As promised, I will focus today on the analysis of the speech delivered by U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell two days ago, which contained some very harsh criticism of the Orbán government. But first I would like to return briefly to the question of why the official Hungarian news agency failed to report on the event. MTVA, under which MTI functions, explained that “there was no sign that the speech would deal with Hungarian domestic affairs or that the speech had any relevance to U.S.-Hungarian relations.” This explanation didn’t convince the Hungarian media, which pointed out that the U.S. Embassy’s invitation to members of the media gave the title of the speech: “A Current Look at Hungarian-U.S. Relations.” Moreover, as 444.hu also noted, the text of the speech was available as early as 6:44 p.m. on the website of the U.S. Embassy, including its Hungarian version.
The first summary of the speech appeared in Népszabadság. This was followed two hours later by the opinions of a couple of experts: Attila Juhász of Political Capital and Roland Reiner of the Republican Intézet. Unfortunately, their comments didn’t offer any real insight. Attila Juhász was the more expansive of the two, but both men “were surprised” because they thought that U.S.-Hungarian relations had entered a more peaceful phase. As I pointed out yesterday, there were many signs contradicting this view. And these signs weren’t reserved for a privileged few; it was enough to read Hungarian news reports. Juhász said that in private conversations the ambassador “was very diplomatic and didn’t criticize the Hungarian government that much.” Thus, Juhász believes,”it had to be a recent decision in Washington to put Budapest under pressure again.” His colleague Reiner, despite his agreement with Juhász that Colleen Bell was only the messenger, added that “it is not impossible that until now Bell has been trying to find her bearing: she listened to the opinions of the government, the civilians, and the opposition and by now she has arrived at her own conclusion.” Reiner can’t make up with mind about Bell’s independence.
The next expert was Szabolcs Panyi of Index, who came up with a fanciful explanation for the relative silence on the part of the United States about the many sins of the Orbán government. I should add that Panyi had a co-author, András Dezső, who is best known for her investigative work. Being familiar with Panyi’s political ideas, I suspect that most of the article’s analysis was the work of Panyi. According to him, “Colleen Bell had been subject to severe political and media attacks prior to her confirmation and therefore she couldn’t afford to make mistakes. She wanted to learn about the country and about her new job so she could present herself as a strong political actor.” Again, this indicates that the timing of the speech was the ambassador’s decision.
Furthermore, in Panyi’s opinion, “André Goodfriend and to some extent Eleni Kounalakis left chaos in their wake.” Goodfriend in particular was guilty of fomenting bad relations between Hungary and the United States. So, Bell had to confront the shadows of her predecessors. Just when she started to find her way around, Eleni Kounalikis began making “strong political statements which were not in accord with or harmonized with Bell and her staff.” Our naive Panyi is also convinced that MTI’s failure to report on Bell’s speech was the result of the Orbán’s government total unpreparedness for a major address by the ambassador.
As for the timing of the speech, the article, I think correctly, points out that it had something to do with the refugee crisis subsiding, at least as far as Hungary is concerned. The political noise around the “migrants” was so loud that Colleen Bell’s speech, however strong, would have been drowned out amid the general hysteria.
The article also suspects that the Polish elections last Sunday, which the authors describe as “an earthquake,” had something to do with the timing of the speech. It was a “warning” to the politicians of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party, PiS, not to follow the anti-business practices of Viktor Orbán. I don’t believe this story either. Why should the United States go through Budapest to reach Warsaw? I might also point out that the results of the Polish election didn’t come as a bolt of lightning. For months polls had suggested that PiS had a very good chance of winning the elections. Moreover, I suspect that the arrangements for this major speech preceded the Polish elections.
HVG also tried to find an explanation for the timing and found it in the United States’ eagerness to assist Angela Merkel’s refugee policies by severely criticizing the Orbán government’s inhumane treatment of the asylum seekers. “Before Orbán becomes too popular [in Europe], the United States shows the dark side of [Orbán’s] policies.” Well, I think we can forget about this analysis as well.
Finally, Péter Balázs, Gordon Bajnai’s foreign minister, was interviewed by Olga Kálmán on Egyenes Beszéd. He expressed his belief that there is a very simple explanation for the timing of the speech: “they have had enough.” I have the feeling that indeed this is the best explanation anyone can come up with. However, the exact timing most likely was determined by the end of the refugee crisis in Hungary. They might have waited a few weeks more if the political turbulence around erecting the fence had lasted a bit longer.
I must say that I was disappointed in the ability of Hungarian analysts to assess the recent history of U.S.-Hungarian relations. The relationship between the two countries has been rocky for some time. Tensions only escalated with Orbán’s handling of the refugee crisis, until patience finally ran out in Washington.