One would think Paul Manafort’s current legal troubles would serve as a cautionary tale for Washington lobbyists about the perils of seeking to burnish the reputations of authoritarian political leaders from other lands. And yet these lobbyists persist, even to the point of working for sketchy Ukrainian politico-oligarchic interests with ties to Moscow. Still.
The latest example of this comes courtesy of former Florida Congressman Connie Mack IV, who recently organized a mock hearing in the Capitol, which was broadcast on NewsOne as if it was a real hearing of an imaginary “Congressional Committee on Financial Issues.” NewsOne is a Ukrainian television channel with links to RT, the propaganda outlet that was recently obliged to register as a foreign agent of the Russian government. NewsOne is owned entirely by one young, pro-Russian member of Ukraine’s legislature, who asserts to this day that there are no Russians in eastern Ukraine, and that Americans are fomenting the violence there. According to the only American journalist present at the fake hearing, J.P. Carroll of The Weekly Standard, its purpose was apparently to flog a year-old report produced by Sergiy Taruta, a Ukrainian billionaire engaged in a sustained campaign against the National Bank of Ukraine for supposed corruption under a head of the bank who resigned last April.
Mr. Mack’s client of record for this curious project is Interconnection Commerce S.A., although as Politico points out, it is “unclear who Interconnection Commerce S.A. represents. The firm lists an address in the British Virgin Islands and shows up in the Panama Papers leaks, but otherwise has no online presence.”
The things a former Congressperson has to do to earn a living! A mysterious client, visible only via the Panama Papers. A phony hearing broadcast on a Ukrainian TV channel with ties to Russians. Lordy!
For another foreign client fond of Putin and Russia, Mr. Mack is denouncing the excellent public diplomacy of a respected American diplomat. In an occasional newsletter to Congressional offices entitled “Hungary Insights,” Mr. Mack last week complained about David Kostelancik, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Budapest, “who unfairly criticized the Hungarian Government without fact.” Mack went on to say that “Kostelancik’s comments are just one more example of our State Department interfering in the internal affairs of an ally and fellow NATO member.”
The actual “fact” of the matter is the ongoing and widely documented crackdown on independent voices in Hungary by the increasingly authoritarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—who, like Vladimir Putin, is preparing the ground for an election in 2018 that will extend his rule. Part of that preparation is to silence critical voices in the media and civil society, and in the community of diplomats residing in Budapest.
Kostelancik, who stepped into the role of de facto ambassador on Inauguration Day last January, is following in the footsteps of a previous chargé in Budapest, André Goodfriend, who during his eighteen months as acting ambassador in 2013-2015 was comparably straightforward in pointing out the downward trajectory of Orbán’s misrule—and was widely seen as a hero by democratic-minded Hungarians.
But Connie Mack IV, great-grandson and namesake of the baseball manager famous for his integrity, doesn’t see it this way. Mr. Mack’s client here is Mr. Orbán himself, and in this case he is straightforward about it, noting on his newsletter that he is distributing his ‘insights’ on behalf of “the government of Hungary.” His contract (on file with the Department of Justice Foreign Agents Registration Office), is directly with the chief of staff to the prime minister, Janos Lazar, himself a frequent critic of American officials who have raised concerns in recent years about the steady elimination of checks and balances in the Hungarian political system.
Full disclosure: I was one of those officials raising concerns during my tenure at the State Department from 2010 to 2015. As a “political” appointee of President Obama (technically, we were termed “non-career” diplomats), I came to know and admire a great many of the professional diplomats who serve our country worldwide with skill and tact and, not infrequently, grace under fire. Kostelancik is such a one, and he is currently under some rhetorical fire from the government to whom he is accredited and its political allies—and its hired help in Washington.
Kostelancik’s measured and diplomatic remarks were delivered in a speech to Hungary’s National Association of Journalists in mid-October, where he said:
Men and women everywhere who cherish liberty know they must protect the freedom of the press. For this reason, I am not the first American official, and will not be the last, to speak in defense of a free press. It is fundamental to our foreign policy interests. […]
There are still independent and opposition media outlets here that are able to practice journalism with broad editorial freedom. This is a good thing. However, their numbers are dwindling, and they face challenges in the advertising market that the pro-government outlets do not. They face pressure and intimidation. As a result, fewer and fewer Hungarians are exposed to the robust debate and discussion that is so important – in fact fundamental – to a representative democracy.
There’s no doubt that the government of Viktor Orbán is engaged in a process that is systematically undercutting the country’s independent media outlets, all but a few of which have been shuttered or acquired by government-aligned actors in recent years and forced to censor their reporting, as Kostelancik duly noted in his speech. His remarks were also prompted by the fact that on September 5, 2017, the pro-government Hungarian internet portal “888.hu” and other government-aligned media sources published a list of eight journalists working for international media outlets—respected organizations that included Reuters, Bloomberg, and Politico. But these journalists were described as “foreign propagandists,” and said to be working for George Soros, the Hungarian-born American philanthropist against whom the Orbán government has launched a bizarre taxpayer-funded vilification campaign, which has included plastering the country with posters of Soros reminiscent of anti-Semitic tropes of the 1930s. Among the eight journalists named as enemies seeking to “discredit” Hungary was an American citizen resident in Hungary, who subsequently began to receive death threats.
As Kostelancik put it, “in a recent alarming development, some media outlets closely linked to the government published the names of individual journalists they characterized as threats to Hungary. This is dangerous to the individuals, and also, to the principles of a free, independent media.” This is what so enraged the government of Viktor Orbán, and activated his emissaries.
To recap: on behalf of Viktor Orbán, his registered foreign agent in Washington—a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives—has denounced a respected American diplomat for speaking up for professional journalism and against threats to the physical safety of an American citizen resident in Hungary.
But there is more. Two current Members of the House of Representatives have circulated to colleagues this month a draft letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoing the same complaint about Mr. Kostelancik. Representatives Andy Harris of Maryland and Dennis A. Ross of Florida are asking other legislators to join in their call that Kostelancik be reined in from what they describe as “unsubstantiated criticism of the Government of Hungary concerning ‘negative trends’ in the Orbán Administration’s dealing with the media.”
They also write: “We do not believe the comments made by Mr. Kostelancik are in line with our diplomatic objectives,” and then, a bit bizarrely, “We urge the State Department’s support for the sovereignty of the Hungarian Government.”
Consistent with Orbán’s pledge to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state,” his government has all but eliminated the judiciary as an independent, co-equal branch of government. It has serially harassed non-governmental organizations, recently enacting a law that targets civic organizations modeled on the infamous Russian ‘foreign agents’ legislation to discredit civic watchdog organizations. It has also descended into state-sponsored anti-Semitism, including an effort to rehabilitate fascist-aligned World War II-era figures, including the man responsible for the laws that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz.
It is the job of our diplomats to speak out about these things and to object to them, so that the wider public, in Hungary and other countries, knows that the United States can tell right from wrong, and that our society prefers governments that respect their own citizens and abide by the rule of law. Over the past few decades, it has become second nature for American diplomats to advocate routinely for democracy and human rights, and in defense of the most vulnerable communities and individuals. This is what gives the United States much of its influence and respect worldwide—the reputation we have developed as a country that cares about the principles we espouse for ourselves and others.
After most of a year during which the President has consistently denigrated the State Department, our diplomats and diplomacy itself (“I’m the only one that matters,” he told Laura Ingraham this month), a year in which the Secretary of State has appeared more concerned with org charts than foreign policy, it is time to celebrate the patriotic Americans who are serving on the front lines abroad—people like Dave Kostelancik, who speak for our nation’s values and interests, not for dollars and cents.
I believe the diplomat; not the lobbyist.