It seems that Hungarian journalists have finally discovered that they themselves can interview important foreign officials. They don’t have to learn about the opinions of Thomas O. Melia, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, through Gergely Prőhle, undersecretary of foreign affairs in Budapest. Until recently Hungarian reporters tried hard to find out what had transpired between U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during their conversation in October. Did she or didn’t she present a démarche? Was it given to Orbán in writing or only verbally? They didn’t receive satisfactory answers from Hungarian officials. Now, they have realized that they can go to the source and receive a straightforward answer from the American officials in Washington who are in charge of U.S. foreign policy. Specifically those who deal with the region.
After the appearance of Paul Krugman’s article outlining his fears about Hungarian democracy, three different Hungarian journalists approached Kim Lane Scheppele, professor of comparative constitutional law at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, and thus three different interviews with her appeared in Népszabadság, Origo, and HVG in the last three days. Origo and HVG decided that if Americans are so approachable, why not get in touch with Thomas Melia, who became famous nationwide thanks to Tamás Deutsch’s remarks about him on Twitter? The two interviews appeared practically simultaneously.
Thomas O. Melia
Naturally the contents of the two interviews overlap somewhat, but both convey “the deep concern” of U.S. diplomats about the Orbán government’s policies. In the HVG interview Melia talked in general about the cardinal laws which are being passed at lightning speed without any consultation and about the general concentration of power in the hands of a small group of people around Viktor Orbán. Both are disturbing. Péter Zentai, HVG‘s reporter, specifically inquired about the new law on the fate of Hungary’s central bank which seems to worry the State Department just as much as it does the governor of the European Central Bank.
To the question of whether Washington sees any change for the better since Hillary Clinton’s visit in July the answer was no. “On the contrary, the situation has worsened.” According to Melia, following the Clinton visit people in charge of American diplomacy talked with their Hungarian counterparts on many levels. He specifically mentioned the Hungarian Ambassador to Washington, György Szapáry. In addition, he alluded to Gergely Prőhle who indeed had a conversation with Melia in Washington at the end of October. In addition, “there was consultation on an even higher level” but it seems that none of these conversations brought any results. The higher level, I assume, refers to János Martonyi, the Hungarian foreign minister.
But what can expect from Martonyi who in his answer to Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis in Heti Válasz (available only in summary on the Internet) inserted a veiled warning to the United States? He emphasized that dialogue between friends is important but “it must remain within the framework customary between allies.” Otherwise, he warned, “the best intentions might backfire.” This sentence is between quotation marks in the summary MTI published on December 14. Interestingly, Heti Válasz‘s own online summary that appeared today omits the sentence. Thus, I’m afraid, U.S. officials can go as far as the foreign minister but they shouldn’t expect any change in the political climate in Hungary. Martonyi is either too weak to influence Viktor Orbán, or, and in my opinion there is a strong possibility of this, he actually agrees with the way Hungary is being governed.
In the HVG interview Melia tried to dispel the commonly held view that within the State Department there is no unity of official opinion about the Hungarian situation. Indeed, I for one have often argued on this blog that Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis is perhaps not representing the views of the State Department forcefully enough. Since we are unable to listen in on her conversations with János Martonyi, Gergely Prőhle, or Viktor Orbán, we will not be able to assess her resolve in conveying the opinions of the State Department until the American diplomatic papers become public. However, one thing is sure. In Washington there is no difference of opinion about Viktor Orbán’s commitment to democratic values.
Melia, as all others involved with American-Hungarian relations, realizes that “increasingly power is concentrated in the hands of a very small group.” The government fills all the important positions with its own men. One of the worst examples is the head of the National Judiciary Office. Melia doesn’t mention her by name or spell out the exact relation of Tünde Handó to József Szájer, the “father of the new constitution,” a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, and one of the founders of Fidesz. On top of all that she is a close family friend of the whole Orbán family. “I’m asking you,” Melia continued, “under such circumstances how can the judiciary’s independence be real?”
As far as the Hungarian National Bank is concerned, which according to plans will be subordinated to another organization whose head will naturally be a man close to Fidesz and personally approved by Viktor Orbán, it is just as serious a problem “because the independence of the most important organization in charge of the proper functioning of the free market economy is being undermined.”
In the interview with Origo the question of the law on churches and religions also came up. We know that this law was squarely condemned by members of the U.S. Congress. Melia himself talked about the law before a congressional hearing a few months ago. Origo‘s reporter noted that a few hours before the interview took place János Lázár announced that parliament had abrogated the law because of concerns over its constitutionality. Melia was pleased to hear the news but cautiously remarked that he will decide whether the issue is satisfactorily settled when the revised bill is ready and signed.
Melia has every right to be cautious. Apparently, the government got wind of the fact (not terribly difficult when people like István Stumpf and István Balsai, close party associates of Viktor Orbán, are new members of the Constitutional Court) that in a couple of days the Court would announce that the law on churches and religions is unconstitutional. According to people in the know, Fidesz’s plan is to make some very slight changes and resubmit the bill within a couple of days. By the time this revised bill gets back to the Constitutional Court, the Court will not hear it since all cases that were submitted before January 1, 2011, the date the new constitution goes into effect, will be thrown out. As they say in Hungary, they all go into the shredder. Actually, the Hungarians use “kuka,” a word for a special kind of garbage truck that was introduced in Hungary from Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. Gábor Iványi, the head of the Hungarian Methodists, called the plan the product of “evil cleverness.”
Perhaps we are all wrong and a letter from a number of U.S. Congressmen will change Viktor Orbán’s mind. The letter was dated December 16. About fifteen members of Congress expressed their “deep concern about Hungary’s new ‘Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Status of Churches, Religions and Religious Communities.'” They are deeply troubled that “the new religion law will ‘de-register’ all but 14 of the more than 350 religious groups currently registered.” The Congressmen point out that this law “contravenes the human rights norms, standards and instruments of the European Union (EU), the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations, and it ignores the relevant decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.” In closing, the Congressmen urged Viktor Orbán’s “government to make substantive revisions to bring the new law into conformity with the Hungarian constitution and the international human rights instruments Hungary has signed and ratified.”
What do you think will happen?
P.S. Professor Kim Lane Scheppele began a website on which she is collecting material on Hungary. I understand she will post Viviane Reding’s letter to Tibor Navracsics and also the letter of the U.S. Congressmen to Viktor Orbán. Here is the link: http://lapa.princeton.edu/newsdetail.php?ID=63