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.
But Fidesz does not make it very easy to decode (and I am not sure whether this is done deliberately or because the meaning is really blurred). “Communist rule must be terminated forever” (= any person that does not support us is a Communist); “we are very much in favour of integration = borders will disappear” (we want Greater Hungary back), “we hold the Constitution and constitutionalism dear” (our Constitution is the Golden Bull of 1222), “we want democracy” (embodied in the Holy Crown and the elective king), “we demand rights and support for minorities” (for the “upright” Hungarians in the neighbouring countries and by definition all Hungarians living in the neighbourhood of Roma families), “we hold the ideas of 1848 dear” (those that refer to the unity of the Magyar nation), “we abhor injustice” (the one inflicted on us in 1920), “we want to eliminate poverty” (we force persons in need to work in our labour programmes), “we promote education” (for a few selected people and in the right subjects), “we want balanced reporting” (if it coincides with our definition of “balanced”), “we need strong defence forces” (schoolchildren can major in “basic military science”) and so forth. It takes some time to get used.
an urgent apology by the ambassador would be the best thing.
she could admit total incompetence in the hungarian affairs,,,,,,,,
cosigned by the secretary of state, and the president.
otherwise, she could study the history from Bela Kiraly’s books, or consult Karl Pfeifer.
kiraly-deak-reason, I am sorry but I am missing your point. What do you think she should be apologizing for and to whom?
Éva, the picture you paint is gloomy and probably you are right, but the ambassador is still a diplomat acting under orders and directives from Washington, not conducting her own diplomacy. Furthermore, she is a pretty unexperienced one (and probably she was sent here as such not only beacause Hungary is a minor partner of the US – hence the custom to send people outside the State Department – but because it was seen as a more or less unproblematic country with a pretty straightforward outcome of the incoming election), so in this sense I can even imagine she is caught in something that is not her capacity to manage. The origo interview is far less pointed than the letter, in some elemnts almost ridiculously official and pretty evasive on some issues but it can still be tactics. Not to speak of the very familiar dilemma they are facing: how to deal with an “ally” you have very few leverage on?
Some elements of the interview are simply a repetition of the official US stance, at least in case what Clinton said can be seen as official. Clintont also emphasized Hungary is democracy, she also insisted on the Hungarian people’s capacity to decide their fate (as far as I know even when she met the Socialist and LMP leaders), but even if it recalls Fidesz’s rethoric it is not necessarily the same. Not to speak of the ambassador’s insistence on the last two decades being a success story. It is obviously a violation of our Connstitutional History.
On the other hand it I also had the impression that she fell under Orbáns spell quite abruptly and I think the Wikileaks document you quoted even gives a clue to this: Jobbik. I tend to interpret that Fidesz managed to overcome suspicions regarding its nature and ideas with the help of the far-right that enabled them to project an image of moderate right. (It is even possible that the attacks on Jobbik during the campaign had a double purpose, one to secure the two-thirds majority and another to make credible the claim made to the ambassador as well: Fidesz is the party that capable to fend off the danger from the Jobbik.) Orbán and his companions played this card very cunningly and skilfully, while it was obvious the Socialists were in no position to do anything. And the ambassador – and probably even the State Department – was too eager and willing to believe they are facing a democrat, not someone with an almost identical program with that of Jobbik’s. But as you know it is not uncommon in the history of diplomacy. 🙂
However, during her tenure as ambassador I felt that the initial charm on her was gradually lost.
Indeed the MAGYAR NEMZET article was written by somebody other than the Ambassador! Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis as a person, and as a source of opinion and of policy, may be a negligible quantity; she may be exceedingly clever. One can’t tell. If she has opinions, she is not, rather like the Queen of England, empowered to express them. She is in Hungary not to generate policy but to represent the United States at parties. If she does her job well any endorsements, rebukes, or provocations associated with the Ambassador will proceed from Washington and not from her. (To expect her, for example, of her own accord to invite to lunch Tibetans living in Budapest — as a group — rather mis-understands her role.) Her written statements likely are produced by members of the professional diplomatic corps and after Mrs Clinton’s visit may well be increasingly monitored closely by Washington to ensure that they hew to an agreed line that makes clear any dissatisfactions and disagreements with Fidesz policy. The Ambassador’s oral statements? Variations on “Pro bono, contra malum”: No controversy, please, and isn’t the weather lovely!
The key word here, which seems to be somewhat lost in this strident and unjustified criticism, is ‘ambassador’. The expectations here are both unrealistic and wrong. The US ambassador is not an autonomous agent or politician, making policy on the hoof to suit his/her agenda (although his/her input is one of many factors that shape that policy).
The ambassador’s views and statements reflect those of the state department and US government. As the situation here evolves, so will that policy. In diplomatic terms, her recent interventions are in fact quite strong and outspoken. Contrast, with for example, the comparative silence from EU missions here. And like it or not, Istvan Lovas has a point about media ownership in Italy and Berlusconi’s dominance of the broadcast sector.
In addition any such interventions in Hungarian domestic politics will be balanced against national and international interests. On matters of foreign policy and EU issues Hungary is well regarded as an international partner and the recent EU presidency has confirmed that. The reality of Hungarian diplomacy is very different to Peter Sziijarto’s statements for domestic consumption. Hungary has proved especially helpful in Libya, recently, acting as an interlocutor for the west.
It seems to me that much of the anger and frustration swirling around in Hungary and on forums such as HS is because Hungarian leftists and liberals think that America and the EU are somehow going to ride to their rescue. Well, get real – they are not. They may watch with concern, and intervene tentatively, as the US has done.
But that is the most Hungarians can expect. If Hungarians are unhappy with the state of democracy then they should do something about it themselves. It’s their country, after all.
Adam: “The US ambassador is not an autonomous agent or politician, making policy on the hoof to suit his/her agenda (although his/her input is one of many factors that shape that policy”
You and others misunderstood the situation. What I am saying here is that the “official” policy is the one that was expressed in the letter which the ambassador most likely didn’t write. The Origo interview simply shows that she in fact in every day practice doesn’t follow the instructions of her government.
As for riding to the rescue, well, it was Konrád’s main argument for the expansion of the EU that the rise of antidemocratic or extremist regimes could thereby be prevented. I doubt anyone expects action from the US, but the EU certainly has a modicum of legal muscle to exercise its will — provided they don’t get bogged down in the debt crisis and all the rest.
the usa and europe are watching the disintegration of civility, the loss of democratic freedom with indifference in hungary.
this is a moral and basic failing. the west is failing the ordinary and again oppressed people of hungary and the surrounding areas.
this is a cause for apology, an apology for incompetence and inaction.
the carrier diplomats of america need new intellectual input in the history and current events to manage troubled sociologies and aggressive trouble makers of the world.
of course, our main trouble is the apparent weakness of the white house team, positively lacking vision in every areas, except for vacationing in luxury, and playing golf.
Actually the greatest legal muscle can be exercised by the European Parliament, the churches (over the business of classification of churches), the Hungarian pension fund contributors whose money was ‘nationalised’ and of course those affected by dismissal from their government employment or from their media companies as a result of the actions of the Hungarian Government.
In addition there are the problems with the Venice Commission over the ‘new’ constitution. I believe that the Venice Commission is awaiting Hungary’s response to those complaints. I can also foresee more problems arising over the ideas about the new candidacy qualifications which may well skew election results further in Fidesz favour.
The churches who have not been recognised can and probably will go to the European Court of Human rights sighting the Courts judgement over a similar case in Austria. Somewhere in an earlier discussion Pope Benedict XVI will stay silent (after all he is hoping to get a bigger share of the ‘cake’ for his mob and he runs one of the least democratic outfits in Europe. He also hopes for a few more souls to save. If you did not know Ratzinger was ‘Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’ (Aka ‘The Inquisition’). If you get a bad name then ‘change the name and do the same’.
As to the EU the European Parliament is to debate some of these matters in October. It may well indict Hungary before the European Court over matters arising from the Media Law (and other things).
Kirsten you write ** “we hold the Constitution and constitutionalism dear” (our Constitution is the Golden Bull of 1222)”. 17 years before the document was issued an earlier document ‘Magna Carta’ said as article 38 : “No bailiff for the future shall, upon his own unsupported complaint, put anyone to his law, without credible witnesses brought for this purposes.”
You also wrote ** “we want to eliminate poverty” (we force persons in need to work in to our labour programmes)” **. That one runs headlong into Article 5 of the European Charter of Human rights (Article 5 Prohibition of slavery and forced labour clause 1. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude and clause 2. No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.
@Adam: On the other hand, can the EU just sit back and watch how a member state violates certain rules of democracy?
Right, the US really has nothing to do with Hungary, they may like or not what they are seeing, and may express some concerns diplomatically… that’s all they can and should do. But for the EU to let the Hungarian government get away with legislation that goes against declared democratic values of the EU?
If the EU doesn’t care about the state of democracy in Hungary, that it is a hypocrite, if it cares but unable to keep a member state to adhere to common democratic values… then something is terribly wrong the way things are set up in the EU. Not to mention the danger, how other budding autocrats in other member states may see the treatment of Hungary as a free pass to restrict freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.
“If Hungarians are unhappy with the state of democracy then they should do something about it themselves.”
They got themselves into this mess by the usual policy of blaming everyone but themselves and expecting someone else to sort everything out. And now they have exactly the same attitude towards the mess they’re in – it isn’t their fault and they expect someone else to sort it out for them.
Hungary, as a nation, needs to grow up and face reality.
@Paul: As Hungary is part of the EU; it is also the EU’s problem. The EU should grow up and realize that.
One indication of that is how Lovas (and Fidesz) throwing around the example of Italy when the state of the Hungarian media is criticized. Whatever the EU lets one member state get away with, can and will be used as a justification in another.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Hungarians should wait for the EU to do something… you are right, they should be doing something themselves. I am just trying to point out that the EU has no business in just sitting back and watch, if she takes her value declarations seriously.
Odin, I summarised what I learned about how some persons in Fidesz appear to interpret words that typically are considered to have a rather stable (and different) meaning in a modern society. For me some confusion arises because “democracy” or “constitutional state” are used with something different in mind than what I would have expected. A two-thirds majority in parliament is used to reduce the parliament to a voting machinery, pointing to the “efficiency” of the “democratic process” and the “will of the majority” (full misunderstanding of the role of a parliament as a controlling instance). People dismissed from the media are requested “to speak up personally” if they have complaints while in their contracts it is written that they have to remain silent in order not to forego compensation. This is what I referred to; I also hope that some people (if necessary from the European Parliament) will manage to put some of the laws of the Fidesz government to the European Court of Justice. (But Mrs Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis would not be the first who trusts the “polished manners” more than the confusing meaning of some words and terms in Hungary. Was not also an American ambassador so impressed by Horthy that he wrote a book in defence of Hungary’s “unfortunate handling” of the “challenges” that arose from the Germany of Adolf Hitler?)
And a little vox-pop for you, to salt the discussion:
My father-in-law, a long-time believer in the ‘world-wide Jewish conspiracy’ and ardent Fidesz supporter (but otherwise, a decent, kind, educated man), has now gravitated to Holocaust denial, maintaining that “only a few” Jews were killed by the Nazis and “whole Holocaust thing is greatly exaggerated”. He is also openly speculating that voting Jobbik might be the best option at the next election.
And a woman my wife bumped into in Debrecen the other day – a pleasant, seemingly intelligent, young mum, with two kids – had become anti-Fidesz “because of the tax”. And, when the conversation moved on to the current world financial crisis, she expressed the opinion that America was bound to get itself into a mess when it had elected “a Negro”.
There’s a lot more wrong here than just Fidesz and OV.
An: “As Hungary is part of the EU; it is also the EU’s problem. The EU should grow up and realize that.”
The EU is built on the idea that the countries that apply for membership in the club are “stable democracies” – this is part of the accession treaty. It is not construed to implement a transition process to democracy in its member states. This is a great dilemma for the EU, no doubt, because some if not all new member states did not associate EU membership only with the democratic idea but also (if not more) with EU funds and the rank of being “part of Western civilisation”. And it is not only Hungary or the Czech Republic but also Greece or Cyprus and in some respect also Italy. The EU can implement some steps (as Odin reminds us frequently) but it needs also effort and cooperation on the part of those who are the most concerned (in this case Hungarians).
@Kristen: I think Hungary’s case is a pretty good indication of how “stable” these democracies are. It may have been wrong to assume that countries with 15-20 years of democratic tradition are “stable” democracies.
Paul: “There’s a lot more wrong here than just Fidesz and OV.”
Fully agree. Actually, Paul, you’re lucky that you don’t know enough Hungarian to read some of the comments that appear after most of the newspaper articles. Absolutely frightening. Perhaps the American ambassador should learn a few words. Perhaps then she wouldn’t claim that Hungarians are the most wonderful gentlemen in the whole world. She would be also horrified to learn how passionately some Hungarians hate the Americans.
An: “It may have been wrong to assume that countries with 15-20 years of democratic tradition are “stable” democracies.”
Today, we know that they are not. I think Western Europe felt guilty and hence the hurry to extend the borders of the Union.
“Today, we know that they are not.”
Anyone in the old member states who raised such reservations in e.g. 2002 had to face criticism that he is obstructing the process of broad European integration and that he is insulting the people who have in the 1990s proven their desire for democracy (and I would have very much supported this accusation). People that I spoke to also pointed to the unpreparedness of the EU, it was designed for a small number of member states and for specific purposes, a political union has never had sufficient appeal. There were some changes to the treaties to make the EU more manageable with the Treaty of Nice and Lisbon but certainly many remember how awkward such process is. But the big question what the EU should be has not been answered yet, so far it is a supranational organisation of countries that have demonstrated (through their accession) their will to adhere to the same values of democracy, freedom and social cohesion. The effort in some of the new member states has then been reduced after 2004 or outright reverted as in Hungary currently. But this is nothing that the EU (by its construction) has a simple answer to.
Éva – this is the only time when I’ve been glad I can’t read Hungarian that well! I’ve seen enough of this style of comment on the English-language Hungarian sites.
I’m always amazed that someone with such appalling views, and/or limited grasp of humanity/logic/sense should want to publicise this to the world.
Why log onto a site and let the world know that you are an illiterate, racist moron?
Some of the commenters here and elsewhere urge that Hungarians must finally “grow up” and instead of expecting help from outside take things into their own hands. It would be hard to disagree with such suggestions. Indeed lasting change for the better is unlikely to occur so long as passivity, self-victimizing resentment, and rejection of politics are widespread among Hungarians.
That said, representatives of the international community are sometimes a little too quick to wash their hands of what is happening in this country. Those talking about “growing up” and taking responsibility for our own fate often seem to forget a basic point about the difference between historical and moral responsibility: nations are not like individual agents writ large. As a rule, it is harder for a nation than for an individual to change its trajectory. The past weighs heavier on communities than on individual agents, and the constraining power of political, economic and cultural legacies is much greater in the former case.
This point bears repeating because the difficult past that continues to haunt Hungary and bedevil politics here is obviously not just of the Hungarians’ own making. Hungary is a sovereign country, which means that its citizens have every reason to assume historical responsibility for the country’s past and moral responsibility for its present. But this simple consideration cannot absolve other countries whose policies have impacted and continue to impact Hungary from a certain measure of co-responsibility.
Given the history of Hungary, it was never realistic to expect Hungarians to complete transition to democratic self-rule and capitalism at such a quick pace without very significant support from outside (perhaps something on the scale of the Marshall plan would have been needed to complement brutally demanding convergence criteria).
Another thing to consider: since many of the factors that have conspired to undermine democracy in Hungary are very much in evidence in Western Europe and the US as well, it would be very bad news for the friends of democracy the world over if Orbán’s model went unchallenged.
Marton: “Given the history of Hungary, it was never realistic to expect Hungarians to complete transition to democratic self-rule and capitalism at such a quick pace without very significant support from outside (perhaps something on the scale of the Marshall plan would have been needed to complement brutally demanding convergence criteria).”
First of all, thank you for your very valuable comment. I just want you to know that I fully agree with the above. And I also agree that it would be very bad news for all democrats if Orbán could go on this way unchallenged.
But cannot the EU accession and the preparation process be seen as such support from the outside? The EU has not urged Hungarians to vote en masse for Fidesz in 2010. It was a free election within a voting system that was not considered problematic until 2010. The European institutions are still there and could be used as control instances, if affected persons compile the material necessary to appeal to the European Court of Justice. I am afraid that this can go on forever: the foreigners keep repeating that Hungarians should not feel as powerless and use available routes that might remedy the current situation, while Hungarians point to that this is not easy (which I do not doubt). And I fully understand Marton’s point that also in the West, democracy is seen as a “consumption good” by many instead of a political procedure which has to be taken care of.
I think that problem here is again with words and their supposed meaning. Kristen writes that there are words in modern societies that have a stable meaning – when you hear them being used you automatically presume that the speaker is aware of and acknowledges their commonly accepted meaning and uses them accordingly. Now this is where the ‘brilliance’ of the Orban government’s communication comes in. Nothing what they say means what the words suggest they should.
When they talk to other politicians, or ambassadors like E. T-K. these people can only interpret what they hear based on what they have come to accept as the meaning of those words. When Orbán says ‘democracy’ it either means something totally else than what it does for example for E. T-K., or, the meaning is not even important – only as far as another building block for the alternate reality being constructed right under our nose. What is infuriating is how those who enter into conversation with these people are totally helpless against them, because they are bound by norms accepted by them and the rest of the world.
It means there’s no chance for a meaningful conversation with these people. No energy should be wasted on trying and bending them towards our viewpoint. They don’t want to communicate. They don’t want to understand. They have a very clearcut understanding of the world and of how things should be done already. They only pretend to listen to keep you busy, to keep you from being active – in the sense of not speaking but taking action. The only weapon against them is to work out an alternative and present it. Orban leaned his lesson well, when Gyurcsány wiped the floor with him in the infamous debate of the candidates. Never again did he get in the ring like that.
Now as for the ambassador. Looking at her, she seems a very likable, amicable person, but to me she is clearly unsuitable for the job. I’m sure, when she arrived here for the mission, both her and the people in the US thought, it was going to be a walk in the park, a straightforward situation. Well, things turned out not quite like that. The discrepancy between her op/ed piece and her interview with Origo is glaring. That should not be allowed. And especially because she is an ‘ambassador’, that is, she is representing her government’s standpoint and not her own (although a really great diplomat can be recognised by their personal integrity, clearly this is not the case here) there can be no doubt about the impotency of the US government in this situation. I don’t think they are indifferent, as ‘carrier-optimist’ says. They are everything but. However, their hands are bound. Hungary is a sovereign country and there had to be really drastic measures taken against us to bring visible results. It won’t happen, obviously. But to backtrack on something that has already been said (the op/ed) is lame. I very much hope it’s E. T-K.’s lameness and not the US government’s.
For a very long time, it put my faith in the EU. I was hoping that they would put enough pressure on the government to make them change their ways. After all, they have done it once, when Barroso forced Orbán to adhere to the figures set by the EU. But as time went by, I came to realise that the EU is perfectly helpless. There’s nothing we could expect from them, because the EU is all bueraucracy. The are all words. For some, words are binding. And there are those for whom only active restraint is straightforward enough. The EU won’t help us, they won’t ‘march’ to the rescue of democracy in our little country. But I don’t think one can simply say, they Hungarian people should take care of the matter if it is so much against their liking. Why? I don’t consider the Hungarian people mature in a democratic sense. To take matters into your hands you need be armed with certain strategies. You have to have at least an overall understanding of what is going on. Hungarian people don’t have the necessary strategies to take action. That’s why it’s open season for Fidesz. And that’s why inaction on the part of the EU is morally questionable. (I can only agree with Marton who has posted his brilliand and spot on comment while I was writing mine – that’s exactly what I am talking about, there’s nothing to add to that).
There may not have been a Marshall Plan for the new EU members in Eastern/Central Europe, but if I’m not mistaken, the EU and the “old” member countries have given (and are still giving) a lot of financial help.
Also many companies (not just Audi and Mercedes!) have invested a lot of money – of course I don’t know how much that was.
And so in some respects Hungary, Slovenia etc have reached the same level as the old EU members – still “it is not enough” …
To me this seems also a problem of unfulfilled expectations, or what do you think ?
it’s definitely unfulfilled expectations. But also the case of ‘money is not everything’. What Hungary is lacking can’t be compensated for by money. It’s like dumping millions in a black hole. If they don’t know how to deal with that money, it’s not use.
The way ETK talks about Hungarians reminds me on Mick Jagger, when he was interviewed at concert venues saying “this my my favorite city of the planet”. I bet he didn’t even know what city they are giving a concert. The required qualifications to snag an ambassador job in the land of the goulash probably doesn’t take more the knowing the difference between Bucharest and Budapest.
Hungarian gentlemen? It’s the same as many other things when it comes to describe us: extremities. We are either painstakingly polite or real assholes (I statistically tend to be latter).
Waiting for help from the EU or the US is like a domestic abuse case. You hear your neighbors yelling or you see the wife (or the husband) with a black eye but you still don’t do anything. Unless one of them or the kids are in imminent danger you just watch and even when things get bad you call the police first. If you intervene too early that may result in a breakup. Think about the kids. In this analogy we didn’t even get the black eye yet.
This whining about others not helping us stems from our problem of not knowing our value. The completely wrong self image. We’re like a teenage a girl who thinks she is the center of at least this universe. No baby. It’s not your boyfriend – it’s you.
Don’t worry: America always will show up on Omaha beach but it takes more to get there. You have to do your part first.
Adam LeBor: ” The US ambassador is not an autonomous agent or politician, making policy on the hoof to suit his/her agenda (although his/her input is one of many factors that shape that policy).” You are very right, so why did she lack to behave as an ambassador, representing what the US clearly believes? WHy is she trying to soften the well written message she gave to Magyar Nemzet? Why is she on the sideline, and talks about gentleman behaviour when the Fidesz papers are filled with filth about the USA, when dirt falling out of the mouth of Hungarian politicians when they refer to US dignitaries? How come she has no opinion about Fidesz great friendship with Bayer, the openly anti-semite best friend of Orban? Why do you think the criticism towards her is unjust? I think she doing a poor job, is simple is that.
“If Hungarians are unhappy with the state of democracy then they should do something about it themselves. It’s their country, after all.” Well, I do not think that most of the people who voted for Fidesz are very concerned, the others are loosing their jobs, and being intimidated. WHat do you expect them to do? I cannot see my mother in her seventies with her health condition marching down the street. Most unrest of the world breaks out when all countries sit back, and wait what will happen versus taking a pro-active, diplomatic course. So, I am wrong when I hope that International pressure should be applies? For the sound of it you, and others are hoping for a bloody Sunday.
A very interesting thread. To be honest, I don’t see any change in the course Hungary is taking for some time. Hungarians have always moaned about their circumstances, but when it actually comes to doing something, the majority just sit on their hands.
The political opposition is a pathetic shambles, more interested in protecting their own narrow interests, rather than working together for the common good.
In terms of the way the population thinks, it reminds me of the situation that existed in the UK during the 70’s, where casual racist and homophobic comments were the norm across all parts of society. Of course we still have our fair share of bigots, but luckily, society has moved on a lot in dealing with discrimination. But even if you cut Hungary some slack because of the stagnation during the communist period, I’m struggling to see when Hungary will become a more tolerant society – there is far to much hate going on these days, with nobody effectively standing up to say there is a better way.
chayenne: “And that’s why inaction on the part of the EU is morally questionable.”
If I might remind you, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hungary was considered (and presented itself) as the model transition country. The “West” was “sure” that clearly it was the Poles and the Hungarians who strove for freedom and democracy, so there can be no doubt that they know what they demand so fiercely. This amazing organisation that Paul directed me to yesterday (with Mr Martonyi as prime expert) is apparently selling to the world knowledge on how “successful transitions to democracies” are accomplished. During the accession period, again, noone (at least I do not remember any such voice) doubted Hungary’s preparedness, the problematic countries were Slovakia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria (and the order in which the new member states were assigned to take over EU presidency is the order in which they were considered prepared and “stable democracies”: Slovenia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland). That matters changed so starkly during a few months (I know the process started more or less around 2006) came a bit as a surprise. To question that Hungary is a democracy would have been an insult in 2009. So what exactly should then the EU do? Claim that the elections in 2010 are not valid? Replace a rightfully elected government by some “EU bureaucrats”? Send some basic publications about what democracy is, how it works and how much people themselves are required to contribute? Should the EU send people to demonstrate in the streets? I wrote it here already but could repeat it, I am afraid that this restraint of Hungarians stems from the fact that to criticise fellow citizens in front of non-Hungarians must be considered a deadly sin. (Among yourselves, there is no such restraint and you go into the ugliest disputes but if some non-Hungarian might start to get interested, you switch to the orszagkepepites programme.) This has to be discarded first. If it is not, any interference from foreigners/outsiders will not be taken seriously (as can be seen currently by the reactions of Fidesz politicians to the criticism from outside: “Hungary is a sovereign state”.) The EU institutions will definitely support those people who do adhere to the goals written down in the accession treaty but these people must exist and they must also be willing to go against other Hungarians in cooperation with the entirely “idegenszivu”.
Kristen, it’s funny this thing that you are mentioning about how it’s considered a deadly sin to criticise fellow-Hungarians in front of foreigners. I may be moving in very different circles, but I have never encountered this attitude. I see it coming from the government day by day when they desperately try to downplay the importance of criticism coming from abroad or act outright scandalised. But people among themselves? I don’t know. If there’s one thing that characterizes Hungarian people (and it’s our own very special national curse) is the lack of solidarity. Everybody has their own fish to fry and that’s that. If there’s an overall attitude I detect is how people are painstakingly trying to avoid bringing any politics into their conversations. They are clearly afraid to voice their views.
As for the EU. I only have the layman’s perspective as you may have already found out. And from this perspective the EU looks like an institution that has very little influence on what is going on in its member countries. Orbán has been warned in no uncertain terms several times that what he is doing is going against the basic pinciples of the EU. And then what? If you are a member of a club and you don’t stick to its rules there should be consequences. I’d like to quote from one of the previous comments, because I can only agree with it wholeheartedly:
“If the EU doesn’t care about the state of democracy in Hungary, that it is a hypocrite, if it cares but unable to keep a member state to adhere to common democratic values… then something is terribly wrong the way things are set up in the EU. Not to mention the danger, how other budding autocrats in other member states may see the treatment of Hungary as a free pass to restrict freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.” (An)
chayenne/An: “then something is terribly wrong the way things are set up in the EU.”
This cannot be emphasised enough but it would be good to accept that this is how it is and learn why this is so. (It is really not easy.) First, yes, the EU has so many flaws that it makes no sense to write a list. The most pressing issue is that it does not have competences that it should have in order to avoid situations such as in Greece or Hungary currently. But, second, it is fashionable to be disinterested in how the EU works and why this is so and it is widely held that “sovereignity” should not be sacrificed for this “impersonal and artificial Brussels”. What is really true is that there have been people who have tried to devise institutions in the EU that would have made such “interference” possible and manageable, while most politicians do their utmost to nourish in the European electorate in any of the 27 member state the impression that any competence transferred to Brussels means rising dictatorship (the Franco-German dictatorship for all countries except these two, German dictatorship for France and French dictatorship for Germans). That is why the EU cannot be regarded as a common state as the US is, it has fewer possibilities to intervene in the member states, and this is the case because the European governments (and directly or indirectly the voters such as with the Constitution and later Lisbon Treaty) could not and cannot agree on the matter just what the EU should be (political union or free-trade area). As a result, there are some possibilities, and these are related to the treaties that Hungary signed (e.g. the Charter of Fundamental Rights but also others) but someone (most probably, if I understood Odin correctly, it will be European Parliamentarians) must appeal to the Court of Justice that Hungary is violating the treaty and applicable law (and show how exactly). That such process has not been started yet by Hungarians, puzzles me and I am thinking about what has prevented that. (Certainly not that there would be no violations.) So it is not about the EU being hypocritical but about the practical way how it functions. And then there is also the problem that if you say that the EU is really full of flaws, people such as the Great Vaclav Klaus would immediately conclude only one thing: the whole idea is rubbish. Therefore people who are in favour of integration but who are aware of the many problems related to the functioning of the EU, have difficulties getting heard because it is so much more fashionable to doubt the feasibility of the whole project altogether. (That is perhaps a bit pointed but perhaps the main message is still there.)
chayenne: “But people among themselves? I don’t know. If there’s one thing that characterizes Hungarian people (and it’s our own very special national curse) is the lack of solidarity. Everybody has their own fish to fry and that’s that.”
But you are Hungarian so you never encountered your country in the way how it presents itself to the outside world. When I learned a bit of Hungarian, I was really surprised in what contrast the debates and the style are when this is meant for the domestic or the foreign audiences. Knowing nothing I thought Hungarians are all “polished” and painstakingly polite. Switch the language and you start to believe that this cannot be the same people. Exactly what you write: it can be uncompromising, brutal, whatever. And if you cannot count on any support with your fellow-citizens, you will (understandably) try not to speak about politics, which is typically a controversial topic. But that underdeveloped solidarity is coupled with a strength of “national feelings”, which then (if a foreigner says something critical) is so forceful that the insult (against the national feeling) wipes out all critical thoughts that Hungarians themselves may have had and which they without any restraint say among themselves. All of the sudden, national pride starts to dominate. (Or so it appears.) “If we now admit that this could be true and we should change the way we do things, we might lose our “Hungarianness” and might become Germans or Slavs or Romanians instead.” And if you happen not to have these fears, your fellow-citizens may start to bully you suggesting that you apparently already do not belong to this nation (this amazing word idegenszivu, which you may find irrelevant, appears highly relevant to me; this idea makes it very difficult to cooperate with people from outside against your fellow-citizens because if you do you are not a “right” Hungarian anymore). But to qualify it, it is primarily a problem now that OV, Fidesz and Jobbik took over the agenda and dictate this imperative of “national unity”. Certainly it does not make “foreign interference” easy.
Your contributions are always worth reading, Kirsten, but you seem to be on a real roll recently, with a series of well argued and perceptive pieces. I think you’ve even frightened the trolls away!
I inadvertently caused a brief moment of Hungarian solidarity today. Sitting outside our favourite pogácsa bolt in central Debrecen this morning, I was demonstrating to my daughter how you could blow up a paper bag and pop it.
I only hit it very lightly, as I was only trying to demonstrate the principle, not frighten the horses, but the result was an incredibly loud, sharp bang – just like a gun shot.
People all around us jumped and started and looked around to see where the ‘shot’ had come from. It wasn’t too difficult to spot the red-faced man with the paper bag still in his hand and both his daughter and wife asking him what on earth he was doing. For a brief few minutes, Hungarians for many meters around were united in their (now proven) conviction that all foreigners were, indeed, mad.
My wife was so embarrassed that she apologised to all those in the immediate vicinity – even to the Gypsy couple sitting next to us!
Paul, I think that they are on holidays, certainly Johnny has not been dismissed from his post. Without Johnny the discussion seems closer to the points that appear more relevant to me than our dear lies.
@Kirsten: “That such process has not been started yet by Hungarians, puzzles me and I am thinking about what has prevented that.”
I am absolutely sure that it is being done. The whole “Hungarians just complain and do not do anything” is an unjust oversimplification. Probably true for the majority, but not for everybody. A lot of civil right organizations (TASZ, Hungarian Helsinki Committee), civil movements (Milla), political parties (MSZP, LMP) voice their concerns and take necessary legal steps against measures infringing on human / civil rights. My understanding is (I’m no way an expert on this though) that first they are trying go though the Hungarian channels (ombudsman, constitutional court, etc) and if these don’t rectify the situation (they won’t) then they can turn to Strasbourg. So it’s a lengthy process, during which OV runs amok.
And as an answer to a post some days ago: Chayenne, I very much agree with Odin, one can learn a lot about how stable (which is important here) democracies are implemented if the years after 1945 in Germany or France are studied, it was rocky. For me it was confusing that everybody appears to be in favour of democracy but it is not always seen as a method of government but instead as a system where politicians should provide us with “democracy” (all the goodies). To speak of German democratic traditions is to some extent correct, but Germany is also a very good example of strong non-democratic political ideas (the enlightened dictator and worse).
“So it’s a lengthy process, during which OV runs amok.”
And during which he changes all the rules, so no opposition is possible. By taking this approach, the opposition groups are effectively nullifying their chances of getting anything done. OV isn’t hanging about and ‘playing by the rules’.
It will end up with tanks and blood on the streets, anyway (there’s no other way anyone will dislodge OV once he’s been allowed to really dig in), so they might as well cut to the chase and get out on the streets now. And stay there, until the job is done – a ‘Hungarian Spring’.
Of course, it won’t happen because I’m afraid the ‘do nothing, blame everyone else’ stereotype is a stereotype for a very good reason.
@Paul: I hope you realize that stereotyping Hungarians is not helping, and not any more fair than stereotyping anybody else.
This is not to say that there is no truth in the stereotype, but bashing Hungarians en masse for their passivity is not very encouraging for those few who are actually actively trying to do something, even though they are the minority.
An – I’m not ‘bashing’ anyone, I’m just trying to get across to those who may be less familiar with Hungarians and what it’s like to live here, that this is not just a stereotype, it’s a serious reality – and a serious problem.
I like living in Hungary, there are many positive aspects to life over here, but one thing I really look forward to on returning to the UK, is the difference in attitudes. If something needs to be done, it can usually be done fairly easily, people cooperate, people help out, and, if all this fails, people get on and do it themselves. It’s a real breath of fresh air.
An example of the reality of Hungarian life and attitudes: the block we live in here is 6 years old and beginning to need maintenance, but no one appears to care. Individually they complain (about everyone else!), but not one of them will actually do anything. They all own flats in the block, so the value of their investment goes down as the block deteriorates, but even this doesn’t motivate them. I am the only one who ever does anything outside of my own flat.
An example of how silly this gets – we have a large and very heavy sliding gate that gives access to the car park. It was supposed to be electrified, but (surprise, surprise) no one ever got round to getting it done. This year it has become increasingly difficult to slide open, until eventually it took real effort.
We are the only ones who don’t use this gate, as we don’t have a car, but I had a look at it anyway. As far as I could see, it was fine, but just needed oiling. So I oiled it – and now it glides open and shut easily.
Not only did none of the other flat owners (who live here full time and for whom this gate had become a real problem) do anything about this, but not a single one has commented on how easily the gate now works.
I’m sorry, An, especially as I respect your opinions and find your posts informative and interesting. But my experience after 10 years of being part of a Hungarian family and living on and off in Hungary, is that Hungarians live in a little bubble of their own concerns and interests, and the farthest this extends is to their immediate family, and sometimes not even that far.
This is obviously not true of all Hungarians, and may apply more to the non-urban or non-Western ones, but, depressingly, it IS true of just about every Hungarian I know.
Paul: “Not only did none of the other flat owners (who live here full time and for whom this gate had become a real problem) do anything about this, but not a single one has commented on how easily the gate now works.” I agree with Paul. Not all, but many Hungarians posses a big dose of entitlement based on who knows what. Fidesz simply a reflection on this group of Hungarian society (and I bet Jobbik is too). Nationalism is entitlement! I deserve, I am better, I have the right, I am smarter. Look at all the actions, policies, and answers for concerns by Fidesz.
Paul, I am myself very much frustrated with the general attitude that you describe and which is unfortunately so prevalent in Hungary. I agree that it is a general malaise of the Hungarian society and I see a lot of examples of it myself. So in that respect, in a statistical sense, the “Hungarians do nothing to make things better just complain” stereotype holds truth. I would just like to point out that stereotypes, even if they are statistically true for the majority, are offensive, because they include everyone, in this case everyone of Hungarian ethnicity… and this is obviously not true. I see a couple of good examples that can be called a civil initiative, and it is just very unfair that these go unacknowledged.
Paul you wrote ** “Of course, it won’t happen because I’m afraid the ‘do nothing, blame everyone else’ stereotype is a stereotype for a very good reason.” **. It is never a Hungarian’s fault.
I will agree with you. I promised my late wife that I would help my step grandson as best I could. I pay for his education and do so by a bank transfer. All of the details are correct but the school cannot find the money, so I am told I will have to pay them again!
To the school, it is my fault they cannot find the money because my name is not the same as that of my step grandson. As they cannot even pronounce my name –let alone spell it correctly- by now they should have put two and two together!
They let me look at some of their bank statements and there were two of my payments on it. They want me to find the rest…Lazy toads!
You example of the gate recalls experiences I had myself during my five years in Hungary. With privatization, there are many homeowners in Hungary, but relatively few who are actually able to afford maintenance, this, combined with a strong sense of protecting one’s own self-interest (which made Hungary perhaps the least likely of the socialist countries anyways) means that in the case of jointly-owned properties, homeowners are content to play a lengthy game of chicken, waiting for some fool to get frustrated and pay for the repair themselves (when we moved into a flat, the whole doorbell system was in disarray, cables eaten by some rodent, and after missing important deliveries too many times, we ended up paying for the whole house’s repair job as the other parties in the house had not agreed to the repair — easier to let the foreigner foot the bill.) In worst cases, for example older apartment buildings in Pest, whole houses are going to ruin because no majority can be found to authorize and pay for the repair.
Odin’s lost eye, I also had many problems with the payment transfer system, in schools, hospitals, and with utilities. I soon discovered that the key to resolving all of these problems was figuring out some way for the other party to avoid admitting a mistake. No one on the planet likes to admit mistakes, but Hungarian bureaucrats seem especially loathe to do so.
An – I apologise, I did not mean to brand all Hungarians (although, in truth, I struggle to think of more than one or two of the many I know who don’t fit this sterotype). Obviously there are some, possibly many, in the more urban/western parts, who don’t match the sterotype.
I also suffer a great deal from this danger of sterotyping myself, married to a much younger ‘Eastern European’ woman, as I am, and as a ‘rich foreigner’ living in Hungary (if only they knew!). I am also a left-wing, middle class, vegetarian, Guardian reader – so tell me about sterotypes!
But, I’m afraid this particular sterotype is not only true, but also very common – as the several supporting posts above testify (I’ve never had so many replies to a post!).
It’s also exactly how we got into this mess in the first place. Either OV has some very clever advisors or he has an instinctive understanding of this aspect of the Hungarian psyche. His basic election stategy bolied down to ‘blame someone else’ (MSzP, Gy, foreign companies, Jews, etc) and ‘let someone else take responsibility’ (him).
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