It was in November 2002, after the fall of the first Orbán government, that Celeste A. Wallander (Ph.D. Yale '90), then Director and Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, received an accusatory letter from István Simicskó, assistant secretary of defense in the previous government. He complained bitterly about the temerity of Wallander's writing in a scholarly article entitled "Shape Up or Ship Out" in the November-December issue of the well respected quarterly, Foreign Affairs, that in the previous four years Hungary, among other NATO members, didn't really fulfill its obligations within the alliance. According to an unnamed high NATO official, "the former government's anti-Semitism, its extraterritorial demands toward its neighbors, and its lack of constructive cooperation for the creation of political stability in the Balkans" would be reason enough for NATO drop Hungary from the alliance.
At that point, Simicskó began a campaign against the researcher, intimating that Wallander was an agent of the American military establishment and that she was conspiring with the Medgyessy government to prepare for the new Hungarian prime minister's visit to Washington. He also wrote to the unsuspecting Celeste Wallander herself. It wasn't exactly a polite letter. In addition, Béla Lipták's "Hungarian Lobby," a misnomer for "Fidesz Lobby," began a campaign among its thousands of members to inundate Wallander with complaining letters. In the end I wrote to her and apologized for my countrymen's unspeakable behavior. Because since when does a former undersecretary of a government write a letter to a researcher accusing her of antagonism toward his country?
The real twist in the whole story is that by now Celeste Wallander is U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia and as such surely has some contact with István Simicskó, who is again assistant secretary of defense in the second Orbán government. Somehow I don't think that Wallander has particularly fond memories of her Hungarian counterpart.
Well, that was a long time ago and the members of Orbán's cabinet were younger and inexperienced. Perhaps, one might imagine, today they would handle things better. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case.
You may remember the very negative assessment of the second Orbán government that appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post on July 19, 2010. In it, the paper reminded Orbán that he had become "persona non grata in Washington, despite his country's membership in NATO" between 1998-2002. The editors then listed the moves of the current Hungarian government they thought were not helping the stability of the region. For example, they brought up granting citizenship to Hungarians living in the neighboring countries and electing a "nationalist ally" to be the president of the country. They were especially upset over the media law even if at that point they didn't really know the full impact the new law could have on the Hungarian media. The article ended with the following warning: "Mr. Orban's big election victory gave him an unusual amount of authority in a parliamentary democracy. At best, he could use it to push through economic reforms that Hungary needs to revive a chronically lagging economy. If he seeks instead to weaken democratic institutions, he will merely ensure that he once again becomes a pariah in Western capitals."
Two days later I learned from Origo, an on-line newspaper, that Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for communication in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, wrote a letter to the editor of The Washington Post. Interestingly, Kovács didn't release the text of his letter to MTI as is usual in such cases and instead told Origo that his biggest complaint was that "the article called Pál Schmitt a nationalist ally." Checking the archives of The Washington Post there is no sign of Kovács's letter to the editor. Just as well after reading Kovács's masterpiece sent to The Financial Times the other day.
On August 4, 2011 an editorial in The Financial Times had a few very harsh words to say about the Hungarian situation. The title itself is telling: "Orban warfare." It accused the Fidesz government of making every effort "to establish long-term political domination of the country." It mentions "attempts to charge three former premiers with 'criminal' economic mismanagement." Using the two-thirds majority Fidesz secured last year, "Mr Orban's behaviour is reaching the point where it threatens democracy." At the end the editorial called on "Brussels, and other member states … to ensure that [the Hungarian government] upholds the values on whose basis it was admitted to the Union."
Zoltán Kovács immediately wrote the following response.
Inconsistency mars FT’s criticism of Hungary
From Mr Zoltan Kovacs.
Sir, Your editorial “Orban warfare” (August 5) on the Fidesz-led coalition government in Hungary raises the question of the basis on which these criticisms are made. The Hungarian government is accountable to Hungary’s voters, not to foreign journalists, even if you decry this as “nationalism”. The government’s support at home remains solid. Hence its legitimacy, derived from the voters, is not in question.
No one likes to be criticised by outsiders and the effect of external criticism is to strengthen support for a government that resists being pushed around by foreigners. This may well be an unintended consequence of your editorial and others like it.
Additionally, your negative comment would have much more force if you had been equally critical of the 2002-10 leftwing Hungarian governments and their disastrous policies. This was not the case, despite occasional tut-tutting, and there is an undeniable whiff of a double standard being applied. Are centre-right governments to be assessed by harsher criteria than leftwing ones? Many people in Hungary see it that way and that inconsistency undermines your criticism in Hungarian eyes. This is what counts.
On the specifics, your observations about the charges potentially being brought against the former premiers are premature, indeed inaccurate. There has been no attempt to bring charges. Rather, a recommendation has been made to the appropriate parliamentary committee to consider the grounds for charges to be brought. Nor, in the event, would any charges be brought retroactively: Hungary’s constitution would not allow this.
It is ironic that you presume sufficient knowledge of the legal basis to label the government’s actions as “legally spurious”, while at the same time demonstrating that you yourself have a very poor understanding of Hungarian law.
This is how to win friends and influence people! Kovács is a master at alienating people. How can a government choose a man like Kovács to be undersecretary for communications? Unless, of course, Viktor Orbán purposely picked someone as undiplomatic and unsympathetic as Zoltán Kovács. Not only in writing. He was, by the way, the man who compared Trianon to the Holocaust in Washington in front of government officials a few months ago.
But Kovács was not the only one busy writing letters lately. Annamária Szalai also decided to share her opinion about "the mistakes" Thomas O. Melia made concerning the media law. First she expressed her gratitude to the State Department for paying that much attention to the Hungarian media law, but unfortunately, she noted, Melia made several inaccurate statements about the provisions of the law. I guess the sarcasm is not going to be wasted on Mr. Melia. The message is always the same: anyone who dares to criticize is simply ignorant.
It would be time to stop all this antagonistic, undiplomatic, sarcastic correspondence with diplomats, researchers, and journalists. It is becoming embarrassing.