Tag Archives: James Stavridis

Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis on her years in Hungary, Part II

As I indicated yesterday, Eleni Kounalakis’s book on her stay in Budapest as ambassador of the United States is rich enough to spend more than one or even two short posts.

Before her departure to Hungary, the State Department explained to her that the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan was one of President Obama’s top foreign policy priorities. At the time of our story, Hungary had 400 men and women serving in Afghanistan. Kounalakis’s task was to make sure that those troops, unlike some other international forces, don’t leave Afghanistan. That meant courting Csaba Hende.

Of the twenty-one chapters, four deal in one way or another with the Hungarian military. Her first chapter describes a boar hunt near the Ukrainian border to which she was invited by the Hungarian military brass after she told them that she knows how to handle a gun. It turned out that the military attaché of the embassy was very keen on her joining the guys because such an outing would strengthen the good relationship between the military establishments of the two countries. It was the same military attaché who urged her to take part in swimming across Lake Balaton, an affair also organized by the military. It seems that she was ready to do almost anything to ensure that the Hungarian troops would stay in Afghanistan.

Kounalakis describes Csaba Hende, the new minister of defense, as “a smart, affable man” who was rumored “to be out of his depth in the military realm.” (p. 119) Most people would be less charitable and would describe Hende as a bungling country bumpkin. In fact, in the chapters in which Hende figures there are many examples of his utter unsuitability to be a cabinet minister. In December 2010 the American ambassador was still outraged at one of Hende’s inappropriate remarks, yet in a relatively short period of time she described him as a close friend. That friendship is especially curious since it is clear from the text that Hende doesn’t speak a word of English and that their conversations were conducted through an interpreter.

Kounalakis misunderstood Hende’s role in the government. She assumed that he had some say about whether the Hungarian troops stay or leave Afghanistan. She believed that it was her excellent diplomatic skills and her friendship with Hende that resulted in the Hungarian government’s decision to remain part of the international force. We know, and I think Kounalakis should also have known, that no decision is made in Orbán’s Hungary, even about the smallest matter, without the prime minister’s personal approval. What Hende thought was, in the final analysis, irrelevant, so courting him was probably a waste of time.

At their very first meeting Hende indicated to Kounalakis that Camp Pannonia, where some of the Hungarians served, near the town of Pol-e Khumri, had become a very dangerous place. He was worried about his soldiers’ safety. “Something must be done.” (p. 121) The ambassador almost dropped her coffee cup because she was not expecting a change of policy on Afghanistan after the election. Kounalakis took Hende’s words at face value, but if you read her description of comments made later, the Orbán team most likely even before the election decided to threaten troop withdrawal in order to receive more financial help and military equipment.

A few days later the military attaché came with the surprising news that “Minister Hende had invited me to join him on a three-day trip to visit Hungarian troops in Sarajevo and Kosovo.” She decided to accept the invitation because such a trip “would give [her] the opportunity to advance another U.S. foreign policy objective,” this time in the Balkans. (pp. 122-123) During the flight back from Kosovo Hende brought up the topic of the Hungarian troops in Afghanistan again. This time, according to Kounalakis, he was more forceful. He told her that if someone is killed, “the blood will be on [his] hands,” a concern that Kounalakis understood since she felt “the gravity of the dilemma.” The U.S. military attaché in Budapest was less sympathetic. Yes, he told the ambassador, it is a dangerous place. It is a war zone, and it is important that the Hungarians remain there.

Eleni Kounalakis at a joint training seesion of Hungarian troops and the Ohio National Guard, April 2011

Eleni Kounalakis at a  joint training session of Hungarian troops and the Ohio National Guard

A few months later Hende invited her to go with him to Afghanistan. Another opportunity for Hende to extract more money and equipment from the Americans. Kounalakis describes a rather uncomfortable encounter between General David Petraeus and Hende in which the Hungarian minister again explained his worries about his soldiers at Camp Pannonia. It is unsafe, and it prevents them from doing their assigned task, reconstruction work. During the discussion he repeated that “at a minimum, the Hungarians soldiers needed more equipment, especially more secure transport vehicles.” Hende was asked to make a list of equipment his troops needed, and he received a promise that the requests would be “seriously considered.” (pp. 134-135)

It was during this trip that Kounalakis herself was finally convinced that the Hungarian troops needed more equipment. Although earlier there were serious disagreements between Hende and the American ambassador, one morning after a nearby bombing by coalition forces,

It was clear that something had changed. The tension between Csaba and me had diffused, and everyone felt it. I think he finally understood that it would be hard for him to walk away from his country’s commitments, and I think he saw that I finally understood that his troops were exposed at Camp Pannonia and needed more equipment to protect themselves.

The corner that we turned was significant, not just for our countries’ cooperation in Afghanistan but for everything we would accomplish together for the next three years. Despite–or perhaps because of–our confrontation, mutual respect and understanding had been forged between us. Not more than a few weeks later, a large shipment of new transport vehicles was delivered to Camp Pannonia. Within a short period of time, the reconstruction team received all of the equipment they needed. (p. 141-142)

Considering that only a few days before the following conversation took place between Kounalakis and Hende, this change of heart was truly remarkable. Kounalakis kept talking about the importance of reconstruction work in a developing country when

[Hende] responded, very smugly, “You know, Madam Ambassador, we Hungarians have a saying for what your country is trying to do here: it’s like taking a fish stew and trying to turn it into an aquarium.”

It was the final straw. It was an outrageous, disrespectful thing to say about the United States and all of our troops and officers who were serving in this dangerous place. I looked him in the eye, and I raised my voice.

“The cost to my country, in lives and treasure, is enormous. Success or failure will impact the future of my country, our security and yours, and determine the future for our nations’ children, yours and mine included. You can be as critical as you want, but you cannot discount our effort out of hand that way, as if nothing is at stake!”

The minister’s young interpreter looked mortified, but Csaba himself had staked his ground and refused to back down. Not wanting to give further vent to my anger, I stood up and left the room. (p. 138)

Kounalakis visited Afghanistan once more, this time at the invitation of Admiral James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander of NATO. Once there she proposed to the admiral that “maybe we could persuade [the Hungarians] to take another rotation.” Stavridis was doubtful, but Kounalakis was pretty certain that they would agree, adding that “the only thing is, they probably won’t have the money to fund such an effort.” Once back in Budapest she approached Hende, and “the Hungarians responded with incredible speed and surprising flexibility.” (pp. 269-270) Indeed, why not? Kounalakis is certain that it was her excellent personal relationship with the Hungarian minister of defense that was responsible for this happy turn of events from the American point of view.

On May 10, 2013, John Kerry, secretary of state, wrote a letter to Kounalakis praising her for her exceptional service as ambassador of the United States to Hungary. The very first item on the list of her accomplishments was her “efforts [that] convinced the Hungarian government to maintain its Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan until its mission was completed.” (p. 185)

The Hungarian people are not thrilled with Orbán’s Russia policy

Népszava‘s information about Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest, seconded by Attila Ara-Kovács on Klubrádió, turned out to be accurate. Válasz, a pro-government internet site, was skeptical about the accuracy of the news because, after all, there was no mention of such a visit in Russian sources. Moreover, no western media picked up the news from Népszava. A commenter on this blog also expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the news. After all, Népszava is an opposition paper and therefore, I guess, not quite reliable. By this morning, however, the press department of the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the information: Putin is coming to Hungary, although the date hasn’t been fixed.

Meanwile Népszabadság, another opposition paper, learned “from diplomatic circles” that the trip was planned a year ago on Hungary’s initiative. At that time the sanctions against Russia were not yet in place. Moreover, originally the trip was supposed to take place sometime in 2014, but because of scheduling difficulties it was postponed to this year, a change that might be advantageous to Putin but is mighty uncomfortable for Orbán. But as László Kovács, former foreign minister, said yesterday, Orbán developed a relationship with Putin that precludes any postponement of the meeting.

While waiting for the arrival of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, several civic groups are preparing demonstrations. A group headed by Zoltán Vajda and Balázs Gulyás, two people whom I consider to be the most promising among the organizers of the recent demonstrations, plans to take the lead. Balázs Gulyás was the organizer of the mass demonstration against the internet tax, and Zoltán Vajda organized the demonstration on behalf of those 60,000 people whose savings in private pension funds the Orbán government wants to expropriate.

Vajda and Gulyás are planning two demonstrations. One will take place on February 1, the day before Angela Merkel’s arrival. It is called “Spring comes–Orbán goes: Demonstration for a European Hungary.” The second demonstration is planned for February 9 or, if Putin comes later, it will be postponed to the day of his arrival. The theme of the second will be “We will not be a Russian colony.” Other organizations and parties expressed an interest in joining these two Facebook groups, and it seems that they, unlike some others, are ready to cooperate with everybody who is ready to join them. As I wrote yesterday, PM asked all democratic parties to take part in massive demonstrations that include both parties and civilians.

In the lively discussion that followed yesterday’s post, a question was raised about the attitude of Fidesz voters toward Russia. According to one opinion, Fidesz voters are so brainwashed that they are ready to follow Viktor Orbán all the way to Moscow. Others, myself included, doubted the accuracy of this observation. In fact, I ventured to suggest that anti-Russian feelings might be a catalyst that will bring about a united opposition to Orbán’s regime. Well, today we have a more scientific answer to the question of Hungarians’ attitude toward the United States and Russia. The poll was taken by Medián for 444.hu

Here are some figures confirming that the Orbán propaganda did not significantly alter Hungarians’ anti-Russian sentiments. I will start with the most important and most telling figures: “If Hungary had to choose between the United States and Russia as a close associate, which country would you choose?” Fifty-three percent chose the United States and only 25% Russia. Hungarians are aware of the worsening relations between the United States and Hungary, and surprisingly the majority blame the Hungarian government for it. This finding goes against the widespread belief that Hungarians always blame others for their misfortunes. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents blame Hungary and only 14% the United States.

Medián also ran these figures against party affiliation. Those who feel more aligned with the democratic parties overwhelmingly blame their own country for the current situation (80%); only 4% blame the United States. Interestingly, the majority of Jobbik voters (59%) side with the United States. Only 13% put the blame on the U.S. while 27% think that the blame should be shared by the two countries. The situation is about the same among undecided voters. Fidesz voters are not as uniformly pro-Russian as some commenters on Hungarian Spectrum suspected. Only 37% blame the United States, 22% Hungary, and 40% think that both countries are at fault. I wouldn’t call that a resounding endorsement of a pro-Russian, anti-U.S. foreign policy.

Diplomats, present and former, have found it difficult to figure out what the real purpose of this meeting is. I could suggest a few topics that might come up. First, I think, is Paks. Orbán, for whom the building of a second reactor at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is very important, surely would like to get reassurance from Putin that the project is still on and that Russia will not turn its back on Paks as it did on the Southern Stream. Another topic might be Hungary’s attitude toward the extension of the sanctions against Russia. Would Hungary vote against such a decision? There is also the question of the U.S.-EU free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which Russia opposes.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Orbán were a ready partner of Russia in opposing the free-trade agreement. On what am I basing this opinion? István Mikola, formerly the “nation’s doctor” and nowadays one of the undersecretaries in the foreign ministry, announced last night on HírTV that Hungary would go so far as to veto the TTIP if Hungary’s interests were not taken into consideration. One such reason would be the acceptance in the European Union of genetically modified food products coming from the United States. Fidesz lawmakers included a GMO ban in the new constitution. András Schiffer, the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist co-chair of LMP, went even further. In his opinion, the whole free-trade agreement is against the interests of Hungary. In fact, not just Hungary but in his words “it means in the long run the ruin of the whole globe.” He added that the agreement would mean the loss of 600,000 jobs in the EU. So, Putin and Orbán are of one mind when it comes to the TTIP. András Schiffer, the so-called opposition leader, joins them because of his far-left notions of modern capitalism and globalism.

Not so long ago, however, James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote an article in Foreign Policy: “Vladimir Putin hates the TTIP which is exactly why Europe and America need to get it done.” Stavridis explains his support of the treaty this way:

The TTIP is a sensible agreement on economic grounds, broadly speaking. But it also holds enormous real value in the geopolitical sphere. The increased linkages between the United States and our European allies and partners will stand in direct opposition to Putin’s key strategy of driving a wedge between the United States and the EU as the central members of the transatlantic community.

I don’t know how important the GMO issue is in the scheme of things, but one has the feeling that Hungary will be a difficult negotiating partner when it comes to the TTIP.

Another issue that might be discussed is Putin’s pet subject, the Eurasian Economic Union. It was only a few days ago that Russia’s EU ambassador urged Brussels to start talks with the newly born Eurasian Economic Union despite the Ukrainian crisis. As he put it, “common sense advises us to explore the possibility of establishing a common economic space in the Eurasian region.” A Russian-led bloc might be a better partner for the European Union than the United States. The reason: low health standards in the U.S. food industry. Orbán again might be helpful on this issue. However, in Orbán’s place I would tread lightly. It is true that Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union became reality on January 1, but according to Reid Standish, an expert on Kazakhstan, Putin’s Eurasian dream was over before it began.

Eurasian Union

All in all, I think the two have plenty to talk about. The topics I have outlined are primarily Russian concerns, and getting Hungary on board would be only to Russia’s advantage. For Hungary to become Moscow’s Trojan horse in Europe is not strategically wise.