U.S.-Hungarian relations during the George W. Bush era

Yesterday I promised an interesting tidbit about the strained U.S.-Hungarian relations as a result of Hungarian foreign and economic policy toward Russia during the Gyurcsány years. And what makes the information especially important is that it comes from the horse's mouth. Ferenc Gyurcsány tells about his rocky relations with George W. Bush's last ambassador to Budapest, April Foley.

But first a little background. It was in February 2008 that Hungary signed an agreement, together with Austria and Italy, to adhere to a consortium that would build a new pipeline called the Southern Stream. Negotiations were long and arduous and the European Union, and especially the United States, was dissatisfied with the Hungarian government. According to Washington Hungary should have nothing or very little to do with Russia. The country should put all its eggs into one basket, the Nabucco project, which was then and still is no more than a dream. Neither the source of the gas nor the financing by the European Union countries has been secured. I wrote about the Russian pipelines at some length in February 2008.

At the time Ferenc Gyurcsány's position was that Hungary has no intention of abandoning the Nabucco project but that Hungary's energy security is on firmer ground if the country has multiple sources of natural gas. As we know only too well, at the moment there is only one pipeline from Russia that reaches Hungary, and that is through Ukraine. I guess I don't have to spend a lot of time describing past difficulties when, because of Ukrainian non-payment, no gas came to Hungary for weeks on end.

I thought this Hungarian position made a lot of sense, and I was somewhat taken aback when I realized that in official circles in Washington there was widespread belief that Gyurcsány's relations with Russia were far too cozy and therefore suspect. I simply considered it in Hungary's self-interest to have amiable relations with Russia especially since, let's face it, Hungary's energy supply is in large measure dependent on Russian goodwill. I'm sure that Gyurcsány doesn't sympathize with Vladimir Putin's undemocratic ways, but he maintained cordial relations with the Russian president/prime minister. In fact, their personal relations could be said to be good. Putin was invited to the home of the Gyurcsány family, and in return Putin invited Gyurcsány and his wife to a family dinner, although by that time Gyurcsány was no longer prime minister.

Enough of the background. Now let's turn to Gyurcsány's revelations on his blog. Because of Viktor Orbán's trip to Moscow he wrote how surprised he was when a few months ago he heard from Orbán that after all Hungary's adherence to the Southern Stream project was a laudable move. Orbán and Fidesz no longer have any problems with this pipeline even though two years ago they accused Gyurcsány of selling the country to the Russians or building a stepping stone for the Russian bear to put its ugly paws on Western Europe. Now suddenly, says Gyurcsány, Orbán is in favor of close relations with Russia. What has changed since then?

According to Gyurcsány, his relations with George Herbert Walker III, ambassador to Hungary between 2003 and 2006, were based "on mutual respect," while with his predecessor, Nancy Goodman Brinker (2001-2203), the relationship was more than official. To this day every time Nancy Brinker goes to Hungary she meets with the Gyurcsánys. But then came April Foley and things changed. It was quite obvious even to outside observers (like myself) that April Foley was a friend and supporter of Fidesz. According to Gyurcsány, at one of their meetings Foley expressed her disapproval of the growing trade between Russia and Hungary. "When I heard that I almost fell off my chair," says Gyurcsány. Later Foley, using all of Fidesz's arguments, complained about the agreement with Russia over building the Southern Stream. "This was more than disapproval, I would rather describe it as a calling to account." Foley, according to Gyurcsány, "gave instructions, orders" and in response Gyurcsány didn't mince words and criticized her behavior. "At the end, I told her that not even the ambassadors of the Soviet Union dared to talk to the Hungarian leaders as she does." The meeting was cut short and their subsequent relations were icy.

Gyurcsány elaborates on the Bush administration's attitude when it came to Russia. If Germany signed an agreement with the Russians to build the Northern Stream there were no complaints. Hungary, however, was not granted the same latitude.

With the change of administration in Washington American-Russian relations have improved, and therefore it seems that Orbán is also changing his tune. But, Gyurcsány argues, a few years back Hungary's position was the correct one and Bush's policy was faulty.  The United States is a friend and an ally, but that doesn't mean that Hungary "must follow all its demands." After all, Hungary has its own national interests.

So, the message is that Gyurcsány followed a policy that served Hungary's national interests although there was considerable pressure from Brussels and Washington to take a different course. Now, it seems that Orbán is slavishly following the wishes of Washington. "Who is the patriot then?"–Gyurcsány asks in conclusion.

Personally, I doubt that Orbán is kowtowing to Washington in developing his Russia policy. But then I don't have to score political points.

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This whole Hungary/Russia/USA thing revolves round one key point – Hungary’s incredibly weak position vis-à-vis Russia because she is so dependent on Russian gas.
If I were running Hungary, one of my key programmes would be to reduce Hungary’s dependence on Russian (or any other single source’s) supply of energy.
And my first question would be “what about geothermal energy?” It seems to be the one resource Hungary does have, and yet it is only used for tourists and people with bad backs to lie about in.
I can’t be the fist person to wonder about this, so I assume others have asked this question. What answers did they get? Is there just not enough geothermal energy? Or is it too expensive to develop it? Or what?

Mutt Damon

@Eva I received this from a friend in June:
It is by Frank Koszorus Jr., President of the American Hungarian Federation, and he claims that relationships was actually very cosy between W’s and Gyurcsany’s government because the socialists were “easier to deal with.” What do you make of this?

Eva S. Balogh

To Mutt Damon. To your question as to what I make of Koszorus’s claim: not much. That was the standard American line. I also know the leadership of the American-Hungarian Federation. It happens to be a group of people who are Fidesz sympathizers.
I think that the whole cozy relationship between the socialist governments and Moscow was greatly exaggerated. Sure, both Medgyessy and Gyurcsány tried to mend fences with Russia after Orbán’s very antagonistic and ideologically motivated Russia policy, but the Gyurcsány government didn’t see any immediate possibility of the construction of Nabucco. They were not even sure where the gas was going to come from. So, when there was the arrangement by which the Russians were building another pipeline the Hungarians felt that they had to join Austria, Italy and some Balkan states so at least they will have a second pipeline. But they didn’t give up on Nabucco.
As it is now, Orbán suddenly discovered that the adherence of Hungary to the Southern Stream was after all a good idea. So, was it or wasn’t it?

Rigó Jancsi

It will be interesting to see what information wikileaks has on the relationship between ambassadors and Hungarian government. As I understand, Spiegel has the papers but did not yet publish the content. I guess they wait until January and the EU council presidency to get more publicity outside of Hungary, too.

Odin's Lost Eye
Paul I know this is a bit off topic and I apologise for it. My hobby is engineering. I make steam engines, clocks and other wondrous things. As child, in the summer holidays, I used to help my father who worked as a Millwright to maintain the main power take off wheels used in the local weaving mills. Actually Hungary is incredibly energy rich. You have mentioned the geothermal sources, but there is also the wind power. The problem here is that wind generation can be a bit hit/miss and Hungary has no ability to store electricity in times of surplus. (Dad was trained as an Electrical Power Engineer). You can see how it is done at Llanberis /Dinowic on Google earth. I have also solved most of the problem of storage the surplus power generated. It uses known and for the most part proven technology. It is not ‘green’ but if operated properly is can be almost carbon neutral. Hungary also has a huge source of hydroelectric power. This source is the Danube, the Tisza and perhaps the Raba river systems. The Duna falls some 20 meters between the point where it fully enters Hungary to the point where… Read more »

@Odin Re; power generation, Danube River etc.
You could take a look at the following site.Please disregard the Hungarian text if you wish, just brows the English.
Liptak Bela P.E. is one of the gurus of instrumentation and process control.

I think that the bigger story is simply that, after the relationship to Orban soured in the last two years of his administration, not only the US, but the EU and Russia found the relationship to the MSzP/SzDSz to be easier going. The coalition was both consistently committed to western alliances and comfortable in discussions with the Russians. Moreover, the first Orban government appeared highly erratic at time, and the news of insider construction contracting or massive spending on PR campaigns with obvious pro-FIDESZ biases was not reassuring. This led to the unusual (in contemporary Europe, at least) phenomenon of the US, with a republican-appointed enbassador being transparently supportive of the coalition parties in 20002. At the very least, none of these foreign partners found themselves subject to use as a target in domestic political dialogue. This is not to say that the relationships were uniformly rosy — anything having to do with natural gas, for example, was automatically problematic — but the foreign relationships under the coalition were generally positive. The deterioration under Foley probably reflects three aspects: energy interests, Foley’s strong personal identification with Bush’s (a former boyfriend) Republican party and a rather facile identification of FIDESZ as… Read more »
Pete H.

This site has maps for renewable energy potential (bioenergy, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, solar, and wind) for all of Europe.
According to these maps, compared to the rest of Europe, Hungary has rather poor potential for wind but moderate potential for bio, thermal, and solar.
However, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has done a study of renewable energy potential in Hungary and comes to this conclusion:
“Hungary’s geothermal reserves are primarily low to medium enthalpy, which are not suitable for electricity generation. There is some evidence of the existence of high-enthalpy resources capable of electricity generation, but none have been explored to date.”
The known geothermal resources are suitable for heating in many places.
They also feel that solar potential is poor.
The Bakony Mtns. have the highest wind potential.
These assessments are made with current technologies in mind. If these technologies improve, it may tip the balance in favor of these low potential resources.

Thanks for the various replies re geothermal energy, etc. I found the reference to wind generation rather odd, as one of the things you most notice when moving from the UK to Hungary, is the lack of wind! But I would have thought that solar energy had more potential than suggested, there is certainly a lot more sunshine in Hungary than in the UK, even in winter. The problem is, as pointed out by Odin’s, that with both these means of generation, you need to be able to store unwanted electricity and feed it back into the grid when required. This is normally done by pumping water into a higher reservoir when surplus electricity is available, and letting it flow back down to generate electricity when demand is higher than production. Three things are needed for this: a large and flexible source of water (typically this is a large lake, but it could also be a river with sufficient capacity, like the Duna or Tiza), a large reservoir at a reasonable height (several hundred metres), and a generating/pumping station capable of dealing with high volumes of water at short notice. As Odin’s mentions, there is a fine example of this… Read more »
Odin's Lost Eye
Paul Normally your ‘Tail Pond (the one at the bottom of the hill) holds 21/2 times the volume of the ‘Top Pond’. The problem with the pumped water storage device will would occur in winter. I believe it is not unknown for Lake Balaton (and the Duna/Tisza) to freeze solid. The Danes who also have no hills are messing about with a idea of using something like a super giant hot water bottle. But, as I have said, there is another way to store electricity, which does not use hills. Where I live in Hungary in the summer we 4 days out of 7 we have a force 2-3 wind (Beaufort scale) and a maximum of wind force 5 to 6 for 3 days a month. In winter the wind speeds are often less. The thing that every one neglects is the Duna/Tisza. The average width of the Duna is about 500 meters; if it were 6 meters deep with a triangular bottom profile and is flowing at 1 knot (1850 meters per hour) this would give you some 2,3700,00 cu meters of water per hour. If I have the right units this little lot would weigh some 2,370,000 Tonnes… Read more »
Rigó Jancsi

There are very few examples in the world where energy is stored in pressurized caves. The air is pumped down when there is wind, and afterwards it’s used in turbines to generate electricity. But then, except for some porous caves like at Aggtelek, I have not heard about large cave systems in Hungary that would be suitable.


OV is probably going to solve the energy problem by installing treadmills – powered by all us lefties, commies, liberals, self-abusers and Hungary haters.
Any the gays had better watch out – they’re next.
First they came for the communists…


One thing to keep in mind re Gyurcsány and Foley is that she came to Hungary just as the economy was going to pot and Gyurcsi was becoming a global punch line. So it was never likely to be a very happy time. Meanwhile, both Fidesz and MSZP are being utterly cynical re the whole Nabucco/South Stream thing – they want both, but mostly so there are twice as many contracts to play with. It has nothing to do with geopolitics… it’s just business.