Al Kamen
Al Kamen
In the Loop

Hungary’s Viktor Orban has no appetite for democracy

A July 2010 photo of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban kissing the hand of a most-delighted U.S. ambassador, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, suggests they had a warm relationship.

Lately, though, things have cooled — a lot. Maybe it’s Orban’s increasingly anti-democratic antics. Just the usual stuff — cracking down on the media, curbing the independence of the judiciary, attacks on minorities and a drift toward one-party rule.

Al Kamen

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. He began his reporting career at the Rocky Mountain News and joined The Post in 1980. He has covered local and federal courts, the Supreme Court and the State Department. Follow him on Twitter.


Or maybe it’s his annoying praise of Chinese investment and aid along with his constant denigration of Western Europe and predictions of the decline of the West. This from a country that’s a member of NATO and the European Union.

Despite human rights groups’ increasing criticism of Orban’s governing style — a sort of Lukashenko-lite policy along the lines of autocrat Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus — the premier generally has continued his ways.

So Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — in Budapest on June 30 for the opening of the Tom Lantos Institute, a human rights organization named for the late Hungarian-born congressman — tried to make things perfectly clear, warning against letting “any democracy anywhere backslide.”

She and Orban “talked very openly about preserving democratic institutions,” Clinton said at a joint news conference with him, in a Hungary that “is very true to its democratic traditions to protect individual liberties.”

That meeting was just a few days after Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had been in Budapest and Orban had lavishly praised the commies’ way of doing things.

After a while, the State Department concluded that Orban simply wasn’t getting Clinton’s message that he knock it off, so the diplos upped the ante. In mid- or late August they reiterated their displeasure, this time in the form of a demarche, or official diplomatic protest, to be hand-delivered to Orban.

Alas, word is that Orban has been simply too busy to receive Kounalakis, a California real estate executive who, along with family members, has contributed more than $800,000 to Democrats since 2005, especially to Clinton’s presidential effort and then to Barack Obama’s campaign.

Orban has been traveling of late, speaking just last week to business folks in Saudi Arabia, signing some agreements and praising the way the all-controlling monarchy runs the place. But one of these days, despite his ducking and dodging, the process-server will catch him.

Dead right

A State Department notice this week decreeing the Dead Sea Scrolls “culturally significant” caught our eye.

Wondering just how the department came to such an obvious conclusion (the scrolls contain only the oldest-known Biblical texts, after all), our colleague Emily Heil attempted to reach a State official to find out.

But the message left with a receptionist got a bit lost in translation. A spokeswoman returned the call, confused and professing to know nothing about these “Dead Sea Squirrels” about which we had inquired.

Loop: “No, I meant the Dead Sea Scrolls, not Dead Sea Squirrels.”

Spokeswoman: “Oh! Scrolls! That makes much more sense.”

The rodent mix-up settled, we learned that declaring the items to be kind of a big deal isn’t merely an academic exercise. It’s a hurdle that museums and other institutions have to clear before they can import certain objects from abroad. The scrolls are part of a touring exhibit, “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times,” which will make stops at Discovery Times Square in New York and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Now, we’re eagerly awaiting State’s ruling in the matter of whether Leonardo da Vinci was, in fact, “pretty talented.”

And we’re working on our enunciation.

A real business trip

The House is out next week, so Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who heads the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security and foreign operations, is leading a small group of members on a week-long trip to some interesting but not particularly inviting places.

Chaffetz, along with Reps. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), is off to look for waste, fraud and abuse in foreign aid and other U.S. efforts in Kenya, Ethi­o­pia, South Sudan and Morocco. (That shouldn’t be too hard.)

But no spouses will be going along, we were told, and it doesn’t appear that game parks and such will dominate the itinerary. So, under the official In the Loop Guide to Codels (congressional delegations), there is every danger that work will be committed on this trip. Besides, Chaffetz is developing a reputation for going to unpleasant places.

Even though the military jet stops in Stuttgart for a day and there’s a day in Morocco — which might offer the possibility of fine shopping and touring — this is not a Loop-recommended trip.

Cleaning up

A hearty Loop congratulations to Cintas for winning a $19,822.50 contract from the Marines to provide a year’s worth of “Laundering Service for Bath Towels and Wash Cloths.”

The contract calls for weekly pickup and delivery of 150 bath towels and 150 washcloths at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C. Seemed at first glance like a pretty hefty sum for so little laundry.

Then we got to this: “The contractor is hereby advised that the soiled towels and wash cloths may be contaminated with minute quantities of the following substances.” It listed 59 of them, including sulfuric acid, nickel (as heavy metal), hydrochloric acid, sodium cyanide and other such things.

And this apparently is after they’ve showered.

Moving on

The farm team is growing. The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Brian Baenig as Agriculture Department’s assistant secretary for congressional relations. Baenig, a former staffer to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), was the department’s deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

Meanwhile, another administration official is hitting the road. Jill Zuckman, assistant to the secretary and director of public affairs at the Transportation Department, is leaving the planes, trains, and automobiles agency for the private sector. Zuckman, a longtime Chicago Tribune reporter, will join SKDKnickerbocker as a managing director. She will become part of the communications firm’s growing stable of administration and Capitol Hill alums, including former White House communications director Anita Dunn and former Democratic House aide Doug Thornell.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this column.

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