US-Hungary: outlook for a troubled relationship

Over the past year, US-Hungary relations had reached the point where those diplomats who shape US foreign policy in Central Europe did not even wish to converse with high-level members of the Fidesz party. Now, however, there are indications that Fidesz is trying to mend this troubled relationship, but their domestic and foreign policy choices will nevertheless continue to constrain Budapest’s ability to significantly improve its ties with Washington.

© European Union 2015 - European Parliament.

In October 2014, in her keynote address to the US-Central Europe Strategy Forum in Washington DC, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, rhetorically asked: “How can you sleep under your NATO Article 5 blanket at night, while pushing ‘illiberal democracy’ by day?” 1 Each person in the packed audience immediately knew Nuland was referring to Hungary and its ruling Fidesz party.

In late 2014, Hungary’s relations with the US—formally one of its closest allies—hit what is arguably their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. How Hungarian-American relations deteriorated rapidly over the last five years and how Hungary’s ruling party became a pariah in Washington is a saga that revolves around forceful personalities, bureaucratic politics, and geopolitical shifts.

For Hungary, worsening relations with the US have the potential to negatively impact American investment, thus jeopardizing Hungarian jobs and incomes. On a strategic level, the Fidesz government’s decisions regarding foreign policy priorities and US relations will impact Hungary’s participation in defense initiatives and regional security cooperation for years to come

At their core, the developments of the past few years highlight the challenges US policy-makers faced as they attempted to address the democratic backsliding, and at times open diplomatic hostility of this EU member state and their fellow NATO member.

A party is born

Thomas O. Melia, who served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 2010 until early 2015, used to keep an old campaign poster in his office. 2 The 1990 poster bears the signatures of the Fidesz party’s early members, and was presented to Melia, who then worked for a non-profit, as a thank you for helping the party’s members prepare for their first election campaign. At the time, Fidesz—an acronym which stands for the Alliance of Young Democrats—was a small liberal party, happy to receive advice and training from US civil society groups.

A few years later, Fidesz was no longer a small amalgamation of liberal university students. In an attempt to find a home in the political spectrum that attracted more voters and set Fidesz apart, its young leader, Viktor Orbán, pulled the party ideology toward the right; and helped rebrand and transform Fidesz from a liberal to a nationalist, nominally right-of-center party, leading them to victory in the 1998 elections.

Relations with the US over the next four years were relatively cordial, but hints of future troubles in the US-Hungarian relationship began to emerge as early as 2001, when MP Istvan Csurka of the far-right MIEP party, employed highly anti-American rhetoric and publicly celebrated the September 11th attacks against the US. 3 Despite nominally being an opposition party, MIEP had at times cooperated with Fidesz at the local level; but also helped the Fidesz-Smallholders coalition maintain its position in parliament. Because Orbán sought to attract the support of Csurka and far-right voters in order to strengthen Fidesz’s voting base in future elections, he failed to condemn Csurka’s position, which consequently created a significant rift between the Bush White House and Orbán’s government. 4

However, by the following year, Orbán was out of office; and in the period before his return to power in 2010, Hungary enjoyed relatively good relations with the US. The Socialist Party-led government was in power, and in 2003 it committed troops to the US-led intervention in Iraq, while also allowing thousands of Iraqis to receive military training at a base on Hungarian soil. In Washington’s diplomatic circles, the small NATO ally’s claim to fame was in part a rock ‘n’ roll band, Coalition of the Willing, made up of then-Hungarian Ambassador to Washington Andras Simonyi, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Lincoln Bloomfield and other musically-inclined Washington insiders. 5

Cautious concern: democratic backsliding

Orbán’s Fidesz party returned to power in the spring of 2010, and within months, the party’s two-thirds majority allowed Orbán to begin implementing a wide range of legislative changes. 6 In mid to late 2010, diplomatic relations between Washington and Budapest were still friendly, as evidenced by several meetings between high-ranking officials. 7 Nevertheless, with Fidesz adopting an increasing number of laws and policies that contravened European democratic standards and practices, Hungary began to face harsh criticism from the EU, and the State Department began to worry.

When a 2010 media law, that included provisions lending to self-censorship, while creating a new body of Fidesz appointees to oversee the Hungarian media, drew the attention of the US Embassy in Budapest, they privately raised concerns to members of the Orbán government. Notably, one US ambassador wrote a February 2011 op-ed in the left-liberal opposition daily Nepszabadsag, calling for the protection of media and speech freedoms. 8 However, while the ambassador, a cautious political appointee who prioritized the maintenance of good relations with the Orbán government, published the op-ed, she hesitated becoming more vocal about the government’s dismantlement of the system of checks and balances.

Back in Washington, however, the State Department was watching Orbán with growing concern. In June 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Budapest for the opening of an institute named after Tom Lantos, the late Hungarian-American Democratic congressman. After questioning Orbán in private about Hungary’s legal changes, the secretary, during a joint press conference, publicly expressed US concerns about the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press and the transparency of Hungary’s government. 9 Secretary Clinton’s visit marked a change in how both the State Department and the embassy approached the Orbán government, and set the tone for US policy toward Hungary in the following months and years. After the secretary’s visit, the US Embassy in Budapest began issuing frequent critical statements regarding Orbán’s policies. However, diplomatic contacts with high-ranking State Department officials visiting Budapest continued in both 2012 and 2013.

Turning point: geopolitical reorientation

US foreign policy is formulated largely around strategic goals and national interests. However, many US decision-makers on both sides of the political spectrum have prioritized safeguarding and strengthening democracy around the globe, arguing that it is in America’s best interest to be part of a global system where more and more governments are accountable to their citizens.

Concerns about Hungary’s trajectory generally fell within this category – with the US not wanting to see an ally move backwards in its democratic development – until late 2013 when then-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, rejected a proposed EU deal that would have strengthened Ukraine’s ties with the region. In Ukraine, protests and violence resulted, ultimately leading to a regime change and conflict with Russia. The conflict quickly shifted how US decision-makers viewed the Fidesz government. Concerns about Hungary’s democratic trajectory heightened to worries about its reliability as a strategic partner and NATO ally, as the party’s Russian sympathies became more apparent.

Questions regarding Hungary’s position as a US and NATO ally actually began to emerge two years earlier, when the Fidesz government adopted the so-called “Eastern Opening” policy, which aimed to boost relations with countries such as Russia, China, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. 10 The full impact of the policy dawned on US diplomats in August 2012, when Hungary agreed to return a former Azerbaijani military official, Ramil Safarov, who had been serving a life sentence after murdering an Armenian military officer during a 2004 NATO-sponsored training in Budapest. 11 Upon arrival in Baku, Safarov was immediately pardoned and treated as a national hero. In her memoir, the former US Ambassador to Hungary, Eleni Kounalakis, describes the incredulity the US Embassy in Budapest and the State Department felt:

“The Safarov transfer reverberated through the State Department. The Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Europe at the time, Marie L. Yovanovitch, had previously been the Ambassador to Armenia and knew the issue better than anyone. ‘Don’t they realize that their little trick could cause a war?’ she fumed to me from Washington. ‘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!’” 12

The Ukrainian crisis focused US attention on Central and Eastern Europe. Unlike countries such as Poland, that moved to improve coordination with Western governments, openly condemning Russia’s moves in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Hungary’s leadership avoided criticizing the Kremlin. In the midst of the crisis, Budapest actually hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin for a formal state visit. 13 While Hungary ultimately did vote in favor of imposing sanctions on Russian firms and individuals connected with the ongoing violence, the government did so only after publicly questioning the necessity of the sanctions. 14

The Hungarian authorities’ continual vacillation on the critical provision of much-needed natural gas supplies to Ukraine was also a primary concern for US strategists. While fighting was raging, Ukraine was locked in a natural gas dispute with Russian energy giant, Gazprom, and thus had to rely on reverse flows of natural gas from Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. However, while countries like Slovakia were taking significant steps to aid Ukraine by providing a growing quantity of reliable natural gas supplies, Hungary on several occasions and likely under Kremlin pressure, shut down supplies to Ukraine, generating frustration and anger both in the region and in Washington. 15 In a time of crisis, Hungary was proving to be an unreliable ally.

Downward spiral

Hungarian authorities have spent millions of dollars hiring a series of firms that lobby for and promote the Fidesz government’s interests in Washington. 16 Currently, former Republican congressman, Connie Mack, is Hungary’s official chief lobbyist in Washington. 17 These efforts have resulted in a few US Congress members speaking favorably of the Hungarian government, with representatives expressing pro-Fidesz views, like Dana Rohrabacher did during a Congressional hearing on US-Hungary relations on May 19, 2015. 18 But these relatively expensive lobbying efforts have not made a dent in the State Department and the White House’s opinion of the Orbán government.

In October 2014, the State Department even banned several Hungarian officials, including the head of the Hungarian National Tax Authority, from entering the US due to corruption concerns. 19 The ban brought tensions between the US and Hungary to the fore, with Orbán publicly advocating for the launch of a lawsuit against the US charge d’affaires in Budapest, Andre Goodfriend. 20 The Fidesz government’s decision to, in effect, promote a public smear campaign against the US government’s representative in Budapest, coupled with occasional anti-US rhetoric from Fidesz officials, further strained the relationship. 21

 Since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, Assistant Secretary Nuland and her superior, Secretary of State John Kerry, have been frequent visitors to the Visegrad countries – that is, all Visegrad countries except Hungary. US decision-makers began meeting with officials in the region more often to discuss security, energy challenges, and NATO’s response to Russia’s moves in Ukraine; but the mounting tensions over both Hungary’s geopolitical orientation and democratic backsliding led high-ranking US officials to shun their Hungarian counterparts. 22

Secretary of State John Kerry has over the past year and a half hosted both the Polish and Slovak foreign ministers for bilateral meetings in Washington. 23 However, in October 2014 when Peter Szijjarto – a young Fidesz official and Orbán confidant who had replaced the more experienced Martonyi as foreign minister – visited Washington, he was not offered the opportunity to meet with Kerry like his Visegrad counterparts. Instead, he held a reportedly difficult meeting with Victoria Nuland. 24 When Speaker of Hungary’s Parliament, Laszlo Kover, visited the US on August 20, 2015, he did not receive an invitation from the State Department at all. 25 Reportedly even Prime Minister Orbán, himself, who was in Washington in late September, had no scheduled meetings with US officials. 26 US-Hungary relations have reached the point where those high-ranking diplomats who shape US foreign policy in Central Europe do not even wish to converse with high-level members of the Fidesz party.

Outlook for a troubled relationship

In March 2015, Thomas O. Melia, who met the Fidesz leadership in those hopeful early days of democratic transition, visited Budapest. Although some have argued that US-Hungary relations were changing following Andre Goodfriend’s departure from Budapest, Melia’s visit highlighted continuity in US policy, and emphasized that US dialogue with Hungary will continue to include concerns regarding democracy, fundamental rights, and a system of checks and balances. Melia’s successor, Robert Berschinski, brought a similar message to Budapest in late September.

There have been indicators, that the Fidesz government is attempting to mend its troubled relationship with the US. On October 8th, a NATO agreement was formally reached that will establish new Force Integration Units in Hungary and Slovakia. These coordination centers are part of NATO’s response to Russian moves in the region, and have already opened in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Hungary’s decision (after some hesitation) to host such a unit is a gesture to the US that the government in Budapest is committed to regional security initiatives and its defense partnership with NATO.

However thus far Orbán’s efforts have failed to change Washington’s perception of the Hungarian government. On October 28th the US ambassador to Hungary, Colleen Bell, gave a major public address where she praised Hungary’s cooperation with the US in the defense realm, yet emphasized in detail ongoing US concerns with corruption, NGO treatment and media and judiciary control. The ambassador declared that the US continues to be concerned about Hungary, and that Washington’s policy toward Hungary “has not changed.” 27

As long as Orbán’s government maintains domestic policies that contribute to democratic backsliding and a foreign policy agenda that includes boosting relations with countries the US regards as threats to its strategic interests, Fidesz will struggle to ameliorate its reputation in Washington and mend relations with the US government.


  1. Keynote at the 2014 US- Central Europe Strategy Forum. US Department of State.
  2. Aladar Horvath, Roma Activist’s Meeting with Thomas O. Melia. Hungarian Spectrum.
  3. Viktor Orban, Jobbik, and Anti-Semitism. Hungarian Spectrum.
  4. Lendvai, Paul. Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism. London: Hurst, 2012. Page 95.
  5. Diplomats Who Rock. New York Magazine.
  6. These legislative changes attacked media freedoms, the judiciary and the Central Bank’s independence, as well as the government’s system of checks and balances.
  7. In June Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi. Four months later, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg met with Martonyi in Budapest. Their meeting appears to have been positive, with no public mention of democracy issues. Joint Press Availability with Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg and Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi. US Embassy, Budapest.
  8. The Freedom to Connect. Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis. Nepszabadsag/US Embassy, Budapest.
  9. Press Conference with Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Orban. US Embassy, Budapest.
  10. Eastern Opening: Hungary and Kazakhstan to Strengthen Economic Ties. Hungary Today.
  11. Hungary, Armenia, and the Axe-Murderer: Blunder in Budapest. The Economist.
  12. Kounalakis, Eleni. Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest. New York: New Press, 2015. Page 261.
  13. Putin Finds Warm Welcome in Hungary, Despite European Chill. Reuters.
  14. Hungary Opposed to Economic Sanctions Against Russia: PM. Reuters. Hungary was not completely alone in its concerns: Czech President Miloš Zeman and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico also raised questions regarding the EU sanctions.
  15. Hungary Suspends Gas Supplies to Ukraine. BBC.
  16. Congressman Defends Hungary On Anti-Semitism Charge. BuzzFeed.
  17. Hungary’s Latest Lobbying Effort: Connie Mack IV and Dana Rohrabacher. Hungarian Spectrum.
  18. Hearing: The Future of US-Hungary Relations. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats.
  19. Statement in Response to Queries on U.S. Entry Ban for Certain Hungarian Individuals. US Embassy, Budapest.
  20. Orban: Tax Chief Should Sue Goodfriend or She’ll Be Sacked. MTI/
  21. Fidesz Charges: The U.S. Wants to Topple the Hungarian Government. Hungarian Spectrum.
  22. Nuland visited Slovakia in 2014, attending the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava. She also travelled to Prague in June 2015, and is a frequent visitor to Warsaw. During his presidency, Barack Obama visited Poland twice and the Czech Republic once. Remarks by President Obama and President Komorowski of Poland in a Joint Press Conference. White House, and Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Tusk of Poland in Joint Press Conference in Warsaw, Poland. White House. Remarks By President Barack Obama In Prague As Delivered. White House.
  23. Remarks: John Kerry Secretary of State, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna and Remarks with Slovak Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak After Their Meeting. Department of State.
  24. Hungarian Foreign Minister in Washington: A Stalemate. Hungarian Spectrum.
  25. Our Lady of Hungary Chapel Dedicated in Washington. MTI/Daily News Hungary.
  26. Hungary Will Continue to Support the Activities of the Tom Lantos Institute. Embassy of Hungary, Washington.  
  27. “We Will Build a Stronger Bridge” – Ambassador Colleen Bell’s speech at Corvinus University. Budapest Beacon.
Lili E. Bayer

Lili E. Bayer

is an analyst specializing in Central and Eastern Europe. She holds a master's degree in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Oxford and a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service.