A frustrated Viktor Orbán dismisses his ambassador to Washington

On the very same day that the Hungarian parliament passed a bill that would effectively close Central European University, ATV reported that Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian ambassador to the United States, will be leaving her post within a couple of months. She is being recalled. A few hours later the Foreign Ministry confirmed the report.

The news created quite a stir because the consensus in government circles as well as among analysts was that Szemerkényi was practically an alter ego of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán’s trust in Szemerkényi’s judgment and expertise was boundless, claimed several people in the know. Observers asserted that having Szemerkényi in the Hungarian Embassy was like having Viktor Orbán himself in Washington.

So, what went wrong? According to the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj, “there was someone in the government” who didn’t find Szemerkényi’s performance in Washington satisfactory. Given the modus operandi of the Orbán government, that someone must have been the prime minister himself who, it seems, expected miracles from his trusted foreign policy and security expert. Among other things, he expected an early invitation to the White House, something that doesn’t seem possible anytime soon. Péter Szijjártó, who visited Washington on March 22-23, also had difficulty meeting anyone of importance in the State Department. Szemerkényi is being accused of not using the diplomatic channels at her disposal to explain the Hungarian government’s position on two important issues: its unyielding attitude towards and treatment of the refugees and its unprecedented attack on an American university.

Poor Réka Szemerkényi. She was sent to Washington with an impossible mission: not just to ease the growing tension between the two countries but to convince the U.S. government that its dim view of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state has no foundation. Hungary is in fact a blossoming democracy. She was supposed to convince the Americans that the footage they saw on television day in and day out of Hungary’s harsh treatment of refugees was just a mirage. Moreover, the anti-American and pro-Russian rhetoric of Orbán and his press shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is just idle talk or is simply misunderstood.

Szemerkényi did her best, but it is practically impossible to sell inferior or outright rotten produce, and that was all she could offer. She did convince a few Republicans who for one reason or other sympathize with Orbán’s policies, including his pro-Russian stance, but most congressmen and senators were not ready to support Hungary’s cause. As ambassador she received a few invitations for interviews, but most of her time was spent responding to negative reports by U.S. publications. For example, she wrote letters on behalf of Hungary to The Hill, Washington Times, Washington Post, Diplomacy and Trade, Politico, and The York Review of Books where she engaged in a fairly lengthy exchange with Professor Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University over what she considered to be his “rather distorted picture of Hungary.” She valiantly defended Fidesz as a “center right [party] encompassing views from liberal-conservatives to traditionalists.” She accused him of using “selective quotes,” which will not hide the fact that the Hungarian government’s commitment to traditional European values is well within the mainstream of European politics. Even from this one response we can appreciate the difficulties she faced in defending the indefensible.

In a lengthy interview with an American publication, she explained the problems she was facing in Washington: “A lot of very profound changes in Hungary that took place since 2010 or 2011 were so difficult to understand from far away” and perhaps between 2010 and 2014 the embassy didn’t do a good job of explaining these changes. She found that unfortunate because she “very much believe[s] in the importance and power of the transatlantic relationship.” She is convinced that “the European and transatlantic ties are the most important roots for [her] country.” Yet, she added, “we have a very complex recent past” which is difficult to understand from the outside. One can sense her frustration at the impossibility of her task.

I also suspect that Szemerkényi, who once wrote a glowing essay about János Martonyi as a model foreign minister, doesn’t think highly of Péter Szijjártó the novice. After all, Szemerkényi has almost 30 years of experience, first serving in the Ministry of Defense (1990-1994) and then as undersecretary in charge of foreign policy and national security in the prime minister’s office between 1998 and 2002.

Szemerkényi also gave interviews to Hungarian media outlets: Inforadio, a right-of-center mostly news station, and Figyelő, a respectable financial paper which was acquired by Mária Schmidt recently. (I should mention that the valuable archives of Figyelő has been removed from the internet. New owners of government media outlets learn from each other quickly. This is what happened in the case of Népszabadság until a court order restored the archives.)

In her first interview with Figyelő in December 2015 she stressed the importance of transatlantic ties. Atlantism is not a sub-field of Hungarian foreign policy, alongside the eastern opening. It is the foundation of Hungary’s foreign relations. Or, at least this is what Szemerkényi would like to believe. In the rest of the interview she talked about the efforts she had been making to gather support in the U.S. capital. For instance, once a month the embassy holds a meeting called Budapest Salon—Open Embassy where she invites analysts and congressional advisers. She did notice some “thawing,” but “it wouldn’t be a realistic goal that we agree about everything.”

In her February 9, 2017 interview with Figyelő one can sense that Szemerkényi was under pressure from Budapest to secure a White House invitation for Viktor Orbán. The very first question addressed to her was on the prospects of “building a good relationship with the Trump administration.” I’m sure that Donald Trump’s victory was as much of a surprise to Szemerkényi as it was to everybody else, but she claimed that the embassy had made preparations for both eventualities. And she was eager to reassure people that they were “extremely successful” on that score. She claimed that Hungary is way ahead of other countries in the region in acquiring contacts with the new set of people in the Trump administration. In fact, others come to the Hungarian embassy for advice and contacts. She bragged about her meetings with Jeff Sessions, Mike Pence, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson, and John Kelly’s and James Mattis’s teams. She personally talked with Rex Tillerson. The Hungarian embassy organized a celebratory brunch called Salute to Freedom after the inauguration, which was attended by high officials of the new administration. Most important, she met President Trump at least three times. For example, “at a smaller conference and ball that took place in Mar-a-Lago, President Trump greeted me as an old acquaintance.” She announced that they are working on “the coordination of the actual meeting” between Trump and Orbán but added that, as far as timing is concerned, the Hungarians must be realistic. The president of a superpower has many other urgent obligations. Well, it seems that Viktor Orbán was not ready to wait.

The Mar-a-Lago encounter between the Trumps and Réka Szemerkényi

And now let’s see what one of her right-wing critics, István Lovas, who just moved from Magyar Hírlap to Magyar Idők as the “foreign policy expert,” had to say about Szemerkényi’s days in Washington. Lovas doesn’t have a heavy work load at Magyar Idők. He writes only one article a week, which leaves him plenty of time to search online for “fake news” coming from Russia Today and Sputnik, which he publishes on his own blog. He is quite capable of posting two dozen short notices with links to Russian or pro-Russian publications in a day. Naturally, he is also a great fan of Donald Trump and finds Szemerkényi’s less than successful efforts the ambassador’s personal failure, due in part to her Atlantist inclinations. Lovas accuses her of being anti-Russian, an accusation that is not without merit judging from several articles she wrote between 2008 and 2011 in Válasz.

Lovas is convinced that Szemerkényi grossly exaggerated her relations with President Trump as well as with other high-ranking members of the new administration. All of her meetings with these people were casual encounters. It is very possible that Donald Trump didn’t even know who Szemerkényi was when he exchanged a few words with her. Her only recorded meeting with the president occurred after the embassy paid several thousand dollars to the American Red Cross in order to get an invitation to the conference and ball held at Mar-a-Lago. In Lovas’s opinion, Szemerkényi’s extreme Atlantism and her harsh anti-Russian views are good enough reason to recall her.

And behold, three days later Szemerkényi was sacked. Of course, I don’t believe that Lovas’s outrageous blog post was the reason for her dismissal. Rather, I suspect that Lovas already knew that something was brewing in the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry.

Apparently, a deputy of Péter Szijjártó, László Szabó, will replace Réka Szemerkényi. Szabó has no diplomatic experience to speak of. He finished medical school but after a few years gave up his profession and became a businessman working for pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Teva. He did spend two years at Eli Lilly headquarters in Indianapolis, but he knows next to nothing about Washington. How could Szabó possibly be more successful than Szemerkényi has been with her vast experience in diplomacy and her familiarity with the Washington scene? After the CEU scandal the new Hungarian ambassador’s job will be even harder than before. Sending an inexperienced man to replace Szemerkényi is utter madness in my opinion.

April 9, 2017
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Canadian
Guest

“Sending an inexperienced man to replace Szemerkényi is utter madness in my opinion.”
But Eva, he is a MAN, so he’ll do a great job! And if he doesn’t, others will be to blame. Probably Soros. 😀

Guest

Though it be madness there is method in it – I remember sommething like this from my Shakespeare days …
And the Hungarian method is of course:
It’s always someone else’s faul!

Btw the latest alternative news going round the ‘net is that O wants and is working on Hungary to leave the EU!

pappp
Guest

Spot on. Rumor has it that Sandor Csanyi (CEO of OTP Bank, Hungary’s biggest bank, and the single most influential oligarch) openly refuses to have a female deputy-CEO (or other high ranked banker).

Csanyi just doesn’t trust women to be completely reliable in the way he requires loyalty and reliability. I don’t know if Csanyi shared this management insight to Orban or Orban came to the same conclusion by himself but he fact is Orban never had any significant female politicians around him.

Szemerkenyi’s sole job was to sell Orban in the same aggressive way Orban himself behaves. She should’ve been a female Szíjjártó or Janos Lazar. Her job was not to think, just execute orders. She failed so she was fired.

But I expect that she will be well compensated – this is the Fidesz way. Otherwise too much risk that she might be disgruntled and would talk or be disloyal.

András B. Göllner
Guest

It will be our pleasure to help ensure, that Szabó László does a worse job promoting the national disgrace (a.k.a. a nemzeti szégyenfolt) than Mrs Szemerkényi. As for Lovas, we’ll do our best to put him out to pasture. 🙂

Member

Re: #CEU protests are currently the #1 topic on Reddit

Michael White
Guest

No surprise there, you know what Reddit is like!

Member

Let’s hope this means Orban’s Ceaucescu moment is nearing…

V.O.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dT3Ob7C0nJI&feature=youtu.be

N.C.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6pvMFfQF50

LwiiH
Guest

No idea how to estimatecthe size of the crowd but the walk easily stretched from the parliment all the way back to Verkert from where the walk started.

Hardy
Guest

It’s not that hard, especially with a drone it can be done fairly easily and accurately http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/11/news-police-like-estimate-crowd-size-parade-protest-like/

chill
Guest

The Hungarians are not like the Ukrainians or the Romanians, there’s always much less violence.

Any violence these days is usually carried out by right-wing extremists, military type gun nuts which in CEE includes only the extreme right. The militant left-wing died out at least 50 years ago.

Liberals are way to meek and bourgeois to be really aggressive with Orban. And they have principles, you know against the death penalty.

Bookish nerds will not even burn the Fidesz HQ down or do similar things. Forget it.

Observer
Guest

Stevan

I wish I could share your optimism on the Cseaucescu point.

András G.

It will be my pleasure, if I can be of any help in this noble cause.

Matt_L
Guest

Poor Viktor Orban. Hungary is not bigly or even big league.

I don’t have much sympathy for Réka Szemerkény, but this is not really her fault. One of the reasons that she probably can’t organize a visit is because the new administration is failing to fill hundreds of appointed positions in the bureaucracy, especially at State.

aida
Guest

As far as the dear lady is concerned, there is an old saying: if you sup with the devil you must use a very long spoon. Clearly dear Reka didn’t.

Member

The often repeated phrase, that foreigners cannot understand the complex history and the changes in Hungary FROM FAR AWAY, is such an utterly primitive reasoning, that it lacks even rudimentary logic. To turn it around, then the Hungarians cannot understand the complexities of the World from a large distance either and going a step further, nobody understands anyone else who is far away. (For Hungary, even Austria is far away, the Austrian politicians were told the same stupid reasoning, when they criticized the deeds of the Hungarian Government, aka. as the viktor.)

As we know, distance has nothing to do with understanding the news, the statements of others, read or heard, the events happening somewhere else, unless someone os some people do or say utterly unjustifiable absurdity and/or criminally insane things.

Observer
Guest

Gyula B.

It is nothing, but primitive attempt to mystify the power grab and thievery of this gang. Add the idiotic nationalism used to for the same purpose.
To quote the classics: Nationalism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, or Drape yourself with flag (if you have dirt to hide).

Problem is there are too many scoundrels, little fascists or simply dummies who accept the mushroom treatment (feed them shit and keep the in the dark).

Don’t have any Dakota wisdom.

aida
Guest

I think the dear boy is approaching his Dunsinane moment. It is a mistake to refer to meeting his Waterloo. Napoleon was a genius of integrity and courage. (Do not worry about the English crap about him). Macbeth was a deluded coward. Let us pray for Dunsinane.

petofi
Guest

A finely tuned comparison.

webber
Guest

Integrity and courage to want to conquer all of Europe.

aida
Guest

He was a soldier and a very distinguished one. This is not the place to debate Napoleon, but his adversaries were not exactly representatives of a virtuous enlightenment.
When in Puccini’s Tosca the captive painter held by the Police chief of Rome in the Farnese Palace hears the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo he shouts a joyous “victory”. Clearly some preferred him to royals and aristocracy.
Nelson’s lover’s husband in Naples was a bloodthirsty tyrant.
May I suggest you read to get a balanced view, but to do so strip out the conventional English input, which is heavily propagandised.

wrfree
Guest

Re: ‘Let us pray for Dunsinane’

And if ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ continues to echo in ‘Macbeth’s head the geography could just as well hit closer to home as it could push on to a sort of ‘Mohacsian’ moment where Fidesz’s ‘nobility’ will perhaps experience their denouement from the electorate.

Observer
Guest

Not only a distinguished commander, but exceptional leader and administrator (not that there weren’t other great brains and talents in 17th, 18th cent France). In every admin and legal segment of the French systems the legacy of the Napoleon times is visible.
No contest with the haphazardous, antiquated British systems (inches/feet, pounds,Guinness/shillings, etc. Australia’s six colonies ended up with three different railway gauges!!).

Ferenc
Guest

One thing I didn’t see in the post, is the possible connection to/influence of Gorka:
-Szemerkényi worked at Ministry of Defense (1990-94)
-Gorka worked (1992/93-96?) at the same ministry
-meeting Gorka and “the boy” Szijjártó 2017.March
-sacking of Szemerkényi 2017.Apr
May be the above is just coincidence, I just don’t know, but found it worth to mention here.

PS1: after the 2006 elections, Gorka went against OV (as having lost 2 in a row), and a little later in 2007 started a with others a new party (UDK), which later on lost the fight with Jobbik on the far right.
Don’t know how OV’s actual view of / relation with Gorka is, haven’t seen any direct words about this (yet)
PS2: Szemerkényi’s harsh anti-Russian views are most likely more decisive in this whole matter

ambator
Member

The picture tells a thousand stories. Szemerkényi’s forced, insincere smile and posture makes her look like a statue wheeled in from the Easter Islands, while Trump’s facial expression is more like that of a disgusted observer as he is encountering an unusually repulsive, but harmless insect.

wrfree
Guest

With a boss like a one -track VO , Szemerkenyi , Szabo, Szabo, Szemerkenyi , fill in diplomat/ representative name etc etc , there will be no difference in the ‘cooperation’ and relationship with the US now and for the foreseeable future. The ambassadors run on a very short leash. They are between a rock and a hard place.

Magyar diplomats may speak all they want on issues but there in the background always whispers a drone of ‘No, no no’ and gimmee more, more, more’. The mantra communications come off with fake positive feelings. They have another thing coming if they think their efforts in a relationship fraught with discord , in the colloquial ‘busting chops’, will bring a ‘receptive’ reception. And why would US ‘influentials’ want to spend time with them anyway? Better for them to marry Russia.

There’s an adage that in diplomacy countries need to try to keep things ‘negotiable’. It would appear the Magyar diplomatic corps is in pretty bad shape on that score. They unfortunately are representing a declining country ‘brand’. And more and more aren’t buying.

Member

My thoughts exactly. If I were Réka Szemerkényi I would not want to show this picture to anyone!

petofi
Guest

@ ambator

I’m not sure about ‘harmless’…

Observer
Guest

It’s important to understand the Orban ways:
– he doesn’t believe in systems, least of all in democracy with it’s empowering action opportunities for the many. Witness his spite against democracies and dalliance with various dictatorships.
– Orban rules with the help of commissars (kormány biztos) the number of which is more than double compared to any earlier government. See the ridiculous Ambassador for Soccer and F.Puskas Affairs, revealed last week.

The RSz replacement case is just another case of the same dilettante bungling of a pretty simplistic dictator – the new commissar will not deliver a miracle either.

Jean P.
Guest

Maybe Szemerkényi was fired for the same reason as Bismarck once gave when he fired a diplomat: “Der Kerl kann nicht lügen”. The man cannot tell a lie.

bimbi
Guest

Hajra for the Magyar Underground! Spotted in Deak Ferenc Metro station today was one of the (thousands of) government posters proclaiming:

Allitsuk meg a Brussels-t!

But someone had covered “Brussels-t” with “Moszkva-t”…

Maybe they should be printing up a few thousand “Tehran-t” as well.

Ferenc
Guest

Just saw that Momentum started an action: covering “Brussels-t” with “Oran-t!” or “Moszkva-t”, both with a 5-point star included and on orange (Fidesz colour) strip. Could be you’ve seen one they improved

Ferenc
Guest

sorry: “Oran-t!” should be “Orban-t!”

wrfree
Guest

Haven’t been in Pest for awhile. One ujsag’s penetration has to be up. I figure that Pravda has to be gaining circ and the ‘readers per copy’ are up up . And the Euro and US papers maybe deep-sixed on deliveries ….into the Donau…;-)…

pappp
Guest

Janos Ader, the president, signed the CEU-banning bill into law.

He had two options (in addition to signing):

1. Send the bill back to Parliament in which case he would’ve gotten it back in a few days and then second time around he would’ve been obligated to sign.

2. Send the bill to the Constitutional Court (which is by now made up of Fidesz party commissioners) for a review.

Now, given all what happened, all the demonstrations, the rational and moral arguments, the request from all over the world what kind of man doesn’t even bother to at least send the bill back?

It would’ve been meaningless in practice but at least it would’ve shown some minimal compassion.

I want to puke. This is not a president, this is just another servile, mindless, corrupt, morally bankrupt fidesznik.

Margit E. Maklae
Guest

I worry for what is happening politically in Hungry! I and my parents were 1956’s. The last time I went home in 1990, things were so much more promising then now. Sad!

Istvan
Guest

Fidesz vice-president Szilárd Németh now claims that the 80,000 person protest against the government assault on CEU in Budapest was devised by the agent organizations financed and managed by the businessman George Soros. He also said Soros paid for dozens of buses of demonstrators to come to Budapest and even paid the airfare of protestors to Hungary from other large Central Eastern European cities. That Soros is very diabolical indeed!

Observer
Guest

The style is almost verbatim that of the Communist late 1950s and just as absurd.
The fascist state at work.

petofi
Guest

It’s quite simple: with the average, dim-dumb Hungarian mind…all Orban has to do is say that the JEWS are behind something and the populace, lock-step, falls in behind him.

What a people!

HAJRA MAGYAROK!!

Ferenc
Guest

SzN: “Soros paid for dozens of buses of demonstrators to come to Budapest and even paid the airfare of protestors”
According reports this was in the TV2 and Lokal mouthpieces yesterday, the organizers of the demonstration refuted this nonsense immediately of course, BUT the best way they could have replied to these accusations:
KI MINT ÉL, ÚGY ÍTÉL / EVIL DOERS ARE EVIL DREADERS
[somebody trusts/sees other people after his own character]

PS: next time (wednesday?), they could make a complete fool of these mouthpieces, by stating that this time they have organized space-ships for the alien protestors!

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