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.
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.