The openly gay ambassador whom President Biden sent to staunchly conservative Hungary is facing a firestorm of criticism in Budapest, where pro-government media accuse him of violating diplomatic protocols, meddling in the judiciary and undermining the country’s traditional values.
Ambassador David Pressman, a human rights lawyer who has headed the U.S. Embassy in Hungary since September, says the accusations are baseless and he’s being targeted with personal attacks by a media controlled by the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
A profile on Mr. Pressman published by The New York Times on Thursday pointed specifically to PestiSracok, a pro-Orban news portal that has denounced the appointment of the ambassador as “an expert on LGBT rights” and “an obvious diplomatic provocation.”
Mr. Pressman, who lives in Budapest with his husband and two children, told The Times he is more alarmed by what he sees as a broader assault on the U.S. in pro-government Hungarian media, which he said engages in a constant “repurposing of Kremlin propaganda … pushing out Kremlin disinformation and anti-American rhetoric on a routine basis.”
He also said that while meetings with Hungarian officials are usually civil and pragmatic in tone, they often start with his host saying: “Ambassador, it’s wonderful to meet you. I know you want to speak about gender progressive issues.”
“I stop them and say, ‘No, actually, I want to speak to you about Hungary’s reliance on [Russian President] Vladimir Putin,’” the ambassador told The Times. “They always want to have the conversation about a culture war. We want to have a conversation about a real war that exists next door [in Ukraine].”
Mr. Pressman’s comments, and the apparent Hungarian discomfort with his appointment, underscore tension in the diplomatic relationship between the Biden administration and the government of Mr. Orban, who has been called Mr. Putin’s closest ally inside NATO and the European Union.
The State Department expressed support for Ambassador Pressman on Thursday, asserting that he is in Budapest representing America’s “interests [and] our values.”
“We have a long relationship with our Hungarian ally. Hungary is an important NATO ally,” said department spokesperson Ned Price. “That is not to [say] that we see eye to eye on every issue. Of course, there are many issues where we do have divergences of opinion or just flat out disagreements.”
The tension dovetails with Hungary‘s sticky relationship with the European Union. Although Hungary is part of the 27-member European body, its relations with some of the bloc’s major powers have been fraught since Mr. Orban’s nationalist, right-leaning Fidesz Party swept to power more than a decade ago.
Europe’s left accuses Mr. Orban of being an autocrat, and critics of the prime minister say his “illiberal democracy” has resulted in the silencing of dissenting voices and policies that hurt the marginalized.
Restrictions on media and measures relating to LBGTQ issues have come under particular scrutiny. Leftist political figures across the EU warn that Hungary is devolving into a kind of autocracy, with political power more centralized than in Western Europe.
Brussels is in a legal standoff with Budapest over a Hungarian law that bans media content portraying or promoting homosexuality. The European Commission has said the law “discriminates against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Over the past year, the EU criticisms have become intertwined with frustration over the Orban government’s posture toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Budapest has for months pushed for a peaceful solution to the Ukraine war while trying to ensure that EU sanctions on Russian energy do not disrupt energy supplies to Hungary.
Hungary gets about 65% of its oil and 85% of its natural gas from Russia.
The issue is delicate for the Orban government.
In an interview with The Washington Times in July, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto bluntly denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and openly spoke in support of Ukrainian “territorial integrity.”
“We’ve made our position clear many times that we condemn the military attack by Russia against Ukraine,” Mr. Szijjarto said.
He also stressed that Hungary cannot escape its dependence on Russian oil and gas. He said the security represents a “definite red line for us.”
At the same time, he argued that the EU is targeting the Orban government for its conservatism and defense of traditional values.
The EU has been “blackmailing us since we won the first supermajority back in 2010, [and] the major basis for this punitive, punishing policy against us is that we are not liberals,” the foreign minister told The Times. “We are a conservative government. Conservative, patriotic, standing on Christian Democratic values.”
Reuters reported in October that Hungary remains one of the European Union’s most reliant members on Russian energy, but cited the Orban government’s technology and industry minister as saying the country aims to eliminate Russian gas imports by 2050.
That minister, Laszlo Palkovics, also said Hungary would be reviewing its overall energy strategy in 2023, looking to curb gas reliance and boost electricity from nuclear and solar energy as well as a possible move toward wind farms.