US warns Orban on stance over Russian invasion

US warns Orban on stance over Russian invasion
Viktor Orban's efforts to block sanctions and military and economic aid to Ukraine have earned him the nickname of the Trojan horse of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin (right) within the EU. / bne IntelliNews
By Tamas Csonka in Budapest March 13, 2023

The US ambassador in Hungary has warned Viktor Orban's regime that its equidistant stance between its Nato allies and the Kremlin is unacceptable.

"Hungary has reached an important moment in determining its future path. As Russia’s unjustifiable war rages next door, the time is now for a stronger relationship between Hungary and its transatlantic allies and partners," the US embassy in Hungary said in a statement after a meeting between Ambassador David Pressman and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 10.

The US has become increasingly worried by anti-American rhetoric from senior Hungarian officials and pervasive anti-American rhetoric in the media controlled by the government.

Pressman, a gay human rights lawyer, has found himself on hostile ground since he gave in his credentials in September 2022. The US diplomat has said Budapest's call for peace should be directed to Putin rather than both sides.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto has come out hard against the diplomat for his criticism of Hungary's position on the war. "What he or any other ambassador thinks about domestic political processes in Hungary is completely irrelevant, because it is none of his business, it is not his job to interfere in Hungary's domestic affairs," Szijjarto said.

Pro-government media have also run a smear campaign against the 48-year diplomat for his sexual orientation.

Hungarian foreign policy pundits say the government has crossed a red line and the meeting in Washington should serve as a wake-up call for Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban, who has positioned himself as a neutral player in the Ukraine conflict. His efforts to block sanctions and military and economic aid to Ukraine have earned him the nickname of the Trojan horse of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin within the EU.

Budapest also remains the only EU country not to ratify the Nato expansion of Sweden and Finland, which is fuelling anger within the military alliance.

The Orban government, in a debate over the billions of euros of cohesion funds and RRF money, has become completely isolated in the EU and in Washington.

Pundits say the Hungarian premier is putting his bets on a Republican victory in 2024. Just around the same time as White House officials were discussing Hungary’s "betrayal", President Katalin Novak met Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a close ally of Orban in Tallahassee.

The communique speaks with unusual frankness and candour in diplomacy about the US administration's concerns, said Istvan Szent-Ivanyi, a former liberal MP, MEP and state secretary of the foreign ministry in the 1990s.

This is a very tough ultimatum for the prime minister, Hungarian-born American journalist Miklos Radvanyi commented.  The tone and content of the statement show that in Washington they rang alarm bells. The message is they are fed up with Orban’s shuttlecock policy and this serves as a warning to the Hungarian leadership that if it does not join the ranks of allies, there will be serious political, economic and financial consequences.

The foreign minister of Hungary’s first democratically elected government after the regime change called Pressman’s comments shocking. Geza Jeszenszky said the vast majority of Hungarians were anti-Soviet and strongly pro-American before 1990. Hungary’s economic and military security has been assured by EU and Nato membership. The former diplomat said statements by Hungarian officials targeted at the United States and personally against Pressman, are unacceptable, while there is no criticism of the aggressor whatsoever, he added.

"In classical diplomacy, such messages are usually communicated discreetly in a form of démarche [protest notes]. There are plenty of reasons why this was not the case this time. The Americans feel that the Hungarian government's disloyalty was such that it needed to make this information widely known. The Biden administration wanted to inform the public and its allies they were not sitting on their hands," he added.