Hungary Sees Pompeo Visit as Discrediting Orban Critics

Zoltan Simon and Nick Wadhams
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Hungary Sees Pompeo Visit as Discrediting Orban Critics

(Bloomberg) -- Hungary is touting a scheduled visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo next week as proof of its Western commitments and a show of support by the Trump administration, pushing back against scrutiny of the ex-communist country’s allegiance to NATO and the European Union.

Pompeo’s Monday visit, the first by an American secretary of State since 2011, comes after years of criticism that bordered on diplomatic isolation for Prime Minister Viktor Orban. U.S. officials had voiced concerns about the illiberal leader’s dismantling of democratic institutions and his overtures to Russia.

The visit would follow Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto’s trip to Washington, D.C., where he sought to iron out differences over a bilateral defense accord. The signing of a defense deal during Pompeo’s visit -- which hasn’t been confirmed -- would also be hailed as evidence that President Donald Trump’s engagement with leaders like Orban can yield results in line with U.S. interests.

“The Orban government will chalk up Pompeo’s visit as a win,” said Daniel Bartha, head of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy think-tank in Budapest. “For the U.S., though, the visit is as much a warning as anything else, signaling its impatience with Orban.”

Read More: Hungary’s Orban Wins Trump’s Attention in U.S. Reversal

American diplomats had recently grown frustrated about whether their policy U-turn had paid off, according to Hungarian diplomatic cables following talks in December at the State Department. The U.S. officials told their counterparts that they now expected Hungary to deliver results, according to investigative news website Direkt36.hu, which published the contents of the cables last week.

Even after a change of policy, Orban ignored U.S. requests to halt a crackdown on Central European University, founded after the fall of the Soviet Union by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

The government also rejected a request by Washington to extradite Russian arms traffickers, sending them to Russia instead. Hungary also maintained its opposition to NATO talks with Ukraine, citing the Kiev government’s treatment of the country’s ethnic Hungarian minority.

U.S. U-turn

Pompeo is scheduled to meet civil society leaders in Budapest along with Orban and other senior officials to discuss defense cooperation and energy security, among other issues, State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said Thursday. He declined to say if Pompeo would raise democracy concerns with Orban.

“We’re going to work with our European partners and allies and we certainly can’t expect American views on a variety of subjects to be heard by our allies if we refuse to engage with them,” Palladino said.

(Updates with analyst comment in fourth paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at zsimon@bloomberg.net;Nick Wadhams in Washington at nwadhams@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net, Andrea Dudik, Andras Gergely

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