A diplo­mat’s tell-all that ac­tu­ally tells all.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Colin Woodard cov­ered Hungary for the Chris­tian Science Mon­i­tor and the Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion in the 1990s. He is the au­thor of four books, in­clud­ing “Amer­i­can Na­tions: A History of the Eleven Ri­val Re­gional Cul­tures of North Amer­ica.” RE­VIEW BY

In the win­ter of 2011, divers work­ing on Bu­dapest’s Mar­garet Bridge dis­cov­ered the bullet-scarred skele­tal re­mains of at least 20 peo­ple, al­most cer­tainly Jews ex­e­cuted by Hun­gar­ian fas­cists dur­ing World War II. Read­ing the news on her Black­Berry, U.S Am­bas­sador Eleni Kounalakis ex­pected an out­pour­ing of hor­ror and re­gret, or at least cu­rios­ity.

In­stead, the story passed with lit­tle no­tice. “There were no fol­low-up an­nounce­ments by the po­lice, no me­mo­rial ser­vices,” she re­calls. Jewish lead­ers never learned what hap­pened to the re­mains. “The prob­lem in Hungary, I re­al­ized, wasn’t just the rise of anti-Semitic, ne­o­fas­cist voices and acts. Hun­gar­ian so­ci­ety at large was re­spond­ing to those rad­i­cal voices with dis­pro­por­tion­ate si­lence and ap­a­thy.”

As U.S. am­bas­sador to Hungary from Jan­uary 2010 to July 2013, Kounalakis had a front-row seat for the im­plo­sion of what was once the most promis­ing new democ­racy in the for­mer Soviet bloc. Neo-fas­cists were elected to par­lia­ment. Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán presided over a rewrit­ing of the con­sti­tu­tion and the pas­sage of hun­dreds of laws erod­ing the in­de­pen­dence of the ju­di­ciary, the civil ser­vice and the media. Anti-Semitism was on the rise, and much of the young would-be pro­fes­sional class had started flee­ing to Western Europe in droves.

In her memoir, “Madam Am­bas­sador,” Kounalakis re­counts Hungary’s slide into what Or­bán him­self has de­scribed as an “il­lib­eral democ­racy” inspired by Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia. To her credit, it’s a far more forth­com­ing book — per­son­ally and an­a­lyt­i­cally — than one would ex­pect from a diplo­mat, and it of­fers fur­ther ev­i­dence, if any­one still needs it, that the Euro­pean-Union now faces the pos­si­bil­ity of an au­toc­racy tak­ing shape within its borders.

Like most of her post-1989 pre­de­ces­sors, Kounalakis was a po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee and one with no prior knowl­edge of Hungary. Just months be­fore tak­ing her post, she thought she was go­ing to Sin­ga­pore, and she wept with dis­ap­point­ment when the White House changed its mind. A Sacra­mento prop­erty devel­oper who sup­ported Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2008, she set out on a path to an am­bas­sador­ship that passed through the hands of a close friend, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and was fa­cil­i­tated by Kounalakis’s acu­men as a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal fundraiser for Cal­i­for­nia Democrats and, even­tu­ally, Barack Obama.

Clearly, Kounalakis was a quick study, bring­ing a po­lit­i­cally savvy busi­ness­woman’s in­stincts for ne­go­ti­a­tion and the read­ing of power dy­nam­ics. The Greek-speak­ing child of self-made im­mi­grant par­ents, she was no alien in the history-sat­u­rated world­view of the eastern half of Europe. Her hus­band, jour­nal­ist Markos Kounalakis, cov­ered the col­lapse of com­mu­nism in Bu­dapest, and the two were mar­ried by the ec­u­meni­cal par­tiarch of Con­stantino­ple at his Is­tan­bul pa­tri­ar­chate, which is about as Old-World as one gets. Hungary ex­perts read­ing “Madam Am­bas­sador” will be quickly re­as­sured: This is one po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee who was in no way over her head.

The am­bas­sador ad­mits to mis­steps. The book opens with a high-stakes boar hunt early in her ten­ure, deep in the coun­try­side. The pe­tite diplo­mat shocks the Hun­gar­ian mil­i­tary men who make up her party by mak­ing the only kill on the trip, but the evening ends with them cer­e­mo­ni­ally spank­ing her bot­tom with a wooden switch as she kneels over her kill. A tra­di­tion, they say, but one that feels hu­mil­i­at­ing to her. She kept the switch on her of­fice wall as a re­minder not to let lo­cal cus­toms trump the dig­nity of her po­si­tion. She must have im­pressed some­one, be­cause months later she was trav­el­ing to re­mote Afghan bases with the Hun­gar­ian de­fense min­is­ter; she helped per­suade him to keep his coun­try’s troops de­ployed along­side ours in a dan­ger­ous lo­ca­tion.

Or­bán, whose Fidesz party cap­tured a su­per­ma­jor­ity in the Hun­gar­ian par­lia­ment shortly af­ter Kounalakis’s ar­rival, is a qui­etly men­ac­ing pres­ence through­out her ten­ure. In their first face-to-face meet­ing, he be­gins rant­ing about the “Bol­she­vik bil­lion­aires” who “stole ev­ery­thing,” which is rich com­ing from a man who over the next two years would award $1.3 bil­lion in largely sin­gle-bid con­struc­tion con­tracts to Közgép, a com­pany con­trolled by his col­lege room­mate. “In­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies lo­cated in Hungary that or­di­nar­ily would have bid for projects told us it was no longer worth the time and money re­quired to sub­mit pro­pos­als, be­cause Közgép was sure to win,” Kounalakis writes.

Months later, Or­bán be­gan push­ing through a new con­sti­tu­tion, one writ­ten be­hind closed doors and with­out public in­put or par­tic­i­pa­tion. Hun­dreds of laws fol­lowed, ef­fec­tively gut­ting the free­dom of the media and courts and con­cen­trat­ing power in Or­ban’s of­fice. “Free­dom, to Vik­tor Or­bán, did not mean per­sonal lib­erty within the rule of law, as it did to the an­cient Greeks and it does to Amer­i­cans,” Kounalakis re­al­ized near the end of her ten­ure. “To Or­bán, Hun­gar­ian free­dom meant free­dom from the in­flu­ence of any­one who wasn’t Hun­gar­ian.”

Yet the in­ter­na­tional re­sponse to Or­bán’s “Two-Thirds Revo­lu­tion” was muted at first. For months, the Euro­pean Union said noth­ing as one of its mem­bers dis­as­so­ci­ated it­self from Western lib­er­al­ism. Then-U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder, meet­ing Or­bán dur­ing a 2011 visit, took it on him­self not to raise con­sti­tu­tional con­cerns af­ter be­ing spun by a sweet-talk­ing deputy. “I felt the meet­ing was go­ing great,” Holder told the as­ton­ished Kounalakis af­ter the meet­ing. “He said all the right things, and we agreed on ev­ery­thing.”

It took the re­lease of an ax mur­derer to raise alarms in Washington. In late Au­gust 2012, Or­bán sud­denly repa­tri­ated Ramil Sa­farov, an Azeri serv­ing a life term in Hungary for hack­ing an Ar­me­nian soldier to death dur­ing a NATO-spon­sored train­ing pro­gram. To no­body’s sur­prise, Sa­farov re­ceived a hero’s welcome in Azer­bai­jan and was im­me­di­ately par­doned, pro­moted and given a new apart­ment. Ar­me­nia cut off diplo­matic ties with Hungary, and ten­sions es­ca­lated in Nagorno-Karabakh, a dis­puted ter­ri­tory over which Ar­me­nia and Azer­bai­jan had fought a war in the early 1990s.

“Don’t they re­al­ize that their lit­tle trick could cause a war?” Deputy As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of State Marie Yo­vanovitch asked Kounalakis on the tele­phone. “Who will clean it up — Hun­gar­i­ans? No, Hun­gar­i­ans won’t clean up the mess. We will! We will be the ones left to fix it!”

That lit­tle trick, Kounalakis says, ended Hungary’s two-decade sta­tus as a re­li­able strate­gic part­ner of the United States. And as she pre­pared to re­turn home, the am­bas­sador re­al­ized the sad truth of the do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion as well. Hun­gar­i­ans “thought they were get­ting a New Deal,” but in­stead they were get­ting “the Old Deal, with gov­ern­ment hav­ing too much con­trol over the peo­ple of Hungary all over again.”

SZI­LARD KOSZTICSAK/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Then-U.S. Am­bas­sador Eleni Kounalakis with Hun­gar­ian PrimeMin­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán in 2010.

By Eleni Kounalakis New Press. 290 pp. $26.95 MADAM AM­BAS­SADOR Three Years of Diplo­macy, Din­ner Par­ties, and Democ­racy in Bu­dapest

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