A couple of weeks ago I received a request from the Hungarian television station ATV to say something via Skype about the American election campaign. The reporter wanted to know whether a Democrat or a Republican president would be more advantageous to Viktor Orbán for friendlier relations between the countries. My answer was that “it doesn’t make the slightest difference who the president will be. Orbán is finished in Washington.” Anita Kőmüves of Népszabadság, who recently spent a couple of years in the United States, is of the same opinion. Today Kőmüves wrote an article titled “Not even money can help Orbán who is considered to be illiberal and thus written off.”
Kőmüves’s article is mostly about Századvég’s role as an intermediary between Connie Mack, the American lobbyist, and the Hungarian government. But the article has an attachment titled “The silent Orbán” that aroused my interest. The lobbyists in Washington and Budapest work pretty hard to arrange one-on-one meetings between Viktor Orbán and important American media personalities, but the Hungarian prime minister is reluctant to accommodate. Last September, for example, when he, accompanied by Péter Szijjártó, was in New York attending the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, they managed to schedule an interview for him with the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal that, according to Mack, yielded a couple of “positive” articles on Hungary. But Orbán in the last minute cancelled an interview with PBS, the public television station, and outright refused to give an interview to USA Today, a newspaper with a circulation of 1.6 million. Time magazine wanted to have an interview with Szijjártó, who simply couldn’t fit it into his schedule.
In light of the apparent eagerness to develop more favorable coverage on Hungary in the American media, it is difficult to explain why the prime minister shuns direct contact with American reporters. I don’t know which two Wall Street Journal articles Mack had in mind, but the one I found by Margit Fehér written on September 29, 2015 was judiciously neutral, with only a hint of surprise that despite the aging population, massive emigration, and “the country’s likely economic needs,” Orbán maintains that Hungary doesn’t need migrants. Considering the kind of coverage that Orbán usually gets in the American press, it might have been wise to give the interviews that Mack managed to line up for him. But I assume that Orbán, who so carefully controls media access to him in Hungary, was reluctant to encounter an American reporter who might ask him about Hungary’s treatment of the refugees or his relationship with Vladimir Putin.
The announcement that Viktor Orbán will attend the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC surprised Hungarian observers, especially since Bertalan Havasi, the head of Orbán’s press department, was very tight-mouthed about the trip. Several papers inquired about Orbán’s program in Washington but got no answers. The terse response was: “You will find out from the Hungarian public [sic] media.” I suspect that Orbán’s trip to Washington had only two purposes: for him to be among those delegation heads who were invited to an official dinner in the White House and for his family (including his wife and three of the younger children) to have a vacation.
I suspect that the program of the Nuclear Security Summit was known ahead of time and that the decision to attend hinged on the official dinner at the White House hosted by President Obama. I very much doubt that he would have attended this gathering without that enticing opportunity to look important. And, indeed, the photographer was on hand at the entrance to the White House when Orbán paused for a quick photo op. I saw a video of the arrival of about a dozen more important world leaders arriving at the White House and being escorted into the building. None of them carried a folder on their way to a fancy dinner, only Orbán. I wonder what he did with it at the dinner table. Later, Obama took pictures with all the 56 invited guests, including of course Orbán. But after the dinner Orbán decided to skip the rest of the conference and most likely went off somewhere with his family doing some sightseeing. It was Péter Szijjártó who represented Hungary on the second day of the summit.
Did Orbán have any bilateral discussions with other representatives? We know of one, with Giorgi Margvelasvili, president of Georgia, apparently about improving Georgian-Hungarian trade relations. He also gave a press conference to the sole reporter of M1, the Hungarian state television station. During that talk he emphasized that “many countries instead of eliminating nuclear energy are actually building up their nuclear capacity,” which he not surprisingly welcomed considering his insistence on the extension of the Paks nuclear power plant which, by the way, is under increasing pressure from the European Union.
This morning Együtt called Orbán’s visit to Washington “a family outing with a minimum amount of official duties.” Since Orbán had no opportunity to have bilateral talks either with American or with other dignitaries the whole trip was a waste of money. This description of the trip is not entirely justified because Obama had bilateral talks with very few prime ministers. But it is also true that Orbán did not attend earlier summits. In 2014 it was János Martonyi who represented Hungary.
Apparently Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, hoped for a meeting with the American president, but in the last few months U.S.-Polish relations have soured. Orbán didn’t stand a chance of meeting with Obama. American-Hungarian relations have been frosty for a very long time. Orbán’s problems with the United States began in 2001, right after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. István Csurka, chairman of MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja), made several statements both inside and outside of parliament which laid blame for the terrorist attack on the United States. Although official condolences from Orbán were appropriately phrased, he didn’t outright condemn Csurka’s statements. Géza Jeszenszky, Hungarian ambassador to Washington at the time, sent warnings about the serious consequences of the government’s lack of response to Csurka’s accusations, to no avail. And since 2010 there has been no reason for the United States government to change its opinion of the Hungarian prime minister. No amount of money thrown at lobbyists will make the slightest difference as long as the prime minister of Hungary is Viktor Orbán.