Almost every time there is an opinion piece about the future of Hungarian foreign policy, commentators feel compelled to mention that János Martonyi is practically the only minister of the second Orbán government who knows his business.
This is not a new phenomenon. I clearly remember that the failures of the first Orbán government in the field of diplomacy were usually chalked up to the inexperience of the prime minister and the nationalistic impulses of Martonyi's undersecretary, the aggressive Zsolt Németh. However, Martonyi protested even then when a reporter pointed out the general impression that he and Viktor Orbán held different views on Hungarian foreign policy. I'm sure that no one really believed his protestations because, after all, he was supposed to be a real expert. I was also inclined to think that Martonyi with all his experience couldn't have made so many mistakes and wondered why he remained in his post. Why didn't he quit if he didn't have a free hand?
In the last few days I have changed my mind. I have come to the conclusion that Martonyi was and will be a lousy foreign minister. He was not a puppet as so many of us believed. He really was in charge and in perfect harmony with the views of Viktor Orbán and Zsolt Németh.
Let me say a few words about him and his family. János Martonyi, Sr. was a law professor whose family name was Martin until 1931, when at the age of 21 he Hungarianized his name to Martonyi. He was a brilliant scholar who worked as a civil servant before he taught law at the University of Szeged. In October 1940, shortly after Hungary received northern Transylvania thanks to the Second Vienna Award, Martonyi Sr. moved to Kolozsvár (Cluj) to the old/new Hungarian university there. It was here that János Martonyi, Jr. was born in April 1944. Bad timing because the Martonyi family had to flee from Cluj within a few months. The city was occupied by the Russians, followed by the Romanians, in October 1944.
Martonyi's father's career didn't suffer as a result of his sojourn in Cluj. He returned to the University of Szeged where he became departmental head and twice served as dean of the law school. His son studied at the same institution, a practice I find a "bad practice." This way we really cannot tell whether his summa cum laude was well earned or whether he was treated differently because of the position of his father within the university. We do know, however, that he managed to learn four languages well: German, French, English, and Russian. For a while he worked as a legal counsel for a shipping company, but between 1979 and 1984 he served as commercial secretary at the Hungarian Embassy in Brussels. In 1985 he was named assistant undersecretary in the Ministry of Commerce. In 1989 he became deputy minister of the same ministry. His next job was commissioner in charge of privatization in Miklós Németh's government, the last government before the regime change. A lot of jokes are being cracked about Martonyi's bad timing because he decided to become a party member only a few months before the collapse of the Kádár regime.
Martonyi's rise might have been due in part to his alleged work as an informer between 1965 and 1986. In plain language, he spied on his colleagues and the foreigners he came in contact with. The first time his involvement with the network of informers came to light was in 2002 when the Mécs Committee was investigating the backgrounds of former government officials after it became known that Péter Medgyessy was employed as an officer by the counterintelligence section of the secret service. At that time Martonyi claimed that "he didn't sign any statement, didn't report on anyone, and didn't receive any remuneration."
However, a few years later, in 2007, thanks to the research of Péter Kende, it turned out that Martonyi was not as innocent as he claimed. Kende found out that Martonyi was in contact with the secret service between 1965 and 1986 with the cover names "Magasdi" and later "Marosvásárhelyi." His folder contains fifty pages of reports. Martonyi admitted that he did write "travel reports" and that he was familiar with these cover names. He even admitted that he gave these reports to the police. But he claimed that without writing these reports he couldn't have travelled abroad. Martonyi threatened a law suit if Kende's article that appeared in Élet és Irodalom wasn't to his liking. As far as I know no law suit followed.
Martonyi's career didn't suffer with the change of regime. His last-minute membership in the party wasn't an obstacle. In the Antall government (1990-1994) he served as permanent undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry and four years later Viktor Orbán picked him as his foreign minister. As for the embarrassing details of his long association with the secret service, it was no problem. A past connection with the secret service is problematic only if the person after the change of regime ended up "on the wrong side," that is, in MSZP, like Péter Medgyessy. But people like Zsigmond Járai or Imre Boross who served during the Orbán government were forgiven. "Our communists" are okay, "your communists" are certainly not. This is how it goes in Hungary.