Diplomatic Connections Articles

Hungarian Ambassador Reka Szemerkenyi

Laying the Foundations for the Next Decade of Cooperation
By Roland Flamini

“That’s the best background for the job here,” was how President Obama described Hungarian Ambassador Reka Szemerkenyi’s previous post before coming to Washington. Ambassador Szemerkenyi is a political appointee, but of a different kind. Before taking up her very first diplomatic appointment earlier this year, she was for the past five years Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s security adviser. At home, Orban, who leads the conservative Fidesz Party, is something of a folk hero, having as a young lawyer made a historic speech at a mass meeting in Budapest in 1989 in which he called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Abroad, his government has drawn criticism for what many see as restrictive new press laws and legal reforms that put the independence of Hungary’s judiciary in question. In an interview at the elegant Hungarian Embassy residence, Ambassador Szemerkenyi told Diplomatic Connections that Budapest has since reversed some of these changes at the request of the European Union — which Hungary joined in 2004 — but that the international media and Orban’s critics have yet to catch up with the corrections. Hungarians, on the other hand, still gave Orban a two-thirds majority in successive parliamentary elections in 2010 and again in 2014 (the latter has since been lost as a result of two bye-elections).

Ambassador Szemerkenyi also defended the Orban government’s decision to sign a massive liquid gas deal with the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom in the midst of the Ukraine crisis. Additionally, the country hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in Budapest. The ambassador said the Hungarians are as reluctant as any nation to be dependent on Russian energy supplies, but she spells out why they have no other choice. She suggested that much could be achieved in Central Europe if there was closer cooperation among the neighboring countries, including helping resolve the Ukrainian crisis. While bilateral relations with Washington are good, she sees her task as clearing up residual misunderstandings about where the Orban government wanted to go with its reforms. Also on her list is boosting Hungary’s already healthy trade with the United States, which in the first quarter of 2015 stood at $1.8 billion, an increase over the previous year of 18 percent. Ambassador Szemerkenyi has a master’s degree in strategic studies from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. She is married with four children, a son and three daughters.

Diplomatic Connections: This is your first diplomatic post. What was your last job before you came to Washington?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: I was senior security policy adviser to the prime minister in Budapest. I covered the transatlantic relationship, energy security, cyber security, regional cooperation.

Diplomatic Connections: That explains why you are generally considered to be close to the prime minister. I read one report that said appointing you ambassador to Washington “practically means the presence of Viktor Orban in Washington.” Would you care to comment on that?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: I had worked in the first Orban government as state secretary of security policy, and I was invited to work for the prime minister in the second Orban government from 2011. Obviously, the issues that I covered and the topics that I have been helping with are strategic — crucial to the prime minister’s thinking.

Diplomatic Connections: If you were to characterize Hungary’s relations with the United States at this point, would you say they were highly satisfactory, satisfactory or in need of improvement?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: In strategic cooperation and NATO, the relationship has really been very close and very positive. We have fought alongside the U.S. in the Balkans. We worked very closely with the U.S. in Afghanistan. I was there to visit Hungarian troops, and they were fighting alongside American servicemen and women. They had a very good relationship, handling some of the most difficult tasks together. Hungary has just recently offered a 150-strong force in the fight against ISIL; they are now starting their mission in the northern part of Iraq, in Kurdistan. I have been to northern Iraq to prepare for this mission. These are the elements that make it a strong, allied relationship. The most recent decision was not just strategic. We understand the challenge that ISIL poses, but it’s also an expression of commitment because obviously the budgetary commitment is significant, especially for a European economy which is still coming out of the [financial] crisis. But it’s a good example of how we feel about the relationship, how much we treasure this, and how much we want to work on promoting and strengthening this.

Diplomatic Connections: What about economic cooperation?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: Another important pillar in the relationship. There’s a very strong trust and strong cooperation between the Hungarian and American business sectors. Forty of the 50 biggest multinational companies of the U.S. are active and investing in Hungary. The biggest American investors include IBM, General Electric, Alcoa, Coca-Cola, Ford and Citibank. Half of these companies tell me that they want to increase their investment. Outside the European Union the biggest investor in Hungary is the United States. The U.S. in turn is the largest area of Hungarian investment abroad outside the European Union. This is where Hungarian capital is going. And though we attract significant American investment to Hungary, we always want to improve this. In comparative EU terms the Hungarian economy expanded by 3.6 percent in 2014, which is the highest rate of growth in the European Union. The debt level is at 77 percent [of the GDP, from 83 percent in 2010], investments have grown by 14 percent in 2014, the highest level in 17 years. Unemployment went from 10.2 percent to 7.7 percent, the best rate of decrease in unemployment within the European Union context.

Diplomatic Connections: Would you welcome the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership [TTIP] currently under discussion, assuming it will eventually happen?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: We expect the Free Trade Agreement to bring significant benefits to the Hungarian economy through various ways, some of them indirectly — for instance through its impact on the German economy and through the German economy on our economy. There are some fundamentally important issues that still need to be addressed; one of them is to keep Hungarian agriculture free from genetically modified organisms. But overall the understanding is that it can be a very beneficial agreement for any Hungarian economy. It’s understandable that it’s a complex agreement, but I think it could be a very strong pillar of the overall European-American relationship. It’s a logical step to move forward.

Diplomatic Connections: Given the Obama administration’s much discussed “tilt” towards Asia, do you feel that your country, and indeed Europe generally, is being neglected by the U.S.? In these perilous times are you confident of continued American protection if the need arises?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: I think the belief that there was a declining U.S. interest in Central Europe lasted for some time, but the good news is that this seems to have changed back. We do now enjoy a larger attention span from Washington, and it’s a process that has to be strengthened. But still, if I walk around the corridors of the State Department, I meet people who have been to Afghanistan, Korea, Iraq, all kinds of exciting places, but not to Europe. And definitely not to Central Europe. You can’t have a transatlanticist value system if you don’t have Atlanticist people. We have to focus on having our policy people, our experts in the various fields to know each other, and to work together. It needs a concerted support for strengthening the transatlantic elite on both sides of the ocean. For example, if we had worked together on one of the energy projects that Hungary was promoting over the past 15 years, just one of them, it would have made the difference now. We need to work with each other.

Diplomatic Connections: There are areas of disagreement over the Orban government’s reforms, which have been questioned both by the European Union and by the United States as contrary to democratic principles and freedom of the press. How does one explain, for example, the new press laws, the amendments to the justice system, etc. The Orban government has been widely criticized as having gone too far to the right.

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: What makes Hungary different from the other Central European states, when you take a closer look at the transition from communism to a democracy, is a phenomenon that wasn’t present in the other states. When you look at the media elite, or the intellectual elite, lawyers, judges and other key segments in the society, there was a big difference between Hungary and the rest of the region. In the rest of the region there was a very fundamental change of these people in 1990. If you walked into a newspaper office in Prague in 1991 you would find totally different faces from 1989, so that was a major change. In Hungary, there was a pre-condition before the transition that some of these changes could only be made by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, and nobody had a two-thirds majority in parliament since 1990. A large part of the population felt that the transition had been dragging on and while some things did change others did not fundamentally — until 2010 when, for the first time in post-Cold War history, Orban’s Fidesz Party won a very clear two-thirds majority. The real message from the country in 2010 was that people were demanding these changes to finally close the Cold War era and the communist heritage and to look into making serious structural reforms. That was the winning party’s responsibility to the electorate, and that explains these major reforms that we could only start in 2010. I’m sure everybody wished we could have done it back in 1990 like the others did, but the nature of our transition was very different. While other countries accomplished a very fundamental change to a new democratic elite, this did not really happen the same way in Hungary and the result was large frustration for much of the population.

Diplomatic Connections: But the reforms are criticized as limiting both personal and media freedom. For example, in the run-up to the most recent election, the government was accused of suppressing the voices of opposition.

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: When you have a four-year term in which to accomplish the changes, and such a very large amount of change to make, mistakes are inevitable. There was recognition that in many cases corrections were necessary. But the main line of the reform and the main message were definitely consistent with what was called for: leave the communist past and to make the transition to a democratic system; but the new institutions had not been set up. The majority of Hungarians accepted that the values behind the reforms were clearly pro-democracy, but from the outside they were misunderstood, and one of the problems of the second Orban government was how to transmit this message internationally, which was not an easy task.

Diplomatic Connections: You’re saying it was a communications problem?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: In the European Union we started a very thorough negotiation process with the Council of Europe going over the detail of these reforms, sector by sector. We established which issues had been misunderstood and changes had to be done, and which reforms were accepted. The end result was that by 2014, we had gone through this process and we have made all the changes in the constitution and in the legal system that were seen as necessary by the Council of Europe. We can now say that Hungary’s democracy is the most thoroughly scrutinized democracy in Europe. The system has been examined by all sides from all perspectives, and we have reached a successful completion of this exercise. I think it’s a very healthy thing.

Diplomatic Connections: If the actual adjustments have been made, why do you think then that the criticism continues?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: The trouble is that while this is a completed process legally and from a political point of view, from the media perspective and from the domestic political viewpoint, it still offers a good platform to focus on. If you take a look at the Hungarian media you will definitely find there is a debate going on which is not being reported overseas. I can see similar debates taking place in Slovakia and other countries of the region, which is really a very healthy sign of the parliamentary process. But since they are not covered internationally there’s a different perspective outside. We have been raised on the ideas of freedom of speech, of democracy, of religion. These are the values that motivate us.

Diplomatic Connections: The other development in Hungary that is raising eyebrows in Washington is the Hungarian government’s apparent rapprochement with Russia as seen in Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Budapest, and the big Hungarian natural gas deal with the Russian oil corporation Gazprom. This is happening even as the West is distancing itself from Moscow because of the Ukraine crisis — and especially coming from Orban who is one of the heroes of the 1989 anti-Soviet revolution…

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: I was in the square in Budapest in 1989 when Orban made the big speech [calling for Soviet withdrawal from Hungary]. I remember there was a huge crowd. While he was speaking I was looking at the roofs around the square trying to determine from where they would start shooting at us, but no shots came. As for the gas deal, we understood the implications of dependence on one energy source — that is, Russia. We’ve been trying to develop diversification, supporting all efforts and developing our own projects in the region. Over the last 10 years, we supported Nabucco [pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Europe, bypassing Russia, cancelled in 2013], which failed. We proposed several cooperation frameworks in the region with the Poles and Croatia to develop an alternative gas import source for the countries of the region. Unfortunately, no decision was taken on these projects and none was implemented. You end up after investing a lot of political, and even financial, capital and a lot of time without any result, and without creating any satisfying alternative for the region. We were there in every single project, and some of them failed or didn’t materialize for a lack of American interest, sometimes for lack of regional interest. Energy dependence has very clear political consequences; we’ve seen this situation coming, and this dependence on energy imports is a factor in everyday decision making.

Diplomatic Connections: You are saying you had no alternative but to negotiate with the Russians.

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: Absolutely.

Diplomatic Connections: How do Hungarians feel about that, given the history of more than four decades of Soviet domination?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: For us it’s a pragmatic, very down-to-earth understanding of what is meant by cooperation. There is no political value content in this, but when it is interpreted it can easily be interpreted from that side, especially by those who do not follow it very closely. The political value choice of Hungary has been very clear, solid and repeated several times. We were the first to make the decision to join the Euro-Atlantic community both as NATO members and as EU members and those are two solid anchors. Nobody’s questioning that and there’s a repeated confirmation from all political leaders of these two integration frameworks providing the real stability for the country. The value choice of Hungary is crystal clear.

Diplomatic Connections: But Hungary is paying a price in terms of its image both in the European Union and internationally.

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: I think the very heavy criticism of the last years coming from the international media has created a lot of concern in Hungary about how well are we understood. Many of the issues that are raised are not seen the same way in Hungary and it certainly doesn’t strengthen the perception that there is a mutual understanding. Hungarians want to be understood better, which is important because we need the transatlantic cooperation. If we look at the challenges of the next five to 10 years, even the U.S. will not be able to handle them on its own. The Fidesz Party — the governing party — is by their genes the most transatlantic in Hungary, and we believe that the better we understand each other the better we will cooperate. That’s the job I got from my prime minister — to sort out the questions that have arisen in the last few years.

Diplomatic Connections: Could you envision the Central European countries taking the initiative in trying to mediate between Moscow and the West in the Ukrainian crisis?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: It would be very reasonable for the countries in Central Europe to make their particular understanding of developments in the region heard more in-depth by their allies. That is definitely something we think we can share more within the European-Atlantic community.

Diplomatic Connections: One thinks of Central European countries as having had a common experience with Russia, though not a pleasant one. Do they not see it as a common experience?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: Absolutely. In the most fundamental values there is a big commonality. But every communist system was different before 1990. Hungary was the most open. It was called Goulash Communism. We could even travel to Western Europe once every three years, and the whole family could go, whereas in other countries one family member was held back as a hostage. We had a relatively acceptable academic situation in the late 1980s. Most other countries in the region did not. The communist parties had a very different face in these countries in many aspects and for many reasons. So it would be an exaggeration to say that all of them were the same. There was a lot of difference, and you can see it also now. In the fundamental values of democracy, freedom of action, freedom of media, freedom of religion, we all agree, but then we have our differences as do other countries in the European Union. The differences are normal. It would be an exaggeration to expect that just because we were situated next to each other, we should agree on everything. It’s normal to have differences of opinion, but the most important thing to me is that beyond the differences we agree on so many things. We can still go back to this despite the actual situations and we can use this as a basis for supporting each other. I think some of the differences have been over-exaggerated, but some of the main founding values are underestimated.

Diplomatic Connections: What kind of differences, for example?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: As I said, we have developed at least three major project proposals for working together in energy cooperation — with Poland for instance. None of those have materialized. In the last 10 years we have not managed to establish a practical cooperation on such initiatives. Poland, because it has access to the sea, now has an important project in hand to develop its own energy terminal. We think that this is of strategic importance for the region, and for the longer term it will be. But in the short term, this is now reaching only the Polish market. We have a very good understanding of values in the most profound sense of the word, but we have not succeeded in turning these common values into common projects. This is the challenge now, and this is what is underlined by the crisis in Ukraine right now — we don’t have those common projects, and countries are left to handle their dependence on their own.

Diplomatic Connections: What is it like being a woman ambassador in this town?

Ambassador Szemerkenyi: It’s fantastic. It’s a real honor to be nominated. As a woman coming from security policy, it is really a fascinating and a great job, especially in this historic moment. We can start a new chapter — so I see my job here as the person who lays the ground for the next 10 years of cooperation, and I think that is a gift of history.

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