Viktor Orbán doesn’t like to waste time. Yesterday afternoon Csaba Hende, minister of defense, resigned, and lickety-split the prime minister named his replacement, István Simicskó, who as of this afternoon could occupy’s Hende’s empty office in the ministry.
I suspect that not too many people are familiar with Simicskó, although he has been a member of parliament since 1998 and off and on has been a member of various Fidesz governments. The name will resonate in the White House, however, with Celeste A. Wallander, special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council. How on earth, you might ask, would Celeste Wallander know who István Simicskó is? Here in a nutshell is the story.
Back in November 2002, when Wallander was a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, she wrote a study on NATO in Foreign Affairs with the title “Shape Up or Ship Out.” In it she pointed out how the new NATO countries were failing to fulfill their obligations:
Unfortunately, the evidence is that other new members are already falling behind on their commitments. Recently, a senior figure in European security remarked that “Hungary has won the prize for most disappointing new member of NATO, and against some competition,” citing the previous Hungarian government’s antisemitism, extraterritorial claims against its neighbors, and failure to play a constructive role in Balkan security. Indeed, Hungary seems to have accepted this dubious distinction. The new Hungarian defense minister, Ferenc Juhasz, even admitted on local radio after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson that Hungary has failed to meet its NATO commitments over the past four years to such an extent that the alliance has unofficially told him that Hungary would already have been expelled if an expulsion were possible.
Hungary appears to be back on the right path after the defeat of Victor Orban’s nationalist government in elections earlier this year.
This article appeared in a highly respected journal, and normally it would not have prompted an incident. Not unless the criticism was directed against anything connected with Viktor Orbán’s government or party. Simicskó, who after the fall of the Orbán government, became the deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on defense, created a storm over the article. Not only did he point a finger at the Horn government as being responsible for the sorry state of the Hungarian army but he also began working on a conspiracy theory. Celeste Wallander was accused of being in cahoots with members of the Medgyessy government, then in power. Simicskó was convinced that “such critical remarks and articles appearing about Hungary prepare the ground for Hungarian participation in a possible war against Iraq and sending soldiers to Afghanistan.” In plain English, Celeste Wallander the political scientist was pictured as an agent of American military circles in addition to working with the Medgyessy government because “the picture becomes complete when we consider that [the article] came out in preparation for Prime Minister Medgyessy’s visit to Washington.”
A few days later Simicskó wrote a letter to the political scientist and told her off for including the quotation that “Hungary has won the prize for most disappointing new member of NATO, and against some competition.”
I don’t remember all the details, but I believe Celeste Wallander answered Simicskó’s letter. That wasn’t the end of Wallander’s woes, however. She was also attacked by the internet group known as the Hungarian Lobby, which is actually a Fidesz lobby. The group was founded by Béla Lipták, who left Hungary as an engineering student after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and who is the author of several highly technical books on such topics as process measurement and analysis, hazardous waste, and air pollution. Every time a newspaper article critical of Orbán’s Hungary appears, Lipták writes to the thousands of people who receive the Lobby’s newsletter and asks them to bombard the editors of the paper or in this case Celester Wallander herself with letters of complaint. He provides a sample letter but tells the members to change the sentence structure a bit and make sure they add their own name; that is, don’t send the form letter with Lipták’s signature. As soon as Lipták got wind of the Simicskó-Wallander exchange, the Hungarian Lobby machinery moved into action and the poor woman was inundated with hundreds of letters.
I, who out of curiosity receive Lipták’s newsletters, decided to write a letter to Celeste Wallander and express my sympathy. I wanted to show that there are people who don’t share the ideas of Simicskó or those of Lipták’s indefatigable letter writers. We subsequently exchanged a number of letters about the incident.
In 2010 the consensus was that the most likely candidate for the post of minister of defense would be István Simicskó, but on April 27 the word came down that Csaba Hende would be appointed and that Simicskó would have to be satisfied with the post of undersecretary. The next day I wrote an article about the 2002 incident in Galamus titled “Simicskó István esete Celeste A. Wallanderrrel” (István Simicskó’s encounter with Celeste A. Wallander). By that time Celeste Wallander was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. In that article I mused over the possibility that if Orbán had appointed Simicskó minister of defense sooner or later he would have had to encounter, perhaps even in person, Celeste Wallander.
Since then Wallander has moved even higher up on the U.S. governmental ladder. Somehow I doubt that Simicskó will ever have to face Celeste Wallander because is unlikely that he will have occasion to pay a visit to the White House. I’m certain, however, that Wallander will remember, and not too fondly, the name of the new Hungarian minister of defense.