foreign policy

Changes in the Hungarian foreign ministry and the growth of the third Orbán government

Today I would like to say a few words about the reorganization of the government. First, one wonders why it took so long to create the third Orbán government considering that on the top level there were very few personnel changes. Only two ministries were affected–the ministry of foreign trade and foreign affairs and the ministry of administration and justice. Not much changed in the latter, but what happened in the former is truly astonishing. With the arrival of Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szijjártó about 200 new faces appeared in the ministry; their corresponding numbers were either dismissed or moved to other positions in other ministries. It is just now becoming evident how dissatisfied Viktor Orbán must have been with János Martonyi and the men and women around him.

In 2010 Viktor Orbán announced that there were two ministers whose presence in his second government was assured: Sándor Pintér and János Martonyi. Martonyi hadn’t been officially nominated at the time, but Orbán sent him nonetheless to Bratislava to negotiate with the Slovaks.

Martonyi has been loyal to Viktor Orbán ever since 1998 when he was first named foreign minister. From the WikiLeaks documents we know that after the lost election of 2002 Martonyi was a frequent and welcome visitor in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest where he was especially highly regarded by Ambassador April H. Foley (2006-2009). As a result, the relationship between Ferenc Gyurcsány and the American ambassador was outright antagonistic.

János Martonyi made an almost clean sweep in the personnel of the ministry in 2010 and yet, it seems, the atmosphere and the foreign policy strategies devised by Martonyi were not to Orbán’s liking. More and more areas of foreign policy were taken away from the ministry and given to others: first to Tamás Fellegi, minister of national development, and later to Péter Szijjártó. The former was supposed to woo China and Russia while Szijjártó concentrated on the Middle East. And yet Martonyi defended the prime minister and remained loyal to the end. If he was insulted by being sidestepped and ignored, he didn’t show it.

Now his tenure is over. For six months Tibor Navracsics will fill Martonyi’s place after which Orbán’s real favorite, Péter Szijjártó, will become minister. He will most likely continue the policy of the “Eastern Opening,” the brainchild of Viktor Orbán. For such a drastic change in orientation an entirely new staff was necessary. Not one of the six undersecretaries remained, and out of the ten assistant undersecretaries only one kept his job.

Among the victims was Enikő Győri, undersecretary in charge of Hungary’s relations with the European Union, who will be leaving to serve as ambassador to Spain. Her departure might be connected to a debate about which ministry should deal with the EU.  János Lázár wants to move the responsibility to the prime minister’s office, while Navracsics insisted that relations with Brussels belongs to the ministry of foreign affairs. After Navracsics’s departure Lázár may well have his way.

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

Gergely Prőhle, the assistant undersecretary about whom I wrote several times, is also leaving. Zoltán Balog created a new position for him in the ministry of human resources. With this change Prőhle’s diplomatic career seems to be coming to an end. Earlier he served as ambassador to Bern and Berlin.

The most noteworthy change is the departure of Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of foreign affairs in both the first and the second Orbán governments. He was one of the founders of Fidesz who has held high positions in the party ever since 1989. In fact, between 1995 and 2003 he was one of the vice-presidents of the party. He has been a member of parliament since 1990. He will now be the chairman of the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs. According to NépszabadságNémeth was offered the post of ambassador to Washington but he preferred to retire completely from the conduct of foreign affairs. He supports a foreign policy based on transatlantic ties and “would like to see better relations between Hungary and the United States.” Apparently, he is not happy with the cozy relations between Hungary and Putin’s Russia.

In other ministries the changes were not that drastic, but practically everywhere the number of undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries has grown. Perhaps the most spectacular growth occurred in the Office of the Prime Minister where there are eight undersecretaries and, believe it or not, 27 assistant undersecretaries. One of these new assistant secretaries has already made his mark. He is the one who is “negotiating” with the Norwegians about their grants to Hungary. In total, according to a new HVG article, there are 100 assistant undersecretaries in the third Orbán government.

I see no attempt on the part of the government to be frugal. Not only is the government growing steadily but grandiose plans are being hatched practically daily. The government is planning to build a new museum quarter, to move ministries from Budapest to various cities across the country, and to move the office of the prime minister to the Castle district, near the current residence of the president.

The Hungarian government is also continuing its mania for acquisitions. It is currently negotiating “to buy Bombardier’s stake in Hungarian rail transportation firm Bombardier MAV Kft.” The new minister of national development told Napi Gazdaság that “it’s a clear aim of the government and the ministry to carry out further acquisitions. It’s not a secret that there are talks under way in this respect with E.ON, for example.”

After this spending spree, who is going to replenish the Hungarian piggy bank?

New American ambassador in Budapest

I will devote today’s post to U.S.-Hungarian relations. At last the White House appointed a new ambassador to replace Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, whose tenure as U.S. ambassador to Hungary came to an end in July.

I devoted at least three posts to her less than sterling ambassadorship. In passing I also talked about her predecessor, April H. Foley, who was totally under the spell of Viktor Orbán and János Martonyi and hence had a very bad relationship with the socialist-liberal Hungarian government.  These two as well as their predecessors were so-called political appointees with no prior experience in diplomacy and no prior knowledge of the country in which they served. In September I introduced Colleen Bell, the producer of a very successful daytime soap, as the possible next U.S. ambassador in Budapest. And indeed, it is official: Ms Bell will soon be in Budapest. Right now, I’m certain, she is being prepped by the officials of the State Department. I can well imagine how difficult it must be to cram all the basic information about the past and present of a country one most likely knew nothing about a couple of months ago. I mean that in all sincerity. Of course, she will have a large staff of professionals who will help her along, but it still won’t be easy.

I wonder whether she is fully aware of the depth of the strained relations between Washington and Budapest, which hit a new low two days ago, exactly when Bell was appointed ambassador. The U.S. embassy in Budapest published the following press release:

The United States strongly condemns the shameful event organized by Jobbik, a Hungarian political party identified with ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism, to unveil a bust honoring Nazi ally Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader during World War II, at the entrance to the Hungarian Reformed Church at the edge of Szabadsag ter in Budapest on November 3.  Those who organized and participated in the event, including members of Hungary’s Parliament, promoted not only their own intolerance, but also a dramatically negative image of Hungary.  Although the significant number of counter-demonstrators showed there is strong opposition to the organizers’ views, and members of the Hungarian government have expressed disapproval, an event such as this requires swift, decisive, unequivocal condemnation by Hungary’s highest ranking leaders.

Seasoned reporters don’t remember such a strongly worded communiqué from the United States government in the longest time. In this press release the U.S. is calling on Viktor Orbán himself to condemn what happened on Szabadság tér. For the time being we haven’t heard anything from either Viktor Orbán or his deputies Tibor Navracsics and Zsolt Semjén. I am expecting an official silence, which will further strain the relations between the two countries.

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest Source: commons.wikipedia.org

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest
Source: commons.wikipedia.org

Of course, we all know that the warning comes straight from the State Department. Perhaps with the change of personnel that occurred after John Kerry took over the post of secretary of state, the State Department decided to be tougher on the Orbán government than it had been in the last three years. Perhaps they began to realize in Washington that the Orbán team doesn’t understand the polite language of diplomacy. One must be plain spoken and hard hitting with the man. As an old acquaintance of Orbán said, the Hungarian prime minister is basically a bellicose coward who when meeting strong resolve and firm resistance on the other side usually retreats. At least temporarily.

Gábor Horváth, one of the editors of Népszabadság, wrote an editorial in today’s paper in which he expressed his sympathy for the incoming ambassador who might not be aware of the difficulties she will face in Budapest. Horváth for a number of years was the paper’s correspondent in Washington, and therefore he is thoroughly familiar with the Washington scene. In his opinion, the millions of dollars the Hungarian government is spending in Washington are a total waste: the Orbán government’s reputation is irreparably ruined due to Viktor Orbán’s policies and behavior. And the government does indeed spend a lot of money lobbying “in Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” For details on the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development, see politics.hu’s exclusive by Lili Bayer.

Horváth thinks that the ambassador will have difficulties establishing a cordial relationship with the Hungarian government. I agree with him, with one correction. She will have no difficulty establishing a working relationship with János Martonyi, the minister of foreign affairs, but that will not take her very far. Martonyi will assure her that everything is just fine and dandy and that what she and her staff see is not really so. But all this means nothing because the conduct of foreign policy is not in the hands of Martonyi. The semi-official organ of the government, Magyar Nemzet, only today accused the United States of spying on Viktor Orbán and his government in order to pass on information to the socialist-liberal opposition. So, this is where we stand. I hope the new ambassador will understand the workings of the Hungarian government because otherwise she will be truly lost.