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Firing of Hungary’s Envoy to U.S. Stirs Unlikely Furor : Diplomacy: Scandal, name-calling and back-stabbing combine for a veritable soap opera.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Name-calling and professional back-stabbing surrounding the recall of Budapest’s ambassador to Washington have transformed the normally lackluster Hungarian political scene into a veritable soap opera this week.

Envoy Peter Zwack, who gave up his U.S. citizenship only seven months ago to accept the most prestigious foreign posting his native Hungary has to offer, has taken more than a few parting shots since being informed that his services are no longer desired.

Budapest’s main newspapers are replete with juicy details of disarray in the Foreign Ministry and scheming intrigue at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington.

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In lengthy interviews splashed across several pages, the 56-year-old Zwack claims his firing was orchestrated by a conniving colleague in cahoots with stodgy academics in the government of Prime Minister Jozsef Antall.

The accusations are providing a riveting read for Hungarians, who usually ignore the inner workings of a leadership lacking the charisma of rivals in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

But the scandal surrounding Zwack’s recall suggests that this small nation is still struggling to forge a coherent foreign policy even a year after a non-Communist government took power.

The diplomatic tempest now seen as entertaining runs the risk of dealing Hungary a lasting black eye, because Zwack’s story is publicly airing Hungary’s dirtiest diplomatic laundry.

Zwack has accused Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky of “intentionally misleading the Hungarian and international public” about a recent sale of Kalashnikov machine guns to Croatia. Zwack claims the foreign minister ordered him to lie to American intelligence officials who have inquired after the sale and subsequent cover-up.

“I hope Jeszenszky will understand before another big blunder like the shipment of arms to Croatia takes place that he does the greatest service to his country by openly and respectfully resigning, and not by telling lies,” Zwack told the daily Magyar Hirlap.

The ambassador was informed a week ago that he would be replaced this summer, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Janos Hermann.

But in light of Zwack’s decidedly undiplomatic response to being dumped, “it seems we have to accelerate the process of replacement,” Hermann said.

The official MTI news agency said Zwack will be ordered out of the embassy within a few days.

“Do you know any example in the history of diplomacy in which an ambassador could continue his activity in peace after demanding the resignation of his foreign minister?” fumed Antall, the dour prime minister, at a press conference on Wednesday.

Jeszenszky asked Zwack to resign in February, ostensibly because he was not familiar enough with recent Hungarian history and because his Hungarian language was imperfect after spending most of his life abroad.

“I’m sure that wasn’t a secret when I was asked to be ambassador,” Zwack told the newspaper.

Jeszenszky, a former professor who has lectured at UCLA and is related to Antall by marriage, has denied recent press reports claiming he wants the American posting for himself.

Zwack contends his downfall was behind-the-scenes intrigue by his deputy chief of mission, Eniko Bollobas, a political appointee who, like Zwack, had no previous diplomatic experience.

Bollobas served as a leader of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, Antall’s center-right political party and senior partner in the coalition government.

Observers in Budapest suggest the mistake was teaming two temperamental rookies in Washington, instead of backing Zwack with a career diplomat who could handle the daily routine of running an embassy.

The picture emerging from both sides is of an embassy torn asunder, with a prestigious figurehead doing battle with a jealous deputy seeking to boost her own political star.

According to Zwack, Bollobas repeatedly sent scathing complaints to Budapest behind his back, declaring him “untrustworthy” for such missteps as allowing an opposition politician to stay at the embassy guest house.

Jeszenszky, who has been out of the country since the storm in his ministry broke out, told reporters in Norway that he was “shocked” by Zwack’s allegations. But he declined to comment further on the scandal, saying the press was no place for working out such conflicts.

Zwack escaped Hungary as a teen-ager in 1948, after the Communist takeover stripped his aristocratic family of its vaunted Unicum distillery and extensive property holdings.

He settled into the liquor business in Chicago and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959, rearing five of his seven children there, including his son, Peter Jr., who is now a U.S. Army officer.

Zwack and his second wife, British writer and former model Anne Marshall, relocated to Italy in the 1970s to oversee the family’s international liqueur business. They were basking in the idyllic surroundings of a Florentine villa when the new Hungarian government approached him a year ago about the Washington job.

After long deliberation over the price of giving up his hard-won citizenship--Americans are forbidden to serve as officials in foreign governments--Zwack accepted the post as envoy and set to work last September remaking Hungary’s image abroad.

A suave and articulate campaigner for stronger commercial ties with the West, Zwack and his glamorous wife have drawn rave reviews from Washington columnists as just the antidote the Budapest government needed after decades of representation by Communist functionaries.

Foreign Ministry sources say Antall and Jeszenszky are now pondering a replacement, but no names have been released as to who is most likely to succeed Zwack.


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