Eleni Kounalakis’s book on her tenure as U.S. ambassador in Budapest has prompted quite an uproar in Hungary. I have already spent three posts on her book. Here I simply want to call attention to the couple of sentences that caused the opposition to cry foul.
Kounalakis, discussing the Orbán government’s preferential treatment of Hungarian companies, relates the following story:
Minister of National Development Lászlóné Németh told me that every week she sat down with Orbán, looked over the list of public works projects, and decided which ones to prioritize and which bids to accept. “If a Hungarian company’s bid is competitive with one from an Austrian or German company, then yes, they will win,” she explained. “Why should German companies be building Hungarian roads? And if Közgép is the only Hungarian company that can do it, why shouldn’t they continue to win the bids?”
As Kounalakis rightly points out, Hungary’s EU membership requires it to treat all EU-based companies the same as its own. “Rather than creating a transparent and predictable business environment that would allow Hungarian companies to rise up through open competition, Prime Minister Orbán appeared to be closing competition to all but a few companies, whose success he sanctioned.” (p. 253)
This information was a political flashpoint. Leaders of the Demokratikus Koalíció were incensed, and Együtt threatened to sue Viktor Orbán himself. On May 17th, Orbán was asked by a reporter whether it was true that every week he sat down with the minister of national development to discuss the fate of certain large projects. Orbán didn’t deny it. In fact, he claimed that this was the legal and proper way of handling such matters. As Népszabadság concluded, “even today it is the government that decides which projects should win.”
Well, this sounded pretty bad. And so Fidesz issued a statement accusing Ferenc Gyurcsány’s government of corruption, adding that DK should be the last party to say anything about the current government’s misdeeds. Soon enough several government officials also decided to comment on the case, trying to save face. Mrs. Németh naturally claimed that Eleni Kounalakis misunderstood her. She and the prime minister didn’t discuss who should win. Rather, these conversations were about priorities, about ranking projects according to their importance.
The “Kounalakis affair” was even a topic at the Wednesday cabinet meeting. Defense is usually not enough for the Orbán government. Viktor Orbán and his cabinet members believe that the best defense is a good offense, and therefore János Lázár accused the former ambassador of publishing the book for the purpose of “earning a little extra money.” At that point I almost fell off my chair laughing. Lázár doesn’t seem to have the foggiest idea about AKT Development and the immense wealth of the Tsakopoulos family.
DK plans to get in touch with Eleni Kounalakis and will also turn to the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). DK’s argument goes something along the following lines. Before the book was released the State Department went through the book carefully and didn’t object to the inclusion of such sensitive information as Viktor Orbán’s personal decisions about projects financed by the European Union. That this piece of information remained in the book is not surprising given the U.S. government’s concern over corruption in Hungary.
We don’t know whether Mrs. Németh and Eleni Kounalakis were alone when this conversation took place, but given the diplomatic protocol the former ambassador describes in detail in her book it is unlikely. Therefore, this indiscretion of Mrs. Németh is most likely known by others from the U.S. Embassy staff. Moreover, after every such meeting copious notes are taken, which are immediately sent to Washington. The only question is whether the State Department wants to get involved in this case. I somehow doubt it. And even if they did, it would still be almost impossible to prove what everybody suspects–that it is Viktor Orbán himself who determines the fate of bids for practically all government projects. Let’s put it this way: if you’re close to the prime minister, you win a disproportionate number of bids. Just witness the success of Orbán’s son-in-law and Lőrinc Mészáros, the mayor of Felcsút, who is sometimes described as the prime minister’s front man.