Yesterday I wrote about Ambassador April Foley's very low opinion of Ferenc Gyurcsány's policies, especially his allegedly overly cozy relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin. By contrast, it is apparent from the currently available American documents that she had a high opinion of Viktor Orbán. The very fact that she sent Daniel Fried, U.S. undersecretary in the State Department, to Orbán to get a clear picture of the Hungarian situation says a lot about her less than objective view of the Hungarian situation. In one of her cables she described Orbán as "being playful and relaxed" while she pointed out that "Hungarians are becoming tired of Gyurcsány's supercilious style." Playful versus supercilious!
After her departure in April 2009, for almost a whole year Chargé d'Affaires Jeffrey Levine headed the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. He showed a healthy dose of skepticism when it came to an assessment of Viktor Orbán the politician. The first cable available specifically dealing with Orbán was written on June 16, 2009 when Orbán gave a speech at a conference organized by the Budapest Atlantic Forum. The meeting took place three days after the stunning victory of Fidesz (56%) at the European Parliamentary elections. Orbán is described as "confident and relaxed." Orbán emphasized the important "assistance from Germany's Chancellor Merkel and Italian PM Berlusconi" his party received. As usual, Orbán exaggerated as Levine himself noted in his memo: "During the election campaigns, Orbán has regularly made a point of seeking out meetings, often amounting to little more than a photo-op, with foreign leaders presumed to be sympathetic towards Fidesz."
Orbán in fact was so relaxed that "he doesn't have to worry about being politically correct," and he immediately made some critical remarks about the United States and certain EU leaders. "He gave the impression of a leader who possesses enough political and social backing that he does not have to worry too much about niceties and paying lip service to the international community." As if his political and social backing at home had anything to do with his standing in the international community. When it came to criticism of the United States, Orbán explained Hungarian anti-American feelings in terms of the unpopularity of George W. Bush and the United States' major responsibility for the world's financial crisis.
As early as mid-2009 Orbán seemed to have been fairly confident of a huge landslide resulting perhaps in a two-thirds majority. In this connection "Orbán said that ultimately, Hungary appears to be moving toward a 'one-party system,' and that one party will be Fidesz, facing no real competition from smaller political entities." Interestingly, Levine added no comment to this startling and somewhat frightening announcement.
When it came to the economy Orbán refused to answer probing questions about specific economic actions he was planning to take. He explained that "he is a lawyer, not an economist." Levine somewhat sarcastically remarked that he may be a lawyer, "albeit one who never practiced." At this time Orbán was still planning "to initiate a new agreement with the IMF." Levine was somewhat surprised that the Fidesz politician "equated with 'the Americans' the IMF throughout his remarks."
A few months later, on November 18, Fidesz "rolled out its economic and foreign policy agenda to members of the diplomatic community." Fidesz's "triumvirate of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Zsolt Németh … (rumored future) Minister of Economy György Matolcsy, and former (and again, widely touted future) Foreign Minister János Martonyi" gave lectures. Levine found Matolcsy's presentation "highly polished" but not very convincing. He focused "heavily on contrasting the alleged virtues of the previous 1998-2002 Fidesz government with the supposed vices of its Socialist successors." Matolcsy used "the refrain 'reform/reform/reform.'" Rather amusing in light of the Orbán government's refusal to utter the word "reform." Matolcsy promised programs to cut bureaucracy, streamline taxes, and battle corruption. In his usual overly optimistic fashion the future economic minister claimed that "cutting bureaucracy by 25 percent could generate 7 percent GDP growth." Once again, Levine did not comment on these surely unrealistic figures. Matolcsy repeated Orbán's earlier statement about the need for IMF and World Bank support of their program. Yet, a few months later Orbán and Matolcsy were fighting for the country's freedom from these international lenders.
Matolcsy's economic presentation did not go into any detail. He stayed away from an in-depth discussion of Fidesz's tax proposals. To Levine Matolcsy's "economic figures brought to mind Mark Twain's famous quip about statistics, since they were carefully constructed to bolster the Fidesz argument that only they had been fiscally responsible." The quip to which Levine was referring is from Mark Twain's Autobiography: ""There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." And he added that "given the reaction of the audience, Fidesz clearly faces some skepticism about its pro-business/pro-investment rhetoric."
János Martonyi waxed eloquent about the necessity of a stronger Europe and the Lisbon Treaty and expressed his unhappiness over Czech President Vacláv Klaus's effort to attach an "opt-out" clause to the treaty. It is worth comparing Martonyi's pro-European Union stance in 2009 with Viktor Orbán's decidedly antagonistic remarks about Brussels nowadays.
A major surprise to the American diplomats stationed in Budapest must have been Orbán's about-face on the issue of the Southern Stream. Clearly, Orbán knew as well as Gyurcsány and others in and out of the government that it was in Hungary's interest to adhere to the agreement to build a new pipeline that would bypass Ukraine. But he had a well-deserved reputation for being anti-Russian. By the time that Orbán lost the elections in 2002 Russian-Hungarian relations had hit rock bottom. One of the Medgyessy's first foreign policy steps was to mend fences with Russia, a potentially large market for Hungarian goods. He made strides, and after 2004 Gyurcsány continued this policy. For Orbán the American suspicion about Hungarian-Russian relations came in handy. If Fidesz followed the U.S. lead in opposing rapprochement with Russia, the party could endear itself to Washington. And Orbán badly needed something that would improve relations between his party and the United States. With April Foley's assistance he was quite successful in this endeavor.
But then the Republicans lost the presidential election in 2008, which had to be a blow to Orbán who to the last minute was supporting the McCain-Palin ticket. And with the lost election, April Foley, an ardent Fidesz supporter, disappeared from the scene. In her place came a shrewd career diplomat with a good dose of skepticism about Fidesz's plans for the future. It seems that Levine's skepticism was well founded.