Meet Hungarian American Coalition president Max Teleki

April 9, 2015

It’s kind of like the Russians are playing chess and the Hungarian government is playing checkers. – Max Teleki, president of the Hungarian American Coalition

Max Teleki, president of the Hungarian American Coalition, spoke with the Budapest Beacon the day after Russia Federation President Vladimir Putin visited Budapest.  Teleki, who has served as that organization’s president for 11 years, says his relationship with the Coalition dates back twenty years when he served as that organization’s first White House intern. He says the organization’s emphasis is on “quiet advocacy.”

Teleki says the Congressional internship program founded during his presidency has arranged for Hungarian students “from all walks of life” to work for Congress, think-tanks and civil organizations “so they can understand how Washington works.”  He says the program is “non-partisan” and that the choice of intern is “based on merit and not political persuasion.”  He says funding is provided mostly by membership organizations and individual members, citing as “larger donors” the Charles Simonyi Fund for the Arts and Sciences and the Hungarian Initiatives Foundation established by the Hungarian Office of the Prime Minister at the end of 2013.

On the subject of the state of democracy in Hungary, he says he tries to remain detached in the interest of providing a “mechanism for conflict resolution” in order to “support the best interests of the Hungarian-American community and ultimately the ties between the United States and Hungary.”  According to Teleki, this is not easy.  “They’re either throwing rocks or candy at you depending on which side of the fence you’re on in Hungary”, although he adds that the situation is the same in the United States.  “You can’t please everyone.”  He says he has good friends on “both sides of the aisle” which “grounds you as an advocate”.

Strong concerns

On Hungary’s “Eastern opening” the Hungarian American Coalition president says he has “strong concerns”.  He says he tries to align himself and work with members of Fidesz who are “trans-atlanticists.”  He found Putin’s visit to Budapest “distressing” and “troubling”, especially during the “challenging times concerning Ukraine.” He says the reassertion of Russian influence in Eastern Europe is one of the challenges Hungary faces, and that while he wouldn’t have a problem with a deal like Paks 2 “so long as it was transparent,” he was “very pleased” to see that Southstream was cancelled.   When asked why he thought the Hungarian government was courting Russia, Teleki said he knew “true trans-atlanticists on both side of the aisle” and that it was “frustrating.”

USA also to blame

Echoing statements made in Budapest last November, Teleki criticized the Obama administration for a “lack of consistent policy and engagement” on Central and Eastern Europe.  He says the United States’ focus for the past six years “on trying to end two wars and re-establish a relationship with Russia which hasn’t worked out” was done in an “inconsistent way with a lack of attention on Central and Eastern Europe.”  He says there hasn’t been a consistent “political and economic investment by the West” in “civil society and institution building” for democracies, which he calls “very important” and “an ongoing thing.”  He says “there are many things in the tool kit that constantly have to be added” but this doesn’t excuse “strong misperceptions associated with Hungary’s lack of interest in being involved in the West.”   He says that, to the contrary, Hungary does want to be involved in the West, but that “the problem is Hungary also wants to be involved in other places” in a way he believes “contradicts some western positions”.

Civil society and organized religion

On the dismantling of democratic institutions under the second and third Orbán governments, Teleki says he is concerned by the “assault on civil society” and claims to have expressed those concerns to “the highest levels.”  He cites Hungary’s (mis)handling of the Norwegian Civil Funds as an example of “completely misreading a situation and overreacting.”   He says the “Regulatory Church Law” of 2011 was both “unnecessary” and “a PR nightmare.”   However, in Teleki’s opinion any discrimination was “inadvertent” and he does not believe the government’s intention was to discriminate when it excluded certain churches from receiving state funding.  He says it reflects a “lack of sensitivity and understanding of the way that part of the world is perceived.”

Circling the wagons

When asked why the Hungarian-American Coalition has not been more public in its criticism of the policies of the government of Viktor Orbán, Teleki says “we rarely make a stink publicly” and “we try to publicly stay out of the trench warfare”.   However, Teleki volunteers that he called for the resignation of then-prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány after the tapes of his infamous Balatonöszöd “lies” speech were released in 2006.  He says that more recently his organization had made some statements regarding international coverage and its impact on Hungary’s domestic politics.  He further says there is a tendency in Hungary to “circle the wagons” rather than think about “why people are saying what they’re saying.”

Átlá, a website devoted to investigative journalism, recently named the Hungarian American Coalition as the largest single recipient of grants from the Hungarian Initiatives Foundation, a US-registered foundation owned by the Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary.  Out of USD 3.9 million distributed to various US organizations in 2013 and 2014, USD 905,000 was awarded to the Hungarian American Coalition, USD 520,000 of which reportedly went to help fund its four-month congressional internship program.