On June 23 the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations heard nominee ambassador to Hungary, David Pressman’s testimony.
Chairman of the Committee Senator Ed Markey has questioned the diplomat on his views about Hungary and how he sees his role as the new ambassador. Pressman started his address with a scathing attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin, claiming that the Russian leader is “challenging the institutions that America and its partners stood up to protect”. He then continued by quoting Ronald Reagan’s words about Hungary, when the former president said that the Hungarians had “lit a candle of hope and inspiration, reminding the world that brave hearts still exist to fight injustice.” Pressman spoke about the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation, and how the memory of these events have inspired him personally.
The new ambassador sees “advancing the fundamental values that make our nation (USA) exceptional” as one of his main goals in Hungary, and vowed to bring his passion for US interests and values to Hungary as an ambassador. With a statement like this, Pressman is teetering on the edge of an increasingly unfashionable term, “democracy export”, a geopolitical concept that has been identified as one of the main points of contention in America’s recent failures, such as the Arab Spring and in Afghanistan. Yet the diplomat continues by saying that although, as a NATO ally and a member of the EU, Hungary had joined the world in condemning Putin’s war in Ukraine, Hungary’s reticence in that process, and the “obvious” influence of Russia and China in Hungary and on its government are causes for serious concern, not just for the United States’ interests or Europe’s, but for the people of Hungary.
If confirmed, combatting the malign influence of Moscow and Beijing and preserving and indeed strengthening our collective response to Putin’s war of choice will be a top priority”, he said.
The statement is raising fears that the new ambassador will attempt to turn his new posting into a proxy stage for a confrontation between superpowers, and instead of making American values and political freedoms attractive through his own constructive work in strengthening bilateral relations, he rather sees himself in a “combat” role against supposed malign influences.
Pressman did not mince his words about what he thinks of Hungary’s democracy either, which he sees as one under threat. He highlighted human rights, media freedom, and the rule of law as areas that he sees as being undermined, where he claims to have detected “deeply troubling trends”, as he calls them. The diplomat had also promised to protect, what he called “transatlantic values”, as in his view, the Hungarian people overwhelmingly view themselves as “an integral part of the transatlantic community, and that shared conviction is something we have a vital interest in preserving”. Although it is unknown why Pressman thinks that membership in what he calls a “transatlantic community” is something that is integral to general Hungarian geopolitical aspirations and consciousness, he will also find that many of those who did cling to such a world-view in Hungary have since the accession of the Biden-administration revised their stance on this matter.
When asked by Senator Markey, himself a Democrat, about the recent, since discredited Freedom House report on Hungary, Pressman spoke of his “enormous concerns” and used the term “democratic backsliding” in relation to Hungary. To demonstrate this, he pointed at alleged threats to media freedom, at undermining the independence of the judiciary, of targeting vulnerable populations, although he did not confirm which populations he thinks are being targeted and how. As a remedy, he promised to express his concerns to Hungarian politicians on his arrival, and to engage with civil society.
Putting aside all caution required from a diplomat, Pressman then went on to speak about anti-LGBT, anti-Roma, antisemitic rhetoric, claiming that Hungary has active policies “trying to exclude a population from the democratic process”. This on the same day that Hungary was voted the safest place for Jews in Europe alongside Italy, and one of Hungary’s most prominent rabbis had praised the government for making the country a safe place to live for the Jewish Community.
Ambassador nominee David Pressman is setting himself up for a seriously challenging two years as an ambassador to Hungary. An earlier Democrat head of mission to Hungary, Colleen Bell (2015-17), was also known for her often critical stance on Hungary’s conservative government, but succeeded to steer away from such controversial statements most of the time. The Hungarian elections, which have been described as fair by international election observers, have re-confirmed the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán with an unequivocal 54% of votes that give him a strong democratic mandate to continue with his policies nationally, despite disputes within the EU. Nominee Ambassador Pressman will most likely be accredited by the Hungarian government despite his apparent lack of ideological impartiality and combative tone, but many hope that he will assume a more measured tone once he sets foot in Budapest, and had the chance to exchange opinions with all players of the Hungarian political and social discourse.
Featured Image: Facebook, Joe Biden