Although it was a very short visit, this article will be long.
Hillary Clinton arrived late at night on the 29th and thus didn't take part in the unveiling of the, in my opinion, very mediocre bronze statue of Ronald Reagan. The real reason for her visit was the official opening of the Lantos Institute, a think tank that is supposed to concentrate on human rights and minority issues.
I will concentrate here on what Hillary Clinton said at the opening of the Lantos Institute. Some reports, such as that of AFP, emphasized that "Clinton … called for reinforcing democracy, speaking in front of Hungary's prime minister who has been slammed for restricting the rule of law." The reporter felt it necessary to mention that in reference to China, she castigated countries that gave priority to "national economic growth over freedom and human rights, as though the two are neither compatible nor mutually reinforcing." She didn't openly criticize the Hungarian government, but nevertheless she argued that "it's important for government and civil society alike to shine a light on why some young democracies flourish and others fail." And finally she reasserted that "it's vital that … our constitutions and institutions ensure strong checks and balances across party lines and from one government to the next." Under the circumstances and given the restraints of diplomatic protocol, that was about as much as she could say.
For his part, Viktor Orbán claimed that this gathering was supposed to strengthen "the alliance between the United States and Hungary." This alliance is based on solid foundations. A solid foundation can be built from stone or from steel, but the alliance between these two countries is based on "love of freedom." Unfortunately, freedom is threatened nowadays not by tanks but by indebtedness. According to him "indebtedness limits freedom while in legal terms the traditional rights of freedom are not attacked." So, if one loves freedom then first and foremost one must fight sovereign debt.
One must admit, Orbán has a one-track mind. Once he gets hung up on something, he will bring up his pet idea at every possible occasion.
He did admit that "there were times when he and Tom Lantos didn't see eye to eye." There were times when they argued. "In fact, [their] opinions differed on every possible domestic issue." And indeed, their last meeting didn't go well at all. In 2007 when Orbán visited Washington he eventually managed to have a meeting with Tom Lantos. After the talk they didn't hold a joint press conference. Orbán, however, gave an interview to Judit Járai, correspondent of Magyar Rádió, in which he noted that "the Democrats [in the United States] usually side with the European left" and made clear that the very idea of such a connection was distasteful to him. He added, "I don't believe that Mr. Lantos is keeping fingers crossed for the political success of the same forces in Hungary as I do."
Yes, Orbán was quite right and that's why it is so incongruous to see the Orbán government setting up an institution bearing Tom Lantos's name. The establishment of such an institute was Ferenc Gyurcsány's idea right after Lantos's death on February 11, 2008. Fidesz for two years opposed the project, referencing the economic crisis and the lack of money. Zsolt Németh in an interview that appeared in Népszabadság assured everybody that their opposition to the establishment of such an institute was based solely on financial considerations, but the reporter suspected that the Fidesz leadership was hoping that after winning the elections the Orbán government would be able to create the institute in its own image. And this is what happened. Crisis or no crisis, the war against sovereign debt didn't matter in this case. Suddenly there was money for the Lantos Institute.
Everybody suspected that the public speeches would not be terribly revealing. What was important was what Hillary Clinton would say to Viktor Orbán in private. The meeting between the two lasted almost an hour and according to all reports Hillary Clinton was very well prepared. She brought up sensitive issues: she expressed "concerns and particularly called for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency." She showed a mastery of details of the Hungarian constitution, the media law, the attacks on the judiciary, and the impending "reform" of the electoral law. Hillary Clinton described the meeting as "an unusually frank talk with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán." During that "candid conversation" she encouraged her "Hungarian friends to ensure a broad, inclusive constitution that is consistent with its own democratic values and the European values as well." She "underscored the importance, in any government, to enshrine checks and balances." She mentioned that "throughout the process of implementing the constitution and the accompanying cardinal laws, it is important … to protect individual liberties, maintain freedom of the press and the judiciary, and ensure checks and balances." All in all, she was pretty blunt with the Hungarian prime minister. The question is whether Orbán will heed her advice. I wouldn't bet on it.
Naturally, Viktor Orbán also spoke. In this case a bit of what the French call "explication de texte," close reading, will be necessary. Here is one sentence that is telling: "Hungary would like to maintain cooperation with the United States that was deemed to be successful so far." Can that be interpreted as "we will oblige in order to keep the present good relations" or as "if you push us too hard we will not continue this successful cooperation"? As an example of Hungarian cooperation he brought up the country's participation in the war in Afghanistan.
He emphasized that Hungary is "a transatlantic country," but what followed is a bit puzzling. According to Orbán, "in all those areas and points where the European Union must [emphasis mine] cooperate with the United States of America, Hungary will always be a staunch supporter of such cooperation." It's not clear whether Orbán's cooperation with the United States will be only on issues of general European Union concern or whether he will consider bilateral cooperation.
He certainly underemphasized direct relations with the United States by placing Hungary in the regional mini-alliance of Central Europe whose potential should be recognized by the great powers, including the United States. It is worth quoting the passage verbatim: "I stated to the Secretary that for us, the primary point of reference, framework of reference where we understand each other, where we define ourselves, the first dimension where we develop our strategies is the Central European dimension. And I’ve done my utmost and I will continue to do my utmost to have the interests and to call the interests of the major powers of the world, among them the United States of America, that Central Europe is an important area facing a wonderful future, where countries are closely knit, where countries have common objectives, and where countries would like to actually assert their interests in the European and international arena as Central Europe. Therefore, Central Europe would like for its own existence, military, logistics, energy, and trade security guarantees assured. And I asked the Secretary that–I asked the United States of America to treat this endeavor of ours with interest." So, Orbán took it upon himself to represent a "regional alliance" that exists only in his head. Typical megalomania of Viktor Orbán, especially since from what I read in the international press these countries don't want too much to do with Orbán's Hungary. Even Poland distanced itself from too close an embrace of Viktor Orbán.
Hillary Clinton had another meeting later in the day with Attila Mesterházy (MSZP), András Schiffer (LMP) and–in a highly unusual move–with leaders of various civic groups: Gordon Bajnai (Country and Progress Foundation), Antónia Mészáros (Foundation for Quality Journalism), Péter Molnár (media expert from the Central European University), Ádám Földes (Transparency International), and Kinga Réthy (Open Society Institute). According to Attila Mesterházy, whom I heard in an interview with György Bolgár, the meeting was friendly and informal. Clinton was accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalaki.
From what I gather, this meeting was a success. I think that the participants were impressed with her mastery of the issues in detail. A real dialogue developed among the participants. Clinton was especially interested in the situation of the Roma minority, intolerance in Hungary, the media law, the independence of the judiciary, and the new electoral law that the Orbán government will pass soon enough. Given what Hillary Clinton had to say at the press conference, most likely there was a meeting of the minds at that gathering. From what I heard, Clinton encouraged the participants to work hard in defense of democracy and to unite. I do hope they will listen.
By way of a footnote. I just learned that Viktor Orbán was supposed to attend a gala dinner organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in honor of the American delegation that came to Budapest for the unveiling of Ronald Reagan's statue. He was supposed to make an important announcement about the establishment of a prize awarded to people who further transatlantic understanding. He didn't show. That doesn't bode well for the future. And it further reinforces my suspicion that he's unlikely to pay much attention to Secretary Clinton's advice.