AMBASSADOR ELENI KOUNALAKIS ON HER YEARS IN HUNGARY, PART III

My two posts on Eleni Kounalakis’s book about her years in Budapest as U.S. ambassador elicited a great many comments. In fact, the debate continues among the active commenters to Hungarian Spectrum. Some were very harsh on the United States for not taking a stronger stance against the growing manifestations of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s antidemocratic measures. Others correctly pointed out that no country has the right to tell another one what to do and what not to do. The blame, these people argued, lies with the Hungarian electorate that handed Fidesz a super-majority, which enabled Viktor Orbán to enact about 700 laws in the course of four years. Most of these laws chipped away at the democratic achievements of Hungarian lawmakers between 1990 and 2010.

Indeed, as many of you so often remind your fellow commenters, it is only the Hungarian people who can get rid of Viktor Orbán and his mafia state. The United States has no leverage over Hungary. The European Union’s clout is limited. Admittedly, Brussels could have been more forceful when it came to the generous subsidies that ended up in the pockets of Viktor Orbán’s oligarchs. In fact, in large measure it was the European Union that kept Viktor Orbán in power over the past five years.

I think the American Embassy staff did their best to gently nudge Hungarian government officials toward democratic solutions. I have the feeling that other embassies did even less than that. The problem, as I see it, was that the Americans did not fully understand the nature of Viktor Orbán’s regime, so they put an awful lot of energy into a cause that was hopeless from the very beginning.

Eleni Kounalakis at her swearing in ceremony as U.S. ambassador to Hungary with Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her father Angelo

Eleni Kounalakis at her swearing-in ceremony as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary with Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, her father Angelo, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Eleni Kounalakis, after her first disastrous encounter with Orbán, came up with a plan. She would “extend an olive branch to the touchy opposition leader, a message that I wanted to try to work with him in spite of our rough start.” (p. 44) Such a strategy is usually successful, but what Kounalakis didn’t seem to know is that, for Viktor Orbán, an olive branch means weakness.

Kounalakis writes about the extensive preparation she received before her departure to Budapest, but her “handlers” neglected to prepare her with a “course on Viktor Orbán.” It is hard to imagine, however, that Jeffrey Levine, her deputy-chief-of-mission for the first six months, didn’t fill her in. But most likely she was charmed by Viktor Orbán, who, according to people who have met him, is a very charismatic person. Kounalakis herself tells us that “whenever I briefed visitors about to meet Orbán, I always noted that they would be surprised by how much they liked him. Usually, having heard so many negative reports about him, they didn’t believe me, but my prediction always came true…. [He usually] charmed his guests with clever observations and funny, self-deprecating comments.” (p. 164) Obviously, this tactic worked for a while with Kounalakis as well.

In addition to Viktor Orbán’s alleged charms, I think there were two people in the cabinet who were largely responsible for the relatively benign attitude of foreign countries toward Orbán’s regime. I have in mind János Martonyi and Tibor Navracsics. It is hard to imagine that these two intelligent men could embrace the tenets and practices of the Orbán government. And yet one cannot say that they didn’t know who Viktor Orbán was. They had worked closely with him ever since 1998 when Martonyi became foreign minister and Navracsics was in the prime minister’s office.

In 2010 Martonyi’s second stint as foreign minister was never in question, although he was about to be put in an even more humiliating position than he had endured the first time around. During his first term as foreign minister his job was to explain away Orbán’s gaffes. By his second term he became totally irrelevant. And yet he still managed to convince foreign diplomats of the good intentions of the Hungarian government even though it should have been crystal clear to everybody, including Eleni Kounalakis, that Martonyi simply didn’t matter.

Navracsics is equally guilty of serving a corrupt and undemocratic government. Being a legal scholar as well as a political scientist, he must have known that Orbán’s policies were a deadly blow to Hungarian democracy. Yet he used his gentlemanly manners and considerable intellect to mislead his well-meaning negotiating partners.

These smooth operators, these enablers of Orbán are perhaps more guilty than Orbán himself. Orbán has a vision, however warped, but Martonyi and Navracsics, who should have known better, willingly and ably served a regime rotten to the core. Kounalakis, who speaks so highly of these two men, should have understood that they were the ones who were largely responsible for her misplaced trust in the Orbán government.

Eleni Kounalakis was in her post for almost two years before she realized that she had been taken. In the summer of 2011, that is after a year and a half as ambassador, she was still ready to resign if Hillary Clinton, during a short visit to Budapest, delivered a strong speech criticizing the Orbán administration’s domestic policies. The speech was written in the State Department without her input. She was horrified that Clinton would deliver “a lecture on the Hungarian political reform process. And she would do all this before she met with him privately.” (p. 180) But six months later, when the cardinal laws related to the judiciary were passed without addressing any of the concerns the Americans had raised, she suddenly understood that she had been badly misled by her Hungarian friends in the different ministries.

It’s over, I thought, shoulders slumping. My efforts to help the Hungarian government government prove its commitment to democratic principles, to encourage lawmakers to listen to all their constituents, had failed. I was disappointed and angry that I’d been misled. (p. 193)

It now became clear to her that she had been dealing with a bunch of liars, including her favorite Martonyi and Navracsics. Yet she made one final attempt, writing an article titled “A Second Look” in which she asked “lawmakers to reconsider some of the most controversial of the cardinal laws, including those related to the judiciary, religious organizations, and the media.” Hillary Clinton also tried to plead, to no avail, with Viktor Orbán in a private letter that was leaked. I myself received a copy of it and published it on December 30, 2011. On January 1 the new constitution, unaltered, became the law of the land.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Eleni Kounakalis refused to attend the celebration to mark the great day held in the Opera House. An official of the State Department suggested that she might take a quick trip to Vienna, but she decided that if she “wasn’t going to attend the celebration, [she] wasn’t going to be coy about it…. This was without a doubt the lowest point of [her] ambassadorship.” (p. 194)

I do realize that this had to be a bitter pill to swallow. At the same time I wonder whether perhaps she relied too heavily on government informants and neglected to talk with some of the more important figures in the opposition and some of the Hungarian scholars who had great reservations about Viktor Orbán and his policies. But I have the feeling that she wouldn’t have believed them, given her faith in the Orbán government at that stage. She writes that “in all fairness, I should note that for weeks anti-Orbán pundits had been declaring that in handing [Orbán] a supermajority the Hungarian people had signed a death warrant for Hungarian democracy. While these pundits included well-respected and well-informed Hungarian American scholars, they were almost all people who had a personal history with Orbán.” (p.85) Perhaps Eleni Kounalakis could have saved herself a lot of grief if she had listened to these “pundits” in Hungary and in the United States.

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Member

“Eleni Kounalakis was in her post for almost two years before she realized that she had been taken. ”
With all due respect, what was she doing 40 hours of the week for almost two years? Did she not reed the newspapers, magazines, blogs IN ENGLISH, the same ones we read here and all over the World, which were highly critical of the Orbán dictatorship and with explanations? Did she not talk to other Ambassadors, professionals from Western Europe?
Ms Eleni Kounalakis is a very, very naïve person and certainly not Ambassadorial material, even for a small, marginalized country like Hungary.
If Obama had to reciprocate the favors, she should have been assigned to San Marino.
Plus, the weather and the food is better in San Marino.

Webber
Guest

Kounalakis was not alone in this. I once met the acting ambassador from the Dutch embassy, and he expressed similar sentiments. Diplomats can be… diplomatic?

googly
Guest

I disagree. The food is better in Hungary.

István
Guest

She also had mission to accomplish which was to protect perceived and actual US interests. I think from reading the book that she sometimes found herself in a quandary between the mission and let us say morality. Clearly she restrained herself in relation to the new Constitution which she sensed after reading the critiques of it was going to be a dager in the heart of democracy. But really she stood aside during the adoption process and in her book denounced how it was adopted.

I would also recommend her chapter on antisemitism which was for the most part very good and then she seemed to have been charmed by Mária Schmidt which amazed me. Schmidt may be doing the same thing with Ambassdor Bell because I have seen them together at a few events in video clips. How any American can be within ten feet of her after her comments on Senator McCain and defense of the Russian orientation of Orban I have no idea what so ever.

Guest

Tough to see our former ambassador having a time of it dealing with the current Magyar political landscape which from the looks of it is flooded with mendacity. With lies running wild it’s too bad she couldn’t see through the opaque haze. And I was startled at her naïveté. The urge to ‘try to get along’ must have been very strong and consequently blinded her to the subtext going around her.

I’d think though Ms. Kounalakis could have been say a bit more ‘perspicacious’ in her human relation skills by perhaps taking a cue from Groucho Marx and simply asking Mr. Orban from the get-go if he was an ‘honest’ guy. According to Marx, if he’d say ‘yes’ then she’d know he was crooked. Would have saved her a lot of time and brow-beating and she could have started to make a course sending her on a way to understand and deal with the ‘shadiness’ of diplomatic life when in the cause of representing a democratic country.

Thing is some play ‘baseball’ differently. And it’s getting to a point that maybe baseball isn’t being played at all by some people any more around the globe…;-)…

Member

Gyborgnajr said it all – how naive does someone have to be to realize only in 2011 what Orban was about? Did she sleep through Fidesz taking over all independent institutions and filling them with cronies? Did Kounalakis sleep through Orbans conflicts with the EU on things like the media law, the constitutional court and the central bank? How come that the aggressive, provincial nature of Fidesz politics escaped her? And how can it be that someone gets appointed to the U.S. ambassador post in Budapest and isn’t briefed properly on the nature of the people she is dealing with?

Ms Kounalakis and those who appointed her did Hungary, the U.S. and everyone valuing in democracy and the rule of law a great disservice with her stunning naïveté and incompetence. That she finds it worth to detail all this in a book suggests that she still does not grasp how off her performance has been.

Lamalama
Guest

“Such a strategy is usually successful, but what Kounalakis didn’t seem to know is that, for Viktor Orbán, an olive branch means weakness.”

Exactly. Same with Putin or the Republicans. Compromise is for wusses. Compromise is a sure sign of weakness for these people.

Orban would never entertain compromise unless a clear force (turning the tap off, cutting off his EU financing, releasing info about his Swiss private banking deals etc.) is shown. Unfortunately the threat of force is almost never credible. The EU for example cannot credibly threaten Orban with anything as it lacks the necessary powers.

Why this conclusion needed years to be drawn by any American diplomats I can’t fathom. Orban was always like that. He just doesn’t do compromises.

Webber
Guest

I don’t know why people praise Mártonyi so much. He worked for Orbán, defended everything his boss did at home and abroad, and knew perfectly well what he was doing.
Personally, he can be petty and vindictive. Once I was told that he successfully pushed a certain institution (no longer in existence) to fire György Szerbhorváth because something Szerbhorváth wrote had offended him.
They say Mártonyi has certain abilities.
Certainly Mártonyi served the Kádár regime faithfully.
By all accounts he is more genteel than the average Fidesz minister, but that is not such a big deal..
As to his great understanding of international affairs – in 1989 he joined MSZMP (Hungary’s communist party). Quite a year to join that party!
I guess everyone makes mistakes.

Norbert
Guest

Martonyi’s recruitment into the III/II communist secret service was a total success story. The services obviously look for people who are 150% loyal to the boss, whoever he/she might be. It’s a kind of personality. And they were spot on with Martonyi. Prior to 1990, it was the communists, after 1990 he realized that it was gonna be Fidesz who has the power (not the always wavering, impotent left-wing parties). Or was it his handlers who nudged him to get in touch with Fidesz? Whatever. Also do people have any idea how politically reliable a person must have been for a Brussels diplomatic post in 1979 (when he was appointed)? Martonyi was by some accounts the very last person asking for (and granted) a party membership in MSZMP when he knew well that the Ellenzéki Kerekasztal (Opposition Roundtable) was already negotiating with MSZMP. But Martonyi could wear a pair of elegant suits and speak English — that’s way more than enough for most diplomats. Good to know.

spectator
Guest

Think about it, comrade Schmitt started the whole business way earlier, mostly on about the same merits, but was better with the tongue(s), apparently.

Nádas
Guest

If nothing else, Kounalakis’s exploits in Budapest make an excellent case for professional diplomats. At such a pivotal time in Hungary’s history, and following the previous ambassador’s missteps and naivety, it’s baffling and not at all encouraging that the Obama administration would appoint yet another amateur to the post.

On the matter of Fidesz’s super-majority, let’s not put the blame entirely on the electorate. The previous constitution’s fatal flaw essentially handed the country over to anyone who could muster enough votes in Parliament, no ratification required, and Orbán and Co. took full advantage.

csoda.peter
Guest

Correct. A Goodfriend. What I find striking is the dismissiveness of people with a personal history. Fine to be wary of axe-grinding, but what arrogance!

Professional diplomacy has catching up to do in this world of fast information which tends to empower the nonprofessionals.

Ron
Guest

Nadas: On the matter of Fidesz’s super-majority, let’s not put the blame entirely on the electorate. The previous constitution’s fatal flaw essentially handed the country over to anyone who could muster enough votes in Parliament, no ratification required, and Orbán and Co. took full advantage.

Ho ho There was no fatal flow. Anyone who had 4/5 of the votes could change any law in Parliament. The fact is Fidesz had no 4/5 of the votes only slightly higher than 2/3 of the votes. So they “illegally” removed the 4/5, and then changed the Constitution.

PDF alert http://www.parlament.hu/irom39/05273/05273.pdf (Commentor Marton made us aware of this in his comment of Eva’s article below.

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/12/15/paul-krugman-and-kim-lane-scheppele-on-todays-hungary/

Nádas
Guest

This is the first I’ve heard of the 4/5 rule, but as Kim Scheppele points out in the interview you linked to,

“… the new [Fidesz] government changed the provision of the old constitution that required a four-fifths parliamentary vote on the rules of a new constitution-making process. The government used its two-thirds majority to amend the constitution so that it needed only its own two-thirds majority to determine both the procedure and the content of a brand new constitution.”

And there, apparently, is an ironic flaw: changing the rules regarding the “constitution-making process” required a 4/5 majority, but only 2/3 to change that requirement. It’s not clear from the interview that this was illegal at the time. In any case, they seem to have made it legal ex post facto.

I hate to use the word “typical” about Hungary, but this was a – sigh – all too typical and convoluted “megoldás.” But then the Fidesz leadership is heavy with of lawyers.

buddy
Guest

“If nothing else, Kounalakis’s exploits in Budapest make an excellent case for professional diplomats.”

Well, I’m not so sure. In this day and age, a foreign ambassador is a kind of glorified PR person. Their job is to represent their country’s interests and put forth a positive image of their country. I would say that Ms. Kounalakis got too involved in the internal politics of Hungary, mistakingly believing that she could influence the process. Probably she just should have stayed out of Hungarian internal politics altogether and just focused on the job she was actually there to do.

You know who was a bad US ambassador in Hungary? The guy who Clinton appointed during Orbán’s first term (I’ll avoid naming him for now). This was because he was a frivolous playboy-type character and an embarrassment who put forth an image of Americans that didn’t look very professional. That’s why he was a poor ambassador in my opinion. I have no idea what his opinion of Orbán was, not that it matters much. But I didn’t see Ms. Kounalakis project that kind of negative image, and as far as I can tell she represented her country’s interests adequately.

Webber
Guest

The guy in Clinton’s second term was… well…, like superman, he tore his shirt off at a conference about Serbia at CEU, revealing an Otpor t-shirt underneath (this was sometime in 2000, unless my memory is wrong). On his predecessor, also, I couldn’t agree more.

Nádas
Guest

Appointing a non-professional to a high diplomatic post certainly doesn’t show the host country a great deal of respect.

Webber
Guest

Maybe, but that’s the American tradition – unimportant little countries get such people. Generally they don’t do much harm.
If you want to see brilliant American career diplomats in ambassadorial posts, move to London, Paris, Moscow, or Beijing,

Nádas
Guest

London? This is from the Wiki entry of the current ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun: “He is a business executive who is known for his … volunteer work on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He was selected by President Barack Obama as National Finance Chair for the president’s 2012 re-election campaign.” He also served as US ambassador to Sweden earlier in Obama’s first term, and is a highly educated and competent individual, but otherwise not a career diplomat.

Paris? The American ambassador is Jane Hartley and has a lot of government and business experience, but one of her main qualifications for the appointment was “being a campaign bundler who raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s re-election bid in 2012.” (Wiki.)

The current ambassador to China is Max Baucus, a six-term former US Senator, but again not a career diplomat.

Russia, at least, does indeed merit an experienced professional diplomat, John Tefft.

Webber
Guest

Good point! Paris and London have declined in importance.
Still, Barzun is considered rather good, and London is the right place for an intelligent businessman.

Webber
Guest
googly
Guest

On the contrary, it means that the US doesn’t foresee any real problems erupting in your country, and that it’s a nice place to take a 2-4 year vacation.

Latefor
Guest

Buddy -“But I didn’t see Ms. Kounalakis project that kind of negative image, and as far as I can tell she represented her country’s interests adequately.”
I have to agree with you. Do you remember the famous publicity hand kiss? (Orban and Ms. Kounalakis at the Fishermen Bastion or photos at some functions with Tibor Navracsics?) Wow, these men (true to their Hungarian upbringing) know how to treat a lady! If Orban would introduce compulsury hand kissing, he would be unbeatable at the next election! 🙂

Latefor
Guest

…it should be “compulsory” 🙂 my spelling check is you know what.

DAVID SADE
Guest
If I may make my comments on AMBASSADOR ELENI KOUNALAKIS ON HER YEARS IN HUNGARY, PART III: “….Others correctly pointed out that no country has the right to tell another one what to do and what not to do…” » This is not entirely true… It would be valid only if the countries involved are true democracies. “…The blame, these people argued, lies with the Hungarian electorate that handed Fidesz a super-majority, which enabled Viktor Orbán to enact about 700 laws in the course of four years. Most of these laws chipped away at the democratic achievements of Hungarian lawmakers between 1990 and 2010…” » Thus the blame cannot be put at the feet of the Hungarian electorate, as all democratic means to change the regime were taken away… “…Admittedly, Brussels could have been more forceful when it came to the generous subsidies that ended up in the pockets of Viktor Orbán’s oligarchs. In fact, in large measure it was the European Union that kept Viktor Orbán in power over the past five years…” » So again, if the US and the EU new all about the deeds of the Orban regime why indeed provided, and still providing, the financial… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

Exactly, simple as that. With so little confidence in people’s own political skills, the current political system is quite adequate.

István
Guest
Some of the comments raise a very troubling issue in foreign policy for a great power like my county and that is the promotion of democratic values and practices within the context of market economies around the world. Our system here in the US is a republic and not in the true sense a democracy and that issue was settled first in the debates around our constitution (see Max Farrand’s The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Published in 1911 on line through the Library of Congress). It was settled again in a very bloody way by the American Civil War. I would say that my experience as a military officer in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world, along with my own daughter’s experiences as an officer in Iraq give great testimony to the futility of attempting to export democracy and simultaneously achieve strategic goals for our nation. We as a great power have to accept the reality of less than democratic practices of many of our allies, but we don’t have to encourage those practices or condone them. We also do not publicly have to denounce them at the government level if we so choose. As an American… Read more »
Member
Based on Eva and Istvan accounts ETK’s book must be a truly eclectic piece. Probably she wanted to show that she made progress in understanding the situation. I think she did. ETK would have provoked more criticism today if she posed in an “all I knew from the outset” position. (To be fair and honest it took to me almost a year to understand what OVi was up to.) A couple of short notes: 1. From the mid 90’s Budapest became a “holyday” destination for foreign diplomats. Up to 2009 it was easy-going place, good conditions, etc. As the interest in the country diminished (NATO and EU membership, I guess) embassies’ staff quality has fallen considerably. I am not sure to what degree the US followed suit. Consequently, at the beginning it was “handy” to play on the naïveté of the foreigners and wage wars on undue foreign dictates/ influence. 2. Martonyi never was an insider so his position was different from the other enabler. The final judgment though is the same. Their role was to assist in the fait accompli. 3. One cannot grasp the reliability of ETK information without actually knowing what was truly happening. I do not… Read more »
István
Guest

The primary reason Hungarian troops were needed at Kabul airport in my opinion was the reality of what is now called green-on-blue attacks on Coalition forces. Those attacks were carried out by systematic infiltration of Afghan security forces by the Taliban. About 15% of Coalition deaths were caused by these attacks in Afganistan. There was a killing of several US contractors just last January by Taliban infiltrators at the airport.

For US military forces these green on blue attacks are extremely unnerving and make relationships with indigenous forces tense. To put it simple Ambassador Kounalakis was at significant risk during her visits to Afghanistan, for that matter so was Casba Hende. I experienced the same thing with South Vietnamese forces in 1972 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base during the Easter Offensive when some of those ARVN security forces allowed NVC commandos to penetrate the base and setting off a serious battle inside the base itself that I was involved in.

Member

Thanks, Istvan. A sizable unit operated in Helmand as well fighting side by side. That was not advertized.

PS 5. In the US, a political appointee is generally a favor to a (non-problematic) country. Look around the Region and you will see that there are not many such Ambassadors around. You can earn this favor with a decade of hard work but you can destroy this image in a daytime. US response is definitely slow in this regard and internal (US) politics play its part. I suggest you look around what countries/ issues are handled primary by DoS, NSC, DoD or the White House. Congress interest is also a factor.

ETK connections could help her promoting bilateral relation in ALL fields including economy and finances. That is a tool rarely available for career diplomats. A different case when relations turn sour. That was ETK responsibility to handle. To me she failed this issue. Moreover, she helped oppressing other opinions in DC (and probably within the Embassy as well). Her explanations and positions were prevalent much longer that her mission ended.

Webber
Guest

I am trying to think of an American ambassador for Budapest who would satisfy everyone here – someone who would recognize a lie and would tell people to their faces that they are lying.
Iggy Pop comes to mind, or Danny Trejo.

Albrecht Neumerker
Guest

Danny boy, definitely.

XixiX
Guest

@Webber

There is no need to bluntly tell your opinion all the time. After all this is diplomacy.

But there is an absolute need to recognize crooks — and those include sweet talking enablers like Martonyi or Navracsics. What I am certain of is that the Russians did not commit the same mistakes re Fidesz.

It’s history of the mafia 101 that a mafia does not solely consist of Danny Trejo-like rugged contract killers.

There are well-dressed, smooth-talking PR people, the human faces who appear in the TV representing certain ‘respectable investors’, there are their esteemed lawyers, accountants, there are the journalists on the mob’s payroll who act as informants too, there are respected councilmen in local municipalities and so on.

Navracsics and Martonyi, both die-hard supporters of Orban and his mafia-state were part of the Family, part of this criminal organization.

spectator
Guest

Another factor, I guess, that people at a certain level simply don’t expect to meet crooks. After all, while there is quite a few mafiosi in the States too, they still haven’t made it openly to presidentship, – or even into the government – at least as much as I know.

Having met and been fooled by such “blunt instrument” as Orbán as the PM of a free and “democratic” country, and his “similarly talented” government could have been quite shocking experience to Ms. Kounalakis, no doubts.

Regrettably, the significance of Hungary still haven’t deserved a shrewd, seasoned diplomat as an ambassador, as we learned lately.

Any information, when André Godfried’s book is coming, by the way?

The title pretty well could be “Teaching English and Democracy to (some of) the Hungarians”..!

Kirsten
Guest
“But there is an absolute need to recognize crooks — and those include sweet talking enablers like Martonyi or Navracsics.” Reading Eva’s post and also the comments here, the perspectives of the Hungarians and the non-Hungarians just cannot be squared. The “Hungarian” arguments (anti-Orban) seem to suggest that the other countries could somehow help some “improvement” in Hungary by – not treating a Hungarian government as equals or representatives of their country / calling Orban a liar / not trusting anybody / not fulfilling treaties etc…. But Hungarians might notice that these suggestions are very much influenced by the general ideas or experiences of Hungarians with their society, which is full of “issues” and frankly hatred and resentment to an extent inconceivable to others. It is interesting that Ambassador Kounalakis did not trust the opposition because they had their “issues”, no doubt highly personal, with Orban. I start to believe that having “personal issues” is the most frequent thing in Hungary, but then indeed any effort is futile as it just cannot rectify these “issues” which pop up everywhere. When I read that the book of Szilard Borbely has been now received in Germany, France etc. with huge acclaim, it… Read more »
Guest

A bit OT, but very interesting re the “Eastern Opening” of Hungary or rather Orbán’s government – some aspects have been discussed here:
http://www.academia.edu/5285400/The_Asianization_of_national_fantasies_in_Hungary_a_critical_analysis_of_political_discourse
International Journal of Cultural Studies

The Asianization of national fantasies in Hungary: A critical analysis of political discourse
This paper is Version 2 of an article whose final version will be published in the
International Journal of Cultural Studies
(http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1367877915573781). For a citable Version 3, please request a copy for personal use from the author by contacting: moreh.academics@gmail.com
Chris Moreh
University of Northumbria, UK
Abstract
This article presents a critical analysis of the Hungarian government’s ‘Asian’ political discourse.
It argues that in the wake of the economic recession, Hungary became more radical in its turn towards Asia, promoting a discourse that goes beyond economic relations and touches on sentiments of national identity and belonging. Via a discourse-historical analysis of three interrelated discursive events, the article shows how economic, cultural and racial discourses are reinforcing one another in building on the myth of cultural and racial affinity with Inner Asia and the Far East. This process is similar to the Eurasianist discourse in Russia and other ex-Soviet republics, and may have serious social and geopolitical repercussions

Kirsten
Guest
Eva, indeed, there is some non-personal component to it, otherwise it would not be possible for outsiders to believe that they grasped the essence of the matter (current autocracy in Hungary). But the problem is revealed the moment that “something should be done”. Then, mysteriously, these “issues” and distrust will surface and dominate the scene (this person cannot collaborate with that, they have both always been crooks by the way, and in any case they are opposed to Orban etc. only because of their personal, financial or whatever, interest). The frequency of suggestions about people, mostly politicians here on the blog as it is about politics, that they are not to be trusted (at least, imbeciles in any case) is so high that an outsider such as me cannot distinguish anymore whether this means anything. My hunch is that there is an unwillingness to think in more practical terms. Of course the band around Orban is not to be trusted and yet who is to be trusted, when can we “trust” in political terms in Hungary? Certainly in everybody’s life there is something “dubious” that gives rise to “issues”. Ambassador Kounalakis probably could have found out earlier that Orban has… Read more »
Tilkó
Guest

Kirsten, I think you over-complicate things.

Western people should be more paranoid when meeting well-dressed English speaking Hungarian politicians. The chances are they are not to be trusted. This is Eastern-Europe not the West after all.

Moreover, Orban’s personality was an open book in 2010 (anybody could have read books about his corrupt dealings, how he amassed smaller fortunes, though not yet the MET Ag type Russian gas business monies), he didn’t emerge out of nowhere.

So if I may have one suggestion it would be: please do your homework.

Kirsten
Guest

“Please do your homework.”

And then what, then EU money will stop flowing into Hungary and democracy will flourish?

glenn
Guest

Or, as a famous person once said: Trust, but verify.

Kirsten
Guest
Because apparently it is now being suggested that it is the “outsiders” such as me who have “trusted” Orban so much, I would like to recall that in 2009/2010, it was said that “nothing can be worse than MSzP” and that Orban despite all his history (not unknown to me, and obviously not suggesting change for the better) will improve matters in the blink of an eye. One need not worry about democracy, nor corruption (the most corrupt is MSzP and not for forget SzDSz). Afterwards it has been “observed” that people care only for utility prices and therefore do not mind Orban so much (“the main fault lies with the Communists”, “as long as Gyurcsany is active in the opposition, Orban will always win” etc.). Yes, the other countries in the EU in particular could have been more critical of Hungary, no doubt, but such pressure would have changed Hungary in what direction exactly? In sharp contrast to wisdoms such as “nothing can be done anyway”, “they are all morons”, “people do not care for/understand such abstract things such as democracy or transparency” or “people hate liberalism”, it is VERY seldom that practical ideas about how a “better Hungary”… Read more »
Webber
Guest

Kirsten – I agree.

Duplo
Guest
“Change for the better can come only through the Hungarians, no matter how much of foreign support (of the “liberals”, which “Hungarians” “hate” so much) will be forthcoming.” You and buddy come back to this argument all the time even though this was not proffered by anybody (at least lately in the last 3-4 threads). It seems to me you both desperately want to avoid facing the real problem. What was the issue, I repeat, was the ability of a sophisticated adult person aided by a giant apparatus (with access to phone calls etc.) to understand a known Eastern European mafia don. Ronald Reagan said that yes, we trust our newly found Russian friends but we also want to verify what they say (ie. we don’t really trust them because they are suspicious, let’s keep a bit of a distance). Have the Americans totally forgotten that? Who said that just because MSZP-SZDSZ was corrupt or whatever you have to swallow everything Csaba Hande or Viktor Orban or Janos Martonyi says? Could you not have a critical approach to both MSZP and Fidesz at the same time? The background of these fideszniks (ei. communist secret agent, corrupt, ruthless dictatorial politician, country… Read more »
Webber
Guest

There is quite a lot that is difficult to understand in your argument -because
You seem to forget that the US government has engaged in a sustained, and is still engaged in a continuing criticism of Orban’s regime. That criticism dates right back to Kounalakis’s time as ambassador, when the State Department was very clear in expressing reservations about what it saw as the erosion of democratic institutions and checks and balances.
Among others, Kim Lane Scheppele has been invited to testify to Congress. Obama’s State Department has issued critical statement after critical statement, culminating in the banning of certain leading Hungarians from visiting the U.S. (that was NOT Goodfriend’s policy – he was just the messenger).
What more do you expect from Washington?
Give us some concrete ideas, please, because otherwise it just sounds like empty (and very Hungarian) griping about how you would have done so much better if you, personally, had been running the show.

Kirsten
Guest

The argument is understood but what are the implications of this reasoning. So we “know” now that we need not “swallow” everything that old MSzP but also Fidesz people have been telling us. And then? Why should I “swallow” what you are telling me?
Probably the information provided by “Hungarians in the know” (“MSzP is so corrupt”, “Fidesz is so corrupt”) is not specific enough, which is why in the end, you do not believe any Hungarian. When I wrote that yesterday, I was told this is too critical.

googly
Guest
Maybe I’m just being redundant here, but it seems to me that it doesn’t matter what the US could have done, what matters is what was smart to do, vis-a-vis US interests. The US has largely given up on paying much attention or doing much about local European affairs, and really only cares about what happens in Hungary as it affects those things that the US really cares about: their business interests, certain matters relating to Afghanistan, Russia, Iran, Iraq and China, and larger strategic concerns throughout the world (terrorism and the price of oil, for example). If Hungary is going down an autocratic hellhole, that’s not optimal, but it’s not worth spending a lot of time and energy on. The amusing thing is that everyone thinks that what is happening in their little corner of the world is the most important issue to the US, and Putin exploited this fallacy by accusing the US of creating the Maidan to turn Ukraine into an American protectorate. The reality is that the US does a few small things in many autocracies all over the world, and gets very little success in return. In Ukraine, the people were upset about not joining… Read more »
buddy
Guest

Great comment, I completely agree.

buddy
Guest

“What was the issue, I repeat, was the ability of a sophisticated adult person aided by a giant apparatus (with access to phone calls etc.) to understand a known Eastern European mafia don.”

I accept this.

I’m just saying that it doesn’t bother me, and it shouldn’t bother you either, because the opinion of some ambassador in Budapest doesn’t really mean anything one way or another.

So Kounalakis misunderstood Orbán’s nature. So what? It wouldn’t have made any difference if she had understood him anyway.

spectator
Guest
Kristen, you wrote: “..But Hungarians might notice that these suggestions are very much influenced by the general ideas or experiences of Hungarians with their society, which is full of “issues” and frankly hatred and resentment to an extent inconceivable to others.” and: Reading Hungarian comments, nearly everybody is at some point a “crook”, which would not “deceive a child” And I’d say: EXACTLY! You see, that is the root of problem: general distrust and disagreement, everyone against everyone else, even within same groups, same ideological frameworks, same beliefs. You hardly able to hear even a positive remark without the compulsory “but”, event in the better cases with a hint of reservation as follows. Yeah, sounds more than sceptical, doesn’t it? I know, you hate the “that’s the Hungarian way” kind of expressions, or any other reference to why and how Hungarians different – and you’re right about it, its a hateful feature – but then again, what the better answer? Besides all of our history there wasn’t one single event when total unison lasted more than mere weeks, if at all, then the glorious nation started to side up, turn against each others, cheat and betray even their own, you… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

JSpectator, I do increasingly understand that the NOTION of that people are rossz és gonosz and cannot be trusted is highly relevant for Hungarian discourse. What I doubt (because Hungarians are not so different from their neighbours in their general way of living) that this is an adequate description of reality. It seems to be a widely shared belief with many benefits: you need not try to find alternative explanations for complicated problems, you need not try to do something, and you can believe that “you know”. I believe this is a habit of thinking, the actual “rational core” of which is not entirely evident.

spectator
Guest

Actually I don’t think I share the “benefit” part, otherwise: yes, more or less this is it.

However, contrary what our beloved PM doing it never could serve as an excuse. I see it rather as a warning sign: watch out, your rules doesn’t apply here, this is Hungary here, with Hungarians all over the place!

In short: you can’t ever take it granted that things will work out such way as it happens in other places.

See, even the words has other meanings.

angel eyes
Guest

We all knew what the Americans ‘have done’ (congressional hearings etc.) re Hungary the book doesn’t change history (retroactively). Therefore implying what the ‘Americans could have done’ against Orban is not the argument.

The book is a memoir which allows the reader to see how a foreign administration (in that included some American individuals like the ambassador) behaves, makes decisions, analyses the situation, gathers information etc. This is an inside, personal account and so we must concentrate on that inside, personal part.

What turned out was that the seeing of the reality was severely erroneous and how the ‘human factor’ (like the personality of the ambassador) does affect decisions and outcomes.

People tend to argue that the personality of the US ambassador (usually a political appointee without zero qualifications, wait could it be that this is true for the current one?) doesn’t really matter as there is a professional apparatus behind him/her. Well, guess what? It does.

It’s just good to know that the mighty American bureaucracy isn’t so easy to dupe after all.

Miklos
Guest

Ms. Kounalakis had the same qualifications as almost all the others, including Ms. Bell, representing the US in Budapest as the others during the last 25 years, save Mr.Palmer. None.

aa22
Guest

Kounalakis had no qualification.
Even most comments are so empty.
The Fidesz/Jobbik leaders sold out Hungary to the anti-Western forces, in Russia and Iran.
Everything must be viewed in the light.

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