Hillary Clinton’s visit to Budapest

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.


  1. He won’t listen to the Americans, he won’t listen to the Europeans, and the Chinese won’t give a toss about democracy, freedom of the press and the constitution.
    Goodbye Hungary, hello Albania.

  2. With these attitudes from the Hungarian Government, it seems unavoidable a slow descent into mediocrity, I thought that democracy will make a country like Hungary Shine, very sad,

  3. once upon a time lived a ferenc deak in hungary.
    he was the original inventor, the edison of the non-violence movement.
    no prophet is welcome in his own country.
    practically all past hungarian leaders, horthy, rakosi,kadar and now orban governed by violence.
    and the nation takes the punishment without serious complaining.

  4. I like this guy. He’s like a Liberal Yoda. “”Agree with you, the council does.”

  5. Eva
    All you said is probably by in large correct. When a meeting is described as “frank” it basically means that is was anything but warm and friendly. The U.S. has very little strategic interest in Central Europe (this I “blame” the President and not the Secretary of State), and truth be told, Hungary now has little “strategic interest” in the U.S. Hungary’s future is tied to the EU, not America and while America I hope remains important in providing some sort of strategic/defense “umbrella” over the region, this will not be a basis for drawing Hungary and the U.S. closer together. In the region, only Poland is of any interest to the U.S. It is a real and growing economy, the Poles are committed to asserting themselves in international affairs in a way that the Hungarians and the Czechs are not and cannot, and the Poles are committed to investing sat least something in their military.
    Finally, Eva, you neglected to mention who among the opposition was not invited. Mr. Gyurcsany’s name was glaringly omitted. The U.S. lost faith in Gyurcsany years ago. They felt he was erratic and had lost the faith of the population. If a defense against Orbanism is to develop in Hungary, and a natural leader is to rise up to lead that movement, I do not see that person among the opposition. I know however that it will not be Gyrcsany.

  6. “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”
    This is pure BS.
    Orbán stood up for the neighbouring countries as well, and they are of course appreciative of it. Every sane leader would be appreciative, as would be Orbán is, let’s say, the Croatian PM told the US Secretary about Central Europe’s common interests. It’s a nice help for all others in the region, not megalomania. There is some mania but it is on your side. It should be treated.

  7. NWO: “I do not see that person among the opposition”
    It may “help” you but Bajnai is clearly a candidate for that among the opposition.
    I think it’s time to investigate the case of Hajdú-Bét a little closer.

  8. Bajnai practically saved the country a year ago. He was able and willing to operate on a largely non political level, and began the difficult process of restoring Hungary’s credibility in the financial markets. This was something that the FIDESZ Government then when out of its way to try and destroy soon after taking office. It would be great if Bajnai could find his way back into a senior position in this country. Sadly, I suspect h is too smart for that.
    As for Hajdu-Bet, it was a terrible investment in which Wallis and others lost a lot of money. Not sure what further needs investigating in that front.

  9. He is back! They have had his ‘BUNK-O-MATIC’ (© Mutt Damon MMXI) repaired! Do not peddle it too fast Johnny Boy let the new bits bed in first. Oh tell your mate ‘Jo’ to get his historic facts straight.
    NWO you write about who has an interest in Hungary. In strategic terms All of northern and western Europe is interested. Hungary is the gateway to the southern land route into Europe which is via the Vienna-Linz corridor into central Germany and the Vienna/Danube route to Munich (southern Germany and the Belfort gap into France).
    Because of this the EU is very interested remove Hungary from the EU and populations Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece some 40 million people become isolated To say nothing of Turkey with its some 78 million people. A market of 118 million is not to be sneezed at. This is one of the reasons why Europe is more than a little interested in the countries which border the eastern Adriatic. There is a potential route to Sofia in that direction.
    Hungary is becoming more isolated because of the actions of its leadership. The Hungarian Media Act, which is still under review. The Commissioner is considering the Venice Commission’s report. The Council of Europe is in the same position. The potential actions which could take place in the European Court of Human Rights and in the European Court are all good reasons why the US secretary of state gave ‘His Mightiness’ O.V. a stiff talking to. This is despite the ‘spin’ (for home consumption) that Orban (and out tame troll) are putting on things all is not well.
    If as people have written that the current Hungarian government is setting up a ‘National Socialist’ (Fascist) type of Government someone –probably Slovakia will have Hungary in the International Courts of Justice for breaking the Treaty of Paris 1947.

  10. NWO: “Finally, Eva, you neglected to mention who among the opposition was not invited.”
    Perhaps I should have made clear that Bajnai was not invited as former prime minister but as the chairman of the Haza és Haladás Alapítvány (Country and Progress Foundation), a newly established civic organization.

  11. I was watching CNN European edition. Unless I missed it, not a word on Hillary’s visit to Hungary nor any mention of the inauguration of the Tom Lantos institute. That certainly shows American interest in Eastern Europe or in the legacy of Tom Lantos. I doubt if many Americans care who Tom Lantos was or know where Hungary is.

  12. NWO: Bajnai did not save the country, he merely followed IMF’s instructions like a pet dog.
    And, say, from whom must the country have been saved?

  13. Why all these bloody flags all the time?!
    Is this some sort of insecurity thing, or another of OV’s hankering after the old Soviet days?
    If Cameron appeared in front of a wall of flags like this people would be expecting him to wear a little toothbrush moustache and start giving daft salutes.

  14. ‘Joe’ – nothing on the BBC or in the Guardian either. Nothing sinister about this, Hungary is just a small, unimportant country.
    I fear OV is going to have to do a lot worse than control the press and rig the constitution before anyone in the west takes much notice.
    Fortunately (or not) he is more than capable of this.

  15. Ah! Professor you too have noticed that his Mightiness (O.V) always has one hand in his pocket.
    Is it insecurity I ask myself?
    Is he afraid of losing his trousers?
    Or perhaps he is following the wise sayings of Master Kong Fuzi (Confucius) who once said that “Man with hole in pocket can feel cocky all day”.

  16. Johnny Boy: “Orbán stood up for the neighbouring countries as well, and they are of course appreciative of it.” The neighbouring countries are way more diplomatic than Orban could ever be, but you should not kid yourself, most leaders of neighbouring countries and further despise Orban.
    ” he merely followed IMF’s instructions like a pet dog” as opposed to Orban who became the lapdog of the Pope and the Chinese Leaders.

  17. One hand in pocket: I suspect it is an attempt to appear extremely at ease, hence a sort of insecurity. In the photo of the 2 ambassadors, Clinton and OV, he is the only one not smiling: the only one not needing to be pleasant or seek to please? Again, a sort of power play.

  18. Joe Simon, you should be happy that least CNN Europe stayed away to let the world now how sorry bunch the Fidesz government is with their supporters. But here are some headlines for you:
    Clinton Questions Hungary’s Democratic Credentials – Voice of America
    Clinton urges democracy in front of Hungary’s PM – AFP
    Clinton praises Hungary’s economic reforms but says US concerned about free – Washington Post
    Here is the official script from Ms. Clinton’s visit:

  19. Hillary Clinton did well and said as much as anyone could reasonably have asked of her. Something like this:
    ‘We’re not impressed. We are aware of you. We’re watching. We’re not taken in. To be frank.’
    I for one am reassured.

  20. Éva – what was MTI’s coverage of Clinton’s visit like?
    I assume the version of events being peddled in Hungary is “Orban praised by Clinton”?

  21. “It’s amazing that Orbán always has at least one hand in the pocket of his pants.”
    Perhaps he single-handedly saved the country?
    Or maybe he’s a Bonapartiste?
    You takes your pick.

  22. In British English, Éva’s remark is even weirder!
    Very strange mental images flashed across my slightly stunned brain…

  23. It s July 1st. THe new Media Authority starts with a bang. THere is an investigation against a reader’s comment, published in the Nepszava. Some comments were “offensive” against Pal Schmitt. THe whole situations is loose as there were no such comments posted online what the Media Authority refers to and now thy are changing the story…
    At the same time in Communist (free speech China, the China that Orban talks so highly about , the China we have 60 years great relationship) happily celebrated the Chinese Communist Party’s 90th Anniversary. (maybe this is why Orban could not attend the dinner last night.)

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