Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, in action

I must admit that until I read U.S. Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’s op/ed piece in Magyar Nemzet I had spent relatively little time on her year and a half in Hungary. However, in the last two or three days I combed through some of the available sources about her activities in Budapest (and many thanks to those internet friends who provided some links) and found some material that sheds light on her presumably self-defined role.

First, a communiqué issued by Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis that I found to be an odd reaction from an ambassador. The background is as follows. A cable from Karl Eikenberry, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, was made public by Wikileaks. In it he was complaining about the Hungarian troops. “The Hungarian PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] does little to address any of the problems [in the province of Baghlan]. They are not permitted to fire their weapons except in self-defence, do little more than patrol the main roads and undertake no counter-narcotics activities. When two Hungarian de-miners were killed doing their work, Budapest stopped sending mine cleaners. When the security situation in northeastern Bamyan Province was threatened by Baghlan-based malefactors, it was the New Zealanders who had to cross into Baghlan to address the problem.” All these details were published in the New Zealand Herald on December 7, 2010.

What should an American ambassador do in this case? Perhaps, given the sensitive issue of the leaked U.S. documents, she could have made a statement to the effect that the United States appreciates the efforts Hungary is making in Afghanistan. Period. But she almost always overstates her case, which I find unbecoming. She doesn’t use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Here is a part of her statement on this incident: “Through its leadership of this PRT, at this location, Hungary is admirably contributing to the success of the ISAF mission. Its civic action and infrastracture projects continue to make a difference on the ground. The soldiers who make up the Hungarian PRT and those serving elsewhere in Afghanistan are well-trained and brave. We salute their efforts.”

Or here is another example from the question and answer period after her lecture delivered at the Central European University in Budapest. There was a question about the constitution that was not yet available in its final form. She could have said that she hopes that the new constitution will be democratic, but such simple answers are usually not enough for her. She felt compelled to add that “the new constitution is being written by people who are well qualified. The new constitution will be a good one. The rule of law, the freedom of the press and expression will be ensured.” In brief, she went out of her way to endorse the Hungarian government instead of either being impartial or, better, representing American interests.

A couple of months later she made the same mistake in Gyöngyöspata when she said that “while in the village she became convinced that the Hungarian policemen tried to defend everybody.” She made it clear that “she deeply appreciates the work of the policemen who meet a lot of challenges. Citizens whom they defend should be grateful to them.” Considering that the Hungarian police did nothing in Gyöngyöspata for two solid weeks except fraternize with members of the paramilitary, it is rather odd to hear the American ambassador singing their praises. The media worldwide was full of the fear that had spread among the Roma in the village.

Altogether one has the impression that Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis wants to be popular in Hungary. She has an especially close relationship to Csaba Hende, minister of defense. Pictured below.


They made trips together to Sarajevo, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Apparently she made quite a splash when she made a visit with Colonel Robert W. Duggleby, U.S. military attaché, to the shooting range in Dóc. She showed a great interest in the various weapons. After the exhibition she tried out all the handguns herself and “dazzled the soldiers” with her accuracy. After she tried all the guns, she announced that she liked the Hungarian-made Szép M1 the best.


And finally here is another picture from April this year when the ambassador spent a short vacation in Hajdúszoboszló at a “tanya,”  loosely translated as a ranch. Here she decided to don a traditional Hungarian peasant costume.


Well, one could say, “What’s wrong with that?” She is a friendly sort and keeps very good relations with the members of the Hungarian government. Yes, but….. If there are some uncomfortable messages that she has to deliver she will be in a very difficult situation. Caught between a rock and a hard place. How will she be able to tell her close friends that, for example, although the United States appreciates the efforts of the Hungarian soldiers in Afghanistan, she is not too thrilled with the law on religions or the media law or, for that matter, the constitution?

Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis reminds me of another U.S. ambassador to Hungary: John Flournoy Montgomery, who held the post between 1933 and 1941. He was also a political appointee who would have preferred to be sent to Vienna but had to settle for Budapest. Once he was there, however, he loved the place, especially since he made many, many friends among members of the government and the political elite. In fact, he was so enamored of Budapest that when FDR wanted to relieve him of his duties he begged the president to be able to remain. As he said, there was also an excellent golf course there.

Who would have thought in 1933 that the ambassadorial position in Budapest would be of great importance in the next eight or nine years? Although Montgomery wrote a book about his experiences in Budapest (Hungary, the Unwilling Satellite) his closeness to Miklós Horthy and the leading Hungarian politicians made him an unreliable source for those years. Montgomery’s personal papers are at Yale University, but I can assure everyone that there is nothing of interest in them. Regardless of what Wikipedia says about the importance of Montgomery’s presence in Budapest.


  1. Ultimately, as Hungary continues on its journey to goodness knows where, these pictures and words may well come back to haunt her. But, if she isn’t putting across the US position properly, its up to them to put someone in place who’ll do the job more effectively.

  2. Why are we so much interested in ETK? Her name sounds like an item from the menu of a Greek restaurant. After she left we should name a salad after her.
    I think she is just trying to stay neutral by pleasing everybody, like the rabbi in the classic Jewish joke:
    Two litigants come before the rabbi. He listens to each of them.
    After listening, he says to the first one, “You are right!”
    After listening to the second litigant, the rabbi says, “You are right, too!”
    The rabbi’s wife, who had been listening, comes up to him and says, “It cannot be that two of them are right.”
    The rabbi replies, “You are also right.”
    What she’s doing IS the US position. The only possible position.

  3. … and now more off-topic
    I bet recently in 5 bucks, that József Balázs, the FIDESZ kingpin, who threatened the new mayor of Gyongyospata to stop regional government funds going to the village because he didn’t like an article written by the mayor about him will survive with no consequences. Guess what? I WON!! The court dropped the corruption charges! He’ll keep his MP status. No further investigations.
    Planet Hungary Circus is in session.

  4. Mutton: “Guess what? I WON!! The court dropped the corruption charges! He’ll keep his MP status. No further investigations.”
    I want to write about this too. But “uborka szezon” or not there are too many topics. My head is spinning.

  5. Mutt Damon: ” I WON!! The court dropped the corruption charges! He’ll keep his MP status.” wooo that is something. I cannot wait to read the background on this. He was hiding from the press and all. It is not that I support the Jobbik, but in this case they should of won.
    Back to the Ambassador. Well, it is very sad that Ms. Kounalakis uses the high honour to serve her country as an Ambassador, as an opportunity to take a vacation from her duties. Her feelings opposite to her government’s positions are very self-evident, not exactly the qualities that makes a diplomat valuable for her/his own country.

  6. I start to believe that there is some charm in OV that bewitched half of the electorate earlier and now Mrs Kounalakis. She really seems amused (and I agree that the statements appear too generous).

  7. Like all good Confidence Tricksters and the best Salesmen that ‘oily little beggar’ Orban Viktor has the ability to sell himself. Some call it charisma, or call it what you will it is the ability to sell yourself.
    An ambassador has four main functions. These functions are: –
    Firstly to establish good personal relations with all those who are important in the land (and some which are not). The ambassador must listen to them and learn their private thoughts, their worries and the stresses within the state. They may well pick up gossip and scandles which can be useful.
    The second function is to publically represent the interest of the state they represent.
    Thirdly the ambassador has to make confidential assessment of the situation within the government, the stresses within it and who hates whom. They also have get a feeling for the stresses within the population.
    Finally they have to be a ‘talent scout’ by identifying ‘tomorrow’s men’.
    It is interesting that in 1956 the American embassy in Hungary (and of course the US government) was taken by total surprise by the events of the Hungarian uprising. They had no idea of the feelings within the population.
    An ambassador has to be able to function, analyse and report without letting their personal feelings enter into their judgement.

  8. ‘My head is spinning’. It must be due to the incredible events in the US. Texan Governor asking Jesus Christ for help. And it is an official request, coming from his office! And how about Standard & Poor’s verdict. When Moody’s downgraded Hungary, this Spectrum had a field-day. No wonder Eva’s head is spinning. It ought to.

  9. Kirsten: “She really seems amused (and I agree that the statements appear too generous).”
    There is a good Hungarian slang word for what she is doing: “túlliheg.” Literally “overdoing the panting.” Goes overboard but the word “panting” gives it a special quality.

  10. I do not want to hit the the “gossip column” quality with my question, but one must wonder about what personal motives (because they are obviously not government motives, as we know those well) are behind of the naive, blushing bride behaviour of the Ambassador. I think she will wake up, as Mr. Melia, Băsescu, Griebsoki, Andras Schiffer, and so many others did. I am sure she already in line with a number, she just does not know it.

  11. Dear “Odin’s”:
    Ok. She is not the best ambassador. I personally think she sucks. Should I apologise for Vietnam as well? After all she delivered Papa’s letter and all is well now. She looks swell in “native” garb. Let’s not rag on her any more.
    Dear “Mutt”:
    You shined. I really liked: “Yeah, the charm of a serial rapist.” Also I almost forgot that old jewish joke my father told me way too many times. As far as “sounds like an item from the menu of a Greek restaurant” goes beware: my girlfriend is from the Vassilopopulos Clan. Her father served with honors at the Pacific in our Navy. Luckily for you: we / perhaps honorary/ Greeks /like Klingons of all sorts/ have a sense of humor and would never kill at a dinner table. Especially when someone mentioned our favorite salad.
    Dear “Joe”:
    “No wonder Eva’s head is spinning. It ought to.”
    Why don’t you just move to Colorado Springs? You finally would be amongst your ilk. At least for a little while till we sully your universe even there.
    Peter Litvanyi

  12. Dear Peter Yes, but she is a presidential appointment. Such appointments are made as a thank you for political services. In the main the ambassador is just the ‘front man’ (or woman). I will agree with you that ‘Her Excellency’ The US Ambassador in Budapest has been ‘conned’. But it is still ‘party time’ and as the song says “A kiss on the hand can be quite Continental”. But let us remember Hungary is a level 3 state for the U.S.
    It is now becoming a level 2 state for the E.U. But as I have said the actions that will be taken are legal ones.
    The Venice Commission has reported to the Council of Europe who are examining the report and taking ‘legal advice’.
    The disbarred churches should go directly through the Hungarian courts and on to the ECHR.
    The people who have had their pensions ‘nationalised’ are doing the same.
    Since none of the other very doggy, except the media law which is also affected by the report of the Venice Commission has yet to be implemented. Until they are no offence has been committed.

  13. Mutt Damon: please cite the law violated by Balázs.
    Eva: I cannot disregard the sore loser mentality that you display here. You simply cannot stand that the ambassador is not hostile with the Hungarian government. In your vocabulary, ‘impartial’ means only condemning and negative adjectives.

  14. Oh, Johnny, you are such an easy target. It’s almost embarrassing …
    He admitted that he decides over regional funding according to his personal preferences not the actual needs of the regions. This equals misusing public funds, actually I would say this is clean cut *corruption*. The fellow is an archetype of a kingpin. He’s a scumbag saying it more eloquently. The fact that there’s no law we can cite pretty much describes how f*d up the justice system is in Planet Hungary.
    Stop being so obsessed with the *written* law. We will criticize everything that is not a norm in a civilized country. My provocative example was before the lawfully killed people at Berlin wall.

  15. JOhnny Boy: To Eva: “You simply cannot stand that the ambassador is not hostile with the Hungarian government.”
    Well, the Ambassador job is not to party, fall for suck ups, but to represent her/his country. It does not seem for a moment that the US shares the lovey dovey sentiment of the Ambassador. She is the diplomat, not us, and her conduct looks bad, and since we are not diplomats, we can say it.
    “An ambassador is the single person that the country has chosen to represent them. They are chosen very carefully since they have to have a full grasp on what the best interests of the country are, and what their goals should be when engaging in discussion with ambassadors from other countries.” I think the Ambassador is missing something.
    Oh, and Johnny Boy, he needs more education and reading done.

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