Colleen Bell

American rapprochement with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

While readers of Hungarian Spectrum continue to discuss the possible reasons for André Goodfriend’s departure, let me share one right-wing Hungarian reaction to the exit of the former chargé, István Lovas’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Magyar Hírlap titled “The Bell Change.”

One could devote a whole series of posts to István Lovas himself, from his brush with the law as a teenager to the open letter he wrote recently to Vladimir Putin in which he asked him to start a Hungarian-language “Russia Today” because the Russian propaganda television station is actually much better than BBC. Lovas lived in Canada, the United States, and Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. He was considered to be a difficult man who caused a lot of turmoil in the Hungarian section of the organization.

For many years Lovas was a devoted Fidesz man. He already held important positions in the first Orbán government (1998-2002). For years he worked for Magyar Nemzet, most recently as its Brussels correspondent, but a few months ago Lovas, along with a number of other Orbán stalwarts, lost his job. Mind you, the European Parliament had had enough of Lovas even before he was sacked by Magyar Nemzet, especially after he presented a bucket of artificial blood to Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Dutch liberal MEP. The bucket of blood was supposed to symbolize the Palestinian children who were victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lovas, himself of Jewish descent, is a well-known anti-Semite.

After having lost his job at Magyar Nemzet and after Putin failed to respond to his plea for a Hungarian “Russia Today,” Lovas moved on. Gábor Széles, who owns Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV, offered him a job. Now he has a weekly political program called “Fault Lines” (Törésvonalak) on EchoTV, and he also writes opinion pieces for Széles’s newspaper.

So how does István Lovas see American-Hungarian relations in the wake of the arrival of Colleen Bell and the departure of André Goodfriend? To summarize his opinion in one sentence: from here on the United States and the Orbán government will be the best of friends.

According to Lovas, André Goodfriend was the darling of those lost liberals who have been wandering in the wilderness “ever since SZDSZ was thrown into the garbage heap of history.” They are still hoping that nothing will change. Originally they were certain that Goodfriend would run the embassy while the newly arrived ambassador would be its public face. Meanwhile, Goodfriend would continue visiting “left/neoliberal SZDSZ or MSZP politicians and intellectuals.”

These liberal hopes were dashed soon after Colleen Bell’s arrival. The new orientation was clear from day one. Bell went and laid a wreath at the statue of the unknown soldier on Heroes’ Square. She visited the Csángó Ball organized every year to celebrate a fairly mysterious group of Hungarians living in the Romanian region of Moldavia, speaking an old Hungarian dialect. These are important signs of the new American attitude toward things dear to the current government: fallen heroes and national minorities. Certainly, says Lovas, Goodfriend would never have been found in such places. Yet liberals don’t seem to have grasped the significance of all this. They think that more Hungarians will be banished from the United States and that Hungary will have to pay a high price for peace with the United States. Most likely, Orbán will have to compromise on Paks, on Russian-Hungarian relations in general, and/or will have to buy American helicopters.

But Lovas has bad news for them. There will be no more talk about corruption cases, and Hungary will pay no price whatsoever. Colleen Bell realized that Goodfriend’s methods had failed. Of course, Lovas is talking nonsense here. Even if Lovas is right about a change in U.S. policy, it was not Bell who decided on this new strategy but the United States government.

Lovas is certain that the change has already occurred. It is enough to look at the new website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. There are no more programs on tolerance, on Holocaust events, “all those things that are kicks in the groin of the Hungarian people and their elected government.” A drastic change occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations which even such liberal-socialist diplomats as Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government, László Kovács, foreign minister under Gyula Horn, or András Simonyi, ambassador to Washington (2002-2010), couldn’t explain away.

This change couldn’t have taken place if Goodfriend had stayed or if the Orbán government had conducted “the kind of servile atlantist policy recommended by Géza Jeszenszky,” foreign minister under József Antall and ambassador to Washington during the first Orbán government. Jeszenszky, who just resigned as ambassador to Norway, had a long interview in which he expressed his deep disappointment with Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy, especially with his attitude toward the United States.

According to Lovas, what happened recently is a victory for Orbán’s foreign policy, a feat that “could be achieved only by the courage and tenacity” of the Hungarian prime minister. The United States government tried to mend its ways by sending someone to Budapest who is not worried about such things as tolerance or the Holocaust. From here on the Budapest embassy will function just as American embassies do in other capitals. The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, for example, does not report “breaking news” about the Anschluss.

Lovas might exaggerate, but something is going on. When was the last time that Viktor Orbán called together the whips of all political parties for a discussion on Hungarian foreign policy? As far as I know, never. As Magyar Nemzet put it, “Viktor Orbán asked for the support of the political parties in reaching the nation’s foreign policy goals.” Among the topics was the objective of “strengthening the American-Hungarian alliance.” Péter Szijjártó, who was of course present, claimed that “political relations with the United States are improving” and that the Orbán government “will take further steps toward the restoration of earlier economic, political, and military cooperation.”

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations  Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations convened by Viktor Orbán
Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

I’m sure that we all want better relations between Hungary and the United States, but the question is at what price. The United States can’t close its eyes to Viktor Orbán’s blatant attacks on democracy, the media, human rights, and civil society. And then there is the timing of this alleged renewed love affair between Budapest and Washington. If true, and that’s a big if, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hungarian democracy–yes, liberal democracy. Just when Viktor Orbán’s support is dropping precipitously and when it looks as if he may lose his precious two-thirds majority in spite of all the billions of forints he promised from taxpayer money to the city of Veszprém to buy votes. When a large part of the hitherto slavish right-wing media at last decided to return to more critical and balanced journalism.

No, this is not the time to court Viktor Orbán. It would be a grave mistake. It is, in fact, time to be tough because the great leader is in trouble. Trouble abroad, trouble at home. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, in a speech to the European Parliament said the following without mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name: “We cannot let our societies imperceptibly slip back; we cannot allow illiberal logics to take hold. There is no such thing as an illiberal democracy…. We are keeping a close eye on all issues arising in Member States relating to the rule of law, and I will not hesitate to use the [EU Rule of Framework established last March] if required by the situation in a particular Member State.”

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Viktor Orbán goes to Kiev, M. André Goodfriend returns to Washington

Viktor Orbán has been a very busy man lately, especially when it comes to playing on the international stage. Angela Merkel visited Budapest last week; this week Orbán had talks with the prime minister of Georgia, and today he traveled to Kiev for a brief visit with Petro Poroshenko. Orbán’s Ukrainian visit is widely seen as an attempt to counterbalance the much criticized Putin visit next Tuesday. Today much of his regularly scheduled morning interview was devoted to Russian and Ukrainian affairs.

There is still no verbatim transcript of the interview, but I took notes when I listened to it and read several summaries that appeared in Hungarian newspapers and on the government’s website. Some of his comments on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict were platitudes about the dangers of war so close to home. Surely, Hungary is much more exposed than France or Germany, whose heads of state tried to broker an agreement with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Orbán, who remains opposed to further sanctions, tried to put the best spin on the “fragile peace” that is still better than war.

When it came to Russian-Hungarian relations, Orbán treaded lightly and felt compelled to refer to Hungarian leeriness when it comes to relations with Russia. Mind you, the reference was fleeting. He said that “for many Hungarians this is an emotional issue.” One would have thought that either he would have stopped there or would have explained Hungarian reservations by talking about the role of the Russians in the 1848-1849 war of independence and, naturally, about the Russian suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. But no, he said instead that “we lost a war against them,” referring to World War II. A most unfortunate remark since winning the war against the Soviet Union in this case would have meant victory for Nazi Germany. Magyar Nemzet might be moving in the right direction as far as honest journalism is concerned, but it decided to omit this sentence.

In his opinion, emotions cannot play a role in Hungary’s relations with Russia. He himself never had any doubts about Vladimir Putin’s  visit. It was he who invited Putin, and he is glad that Putin accepted his invitation. The Russian president is always welcome in the Hungarian capital.

It is becoming apparent to me that Viktor Orbán imagines today’s Europe as similar to the way it was between the two world wars. The simultaneous collapse of the large, powerful empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia allowed the formation of small nation states in the region of East-Central Europe. With the revival of Germany and Russia, these states found themselves squeezed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Orbán keeps talking about the “two large powers,” Russia and Germany, on whom Hungary depends for its well being. But this is an outdated view. Today there is a European Union to which Hungary belongs. Hungary also joined NATO. Hungary is definitely committed to the West and her security lies on this side. Balancing between two world powers is no longer possible, and therefore I’m convinced that Orbán’s “brilliant” strategy will be a failure.

Orbán’s diplomatic balancing act leads me to another topic, the departure of M. André Goodfriend from Budapest. The announcement was a surprise because the United States government had explicitly stated that Goodfriend would remain in Budapest even after the arrival of Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador. The chargé represented U.S. policies and worked closely with the State Department. It was a message to Budapest that no great changes in U.S.-Hungarian relations should be expected with the arrival of the new ambassador. But then came the bombshell that after all Goodfriend is leaving “for strictly family reasons.” Hungarians suspect that this explanation was fabricated, that some kind of a deal was reached between Washington and Budapest for which the U.S. government sacrificed Goodfriend.

Well, I’m one of those people who don’t believe this conspiracy theory. First of all, the one longer speech that Colleen Bell delivered to date in no way indicated a softening of the American attitude toward the Hungarian government. The speech was delivered before businessmen, and therefore she concentrated on economic issues. She brought up a point about which foreign businessmen complain: the unpredictability of Hungarian economic policy. Second, I see no sign of any softening of Orbán’s attitude either on the Russian issue or on the question of corruption. As for the attacks on nongovernmental organizations, the verbal abuse continues. If there was a deal, it was one that the Hungarian side is not honoring. And I refuse to believe that American diplomats are so naive as to strike a deal before the other side takes concrete steps to mend its ways. So, I’m inclined to accept the Embassy’s version that Mr. Goodfriend has some very urgent family business that can be taken care of only in the United States.

Goodfriend3

André Goodfriend’s departure is greeted with great sadness in liberal circles in Hungary. Many looked upon him as a valued friend of Hungary and were extremely grateful to him. On Facebook there are thousands of posts in which Hungarian citizens thank him for being the defender of Hungarian democracy. I heard a story about one gesture that exemplifies the kind of gratitude Hungarians felt. It was Christmas Eve and André Goodfriend went to a flower shop to buy a bouquet. When he wanted to pay, the owner of the flower shop wouldn’t accept his money, saying that it is she who owes him instead of the other way around.

Perhaps the most moving manifestation of the affection felt for André Goodfriend in Hungary is a video sent by Kreatív Ellenállás (Creative Opposition), a Facebook group, to which the creators added a popular song entitled “André j’aime” composed by János Bródy, played by the Illés Ensemble and sung by Zsuzsa Koncz. These people are legends in Hungarian popular music, mainly because their songs were highly critical of the Kádár regime.

Finally, Mr. Goodfriend was a regular reader of Hungarian Spectrum and a few times even engaged in our discussions. We will miss him, and I’m sure I can speak on behalf of our readership in wishing him the very best in his future endeavors.

Mária Schmidt is on the warpath again

Last summer I wrote at least five posts about Mária Schmidt, a historian of the Holocaust and director of the controversial House of Terror museum established during the first Orbán administration (1998-2002). Why is Mária Schmidt so important? Why is it necessary to spend time on a historian not held in high esteem by her colleagues? It is true that as a historian she would not deserve much attention, but as the chief adviser to Orbán Viktor on matters of modern Hungarian history her ideas cannot be ignored. I don’t think I exaggerate when I claim that Schmidt’s interpretation of German-Hungarian relations in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s is crucial to understanding the Hungarian government’s reevaluation of the Hungarian Holocaust. The newly erected memorial to “all the victims” of the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 was a direct result of Mária Schmidt’s views on the period.

The other reason that I give her so much space is that every time she opens her mouth, or puts pen to paper, she says something outlandish. She begins radio and television interviews with syrupy sweetness and ends with shrill diatribes.

She has been lying low on Holocaust issues since last summer, most likely because it looks as if János Lázár, Viktor Orbán’s deputy, decided to remove her from the job of spearheading the creation of a new Holocaust museum, the House of Fates. The government realized that no compromise could be reached between the administration and the Jewish community as long as Schmidt was in charge of the project.

They are working on the building of the House of Fates but the concept is still missing

The construction of the House of Fates is proceeding apace

She refocused her attention on more recent events. Last month she wrote an essay on “geopolitical games” between Russia and the United States in which she didn’t spare the U.S. This was not a topic that excited too many people in Hungary.

But then came an exchange of letters between Schmidt and the office of the German chancellor that she made public on February 4. Since the publication of this exchange she has given two interviews, one to György Bolgár on Klubrádió and another to András Kovács of Origo.

Let’s start with a summary of Mária Schmidt’s letter, dated January 20, to Chancellor Angela Merkel. In it Schmidt invited Merkel while in Hungary to a reception in the House of Terror honoring “ordinary citizens who [in 1989] risked everything as opposed to the political leaders of the regime who were only following the lead of the heroic civilians.” Of course, she was talking about the East German refugees in Hungary. In addition, she expressed her hope that together they “could light a candle for the victims of communism.” The answer from Councilor Maximilian Spinner, on behalf of the chancellor, was brief and to the point: “Unfortunately, such a visit is impossible due the limited amount of time available.”

I have the feeling that even if Angela Merkel hadn’t had such a tight schedule she wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with the reception Mária Schmidt organized. The Germans ever since 1989 have repeatedly said how grateful they were to the Hungarian government at the time, and here is an event that belittles the role of the Németh government and Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, whom the Germans revere. And that government, whether Schmidt likes it or not, was the last government of the Kádár regime. By that time the dictatorship had mellowed to such an extent that it was not a brave, heroic act to help the East German refugees. Thousands and thousands of ordinary citizens lent a helping hand alongside the Hungarian government. Schmidt’s invitation was something of a trap, which I assume the Germans noticed and wanted to avoid.

Well, Schmidt was furious. She called Angela Merkel “the heartless chancellor.” She accused the Germans of never thanking these “brave civilians,” of thanking only the Hungarian government that existed “during the still functioning communist dictatorship.” Not only did Merkel not go but no “official representative” of Germany made an appearance when Schmidt gave memorial plaques to the few people she found worthy of the honor.

And then came the interview with Origo. She accused Merkel of “insolence,” which ought to “shock all well-meaning Germans.” According to Schmidt, “the chancellor obviously did not know what country she was visiting.” Otherwise, surely she would have wanted to meet ordinary citizens. She also found Merkel’s words about democracy, freedom of the press, and civic groups puzzling. In her opinion, Merkel talked like a “left-liberal” instead of a Christian Democrat.

Schmidt had a few not so kind words for the United States as well. According to her, M. André Goodfriend, the chargé d’affaires until the arrival of the new U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell, “misunderstood his role and became enamored with his media appearances.” Everything has changed since the arrival of the ambassador, a claim that is most likely based on Colleen Bell’s frequent appearances at markets or social events, which of course may not indicate a policy change.

According to Schmidt, Hungary is a true ally of the United States and “it would be very sad if there were people in Washington who would like to disrupt that bond.” She is certain that Hungary would like to restore good relations between the two countries, but “we must not forget that the Hungarian nation is a proud one that does not like it if an American diplomat comes here and tells us how we should or should not remember our past,” a not too subtle reference to the memorial that on Viktor Orbán’s insistence was erected despite international protest, a memorial that falsifies the history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Otherwise, at the moment Schmidt is organizing a conference, “Test of Bravery” (Bátorságpróba). The odd title seems to be lifted from a well-known picture book for children suffering from cancer. The conference will focus on the second Orbán government’s accomplishments between 2010 and 2014.

The House of Terror’s director is a tireless supporter of the government despite the recent slight she suffered when the much contested House of Fates projet was removed from her hands and taken over by the prime minister’s office. Her “concept” remained, however. It is, in the words of László Karsai, a Holocaust researcher, “two hundred pages of nothing.”

The Orbán government is at a loss: Which way to turn?

Today even Válasz had to admit that the Hungarian government’s PR stunt that followed the less than successful Merkel-Orbán meeting was a mistake. Referring to the false news about mega-investment,” Valóság, after an earlier glowing report, had to retreat and acknowledge that “there is no BMW, there is no new Mercedes factory and Fidesz doesn’t seem to be successful in the RTL Klub affair either. This wouldn’t be drama if the government had the guts to deny Vs.hu‘s news. But now we do have a small drama.”

I don’t know whether we can call it a drama, but that the Hungarian government’s already tarnished reputation now has an ugly rusty spot as well, that’s for sure. AFP picked up the news about the gigantic German investments that were agreed on during the meeting between the German chancellor and the Hungarian prime minister, but unlike András Kósa, the author of the Vs.hu article, AFP, before publishing the article, did go to the “spokesman for the Hungarian government [who] declined to comment.” Not did the spokesman not deny the story, as Válasz would have suggested, but he purposely spread the disinformation. That leaves me to believe that this PR stunt was concocted by the large communication team around the prime minister’s office.

What can one say about a government that engages in such cheap tricks? Keep in mind that the team around Viktor Orbán was handpicked by the prime minister himself. The members of this team are the ones who manage “communication,” which seems to be the most important aspect of politics for Viktor Orbán. He is like a salesman who has only one goal: to sell his wares regardless of their value or even utility.

What were these communication wizards thinking? Surely they had to realize that sooner or later reporters will ask these companies about their alleged plans and the truth will be revealed. Indeed, Mercedes and BMW have already denied the leaked information about their plans to build factories in Hungary, and this morning we learned from the Siemens spokesman that Siemens is no longer active in industries connected to nuclear energy and therefore the news about their involvement with the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is untrue. As far as the helicopters are concerned, apparently no decision has been made. It is possible that after the meeting Airbus, the French-German company reported to have won the contract, might not be the favorite.

I can only hope that the story of this ruse will reach Angela Merkel’s office, not that I have any doubt about her assessment of the Hungarian prime minister’s character. In any case, the Orbán government’s courting of Germany as a counterbalance to the United States did not work out to Orbán’s satisfaction. Of course, he himself is partly to blame for the fiasco with his public defense of “illiberal democracy.” Even Gábor G. Fodor, a right-wing “strategic director” of Századvég, a Fidesz think tank, said that Viktor Orbán made a mistake when he openly defended his vision of “illiberal democracy.” In fact, he went so far as to say that “this debate cannot be won,” especially not before a western audience. If this absolutely devoted Orbán fan considers the prime minister’s defense of his ideology to have been a mistake, then, believe me, the mistake was a big one.

So, here we are. After all the effort the government put into good relations with Germany, it looks as if Angela Merkel was not convinced. So, where to go from here? There seems to be a serious attempt at improving U.S.-Hungarian relations. This effort was prompted by the long-awaited arrival of the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, who shortly after her arrival began a round of visits and attended to a number of official duties. Her first trip was to Csaba Hende, minister of defense, which was reported by Hungary Today, a  newly launched, thinly disguised government propaganda internet site. The news of her visit was coupled with the announcement of Hungary’s plans to purchase a new helicopter fleet. The fleet will consist of 30 helicopters that will cost 551 million euros. Discussing the helicopters and Colleen Bell’s visit in the same article was no coincidence. Most likely, the Hungarian government wants to give the impression that there is a possibility that the helicopters will be purchased from the United States.

Even more telling is the paean on the Hungarian government’s website to “successful Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” The occasion was the opening of Alcoa’s “expanded wheels manufacturing plant in Hungary.” It is, if I understand it correctly, an expansion of facilities that have been in place ever since 1996. The construction cost $13 million, and it will create 35 new permanent jobs. The facility was officially opened by Colleen Bell and Péter Szijjártó. Szijjártó was effusive: “with Alcoa’s new investment, a new chapter has opened in the success story of Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” We also learned that the Hungarian government “granted one billon forints for the project.”

Photo by Márton Kovács

Photo by Márton Kovács

Bell, for her part, appealed to Hungarian pride by reminding her hosts that, although Alcoa has existed for 125 years, “this is not very long in terms of Hungary’s 1000-year-old history, but for the United States, a 125-year period covers half of its existence.” Music to Hungarian ears. Of course, she also promised that in the future she will work hard to create new opportunities for both U.S. and Hungarian businesses and to further improve their cooperation. The mayor of Székesfehérvár, the city where the Alcoa factory is located, announced that the wheels of buses in the city will gradually be replaced with Alcoa products.

I somehow doubt that courting the United States in this manner will make Washington forget about the anti-American rhetoric of  pro-government papers or the incredible performance of the Orbán government in connection with the U.S. banning of Hungarian nationals because of corruption charges. Somehow I have the feeling that courting the United States without changing government policies will be just as unsuccessful as Orbán’s earlier efforts in Germany.

And one final note. Today Orbán announced that the fate of cheaper utility costs depends on his successful negotiation with Vladimir Putin on the price of gas and oil to Hungary. If he is unsuccessful, the current low utility rates cannot be maintained. The message? The Hungarian people should support his Russia policy. If not, their utility bills will rise again. Let me add that the team that came up with the idea of reducing utility prices hit a gold mine. The Orbán government’s popularity in 2012 was even lower than it is now. Yet a year and a half later the popularity of the party and the government soared. For Orbán utility rates are terribly important, and therefore I suspect that he will do everything in his power to strike a deal with Putin. The question is at what price.

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 Ph.D.in 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.

John McCain: “A nation that’s on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator”

Viktor Orbán must have had a rough couple of days. First came the bad news that Vladimir Putin had cancelled the Southern Stream project, and then yesterday John McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008 and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lashed out at him. In a speech delivered prior to the vote on Colleen Bell’s appointment to be the next U.S. ambassador to Hungary he gave a long list of objections to her appointment. The upshot was that McCain considers Hungary to be a strategically important country where a seasoned diplomat should head the mission instead of a political appointee.

Whoever collected information on Hungarian politics for McCain did a good job. Anyone who’s interested in knowing exactly what transpired can watch the video. The passage that caused outrage in Hungarian government circles came toward the end of McCain’s venting of his frustration:

We’re about to vote on a totally unqualified individual to be ambassador to a nation which is very important to our national security interest. Her qualifications are as a producer of the television soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful,” contributed $800,000 to Obama in the last election and bundled more than $2.1 million for President Obama’s reelection effort. I am not against political appointees. I understand how the game is played, but here we are, a nation that’s on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neofascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin and we’re going to send the producer of “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of foreign communication, is usually the first to raise his voice. He announced that “Hungarian diplomacy will immediately get in touch with American senator John McCain,” but he added that from the text it is clear that McCain was not talking about the Hungarian prime minister but about Vladimir Putin. Kovács’s most likely intentional misreading of the text could not be maintained for long because several Hungarian newspapers and television stations got in touch with the communication director of Senator McCain, who affirmed that there was no mistake. The senator was indeed talking about Viktor Orbán.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade moved into action and called in M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, to tell him, I assume, how wrong McCain was about Viktor Orbán. Considering that McCain is a Republican, I can’t quite see what Goodfriend as a representative of the Democratic Obama administration is supposed to do about McCain’s assessment of the Hungarian political situation.

And yesterday Péter Szijjártó announced that McCain must have based his opinion about the Hungarian prime minister on the antagonistic media because if he knew the real situation he would never call Orbán a neo-fascist dictator. The Hungarian response to any negative reaction to the Orbán government is always the same: The Hungarian citizens voted for this government three times this year and everybody should respect their decisions. Szijjártó also indicated that the Hungarian Embassy in Washington will get in touch with the staff of Senator McCain and will inquire about “the background of his statements” concerning the Hungarian prime minister.

Gergely Gulyás, a member of parliament and one of the deputy presidents of the assembly, was blunt. According to him, the “veteran senator for a short period of time lost his critical faculties.” Some pro-government journalists also used strong words. András Stump of Válasz called the 78-year-old senator “senile, ancient” (agg, vén) and not to be taken seriously. András Bencsik, editor-in-chief of the far-right Demokrata, called him an idiot. Another right-wing commentator again alluded to McCain as being incoherent during the session. But he did not stop there. He accused McCain of being far too friendly with Ukrainian Nazi politicians. And then he came to the crux of the matter: why is Hungary suddenly so important to the United States? Because of the United States’ interest in selling American shale gas to Europe. The Americans have become worried about Hungary being a middleman between Russia and Europe, which may result in their supplying all of Europe with Russian gas instead of their own. Otherwise, all the rest about democracy, about the illiberal state, about NGOs is of no interest to the United States. They are only excuses that mask the real intent.

John McCain in Budapest, January 2014 Despite the compulsory smiles McCain was not too happy even then

John McCain in Budapest, January 2014
Despite the compulsory smiles, McCain was not too happy even then

Of course, this story our man concocted is total nonsense, but what is really worrisome is that the official advisers to the Hungarian government, the great “political scientists” of Századvég, also seem to think along the same lines. Yesterday I cited some foreign policy experts who actually know their subject but who have been dropped from the ministries or, if they work in independent research institutes, are never consulted. On the other hand, we know that Századvég has allegedly supplied the government in the past four and a half years with thousands and thousands of pages of advice on domestic and foreign policy strategy with which, it seems, the Orbán government is completely satisfied. What kind of advice is supplied to the Hungarian government is well demonstrated by an article by Gábor G. Fodor, the strategic director of Századvég, which was published on December 1 in Napi Gazdaság, the paper owned by Századvég.

Very briefly summarized, the United States’ interest in Hungary and the East-Central European region is dictated by one consideration only: getting rid of the Russian monopoly over the gas supply in the region. All the attacks on Hungary in the last few months have served this purpose. The U.S. has a master plan: (1) Ukraine must fall into the sphere of American influence; (2) the United States wants to stop the building of the Southern Stream; and (3) the Americans intend to prevent the Russian purchase of the MOL shares in the Croatian oil company INA. The goal is “a total change of monopoly of gas supply in the region.” Hungary is at the center of this master plan and surely this is why Hungary suddenly became such an important country for the United States. Hence the attacks against the Orbán government.

Can you imagine what kind of Hungarian foreign policy can be based on G. Fodor’s “analysis”? I shudder to think.

I am not at all sure that Hungarian diplomacy in its present state can successfully navigate through the perilous sea Hungary managed to get itself into thanks to the brilliant strategy of Viktor Orbán. Until recently the Orbán government was certain that a Republican administration would have closer and warmer relations with them, but after McCain’s outburst they must realize that even if the Republicans win the next election Hungary will remain a pariah in Washington, unless some miracle happens in Budapest. Like Viktor Orbán vanishes from Hungarian politics. And that at the moment does not look likely.

The Hungarian government’s wishful thinking about a change at the U.S. embassy

It is with a certain amusement that I have been watching the Hungarian right-wing media’s attempts to discredit M. André Goodfriend, the American chargé d’affaires of the Budapest embassy. After all, he is currently the top representative of the United States, a country the Hungarian right has never been too fond of. Their dislike of the United States only intensified after 2001 when George W. Bush found Viktor Orbán’s post-9/11 behavior so objectionable. The Hungarian prime minister is still persona non grata in the White House. During the last two U.S. presidential campaigns Viktor Orbán and some high-level Fidesz politicians demonstrated their preference for the Republican party, assuming that a Republican administration would have better relations with a national-Christian “conservative” Hungarian government. Of course, their assumption that Republicans would be more tolerant of an “illiberal state” that is in cahoots with Vladimir Putin’s Russia shows a total misunderstanding of American political reality.

Another Hungarian misconception is that it is Goodfriend who is personally responsible for the strained relations between Washington and Budapest because he oversteps the diplomatic bounds that are supposed to direct his behavior. If he would just stay put, never leave the embassy, not attend demonstrations, and not use Twitter, then American “attacks” on the current Hungarian government would come to an end. And since the reporters on the state television’s newscast and the journalists at Magyar Nemzet and  Válasz blame André Goodfriend personally, their attacks also concentrate on his person. With eagle eyes they watch his every step and find fault with everything he says. By now even his wife, Frances Goodfriend, has become a target. Pesti srácok, a far-right internet site, reported that she attended the demonstration in front of the parliament on November 17. A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that the Goodfriends visited László Bitó’s open house. Since Bitó often writes in Galamus, an internet opinion portal that is allegedly close to Ferenc Gyurcsány, the next thing we heard was that Goodfriend “is playing from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s score.” In brief, behind the current strained relations between the United States and Hungary is none other than the arch-enemy of Viktor Orbán, Ferenc Gyurcsány.

The Hungarian right became terribly offended when Goodfriend wrote on Twitter: “I think of Webster-Hulsemann in considering US support for shared values” and gave a link to “Interesting Historical Notes.” What was this Webster-Hulsemann exchange? In 1850 the Austrian Johann Georg Hulsemann, the Austrian representative in Washington, objected to American interference in the domestic affairs of Hungary. He stated that his government “deemed it proper to preserve a conciliatory deportment making ample allowance for the ignorance of the Cabinet of Washington on the subject of Hungarian affairs and its disposition to give credence to the mendacious rumors which are propagated by the American press.” To this statement Secretary of State Daniel Webster replied in kind: “Nothing will deter either the Government or the people of the United States from … forming and expressing their own opinions freely and at all times upon the great political events which may transpire among the civilized nations of the earth.” Webster’s letter to Hulsemann can be read in its entirely here.

Well, that inspired Zsuzsanna Körmendy, one of the most demagogic journalists of Magyar Nemzet, to write a lengthy op/ed piece on the subject. The whole article is full of insults and personal attacks on André Goodfriend. She accuses the American diplomat of being ignorant of history and says that if he just read one grade 8 history textbook “he wouldn’t say such stupidities.” Moreover, the comparison is false. Zachary Taylor, the president at the time, simply expressed his opinion and “did not send a note to the Hungarian government about banning certain foreigners from U.S. soil.” In the 1850s the United States was a democratic country and “if America today would be as much of a freedom loving country as it was then, perhaps it would look upon the Orbán government differently. It would appreciate more [Hungarian] attempts at independent solutions.” All in all, the reference to Webster and Hulsemann is, she argues, insulting to the democratic people of Hungary who overwhelmingly voted for Viktor Orbán and his team.

"Let's hope we will be also grateful" / Esti Hírlap

“Let’s hope we will be also grateful” / Esti Hírlap

And then came the great news for the Hungarian right. On November 21 The Washington Post reported that, after “after much delay and hand wringing,” on December 1 the Senate will vote on the confirmation of Colleen Bell who was nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Hungary. Well, that piece of news roused the right-wing journalists in Hungary. On the very same day Esti Hírlap reported the news with this headline: “First the turkey–then perhaps there will be an ambassador.” A picture under the headline showed a Thanksgiving turkey with the caption: “Let’s hope we will be grateful too!” Válasz was also inspired by the news: “The days of Goodfriend are numbered: Ten days and we’ll know it all.” But the most outrageous handling of the news came from Híradóthe official news broadcast of the state television. The television news claimed to know that Goodfriend will be recalled because “lately he appeared too often in left-wing and liberal circles.” According to Goodfriend’s “official” autobiography, “earlier he worked for the Bureau of International Organization” which, according to the information Híradó received, “worked out methods with which the local opposition in conjunction with civic organizations can overthrow the government of post-Soviet states if the interests of the United States so desire.”

Well, that’s quite something, especially because that utter nonsense was read on a newscast that can be watched nationwide without cable. So, let’s see what this “insidious” organization actually does. The Bureau of International Organization Affairs is part of the State Department and it is subordinated to the Undersecretary of Political Affairs. According to the official website:  “The Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO) is the U.S. Government’s primary interlocutor with the United Nations and a host of international agencies and organizations.” So much for responsible reporting by Hungarian state television.

As for these people’s fondest hope that M. André Goodfriend will be recalled because he was a bad boy, well, dream on, fellows. Most likely nothing will change after December 1. I suggest taking a look at the Wikileaks’ documents pertaining to the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. That gives an idea of the division of labor among the top officials of an embassy. Colleen Bell, if confirmed, will be the public face of the American presence in Budapest while the second in charge will most likely be Goodfriend, a professional diplomat. And I’m sure he will continue to tweet and to visit public events just as before.