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What Envoy’s Frosty Welcome Says About State of US-Hungary Relations

US diplomatic sources say they have repeatedly asked the Hungarian government to “show more tangibly we are partners”, but a strain of anti-US feeling, especially against Democrats, runs deep in Fidesz.

Government circles sighed with relief in Hungary when news broke in the spring that Washington was finally sending a professional diplomat and not a political appointee to Budapest to head up the US embassy. The post had been vacant for almost two years, after the previous ambassador, David Cornstein, who made his fortune in the jewellery business and enjoyed a decades-long friendship with Donald Trump, left in November 2020.

His successor, David Pressman, could not be more different: he is a human rights lawyer and former UN ambassador for Special Political Affairs, and moved into the residence in early September 2022 with his husband Daniel and their two sons.

Expectations were high at first that Pressman’s arrival would breathe new life into ailing bilateral relations and maybe even nudge Hungary back towards its transatlantic traditions that have been followed by most Central European governments since the democratic transition. By contrast, Orban’s Fidesz party has been building robust ties with Russia and China over the last decade, with the war in Ukraine highlighting how far it has fallen out of step with the transatlantic community.

Yet any hopes for a honeymoon period for Pressman in Hungary were quickly dashed, as the new ambassador immediately found himself the target of “not-so-friendly fire” from the country’s pro-government media.

Some quarters argue that Pressman – a man with a spiky personality and an appetite for a controversial social media presence, who seems to favour publicity over backdoor diplomacy at times – was asking for it.

“Relations between Fidesz and the US Democratic Party have always been somewhat troubled – ideologically they do not match,” Tamas Magyarics, a former Hungarian ambassador, tells BIRN.

But as an historian and expert in US-Hungarian bilateral relations, even Magyarics was shocked by the viciousness of the attacks on Pressman. “For the sake of bilateral relations, at least a civilised tone of voice should be kept,” he pleads.

Twitter diplomacy

The first diplomatic bombshell exploded when Ambassador Pressman posted a twitter video quiz of “who said it?”, which brought to an international audience Hungarian government members and pro-government media and pundits parroting Kremlin propaganda.

The video starred, among others, Speaker of the National Assembly Laszlo Kover suggesting it is actually the West that’s building a Euro-Atlantic empire and wanting to include Ukraine as a prospective province; and government-close analyst Agoston Samuel Mraz claiming the US is profiteering from the war and thus has little incentive to stop it.

Bringing such scrutiny to an international audience certainly did not make Pressman any new friends in government circles. But this was nothing compared to the reaction when he invited to his residency two judges who are sharply critical of the judicial system under Fidesz and have warned several times about rising government pressure on courts and judges.

Pressman has now become a household name in the pro-government media, likened to anything from a Soviet party secretary to a Western coloniser, for interfering in Hungarian internal affairs and allegedly breaching the basic rules of diplomacy.

Something he did not do, according to former ambassador and protocol expert Ferenc Robak. “Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomats have every right to become informed and meet with whomever they wish to meet – obviously, up to the point that they do not interfere in the internal affairs of the host country,” Robak tells BIRN.

Though he admits the regulation is loosely worded and subject to interpretation, meeting non-governmental guests at the residency is common practice in diplomacy.

Veteran diplomats often express regret that in today’s social media-dominated world, subtle diplomacy has been replaced by loud and aggressive messaging, yet this is a global phenomenon. Discussions held behind closed doors all too often end up in public fora just hours, even minutes after the talks have ended.

Nevertheless, diplomatic sources in Hungary complain that even after productive meetings with government members, the narrative in the pro-government media quickly becomes one-sided and nasty. Personalised media attacks against US ambassadors do happen in some places, diplomatic sources tell BIRN, but they are highly unusual in allied countries – and, after all, Hungary has never questioned its NATO membership or its US alliance.

Frustrated ex-lover

Many experts wonder how deep the wounds really are and what this verbal war can tell us about Hungary’s reliability in today’s tense international climate.

The fact that the US has joined Brussels as a “rhetorical enemy” of the Hungarian government, an EU and NATO member, is indeed a paradox, but has some precedent.

The tradition of anti-US feelings runs strong in Fidesz and goes back almost two decades. Back in 2002, after losing the general election following just one term in office, Orban became convinced the liberal media and US interference were to blame. Neither can be proven, but the suspicions have had a deep impact on the prime minister’s political outlook since he returned to office in 2010.

“The Fidesz government has a paranoia that the Democrats want to topple Orban,” says a diplomatic source who wished to remain anonymous. The source adds that although the fear is evidently exaggerated, Democrats are known to maintain close ties with mostly Orban-critical circles in Hungary.

Many in Fidesz like to lash out against the “exporting of US democracy”, arguing that pro-democracy movements and uprisings like the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East ultimately did not improve life for the affected countries, instead triggering massive waves of refugees and migrants towards Europe. US involvement, even if sometimes well intentioned, often causes more harm than good, they believe – and cite what is happening in Ukraine as part of that trend.

But an innate mistrust towards Orban in Washington has been evident since 2001, when as Hungarian prime minister – despite all the previous expectations – he opted to lease Swedish-made JAS Gripen fighter jets instead of the US-made F-16s.

“This was an affront to the US government. They were made to believe that they would be the winners and they felt tricked,” the historian Tamas Magyarics recalls.

The affair contributed to Orban’s notoriety as a maverick that many in the US State Department had feared since his first ground-breaking speech in 1989, when he publicly demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. The troops were already marching out as he spoke, but the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev requested the Hungarian government not publicise the fact, as his support among hardline generals was already hanging by a thread.

The younger Orban did not care about any international repercussions from keeping up this pretence, as he was eager to launch his political career in Hungary. And this character trait hasn’t changed much over the years, perhaps even hardening due to international criticism of the last 30 years. Orban still prefers to be a one-man show rather than play on any team, the war in Ukraine being a case in point.

Some liken Fidesz to behaving like a “frustrated ex-lover” when it comes to relations with the US. “The US has been long idealised by Hungarians – they were the ones who defeated Communism and won the Cold War,” says Tamas Baranyi, deputy director of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade in Budapest.

“We belong to the same camp, we all believe in the West, but the Hungarian government is disappointed by the so-called progressive shifts overseas,” Baranyi explains.

Orban was puzzled when the Biden presidency demonstratively did not invite Hungary to the 2021 Summit of Democracies – held online due to the pandemic – even though countries like Pakistan and the Philippines, both with serious human rights concerns, qualified.

Ambassador Pressman’s first statement at his Senate hearing in July – where he claimed that “threats to democracy in Hungary are real, and merit our determined attention” – did not go down well in Budapest and ensured a rocky start, Baranyi adds.

The ‘T’ factor

The Democrats are also well aware of Orban’s peculiar closeness to the former president Donald Trump, whom he openly endorsed during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

During the Trump presidency, analysts recall, democratic concerns faded from bilateral relations, but not much else happened. Trump’s ambassador to the Hungary, David Cornstein, could not stop Orban chasing the liberal Central European University (CEU) out of Budapest nor halt its democratic backsliding. And though many expected Orban would pay for the goodwill of US politicians by agreeing a major defence procurement, instead he opted for German technology.

Still, the importance of American ties should not be underestimated: the US is Hungary’s biggest export market outside the EU and the second biggest investor in Hungary after Germany. Orban and his Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto both believe that economic ties provide a solid base for relations and tax benefits given to US companies will ultimately oil political relations.

Yet in times of war, perspectives change and security becomes the top concern.

Officially, US diplomats seem to worry little about the current climate. “Hungary is an ally, and we have many shared priorities,” a US embassy spokesperson tells BIRN pragmatically. “We value Hungary’s partnership in voting for all of the sanctions packages against Russia and its support for the presence of US service members in Europe, including in Hungary.”

The spokesperson went on to say that he is confident the majority of Hungarians see a future that is anchored in the Western world. “All of our embassy’s work is aimed at making our relationship with Hungary closer, stronger,” he says.

Not everyone is convinced. Delaying the ratification of the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland is difficult to explain. Besides Hungary, only Turkey is holding NATO enlargement hostage. Yet Ankara has clear demands; Hungary does not.

US diplomats have repeatedly asked the Hungarian government to “show more tangibly that we are partners,” insiders tell BIRN, but these pleas only elicited angry reactions from cabinet members and the pro-government media about “exerting pressure”. It is unclear what the Hungarian government wants in exchange, but some speculate it might be a trade-off between releasing some frozen EU funds in return for ratification.

Nevertheless, the poor performance of Trumpist politicians in the US midterm elections earlier in November could tone down the rhetoric of the Hungarian government and its media lackeys.

Expectations were high in Budapest that a landslide Republican victory would help catapult Donald Trump back into the White House in 2024, but the former president was dealt a blow that he may not recover from. “Even if Trump gets the [Republican] nomination, his dislike rate [in the country] is so high that he would probably not win the 2024 election,” the historian Magyarics predicts.

Still, Orban likes to take risks: he bet on Trump in 2016 when few gave him much of a chance. Yet shifting alliances has never been much of a problem for Orban and he will look for alternative allies among Republicans. Balazs Orban, the prime minister’s political director, was quick to lead the way by posting a photo of himself with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the emerging star of the Republican right, and congratulating him on his “historic landslide [re-election] victory”.

Yet some experts warn that Orban’s pro-China and pro-Russia line will remain a particular problem regardless of who is sitting in the White House after the 2024 election.

And even the arrival of a new US ambassador to replace the current bête noire is unlikely to help much with that.

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