I must admit that until I read U.S. Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’s op/ed piece in Magyar Nemzet I had spent relatively little time on her year and a half in Hungary. However, in the last two or three days I combed through some of the available sources about her activities in Budapest (and many thanks to those internet friends who provided some links) and found some material that sheds light on her presumably self-defined role.
First, a communiqué issued by Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis that I found to be an odd reaction from an ambassador. The background is as follows. A cable from Karl Eikenberry, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, was made public by Wikileaks. In it he was complaining about the Hungarian troops. “The Hungarian PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] does little to address any of the problems [in the province of Baghlan]. They are not permitted to fire their weapons except in self-defence, do little more than patrol the main roads and undertake no counter-narcotics activities. When two Hungarian de-miners were killed doing their work, Budapest stopped sending mine cleaners. When the security situation in northeastern Bamyan Province was threatened by Baghlan-based malefactors, it was the New Zealanders who had to cross into Baghlan to address the problem.” All these details were published in the New Zealand Herald on December 7, 2010.
What should an American ambassador do in this case? Perhaps, given the sensitive issue of the leaked U.S. documents, she could have made a statement to the effect that the United States appreciates the efforts Hungary is making in Afghanistan. Period. But she almost always overstates her case, which I find unbecoming. She doesn’t use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Here is a part of her statement on this incident: “Through its leadership of this PRT, at this location, Hungary is admirably contributing to the success of the ISAF mission. Its civic action and infrastracture projects continue to make a difference on the ground. The soldiers who make up the Hungarian PRT and those serving elsewhere in Afghanistan are well-trained and brave. We salute their efforts.”
Or here is another example from the question and answer period after her lecture delivered at the Central European University in Budapest. There was a question about the constitution that was not yet available in its final form. She could have said that she hopes that the new constitution will be democratic, but such simple answers are usually not enough for her. She felt compelled to add that “the new constitution is being written by people who are well qualified. The new constitution will be a good one. The rule of law, the freedom of the press and expression will be ensured.” In brief, she went out of her way to endorse the Hungarian government instead of either being impartial or, better, representing American interests.
A couple of months later she made the same mistake in Gyöngyöspata when she said that “while in the village she became convinced that the Hungarian policemen tried to defend everybody.” She made it clear that “she deeply appreciates the work of the policemen who meet a lot of challenges. Citizens whom they defend should be grateful to them.” Considering that the Hungarian police did nothing in Gyöngyöspata for two solid weeks except fraternize with members of the paramilitary, it is rather odd to hear the American ambassador singing their praises. The media worldwide was full of the fear that had spread among the Roma in the village.
Altogether one has the impression that Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis wants to be popular in Hungary. She has an especially close relationship to Csaba Hende, minister of defense. Pictured below.
They made trips together to Sarajevo, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Apparently she made quite a splash when she made a visit with Colonel Robert W. Duggleby, U.S. military attaché, to the shooting range in Dóc. She showed a great interest in the various weapons. After the exhibition she tried out all the handguns herself and “dazzled the soldiers” with her accuracy. After she tried all the guns, she announced that she liked the Hungarian-made Szép M1 the best.
And finally here is another picture from April this year when the ambassador spent a short vacation in Hajdúszoboszló at a “tanya,” loosely translated as a ranch. Here she decided to don a traditional Hungarian peasant costume.
Well, one could say, “What’s wrong with that?” She is a friendly sort and keeps very good relations with the members of the Hungarian government. Yes, but….. If there are some uncomfortable messages that she has to deliver she will be in a very difficult situation. Caught between a rock and a hard place. How will she be able to tell her close friends that, for example, although the United States appreciates the efforts of the Hungarian soldiers in Afghanistan, she is not too thrilled with the law on religions or the media law or, for that matter, the constitution?
Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis reminds me of another U.S. ambassador to Hungary: John Flournoy Montgomery, who held the post between 1933 and 1941. He was also a political appointee who would have preferred to be sent to Vienna but had to settle for Budapest. Once he was there, however, he loved the place, especially since he made many, many friends among members of the government and the political elite. In fact, he was so enamored of Budapest that when FDR wanted to relieve him of his duties he begged the president to be able to remain. As he said, there was also an excellent golf course there.
Who would have thought in 1933 that the ambassadorial position in Budapest would be of great importance in the next eight or nine years? Although Montgomery wrote a book about his experiences in Budapest (Hungary, the Unwilling Satellite) his closeness to Miklós Horthy and the leading Hungarian politicians made him an unreliable source for those years. Montgomery’s personal papers are at Yale University, but I can assure everyone that there is nothing of interest in them. Regardless of what Wikipedia says about the importance of Montgomery’s presence in Budapest.