What did the U.S. Ambassador tell Viktor Orbán?

Of course, we don’t know. We know from Al Kamen’s article published in The Washington Post on October 13 that U.S. Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis requested a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sometime in the middle of August. However, the busy Hungarian politician had no time for her.

The request was most likely forwarded to the Prime Minister’s Office after there was no reaction to the ambassador’s article in Magyar Nemzet (August 3) entitled “A Values Based Alliance.” In this article Kounalakis reminded the Hungarian government that Hillary Clinton had expressed concern over “the many changes that the government is making with its historic two-thirds majority” that may not “stay true to [the country’s] democratic traditions.” The ambassador reminded the Hungarian government that the Secretary of State “called for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press and government transparency.” She called on the Fidesz government “to be more vigilant and respectful of its democratic institutions.”

These were pretty strong words not too often uttered in the world of diplomacy, especially among allied countries. Everybody’s expectation after this article was that once the American ambassador has a chance to meet with Viktor Orbán she will deliver a strongly worded message from Washington.

Of course, it is possible that a strong message was indeed delivered when at last Eleni Kounalakis had the opportunity to meet with Viktor Orbán on October 18. Her arrival was shown on all the TV newscasts that day.

U.S. Ambassador arrives at the Parliament building


The meeting lasted long enough, an hour and a half, to cover a lot of topics, including the one that causes the most concern inside and outside of Hungary: the decidedly antidemocratic governance in Budapest.

Sure, they could talk about the wonderful service the Hungarian military is providing in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, but one cannot spend an hour and a half on that. So, Kounalakis must have brought up the concerns Hillary Clinton voiced in person in Budapest and what she herself wrote about in Magyar Nemzet. However, one has the distinct feeling that the conversation was one-sided. It was Viktor Orbán who explained to the U.S. ambassador that she doesn’t see things right. And there is the fear that perhaps Kounalakis even believed what she heard.

On what do I base this opinion? On the press release issued by the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. The encounter with Viktor Orbán was described as “a very warm and productive meeting.” Kounalakis “acknowledged and appreciates the challenges faced by the Hungarian government in restructuring the economy.” Admittedly, “they also discussed developments in Hungary, including the concerns mentioned by Secretary Clinton during her visit to Budapest in June.” The press release added that “these issues were raised as a friend with the understanding that Hungary is a democracy with an elected government that has been given a rare two-thirds mandate by the people of Hungary. With this unique opportunity and rapid pace of change, the United States has a strong interest in seeing Hungary succeed and emerge an even stronger ally.”

Unfortunately that sounds as if Kounalakis swallowed everything Viktor Orbán told her hook, line, and sinker. In one of my earlier articles about the current ambassador of the United States in Budapest I indicated that she always seems to go overboard. When Wikileaks released some negative comments about the Hungarian contingent in Afghanistan, she came to Hungary’s rescue with a vehemence that was unnecessary. Here again, why does she have to emphasize that the meeting was “very warm”? I think “warm” would have been more than enough. Why did she have to say after the meeting that it was “an excellent meeting as always”?

Al Kamen returned to the topic on October 18, concluding that “the Tuesday meeting went swimmingly … [and] apparently she was convinced Orban will mend his ways.” Kamen added that it would be a good idea to follow Ronald Reagan’s advice: “Trust but verify.”

The Hungarian reaction was also skeptical. Just as one of Spectrum’s commenters wrote, his wife’s family was delighted after reading about the meeting between Orbán and Kounalakis. His wife got off the phone with her mother and said ‘Good news! The Americans have publicly backed what OV is doing in Hungary!'” Well, well, Ambassador Kounalakis. One must be a little more circumspect and careful, especially in delicate situations when a lot of people are worried about the survival of democracy in Hungary.

A blogger complained about the lack of transparency in this case. I guess what he wanted to hear was: did she or didn’t she say something and, if she didn’t, she is letting the Hungarian people down who are getting increasingly disillusioned about the “rare two-thirds mandate” of this democratically “elected government.” Yes, the Hungarians made a mistake and the majority knows it by now, but they would have been happier if the U.S. ambassador didn’t ooze with delight after her meeting with Viktor Orbán. Népszava‘s cartoon is also telling, though perhaps Orbán didn’t have to sweat so profusely as Gábor Pápai, the cartoonist of the paper, imagined:


There is one ray of hope that the State Department is not entirely satisfied with the answers Kounalakis received on October 18. Gergely Prőhle, Hungarian undersecretary of foreign affairs, is on a visit to Washington at this very moment. He had the opportunity to speak with Philip Reeker, assistant undersecretary in charge of the Balkan region, and Thomas O. Melia, assistant undersecretary involved with human rights. One must keep in mind that Reeker is thoroughly familiar with Hungary because he served as deputy chief of mission in Budapest between 2004 and 2007. In fact, many of the cables one finds among the Wikileaks documents were signed by him. Melia is the man who at a congressional hearing had a few harsh things to say about Hungary’s new law on the churches, which caused a stir in Budapest.

MTI reported today on these meetings. As usual, the description is short but still telling. First, it seems that the “concerns” mentioned by Hillary Clinton and the U.S. ambassador to Hungary were also brought up during Prőhle’s conversations in Washington. Because otherwise why would it be necessary to emphasize that “Hungary is ready to make the process of enacting cardinal laws transparent.” It is also clear from the MTI report that the question of the new electoral law came up because Prőhle mentioned that a “recent conference in Hungary was devoted to this subject which was very much appreciated by the U.S. diplomats stationed in Hungary.” Prőhle also told the U.S. diplomats that “Hungary is ready to consult with international experts.” He specifically mentioned the secretary-general of the Venice Commission that was extremely critical of the new Hungarian constitution. So, there were criticisms that had to be addressed somehow.

After reading this report one wonders how much the State Department actually listens to Ambassador Eleni Tsakoulos Kounalakis. Of course, it is possible that in private cables she gives a more realistic assessment of the Hungarian situation than her public statements would indicate. Let’s hope so.



  1. The reason that “one of Spectrum’s commenters”(!) mentioned his wife’s comments was not so much to support the view that Kounalakis is less than impartial/capable (delete as appropriate), but more to illustrate the one-sidedness and incompleteness of the news people in Hungary receive.
    Despite everything that’s happened in Hungary recently, the only time my wife’s parents have passed on any news was this snippet about “how the US was supporting OV”. I asked her what they thought of half a dozen other recent news items, but they were unaware of every single one.
    These are intelligent, university educated people, who have travelled outside Hungary – yet they are unaware of 90% of what we discuss on here. True, they are Fidesz supporters, so don’t go looking for views from the other side, but they watch the television news and Kossuth Rádió is often on in the house.
    If my in-laws are typical, then maybe it’s not that most Hungarians don’t care about what’s happening, but that they are simply unaware of it. And what news they do pick up is heavily edited and slanted, if not to be pro-Fidesz, at least not to be worryingly anti-Fidesz.
    For OV to be brought down, the anti-Fidesz forces have somehow got to get their version of the news through to people like my in-laws. And how do they do that when Fidesz control 90% of the media?

  2. Ms Kounalakis is anything but a diplomat. SHe has either no spine or she is legally bling and deaf. THere are way more important, way more established, and highly more educated people across the Globe are crying out loud about Orban’s total lack of wanting to enjoy the ranks of civilized politicians. THis has been reflected over and over again in orban’s speech against the West, his unwillingness to co-operate with Brussel, and his high hopes to follow China’s lead (and this is not reserved to pure economy). Least Ms Kounalikis should of noticed the name change of Roosevelt Square, and should of get a hint when the “emperor” had no time for the representative of the United States. When MS Konulakis walked through that door, she should of project some strength versus the “happy bride” look. She lacks the strength, diplomacy and power that the USA represent. She melts like butter and forgets what America stands for and what she is there to represent. She is clearly a bad choice to be put in this position.

  3. Can somebody tell us the significance of the fact that there is no photo about Orban published in relation to the ambassador’s visit? We see a good coverage of her arrival but no evidence of Orban being present around at all.

  4. Joseph Lazar: “Can somebody tell us the significance of the fact that there is no photo about Orban published in relation to the ambassador’s visit?”
    The answer is simple enough. He didn’t come to the door to greet her and there was no press conference afterward.

  5. Eva; “He didn’t come to the door to greet her and there was no press conference afterward.”
    Oh c’mon, probably he was busy with all the busy things he is doing. He said so through his servants that he has more important things to do then be involved in the American soap operas or listen to how Brussel tries to dictate (although that did sot stop he to flee to Brussel right now). Well Ms Kounalakis at the helm of US interests in Hungary, for sure Orban put the USA where he long wanted to, in line. I am sure Orban is the poster child for those who always fought against the USA international influence. NExt time the USA should send Porky Pig. “That’s all folks!”

  6. Don’t shoot the messenger.
    Mrs. Tsakoulos-Kounalakis represents the State department’s views about Hungary which is very likely something like “don’t interfere unless blood is flowing”. Just look at us from the American point of view: in 10-20 years there will be political change, there is always. Let the Hungarians sort it out. It’s not their job to solve the problems of the land of the Goulash. This is not WWII.
    I mean publicly, that’s what they say. By the way they probably have people to write press releases, the ambassador probably has nothing to do with the wording. Very likely behind close doors the meeting wasn’t that warm – the “kokis and the sallers” (*) were flying and the ambassador was wearing one shoe leaving the room (the other was in Orban’s ass as the cartoon shows it).
    I also would not read too much into the fact that they met. I’m sure they are supposed to meet regularly for a QA session.
    As I wrote once, the Yankees will show up at Omaha beach but we are not there. We need to do our part.
    (*) Koki and saller are Orbanisms: saller is slap in the face, koki is similar but on the top of the head. According to Orban he gave out “kokis and sallers” in Brussels to the EU countries.

  7. I agree with Mutt. The ambassador has no decision power.
    Off-topic: About today’s protest http://thecontrarianhungarian.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/live-blog-dont-like-the-system-protest-demonstration-budapest/#more-1399
    About today’s VO meeting in Brussels: http://realdeal.hu/20111023/orban-says-hungary-at-risk-from-greek-bankruptcy-but-warns-against-use-of-public-funds-to-cover-bondholders-losses/#commentbottom
    About the shareholders structure of OTP: https://www.otpbank.hu/portal/en/IR_Ownership_structure more than 75% is foreign owned. How is this a Hungarian Bank.

  8. Ron wrote:
    “About the shareholders structure of OTP: https://www.otpbank.hu/portal/en/IR_Ownership_structure more than 75% is foreign owned. How is this a Hungarian Bank.”
    Exactly. The blatant favoritism shown toward OTP by the OV government is a real scandal. Who are the shareholders of OTP and what, exactly, are their connections to Fidesz, personally or financially? I would wonder about question like: Did OTP carry out the MOL share purchase and collect a commission?

  9. LOL 🙂
    So nice to see you frustrated that no matter how hard you want it, the ambassador is disinclined to become enemies with Orbán.

  10. Mutt: “Let the Hungarians sort it out. It’s not their job to solve the problems of the land of the Goulash. ”
    I still want to believe that the USA stands up for democracy and for minority rights. If this would not be true we would all have to agree wit the conspiracy theorists who firmly believe that the support of the USA all has to do with oil and other economical advances.
    Good point at the same time as it puts the USA in an awkward position to decide to do something before blood flows or trying to guide things, so it can settle peacefully.

  11. Mutt: “Don’t shoot the messenger. Mrs. Tsakoulos-Kounalakis represents the State department’s views about Hungary which is very likely something like “don’t interfere unless blood is flowing”.
    Yes and no! There is always the question of delivery, personality, body language, etc. If she giggles–as for example this woman–the punch of the delivery is gone. No one will take her terribly seriously. A lot dependence on facial expression, emphasis on certain words and also on volume. The listener will take all this into consideration, perhaps unconsciously, when he/she assesses the seriousness of the message.

  12. “I still want to believe that the USA stands up for democracy and for minority rights”
    Chile, Nicaragua, Palestine
    Just for starters

  13. Paul, this is not the scope of this bog, but the efforts in the 60s and even before that to prevent Allende from being elected and turn Chile into a Cuba was standing up for the democracy. Not doing it would mean that the other side of the world would blame the US letting the country slip away. Pinochet definitely got heavy handed getting the country back on the right track but I don’t think we can blame the US for that either. This is the thing: no matter what Uncle Sam does, the half of the world will whine about it.
    Returning to the Land Of The Goulash, as bad as it is now, this mess still not something WE cannot sort out ourselves in 10 years. This bunch is incompetent and lazy to introduce and maintain a real dictatorship. This is our luck. No US intervention needed. We can do it (famous last words).

  14. Mutt Damon I fear you are wrong. Lazy and incompetent at state craft they may be, but they are also vicious. The Victator is also a person who is very vindictive. He has not forgiven the people for voting him out of power at the end of his first term. He will punish them. He will gaol all those who replaced him after his election loss. He will have his arch enemy, who defeated him in open public debate, crushed like a bug. The E.U. and the U.S.A are in his opinion finished. They must be punished because neither of them did his bidding.
    When Fidesz won a landslide victory in the local elections the Victator went to President of the European Commission and told him to change the government in Budapest. José Manuel Barroso sent the Victator home with a flea in his ear. Europe’s punishment for this will be that Hungary uses its veto to stop anything being done about the present crisis with the Euro.
    The Victator went to see George W Bush. He was put on the 3rd or 4th handshake line, only shaking hands with Poppa Bush and not George W himself. His revenge will be to support all each and every little failed state that dislikes the U.S.A.
    The Victator should remember that every Dictator of reacent years except Assad of Syria has come to some sort of sticky end ended up. Lenin seems to have died of Neurosyphilis. Hitler shot himself on a rat hole in Berlin and his scull fell into the hands of Joe Stalin. Joe Stalin died of a stroke on a reeking sofa soaked in his own urine whilst those who might have saved him were being beaten up by Joe’s own thugs in the Lubyanka. Mussolini was shot by his own people. Gadahafi was found in a storm drain and somehow got shot. Others ended up on trial. One was hung.
    I wonder what sort of ending Johnny Boy would like for ‘fearless leader’ and do not say canonization. We already have a town named after such a saint in the UK. Let’s keep it that way.

  15. Paul: Chile and Nicaragua are very much in the past. (I want to believe that.) THere are many things changed in the USA since then. THere is a black man at the helm. THat would of been impossible in the 70s and the 80s. Also, it is not a Republican government right now, so I keep my opinion about this intact. I have a different take on Palestine, and this is certainly not the forum to discuss that. (I do support peace in the region but it that can only be done of everyone provides some sacrifice that goes beyond killing one an other.)

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