Hungary commemorates 45th anniversary of the return of Holy Crown

Hungary commemorates 45th anniversary of the return of Holy Crown
US Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman with the Holy Crown. / bne IntelliNews
By Tamas Csonka in Budapest January 8, 2023

US Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman attended an ecumenical service organised by the Hungarian Royal Crown Guard in Budapest on January 6 commemorating the 45th anniversary of the transfer of the Holy Crown from the United States to Hungary.

Pressman’s call for Hungary and the United States to strengthen ties came on the same day as details of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s year-end speech at a pro-government foundation before Christmas was published in local media, in which Hungary’s strongman warned of the dangers of the return of the bloc-based international order of the Cold War era.

At the ceremony in a downtown Budapest church, David Pressman, who took his credentials four months ago, spoke at length about the political circumstances behind the decision of the Carter cabinet in 1978 to return the crown jewels to Hungary, 33 years after they were recovered in Austria by US forces after the end of the WWII. For much of the Cold War the crown was held at Fort Knox alongside the bulk of the United States' gold reserves.

Pressman recalled the debate in the late 1970s within the US administration on whether to give back the crown to Hungary, which at the time was still under Soviet oppression.

"President Carter, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and other advisers, including a young senator named Joe Biden decided to return the crown, not to the government, but to the Hungarian people," he added.

"Although the government of Hungary was not yet free of Communist rule, the people of Hungary were clearly yearning for freedom. The United States could think of no better symbol to galvanise and recognise the Hungarian people than the return of their Holy Crown" he added.

"We are honored to be here for Hungary today. It is what friends do," Pressman noted, then he alluded to war in Ukraine saying that the fight against the tyranny of arbitrariness continues and Ukrainians, much like Hungarians decades earlier, clearly rejected Soviet-style rule.

"We all have to decide which path to take in this turbulent time, who do we turn to in times of trouble when we are faced with those who want to harm us?" Pressman said, in what was widely seen by observers as a thinly veiled criticism of the way Hungary’s pro-Russian leaning government has refused to give full-hearted support to Ukraine against Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

Orban’s cabinet has threatened to veto EU sanctions against Russia and has reiterated its neutral position in the conflict, refraining from letting lethal weapons through the country directly, let alone supplying Ukraine with military equipment.

At the end of his speech, Pressman expressed his hope that Hungary and the United States can overcome the "current dangerous rough waves together."

Hungarian news agency MTI, covering the event, did not say whether Hungarian government officials attended the ceremony on Friday or not.

On the same day as the US ambassador was talking about the need to reinforce the alliance between Nato member Hungary and the United States, the prime minister's political director Balazs Orban summed up Orban's visions for the decade based on his speech held at a closed-door Christmas dinner party organised by a pro-government foundation.

According to the prime minister, a new world order is emerging, the neoliberal model of globalisation is fading and the United States has new challengers, partly because of the liberal model that has allowed the rise of states like China, liberal news site wrote. 

"Hungary, caught between the big blocs, has always been a loser in such processes in the past, so we need an alternative globalisation model and strategy," Orban warned.

The Hungarian premier outlined challenges and opportunities in the decade for Hungary, which in his view should avoid becoming a periphery of a large international bloc and the country’s strategic interest lies in connectivity. This model assumes that Hungary should strive for good relations with rivals and connect to as many actors as possible, through trade, infrastructure, investment, and knowledge transfer even with countries seen as rivals of the US-led Western alliance.

The biggest strategic challenge facing Hungary in the next decade is to move out of the middle-income group and catch up with the developed countries and achieve the status of a regional middle power in Central Europe, according to the prime minister.

Analysts said Orban’s vision is completely unrealistic given the country’s size and economic power, let alone the country’s increasing isolation due partly to its response to the Ukraine crisis.

Orban’s comments seem to reinforce the view that Hungary will be further drifting away from its Western allies and turn to the East, boosting political and economic ties with China, Russia and possibly with Central Asian powerhouses, in line with the illiberal democracy model envisioned by Orban first in 2014.

In the last eight years Hungary’s rule of law decayed further, while Orban has strengthened its grip on the state, media and entire economic sectors, which are dominated by his cronies.

If Hungary fails to deliver on key promises to unlock EU funds, this drift could speed up, according to some observers.

Even as the country’s RRF plan and the Partnership Agreement on the 2021-2027 budget were sealed at the end of 2022, Hungary still needs to implement a string of reforms to access €22bn from Cohesion Funds and €5.8bn from the post-pandemic recovery fund.