Tag Archives: Réka Szemerkényi

A more fitting celebration of the 60th anniversary of ’56 in Washington

About a week ago I included a sentence about the reception Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian Ambassador in Washington, was giving for the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the October Revolution. I reported that to the best of my knowledge a number of important American officials serving in the White House, Congress, and State Department had declined the invitation over concerns about the alarming political developments in Hungary. In addition to their general concerns, they may well have also noticed the systematic falsification of Hungarian history, which includes the events of the ’56 uprising as well. Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian who had already perverted the history of the Hungarian Holocaust, rewrote the history of the revolution for the anniversary. The result is a monstrosity that bears no resemblance to reality.

This assault on the revolution prompted a group of people in Washington to organize a gathering to celebrate the real events of sixty years ago. They chose not to celebrate with those who claim that executed Imre Nagy “died nicely but wasn’t a hero.” Yes, this is a direct quotation from the chief organizer of the anniversary, Mária Schmidt. Thomas Melia (who as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, had extensive dealings with Hungary), former Hungarian Ambassador to Washington András Simonyi, and Professor Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University organized the event that took place last night. About forty people attended, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser; Charles Kupchan, currently special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council; Damian Murphy, senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and her husband, Robert Kagan, well-known author, columnist and foreign policy commentator; Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest between August 2015 and January 2016;  Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, who writes many of the paper’s editorials on foreign affairs; and Pál Maléter, Jr. son of the minister of defense in the last Nagy government who was reburied along with Imre Nagy on June 16, 1989. Anthony Blinken, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, couldn’t make it but sent his greetings.

Professor Gati briefly retold the story of the revolution, which is admittedly complex because the intellectual unrest that preceded it began as a factional struggle in the communist party between the Stalinists and the reformers but quickly led to a coalition government in which four parties were represented. This coalition government, which naturally included the communist party, decided to leave the Warsaw Pact. Gati emphasized that the revolution was “profoundly democratic—demanding freedom of the press and checks and balances (called ‘socialist legality’ )—and profoundly pro-Europe. These demands were at the top of the list presented by the students.”

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

Of course, we know that the Orbán regime’s narrative is very different: the revolution was transformed into an anti-communist crusade led by right-wing representatives of the pre-1945 period. Those intellectuals who were disillusioned communists were removed from the historical narrative prepared for the anniversary celebrations, as were social democrats and liberals. As if they never existed. They simply don’t fit into Orbán’s worldview.

Professor Gati then moved on to the situation in Hungary today and brought up the speeches of Péter Boross and László Kövér. “This Monday, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament blamed the United States not Moscow for crushing the revolution while another high official spoke of the heinous deeds of U.S. imperialism,” adding “I’m not making this up.” And, Gati continued: “Even in Washington, where Hungarian officials work hard to mislead us by praising transatlantic relations, on Sunday they somehow forgot to read Vice President Joe Biden’s message to their invited guests; I guess their feelings were hurt that they didn’t hear from President Obama.”

Gati told his personal story as a refugee after the revolution. “I came here penniless and was treated fantastically by everyone: the International Rescue Committee, Indiana University, and various employees of Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, even the State Department.” He recalled that the quota for Hungarians (4,400) was quickly filled but that within days Congress was authorized to allow another 40,000 Hungarian refugees to come. He contrasted this behavior with the situation today. In Hungary they build a razor wire fence to keep refugees out and even in the United States some people contemplate building walls. “My hope is that the old spirit of generosity will guide us again someday soon. There is another Hungary there that deserves our attention and support,” he concluded. I think that every Hungarian refugee should join Charles Gati in remembering the generosity of Austrians, Germans, Brits, Swedes, Swiss, Canadians, Australians, and Americans in those days and feel profoundly sad at the behavior of the Hungarian government, which incited ordinary Hungarians against the refugees.

I should add that Anita Kőműves, a young journalist who used to work for Népszabadság, happened to be in Washington and was invited to speak. The applause that followed her words honored those journalists who paid for their bravery with their livelihood because Viktor Orbán doesn’t believe in a free press, one of the very first demands of the Hungarian students in 1956.

October 28, 2016

Valiant efforts to sell Viktor Orbán’s version of 1956

Let me start with a brief summary of some events that will take place in Budapest and Washington on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. I’m certain that Viktor Orbán can never forgive fate that he was not the prime minister of Hungary on the fiftieth anniversary of that important event in the history of the international communist movement. After all, a fiftieth anniversary carries a great deal more weight than a sixtieth. Ten years later, Orbán is trying to compensate for that missed opportunity. Mind you, he was certainly not inactive on October 23, 2006, when he orchestrated a demonstration that eventually became a large-scale struggle between the inexperienced and ill-equipped police force and the rabble that had been egged on by Fidesz politicians for weeks. They had a second revolution in mind.

Now he is basking in glory, as if he and his kind had a legitimate right to speak about those days. The Orbán government has spent an inordinate amount of money both at home and abroad on the celebrations, but as far as I can see the results are meager. One of the Hungarian papers triumphantly announced that Hungary will have a very important visitor for the anniversary in the person of Polish President Andrzej Duda, who will appear alongside Orbán as he delivers his speech in front of the parliament building. The article made it clear that Duda will be the only foreign visitor in Budapest on that day. A rather interesting situation. Is it possible that the Hungarian government didn’t invite any foreign dignitaries for fear of being rebuffed and therefore settled for a show of Polish-Hungarian friendship that has an important message to convey to the rest of the world today? In any case, given the hype surrounding this not so significant anniversary, the absence of foreign visitors is glaring.

The Washington events are not faring any better as far as I know. The Hungarian government originally wanted to organize a conference on the significance of the 1956 revolution at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, but the Center refused to hold the event. Of course, it is hard to know what the management of the Center had in mind when it declined the request of the Hungarian government. There are a couple of possibilities. One is that the participants were mostly members of the government instead of scholars. The second complaint of the Center might have been the lopsidedness of political views of the participants presented to them. Well-known scholars of 1956 were most likely left out on ideological grounds. At the end, the conference had to be moved to the National Defense University, where it was held on August 12.

The theme of the conference was “1956: The Freedom Fight that Changed the Cold War—Geopolitics and Defense Policy.”  Donald Yamamoto, senior vice president of the National Defense University, and Réka Szemerkényi, ambassador of Hungary, welcomed the audience. The keynote speaker was István Simicskó, minister of defense. In connection with Simicskó it is perhaps worth remembering that he was the only member of parliament who voted “no” to Hungary’s joining the European Union in 2003.

Finlay Lewis, a journalist from CQ Now and CQ Roll Call, was the moderator of the morning session, during which Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack from the Institute for National Strategic Studies and the National Defense University, László Borhi, a historian from Indiana University, and Áron Máthé, vice chairman of the Committee of National Remembrance, Budapest discussed “Cold War Geopolitics and the Broader Context to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.” Peter Zwack’s only connection to Hungary is that he is the son of Péter Zwack of Unicum fame. He doesn’t speak Hungarian. László Borhi has written several books on U.S.-Hungarian diplomatic relations, but apparently he is far too close to Mária Schmidt. Áron Máthé is a fairly young historian who so far has published one book about a court case against a number of Arrow Cross men in 1967, which has nothing to do with 1956.

After a coffee break an hour was devoted to “the memory of the 1956 revolution and freedom fight,” during which “Time Capsule 1956—Revolt in Hungary” was screened and Imre Tóth, a member of the revolutionary government of 1956, spoke briefly. I didn’t manage to find anything about Imre Tóth’s precise role in 1956, but I heard from a friend that he might have been an employee of the ministry of foreign affairs, which was in utter chaos during October-November 1956.

After lunch were four more speeches, including one by Tamás Magyarics from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Magyarics’s specialty is U.S.-Hungarian relations.

On the same day the ribbon cutting ceremony of the “1956 Hungarian Freedom Fighters Exhibit” took place at the Pentagon. Present were U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James J. Townsend, Ambassador Colleen Bell, Defense Minister István Simicskó, and Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Ambassador Bell delivered this short speech:

Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to be here today at such a special event. Ambassador Szemerkényi, Minister Simicskó, special guests and friends of Hungary, I am honored to be here.

As many of you may know, I serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and I have the honor of representing the United States and President Obama in Budapest. During the past two years, I have grown to love the Hungarian people and their devotion to freedom. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Minister Simicskó and greatly appreciate all he and the Hungarian Defense Forces do to make Europe a more free and democratic continent. Thank you for your contributions to NATO, as well as all of the other bilateral and multilateral exercises you participate in on a continual basis. The Hungarian military has deployed – and currently remains deployed – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, the Balkans, and the Baltics. Even if our countries don’t always see eye to eye on all issues, our troops still stand shoulder to shoulder. Hungarian forces’ contributions to democracy and freedom help to make the world a freer place in which to live.

As friends and allies, the United States and Hungary share a faith in democracy. We share a common heritage, cherishing our rights not as subjects or vassals, not as dependents or followers, but as citizens.  We are citizens bound together by our love of liberty, and our willingness to serve.

That is why we are here today – to honor those very brave men and women who sixty years ago attempted to throw off the yoke of communism. Today, in a free Hungary, in the United States, and in many other places around the world, we honor their memory and sacrifices.

Thank you so much for joining us here today. Köszönöm szépen.

Finally, a controversial bronze statue depicting a young boy, a “Budapest Lad/Pesti srác,” will be unveiled on October 16 in Washington.

"The Budapest Lad" in Washington I guess they don't dare to show the rest

“The Budapest Lad” in Washington

The Budapest version of the statue "Pesti srác

The Budapest version of the statue “Pesti srác”

I must say that the Budapest version is a great deal better from an artistic point of view, but as the photo of the model for the statue demonstrates, these kids couldn’t possibly have known what the revolution was all about.

pesti-srac3I really should devote a post to the interpretations of the Hungarian Revolution put forth by Fidesz over the years. Initially, the party viewed the event as a “bourgeois democratic revolution.” But then the Fidesz leadership found their real idols, about 200-300 street fighters who were mostly working class youngsters and whose leaders as time went by became far-right spokesmen for those revolutionary times. They claimed that the real heroes and leaders came from their ranks, as opposed to those anti-Stalinist communists who were responsible, in the final analysis, for the outbreak of an armed revolt. Members of Fidesz have never been admirers of Imre Nagy. As Orbán said years ago, “Imre Nagy is not our hero.” For a while, they even contemplated removing his bust from a site near the parliament building.

These young street fighters did have a role to play in forcing the Nagy government to transform itself into a coalition government of sorts. But had the revolution been successful and had it ushered in a period of consolidation, these unruly groups would most likely have been quietly disarmed and eliminated. For Orbán and Fidesz, however, these kids and their intransigent leaders are the embodiment of 1956.

Of course, there will be speakers from Hungary at the unveiling: Miklós Seszták, minister of national development, Zsolt Németh, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Hungarian parliament, and János Horváth, former doyen of parliament. Horváth was born in 1921 and left Hungary in 1956 for the United States. In 1992 he was the Republican candidate for Indiana’s 10th congressional district, which was a fairly hopeless undertaking against the Democrat Andrew Jacobs, Jr., who held the seat between 1983 and 1997.

Colleen Bell will also give a speech, which is somewhat strange since, to the best of my knowledge, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and Thomas Melia, USAID’s assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia, declined invitations to the reception organized by Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Keep in mind that both of them have been and still are heavily involved in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Hungary. Their refusal to attend is not a good sign.

It matters not how many billions the Orbán government is ready to spend on this sixtieth anniversary extravaganza as long as the whole democratic world is watching what’s going on in Hungary with horror. As long as foreign observers and politicians look upon Viktor Orbán as an ally of Vladimir Putin and someone who wants to destroy the European Union. No amount of paint or bronze can cover the grime that has accumulated in Hungary in the last six years.

October 14, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s lobbying efforts in Washington: The latest recruit is Jeff Duncan of the Tea Party

Yesterday I mentioned that the Orbán government’s answer to the State Department’s latest salvo was a renewed lobbying effort in Washington. Let me recap first.

Back in May I wrote about Connie Mack’s new job as a well-paid lobbyist for the Hungarian government. At that time the former politician turned lobbyist managed to convince Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, the chairman of one of the subcommittees of the House’s Foreign Relations Committee, to hold a full-fledged hearing on the Hungarian situation. Rohrabacher is perhaps the only member of the U.S. Congress who is an unabashed supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rohrabacher, whose knowledge of Hungary was pretty much what Connie Mack had told him, was helped along by the recently arrived Hungarian ambassador, Réka Szemerkényi, who naturally painted a rosy picture of the democratic paradise called Hungary. Those who were invited to report on the true state of affairs under Viktor Orbán’s governance were not given much credence by the aggressive Rohrabacher. The whole thing was a farce. The Democratic members of the subcommittee were poorly prepared and had no chance against the loud, antagonistic Rohrabacher.

This time Connie Mack couldn’t get a full-fledged hearing on how badly the United States is treating the Hungarian government. He had to settle for a brief encounter between Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Assistant Undersecretary Victoria Nuland, who happened to be a witness at a hearing on Syria. Their exchange of words became the following headline in Magyar Idők: “U.S. Congress: Nuland must take back statements on our homeland.” Of course, that sounds as if a congressional resolution was adopted to force Victoria Nuland to change U.S. policy toward Hungary.


Just to give you an idea of Nuland’s position in the State Department hierarchy, as assistant undersecretary of state for Europe and Eurasia she is responsible for thirty countries all told, from Albania to the United Kingdom, and therefore she is not directly involved in formulating U.S.-Hungarian policy on a day-to-day basis. Under her there are several deputy assistant undersecretaries who take care of smaller areas. So, when she was confronted by Jeff Duncan about Colleen Bell’s speech, it is not surprising that she was unfamiliar with the final text, although she was fully aware of the general thrust of the message that was delivered by the U.S. ambassador in Budapest. After all, the “non paper” that was presented to the Hungarian government a year ago was handed to Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjártó in Washington by Nuland herself. And, just as Ambassador Bell repeated several times, there was nothing in her speech that the Orbán government didn’t know before.

While discussing the Syrian civil war Duncan began talking about the European migration crisis, and from there it was just a small step to end up in Hungary. Duncan wanted to know: “Why did the ambassador of the United States decide to provoke an attack against Hungary which is a western democracy and a NATO ally?” Nuland, while stressing that she was not familiar with the details of the speech, assured Duncan that the speech “confirmed the support of the United States to a Hungary which will be increasingly democratic.” On the other hand, Washington has misgivings about the Hungarian government’s handling of corruption and its treatment of the media.

Duncan repeated the Orbán government’s argument on sovereignty and undue interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs. Given Duncan’s fiercely anti-immigrant position in this country, he was especially eager to learn whether Colleen Bell had said anything disapprovingly about Viktor Orbán’s fence. As we know, she didn’t. Nuland, however, wasn’t cowed and explained to Duncan that the U.S. government supports a common European policy concerning the migrant crisis and that it is not particularly happy about fences being built at the borders of individual nation states. As for American misgivings, Nuland told Duncan that the United States in the last fifty years has been a steadfast supporter of a democratic and stable Europe. When a country is turning away from democracy and does nothing against corruption, “we will continue to speak about our misgivings.” This was the extent of the exchange, which was jubilantly presented to the Hungarian public by the right-wing press as a victory for Hungary. One new government-sponsored internet site called Duncan’s words to Nuland “a punch in the stomach.”

Finally, a few words on Jeff Duncan. Before he was elected to Congress in 2010 he was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives between 2002 and 2010. According to his official biography, “during his tenure in the South Carolina House of Representatives, Jeff was known as one of the most conservative House Members, earning recognition as a ‘Taxpayer’s Hero.'” In Congress he serves on three different House committees, including the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was also appointed by former Speaker John Boehner to the Executive Committee of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. (Poor Tom Lantos! If he just knew who is serving on a human rights commission named after him.) In addition, he is a member of both the Republican Study Committee and the Tea Party Caucus, but lately over the budget issue he completely split from mainstream Republicans. He advocates an “all-of-the-above” strategy for border enforcement, including physical fencing, greater use of surveillance technology, and increased manpower. He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Duncan’s interpretation of the recent church shooting that killed nine people in Charleston is telling. In his opinion, the man who obviously attacked the church for racial reasons is only mentally ill. He thinks that “right-wing domestic terrorism is but the figment of the liberal imagination.” This is the kind of person Connie Mack manages to recruit to the cause of Viktor Orbán’s regime.

Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi on PBS’s NewsHour: A poor performance

In the last few months of 2014, when U.S.-Hungarian relations were seriously strained as a result of the U.S. ban of seven corrupt officials, representatives of the Hungarian government tried to console themselves. In no time, they said, relations will improve due to the arrival of a new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, and the long-awaited acceptance of Réka Szemerkényi as the new Hungarian ambassador to the United States. These two “charming ladies” will do miracles, they announced. And how nice that both of them have four relatively small children, a virtue in the eyes of  the current Hungarian government.

The two charming ladies: Colleen Bell and Réka Szemerkényi

The two charming ladies: Colleen Bell and Réka Szemerkényi

Szemerkényi’s predecessor, although Viktor Orbán even changed the law regarding the maximum age of ambassadors for his sake, was anything but effective. So the prime minister decided to send his trusted adviser to Washington. As Index reported at the time of her appointment, Szemerkényi was practically the alter ego of Viktor Orbán. Her presence in the United State would be as if the prime minister himself sat in the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. So, I must assume that she approves of Viktor Orbán’s policies and that, after hearing his speech a week ago, she is all fired up to defend him and the country against unfair, unwarranted criticism.

Yesterday evening Szemerkényi was introduced to the American public via PBS’s NewsHour, which I watch regularly. Thus, I could witness her performance. I must say that it was not successful, although she tried valiantly to deflect all the questions about her government’s treatment of refugees.

Viktor Orbán’s behavior is so appalling that one almost feels sorry for anyone who tries to defend the indefensible. But Szemerkényi has had a long, close association with Fidesz. Surely, if Szemerkényi is as intelligent as her admirers claim, she should have noticed that there is something very wrong with the men she has been serving for years.

I must say that she didn’t try too hard to defend the Orbán government. Instead, on the one hand, she refused to answer questions about Hungary’s opposition to the quota system and, on the other, she misrepresented the role of her government in the distribution of humanitarian aid to refugees. Since she is the representative of the Hungarian government, one would assume that when she says that “we have been providing food, shelter, medication, even schooling for the children of the migrant families entering Hungarian soil,” she is talking about the Hungarian government. But we all know that the Hungarian government provided practically nothing for the new arrivals and that whatever they got came from those admirable Hungarians who have in the last two or three months been spending their days looking after them. And in fact, these were the people she seemed to be referring to when she talked about all the good things that “we” have been doing. We the people have been generous; we the government have focused on security. The distinction between the two we’s was intentionally blurred.

The only time she actually responded to a question about the Orbán government’s refugee policy, she needed the help of a cheat sheet. Indeed, what would happen if she left out a couple of words from the prescribed text?

I’m glad that David Miliband, formerly British foreign secretary and now head of the International Rescue Committee, brought up the 200,000 Hungarian refugees who arrived in Austria within two months. This is the same number of Middle Eastern and African refugees who have passed through Hungary in a year and a half. Austria welcomed us with open arms, and the whole world came to her rescue. It is shameful that the government of the same country whose sons and daughters were so generously treated is now behaving in such a xenophobic way.

What follows is a transcript of the news segment. Here one can see the interview itself:


* * *

GWEN IFILL: So, how much will today’s decisions [at the meeting of the EU interior ministers] in Brussels help ease the migrant crisis and the rest of Europe?

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with us is Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, Reka Szemerkenyi, and from the Greek island of Lesbos, former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, now president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

And, Ambassador, let me start with you.

At the meeting today in Brussels, an U.N. official spoke of a heated debate, of the majority of countries wanting to move forward, but some countries, including Hungary, I gather, still against a quota system. Why?

REKA SZEMERKENYI, Ambassador, Hungary: The quota system is one that really doesn’t help in solving the situation.

What we can see in Hungary is an unprecedented wave of migration and that is really a dramatic shock to the world country, and I think it’s a dramatic shock to the whole continent.

What we could see is also a major need of basic humanitarian needs, and what we could see from the Hungarian society — I just got back from Hungary a few days ago — is a massive wave of response for the immediate humanitarian needs of these people coming into the country.

We have been providing food, shelter, medication, even schooling for the children of the migrant families entering Hungarian soil, but, unfortunately, sympathy is not enough. We have to move beyond.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the E.U. as a whole has not moved beyond.

Let me ask David Miliband.

What was your reaction to the seeming stalemate still today?

DAVID MILIBAND, Former Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom: I think that Europe has been very late to get a grip with this crisis, and it’s vital that big and bold decisions are taken by the European Union.

After all, there are 2,000 to 3,000 people arriving every day in Lesbos, the island off of Greece that has borne about half of the refugees entering Europe. I think it’s vital that we both tackle the symptoms of this problem, which are the unprecedented surge that the ambassador speaks out, with proper humanitarian help, coordinated across the European Union with competence, as well as compassion, and that we also tackle the problem at source, because organizations like mine are not just working here in Europe.

We’re also working in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, whose societies are creaking under the strain of a civil war that seems to be without end.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, Ambassador, you speak of the need for more humanitarian help. At the same time, your government has gone even further, though, in announcing a zero tolerance policy for further allowing refugee — at the border for refugees or migrants.

Why go even further? What happens to those people that come to your border now?

REKA SZEMERKENYI: The Hungarian border is one that has been receiving the most impressive and biggest shock of migration coming into continental Europe on vital land.

And what we could see is that the response to this massive pressure has been, on one hand, the expression of empathy and sympathy towards the migrants, trying to provide them whatever is needed, down to baby strollers for the families and immediate help for the women and children coming into the country.

At the same time, what we also focused on is the establishment of the security for the rest of the continent. We live up to our promises and we live up to the commitments that we made to the rest of the European Union countries in defending the territory and in providing security for all of us.

What we try to do is to make as clear that we follow all the Schengen requirements to provide for the registration of these refugees and migrants. At the same time, what we’re trying to do is to go through the exact procedure that is what we have undertaken.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re referring to the agreements over the borders.

But, at the same time, your country has been hit by a lot of criticism for an insensitivity to the refugee situation. Your prime minister of course got criticized after he spoke of working to keep Europe Christian.

What is your response to that criticism that has hit Hungary?

REKA SZEMERKENYI: What I have seen is a massive outflow of sympathy and support for the migrants.

What many Hungarian volunteers have shown was giving their free time day and night to work for the migrants, providing them the necessary help, both in food and medication, as well as includes blankets and sleeping bags for the stay — their stay in Hungary.

What we have seen is a very clear experience of sympathy towards these people.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Miliband, you spoke of Europe needing to take faster and bigger action. And yet right now, what we’re seeing is more countries taking action to close their borders. So what is the way forward? What do you see?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think that we have seen extraordinary leadership from Germany, backed up in a way by France, Italy and Belgium.

I think there is progress with Poland. I don’t think anyone doubts that the Hungarian people are full of generosity. No one is saying that the Hungarian people are as misguided and shortsighted as the decision of a government which seems to believe that building a wall is an answer to a refugee crisis.

This is of course especially ironic, given that, in 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, 200,000 Hungarians went into Austria and were welcomed as refugees. I think it’s absolutely vital that Europe is able to show that it can handle what, after all, is a small percentage of the European population.

If there are 500,000 refugees in a continent of 500 million people, your viewers can immediately do the math and see that this is a question of management, not of a continent being overwhelmed. Equally, it’s absolutely vital that we don’t simply bottle up the problem, either in individual European countries like Greece or Italy, which have been buckling under the strain, or in Serbia, which is the next-door neighbor of Hungary.

And the decision simply to build a fence and hope for the best, I’m afraid, is going to create a tinderbox in Serbia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Madam Ambassador, your response to that, the charge that building a wall is not the — not the answer here?

REKA SZEMERKENYI: Our common European space and open internal borders are really predicated on the premise that common external borders are secure. This is the commitment that we undertook and this is the commitment that we’re living up to.

Obviously, it’s all in our — everybody’s interest in the European Union itself to secure our borders. The border control and the border — registration at the border stations is a requirement that helps us to ensure everybody, all our friends within the European Union in the neighboring countries, that they can count on us, that we provide for their security and we take our responsibility very seriously.

We have made that commitment and we live up to that commitment.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Miliband, finally, you’re there in Lesbos. What are you seeing in terms of the continuing flow of refugees and migrants? You expect the numbers to continue?

DAVID MILIBAND: You can probably see behind me shadows. These are people who are sleeping in the port, waiting for ferries tomorrow.

My organization, the International Rescue Committee, has been trying to provide basic water and sanitation and humanitarian help, including some transport for people who, when they land in the north of the island, are expected to make a 40-kilometer walk.

This is women, children, families, as well as able-bodied young men. And I think that the message to Europeans, but also frankly to the United States, is a very simple one. The Syrian crisis is now a global refugee crisis with global responsibilities that need to attend to all nations.

That means that, in Europe, there needs to be some significant shift in policy, but also, frankly, the U.S., which so far has only taken about 1,500 refugees from Syria over the course of four years, need to live up to its historic standard-setting role as a leader of refugee resettlement.

We have got to tackle this at both ends of the problem, the immediate symptoms of crisis, the humanitarian crisis, but also the deeper political causes in the Middle East. That’s the only way to build the kind of security that the ambassador has rightly spoken of.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Miliband and Ambassador Reka Szemerkenyi, thank you both very much.

Congressmen not at their best: Hearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations

Year after year the approval rating of the U.S. Congress is abysmally low. In 2012 Huffington Post reported on the findings of a Gallup poll that showed that “Americans are about as likely to trust members of Congress as they are car salespeople.” A year later Public Policy Polling found that “Congress is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, and even Nickelback.” After watching the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats on U.S.-Hungarian relations, I understand why. It was one of the most disheartening scenes I have witnessed of late.

As I indicated in an earlier post, I suspect that the hearing was staged as a result of the efforts of Connie Mack IV, the new lobbyist for the Hungarian government who in 2012 failed in his attempt to become a senator. Since Mack had been a Republican representative from Florida for twelve years, he naturally has many old friends on the Hill, including Dana Rohrabacher, a fellow Republican from California, who happens to be the chairman of this subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Some Hungarian-American leaders who were supposed to testify on behalf of the Hungarian government chickened out. Frank Koszorus, Jr. of The American Hungarian Federation and Maximilian Teleki of the Hungarian American Coalition thought that there was no reason to hold such a hearing because, in the wake of the appointments of two new ambassadors, relations between the two countries have improved greatly. I suspect that there was something else behind their refusals to testify: the person of the chairman, who is known as a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin and his ideas about the future of Russia. Teleki and Koszorus most likely figured that it is bad enough that Viktor Orbán is considered to be the Trojan horse of Putin in Europe; they didn’t want to fortify this image with some possibly pro-Russian remarks by Rohrabacher.

For a while it looked as if the hearing might not even take place. But then Rohrabacher found Kurt Volker, currently executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, as a replacement for the two reluctant supporters of the Orbán regime. Volker has had a distinguished career in the State Department and on the National Security Council. He is also something of an expert on Hungary and speaks fluent Hungarian. He usually stands by the Orbán government, and thus he was ready to testify on its behalf.

Photo by Anita Köműves / Népszabadság

Photo by Anita Köműves / Népszabadság

On the other side, there were two witnesses: András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to the United States, and Ted Stahnke, vice president for research and analysis in Human Rights First, a non-governmental organization whose report on human rights abuses in Hungary I found outstanding. The State Department was represented by Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

In addition, in a highly unusual move for such a hearing, Réka Szemerkényi, the new Hungarian ambassador, was asked to deliver a short account of the state of democracy in Hungary. In excellent English, she did what a good ambassador should on such an occasion: she painted a rosy picture of Hungarian democracy.

What followed was deeply disturbing and disheartening. The Democratic members were poorly prepared, even though the Congressional Research Service had written an admirable six-page summary of Viktor Orbán’s six years in office. As for the Republican members, I’m afraid they were “briefed” by the Hungarian government instead of the Congressional Research Service. All of the information they had was most likely spoon-fed by the “political scientists/propagandists” of Századvég, Fidesz’s think tank, via Connie Mack. It was a disgusting affair. The four Republicans–Ted Poe of Texas, Paul Cook of California, Randy Weber of Texas, and Dana Rohrabacher–bullied both Hoyt Yee and Ted Stahnke. They used the occasion to bash the Obama administration’s foreign policy and to express their disgust with such liberal ideas as equal rights. They seemed to be convinced that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is more of a democracy than the United States is–or at least it’s more of the kind of democracy they would like to see.

The testimonies of Hoyt Yee and Ted Stahnke are available online, and both contain plenty of criticism of the Orbán government. But our four congressmen were not interested in their facts. They had made up their minds way before the hearing began. Unfortunately, both Yee and Stahnke eventually became somewhat rattled and were unable to respond to some of the accusations. Rohrabacher kept accusing the State Department of using a double standard against Hungary just because the country’s current government is Christian and conservative. Interestingly, Rohrabacher seemed to be perfectly ignorant of the very controversial law on the churches, and Stahnke was unable to explain it because he was short on time.

The man who best withstood the assault was András Simonyi, who managed in the few minutes he was allotted to summarize the most blatant attacks on democracy in Orbán’s Hungary.

One can be grateful that these ignorant bullies are not responsible for the country’s foreign policy.

* * *

Anna Bayer, who was present at the hearing, decided to send the following letter to Dana Rohrabacher because of his views on the controversial German Occupation Memorial.

Honorable Representative Rohrabacher
2300 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Representative Rohrabacher,

As an American and daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, I was appalled by your comments at the May 19 Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on US-Hungary relations. Your comments during the hearing were not only factually incorrect and offensive to the victims of the Holocaust, but also constitute Holocaust denial.

When discussing the German Occupation Memorial constructed in Budapest by the current Hungarian government, you publicly said during the hearing that your view is that the issue “that they didn’t build a statue that expanded upon the victims of Hungary during the Second World War to specifically include Jews instead of everyone who suffered, that is not anti-Semitism, you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting that it is.” The German Occupation Memorial is designed to distort the history of the Holocaust in Hungary. In 1944, the Hungarian authorities, allied with Nazi Germany, deported over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to concentration camps. Much of Hungary’s Jewish community was then murdered. The deportations were carried out with the consent of the Hungarian government of the time, with the participation of over 200,000 Hungarian citizens in the administration of this deportation.

I ask that you publicly apologize and retract your comments. You have done a disservice to your constituents, to the Jewish-American community, and those Hungarians who have worked to recognize the atrocities of the past and make sure that such a tragedy never occurs again, in Hungary or elsewhere.


Anna Bayer
Washington, D.C.

The newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. hangs in limbo

Yesterday afternoon Colleen Bell, the new U.S. ambassador to Hungary, arrived in Budapest. Earlier I devoted several posts to her appointment and to difficulties she experienced before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After her nomination I expressed my dismay, not because I had anything against Ms Bell but because I considered the political situation in Hungary so serious that I thought it would behoove U.S. interests to have a career diplomat representing the American government. I am, however, prepared to wait to see what happens. Is the new ambassador a quick study? Will she be able to assess the Hungarian situation in all its complexity in a relatively short time and not succumb to Fidesz wiles? We don’t know. As a former diplomat friend told me, he served under some very bad ambassadors with diplomatic experience and some excellent ones who were political appointees.

By all signs the Hungarian government is greatly relieved that M. André Goodfriend will no longer be running the show. I suspect that they think that with Bell’s arrival American-Hungarian relations will assume an entirely different complexion in Hungary’s favor. From what I gather from comments written about her on Hungarian Spectrum, quite a few readers fear that she will be a pushover. I suspect that a good number of government officials think the same; she’s a woman, after all, and Hungarian society is male-dominated. Gergely Prőhle, former assistant undersecretary in the foreign ministry, specifically referred in an interview to the new ambassador’s sex and her role as a mother of four, qualities which in his opinion might help to improve the atmosphere between the two countries. Prőhle added that by coincidence the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to Washington, Réka Szemerkényi, is also a woman with four children. So, while one woman will be working in Budapest for good relations between the U.S. and Hungary, the other will be winning hearts and minds in Washington. The charm offensive is on. It seemed to have worked with Bell’s predecessor, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis. Perhaps it will work again.

Oh, yes, Réka Szemerkényi. She still has not occupied her post in Washington because apparently she has not received the so-called “agrément,” her formal acceptance by the United States as the next Hungarian ambassador. More than two months have gone by since her appointment. It seems that Washington is in no hurry to recognize her as the head of the Hungarian embassy. The official who leaked this information to Népszabadság complained bitterly about the American response, especially since they “waited for Colleen Bell with a bouquet of roses without thorns” at the airport and since President János Áder announced that he would receive her two days after her arrival so she could present her credentials and begin her work as early as possible.

What is wrong with Réka Szemerkényi? Why is the U.S. dragging its heels, other than to express its general disapproval of the Hungarian government? From Szemerkényi’s curriculum vitae she seems to be highly qualified. Upon receiving an M.A. from ELTE (Budapest) in 1991, she spent a year at the Institut Européen des Hautes Études Internationales in Nice (1990-1991). Two years later she received an M.A. in International Relations and Strategic Studies from The John Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.  (1993-1995). From Washington she went to London where she spent a year as a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (1995-1996). From here her career took her straight to Fidesz, where she began as senior foreign policy secretary for the Fidesz parliamentary caucus (1997-1998). Her political career really took off after Fidesz won the election in 1998. She first became undersecretary in the prime minister’s office and later foreign policy and national security adviser to Viktor Orbán (2000-2002).

While Fidesz was out of office she worked at research institutes related to Fidesz and earned a Ph.D.in economics at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University in 2007. After such a distinguished academic career, her decision to attend a university with a less than sterling reputation is somewhat baffling. But she also stooped low enough to become a senior associate in the Institute of Kremlinology at the Gáspár Károli Reformed University which is led by the Miklós Kun, grandson of Béla Kun of Hungarian Soviet Republic fame, who turned from rabid Marxist to rabid right-winger. Szemerkényi’s entire professional career has been tied to right-wing politics, not just as a high government official but also as a party member. In 2009, for example, she was #17 on Fidesz’s EP list but only the first 14 made it.

Réka Szemerkényi / Photo Attila Kovács, MTI

Réka Szemerkényi / Photo Attila Kovács, MTI

In the last four or five years in her capacity as chief adviser to Viktor Orbán, she was heavily involved in the negotiations over the Southern Stream. In September 2013 when the leaders of the Southern Stream and Gazprom made their case in Milan for the pipeline’s value, it was Réka Szemerkényi and Dragutin Matanovic of Serbia who presented the points of view of the partner countries. When it became known that the United States government listened to telephone conversations of European politicians, it was Szemerkényi’s job to present the Hungarian position on the matter to the American government. According to an MTI report, she demanded answers from the United States, but of course we have no idea what actual steps she took and how the issue was settled between the two countries. At that time she still considered the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership a right step in the right direction “which benefits both sides.” As we know, that is no longer the Hungarian government’s position. As Attila Ara-Kovács pointed out, “the former deeply committed atlantist has become a vehement defender of the new policy that no longer concentrates on Washington.”

Ara-Kovács made his observation at the time it was leaked that Viktor Orbán had no need for Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of János Martonyi, at the foreign ministry. Obviously, he was far too committed to the transatlantic ideas he and Martonyi represented during their times in office (1998-2002 and 2010-2014). Apparently Orbán offered Németh the ambassadorship to Washington but Németh, I think wisely, did not accept. No ambassador can improve relations between the U.S. and Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister. Not even a mother of four. I don’t know of course whether Zsolt Németh would have been more welcome in Washington, but Szemerkényi, although she might be well qualified for the job, is known to blindly follow the party line. In Hungarian these people are called “party soldiers.” One of Index‘s sources said that Orbán and Szemerkényi are so close that her appointment practically means the presence of Viktor Orbán in Washington. I’m sure that the idea of having the clone of Viktor Orbán in the Hungarian Embassy in Washington doesn’t warm the cockles of anyone’s heart in the U.S. capital.