It is not easy to be the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, especially not since 2010. The Orbán government is outright antagonistic toward the United States, and some of the cabinet members make no secret of their “irritation” at the American ambassador’s critical remarks when, in their opinion, she has no right to meddle in Hungary’s internal affairs. On the other side, the anti-Orbán forces are dissatisfied with her because, in their opinion, she is not critical enough of Orbán’s illiberal democracy. The current ambassador, Colleen Bell, is trying to satisfy both sides by praising the military cooperation between the two countries while criticizing some other aspects of Hungarian political life.
In the last week or so we could witness the predicament in which Bell finds herself. On December 2 she visited the Pápa military base where she agreed to a fairly lengthy interview with one of the reporters of M1, the government’s main propaganda channel. Although the interview was aired only on December 5, Magyar Idők triumphantly announced on the 3rd that, according to Bell, “Hungary is a sovereign nation that has the right to defend its borders.” What Magyar Idők neglected to report was that Bell at the same time stressed the necessity of a common European solution to the migrant crisis and said that the asylum seekers are not terrorists. In fact, they are the ones who are escaping from the people who are committing terrorist atrocities in Iraq and Syria.
When the interview was broadcast, the few Hungarians who actually watch M1 could see an antagonistic reporter accusing the United States of double standards and wanting to know Ambassador Bell’s opinion of the”American-Hungarian billionaire’s involvement with the migrants.” The interview was, as far as I can judge, favorably received by the government and much less so by the opposition, where the opinion was that Bell was not forceful enough even in her defense of the human rights of the asylum seekers and far too effusive about military cooperation.
A few days later, on December 9 and 10, the Hungarian branch of Transparency International organized a two-day conference on corruption. The occasion was Anti-Corruption Day, which has been observed on December 9 ever since 2003 when in Merida, Mexico the United Nations Convention against Corruption was signed. Colleen Bell was one of the principal speakers.
I don’t think that I have to say much about the United States’ commitment to fighting corruption. After all, last fall the sticking point in U.S.-Hungarian relations was precisely the widespread corruption in Hungary and the Hungarian government’s reluctance to tackle it. So, it was expected that the U.S. ambassador would say something important on the subject and that in her speech there would be a fair amount of criticism of the Hungarian government’s attitude toward corruption. U.S. diplomats are keenly aware of the systemic corruption that ensnares the whole government, starting with the prime minister and his family.
Colleen Bell pretty well repeated the negative ramifications of corruption that she had outlined in her much-criticized speech in October. In addition, she spoke of problems specific to Hungary. Here are a couple of examples: “America’s commercial relationship with Hungary is healthy and bilateral trade is on the rise, but I’m told by some American business executives that perceptions of corruption in Hungary impact the investment climate and directly affect American businesses, and as a result, our trade. When public procurement decisions are made on the basis of favoritism instead of on the basis of merit, our companies will often just stay home. American businesses should not be asked to compete in a public tender against a company owned by the relatives of decision-makers. That is why this practice is banned in many countries.”
The ambassador also had something to say about transparency which, as we know, is in short supply in Orbán’s Hungary. “Administrations, too, can increase transparency by allowing citizens open access to information that affects their lives, and that enables them to make informed and educated decisions about policies made in their name. For example, the United States applauds the recent Capital Court of Appeals decision requiring documentation regarding the Paks contracts.” And finally, she stressed that “prosecutors [should be] empowered to investigate and prosecute officials suspected of crimes of corruption.”
It was expected that János Lázár in his Thursday press conference (“government info”) would strike back. Indeed, we didn’t have to wait for long. He hit below the belt. After explaining that the new law on public procurement is fair and the Hungarian government will not discriminate against any U.S. firm in favor of relatives of public officials, he added that “we don’t guarantee an advantage to anybody because we are not in America where somebody can become an ambassador just because he/she supports a party.” This ad hominem attack on Bell was not only boorish, it was also a blatant lie as far as the Hungarian situation is concerned. By now the great majority of ambassadorial posts are given to strong supporters of Fidesz who frequently have no diplomatic experience. Moreover, very often they are handpicked by Viktor Orbán himself.
Some key members of the government were also present at the conference. They tried to convince the audience, without much success, that the law on public procurement which allows government officials’ relatives to compete in government tenders is the strictest in all of Europe. When Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, tried to convince people that the number of anti-corruption cases is growing, people in the audience snickered. Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice, also rose in defense of the government.
Magyar Idők reported on the conference as a government mouthpiece ought to. The headline reads: “The new law on public procurement helps the struggle against corruption.” In this article even Colleen Bell’s remarks sounded positive, although at the end of the article there was one sentence that said that “the ambassador in connection with transparency mentioned among other things the importance of making the documents related to Paks public.”
Meanwhile the wholesale expropriation of the nation’s wealth continues, including the agricultural land currently in the hands of the state.