“Nothing makes me more proud than looking out of my office window every morning and seeing the American flag flying. For a first-generation American, to serve my country in this capacity is a tremendous honor,” the Ambassador of the United States of America to Hungary, Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis tells Diplomacy and Trade.
Ambassador Kounalakis says that it was really her husband who wanted to come to Hungary as he covered the political and economic changes in this region for Newsweek magazine from 1989. “He was sure that we would love it here and we do,” she states. Her objectives are “the same as those of President Obama as I serve here as his personal representative. Better understanding, better cooperation and better communication are at the core of his relations with the whole of Europe.”
As she points out, “the United States and Hungary have a very special relationship based on values and the fight for freedom and independence that has frequently been part of Hungarian history. We, Americans, also understand this very well from our past. In the United States, we have a large number of Hungarian Americans who have helped us understand the plight of the Hungarians during the communist era. Our shared values permeate everything we do and create a foundation for cooperation and strong ties of mutual interest.”
As for collaboration on the international scene, she states that working together in NATO “is the cornerstone of our cooperation. Hungary has troops in various missions in several countries, forming a valuable measure within NATO. I myself had the opportunity to visit Hungarian troops in Afghanistan. This summer, in a historical partnership, Hungary served as the protective power for the United States in Libya. The Hungarian Embassy staff in Tripoli was amazingly persistent and helped many Western citizens, including a lot of Americans. Hungarians should really be proud of these diplomats.”
Regarding differences, the Ambassador says “concerns expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other US politicians should be put in the appropriate context. As close friends of Hungary, we wish to continue to see Hungary at the forefront of the push for improved and stronger democracies around the world. It is especially important nowadays when countries of the ‘Arab spring’ are striving to implement strong democracies. Hungary is a successful transitional democracy, one of the best examples. We encourage Hungary to continue to be an example for these countries.” She is of the view that the two-thirds super majority of the Hungarian governing force is an unusual circumstance that could allow for checks and balances to be overridden. “The way that we have raised concern with Hungary is absolutely from a perspective of friendship and as another country that also has to be vigilant about its own democracy. We feel that our role as a friend is to give our opinion from time to time if we feel that policies could compromise, in some way, the strength of independent institutions. At the same time, Secretary Clinton appreciates the work of this government to tackle the economic difficulties of the country. Basically, all democracies face difficulties like corruption and other issues but that should not lead to the weakening of independent institutions.”
Economic and cultural relations
Regarding economic relations, Ambassador Kounalakis stresses that “even in this global economic crisis, Hungary is still a very attractive place for investment.” She understands that the new government wishes to implement reforms, however, “with such activity, there is also going to be an element of uncertainty, and uncertainty is what business doesn’t like. I think this has also been augmented by the crisis and the bank taxes.” The US Embassy has been working hard on behalf of US companies to help them get connected to the right government officials. “The more businesses can talk with the decision-makers, the more comfortable businesses are. Predictability, transparency, and communication are critically important. The government should see that the reason that these businesses want to communicate with the government is that they want to be here,” she points out.
Culturally, the Ambassador wishes to focus on the Fulbright Program that provides “extremely prestigious scholarships. From Hungary to the United States, there are not as many participants in the Fulbright Program as there could be. There are many qualified candidates and just not enough resources. I will endeavor to expand private support for the program so that more extraordinary and qualified Hungarians can go to the United States.”
She believes that one of the greatest testaments of American-Hungarian relations was this summer’s ‘Transatlantic week’ which she called ‘golden week’ when more than twenty members of the U.S. Congress visited Budapest. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also present to she unveil the statue of former President Ronald Reagan in Freedom Square. “The events surrounding the Reagan centennial in Hungary were fantastic as were the other celebrations in Europe. And then, there was a celebration of Tom Lantos the late member – of Hungarian descent – of the U.S. Congress with the opening of an institute bearing his name. Crowning that week was, of course, the visit by State Secretary Hillary Clinton who had a valuable discussion with the prime minister on issues of the region, Europe and the world, including the Arab spring and energy security.”
Grateful to live here
The Ambassador travels a lot in Hungary, and not just on official duty. “With the family, I went to Heviz, a spa town near Lake Balaton this spring. I also love the northern Great Plain with Hortobagy, Debrecen and the spa town Hajduszoboszlo. Everywhere I go, I always feel there’s more to see and more to do.” Hungarian food is just wonderful, she adds and describes herself a ‘dessert person’ who especially loves the Hungarian walnut trifle delicacy ‘Somloi galuska’ that she calls with admiration the ‘Rubik’s cube of desserts’. “While I didn’t really know what to expect when I moved my family to Hungary, after a year and a half, I can tell you that we have a strong affinity for the people and for the culture here. It is a very special place in the world and we are very grateful to have the opportunity to live here,” the Ambassador concludes.