WASHINGTON - Hungary’s ambassador to Washington has stepped down and returned to Budapest on short notice to take charge of a beefed up messaging operation in support of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling party.
The party, Fidesz, announced last week that it was launching an English-language website “with a view to providing credible information about [the party’s] decision-making” and to act as “a corrective to ‘the mass production of fake news.’ ”
A day later, a government-sanctioned media outlet, Hungary Today, reported that Laszlo Szabo had been tapped to lead a conglomerate called Mediaworks, and that he would also join the leadership circle of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) – which has close ties to Orban.
The announcement brought an end to several days of speculation in Washington, where friends and acquaintances of Szabo had been puzzling over the Hungarian envoy’s departure from the U.S. capital with less than 48 hours’ public notice.
For many in the diplomatic community, the first word of Szabo’s plans came in an April 11 email inviting recipients to listen in on an online virtual concert to mark the occasion. Szabo was in an airplane on his way home less than two days later.
“After almost three years as the Ambassador of Hungary to the US, I am leaving office next week to take over an exciting new responsibility in Budapest in the private sector,” wrote Szabo, who holds a degree as a doctor of medicine.
Given that Szabo had worked for 20 years in the global pharmaceutical industry, including over a dozen years at U.S.-based Eli Lilly, some had assumed that he was returning to that sector to engage in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is always sad to see an esteemed colleague go, but Laszlo had a life 'outside' diplomacy … This might just be the right moment for him to return to the private sector – I wish him best of luck for all future endeavors,” said Austria’s ambassador to the United States, Martin Weiss, before learning of the KESMA appointment. He told VOA he had always “enjoyed working with” Szabo.
Some members of the D.C. diplomatic community, when told of the departed envoy’s new responsibilities, suggested that KESMA is not quite “the private sector as most of us understand it.”
KESMA is described as “a government-funded foundation” by Hungary Today, which says the media holding company known as Mediaworks “consists of almost 500 media outlets” including a leading national daily as well as “almost all the regional daily news sources in the country.”
The same report acknowledges that the KESMA foundation “has drawn much controversy” since its founding in late 2018.
At the time of its formation, Prime Minister Orban declared the consolidation of pro-Fidesz media outlets as a matter of “national strategic importance in the public interest.” But critics say Orban has created a virtual media monopoly, reducing the space for media outlets critical of the current government.
More recently, Orban has been criticized for using the coronavirus crisis to push through parliament legislation entitling him to rule by degree for an indefinite period. The legislation, approved late last month, also provides stiff jail terms for spreading what the government deems to be false information.
Budapest has yet to announce who will succeed Szabó to represent Hungary in Washington. For the time being, an embassy spokesperson told VOA that a chargé d’affaires is at the helm, and “all embassy staff is working full-time.”
No matter whom Budapest selects, some in the Washington policy community warn that the next ambassador can expect his or her efforts to be greeted with the same skepticism and reluctance to engage that Szabo might have experienced.
“It’s not engagement with the embassy or ambassador that’s the issue per se, but rather engaging with the Orban government,” one analyst told VOA. The idea behind limiting contact, the analyst said, “is to not give the Hungarian government a platform for its undemocratic, nationalist positions.”
Szabo and his staff worked diligently during his three-year tenure to combat that image, including with regular emails to the news media. Yet, a similar protocol may exist in some U.S. government agencies.
A former Defense Department official said that while they were there “the policy was to refrain from engaging above the DASD [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense] level.”
However a Pentagon spokesperson told VOA ,"We do not have any policy with regards to meeting with Hungarian officials, and we have met [Hungarian officials] several times at levels at and above the DASD level in the past year."
The United States and Hungary have increased collaboration on some levels. One year ago, the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement covering such areas as infrastructure improvements and missile defense cooperation."