Clinton: Tired of the Hungarian Rhapsodies?

March 19, 2012

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, U.S. Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis chat at the embassy on Castle Hill in 2010. (Szilard Koszticsak/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But things have gotten a bit rocky. The European Union moved last week to freeze about $650 million in next year’s development aid to Hungary and the European Commission began investigating whether his new anti-democratic laws violate European norms.

Orban’s party remains by far the most popular in the country. Tens of thousands or more turned out in Budapest on a national holiday Thursday to hear him, chanting “Viktor, Viktor,” as he vowed Hungarians “won’t be second-class citizens in Europe.’’

But an opposition rally also drew a large crowd and tens of thousands have demonstrated in recent months against the government’s anti-democratic moves. (That may not sound like much but Hungary’s population is only around 10 million, slightly larger than metro Chicago’s.)

Some flunkie for Orban’s regime reacted to another Loop item about Obama administration displeasure with the government’s anti-democratic drift by talking about reporters “who use their time off to come up with all sorts of claptrap.”

(Let’s be clear: whenever we type, we are on the company clock.)

In all fairness, there have been some mixed messages. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Budapest last June, publicly rebuked Orban for his moves to crack down on the media, undermine judicial independence, and push through a new constitution favoring his party.

And the State Department followed with a formal diplomatic protest, delivered in October by Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis, a former California real estate executive and major Democratic contributor.

It seems the embassy may have been suffering from a touch of what’s known in the biz as clientitis. This a common ailment where diplomats sent abroad are inclined to be sympathetic to the host foreign government. In extreme cases, diplomats even start believing that country leaders are telling them the truth.

So an embassy spokesman characterized that Kounalakis-Orban meeting as “warm and productive” — though it produced nothing — and said the “elected government . . . has been given a rare two-thirds mandate by the people of Hungary.”

Not exactly. Orban’s party actually won 53 percent of the popular vote (still quite impressive) over a feckless and pathetically divided opposition. Under the parliamentary rules, he ended up with a two-thirds majority.

In any event, we’re hearing that the embassy has since fully recovered. No more Madame Nice Gal. In fact, there’s word that the Hungarians are complaining she’s being too tough on them.

Washington is looking to the Euros, not easily assuaged by phony promises, to play point on reining in the autocratic Orban, who’s now crawling to the International Monetary Fund for a financial bailout.

Beautiful country, lovely people, tasty — albeit tending to heavy — cuisine. Such a shame.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
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