What did the U.S. Ambassador tell Viktor Orbán?
Of course, we don’t know. We know from Al Kamen’s article published in The Washington Post on October 13 that U.S. Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis requested a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sometime in the middle of August. However, the busy Hungarian politician had no time for her.
The request was most likely forwarded to the Prime Minister’s Office after there was no reaction to the ambassador’s article in Magyar Nemzet (August 3) entitled “A Values Based Alliance.” In this article Kounalakis reminded the Hungarian government that Hillary Clinton had expressed concern over “the many changes that the government is making with its historic two-thirds majority” that may not “stay true to [the country's] democratic traditions.” The ambassador reminded the Hungarian government that the Secretary of State “called for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press and government transparency.” She called on the Fidesz government “to be more vigilant and respectful of its democratic institutions.”
These were pretty strong words not too often uttered in the world of diplomacy, especially among allied countries. Everybody’s expectation after this article was that once the American ambassador has a chance to meet with Viktor Orbán she will deliver a strongly worded message from Washington.
Of course, it is possible that a strong message was indeed delivered when at last Eleni Kounalakis had the opportunity to meet with Viktor Orbán on October 18. Her arrival was shown on all the TV newscasts that day.
The meeting lasted long enough, an hour and a half, to cover a lot of topics, including the one that causes the most concern inside and outside of Hungary: the decidedly antidemocratic governance in Budapest.
Sure, they could talk about the wonderful service the Hungarian military is providing in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, but one cannot spend an hour and a half on that. So, Kounalakis must have brought up the concerns Hillary Clinton voiced in person in Budapest and what she herself wrote about in Magyar Nemzet. However, one has the distinct feeling that the conversation was one-sided. It was Viktor Orbán who explained to the U.S. ambassador that she doesn’t see things right. And there is the fear that perhaps Kounalakis even believed what she heard.
On what do I base this opinion? On the press release issued by the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. The encounter with Viktor Orbán was described as “a very warm and productive meeting.” Kounalakis “acknowledged and appreciates the challenges faced by the Hungarian government in restructuring the economy.” Admittedly, “they also discussed developments in Hungary, including the concerns mentioned by Secretary Clinton during her visit to Budapest in June.” The press release added that “these issues were raised as a friend with the understanding that Hungary is a democracy with an elected government that has been given a rare two-thirds mandate by the people of Hungary. With this unique opportunity and rapid pace of change, the United States has a strong interest in seeing Hungary succeed and emerge an even stronger ally.”
Unfortunately that sounds as if Kounalakis swallowed everything Viktor Orbán told her hook, line, and sinker. In one of my earlier articles about the current ambassador of the United States in Budapest I indicated that she always seems to go overboard. When Wikileaks released some negative comments about the Hungarian contingent in Afghanistan, she came to Hungary’s rescue with a vehemence that was unnecessary. Here again, why does she have to emphasize that the meeting was “very warm”? I think “warm” would have been more than enough. Why did she have to say after the meeting that it was “an excellent meeting as always”?
Al Kamen returned to the topic on October 18, concluding that “the Tuesday meeting went swimmingly … [and] apparently she was convinced Orban will mend his ways.” Kamen added that it would be a good idea to follow Ronald Reagan’s advice: “Trust but verify.”
The Hungarian reaction was also skeptical. Just as one of Spectrum’s commenters wrote, his wife’s family was delighted after reading about the meeting between Orbán and Kounalakis. His wife got off the phone with her mother and said ‘Good news! The Americans have publicly backed what OV is doing in Hungary!’” Well, well, Ambassador Kounalakis. One must be a little more circumspect and careful, especially in delicate situations when a lot of people are worried about the survival of democracy in Hungary.
A blogger complained about the lack of transparency in this case. I guess what he wanted to hear was: did she or didn’t she say something and, if she didn’t, she is letting the Hungarian people down who are getting increasingly disillusioned about the “rare two-thirds mandate” of this democratically “elected government.” Yes, the Hungarians made a mistake and the majority knows it by now, but they would have been happier if the U.S. ambassador didn’t ooze with delight after her meeting with Viktor Orbán. Népszava‘s cartoon is also telling, though perhaps Orbán didn’t have to sweat so profusely as Gábor Pápai, the cartoonist of the paper, imagined:
There is one ray of hope that the State Department is not entirely satisfied with the answers Kounalakis received on October 18. Gergely Prőhle, Hungarian undersecretary of foreign affairs, is on a visit to Washington at this very moment. He had the opportunity to speak with Philip Reeker, assistant undersecretary in charge of the Balkan region, and Thomas O. Melia, assistant undersecretary involved with human rights. One must keep in mind that Reeker is thoroughly familiar with Hungary because he served as deputy chief of mission in Budapest between 2004 and 2007. In fact, many of the cables one finds among the Wikileaks documents were signed by him. Melia is the man who at a congressional hearing had a few harsh things to say about Hungary’s new law on the churches, which caused a stir in Budapest.
MTI reported today on these meetings. As usual, the description is short but still telling. First, it seems that the “concerns” mentioned by Hillary Clinton and the U.S. ambassador to Hungary were also brought up during Prőhle’s conversations in Washington. Because otherwise why would it be necessary to emphasize that “Hungary is ready to make the process of enacting cardinal laws transparent.” It is also clear from the MTI report that the question of the new electoral law came up because Prőhle mentioned that a “recent conference in Hungary was devoted to this subject which was very much appreciated by the U.S. diplomats stationed in Hungary.” Prőhle also told the U.S. diplomats that “Hungary is ready to consult with international experts.” He specifically mentioned the secretary-general of the Venice Commission that was extremely critical of the new Hungarian constitution. So, there were criticisms that had to be addressed somehow.
After reading this report one wonders how much the State Department actually listens to Ambassador Eleni Tsakoulos Kounalakis. Of course, it is possible that in private cables she gives a more realistic assessment of the Hungarian situation than her public statements would indicate. Let’s hope so.