It was on January 11, 2010 that Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis officially became U.S. ambassador to Hungary. She has no diplomatic background, but her credentials in the business world are considerable. She is the daughter of Angelo Tsakopoulos, a Greek immigrant, who became a very rich land developer. The family are ardent supporters of the Democratic Party and hence the appointment of Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, president of AKT Development Corporation, a family business, to the post. George/György Lázár, an American-Hungarian who lives in California and often publishes on political topics in Hungarian publications, was enthusiastic about the appointment. He thought that Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis was an energetic, no-nonsense woman who would represent U.S. interests with more vigor than her predecessors. [As it turned out, the new ambassador has been a great deal less active than George W. Bush’s first ambassador to Hungary, Nancy Goodman Brinker (2001-2003).]
The ambassador’s beginnings were somewhat rocky. Viktor Orbán, who by then was pretty certain that he would be the next prime minister of Hungary, paid an early visit to the new U.S. ambassador. Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis was impressed, as she confessed in an interview that appeared in HVG (February 4, 2010). Orbán reminded her of the young Bill Clinton of twenty years earlier. The two men resemble each other mostly because “of their commitment and passion for people.” This sounds especially amusing in the light of what has happened in Hungary since. In the interview Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis mentioned that she had also met with Gordon Bajnai, but it seems that Bajnai didn’t make much of an impression on her.
George Lázár, who was initially so keen on the appointment, was outraged. Does Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis know anything about Viktor Orbán, asked Lázár? Does she know that Orbán was until the last moment keeping fingers crossed for a Republican victory and considered Sarah Palin “an extraordinarily talented politician, an excellent debater, and a very successful governor”? Perhaps, continued Lázár, someone should tell the new U.S. ambassador in Budapest that Viktor Orbán is a great friend of the same Arnold Schwarzenegger for whose removal from office her family spent millions of dollars.
It is hard to find the reason for this enthusiasm, based on Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’s first meeting with Orbán. Thanks to Wikileaks we have a document describing the encounter. Although the document is signed “Kounalakis,” the memo was certainly written by someone else because the reference is always to “the Ambassador,” who found the “Fidesz leader energetic and confident.” The author of the memo surely knew Orbán better than the new ambassador because he talked about Orbán’s “go-for-the-jugular political instincts.” János Martonyi, who accompanied Orbán on this visit, predicted a crushing defeat of MSZP and added that it may actually disintegrate as a party. At this point Orbán became animated: “The Socialists’ demise, Orbán said, would be for ‘the good of the country,’ since the party only reflected the interests of former Communist party elite.”
At this point, in my opinion, the new ambassador should have realized that there was something wrong with Viktor Orbán’s ideas about democracy. The complete elimination of the other important party in the country couldn’t possibly serve the good of anyone, especially not the good of a democratic multi-party system. Someone with more experience should have noted that such an unbending attitude toward an opponent signalled trouble for the future. Orbán announced that he wouldn’t “make any deal with the (ex)Communists.” I suspect that it was the author of the memo who put “ex” into parentheses.
The new ambassador seemed to remain silent until Orbán promised “an exciting time” after the elections. At this point Kounalakis “welcomed the opportunity to work with Orbán once he had won the elections and formed a new government.” She also emphasized the need for a welcoming business environment.
At the end of the document the following “comment” was added: “Orbán, even though he leads by a wide margin in every poll, is clearly obsessed with decisively defeating the Socialists, his long-time nemesis. We expect that, as one of Hungary’s shrewdest politicians, this bare-knuckled political brawler will leave nothing to chance as he mobilizes his party faithful in the march to long-awaited victory. Despite Orbán’s hope for a smaller turnout on election day, a lower voting number may also favor a stronger showing by Jobbik, reducing Fidesz’s chance for a hoped for two-thirds parliamentary majority and increasing the chances that the extreme right may enter Parliament.”
So, even if the ambassador wasn’t quite up to the job, the deputy chief of mission who also attended the meeting was quite well informed. He certainly wasn’t taken in by Orbán’s charm.
But Kounalakis seemed to have been smitten. The later (July 4th) picture of Viktor Orbán kissing her hand, which she obviously found a delightful experience, was plastered all over in the media. They seemed to get along splendidly.
She was often seen with Csaba Hende, minister of defense, especially when the two of them visited Hungarian soldiers serving in Kosovo. This March she gave a lecture at the Central European University that can be seen on the internet or can be read on the U.S. Embassy’s webpage. She paid a visit to the troubled village of Gyöngyöspata in the company of Sándor Pintér, minister of interior.
My impression is that Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis’s performance as ambassador can be deemed no better than mediocre. She certainly wasn’t terribly concerned about the state of democracy due to Viktor Orbán’s revolution. But then came her old friend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and it should have become clear that she wasn’t in sync with U.S. policy toward Hungary. Clinton’s press conference, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin’s statement on Hungary, and finally Thomas O. Melia’s testimony at a congressional hearing indicated that Washington is expecting a more forceful stand from its ambassador in Budapest. Hence the letter that Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis published in Magyar Nemzet on August 3, 2011.
Here I would like to quote the most important sentences from the op/ed piece: Hillary Clinton “expressed concern … that with the many changes that the government is making with its historic two-thirds majority, Hungary will stay true to its own democratic traditions.” She called for a “real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press and government transparency.” The two-thirds majority “offers the temptation to overreach. It can … allow for important checks and balances to be swept aside, and valid objections from citizens to be ignored.” This is why “the United States and other friends” are urging Hungary to pay special attention to the drafting of the cardinal laws. “The most important of these will pertain to an independent media and judiciary, and free and fair elections. The system cannot be permanently tilted to favor one party or another.” And finally, “for anyone to wave aside all criticism as politically motivated, or based on misinformation, is not fair to all those who have an interest in the continued strength and vibrancy of Hungary’s democracy.”
Pretty strong words. The ambassador followed up by giving an interview to Origo, an on-line-paper, yesterday. Here I have to translate from the Hungarian. The reporter reminded Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis that in her speech at the Central European University in March she emphasized that “Hungary is a healthy and well functioning democracy.” Why did she–the reporter asked–feel it necessary to express her concerns now in Magyar Nemzet? In her answer she reiterated her belief in the existence of a democratic Hungary, but she minimized the dangers lurking. According to her “Hungary called attention to itself partly because of the two-thirds majority and the number of and speed by which new laws were voted on…. Enormous changes are taking place and people are interested, they pay attention to how these changes will transform the country.” Well, this is not the only problem, as her own article indicated.
The reporter insisted that she answer the question, “Why did she speak up now and why not earlier.” What followed was a lengthy praise of the excellent U.S.-Hungarian relations, but at the end she indicated that her newly found voice had something to do with Hillary Clinton’s visit and her criticisms.
The reporter asked whether she had received any response from the Hungarian government to her piece in Magyar Nemzet. Instead of telling the simple truth that the Hungarian government totally ignored what she had to say about the political situation in the country, she tried to make a joke out of it: “I think everybody is on vacation (and laughed).” It seems that even the reporter found her reaction odd.
But then came the following exchange which, to my mind, is no more than whitewashing the Hungarian government or specifically Viktor Orbán’s behavior. The reporter asked her about Péter Szijjártó’s remarks about the right of questioning, inside or outside the country, the will of the Hungarian people. Here is the most unsatisfactory answer: “You know, it is difficult to take out of context one or two such sentences. We have very close cooperation with Hungary, we work on very many different matters, and our experiences are very positive. I have very high regard for those people in the country with whom I have a working relation: the members of the government, the civic organizations, and representatives of the business sector. I consider the cooperation between the United States and Hungary very positive and friendly.”
Obviously, the reporter was feeling frustrated by this point and brought up the vulgar Twitter remarks of Tamás Deutsch about Thomas Melia. Answer: “I have been living in Hungary in the last one and a half years and I am completely convinced that the Hungarians are the most elegant gentlemen whom I have ever had the privilege to meet. Nothing will shake my conviction about that (smiling).” Then she adds that it is important to be polite because Hungary and the USA are friends, allies, and partners.
During a brief conversation about the United States’ current economic problems she came up with a sentence that I didn’t expect from someone who went to business school. “I often think and it fills me with guilt that perhaps the strengthening of the Swiss franc may have something to do with the fight over the debt ceiling in the United States.”
The frustrated reporter tried once more: ” What will happen if the Hungarian government does not attend to those concerns brought up by you and Hillary Clinton?” Answer: “I think it is very important to take a few steps back in connection with American-Hungarian relations. Our relations are very positive from many aspects, be they security matters or NATO. We do many things together and we truly believe that the Hungarian people are able to map out the road ahead.” As if the article in Magyar Nemzet were written by someone else, not the U.S. ambassador to Hungary.
I wonder what Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis will say when someone translates for her István Lovas’s article in the August 5 issue of Magyar Nemzet. The title is “Hands off Hungary! The American ambassador could criticize us only if she criticizes others as well.” In the body of the article Lovas, a well known anti-Semite and great supporter of the current government, complains about the nasty American habit of meddling in other countries’ affairs. Moreover, the American government always intervened on the side of former communists, socialists, and liberals. They always criticized the right. The right-wing media warned, in a friendly way, that this policy will in the long run be injurious to the United States. Indeed, by now most of the right-wing citizens of Hungary have become enemies of the United States.
However, Lovas wants to be fair. According to him, “the current American ambassador is the first one in twenty-one years who didn’t show any bias toward political parties. Why did she write now such a strongly-worded and antagonistic piece?” Lovas is certain that the cause is Tamás Deutsch’s couple of sentences on Twitter. (Oh, how wrong he is!) How does she dare to lecture the Hungarian government on democracy? “She interfered in a direct and clumsy way in Hungarian domestic affairs.” Lovas warns her that as long as she doesn’t talk about the Italian media that was considered by Freedom House only semi-free, as long as she doesn’t warn India about shooting innocent people in Kashmir or doesn’t say anything to Israel about keeping thousands of Palestinian children in jail, “she should leave Hungary alone. Immediately!”
Perhaps she will just laugh. Or will say: Who is this István Lovas? But she’d better learn that what Magyar Nemzet publishes often comes straight from Viktor Orbán himself. Nothing of major political significance appears in print without his imprimatur.