U.S.-Hungarian Relationship Enabled Engagement “Coming from a Friend," Former Ambassador Kounalakis Says at Book Launch

Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis served in Budapest from 2010 to 2013, at a rather turbulent time, with a new U.S. president, a new Hungarian government, and a number of major changes in Hungary including to the constitution, the court system, and the media law. Kounalakis presented her new book about these exciting and engaging years, “Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest,” at an event at CEU June 18.

While the U.S. does not engage in the domestic policies of its friends and allies, some of the developments in Budapest under the Orban government, whose 2/3 parliamentary majority enabled the swift passage of an estimated 700 new laws as well as a new constitution, prompted concerns about the democratic process, Kounalakis said. The long history of U.S.-Hungarian friendship enabled her, as well as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Budapest in 2011, to voice some of those concerns.

Former Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis speaking at CEU June 18, 2015. Photo: CEU/Balazs Kocsik.

“Our engagement was truly and sincerely taken as coming from a friend, one who’s been in the business of democracy for longer than anyone else,” Kounalakis said.

In addition to chronicling the U.S.-Hungarian relationship, the book aims to help Americans get a deeper understanding of how U.S. diplomacy works, Kounalakis said. In order to achieve that goal, the book is written like a novel, with storytelling techniques to engage the reader even if they don’t have a special relationship with Hungary. Americans do not tend to know much about Hungary, except a vague idea of “a mysterious place that has been the center of turmoil and tragedy throughout history,” she said.

CEU President and Rector John Shattuck, himself a former U.S. ambassador (Czech Republic 1998-2000), congratulated Kounalakis on her achievements as an ambassador as well as an author.

“She has a great instinct for walking that fine line between being a diplomat and being herself,” CEU President and Rector John Shattuck, said of Kounalakis in his opening remarks. Kounalakis’ book shows “how a talented person can achieve real navigation through turbulent times, and deliver honest messages representing the best of [her] country.”

Former Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis signing copies of her book at CEU June 18, 2015. Photo: CEU/Balazs Kocsik.

The book has sparked some debate in the Hungarian press, in part due to its portrayal of the Orban regime.

“I’m glad it opened a debate because I’m very fond of this country,” Kounalakis said as the event drew to a close. “If my book sparks debate and that debate helps the Hungarians find their way, then I’m proud of that.”