Ambassador István Szabó has been at the helm of affairs throughout his 40-year diplomatic career. The Hungarian Ambassador to Pakistan bids adieu after serving eight years in Islamabad as he reached the retirement age in 2019 and the time has come to hang up his boots.

Starting his career on 1st March 1980 in foreign services, Ambassador Szabó boarded the diplomatic bandwagon crowded with turning events in world history, challenging tasks and vulnerable environment during his postings abroad. After joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Budapest, he spent his first four years in accordance with the expectations - got married to a career diplomat Emília and had a son. “The stars were in my favour. My first assignment was the UN desk and so as a young diplomat in 20’s, I got the opportunity to travel around the world, attend Conferences in New York during General Assembly sessions and be part of serious discussions, reshaping the new world order. It was a great learning experience for me,” remembers the Ambassador sitting in his comfortable living room overlooking the beautifully manicured garden.

It was in 1984 that Ambassador Mr. Szabó got his first foreign posting to Lagos, capital of Nigeria. “It was a difficult station as Nigeria in the 80’s was dealing with difficult challenges. Militarily rule, extreme poverty, street crimes, armed robberies and with a limited food supply even for diplomats so you can say it was a tough assignment,” informs the Ambassador. The only good news for the couple was the birth of their second son while being posted in Nigeria.

After completing the first four years in Nigeria, Ambassador Szabó came back to Budapest and stayed at the head office for two years before being posted to Cairo, Egypt. “Egypt in the early 90’s was very peaceful at least till 1994, when we left Cairo. Hosni Mubarak was ruling the country with an iron fist and there were no bomb blasts or other terrorist activities. Muslim Brotherhood was in its teething stage so things were relatively much calmer as compared to Nigeria,” adds ambassador’s wife Emília.

After educating themselves with Egyptian history and enduring their travelling experience during the four years in the Nile city, the couple returned to their homeland.

Ambassador Szabó was assigned a very challenging task at home. At that time, Hungary held the Chairman Office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and it gave him an ample opportunity to travel and gain experience from other European countries especially at the Balkans as a diplomat. “It was a turning point in the history of Europe. The war in the Balkans, Dayton Peace Process, and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Europe was the epicentre of the new world order as things were moving with great dynamism between 1994 and 1995,” Ambassador explains. After spending few months on the assignment, he was sent to Brussels working for NATO and there he took part in the negotiations about NATO’s intervention in Serbia, during the uprising and genocide spearheaded by the then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic who was later accused of crimes against humanity in the International Court of Justice and died during the trial period.

Ambassador Szabó got his first ambassadorial posting in Czech Republic. He says that he wanted a quiet and relaxed position after spending so much time in policy matters, so Prague was the best option. It was close to home so we left our now teenaged sons in Budapest to continue their education and made frequent visits to home. In 2008, Ambassador returned home for four years working as Director General of the Balkans Department.

“It was in 2012, one afternoon, the Deputy Secretary of State, who was my boss, called me. He just asked me directly over the phone, what would you say? Yes or no on posting to Pakistan as an ambassador? Since, I had never been to Asia and my profile was more of a policy issue expert especially on the Balkans, NATO, OSCE Presidency, I didn’t object over the phone but asked him to give me a week or so to discuss it with my family. He said OK, you have time till tomorrow,” informs Ambassador laughingly.

It was not a welcomed opportunity at home. The couple sat all evening discussing the pros and cons, bidding the sun goodbye and welcoming the stars. Finally, the hardened negotiator convinced his wife Emília and it was a yes. Emília too was posted along with the Ambassador as Head of the Consular Section and Cultural Counsellor in Islamabad keeping her hands full during the Islamabad posting. After arriving in Islamabad, Pakistan was a pleasant surprise for the couple. “Things were not good here but also not as bad as we had perceived. Actually we had Lagos, Nigeria in mind before coming to Islamabad,” informs the Hungarian Counsellor.

As the couple settled down, things started to get better slowly and step by step. Once the situation started to change for better, they started to discover Pakistan. They made good Pakistani friends, socialised with the local community, learned about Pakistani culture and traditions, and were smitten by the beauty of the northern areas.  

“I have never seen such beautiful sites in my life. The northern area where we have been umpteen times even with my children, the rural villages, the small business hubs like Faisalabad, Gujrat, Sialkot, every city has a character, a tradition, and values, which are beyond words to express. I have even travelled to the south of Punjab till Rahim Yar Khan and was mesmerised by the Cholistan desert, the palaces of south Punjab, the sanctums,” informs the couple.

After spending eight years, Emília and István are taking great memories back home, but at the same time, they are super excited to see their first grandchild. “We are just focused on the birth of our first grandchild. We are simply overwhelmed by this news and cannot wait. We have not made any post-retirement plans yet so that we can spend time with our grandchild,” informs Emília beaming with excitement. Their ancestral house in Budapest has already been renovated and will be decorated with Pakistani artefacts and once the leisure time is over, Szabó’s pass time will be giving lectures on foreign policy at the universities in Hungary and reading his favourite books, before his wife Emília gets her new foreign posting and he tags along as a spouse.