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Germany's Merkel Presses Hungary to Safeguard Democracy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hold a joint news conference following their meeting in Budapest February 2,2015.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Monday he should give space to opponents of his rule, a nod to critics who say Orban has eroded democratic freedoms.

Merkel was on a one-day visit to Hungary, which is a major manufacturing base for German industries, but also irks some in Europe with its close ties to Moscow and policies that often stray from the European mainstream.

“We talked about the development of our civil societies, and I pointed out that even when you have a broad majority, as the Hungarian prime minister does, it is important to value the role of the opposition, of civil society, of the media,” Merkel said at a joint news conference with Orban.

“Our societies thrive when these groups wrestle with each other to find the best way forward and I think this is also an important model for Hungary," she said.

Russian ties

Orban's opponents say he has forced independent judges into retirement, stacked state institutions with his supporters and turned public media into an obedient mouthpiece. Orban denies those allegations, saying he has a mandate from voters to end years of misrule under his predecessors.

In front of reporters, Merkel did not criticize Orban's friendly ties with Russia. These have caused friction with other European states who believe Russian President Vladimir Putin must be isolated over his intervention in Ukraine.

Putin is scheduled to visit Hungary later this month.

Merkel said a cease-fire between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine must be implemented immediately, but that Germany would not supply weapons to Kyiv.

Dangerous divides

Later on Monday, Merkel visited Budapest's gold-domed Dohany Street synagogue. Her entourage said the visit was intended to highlight the dangers of racial and ethnic hatred around Europe.

In the courtyard of the synagogue, Merkel paused at a memorial to some of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews deported to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in 1944.

After a moment of quiet contemplation at the memorial - a weeping willow tree made from metal with the names of victims carved into the leaves - Merkel went inside the synagogue for a meeting with about half a dozen leaders of the Jewish community.

Andras Heiszler, Chairman of the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Faith Communities, who was at the meeting, said they had spoken about the Holocaust and about the anti-Semitism that affects Jews in Hungary today.

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