My two posts on Eleni Kounalakis’s book about her years in Budapest as U.S. ambassador elicited a great many comments. In fact, the debate continues among the active commenters to Hungarian Spectrum. Some were very harsh on the United States for not taking a stronger stance against the growing manifestations of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s antidemocratic measures. Others correctly pointed out that no country has the right to tell another one what to do and what not to do. The blame, these people argued, lies with the Hungarian electorate that handed Fidesz a super-majority, which enabled Viktor Orbán to enact about 700 laws in the course of four years. Most of these laws chipped away at the democratic achievements of Hungarian lawmakers between 1990 and 2010.
Indeed, as many of you so often remind your fellow commenters, it is only the Hungarian people who can get rid of Viktor Orbán and his mafia state. The United States has no leverage over Hungary. The European Union’s clout is limited. Admittedly, Brussels could have been more forceful when it came to the generous subsidies that ended up in the pockets of Viktor Orbán’s oligarchs. In fact, in large measure it was the European Union that kept Viktor Orbán in power over the past five years.
I think the American Embassy staff did their best to gently nudge Hungarian government officials toward democratic solutions. I have the feeling that other embassies did even less than that. The problem, as I see it, was that the Americans did not fully understand the nature of Viktor Orbán’s regime, so they put an awful lot of energy into a cause that was hopeless from the very beginning.
Eleni Kounalakis, after her first disastrous encounter with Orbán, came up with a plan. She would “extend an olive branch to the touchy opposition leader, a message that I wanted to try to work with him in spite of our rough start.” (p. 44) Such a strategy is usually successful, but what Kounalakis didn’t seem to know is that, for Viktor Orbán, an olive branch means weakness.
Kounalakis writes about the extensive preparation she received before her departure to Budapest, but her “handlers” neglected to prepare her with a “course on Viktor Orbán.” It is hard to imagine, however, that Jeffrey Levine, her deputy-chief-of-mission for the first six months, didn’t fill her in. But most likely she was charmed by Viktor Orbán, who, according to people who have met him, is a very charismatic person. Kounalakis herself tells us that “whenever I briefed visitors about to meet Orbán, I always noted that they would be surprised by how much they liked him. Usually, having heard so many negative reports about him, they didn’t believe me, but my prediction always came true…. [He usually] charmed his guests with clever observations and funny, self-deprecating comments.” (p. 164) Obviously, this tactic worked for a while with Kounalakis as well.
In addition to Viktor Orbán’s alleged charms, I think there were two people in the cabinet who were largely responsible for the relatively benign attitude of foreign countries toward Orbán’s regime. I have in mind János Martonyi and Tibor Navracsics. It is hard to imagine that these two intelligent men could embrace the tenets and practices of the Orbán government. And yet one cannot say that they didn’t know who Viktor Orbán was. They had worked closely with him ever since 1998 when Martonyi became foreign minister and Navracsics was in the prime minister’s office.
In 2010 Martonyi’s second stint as foreign minister was never in question, although he was about to be put in an even more humiliating position than he had endured the first time around. During his first term as foreign minister his job was to explain away Orbán’s gaffes. By his second term he became totally irrelevant. And yet he still managed to convince foreign diplomats of the good intentions of the Hungarian government even though it should have been crystal clear to everybody, including Eleni Kounalakis, that Martonyi simply didn’t matter.
Navracsics is equally guilty of serving a corrupt and undemocratic government. Being a legal scholar as well as a political scientist, he must have known that Orbán’s policies were a deadly blow to Hungarian democracy. Yet he used his gentlemanly manners and considerable intellect to mislead his well-meaning negotiating partners.
These smooth operators, these enablers of Orbán are perhaps more guilty than Orbán himself. Orbán has a vision, however warped, but Martonyi and Navracsics, who should have known better, willingly and ably served a regime rotten to the core. Kounalakis, who speaks so highly of these two men, should have understood that they were the ones who were largely responsible for her misplaced trust in the Orbán government.
Eleni Kounalakis was in her post for almost two years before she realized that she had been taken. In the summer of 2011, that is after a year and a half as ambassador, she was still ready to resign if Hillary Clinton, during a short visit to Budapest, delivered a strong speech criticizing the Orbán administration’s domestic policies. The speech was written in the State Department without her input. She was horrified that Clinton would deliver “a lecture on the Hungarian political reform process. And she would do all this before she met with him privately.” (p. 180) But six months later, when the cardinal laws related to the judiciary were passed without addressing any of the concerns the Americans had raised, she suddenly understood that she had been badly misled by her Hungarian friends in the different ministries.
It’s over, I thought, shoulders slumping. My efforts to help the Hungarian government government prove its commitment to democratic principles, to encourage lawmakers to listen to all their constituents, had failed. I was disappointed and angry that I’d been misled. (p. 193)
It now became clear to her that she had been dealing with a bunch of liars, including her favorite Martonyi and Navracsics. Yet she made one final attempt, writing an article titled “A Second Look” in which she asked “lawmakers to reconsider some of the most controversial of the cardinal laws, including those related to the judiciary, religious organizations, and the media.” Hillary Clinton also tried to plead, to no avail, with Viktor Orbán in a private letter that was leaked. I myself received a copy of it and published it on December 30, 2011. On January 1 the new constitution, unaltered, became the law of the land.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Eleni Kounakalis refused to attend the celebration to mark the great day held in the Opera House. An official of the State Department suggested that she might take a quick trip to Vienna, but she decided that if she “wasn’t going to attend the celebration, [she] wasn’t going to be coy about it…. This was without a doubt the lowest point of [her] ambassadorship.” (p. 194)
I do realize that this had to be a bitter pill to swallow. At the same time I wonder whether perhaps she relied too heavily on government informants and neglected to talk with some of the more important figures in the opposition and some of the Hungarian scholars who had great reservations about Viktor Orbán and his policies. But I have the feeling that she wouldn’t have believed them, given her faith in the Orbán government at that stage. She writes that “in all fairness, I should note that for weeks anti-Orbán pundits had been declaring that in handing [Orbán] a supermajority the Hungarian people had signed a death warrant for Hungarian democracy. While these pundits included well-respected and well-informed Hungarian American scholars, they were almost all people who had a personal history with Orbán.” (p.85) Perhaps Eleni Kounalakis could have saved herself a lot of grief if she had listened to these “pundits” in Hungary and in the United States.