Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis on her years in Hungary, Part I

I just received Eleni Kounalakis’s Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest (New York: The New Press), recounting her years in Budapest as U.S. Ambassador. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the book, which luckily, despite its subtitle, has little to do with dinner parties. Instead, we have an account of the turbulent first three years of the Orbán administration (January 2010-July 2013), told from the perspective of someone who desperately tried to develop a friendly relationship with the Hungarian officials with whom she had to deal.

As far as I know, no former U.S. ambassador to Hungary has written a book about his or her stay in Budapest since John F. Montgomery’s Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite (1947), which is by and large an apologia for the pro-German policies of Admiral Horthy and his governments. So, it is not an everyday affair that a book is published about U.S. -Hungarian relations that allows us to glimpse behind the scenes.

madam ambassadorKounalakis was a political appointee, as most U.S. ambassadors to Budapest are, and therefore upon her arrival she was pretty green, especially since originally she was supposed to be sent to Singapore and the State Department initially prepared her for that post. From sentences dropped here and there, I came to the conclusion that she had very little knowledge of the recent history of the country. What I mean by “recent” is the last 10-12 years of Hungarian politics, because otherwise she should have known that her stay in Budapest was going to be anything but dull, as she anticipated. From her book we also learn that the officials of the U.S. Embassy seemed to have forgotten the years of the first Orbán government (1998-2000) and occasionally showed signs of political naivete when it came to assessing the policies of the prime minister.

I will write more about this book later because the author discusses many aspects of U.S.-Hungarian relations during her tenure. Here I would like to concentrate on Eleni Kounalakis’s attitude toward the Orbán government and her personal relations with Viktor Orbán.

My impression is that while she had uneasy feelings about the direction in which Hungary was headed under the premiership of Viktor Orbán, she desperately tried to convince herself that she would be able to have good relations with the members of the Hungarian government. Orbán himself might be a difficult man, but he “had managed to attract some of conservative Hungary’s best and brightest to work in his government.” She “reasoned that if he was ever tempted to throw a grenade into the U.S.-Hungarian relationship … his own ministers might be motivated enough to hold him back.” (p. 105) Anyone who’s familiar with the servile ministers around Orbán knows that Kounalakis was sadly mistaken in her assessment.

She was especially impressed with Foreign Minister János Martonyi and Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics and describes both of them in glowing terms. Navracsics was “a star of Hungarian politics,” “a brilliant transatlanticist.” For some strange reason she believes that Navracsics was “a politician in his own right, with his own following” and that it was Orbán’s good fortune that he joined his cabinet. In fact, as we know, Navracsics served Orbán well. He could explain in a most reasonable manner how Orbán’s undemocratic policies were not undemocratic at all. A case in point  is a conversation between Attorney General Eric Holder and Navracsics that resulted in Holder’s not bringing up the question of the Hungarian media law because Navracsics “eloquently explained the government’s position.” (p. 163) János Martonyi was equally useful in persuading the Americans that all would be well with the new constitution. In fact, when some small changes were made to the constitution in the summer of 2012 the U.S. officials in Budapest “were very proud that our intervention had resulted in many tangible improvements.” (p. 197)

Other ministers with whom Kounalakis had close relations were Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and Defense Minister Csaba Hende. There are two chapters in which Csaba Hende is the main character, one titled “Travels with Csaba” and the other “Afghanistan Revisited.” But more about them later.

Kounalakis arrived in Budapest in January 2010, practically in the middle of the election campaign. She wanted to meet Orbán, especially since the Americans on the spot heard rumors that Orbán “regretted not working with the United States in a more collaborative way during his first stint as prime minister.” (p. 41) But the meeting was a disaster, due both to Kounalakis’s inexperience and to Orbán’s way of dealing with people with whom he disagreed. The second meeting, however, a few months later, went well, and one senses that the American ambassador was impressed with the “clean-cut, sharply dressed, confident young staffers, busily moving around with efficiency and purpose.” (p. 82)

This kind of ambivalence is evident throughout her book. But she was not alone in failing to grasp the true nature of Viktor Orbán and the people working for him. For example, although the staff of the embassy realized that “the new prime minister and his supermajority in Parliament added a certain level of unpredictability,” they believed that “Orbán would be careful because of the historic importance of Hungary’s first EU presidency.” The Americans were wrong. Hungary took over the presidency on January 1, 2011, and “on January 2, all hell broke loose.” (pp. 156-157) The media law was passed.

Perhaps the best example of  how Eleni Kounalakis, despite her protestation to the contrary, misjudged Viktor Orbán is her description of Viktor Orbán’s performance in Strasbourg before the European Parliament. It is worth quoting the whole passage:

Orbán went to Strasbourg on January 19 [2011] to speak to the European Parliament on general EU matters, but he ended up confronting a hostile gathering. Socialist parliamentarians appeared with duct tape over their mouths to protest the new media restrictions, and “Danny the Red”–Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit, a German Green Party member–lashed out at Orbán from the floor, comparing him to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. Orbán calmly rebutted the criticism and promised to abide by the European Commission’s forthcoming legal opinion on the new media law–as long as the same standards applied to all EU members. With his cool responses to the circus that the Socialists created, Orbán was able to frame the debate of the Hungarian media law along partisan political lines. When I went to see Péter Szijjártó, the prime minister’s senior adviser, a few days after Orbán’s EU speech, he gleefully reported that “we are getting calls from conservative politicians from all over Europe, congratulating us for standing up to these liberals. The response from our friends is overwhelming.” (p. 159)

Just to balance this description of Orbán’s appearance in Strasbourg, I will quote from my post titled “The Hungarian Prime Minister in Strasbourg: A Day Later”:

It is one thing to read written reports of an event and something else to see it on video. It also helps to read other people’s reactions a day after. I did both this morning and I must say that today I consider Viktor Orbán’s performance in the European Parliament a disaster.
….
At the beginning of this post I talked about the two Viktor Orbáns. The one that tries to impress the world outside of Hungary and the other not-so-nice domestic Viktor Orbán. A Jekyll and Hyde story that could be played by Orbán while in opposition. The question was how long he could play the same game when in power. The answer is: the game is over. He showed his true self when he answered his critics in Strasbourg. He talked very loudly and his voice by that time had become hoarse. He tried occasionally to be light-hearted but his levities fell flat. For example, when he claimed that he feels quite at home because he receives criticism in similar tones in Hungary. He paused for a second, hoping for an applause that didn’t come.

What did she intend to convey about Viktor Orbán in an exchange with Condoleezza Rice? “So,”[Rice] asked, “you are saying he’s a bully but not a brute?” A bully is certainly better than a brute. What does that mean from the point of view of the U.S. government? Not so dangerous?

There is a fairly long description of a conversation between President Bill Clinton and Kounalakis in his office in New York. Clinton wanted to know what she thought of Viktor Orbán. Here is the whole conversation:

Mr. President, some people say he’s crazy. I don’t think that’s right. I see him as a very smart, very rational man. But he doesn’t seem to me to have the same concept, the same definitions as we do of democracy, freedom, and even free markets. I think he sees himself as the only one who can protect the Hungarian people from what he believes are corrupting outside influences…. But when it comes to the larger issues we’ve been talking about, like energy security for Europe and the Eastern Partnership–and Afghanistan–we are still very much on the same page as the Hungarians. They are as much a reliable partner on international issues now as they have ever been. (p. 259)

Eleni Kounalakis’s confidence was tested when, not long after this conversation, “Hungary faced a decision that pitted its economic interests against its diplomatic ones. The choice would, for the first time, shake our faith in the country’s reliability as a partner and cast a pall over our relations.” (p. 259) She was talking about the release of Ramil Safarov, an Azeri who was serving a life sentence in Budapest for the ax murder of an Armenian.

Kounalakis’s final meeting with Viktor Orbán, when she was about to leave her post, was freewheeling. Out of the blue Orbán began talking about Milan Kundera’s book The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kounalakis took the opportunity to say that for Kundera “freedom meant the ability to live free from oppression–especially free from oppression by your own government. That’s what democracy is all about.” Orbán’s “eyes narrowed and he waved his hand abruptly as if to beat away the comment. ‘All this talk about democracy is bullshit!'” The departing U.S. ambassador couldn’t quite believe what she heard. “He probably didn’t mean to say that democracy was bullshit, but that he rejected, and resented, my raising the subject with him again.” (pp. 281-82) I wonder what Kounalakis thinks now after hearing the Hungarian prime minister talk about “illiberal democracy” and even the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

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Gabor Toka
Guest

A couple of weeks ago I read this interesting piece about the ambassador who preceded Mrs. Kounalakis: http://index.hu/belfold/2015/04/20/magyarorszag_korrupcio_amerikai_nagykovet_april_foley_gyurcsany_putyin_gazprom/ What this piece also suggests is that spending many years with watching Hungary and talking to locally important people is no guarantee that the responsible officers of the US embassy get to understand what may seem obvious to locals who have broadly similar political views to them, and that it is not only the Hungarian voters that the Hungarian liberals and the left could not really convince since 2006. So I would not blame this on Kounalakis’ inexperience or poor judgement. It may seem funny that an empty liar with his poorly cooked arguments could impress the likes of her so much, but one should ask with whom Martonyi may have been competing with on the dinner party scene and what those people got wrong.

exTor
Guest

In global terms, Hungary is a hole-in-the-wall country that will only get political appointees as ambassadors. Those plunked here must familiarize themselves quickly with a landscape that may have been alien to them not a few weeks earlier.

The rapsheet on that ostensible democrat who tries to finesse Fidesz through the shoals of EU diplomacy has grown ever longer. What Eleni Kounalakis learned the hard way is now more apparent to her successor.

Whether the korruptocracy that Viktor Orbán is seemingly constructing in Hungary can ever be dismantled is prime. Orbán may not get the boot in 2018, as so many on this side of the aisle wish. The graft that mortars the Hungary house will be difficult to chip away once it has hardened.

I am curious as to what Hungarian Viktor Orbán may have used that was later translated as ‘bullshit’. Was it literal or was it figurative?

MAGYARKOZÓ

Webber
Guest

Orban speaks English, so he might actually have said “bullshit.” Also, I’ve heard it in Hungarian from time to time – pr. boolsheet – and people clearly understood it.

i-do2
Guest

Disappointing lady.
I assume that a Hungarian ghost writer prepared this trash, and she gave the book her name.
The great mission was doomed to fail.
The next ambassador should be different, and derail the Orban regime in its track.

steve397
Guest

I envy your optimism. As long as the USA sends non-diplomats, based on their contributions at election time, any hope of a USA supported palace revolution is just wishful (wish-fool) thinking.

buddy
Guest

Only Hungarians can remove Orbán from power, should that ever happen.

It is not the job of Americans, or any other foreign country, to do this – nor should it be.

We Hungarians need to learn to get ourselves out of messes we get ourselves into.

i-do2
Guest

Steve, you had the misfortune to meet mr. horthy.

The stupid American diplomats never tried to stop him…..

steve397
Guest

Even at the age of 17 I was democratic and I did not mind meeting him, but he made sure of wearing his gray leather gloves when he shook hands with me and others. But you are right, they and the Prince of Wales could have tried to educate him, but Mr. Montgomery was one of many who were more interested in being his guests and were recipients of his charm and hospitality,

petofi
Guest

“All this talk about democracy is bullshit!”

….Lessons well learned in a dingy basement…

Webber
Guest

Another lie from this government exposed – for those who read Hungarian:
http://index.hu/belfold/2015/05/13/jogeros_a_vm_johirnevet_sertett_kishantos_ugyeben/

exTor
Guest

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/friday-del-mastro-guilty-bourque-mayor-oddity-museum-and-more-1.2902772/a-famed-hungarian-organic-farmer-loses-her-farm-and-blames-her-government-1.2902764

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2014/04/26/the-end-of-an-internationally-known-organic-demonstration-farm-and-school

http://www.kishantos.hu/

Before I came online with Hungarian Spectrum on Valentine Day, I heard about this last year (31 October) on CBC. There is a 7½-minute interview of Éva Ács by Carol Off for those who may want to listen.

Today I went online looking for information and our Éva’s HS article came up second. By 2014 April 26 the organic farm’s problems were already a half-year old. What Fidesz has done to this farm should gave those living in rural Hungary pause for concern. They could be the next ones screwed.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Webber
Guest

“What Fidesz has done to this farm should gave those living in rural Hungary pause for concern.” Absolutely. And what Fidesz has done to some businesses in urban areas (and the countryside) is also worth noting, because the “Norwegian” NGOs aren’t the only ones to be harassed by authorities with no cause (that, too, has been revealed by a court judgment to be illegal and with no basis). Unlike the Norwegian case, generally the police or TEK aren’t involved.
Instead, often it’s the tax authorities who visit, time and again, week after week, until the business (or property) someone big wants goes under.
If you are wealthy and have a profitable business, it’s not enough to keep out of politics and keep your mouth shut. If someone big wants your company, they will take it.

Ground control
Guest
We talked about this and people said it repeatedly in comments (I assume people from Western countries) that, no, Western observers were not naïve at all, they are great professionals, they always knew exactly what was going on in Hungary. No. I have to be provocative but apart from some regular commenters here who indeed seem to have a firm grasp on Hungary by now I haven’t really met Western people who would have had the necessary cynicism about Hungarian politicians. I’m not mingling with diplomatic types these days so perhaps by 2015 there are a few who see the thoroughly corrupt Orban and his drones (including the gentlemanly Messrs. Navracsics and Martonyi) for what they are. I met however – now it turns out naïve beyond all imagination – Western (both American and Western European) people who thought they knew it all and I as an Eastern European was just a crazy fellow who was way too pessimistic and paranoid which was not surprising to them as I grew up under communism. I found that Westerners can’t really imagine (as a matter of actual psychology; they would of course say that they can imagine it) that the counterparty (who… Read more »
TREWZWISWWWQ
Guest
In the spring of 2011, a couple of months before Orban’s assault on the constitution (and electoral laws etc.) I happened to meet Mr. Kounalakis, husband of the former ambassador. He is a journalist by profession and apparently worked in Sweden during the Cold War so I figured he had some prior knowledge about the region. I had an opportunity to talk to him and I told him as a lawyer that Orban was soon going to implement a totally new constitution in order to entrench himself and he was never gonna let anybody else take his position in a lawful way ever again. Orban is fundamentally a lawyer, I told him, this is how he should be understood and all his top people are lawyers too and they will make sure that everything will be formally legal but he will nevertheless totally entrench himself like a dictator. Mr. Kounalakis wasn’t especially worried and I felt that he thought I was being paranoid, the situation wasn’t so bad, the sun was shining, people were out sipping their cappucinos, I was too dark, let’s be more optimistic. I guess I was one of thousands of people whom the couple met during… Read more »
buddy
Guest
“Mr. Kounalakis wasn’t especially worried and I felt that he thought I was being paranoid, the situation wasn’t so bad, the sun was shining, people were out sipping their cappucinos, I was too dark, let’s be more optimistic.” Yes, I heard Ambassador Kounalakis say something very similar at an event early in 2011. She said that most people had voted for Fidesz with the conviction that there should be major changes to the Hungarian system, major constitutional changes even. So if Fidesz was voted in with that mandate, then why shouldn’t they use it? I heard her say this myself. Clearly she was completely fooled by Orbán and his intentions. But here’s what I also think: what if Ambassador Kounalakis hadn’t been fooled by Orbán? What if she had known exactly what he was up to? Would it have made any difference? Would anything have changed at all? I submit that no, it wouldn’t have changed anything at all. Fidesz would have done the same thing regardless of what the US thought of Hungary, or thinks of them now. Does Orbán care what John McCain or Obama really think of him? Well, maybe he does, but he’s not going to… Read more »
lolcat
Guest

buddy, right. But it’s one thing not to do anything because it’s not your job (totally agree) and quite another uncritically eating all the bullshit fed by various Eastern European Mafiosi like Orban and his minions. I guess because these henchmen could use a fork and a knife and wore good pairs of suits (as apposed to the Socialist cut suits or the knitted cardigans, poor leftists and complaining intellectual tend to wear) the Americans believed everything. Whoa, Orban even speaks English and I thought in Hungary most people still ride horses.

Guest

Re: ” Fidesz would have done the same thing regardless of what the US thought of Hungary, or thinks of them now”

Sure would like to be a fly on the wall when Ambassador ‘ Ivan’ chats with the Orban reps on matters of state. Nothing like a pleasing ‘segithetek?’ to open the doors that closed on the US on their way out as they got ignored.

Too bad diplomacy can’t be improved by maybe simply changing suits but it looks to be more important that people have to be ‘like-minded’. Sure seems as if KGB guys and lawyers really can hit it off. These are now I guess the new European ‘soul-brothers’…;-)…

Guest

Very sad story really …
In German one might call the Kounalakis family “Gutmenschen” – well meaning but inefficient and harmless, no match for a mafioso.

One question (I know I should be able to find the answer myself):
Was there an overlap between the presence of Mrs Kounalakis and Mr Goodfriend or did he arrive after she left?

Someone must have briefed him.

Guest

You know in diplomatic relations the ambassador is at bottom always projecting the image of the ‘brand’. And perhaps more importantly I would think the ‘principles’ inherent in that brand.

From the way things are going out there it would seem the United States of America and its representatives are losing their battle in marketing their ‘principles’ out there in the world and being listened to.

So if ‘democracy’ is a brand it seems to losing its share among those unmasked and breezy politicians turned autocrats like Mr. Orban who disparages things that have had a Western pedigree. His ‘illiberal democracy’ appears to be the ‘new, quality brand’ that he’s toting and selling to the masses and to his new found friend Russia. Perhaps that Magyar brand extension will be a long gone and a failed ‘Edsel’ one day but time only will show if people will buy it.

molinos
Guest

Looking at the 2016 budget numbers Paks 2 is full on, as well as the cultural investments (Museum quarter), as well as special governmental pet projects. People can sit back because Paks, the Castle Project and the Liget–Musum project are full on.

Webber
Guest

Do you have to post this same item every day? It may be true, it might not, only time will tell.

István
Guest

Eva thanks for the book review, I just got an e-copy and have yet to read it. I am particularly interested in her relationship with the CIA station chief and military attaché, if she even discusses it will be interesting. I can’t comment on a book I haven’t read so I will reserve that until another time.

I would also be very interested in seeing Charles Gati’s thoughts on this book.

tappanch
Guest

Ladies and Gentlemen, the 2016. Hungarian budget plan …

deficit/revenue = 4.82%

Secret services in billions: 6.1 (NVSz) +12.1 (TEK) + 7.7 (AVH) + 17.7 (NBSzSz) + 13.6 (KNSz) + others I missed

It takes several days to find the hidden gems, good browsing !

http://www.parlament.hu/irom40/04730/04730.pdf

tappanch
Guest

The US-Hungarian totalization agreement for Social Security was promulgated in the April 7 Magyar Közlöny,

see http://www.kozlonyok.hu/nkonline/MKPDF/hiteles/MK15047.pdf

The US side has not declared it valid yet:

http://www.ssa.gov/international/agreements_overview.html

When will the US Congress or Senate vote on this, does anybody know ?

exTor
Guest

“I wonder what Kounalakis thinks now after hearing the Hungarian prime minister talk about “illiberal democracy” and even the superiority of autocracy over democracy.”

Paraphrasing that funny Marxist (Groucho), Viktor Orbán might be inclined to say “I couldn’t be a democrat if a democracy could elect the likes of me as Prime Minister.”

In a sense, VO has a point about the putative superiority of an autocracy over a democracy. Fidesz and its lapdogs (KDNP) got a supermajority the last time around and look what’s happened to the country. And continues to happen.

It could be argued (by Orbán, no doubt, and by others) that a benign dictatorship could do better. Or at least no worse.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Guest

Re: ‘It could be argued (by Orbán, no doubt, and by others) that a benign dictatorship could do better. Or at least no worse’

Yes that looks to be his cause. Thing that gets me is that there’s a record where people in Magyar politics get caught out backing bad horses. Really things are looking say ‘adrift’ once again.

ttt222
Guest

Steve937, we can add Obama to the naive ambassador, Montgomery and Kounalakis. Obama is the best ally of Orban. Similar souls. Similarly destructive. Similarly serving Putin.

Istvan
Guest

Eva I just read the first chapter of Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis’s book and I noticed she immediately discussed the defense attaché Col Duggleby who is an impressive officer and currently is a professor at George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Her comments on Col Duggleby immediately demonstrate she can recognize his thoughtful nature as did her comments on Paul O’ Friel who was the political officer at the embassy at the time. I look forward to reading the entire book and I suggest other regulars on the blog download a copy.

Kirsten
Guest

About Western naivete: I wonder how well Hungarians are informed about what is going on in, say, Luxembourg or Malta, countries that in terms of population are small also from the Hungarian point of view. If someone told you, look, there are some shady businesses, would you press for change through diplomatic chanels? There is a fundamental misunderstanding about the importance of countries of this size for “world politics”. The big countries will not just out of benevolence be able or willing to rectify what the own population has not sufficiently cared for. Which does not mean that they would not support the “right cause”, but there must be some domestic effort for that, not whining and repeating that “nothing can be done” because “Orban is such a smart lawyer”.

Istvan
Guest

Well Kristen if Ambassador Kounalakis was following the advice and knowledge base of people like Col Duggleby and Paul Friel she was not naïve in the least. In fact she was very well advised about Hungary and Central Europe. Sometimes the appearance of naiveté serves its purposes too. Your point about where, when, and how the United States exerts itself in a nation like Hungary is well taken.

búzamező
Guest

This is the age old problem: well, Orban isn’t really like that he only acts like that, he does it solely to gain popularity but deep inside he’s a good man and so on.

Or, no, the US actually understood everything well, it only acted naive.

Well, the problem is that if you act naive and clueless time and again then you are naive as nobody can look into your head and as far as the world is concerned it’s anyway irrelevant. And as far as Orban was concerned he didn’t care why the US did it, he was happy as a clam that the US (only) ‘acted’ naive and let him do his things without causing much headache.

Personally I don’t buy this thing that the Americans really understood Orban. There were obviously various opinions about Orban which is natural in any complex organization, but apparently as far as we can discern from available evidence the naive amateurs prevailed (which wouldn’t be the first time in US’ history, I guess).

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