A bombshell hit Budapest this morning when readers opened today's issue of Népszabadság. The newspaper informed Hungarians that Al Kamen in his column "In the Loop" (The Washington Post) wrote a devastating description of Viktor Orbán, whom he described as someone following in the footsteps of Alekszandr Lukashenko. Kamen also revealed that the U.S. Ambassador has been trying to deliver a demarche to the Hungarian prime minister who has been so terribly busy of late that he was unable to grant her an appointment.
First a few words about Al Kamen. He joined The Washington Post in 1980 and has covered many aspects of Washington politics including the State Department, so I assume he knows what he is talking about. Most likely he still has connections and therefore his information is pretty accurate.
What did Al Kamen hear from the U.S. State Department? What did the diplomats dealing with Hungary say to him about Hungary's prime minister? He is "cracking down on the media, curbing the independence of the judiciary." In brief, he is drifting "toward one-party rule." At the end of June, Hillary Clinton visited Budapest where she warned Orbán about the United States' displeasure over what's going on in Hungary. This encounter was followed by a demarche, or an official diplomatic protest, which was to be hand-delivered to Viktor Orbán himself. However, Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis has been waiting for that opportunity ever since mid-August. Orbán is "too busy."
Isn't it amazing what an article like that can achieve! Today Péter Szijjártó, the personal spokesman of the prime minister, announced when asked by Népszabadság that the U.S. ambassador will be received next week. She just had to wait her turn. Brad Hurst, the press attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, confirmed next week's meeting and when questioned admitted that indeed the request for the meeting had been made in August.
Kamen's article is full of sarcasm sprinkled with slang expressions. Surely when he speaks of "Orban's increasingly anti-democratic antics" he doesn't have "mischief, tricks, clowning" in mind, and therefore it is somewhat misleading for Hungarian reports on Kamen's article to talk about "anti-democratic clowning" (bohóckodás). The anti-democratic steps taken by the Orbán government are deadly serious matters.
But there are other annoying aspects of Orbán's behavior. His foreign policy utterances. He has been talking about "strategic alliances" with Russia and China. He claimed at one point that what connects Russia and Hungary is the two people's Christian roots! I'll bet Putin was impressed! It is also quite incredible that Orbán talks about the close relationship between China and Hungary going back decades, including the time of the greatest oppression during Mao Zedong's rule. It was during this wonderful friendship between the two countries that China's rulers played a sinister role in encouraging the suppression of the 1956 revolution. Lately, while in Saudi Arabia, Orbán went on and on about how much he appreciates the Saudis' deep attachment to Islam and that religious roots are very important in the history of nations. Saudi Arabia is just like Hungary, but of course Hungary is a deeply Christian country. Sure thing! Thirteen percent of the population attends church once a week.
All in all, Orbán has done a lot to damage the reputation of Hungary. His own reputation had been ruined earlier both in Europe and in the United States. People whose memory is better than that of the Hungarian voters still remember his aggressive, nationalistic, antagonistic attitude toward practically every country on the face of the earth. He had only two favorites in those days: the autocratic and nationalistic Franjo Tudjman, president of Croatia, and Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister of Italy. Since then Tudjman has died and Berlusconi's days are numbered. How successful he will be with Russia, China, or Saudi Arabia only time will tell. Since the Chinese premier's visit one hasn't heard about any significant Chinese purchase of Hungarian bonds. The Saudi trip was most likely a flop especially if one listens to Gyula Pleschinger, the chief executive of Hungary's debt management agency. The video of the interview about Orbán's trip to Saudi Arabia makes it clear that the Saudi government will not purchase Hungarian bonds. One can listen to the interview in the October 12 issue of The Wall Street Journal.
There is a very good possibility that, after all, Orbán will have to crawl back to the International Monetary Fund that he and György Matolcsy unceremoniously sent away last year. Some people might say that in this case joint economic and political pressure might change his autocratic attitude. I wish I could be that optimistic. However, I do think that the pressure is mounting both inside and outside the country. Whether it will have an effect on Orbán is another matter.