The following editorial is from the January 30-February 12 print edition of the Budapest Business Journal.
Back in July, this column bemoaned the delay by the U.S. Senate in approving Colleen Bell as the next American ambassador to Hungary.
Shortly after that, current events forced America’s top local representative, André Goodfriend, to transform himself from a mild−mannered chargé d’affaires into a superhero, and we were perfectly happy to wait for Bell. This is not meant as a slight against the new ambassador, but rather praise for Goodfriend – and an observation on the diplomatic process. It was nice to see someone openly condemn anti−democratic behavior. And even though diplomacy often requires a gentler approach, we can only hope that American readiness to officially criticize does not disappear.
In a period when Viktor Orbán and his government began to be more brazen about thumbing their noses at the West and cozying up to Russia – in spite of that country’s aggression in Ukraine – Goodfriend loudly and proudly promoted democracy and Western ideals. He was pushed firmly into the spotlight after the U.S. government told some Hungarians that they were suspected of corruption and therefore could not enter the United States. Apparently because people on the list were upset, it became widely known that Ildikó Vida, head of the tax authority, was one of the officials deemed corrupt. A diplomatic kerfuffle ensued.
With an unflappable attitude that he probably honed during his previous stint as the U.S. consul general in Syria, Goodfriend delicately parried attacks from Hungarian officials, who seemed shrill and almost hysterical in comparison.
Along with oozing class, the chargé d’affaires served as one of the few reminders available at the time that the increasingly authoritarian government was not infallible or beyond reproach. Hungarians who were annoyed with their leadership responded with glee, and even started a fan page (www.facebook.com/andrejobarat), which boasts more than 8,000 likes.
With disagreement over Russia simmering in the background, the feud about corruption escalated to the point where Orbán insisted that Vida sue Goodfriend for defamation. There was widespread anticipation of a trial in which the best defense for the chargé d’affaires would be to prove that Vida was in fact corrupt.
Instead, Bell was approved as the ambassador, and two days after her January 19 arrival, it was announced that the U.S. would not let Goodfriend drop his diplomatic immunity, so he could not be sued. There would be no trial, Vida and Goodfriend would slip out of the news and the U.S.−Hungarian relationship would have a chance to return to a more civil level – at least in public.
This is probably for the best. Constant foreign condemnation can be wearing. Government critiques are more credible and powerful if they come from the citizenry. Fortunately, starting with October’s demonstration against a proposed internet tax, we have seen an outpouring of domestic criticism, giving the sensation that democratic opposition is still alive in this country.
But we are far from out of the woods. Hungarian officials still take pot shots at the European Union, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Budapest for talks with Orbán in February. Putin’s economic troubles at home make him seem less capable of turning Hungary into his eurosceptic puppet within the EU, but he is sure to seek leverage.
We welcome Bell to Budapest, and we understand that she is not expected to assume the gadfly role that Goodfriend played. Still, we hope she remains ready to openly criticize the Hungarian government when criticism is warranted.