm Huawei, particularly in Hungary.

But Szijjarto parried any criticism of his country’s energy policy, noting many European countries have deals with Moscow in the sector.

“There is an enormous hypocrisy and political correctness in the European political arena,” he said.

U.S. officials are concerned by Huawei’s expansion in Europe, especially in NATO member states where they believe the Chinese firm poses significant information-security threats.

Orban, a vocal admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump, is an outspoken critic of mass immigration to Europe from areas such as the Middle East.

On February 10, Orban launched a program to encourage women to have more children and reverse Hungary’s population decline. He said the initiative was meant to “ensure the survival of the Hungarian nation.”

“This is the Hungarians’ answer, not immigration,” he said.

His stance against migrants and refusal to join a new European Union public prosecutor’s office focusing on fraud and corruption have also raised concerns.

In the past, Hungary had been ranked by Freedom House as politically “free,” but it was reclassified in the Freedom In The World 2019 report as “partly free” because of “sustained attacks” by Orban’s Fidesz party on the media, courts, religious groups, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector.

Orban’s government has also been targeted for criticism, including from Washington, for forcing a Budapest-based university founded by Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros to move most of its programs out of the country.

Pompeo will “express support for civil society” in Hungary and that he will meet with leaders of nongovernmental organizations, the officials said.

Human rights groups and others have lamented Pompeo’s plans to meet with Orban and urged him to take a strong stance against his policies.

Pompeo’s visit to Hungary comes as the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner said on February 11 that Hungary was facing “many interconnected human rights challenges,” including legislation targeting civil society, backsliding on women’s rights, and the detention of asylum seekers.

Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, who visited Hungary last week, also voiced concern about the independence of the media and the judiciary.

Last year, Budapest approved legislation that provides for jail sentences for people convicted of aiding asylum seekers.

Mijatovic said that “the space for the work of NGOs, human rights defenders, and journalists critical of the government has become very narrow and restricted,” and called on Orban’s government to “reverse its worrying course” on human rights.

The State Department said that Pompeo’s visit to Central Europe marked 30 years since the peoples of the region “tore down the Iron Curtain to reclaim their freedom and sovereignty, choosing the path of Western democracy denied to them for decades, and solidifying that commitment by joining NATO and the European Union.”

The United States was “committed to a strong, united, and capable transatlantic alliance rooted in the principles of common defense, democracy, and fundamental freedoms,” a February 10 statement said.

It said that Washington was also committed to increasing its “diplomatic, military, commercial, and cultural engagement with Central Europe in order to strengthen this region’s ties with the West as it faces increased pressure from Russia and China.”

Pompeo is also due to visit Slovakia and Poland, and is set to complete his journey with stops in Brussels and Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, on February 15.

In Poland, Pompeo will attend a conference on the Middle East on February 13-14 that is expected to focus on Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser on the Middle East and son-in-law, and Jason Greenblatt, the special U.S. envoy for international negotiations, are also expected to attend.