I would like to return to U.S.-Hungarian relations because I suspect that Washington will soon be more active than it has been since January of this year when the new ambassador, Colleen Bell, arrived in Budapest. The Hungarian media, ever since the beginning of October, has been convinced that as soon as the refugee crisis is over Washington will return to the kind of strong criticism of the Hungarian government and its practices that we saw a year ago. At that time Ildikó Vida, then still the director of NAV, the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, was put on a list of those barred from entering the United States because of corruption charges.
Or at least this is what, according to vs.hu, David H. L. Van Cleve, first councillor in charge of political and economic affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, told a group of insiders. The 27 points Victoria Nuland raised with Péter Szijjártó are still on the table, and it is only question of time when they will be pursued again.
At the end of September Ambassador Colleen Bell gave her first in-depth interview to the on-line news site Origo. I am using here the original English version of the interview as it appeared on the website of the U.S. Embassy. I should mention by way of preface that I was impressed by the skill with which Ambassador Bell answered the reporter’s questions.
What did we learn from the interview? Quite a bit, despite Bell’s careful phrasing. First of all, it seems that the U.S. Embassy is in constant touch with the Hungarian foreign ministry concerning Hungary’s treatment of the refugees. U.S. policy seems to be that, although Hungary has the right to build a fence, “what we promote is for the European Union–including Hungary–to come up with a comprehensive and unified approach.” The United States offered “technical assistance and information sharing … to help meet the logistical and humanitarian challenges Hungary faces in trying to deal with an influx of vulnerable, displaced people.” My impression after reading the text is that the offered assistance wasn’t taken advantage of.
Bell also indicated that the United States government disapproves of the way Hungary treated the refugees. Although “we understand that Hungary is in a difficult situation … we promote the humane treatment of the refugees.” And, however briefly, she returned to the themes of “corruption, the lack of predictability, fairness, and transparency,” conditions that impede foreign investment.
This interview coincided with the arrival of Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Berschinski, and naturally the reporter wanted to know whether “there is a reason for the timing of his visit.” Bell tried to minimize the significance of Berschinski’s visit, saying that “there’s no specific reason for his visit other than spending time with us here at the Embassy and meeting members of the government and NGOs, and a variety of other people.” However, as vs.hu pointed out, Berschinski planned stay in Hungary was relatively long.
A day after his arrival in Budapest, Bell and Berschinski visited Miskolc, where he introduced himself as a personal representative of Secretary of State John Kerry and called on the city of Miskolc to follow the instructions of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. And he talked to representatives of the Jewish community. During his visit he also went to the prime minister’s office, where he met with Szabolcs Takács, undersecretary in charge of European affairs, who is also president of IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Association). And he got in touch with László Szabó, deputy of Péter Szijjártó, since the foreign minister happened to be in New York on that day.
In an interview with 444.hu he elaborated on some of the topics he discussed with various government officials: the election law, law on churches, corruption, discrimination against the Roma, and the refugee crisis. In addition, “we sent a message that the police investigation of NGOs must stop.” Perhaps, after all, American intervention was successful in this one respect. Today the National Tax and Customs Office (NAV) closed its investigation into Ökotárs and 17 other associations and foundations for lack of evidence. Berschinski admitted, however, that there is no progress at all on changing the electoral law or the law on the churches. At the end of his interview he indicated that friendly talks are not the only instruments the United States can use to change the attitude of the Hungarian government.
In addition, Berschinski gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he repeated some of points he had made in his 444.hu interview, but he added a few revealing details. In this interview he made the reason for his trip clearer: “The object of my trip first and foremost was an opportunity to discuss with the Hungarian government our misgivings concerning human rights and the state of democracy.” And when the reporter interpreted the silence of the United States as a sign of satisfaction, or at least fewer reasons for criticism, Berschinski corrected her. “I can assure you that the ambassador will also make more public statements in the future.”
It seems to me that what has been going on at the embassy in the last few months is “a kind of data gathering” to prepare for tackling some of the outstanding issues.