It was a week ago that Gergely Gulyás, the young rising star of Fidesz, attacked the American ambassador designate, Colleen Bell, accusing her of bias against the current Hungarian government. At that time I pointed out that without Viktor Orbán’s approval or perhaps even instructions the open letter Gulyás published could never have appeared. Now, in light of the recent visit of Senator John McCain to the Hungarian capital, a fuller picture emerges about the circumstances of that letter.
The public learned only on January 30 that Senator McCain will be spending a day in Budapest. He came not alone but as part of a nine-member bipartisan delegation consisting of three senators and six congressmen.
Surely, the Hungarian government must have known for some time about the impending visit of the American delegation. I venture to say that they knew about it before January 22 when Gulyás published his outrageous letter accusing Colleen Bell of partiality toward the opposition. Those Fidesz politicians who watched the video of the Senate hearing realized that the Republican McCain had a rather low opinion of the ambassadors Barack Obama proposed and may therefore have thought that an attack on Bell would yield brownie points with McCain. If that was the case, it was based on a total misunderstanding of American politics. Sure, at home McCain will show his dissatisfaction with Obama’s choices, but in Budapest he will not cozy up to Viktor Orbán just because he thinks that Bell knows nothing about Hungary or diplomacy. He will follow American foreign policy toward Hungary, which is currently very critical.
A day before the visit of the American delegation János Lázár continued the attacks on the United States in connection with the electronic listening devices that were most likely used on Hungarian citizens as well. Here they found themselves in a strong position. All of Europe is up in arms over the facts disclosed by Edward Snowden, and the decision was most likely made at the highest level that this topic could be used effectively against McCain during the talks. Another miscalculation. McCain didn’t apologize but instead emphasized that surveillance is necessary in the face of terrorism. They will be more selective in the application of these devices in the future. Period.
Meanwhile the parliamentary committee investigating American surveillance held its first meeting on January 30. In addition to the official members, János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and János Martonyi, foreign minister, were also present. By the way, the so-called “moderate” János Martonyi, the favorite of former American ambassadors, also condemned Colleen Bell’s testimony as if he were not aware that Bell didn’t express her own opinions but simply presented the official position of the United States government. Pintér promptly made the proceedings secret while Martonyi announced that the topic of surveillance will “remain on the agenda,” adding that “it will take a long time to repair the trust that is so important between allies and friends.” János Lázár announced that the surveillance affair “may influence in a significant way the relations between the USA and Hungary.” All in all, the Orbán government was ready to receive John McCain in full armor. Lázár also said at the press conference after the meeting that the new ambassador “will have to appear before the parliamentary committee,” something that will surely not happen. Máté Kocsis, the youthful chairman of the committee, went even further. He wants to see Edward Snowden himself in Budapest to answer the committee’s questions.
It was only on Thursday that McCain’s impending visit leaked out. The Hungarian media was convinced that the chief topic of the conversations would be Ukraine. The newspapers recalled that McCain had visited that country in December, but they really couldn’t give any reasonable explanation why Hungary would be that important in connection with the crisis in Ukraine other than having about 200,000 co-nationals living in its subcarpathian region who at the moment don’t seem to be threatened. What we learned afterwards was that Viktor Orbán “informed the American delegation of the V4 [Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary] discussion on the situation in Kiev.” So, Ukraine was not at the center of the discussions.
So, let’s see what McCain himself had to say about his time in Budapest. Besides the usual round of praise for the faithful ally, he stated that “we understand the concerns about the state of democracy in Hungary that have been raised by people both inside and outside of this country. Some of these concerns are very serious…. The United States and the rest of the free world have an abiding interest in Hungary’s continued development as a strong, inclusive, and tolerant democracy, with a free market economy, an independent judiciary, and a free media.” During the conversations “we also expressed our hope that Hungary will address its energy security needs in ways that further diversify Europe’s supply of energy.” To translate all that into plain English, McCain criticized the state of democracy in Orbán’s Hungary and also must have shared his concerns over Hungary’s sole reliance on Russian energy sources, especially now that Orbán seems to have committed Hungary to Russia in building two new reactors on borrowed money.
From other Hungarian sources it became clear that the forthcoming election was also discussed. McCain must have expressed his worries about the fairness of the election because apparently Orbán readily agreed to have international observers. McCain was also worried about the lack of transparency in the negotiations with the Russians concerning Paks. And at this point I’m not at all sure that McCain knew that all the financial details of the Paks negotiations have already been made secret for years to come.
McCain and the others present were familiar with the memorial to be erected on Szabadság tér. They even talked about anti-Semitism in Hungary. The Democratic congressman from Florida, Ted Deutch, told Orbán that he must be sure that the monument will not be used “to whitewash history.” Apparently, Viktor Orbán gave his word, but unfortunately we know how much his word is worth.
The American delegation met Attila Mesterházy, Gordon Bajnai, Benedek Jávor, and Gábor Fodor. I assume that Ferenc Gyurcsány was not present because in 2007-2008 he was accused by the Americans, with help from Viktor Orbán who was then in his anti-Russian mode, of being a great friend of Vladimir Putin.
Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap, the government’s mouthpieces, have for some time been publishing articles with a sharp anti-American edge, but since the Orbán government decided to take on the American government through an attack on Colleen Bell the articles and opinion pieces written in these two organs have become outright vicious.
Magyar Nemzet after the official meeting made a flippant remark about “the former presidential candidate who suddenly had an attack of worry for Hungarian democracy.” István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels, wrote an opinion piece in today’s Magyar Nemzet entitled “At last,” in which he expressed his delight that at last Hungary is hitting back: “Goodbye servitude, goodbye hopelessness.” Magyar Hírlap just today published four articles on American-Hungarian relations where they talk about John McCain as “a somebody called McCain, … a loud American” who lectures Hungarians about democracy and who “worries himself sick” over undemocratic Hungary. Hungarians are bored with all that talk about checks and balances they keep repeating. A few weeks ago an article in Magyar Hírlap described the oft repeated phrase “checks and balances” as American whining (nyivákolás).
I’m pretty sure that this fierce anti-American rhetoric is popular in certain circles in Hungary, but I have to believe that it will have very adverse effects on both the diplomatic and the economic relations between Hungary and the United States.