The newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. hangs in limbo

Yesterday afternoon Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador to Hungary, arrived in Budapest. Earlier I devoted several posts to her appointment and to difficulties she experienced before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After her nomination I expressed my dismay, not because I had anything against Ms Bell but because I considered the political situation in Hungary so serious that I thought it would behoove U.S. interests to have a career diplomat representing the American government. I am, however, prepared to wait to see what happens. Is the new ambassador a quick study? Will she be able to assess the Hungarian situation in all its complexity in a relatively short time and not succumb to Fidesz wiles? We don’t know. As a former diplomat friend told me, he served under some very bad ambassadors with diplomatic experience and some excellent ones who were political appointees.

By all signs the Hungarian government is greatly relieved that M. André Goodfriend will no longer be running the show. I suspect that they think that with Bell’s arrival American-Hungarian relations will assume an entirely different complexion in Hungary’s favor. From what I gather from comments written about her on Hungarian Spectrum, quite a few readers fear that she will be a pushover. I suspect that a good number of government officials think the same; she’s a woman, after all, and Hungarian society is male-dominated. Gergely Prőhle, former assistant undersecretary in the foreign ministry, specifically referred in an interview to the new ambassador’s sex and her role as a mother of four, qualities which in his opinion might help to improve the atmosphere between the two countries. Prőhle added that by coincidence the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to Washington, Réka Szemerkényi, is also a woman with four children. So, while one woman will be working in Budapest for good relations between the U.S. and Hungary, the other will be winning hearts and minds in Washington. The charm offensive is on. It seemed to have worked with Bell’s predecessor, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis. Perhaps it will work again.

Oh, yes, Réka Szemerkényi. She still has not occupied her post in Washington because apparently she has not received the so-called “agrément,” her formal acceptance by the United States as the next Hungarian ambassador. More than two months have gone by since her appointment. It seems that Washington is in no hurry to recognize her as the head of the Hungarian embassy. The official who leaked this information to Népszabadság complained bitterly about the American response, especially since they “waited for Colleen Bell with a bouquet of roses without thorns” at the airport and since President János Áder announced that he would receive her two days after her arrival so she could present her credentials and begin her work as early as possible.

What is wrong with Réka Szemerkényi? Why is the U.S. dragging its heels, other than to express its general disapproval of the Hungarian government? From Szemerkényi’s curriculum vitae she seems to be highly qualified. Upon receiving an M.A. from ELTE (Budapest) in 1991, she spent a year at the Institut Européen des Hautes Études Internationales in Nice (1990-1991). Two years later she received an M.A. in International Relations and Strategic Studies from The John Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.  (1993-1995). From Washington she went to London where she spent a year as a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (1995-1996). From here her career took her straight to Fidesz, where she began as senior foreign policy secretary for the Fidesz parliamentary caucus (1997-1998). Her political career really took off after Fidesz won the election in 1998. She first became undersecretary in the prime minister’s office and later foreign policy and national security adviser to Viktor Orbán (2000-2002).

While Fidesz was out of office she worked at research institutes related to Fidesz and earned a economics at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University in 2007. After such a distinguished academic career, her decision to attend a university with a less than sterling reputation is somewhat baffling. But she also stooped low enough to become a senior associate in the Institute of Kremlinology at the Gáspár Károli Reformed University which is led by the Miklós Kun, grandson of Béla Kun of Hungarian Soviet Republic fame, who turned from rabid Marxist to rabid right-winger. Szemerkényi’s entire professional career has been tied to right-wing politics, not just as a high government official but also as a party member. In 2009, for example, she was #17 on Fidesz’s EP list but only the first 14 made it.

Réka Szemerkényi / Photo Attila Kovács, MTI

Réka Szemerkényi / Photo Attila Kovács, MTI

In the last four or five years in her capacity as chief adviser to Viktor Orbán, she was heavily involved in the negotiations over the Southern Stream. In September 2013 when the leaders of the Southern Stream and Gazprom made their case in Milan for the pipeline’s value, it was Réka Szemerkényi and Dragutin Matanovic of Serbia who presented the points of view of the partner countries. When it became known that the United States government listened to telephone conversations of European politicians, it was Szemerkényi’s job to present the Hungarian position on the matter to the American government. According to an MTI report, she demanded answers from the United States, but of course we have no idea what actual steps she took and how the issue was settled between the two countries. At that time she still considered the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership a right step in the right direction “which benefits both sides.” As we know, that is no longer the Hungarian government’s position. As Attila Ara-Kovács pointed out, “the former deeply committed atlantist has become a vehement defender of the new policy that no longer concentrates on Washington.”

Ara-Kovács made his observation at the time it was leaked that Viktor Orbán had no need for Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of János Martonyi, at the foreign ministry. Obviously, he was far too committed to the transatlantic ideas he and Martonyi represented during their times in office (1998-2002 and 2010-2014). Apparently Orbán offered Németh the ambassadorship to Washington but Németh, I think wisely, did not accept. No ambassador can improve relations between the U.S. and Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister. Not even a mother of four. I don’t know of course whether Zsolt Németh would have been more welcome in Washington, but Szemerkényi, although she might be well qualified for the job, is known to blindly follow the party line. In Hungarian these people are called “party soldiers.” One of Index‘s sources said that Orbán and Szemerkényi are so close that her appointment practically means the presence of Viktor Orbán in Washington. I’m sure that the idea of having the clone of Viktor Orbán in the Hungarian Embassy in Washington doesn’t warm the cockles of anyone’s heart in the U.S. capital.


  1. It is only my guess, that Washington waited, how Colleen Bell will be received first, that her credentials are accepted, so she becomes the Ambassador. After this event, a decision can be made more freely about Réka Szemerkényi.

    I am not privy to anything, how our State Department works, so it is only my guess and hope, that Ms. Szemerkényi will not be on the Department’s “A” list for invitees to the White House events. I would like see her invited there as often, as Oprah Winfrey or Aretha Franklin gets invited.

  2. Yesterday we had a serious problem. There was no “comment” button and therefore one could not leave a comment under yesterday’s post. Now, it seems to have been fixed. I did write to them but I wasn’t expecting immediate action. I guess I lot of people must have complained.

  3. After having received tons of insults and attacks from the Hungarian Government, such as Fidesz founder EP member Deutsch Tamas’s memorable “Who the f*ck is Thomas Melia?” it’s not surprising the State Department staffers, who work for Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia are not expediting Ms Szemerkenyi paperwork. They also probably monitoring the lawsuits filed against DCM Andre Goodfriend at Orban Viktor’s urging. Holding up an ambassador’s paperwork is the equivalent of a diplomatic warning used when gentle reminders fall on deaf ears.

  4. Réka Szemerkényi will however be on the “A” list of invitees to American Hungarian events, I suspect sooner or later she will be at mass here in Chicago at St Stephen King of Hungary Church or maybe for an event at the Norridge United Church of Christ in suburbs. Given her credentials she will be a big hit.

    Just to add to her bio Eva, between 2006 and 2011, she was Chief International Public Relations Advisor to Chairman of the Board of MOL Group, that is five years of serious money I suspect. Moreover, the MOL head Zsolt Hernadi became a suspected criminal against for EUR 10 million bribe to former Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader in 2009 in exchange for granting Mol the right to run Croatia’s national oil company, INA, during Szemerkényi’s time at MOL as Chief International Public Relations Advisor.

    That is one tough firm to do PR work for and it got worse after Szemerkényi was gone from MOL supposedly according to a story in the Budapest Beacon ( ) Hernadi fixed his own trial.

  5. CHIEF SACKHOES: I would like to add a small correction. The State Dept. or the U.S. Government here does not have to monitor the lawsuit filed in Hungary against André Goodfriend.
    It is automatically becomes void and stops, when the U.S. denies the request to revoke the diplomatic immunity of André Goodfriend or if we just leave the request without an answer for a long period of time. (In case there is no direct diplomatic tie with a given country)
    The State Dept. already answered to the request from the Attorney General’s Office of Hungary with a polite “No”. Therefore, the investigation cannot continue and the case is closed.
    All other news to the contrary, such as the stupid statement from Ildikó Vida’s half-wit attorney Barnabás Futó, that the Hungarian Attorney General agreed, that André Goodfriend’s comments were “slander and defamation” are 100% meaningless. He may have chatted with Péter Polt, who gave him his personal opinion, while they had a couple of drinks. After all, anyone can have a personal opinion, even in Orbanistan, at least for now.

  6. Why would anyone be impressed by Szemerkenyi? Yes, she actually–unlike most Hungarians who spent time at foreign universities–gotten a degree. So what? She seems like a groupy
    with nary an ethical bone in her body, or a sense of morality. And this person is praiseworthy?

  7. Re: lack of comments. Yes I was hoping that people were complaining, questioning. I tried to also–but didn’t find the way to do so. Is there someway to contact WordPress?

  8. Mrs Szemerkényi also worked at a small think tank called Energy Constellation Institute with Max Teleki, János Csák and Anita Orbán.

    For some mysterious reason, Anita Orbán has so far managed to retain her position at the Foreign Ministry, despite being a staunch Atlanticist and having her degree from the US.

    But I am sure this problem will be sorted out soon and she will have the same fate as those Atlanticist traitors who have already been fired from Bem rakpart. A revolutionary government has to be vigilant after all.

  9. @Max

    There is a reason why people who were known as “staunch Atlanticists’ could (and would want to) keep their jobs: they are not.

    They probably never were “Atlanticists” to begin with but were great actors feeding naive Americans (who thought of themselves as smart people with great eyes) and British. Women, speaking English well, having attended foreign universities, being able to use the fork, attending parties the original Fidesznik from the rural provinces would never do, whoa. But these “Atlanticist” people just wanted to personally gain from US contacts, eg. for business or career purposes. That was their assigned role: to be the good cop, the understanding “Atlanticist”, the contact (a handler in a way) to the Amis. Probably the role fitted them, but it was a role none the less.

    In any case nothing less than 150% loyalty suffices these days and there are no exceptions.

    When will foreign people finally face their utter failure of reading fideszniks?

    It’s not only Putin or Orban who fooled Americans for years, but dozens and dozens of lower level people as well.

    Sorry, you gotta be smarter than that. The poor Eastern Europeans apparently systematically fooled the mighty Americans (just like the Afghans, Iranians etc. did).

  10. Gretchen: Re: lack of comments. Yes I was hoping that people were complaining, questioning. I tried to also–but didn’t find the way to do so. Is there someway to contact WordPress?

    It took me a while to find it, but you cannot contact However, is owned and managed by

    132 Hawthorne Street
    San Francisco, CA 94107
    United States of America

  11. OT: The date of Putyin’s visit to Budapest has been announced by Szijjarto, it will occur on Feb 17th, earlier than the March timeframe originally announced and barely 2 weeks after Merkel’s visit.

  12. @Max

    From what I can gather Constellaton Energy is a sham entity, a pseudo-think tank. It doesn’t even have a home page and even its members are difficult to figure out.

    Apparently A. Orban was the head of it and according to Wikileaks the US Embassy sponsored at least one conference organized by Constellation. It was probably useful to put on a CV when these people were out of jobs. A. Orban’s husband is also known to be friendly with a number of retired Republican people, though I hear they are a little restless because the investments at Oriens don’t bring those yields commensurate with the risk.

    I don’t know how this started, whether some Americans told Orban to set this up hoping that by this they could have a connection to these “young, English-speaking conservatives on the rise” or it was them who thought that the Americans will be open and will swallow the hook if this “think tank” will say what the Americans wanted to hear. Either way, you know that there are no dissidents within Fidesz and there must be a substantial reason why supposed “atlanticists” could survive multiple rounds of purging (by bosses who know exactly her perceived reputation) or even would opt for working for a quasi-dictator who’s been fattening himself from Russian money and who has being doing everything he can to bond Hungary to Russia via Paks.

  13. At Pécs opposition cannot demonstrate on March 15 (the national holiday). Period.

    The reason: any demonstration would violate the “constitutional rights of those celebrating the holiday to celebrate in a dignified manner” [ie. supposedly those celebrating at the government-sponsored events].

    It’s like 1988 all over again, only the government is much smarter about control than those loser communist were.

    Orban is the reincarnation of Kadar only I was at the auction where, after the death of his wife, all their belongings up to his used shaving blades were auctioned off. Kadar didn’t have anything valuable left, while Orban is a billionaire looter.

  14. @schrammel

    “When will foreign people finally face their utter failure of reading fideszniks?”

    “The poor Eastern Europeans apparently systematically fooled the mighty Americans”

    It’s funny you write that, because actually, the very first person who told me many years ago that Orbán was a dangerous person with autocratic tendencies who could not be trusted was… an American.

    I thought he was crazy, mostly because I had many Hungarian friends and I didn’t know any Hungarians at that time who thought that way. I mean, literally, not a single one. And I’m talking here about ordinary educated working people in Budapest.

    Nowadays, however, it’s nearly impossible to find anyone from that group in the capital that DOESN’T think that way. They all have a very bad opinion of Orbán (or if they do think kindly of him, they realize that it isn’t socially acceptable to say nice things about him out loud). Maybe the countryside is different, but here in Budapest, that is definitely the case.

    Were these Hungarians fooled by Fideszniks? I would say that they were.

    I realize it’s trendy to talk about how foolish Americans are and how easily the clever Hungarians can trick them, but if we want to talk about naive people, maybe we should start with those people who actually voted Fidesz into power and now regret their decisions.

  15. @Illés re Pécs. I guess we can all recall only too vividly what Orbán did on the 50th anniversary of the 56 revolution when scores of heads of states attended the celebrations in Budapest. It organized a huge rally which ended in extremist groups rioting on the streets. It was a shameful act.

  16. Eva: @Ron re support. Interesting that there is more than one place one can complain. Odd.

    I do not think so, if you think about it. I think Automattic is the Company’s website, and therefore, much more contractible than WordPress, which is only a “brand”.

    Btw there is complain contact address:

  17. Buddy–

    I think you have a point. Many Hungarians were indeed fooled or I would say they didn’t really care. There was a limited variety from which they could choose and they were forced to choose, at the elections, that is. Only minuscule percentage was interested in democracy and rights, the rest wanted the punish the corrupt and chronically infighting socialists and of course they wanted to live better and they had no hope for that with MSZP after 8 years with them.

    Having said that, foreigners were in a different position. They could’ve been more aloof and suspicious. Instead they (at least the official line), including the US ambassadors, enthusiastically supported Orban and hated Gyurcsany for example. I think Népszabadsag ran like 3-4 interviews with US undersecretaries criticizing Gyurcsany, mostly on energy.

    I don’t think people can really be fooled, mostly – for one reason or another – people actively want to be fooled, just like the US ambassadors who were cozy with this supposedly Atlantist set. The world desperately wanted to believe that out there there exist successful, clean, young, anti-communist, conservative westernizing politicians, that the admission of the CEE to the clubs (NATO, EU) was worth it, that the CEE is not only about corrupt Mafiosi. The best we can say in 2015, is that the jury is still out on these ones.

  18. Istvan wrote: “Réka Szemerkényi will however be on the “A” list of invitees to American Hungarian events, I suspect sooner or later she will be at mass here in Chicago at St Stephen King of Hungary Church or maybe for an event at the Norridge United Church of Christ in suburbs. Given her credentials she will be a big hit.”

    These Hungarian churches are encouraging the people to support the Orban regime.

    Churches rarely complain about corruption.

    Szemerkenyi achieved a lot, Her good life started in the Kadar era.

    She is a loyal Orban player now, therefore an opponent of America.

    Today, the regime accepts only those who turned against the Kadar era, and prefers the Horthyism.

    Hungarian Americans support this theater in 99 to 1,

  19. I’ve read it here before that Orbán was strongly anti-Russian not so long ago. And people (especially the US) believed that he was sincere.
    Didn’t he complain (when Fidesz was in opposition) about Gyurcsany’s “friendship” with Russia?
    Funny in a way that he massively changed in that respect – for whatever reason …

  20. There is a shocking piece in HVG reporting that the National Bank transferred a little matter of 67 BILLION forints to a new foundation as part of Matolcsy’s lunatic plan to create an alternative higher education for economists (with funds TWICE what the state spends on higher education.) The argument is that if the National Bank makes a profit, it is the Bank’s to spend. Coupled with the extraordinary tone of some of its press statements (yesterday, it attacked HirTV for airing the opinion of Péter Ákos Bod who believes the profits should be paid into the central budget), it is worth a blog post or two. The misappropriation of 250 billion forints ought to be a massive scandal but so far, it hasn’t really sunk home…

  21. Buddy, I liked your comment about who has actually been fooled the most.

    I have commented on such suggestion on every possible occasion. It is NOT the other countries in the world, neither in the EU nor elsewhere, who give or remove from a Hungarian politician legitimacy. This is the Hungarian voter. In 2010, as you wrote, many people trusted or believed that it cannot get worse with Orban than what MSzP had created (and in my experience, all arguments that this could happen were refused as a misunderstanding of Hungary and Hungarians). In international matters, other rules govern the relations, not some legitimacy through elections. So when Hungarians in their relative majority decided that Orban is the best representative of the country, the others choose how to deal with it. He might be more to the liking of some, and less to others but there is not a rule based procedure to get rid of such politician (in contrast to the political system of Hungary of the year 2010). The EU or the other member states deal with Hungary within the rules set for the EU and its specific structure that accepts sovereignty of the member states in some issues but not in others, and the other states of the world as they consider appropriate. So why is the “American politician”, “EU bureaucrat” etc. treated by such comments as if he or she were an Hungarian voter? I never understand that. Many Hungarians do not wish to participate in politics, not even through voting, so why then suggestions that the rest of the world can rectify what the electorate has chosen through active or passive participation in the domestic political process? To deal with Orban or Hungary within international relations, which is in any case quite limited currently, is no sign of big attachment as is frequently believed by Hungarians writing these “witty” comments. It is part of the rules, which “schrammel” need not like but they do not offer an equally “easy” way how to replace a politician like domestic elections.

    The idea that Orban fooled apparently any person in the world except the Hungarians who “know this type” but exactly because of that “nothing can be done about it” is just a reflection of the confused thinking in political matters domestic and international, which made Orban possible in the first place. There must be some organised democrats with some strategy and workable programme within the country, then the support by the West would be immediately seen. It is just a bit difficult to identify other major players in Hungary.

    To donlaszlo: Thank you very much for the link. Great text.

  22. It is upsetting for me to think about the efforts the United States government, philanthropists like Mr. Soros, and even the groups like the Ford Foundation made to “groom” young aspiring Hungarians like Réka Szemerkényi to be at least generally pro-western only to see so many choose the path of quick money as supporters of the Kleptocracy in Hungary. I am not sure so much that Americans were consistently fooled as the net was thrown wide to try to “make friends” after the collapse of the communist governments that we are seeing the inevitable result.

    The United States was drawn to anti-communist young Hungarians, like Orban, like a moth is drawn towards a light. The idea that a conservative young Hungarian could evolve into a middle aged right wing dictator seems never to have crossed the minds of these groomers. This failure is in many ways similar to the failure of US intelligence services to understand that the Mujahideen in Afghanistan that they helped create and fund to fight the Russians could end up being the greatest enemy of the USA years later.

    This entire idea that future likely political elites of emerging economies can be cultivated like crops to share values and practices with the United States or EU parliamentary democracies is deeply delusional. The development of the governance structure of the United States was organic to our reality, it can’t simply be transplanted via ideological indoctrination. Similarly the EU funds and programs designed to promote democratic practices have limited impact on many post-communist Central European states including Hungary.

    Ms. Szemerkényi’s choice of following Orban down his path of the illiberal state was primarily determined by the realities of Hungary, not values based on liberal democracy that her training at John Hopkins was supposed to provide her. The idea of trying to influence the evolution of foreign governments by training friends has largely been a waste of money in my opinion.

  23. @Illés and others:

    No, Orbán isn’t reincarnation of Kádár.

    You see, Kádár has suffered for his ideological belief – been imprisoned, tortured, you name it – and he never changed sides.
    Furthermore, the man himself was rather puritan regarding his lifestyle,- actually he resented the cult of personality what was in “fashion” those times, and most importantly (pun intended) he played chess – what needs brain – instead of soccer, and it speaks volumes of the difference.

    Well, you haven’t seen photographs picturing little old ladies kissing his hand, have you?

    I guess Orbán’s character much more resembles to earlier “Great Leaders”,- Rákosi comes in mind first,but there is more of this breed – but one shouldn’t forget the system of vassals either, which is in fact dates far long back in time.

    So, no, Orbán isn’t Kádár’s reincarnation, he is far worse than Kádár ever has been – the man has no principles, whatsoever, as opposed to Kádár, just to name one.

    And this is some serious character-flaw in my book, in spite, what “side”someone is, supposed to have some spine, at least, supposed to be consequent to some degree, and not a slimy opportunist, only for his own benefit, and nothing but…

    Yes, I admit that I am old fashioned with this kind of expectation, but still…

  24. István: Everyone can be educated about the principles of western culture, history, democracy, but it is no guarantee, that they will not get a stronger influence, induction, inducement and career opportunity from the opposing sides.

    Democracy and the western culture, especially free and competition based market, and job opportunities are not the most sought after desires of many Hungarians, in a society, which is based on corruption and personal favor based job opportunities and careers.

    For a lot of people, power and money are more important, than honour, decency and honesty.

    For the benefits of power and money, many people are willing also to lie to themselves and others, that they are honorable, decent and honest people.

    Nobody is an exception, even some priests, some cardinals and a few Popes could do and they do it today.

  25. @ bigyusz

    Yes, this Constellation Institute used to a sham think tan, but at least it had a homepage at around 2007. By now it has been removed.

    By the way I will never forget how I was stunned when I first saw the CV of Szemerkényi some 15 years ago. According to the official CV she graduted from ELTE University in 1992. But from 1991 she started to work as a senior adviser for the Administrative State Secretary of the Defense Ministry.
    I never heard anything like that before i.e. working officially for a ministry as a student, let alone the private office of a state secretary.

    This is the messy CV of her on the net, which also includes these dates in her career:

  26. Regarding the previous topic: I don’t think, that chancellor Merkel will come out with some statement condemning Orbán and his “goulash Nazism”, the “unorthodox economy” – or even the “illiberal state” as the recently established forms of the Hungarian state.

    Or should I have said “Orbanism”, plain and simple?

    In any event: I don’t thin so.
    It may happen that between two ‘kiss the hand’s’ she will mention that “you should be a little more subtle, Viktor, you bad boy, promise me, you’ll do right next time” but nothing to exceeding this.
    And you know, why?
    She don’t want to shake the boat, she will do her best to maintain the appearance of unity within the EU, whatever it takes.
    The really crappy part of the story that Orbán will agree with everything, will promise just as much, and then will go on his way just as he has done it so far.

    You shouldn’t nurture some high expectations, dear folk, because she is politician, and will do what she expected to. After all, why on earth would anyone from the outside will be involved in the Hungarian politics?

    In my opinion Orbán will continuo to play both sides, up to the point when he will end up between the stols. Which mean, the country goes belly up, and none of the parties (Merkel and Putin) willing to go to all the length to interfere.
    Time will come, for sure.

    After all, nobody really like traitors, not even when they use them.

  27. Eva – congratulations on your growing following. Yours is consistently one of the wisest and more informative and thoughtful voices on Hungary.

  28. Rather OT but funny in a way:

    I just heard that Orbán is at the Jordanian king’s funeral – while Mrs Merkel and our German president Mr Gauck didn’t go.
    They sent our ex-president Mr Wulff instead …

  29. Sorry! Should have been Saudi Arabia of course!

    Btw Germany just stopped exporting weapons to the Saudis because of their extreme political/religious positions.

  30. wolfi: Obama and Cameron went too. The king was an ultra-conservative tyrant, but he had a lot of oil, the income of which is being invested in London. So the Kingdom is our friend.

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