The Hungary Games

How Hillary Clinton and her diplomats kept authoritarianism at bay in eastern Europe.

On a cool, early-summer day in 2010, just four months after I had arrived in Budapest as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Hungary, I sat in the diplomats’ gallery in the stunning Gothic Revival Parliament building and watched Viktor Orbán being sworn in as prime minister of Hungary.

A month earlier, Orbán’s center-right political party, Fidesz, and its coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), scored a huge victory, winning a total of 263 out of 386 seats in Parliament. The ruling Socialists had all but collapsed, coming in second but with a meager fifty-nine seats. Now, from my perch overlooking the horseshoe-shaped arrangement of seats in the well of the chamber, I could see, on the left, the remnants of the Socialist Party; next to them sat the proud but few members of the green party, Lehet Más a Politika (LMP). To the right sat the radical nationalist, anti-Roma, anti-Semitic Jobbik party. In the middle of the horseshoe, spanning more than two-thirds of the seats, was a sea of Fidesz/KDNP members. Looking at them, I realized that none of us at the embassy or back in Washington had fully comprehended the extent of the party’s massive victory.

Nor, at that moment, could we have fully predicted what was to come. It seemed unthinkable that Orbán, a former prime minister and anticommunist dissident, would, over the next four years, crack down on the media, cozy up to Vladimir
Putin, and rewrite his nation’s constitution in an attempt to make Hungary—a NATO ally and member of the European Union—into what he called, approvingly, an “illiberal state.”

When I arrived in Hungary I figured my biggest challenge would be orchestrating a complex land swap with the Hungarian government that would move the barracks for the embassy’s Marines closer to the chancery building—a fitting assignment for someone like me, who had spent the previous two decades working as a real estate developer and Democratic fund-raiser. Little did I know we would be dealing with a budding strongman.

I first met with Viktor Orbán and his advisers in late January, as I was making my courtesy calls to government officials and he was running for office. Orbán seemed tired and tense, and his greeting was not warm, but we sat down to talk. “Mr. Orbán,” I said, “I am very happy to be here in Hungary representing my country. Hungary is an important and reliable friend and ally of the United States. My husband lived in Prague in 1989 and covered the collapse of the Soviet Union for Newsweek. He told me how passionately Hungarians embraced their liberation. He was deeply moved to experience it.”

“This is one thing that we can say about ourselves: we are freedom fighters,” Orbán said, laughing loudly and looking at his colleagues for reassurance.

Figuring that I had broken the ice, I launched into the substance of my talking points. “Over the last few months,” I said, “Hungary has handled a dramatic economic crisis with great skill. Hungary took quick action, stabilized the situation, and prevented it from becoming worse.” Rather than taking my point as a compliment to the people of Hungary for their resilience during their economic crisis, Orbán responded by tearing into the ruling Socialists while hammering home the need to rebuild an economy in which young Hungarians would have a chance at social and economic mobility. I listened carefully, but wanted to steer the conversation away from domestic politics and back to the elements of our bilateral cooperation. “Still,” I offered, “Hungary has come a long way from 1989.”

Practically jumping out of his seat, the former prime minister snapped, “But this is the problem! Your country thinks that everything has gone very well since the changes.” (Hungarians commonly refer to the collapse of the Soviet bloc as “the changes.”) “But it has not gone well,” he continued. “It has been a disaster!”

Instead of a polite courtesy call, our meeting had devolved into a full-blown podium speech, with Orbán animated and gesticulating as if he were whipping up a crowd at a campaign rally. “They stole everything! They are all communist millionaires! No, they are Bolshevik billionaires!”

For a split second, we all just looked at one another. Even Orbán seemed to suddenly realize that this was not the way to greet the new American ambassador. I was stunned. I still had several items left on my list of talking points, but how could I go on after that? His outburst had been so inappropriate, so unexpected, that I really didn’t know what to say in return. So I did the only thing I could: I stood up. Everyone nearly jumped up out of their seats in response. I could see Orbán’s advisers looking at one another with concern.

I extended my hand to Orbán and said, “I want to thank you for your party’s votes in Parliament supporting Hungary’s contributions to the Afghanistan coalition. It is my president’s number one foreign policy priority, and Hungary’s contributions are important and appreciated.”

Orbán smiled tentatively at this and, awkwardly shaking my hand, said, “You see, maybe we can agree on something.”

As I watched Fidesz take their oaths that day in the Parliament, seeing their confidence and unity, one implication of the supermajority came into focus for me. This, I thought, was why Orbán had been so nervous and excitable when I had met him back in January. He knew then that his party would win and that he would be prime minister again, but he had been anxious about whether the Hungarian people would hand him this kind of power.

Fidesz would be able to change laws that currently required a two-thirds vote of legislators to modify. Orbán had been campaigning on this, blaming problems with Hungarian governance on the inability to change these laws. He insisted that if he won a supermajority, he would be able to fix all that ailed his country, in the wake of the global economic crisis—much of which he blamed on not just the Socialists but also foreigners.

To properly understand Orbán’s sense of nationalistic aggrievement, one must understand the outlines of Hungarian history. Since the founding of their country in 1000 A.D., many invaders have swept over Hungarian soil. The Mongols were the first, in the thirteenth century, followed by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century and the Hapsburgs in the eighteenth. During World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, Hungary was ground zero and on the losing side each time.

The consequences of losing World War I had been enormous. When the Treaty of Versailles was signed, formalizing peace between the Great Powers and Germany, a separate agreement, the Treaty of Trianon, was imposed on Hungary by the Great Powers. The treaty redrew Hungary’s boundaries so that it lost more than two-thirds of its prewar territory and more than half of its prewar population.

For many Hungarians, particularly on the right, the Treaty of Trianon was a defining moment, setting as it did a national narrative that is an amalgam of victimhood, bravado, and an unshakeable belief in Hungarian greatness. Orbán became the tribune of this narrative.

Fidesz’s sweeping victory was viewed in Washington and Embassy Budapest with caution. But by the summer of 2010, it became clear that the new government intended to move forward not only with the adoption of new laws, but also with the passage of an entirely new constitution.

It was important for us to remember that this was an internal political issue for Hungary. Domestic politics in countries that are democratic friends and allies are generally left outside of the purview of bilateral engagements. We generally don’t tell our NATO allies how to run their countries.

But sometimes it’s hard to keep quiet.

On January 2, 2011, a day after Hungary took over the presidency of the European Union, the Hungarian Parliament enacted a law that radically transformed the operation and regulation of the country’s media. The law created a new, very powerful body called the Media Council, whose job it would be to regulate the content of newspapers, television, and radio. All five members of the council would be appointed by the Fidesz-controlled Parliament. Coverage of national and European affairs was required to be “balanced” and would be monitored and judged by the council. News of the law exploded onto front pages of newspapers across Europe, and the reaction was fierce. According to many political scientists, pundits, and journalists in Hungary and abroad, the new law seemed to prove what they had been saying since election day: that Hungarian democracy was dead, after barely twenty years.

Back at the embassy, my staff and I shared our concerns over the new media law with officials in Washington. Foggy Bottom did not disagree, but the U.S. policy of not engaging in Hungary’s domestic affairs superseded our concerns at this point. In light of the way the media law had come down, however, we felt it appropriate to ask top Hungarian officials about the upcoming rewrite of the constitution and encourage an inclusive process. As a strong ally of Hungary, we believed the United States could best do this not in an adversarial way, but in the spirit of a friend expressing concern.

One vehicle for conveying our unease was through visits by high-ranking American dignitaries. In April, Attorney General Eric Holder came to Budapest for an European Union conference, along with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. We asked Holder, America’s top lawyer and the man responsible for managing our judicial system, if we could enlist his help in talking to the Hungarians about our concerns over the new constitution. Holder agreed. In meetings with Hungary’s minister of justice, Tibor Navracsics, who also served as a deputy prime minister, Holder raised issue after issue about Hungary’s constitutional reform process, specifically questioning the media law and recent moves that appeared to restrict the independence of the country’s judiciary. Carefully, he expressed our concerns about what those laws would mean for Hungarian democracy.

Navracsics skillfully deflected Holder’s questions and eloquently explained the government’s position. Although his English was impeccable, he spoke in Hungarian with Holder and relied on an interpreter, periodically offering corrections to ensure that his explanations were crystal clear. He persuasively argued that the Orbán government was engaged in a voter-mandated overhaul of the system that would fix the corrosive and corrupt policies of the past. As Holder listened and nodded at the minister’s explanations, I could see the respect of one talented constitutional expert for another. In our subsequent meeting with Orbán, Holder chose not to repeat our government’s concerns, much to my disappointment. “The minister of justice really answered all of our questions,” the attorney general told me by way of explanation after the meeting. “I didn’t think we needed to raise them at a higher level.”

On April 18, 2011, a mere ten days after Holder and Napolitano left Budapest, the Hungarian Parliament passed the country’s new constitution, now known officially as “the fundamental law” but more commonly as the Easter Constitution. Despite repeated assurances from Orbán that the drafting process would be inclusive and that the Hungarian people would have a chance to comment and contribute, Parliament adopted it quickly, with virtually no input from the opposition parties, civil society groups, or the public at large. Even contributions by experts specifically tapped by the prime minister at the start of the process weren’t visible to the public, and it wasn’t clear they’d had much input at all.

Equally concerning was the content of the Easter Constitution, which was riddled with “placeholders” where major laws would later be inserted. The new constitution was essentially designed as a vessel to contain major laws that would have to be written and adopted by January 1, 2012, the day the constitution would go into effect. The question was, what would those laws look like, and what would the process be for adopting them?

Another opportunity to enlist prominent Americans in putting subtle pressure on the Orbán government presented itself in the last week of June, which we dubbed “Golden Week.” The Hungarian government had commissioned a statue of Ronald Reagan—who is much loved in Hungary—in honor of his hundredth birthday, and they planned to install it in the square in front of the embassy before the end of summer. In addition, Budapest would soon inaugurate the Tom Lantos Institute, a human rights organization established to commemorate the late Hungarian-born U.S. congressman. Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress. During his nearly three decades in the House, he was a vocal and effective advocate for human rights. The Hungarian government was funding the institute and had specifically requested that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak at the opening. Hillary and Tom Lantos had been close, and I knew his legacy was important to her.

Two congressional delegations, known as CODELs, were already planning visits. There was a third delegation, which was coming for the Reagan centennial celebration and would be comprised of dozens of dignitaries, including the former president’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, and former California Governor Pete Wilson, and would be led by Condoleezza Rice. They wanted to be present for the statue unveiling in Budapest. Finally, the entire Lantos family would come for the opening of the Lantos Institute. Just three weeks before Golden Week began, we received confirmation that Secretary Clinton would attend the Lantos Institute opening as well—a visit my embassy colleagues and I had worked hard to make happen.

For me, Hillary’s visit posed a very big question: Would the U.S. secretary of state comment on Hungary’s controversial reform process? If so, what would she say?

I got a call from Tomicah Tillemann, Tom Lantos’s grandson and a senior adviser to Hillary at the State Department. He had been instrumental in securing Hillary’s visit and was tasked with helping to write her speech for the opening of the Lantos Institute. Tomicah called to ask my thoughts about how Hillary should address the issue of Hungary’s constitutional reform process.

“There is no way that Hillary Clinton, being who she is, could possibly come here and not say something,” I told him. “It’s been discussed and debated in every major newspaper in Europe and beyond. The question is, what does she say, and when does she say it?”

Meanwhile, the Reagan delegation was touring Budapest and sitting down with members of the government. This group represented what remained of Ronald Reagan’s inner circle, and you couldn’t be more loved in Budapest than they were. During the Cold War, Hungarians had slightly more access to information than others on the dark side of the Iron Curtain, and they had seen that many western European nations were reluctant to poke Moscow in the eye. Reagan, however, had stood up and defied the Soviets. He launched a massive arms race, helping to push their economy into collapse. Hungary drew hope from the historic moment in 1987 when Reagan stood before Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and shouted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The Hungarians knew they were not alone, that Reagan had remembered them, and they adored him for it.

Viktor Orbán idolized Reagan, and he spoke eloquently about his hero both during the unveiling and afterward, in his office, where he had invited Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the Reagan delegation. Before the meeting, I had briefed the group about some of our ongoing concerns over the constitutional reform process, and they were very interested. These people were the ultimate Cold Warriors. They knew Hungary’s culture and history, and they knew that in even the best-case scenario, democracy could not be deeply rooted after barely twenty years. Seated in Orbán’s office, they listened carefully as the prime minister laid out his vision to them, describing how the Socialists had destroyed the economy and how he would put Hungary back on track.

Toward the end of the meeting, Ed Meese spoke up. “You know, Mr. Prime Minister, Ronald Reagan always left something on the table for his political opposition, just so they would feel they had won something too and be willing to work together for the country.” Orbán’s eyes narrowed, and his face took on the stubborn cast I knew all too well. “I couldn’t possibly do that,” he retorted, lifting his hands off the table.

What had started out as a warm and friendly meeting suddenly went cold. “If I make concessions to the Socialists, I have to make concessions to Jobbik too,” Orbán asserted, raising the disturbing specter of Hungary’s extremist right-wing party. This wasn’t an argument that we ever gave much credence to, but it was one the prime minister and his team regularly used to try to get U.S. officials to back down from demands for reform.

Jun15-Kounalakis-Clinton2Inked up: A supporter of Jobbak, the anti-Roma, anti-Semitic, right-wing nationalist party, with a tattoo of greater Hungary on his back.

That night, I headed to the airport with Tomicah to welcome Hillary Clinton to Hungary. As we made our way out of the city, we discussed the final version of the speech Hillary would deliver the next morning.

For months, our embassy team had communicated our concerns about Hungary’s political reforms to D.C., and these were well represented in her speech. But now that the moment was upon us, I was uneasy as I imagined the upcoming scene: Hillary would arrive early at the Hungarian Parliament; shake hands with the prime minister, whom she had never met before; step up to the podium; and, looking down from the grand platform, give him a lecture on the Hungarian political reform process. And she would do all this before she met with him privately. That seemed wrong to me.

I shared my misgivings with Tomicah. “We keep saying that we are raising our concerns as a friend, but what kind of friend blasts you publicly for the first time from your own podium, without even the courtesy of a private discussion first? The secretary has never even met Viktor Orbán.” Why, I asked, couldn’t her speech stay focused on Tom Lantos and his commitment to democracy and human rights? That alone was a strong statement that would certainly be heard as a message to the Hungarian lawmakers. After the ceremony, Hillary would have a private meeting with Orbán, and he would have a chance to give her his point of view. “Then they’ll do a joint press conference. Tomicah, that’s when she should publicly talk about our concerns.”

Tomicah didn’t disagree, but the die was cast. The speech had already been approved up and down the chain of command at the State Department.

“Then I may have to resign,” I said. The words popped out of my mouth so quickly that they startled even me.

Tomicah gasped. “What? You can’t do that.”

“It’s not the right way to do this,” I explained. “She should give Orbán the courtesy of meeting him before she relays concerns publicly. The Hungarians are waiting for her with open arms—they don’t expect to be slapped in the face.”

I watched my longtime hero Hillary Clinton emerge from her gleaming U.S. Air Force jet, wrapped in a sweater against the cool Budapest evening. When she saw me standing at the foot of the stairs, her face lit up in a bright smile and she opened her arms to hug me. “Hello, Eleni! Hello, Madam Ambassador!” I too smiled and gave her a big hug. But I knew that I had to say something and that this was the moment to say it.

“Hillary, I’m so happy you are here, but I’m worried about what you are about to do.”

She took in a breath, and it felt like I’d just thrown a bucket of cold water on our happy reunion. “Eleni, we have very experienced people who work on these issues all the time.” She called over Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then director of European affairs for the U.S. National Security Council. “Liz, Eleni has some concerns about tomorrow. Can you talk to her and see if we can address them?”

As the secretary’s motorcade pulled away, Liz and I hopped into my car, and I laid out my case to Liz. “The Hungarians aren’t prepared for this speech,” I said. “They think Hillary Clinton is coming to Budapest because she loves them—because America loves them. They think it’s going to be a celebration of Tom Lantos.”

“How can you say that they don’t know this is coming?” Liz asked. “What about Eric Holder?” she asked, referring to the attorney general’s visit earlier that year. “Didn’t he raise concerns when he met with Orbán?”

“He decided not to do it,” I replied. “He had a good meeting with the deputy prime minister and felt the issues had been addressed there. Look, the Hungarians know that we are concerned. I have told them that we think they are going about their reform process in a way that could damage their system of checks and balances and their democratic institutions. But they don’t know they are about to get a public blasting from the U.S. secretary of state from the podium inside their own Parliament. I firmly believe that she should say something about what’s been going on here. But first she gives Orbán a chance to explain. If he can’t satisfy her concerns, and I doubt he can, she speaks out. The same message gets delivered, but we’ve been fair.”

By the time I got home, it was nearly one in the morning. Just as I walked into the house, Liz called me. “We’re changing the speech, Eleni. Secretary Clinton will address any issues concerning Hungary’s reform process—any concerns that she still has once she’s met with the prime minister—during the press conference after the meeting, just as you recommended. I wanted to let you know tonight, so you can try to get some sleep. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

The tributes to Tom Lantos, delivered amid the imperial splendor of Parliament’s upper house, were worthy of the great man. A Budapest native and a Jew, Lantos was twice sent to labor camps during the Nazi era and twice escaped. He survived the Holocaust thanks to the efforts of the diplomat and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg. After the war, Lantos emigrated to the United States and married Annette Tillemann, another Hungarian Holocaust survivor. Lantos’s status as the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress made him one of the world’s most important voices speaking on behalf of human rights. He represented the San Francisco Bay Area until his death in 2008 at the age of eighty. His tombstone is inscribed with his most famous quote, the mantra of his life: “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.”

The Hungarian government had agreed to fund the Lantos Institute, even though it was well known that Orbán and the late congressman had not gotten along particularly well. “We agreed on almost nothing when it came to the political future of Hungary,” Orbán noted in his remarks that morning for the institute’s inauguration. But within Hungary, there was a great deal of respect for Tom Lantos’s contributions to Hungarian independence, and Orbán had supported the founding of the institute. Also, Orbán really loved Annette Lantos, the congressman’s widow. As the presentations unfolded, he cuddled Annette with one arm as they swayed back and forth singing a traditional Hungarian tune together.

Hillary spoke beautifully about Tom Lantos and his unrelenting commitment to the principles of democracy. Her words, echoing through the old chamber, were very pointed and, to my mind, appropriate. Her staff must have been up all night making revisions. After the ceremony, she and I headed to the prime minister’s office.

As always, our respective staffs flanked both sides of the long table. Viktor Orbán looked tense. He knew the United States was raising concerns about his constitutional reform process with escalating intensity, so he must have braced himself to hear about it that morning. But Hillary immediately put him at ease with comments about our cooperation and questions about some of the challenges our countries faced as NATO allies. When she asked about the constitution, the two of them engaged in a long discussion about what was happening in Hungary. I could see that the secretary was making up her mind, and that the prime minister knew that to Hillary Clinton, his arguments for the closed process sounded very, very thin.

As we walked from the prime minister’s office to the room where reporters and photographers were waiting for the press conference to begin, Orbán looked worried. Hillary and Orbán made some general opening comments, but one of the first questions went right to the thorny issue of Hungary’s reform process: Had the prime minister and the secretary of state discussed this?

“We talked very openly about the preservation of the democratic institutions of Hungary,” Hillary began, “and making sure that they continue to grow and strengthen, including providing essential checks and balances. As friends of Hungary, we expressed our concerns and particularly call for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency.” Orbán’s face tightened into a frown, but inwardly I sighed in relief. Hillary’s response was just right. It was fair, reinforcing what we’d been saying privately for months: that our concerns about the reforms were real and that they were the concerns of a friend.

As we drove away from the Parliament building together, I turned to her. “Hillary, I am so sorry that you had to have drama in Budapest. You have so many other places in the world to worry about, it should have been easy here.” She smiled. “I’m very glad you spoke up last night, Eleni. You were absolutely right about how to handle this.” I exhaled, and suddenly realized how nervous I’d been.

Soon after, the secretary’s plane took off. Within the hour, the international news outlets were buzzing with the headline “Hillary Clinton Expresses Concerns over Hungarian Democracy.” I knew I had done my job.

Once Hillary departed Budapest, the spotlight largely left with her, but still the next six months would be by far the most dramatic of Viktor Orbán’s two-thirds revolution. And our engagement would make headlines again.

In September 2011, the Hungarian Parliament came back into session determined to rush through new versions of nearly every law of importance governing the country, since the new constitution would take effect in January of 2012. Along with the new constitution, more than 700 new laws would be written, amended, and adopted before I concluded my tour of duty. The most important of them, the cardinal laws, would need a two-thirds vote of Parliament to ever be changed again.

Because my staff and I had earned the professional trust of many in the Fidesz leadership, we were among the few—maybe even the only—outsiders allowed behind the closed doors of the rapid-fire lawmaking process. And just as we kept the lines of communication open with Hungarian lawmakers and government officials, it was our job to stay in touch with the civil society organizations (NGOs, nonprofit organizations, trade groups, and the like) whose members would be seriously affected by the new laws, but who were operating on scraps of information about what was coming down. The embassy was fast developing a broad and deep understanding of the big picture of the overall legislative changes unfolding in the country.

To keep track of the cascade of new legislation, I asked my staff to create a matrix of the most significant of the hundreds of laws under consideration, and the proposed changes. For our part, we proposed to be solely focused on the proposed laws that we believed could undermine Hungary’s system of checks and balances or weaken the independence of its democratic institutions. It was a mammoth task, but we were able to keep track of the reforms and their most troubling elements.

In the end, we identified the much-ballyhooed media law and the proposed laws governing elections and the judiciary as the most troubling. We also had serious misgivings about the new law governing religious groups.

We already knew that the proposed judiciary reforms would make sweeping changes. Most significantly, they would create a new administrative body, with management power over the courts, called the National Office for the Judiciary. Its president would have authority over budgetary and financial management of the courts, staffing, appointments, and distribution of caseloads, as well as the ability to unilaterally decide to transfer cases to courts outside where the alleged crimes had occurred. This last one was a real no-no in most judicial systems and something that gave me great concern.

A second body, the National Judicial Council, would be made up of judges elected by their peers and would serve as a consultative body to the Judiciary Office, but with no real power to affect decisions. Not only would the Judiciary Office have an unprecedented amount of clout, it would also be led by a single individual, appointed by Parliament for up to two consecutive nine-year terms.

In early December 2011, I was called back to Washington and found that officers at the State Department and the White House, as well as members of Congress, were outraged over the situation in Hungary. But as I was making the rounds at the State Department, news came from the embassy that the two-thirds majority had passed the cardinal laws related to the judiciary without addressing a single one of the concerns we brought to them.

It’s over, I thought, shoulders slumping. My efforts to help the Hungarian government prove its commitment to democratic principles, to encourage lawmakers to listen to all their constituents, had failed. I was disappointed and angry that I’d been misled. I was even more worried about what would happen next and how much stress it would place on other important elements of our bilateral relationship. In fact, just as all of this was happening, the Hungarians were helping to rescue American citizens who had been trapped in Libya as Muammar Gaddafi’s regime crumbled.

To round out a final diplomatic push, Secretary Clinton sent a letter to Prime Minister Orbán asking that he reevaluate some of the troubling laws before the constitution took effect. But January 1, 2012, was just a few weeks away, and I had little hope that the secretary’s letter would spur any last-minute changes.

I underestimated, however, what might happen if the secretary’s letter became public. Many people had been given copies—the Hungarian ambassador in Washington and the foreign minister in Budapest, among others. Somewhere along the line it was leaked to the press.

It caused a sensation. Headlines roared about the specific concerns that Hillary Clinton and the United States were expressing over Hungarian democracy. What’s more, it spurred European officials to take notice, at last, of what was happening in Hungary. One by one, European and EU leaders began to engage.

On January 3, two days after the new constitution became law, the Hungarian government held a massive celebration at the opera house. I was invited to attend, along with other members of the diplomatic corps. I wasn’t going to go to the celebration, but I wasn’t going to be coy about it. So I stayed home in my slippers and watched the coverage on television.

This was without a doubt the lowest point of my ambassadorship. Reports that the American ambassador was snubbing the celebration of Hungary’s new constitution circulated in the press. What should have been a great day for Hungary had degenerated into a partisan battle. Thousands of protesters gathered outside the opera house demanding to be heard. The state-owned television stations covered the protests, but their reporters stood alongside the crowds so that the cameras picked up the empty streets behind them instead of the mobbed ones in front.

The controversy over the new laws exploded into a full-blown crisis. Hungary’s currency, the forint, took a nosedive. In a series of interviews with the Hungarian media, I explained that the United States had engaged actively with Hungarian officials regarding their reform process, sharing our expertise on how the new laws would affect their democracy. We had been assured that our concerns would be considered, but none of them had been. “U.S. Ambassador Disappointed,” shouted the headlines.

Orbán’s government had no choice but to respond. In the early winter of 2012, Foreign Minister János Martonyi declared to a group of ambassadors that “the two-thirds revolution—though I have never favored that expression—is over, and now it is time for consolidation to begin.” He went on to say that Hungary’s leaders recognized that they had moved very quickly. Now that everything was done, they would go back and “make corrections.”

Officials agreed to begin a process to work with the European Union to ensure that the corrections did not violate EU law. The Hungarian government agreed to consult with the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe, and the European Commission, volunteering to hand over English translations of the constitution and several of the most controversial of the cardinal laws. If elements of the law were found to be inconsistent with EU standards, Hungarian government officials agreed to work with Parliament to modify them.

This was a significant turning point. We at Embassy Budapest knew that our role, unconventional and nuanced as it was, had been instrumental in getting the Hungarians to this point. For many months, we had been nearly alone in pushing for Hungary to address these concerns. The European Union had remained almost completely silent, even though it was far more appropriate for Hungary to work with EU and European institutions, given its membership in the group. As one European journalist tartly noted, “It takes Hillary Clinton writing a letter before we are willing to take notice of a problem within our own Union.”

Through the spring of 2012, negotiations seesawed between the EU and the Hungarians. We followed what was happening, but now it was from the backseat. That summer, the Hungarians adopted a major amendment to the constitution addressing many of the concerns that we had raised along with our European friends. More amendments would follow. But in spite of the modifications, Viktor Orbán was growing more and more powerful.

My staff insisted that I should feel proud of what we had accomplished. “They’re making changes and working with the European organizations that are designed exactly for this purpose,” they told me. “You should declare victory, ma’am.”

And there were victories. In September of 2013, under intense pressure from the EU and other organizations, Hungary passed a fifth amendment to the constitution addressing the key weaknesses that my staff and I had identified in 2011 and Hillary had subsequently pressed with Orbán. The amendment strengthened the powers of the National Judicial Council, the one comprised of judges, and took away the ability of the president of the National Judicial Office—a Fidesz appointee—to transfer cases between courts. It also removed restrictions on political candidates running campaign ads on privately owned media and allowed any religious group to identify itself as a “church” and enjoy judicial protections. Still, the amendment contained a number of dubious loopholes—for instance, only religions “recognized” by Parliament can garner tax exemptions and other privileges.

The victories, then, were only partial. The hope is that they will help enable the people of Hungary retain enough of their freedom to keep their country from slipping into full-scale authoritarianism.

I remembered that when Hillary was in town, we arranged for her to meet with leaders of the largest and most active civil society organizations, such as Transparency International Hungary, and representatives of the enfeebled opposition parties. After the initial buzz of excitement subsided, the group began taking turns explaining how they were shut out of the decision-making process in their country. Most of the people in the room had seen drafts of the new constitution only days before it was voted into law. They had no opportunity to comment on it or contribute to it. Secretary Clinton listened intently. Then she asked the group what they were going to do about it. The question surprised them. The unspoken response seemed to be “That’s why we’re talking to you.”

“Look,” Hillary said, “I’m not the one you need to convince that there is a problem here. You need to talk to the people of your country and try to convince them that there is a problem. If the media law has made it harder to get your message out, you’ll have to work harder. You have the Internet. You have tools. It’s not just about finding people who agree with you, it’s about convincing those who don’t agree with you that you are right. That’s where change comes from. As leaders of civil society, this is your job.”

Of course, Hillary was right. The job of securing a country’s democracy falls ultimately to its citizens, not to outside powers. But other nations also have the responsibility to use their diplomatic power to increase democracy’s odds. The situation in Hungary is still fluid, and progress is uneven at best. (Orbán supported sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, but this February he also cut a deal with Putin for cut-rate Russian natural gas and support of Hungary’s nuclear power industry, infuriating Western allies.) We do not yet know how the story will end. But this much is clear: Vigorous multinational action is making a difference in Hungary. And that action would not have happened without America taking the lead.

Eleni Kounalakis

Eleni Kounalakis is former United States ambassador to Hungary.