US-Hungarian relations

American-Hungarian relations hit rock bottom

I’m continuing the American theme but this time from the point of view of the Fidesz-controlled Magyar Nemzet. It has been evident for some time that the right-wing media’s attitude toward the United States was moving beyond the critical. It was becoming outright shrill.

Of course, Magyar Nemzet has plenty of ammunition as a result of the Snowden revelations of widespread American spying even in allied countries. In the last few days it came to light that Hungary, like almost all European countries, was a target of American surveillance. Magyar Nemzet is certain that it was the American Embassy’s roof that served as the center of U.S. surveillance activities. After all, one of the articles pointed out, the embassy is only 400 meters from the Hungarian Parliament where Viktor Orbán’s office is located.

Almost every day since the second half of October there has been at least one article dwelling on the moral turpitude of the United States of America, which at one time was “moralistic and childlike.” The change came with the presidency of George W. Bush, who so completely lost touch with reality, the paper opined, that “not even Hollywood could help.” According to Gábor Stier, the author of an op/ed piece, the United States is no better than the Soviet Union. Both only defend their own national interests. The lesson to be learned: Hungarians cannot trust their allies and, instead of dreaming, “we must concentrate on enhancing our own strength.”

Uncle sam

The surveillance scandal in Hungary, about which we know practically nothing, immediately prompted wild speculations in the press room of Magyar Nemzet. Was the information gathered by the Americans used “to influence social processes”? Or perhaps the United States was trying to influence the country’s domestic policies.

The answer came on the same day, November 7, in an unsigned article. The well-informed Magyar Nemzet learned earlier that Máté Kocsis, a member of the parliamentary committee looking into the matter, intimated that American surveillance activities might have been more than information gathering. “They may have aimed at gaining political influence.” Hungarian politicians and the right-wing media specialize in “may have” statements because this way they don’t have to take responsibility for their assertions, but at the same time they can plant the desired thought into readers’ minds.

On the basis of that non-information Magyar Nemzet came out with the following rather wild hypothesis, naturally sticking a question mark to the end of the sentence, “Was the United States working for the left-liberals?” The article claimed that the U.S. Embassy was far too interested in Hungarian domestic policies and “showed an interest in the criminal proceedings launched against former politicians and high civil servants.” For example, the U.S. Embassy asked for statistics on these proceedings from the prosecutor’s office. Well, it would be strange indeed if the staff members of an embassy were not interested in the affairs of the country to which they are accredited. To this end, they monitor the media and ask official channels for information. The American Embassy did nothing wrong when they asked for information on the politically motivated court proceedings.

The American Embassy’s communiqué I quoted yesterday upset the Hungarian right wing and most likely Viktor Orbán himself.  The reporters of Magyar Nemzet simply don’t understand why the U.S. is demanding an explanation from either Viktor Orbán or János Áder when in their opinion the Fidesz government had nothing to do with the unveiling of Miklós Horthy’s statue. It was done by a Hungarian Reformed minister with Jobbik sympathies and was attended by a few Jobbik members of parliament. Their claim is that the Americans addressed the request to the wrong persons.

Moreover, the argument continues, the Hungarian government already answered the charges. Antal Rogán, the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, explained that it was “a provocation” aimed at arousing the international left-wing press to launch yet another attack against Hungary. In addition, János Lázár, undersecretary in charge of the prime minister’s office, said that the Horthy period must be judged by historians and not by politicians. He himself is not sufficiently knowledgeable to decide on the nature of the Hungarian regime between the two world wars. What else do the Americans want?

Levente Sitkei, another editor of Magyar Nemzet, was most upset that the American communiqué called Horthy “a Nazi ally plain and simple.” I don’t know whether he disputes the fact that Horty was an ally of Nazi Germany or whether he challenges the phrase “plain and simple.”  Our man has a devastating opinion of all American ambassadors who have served in Hungary since the change of regime. They were ignorant and among themselves they managed to pile up and pass on such political ballast that it’s no wonder American-Hungarian relations have hit rock bottom. The new “rich and beautiful” Colleen Bell will only add her own to that ballast. I myself used harsh words against the former American ambassadors, but while I criticized them for being ineffective, Sitkei condemns them because they were not more supportive, I guess, of Fidesz.

What advice does Sitkei have for the new American ambassador? She should “look behind the surface.” I guess that means that she should not accept the condemnations of the western media and the prejudices of the State Department but look for the real Hungary. She shouldn’t believe all that talk about extremism and anti-Semitism. Sitkei also hopes that she will be open and will listen to all sides as a good democrat should. In plain language, she should believe the Orbán government’s propaganda. “Or, will she be such an American and such a democrat that an hour before this article is published it will appear in English on Colleen Bell’s smart phone?”

And finally, a few choice sentences from an absolutely devoted Fidesz supporter. I assume he is retired by now, but earlier he was a professor at one of the top universities in the country. He is outraged about the American demand for an explanation of the unveiling of the Horthy statue. He is certain that the communiqué was not composed in Washington but that “one of those no good career diplomats who have been loitering around here for years wrote it who have nothing to do and who get their information exclusively from the communists and liberals.” These no-goods send letters in the name of their government against Hungary! In his opinion an American ambassador should know something about Hungary’s history and it would also be desirable to name someone who “has Hungarian roots.” He is certain that the new ambassador has already been approached by the communists and their friends. Just as the State Department is influenced by “inordinately prejudiced old geezers, like Charlie Gati.” Our professor would be very pleased if his words got to Washington because he is a true friend of the United States. So, I obliged.

New American ambassador in Budapest

I will devote today’s post to U.S.-Hungarian relations. At last the White House appointed a new ambassador to replace Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, whose tenure as U.S. ambassador to Hungary came to an end in July.

I devoted at least three posts to her less than sterling ambassadorship. In passing I also talked about her predecessor, April H. Foley, who was totally under the spell of Viktor Orbán and János Martonyi and hence had a very bad relationship with the socialist-liberal Hungarian government.  These two as well as their predecessors were so-called political appointees with no prior experience in diplomacy and no prior knowledge of the country in which they served. In September I introduced Colleen Bell, the producer of a very successful daytime soap, as the possible next U.S. ambassador in Budapest. And indeed, it is official: Ms Bell will soon be in Budapest. Right now, I’m certain, she is being prepped by the officials of the State Department. I can well imagine how difficult it must be to cram all the basic information about the past and present of a country one most likely knew nothing about a couple of months ago. I mean that in all sincerity. Of course, she will have a large staff of professionals who will help her along, but it still won’t be easy.

I wonder whether she is fully aware of the depth of the strained relations between Washington and Budapest, which hit a new low two days ago, exactly when Bell was appointed ambassador. The U.S. embassy in Budapest published the following press release:

The United States strongly condemns the shameful event organized by Jobbik, a Hungarian political party identified with ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism, to unveil a bust honoring Nazi ally Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader during World War II, at the entrance to the Hungarian Reformed Church at the edge of Szabadsag ter in Budapest on November 3.  Those who organized and participated in the event, including members of Hungary’s Parliament, promoted not only their own intolerance, but also a dramatically negative image of Hungary.  Although the significant number of counter-demonstrators showed there is strong opposition to the organizers’ views, and members of the Hungarian government have expressed disapproval, an event such as this requires swift, decisive, unequivocal condemnation by Hungary’s highest ranking leaders.

Seasoned reporters don’t remember such a strongly worded communiqué from the United States government in the longest time. In this press release the U.S. is calling on Viktor Orbán himself to condemn what happened on Szabadság tér. For the time being we haven’t heard anything from either Viktor Orbán or his deputies Tibor Navracsics and Zsolt Semjén. I am expecting an official silence, which will further strain the relations between the two countries.

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest Source:

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest

Of course, we all know that the warning comes straight from the State Department. Perhaps with the change of personnel that occurred after John Kerry took over the post of secretary of state, the State Department decided to be tougher on the Orbán government than it had been in the last three years. Perhaps they began to realize in Washington that the Orbán team doesn’t understand the polite language of diplomacy. One must be plain spoken and hard hitting with the man. As an old acquaintance of Orbán said, the Hungarian prime minister is basically a bellicose coward who when meeting strong resolve and firm resistance on the other side usually retreats. At least temporarily.

Gábor Horváth, one of the editors of Népszabadság, wrote an editorial in today’s paper in which he expressed his sympathy for the incoming ambassador who might not be aware of the difficulties she will face in Budapest. Horváth for a number of years was the paper’s correspondent in Washington, and therefore he is thoroughly familiar with the Washington scene. In his opinion, the millions of dollars the Hungarian government is spending in Washington are a total waste: the Orbán government’s reputation is irreparably ruined due to Viktor Orbán’s policies and behavior. And the government does indeed spend a lot of money lobbying “in Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” For details on the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development, see’s exclusive by Lili Bayer.

Horváth thinks that the ambassador will have difficulties establishing a cordial relationship with the Hungarian government. I agree with him, with one correction. She will have no difficulty establishing a working relationship with János Martonyi, the minister of foreign affairs, but that will not take her very far. Martonyi will assure her that everything is just fine and dandy and that what she and her staff see is not really so. But all this means nothing because the conduct of foreign policy is not in the hands of Martonyi. The semi-official organ of the government, Magyar Nemzet, only today accused the United States of spying on Viktor Orbán and his government in order to pass on information to the socialist-liberal opposition. So, this is where we stand. I hope the new ambassador will understand the workings of the Hungarian government because otherwise she will be truly lost.