The following is a translation of the ATV interview with András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to NATO and the United States, titled “Simonyi: Orbán tudja, mit kellene tennie” (Simonyi: Orbán knows what he must do).
After a week’s delay (Prime Minister) Viktor Orbán made his first comments on the US travel ban in Brussels. Continuing the earlier governmental communication, he asked for proof from the United States government in connection with the ban. Do you see any chance of the Americans making any compromises with regard to this request?
Allow me to approach this question from another direction. For me the entire matter is cause for great sorrow. I have observed directly close up how Hungary has ruined the prestige built up over many years at the cost of great sacrifice. There is no point to Viktor Orbán acting as though he is not aware that we are talking about a serious foreign policy crisis whose causes, however, are primarily of a domestic political nature. This is not a situation that can be handled by starting up the propaganda machine. In answer to your question, I don’t believe that the American authorities will fulfill the Hungarian request. There are obviously not only legal reasons for this.
Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government obviously know that US law does not permit this information to be given over. In light of this what can we calculate with? At this point will the communication come to a halt or will one of the parties give in?
Orbán knows that he is asking the impossible. Still from the point of view of government communications all that matters is what he thinks. I don’t see an independent point of view that would address the problem or even exercise self-criticism. The communication of the Hungarian government continues to follow the same logic as before: start the “agitprop department”. This, however, is not a question of communications. It is much more serious than that. Unfortunately, this is politics.
For the time being it seems as though Viktor Orbán knows well who the six people are on the travel ban list. In light of this, was it a good idea on the part of the government to communicate outwardly that it does not have information about this, and to ask the United States for the list?
This is the propaganda logic part. If the problem was truly that there is no information, if the government was worried that corrupt elements infect the state apparatus, and these have to be removed because they infect the other public officials, then the American authorities would have answered with a close cooperation instead of confrontation However, if there is not a relationship of trust with the American authorities, then the problem is larger that we thought. But I will go further: according to my reading of the situation, what has happened so far cannot be called diplomacy, but that wasn’t even the goal.
In the case of travel bans of this sort what kind of investigation does the American authorities undertake, who participates, how thorough are the investigations and how serious are the accusations of corruption?
They are not improvising. Nobody should deceive themselves that we are talking about something incidental. It is entirely sure that the decision took place on a high level if they are openly talking about this. There is also serious corruption in America but the law catches up to them sooner or later, as in the case of numerous other powers. Furthermore, the fact that there are abuses in the US does not relieve us of responsibility. Very serious rules regulate the fight against corruption in the United States, and law enforcement proceedings always involve the close cooperation of the Treasury Department. Institutional corruption is inconceivable in the United States. In this, civil society plays as great a rule as the well-functioning system of checks and balances and the independence of the various branches of power.
How unusual and even unfriendly is it when steps are taken to ban government officials from the US?
This is a serious step in diplomatic language. Perhaps only a starting diplomatic would not understand just how serious it is. At the same time it signals that something is the matter with the relationship between the two countries.
What miscellaneous messages are there with the travel ban? What does the United States want to call to the Hungarian government’s attention with this?
The lack of democracy.
Support for Paks2 and the South Stream pipeline reflects the commitment of the Hungarian government to the Russians. How much does this bother the Americans?
It is not necessary to involve Paks here, it is only self-deception to talk about some kind of revenge. By the way, the fact that we sign a contract with the Russians is not a problem in and of itself, but the contracts which define the country’s energy connections for decades were not created in a transparent manner, and the fact that, with this decision, Hungary makes itself entirely dependent on the Russians in energy matters. The South Stream pipeline is not merely an economic question but a political-strategic question. As though certain individuals had not studied Hungarian history. Russia has never helped the cause of Hungarian freedom.
Furthermore, (Russian President) Putin will only use the country as a means, as a battering ram to be discarded later. So one suspects many things are involved, including the unrealistic dream that this can lead to something desirable later when Russia divvies up Ukraine and Sub-Carpathia falls in our laps. It won’t. But we can be left alone and defenseless with Carpathian Hungarians in a much worse situation than they are right now.
Last year a corruption scandal brought down the government of the Czech Republic under suspicious circumstances. Prague newspapers suspected that the cooperation of the secret service was behind it. According to Hetek, there are those in Fidesz who think there are similarities between the two countries. What do you think?
If I was a writer I would develop the idea, except this is reality that won’t get any better by talking nonsense. We are talking about a political problem and they either recognize this or not, either see it or not, and it’s high time to wake up to the fact that the world does not work according to Hungary’s domestic political logic. Out there is no two-thirds majority manufactured by the government.
In the interest of improving American diplomacy and bilateral relations, how should (Foreign Minister) Péter Szíjjárto have gone to Washington?
I don’t think the Hungarian government needs my advice. This situation would not have occurred had successive governments not destroyed Hungarian diplomacy, and if the diplomatic warning system had been functioning. Perhaps the saying “if you had listened, you would have remained wise” applies here. But today Hungarian diplomats are not required to deal with “politicians” using their own minds and talents, but want to be acceptable to Orbán. With this they cause the greatest harm to Orbán. Orbán was not always like this. It was possible to contradict him, I know this from my own experience. During the time of the Kosovo war when I represented the government to NATO he specifically requested that we tell him the bare truth in the case of criticism as well. On this you can build. I’m afraid that this is no longer the case.
The Hungarian foreign minister said that at the Washington meeting we were even praised. What do you think about this? Can Hungarian diplomacy take comfort from this?
Praise is one of the oldest means of diplomacy and almost an indispensable element of negotiations. This feels good when it has significance. In this case, however, it is really just a framework. Nobody should take comfort from it.
Péter Szijjártó did not attribute any significance to the fact that when visiting Washington he was not received by Secretary of State John Kerry, but that he was told there would be a possibility of this later. Are you optimistic this was the message in the fact the foreign minister was not received at the highest diplomatic level in Washington?
How could it not be significant! I am amazed by such optimism. Washington pays close attention to who receives whom, when and on what level. The fact that Secretary of State Kerry wouldn’t meet him is not primarily about Szijjártó’s person, although he did not create a good image for himself with his “messages” to former President Bill Clinton and President Obama. His “self-confidence” was rather testimony to his inexperience. “Never” is not a diplomatic category. But I do not think Szijjártó will soon have his picture taken with the US Secretary of State. That is sad.
Help me understand where we are now. A number of individuals close to the government have been banned from the United States on suspicion of corruption. The Hungarian government has asked for proof, which the Americans are not giving on the grounds that the government knows about the matters in question. It seems a stalemate exists in which everybody is waiting and the government is playing for time. The ball is in whose court? What is the next step?
There is no stalemate. If we continue with the chess analogy, Hungary is in check. It is not necessary to create the appearance of equal parties being at the “chess table”. Of course that does not mean that matters are lost. However, a big turn of events is needed. Both in terms of domestic politics and also greater self-control and sensibility. Orbán knows exactly what he should do.
On October 23 (Fidesz’s) János Lázár, László Kövér, Tamás Deutsch and Gergely Gulyás each told America off in their own way. If this continues what can we expect?
I do not consider these stupid and counter-productive statements worthy of comment. These are unserious and damaging.
How wise is it for a Hungarian parliamentary delegation to be visiting Tehran at the same time, and for a deputy president of parliament, János Latorcai, to participate in a “counter-terror conference” where the United States is condemned?
It is as though the country has started to run amok in the field of foreign policy. With that we are fighting with the America we have to thank for our freedom. The other day I heard a good saying: “The Kuruc (Hungarian independence fighter) never won a war except for once in 1989 with the decisive help of America.” The greatest single strike ever against America took place in the form of the terror attack of September 11, 2001 that took the lives of several thousand people. In response to this a Hungarian representative attends a conference that serves anti-American propaganda in Iranian circles. Furthermore, a member of the governing party. This is an insult.
André Goodfriend, US embassy spokesman, said recently that Hungary could become unsuitable for the role of ally. Strong words which nobody previously said in connection with Hungary. What does this mean according to your reading of the situation?
Yes, these are strong words. Goodfriend is strongly representing a certain “school” of American diplomacy, if I may put it that way. This is a certain way of seeing things whose strongest advocate was Mark Palmer, former US ambassador to Hungary, who to this day is one of the most influential American diplomats. His belief in democracy, in civil society and in Hungary was unquestionable. At the time of the system change at the end of the 1980s he protected Viktor Orbán from the Hungarian authorities. He protested with the Fidesz activists of that time. I could also say that without America’s help it is unlikely Viktor Orbán would be prime minister.
In light of the above is there any point to the affected individuals traveling to the United States in an official capacity (as the ban only applies to personal travel)?
You would have to ask the American authorities this but I do not think it likely that they could achieve anything via official channels.
In an earlier radio interview you said the matter does not only affect the government but the entire country. Would you explain what you were thinking exactly?
The great tragedy of the Hungarian elite is that they overestimate the significance of our country. In general, few have anything to do with Hungary, but now relatively a lot, but not in a good sense. They don’t deal with whether the charge of corruption applies to a few people or the entire country. The stigma can easily remain that Hungarians are corrupt. Frankly, what do Hungarian people know about Lithuania, Estonia or Serbia? Nothing, and they only think in terms of images and stereotypes. This is also the case with us, sometimes fortunate but now damning. The tragedy is that we built a shining image of ourselves for which a historical situation was needed. Another dramatic event is needed to change the negative image. It will not be easy.
Could this get to the point where the simplified ESTA (Electronic System for Travel) procedure is done away with, or needn’t we be afraid of that?
I don’t even want to think about that!
How can the relationship between the two countries be mended?
The most important question is not the relationship between the two countries, although obviously society is dealing with it here and now. The direction of the country’s development is much more important. This can only be achieved with a very definite change that later helps this specific matter. For the moment the key to this is in Orbán’s hands. For now. However, I see responsibility gradually spreading to the wider Hungarian society. Hungarian society is weak, exhausted and has little ability to resist. However, this does not last forever. A new Viktor Orbán will come and a new “alliance of young democrats”. As the world-famous US historian John Lukacs put it: nothing lasts forever.