Driving Hungarian-American trade

  • February 02, 2011
Not least of the announcements to come out of this year’s Annual General Assembly on December 1 was the identity of the winner of the annual Dr. Iván Völgyes Award: István Gyarmati.

Author: Robin Marshall
Source: VOICE Magazine, January 2011

In the photo: Péter Dávid, István Gyarmati and Róbert Litauszki

Gyarmati has been a supporter of Hungarian-American relations for more than 30 years, a position that has caused him trouble in the past. In the early 80s, he supported NATO’s double-track decision (which offered a mutual limitation of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, coupled with the threat to redeploy if talks failed) – a rather unusual position for a Hungarian diplomat in those days. He was put under police investigation for many years, and his house and office were bugged. He found the bug in his house, had it framed and it can now be seen in his office.

The political changes in 1990 made it much easier to be a friend of the US. He was the main partner on the Warsaw Pact side of the US delegation under James Woolsey (President Clinton’s first Director of Central Intelligence), part of the negotiations that would bring Hungary out of the Warsaw Treaty, Soviet troops out of Hungary and, eventually, Hungary into NATO.

In the early 90s he became friends with Iván Völgyes, for whom the award is named, and he helped Völgyes to move his business forward.

He worked in the US between 2000 and- 2003. After his return he founded and was the first director of the International Center for Democratic Transition, a bipartisan institution that promotes democratic change across the globe. He is now working on creating its sister institution, the Tom Lantos Institute, to carry on the legacy of his friend, the late congressman of Hungarian extraction.

ICDT is one of the few institutions that has enjoyed support from all democratic political parties in Hungary – as does he – and to have been publicly praised by both the current Democratic administration and its Republican predecessor.

He is frequently called the “most pro-American Hungarian”, a title that has never prevented him from also being a strong critic. The most notable example of such was an open letter to President Barack Obama by a number of Central and Eastern European leaders, which expressed their concern that the then new administration was not paying enough attention to CEE; Gyarmati was the principal author. The letter caused some turbulence in Washington, but the administration now recognizes the importance of the region and appears to take it more seriously.

Many credit Völgyes as being the father of modern lobbying in Hungary. Born here, he moved to the US in 1956, and, having acquired a BA, MA and PhD in International Politics, worked on John F. Kennedy’s 1959 election campaign and then followed him into the White House. An expert in Soviet and Eastern European politics, and a professor of political science, he taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 1966 until 1995.

After the fall of the iron curtain, he moved back to Hungary and was instrumental in introducing numerous US-based businesses to the country, including the Gallup Organization and Reader’s Digest. As a chief advisor to GE, Völgyes also assisted in bringing six of its ten global core businesses to Hungary, along with more than $1 billion in investment. Aged 65, and having retired from GE, he was working with Synergon (sponsors of the award) when the plane carrying him and its top leadership crashed in June 2001, killing all four of its passengers.

The award recognizes those who have played an “outstanding and exemplary role” in promoting and developing Hungarian-American business relations. According to AmCham CEO Péter Dávid, it is a means to “commemorate Dr. Iván Völgyes and continue his legacy.”

Previous winners:
2009 László Czirják
2008 Thomas Ramsey
2007 András Simonyi, a former Hungarian ambassador to the US
2006 Lajos Sápi
2005 Péter Hegedűs, a former AmCham President.

This is an article from the January 2011 issue of VOICE Magazine.