Apparently ever since Hungary began successful negotiations with Russia concerning the Southern Stream, a new pipeline carrying natural gas through Turkey and the Balkans to Italy, Hungary, and Austria, the United States has been miffed with Ferenc Gyurcsány. Washington was worried, despite Hungary’s protestation to the contrary, that Hungary’s commitment to receive Russian natural gas through this new pipeline meant its abandonment of the Nabucco project of the European Union, still in the planning stage and strongly endorsed by the United States. Gyurcsány kept repeating that Hungary simply didn’t want to rely on only one source of natural gas. Washington remained suspicious. The relationship between the two countries became somewhat strained.
Viktor Orbán immediately sensed an opening here. His own relations with Washington in the last few years had been cool, if not outright frigid. It all started with 9/11 when István Csurka, head of the right radical MIÉP, then still a party with representation in parliament, made a speech in which he pretty well announced that the United States got what it deserved. Orbán, although present when the offending speech was delivered, said nothing in response. One of the problems with Orbán is that he subjugates everything to domestic considerations, and at that time he needed MIÉP’s votes. I’m sure he thought he could explain things away. He didn’t know the president of the United States. Although he desperately tried to get an invitation to the White House in the spring of 2002 when receiving an honorary doctorate from Tufts University, George W. Bush had no time for him. Washington, in order to show that the problem was not Hungary but Viktor Orbán, invited both Orbán’s successor, Péter Medgyessy, and Ferenc Gyurcsány to the White House. George W. Bush visited Budapest in the spring of 2006.
Fidesz and its media answered in kind: article after article appeared in Magyar Nemzet critical of U.S. policy especially concerning Israel and the Palestinian question. However, after Orbán sensed a cooling of U.S.-Hungarian relations he moved into high gear. He visited New York and Washington, had conversations with middle echelon leaders at the State Department, and courted the American ambassador, April H. Foley, and her predecessor, George H. Walker, first cousin of former president George H. Bush. His efforts bore fruit. George H. Walker apparently intervened on Orbán’s behalf so he would be received by the older Bush. For one reason or another that trip didn’t materialize but now, after the Southern Stream, things looked a bit brighter. An influential strategist from the Republican National Committee spent a week or so in Hungary giving lectures to Fidesz politicians about political strategy in general and tips on successful campaigning in particular. Then came the news that Orbán is going to the United States in late August to attend the Republican National Convention. This time, it seems, he will be the guest of former President Bush.
However, Gyurcsány is nobody’s fool, and he knew he had to do something to show Washington that Hungary is still America’s faithful ally and not a pawn of President/Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry organized a three-day trip to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, the two countries whose cooperation is absolutely necessary to make the Nabucco pipeline a reality. Turkmenistan especially is a hard nut to crack and we still don’t know what the final word is. One Hungarian paper gingerly described the attitude of Gurbanduly Berdimuhammedow, president of the country, as “he doesn’t completely reject the idea of the transportation of the gas to Europe.” That’s not much, but I guess it’s more than was expected. In any case, the encounter between the two men were interesting. Their first meeting lasted one and a half hours longer than scheduled and as a result several planned programs had to be cancelled. In their place, out of the blue the president invited Gyurcsány to a horse show followed by a dinner for two and a visiting to a bazaar. The result: the Hungarian delegation left Ashkadab, the Turkmen capital, four hours late. All told Berdimuhammedow and Gyurcsány spent six and a half hours together.
Apparently, Gyurcsány needed all his powers of persuasion, and at the beginning the negotiations didn’t go at all well. It was at this point that the Hungarian prime minister came up with the idea of a Nabucco summit and invited the Turkman president to be part of it. That seemed to do the trick. Suddenly Berdimuhammedow was enthusiastic about such a summit and showed an eagerness to attend. Apparently, the summit will take place in Budapest.
And now comes Washington. Gábor Horváth, foreign correspondent of Népszabadság, had an interview with Matthew Bryza, undersecretary of the State Department in charge of Central Asia and questions of energy. During this interview Bryza said to Horváth that “in the name of my government I can officially express our satisfaction at the visit of the [Hungarian] prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. The United States strongly supports the summit and is pleased that Prime Minister Gyurcsány undertook such a trip.” Bryza also praised Kinga Göncz, the foreign minister, who “was always very honest with us. We had serious negotiations and she always emphasized that Hungary was greatly interested in the project. With her own and the prime minister’s trip to Central Asia all her promises have been fulfilled.”
Just a word here about Kinga Göncz. She is the daughter of former President Árpád Göncz, and one is always a little bit suspicious about such appointments. She is a psychiatrist by training and I had never heard of her before she became minister of social welfare in the Medgyessy government, a role in which she didn’t impress me. I couldn’t figure out why Ferenc Gyurcsány asked her to be foreign minister. Yes, she does know languages and that is important. But otherwise? The Hungarian media were equally puzzled: the only thing they could figure was that with Hungary being part of the European Union the position of foreign minister was no longer very important. Moreover, they added, Gyurcsány is so active in foreign affairs that poor Kinga won’t matter much.
I must say that I have had to change my mind about her. As minister of social welfare she was a boring goody-goody and, at least in my opinion, never said anything of interest. She smiled a lot and was pleasant. But otherwise? As they say, dull as dish water. Since she became foreign minister I changed my mind about her. I find her very diplomatic, well spoken, at ease, and someone who really knows her subject. There is a warmth and genuineness about her which I assume is refreshing in the diplomatic world. All in all, she appears to have been an excellent choice.