Viktor Orbán is pretty thick when it comes to criticism. First, he is inclined to avoid any encounter that might be unpleasant. I guess that’s why his chief opponent, Ferenc Gyurcsány, calls him “a coward.” That is what he did between August and October when he just didn’t have enough time to meet with the American ambassador, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, who was instructed from Washington to have a tête-à-tête with the Hungarian prime minister since his actions had raised concerns in the U.S. capital.
If the message comes in the form of an op/ed article, then both the message and the messenger are simply ignored. This is what happened when Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis wrote an article in Magyar Nemzet, a government mouthpiece. Since her first message didn’t do any good she, or someone else in Washington, decided to repeat the warning. Perhaps presenting the criticism in slightly stronger terms might work.
This time her article was published in Heti Válasz. I must emphasize that Heti Válasz is considered to be a “moderate” publication. However, the reactions that appeared in Heti Válasz in the past week or so amply demonstrate, I think, that “moderate” is a relative term; in Hungary it means something other than “opposed to radical or extreme views or measures.” While her first article was simply ignored, this time the reporters of the weekly that is close to the government–the editor-in-chief of Heti Válasz was Viktor Orbán’s government spokesman for four years between 1998 and 2002–were vocal in their criticism of U.S. interference.
First of all, although Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’s article entitled “A Second Look” appeared on December 8 it is still unavailable on the Internet. But a rather impertinent “answer” that accompanied her article in the same issue was made available immediately. So, people who read Heti Válasz online might be a bit confused. Fortunately, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest made the transcript available in the original language.
Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis repeats the usual diplomatic disclaimers: Viktor Orbán’s government was elected through free and fair elections; Hungary is a democracy and it is ultimately up to the Hungarian people to decide the direction of their country; and finally, when the United States expresses concerns about the direction of Hungarian democracy, it comes from her as a friend of the country.
Notwithstanding, the ambassador expresses concern over the speed of creating about 200 new laws in less than three months. Reforms are necessary “but with today’s reforms the government is focusing on greater efficiency.” She notes that the embassy staff in Budapest and “colleagues in Washington have worked diligently to understand the effect these Cardinal Laws will have on democracy. We continue to be concerned.” These concerns seem to be so serious that the U.S. ambassador asked the Hungarian government to “look again” at these laws, including the new constitution, because “a number of credible voices are raising questions.” She mentions again the lack of sufficient checks and balances and the independence of democratic institutions.
Then Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis raised some hypothetical questions the leaders of the Hungarian government should ask themselves. For example, “Does concentration of authority in the hands of an individual improve efficiency of an institution or hinder its independence? Does requiring a two-thirds majority to replace a powerful regulator or administrator encourage responsible decision making or provide the opportunity to advance personal or political agendas? Does the electoral system allow the people to change governments in a free and fair manner? Does it allow for representation of diverse views? Do the reforms inspire the trust of the people?”
Naturally, no public answer came to these questions although it is possible that through diplomatic channels the U.S. Embassy in Budapest already received some reassurances, most likely from the Foreign Ministry whose head, János Martonyi, is considered to be a moderate. However, his reassurances mean nothing. First of all, he seems to have no influence over Viktor Orbán. Even when it comes to the general thrust of Hungarian foreign policy, Martonyi says one thing and the prime minister does exactly the opposite. In the past–which is clear from the WikiLeaks documents–it was János Martonyi who managed to convince the American ambassador that there was nothing to fear. Viktor Orbán is a politician committed to democracy. If Orbán said something that didn’t sound too reassuring, it was Martonyi who announced that there was no need to worry: he didn’t really mean it. And unfortunately Martonyi’s soothing words usually did the trick. It seems that Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis also fell for Martonyi’s charms, but surely after two years on the job and spending eighteen months with the Orbán administration she should have noticed that Martonyi doesn’t matter. There is only one person who does and his name is Viktor Orbán.
Perhaps they are less friendly nowadays
Government politicians didn’t respond publicly after the appearance of Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’s op/ed piece. But Szilárd Szőnyi, one of the editors of Heti Válasz, who began his career as a teacher of English, wrote a sarcastic editorial entitled “Yes, comment.” He considers the U.S. ambassador’s criticism “serious” but adds a Hungarian saying, “the owl tells the sparrow that he has too big a head,” which may be roughly rendered in English as “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Szőnyi begins by saying how “honored” they are that the ambassador of the United States singled out Heti Válasz for the publication of an article that will surely attract serious attention. It shows that the ambassador is a generous soul. After all, in the past Heti Válasz often pointed out that the U.S. ambassador doesn’t always use the same standards when dealing with Hungary and with the United States. Szőnyi claims that if someone compares Hungary to other democratic countries interesting conclusions can be drawn. For example, here is the United States “where the president can influence the system of justice and the conduct of foreign policy since he alone can elect a person to the Supreme Court whose political views he approves of. He can do the same thing with the appointment of ambassadors.” Moreover, “miracle of miracles, in the middle of the economic and financial crisis the U.S. government is taking exactly the same unorthodox steps that others consider brazen interference with the market economy. Yet, we are not worried about the democratic commitment of the United States. Or rather only as much as we are worried about the freedom of the press in Hungary.”
Well, I can also come up with a saying. This time from an American president, Abraham Lincoln. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”