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Hungarians always had a good sense of humor

July 31, 2007 Comments off

Hungarians not only still have a good sense of humor but they also are learning the ways and means of democracy. Take the infamous referendum issue. The law states that only individuals, not parties, can put questions to the Országos Választási Bizottság (OVB, National Electoral Committee), but until now only people representing party or institutional interests took advantage of such an opportunity. However, now that our linguist presented his own questions (if you haven’t been reading this blog from the beginning, go back to the 7/11 post) and the OVB approved them, other ordinary citizens gathered their courage and sent question after question to the OVB. I already mentioned the "free beer" question, but lately a deluge of silly questions has reached the OVB, whose members with all seriousness, armed with legal arguments, must weigh their merits.  Altogether sixty referendum questions have reached the committee to date. The majority of these questions serve to make fun of the referendum law as it stands. They show the absurdity of the whole idea. In most European countries there is no opportunity for such nationwide referendums, the notable exception being Switzerland. According to some political observers the referendum is actually a dangerous weapon against parliamentary democracy because a party (in this case the Fidesz) can use it for its own political gain. With this referendum, Orbán’s clear goal is to force the government to resign. He argues that if the Fidesz questions are answered in the negative it means that the government has lost the confidence of the electorate and must resign. But, as we know very well, in a parliamentary democracy the goverment must resign only if it loses the confidence of the majority of the parliamentary members. Of course, this is not the situation here. Gyurcsány’s coalition government has a comfortable majority.

We don’t have yet the whole list of these "silly" questions, but here are a few that have already leaked out. One suggestion was to reduce the salaries of the judges of the Constitutional Court to 50% of their current level. I guess as a punishment for allowing the Fidesz’s referendum questions in the first place. Another question involved the "lies" of the prime minister. If the prime minister-elect doesn’t keep his word after the elections, he should be sent to jail for five years. Among the questions there is one which goes like this: "Do you want all the ministries to move into the Parliament." This is another jab at the Fidesz, who complain bitterly about the government’s decision to sell the very expensive downtown buildings that were never intended to be office buildings and build a modern "government quarters." Another leaked out silly question was: "Do you agree that polygamy should be introduced in the country?"

According to the latest news, out of the sixty questions the OVB gave its blessing to one (not a silly one): "Do you agree that by the 2010 elections there should be only 193 parliamentary members instead of the current 386?" Well, if there is a popular referendum question that will win hands down this will be the one. The Hungarian parliament is simply oversized. The number of seats was designed for a country that was about three times the size of the current one. The population is convinced that parliamentary members do not really earn their money because they are not present during the debates. (Hungarians should watch C-Span!) Although their salary is very modest, the ordinary citizen still thinks that the salaries are far too high. The parliament is too expensive. The parties themselves have been talking about making the parliament smaller but they can’t agree. If a certain number seems to favor one party, then the others complain.

Another serious question that the OVB refused to accept was that of marriage between same sex couples. They argued that the Constitutional Court had earlier defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman and therefore there might be constitutional problems with the question. The two committee members who voted for the inclusion of this question argued that the European tendency is toward allowing such marriages, but it failed by vote of 2-5.

The "silly" questions achieved their aim. One of the members of the OVB mentioned that the institution should ask parliament to change the current law because as it stands these silly questions discredit the very notion of a referendum and make the work of the OVB impossible. Let’s face it, this is exactly what the people who submitted referendum questions had in mind. I think rightly.

Hungarian tax collection–zero tolerance?

July 30, 2007 Comments off

For some time now the Hungarian equivalent of Internal Revenue Service (Adó- Pénzügyi Ellenőrzési Hivatal or APEH) has been waging war against tax evasion. Tax evasion exists everywhere in the world but–as  Finance Minister János Veress said this morning at his press conference–while in other developed countries the black market constitutes about 5 percent of the GDP, in Hungary it is estimated to be 17-18 percent. Too few people pay too much tax, while too many people don’t pay anything or very little.

Given the large budget deficit and the necessity to decrease that deficit within three or four years below 3 percent of the GDP (the magic number to be able to introduce the euro), it is not surprising that the government has at last decided to do something drastic. Because, let’s face it, until now the collection of taxes was a laissez faire affair just as it was when it came to collecting health insurance dues, or giving out certificates for local farmers selling their own products. Basically, no one checked anything and if they did and found infractions there were really no serious consequences. The fines were so low–averaging about $100–that it was certainly worth a little or not so little cheating to save a lot on taxes.

The APEH first hired thousands of new inspectors and in the Transdanubian area (that is the territory west of the Danube) they checked 816 businesses to see whether the owners gave receipts for purchases. More than half (413) didn’t. From here on, the tax cheaters will get the maximum fine of 100,000 ft. ($5,000) in the case of an individual or twice as much in the case of a company. If the person is caught the second time within a year, over and above the fines his business will have to be locked up for twelve days, but if the person is caught the fourth time his business will be under lock for two months. Moreover, the government, realizing that to play this game two people are needed–the one who doesn’t give a receipt and the other who doesn’t insist on getting one, the APEH warned the person receiving goods and services that it might be a good idea to keep the receipts for a while.

The people’s reaction, as usual, was mixed this morning on my favorite call-in show. Some complained that if the small retail shop’s owner gave receipts and paid taxes legitimately then he would most likely go bankrupt. Others grumbled about the fact that the rich and the powerful get away with murder while the little man is the victim again. However, an equal number of people considered tax evasion one of the chief problems in Hungary.

The problem goes deeper than tax evasion. We have a society where cheating, getting out of obligations is a game. Something that is not contemptible, but instead the sign of a superior intellect. The cheaters are the "clever ones." A Hungarian businessman who had spent more than a decade in the United States wrote an excellent economic analysis of the Hungarian situation in which he presented his theory that all this starts with cheating in school. It is a game that is played between the teacher and the student. I tend to agree with him.

Lately, one piece of news follows the next that gives food for thought. In the last week or so I read an article detailing how many phony language exam certificates are obtained. Because nowadays one cannot really get a decent job without passing a language examination, the business in phony certificates is booming. Then I read that better off Hungarians had purchased apartments on the Island of Vir (Croatia) without a building permit, and they were very upset when the Croatian authorities began demolishing their houses. Some of the apartments remained, but the owners don’t want to pay taxes on their rental income. So the people who rent must lie to the authorities that they are "relatives" who are not paying a penny to the dear cousin for the two weeks they are spending there. Or, there are the cheaters on long-distance buses, where the drivers are selling used tickets for half price and pocketing the proceeds. A clever driver thus can double his salary. There is a story of an inspector who was too zealous, but he paid for his eagerness dearly. The drivers hired a muscle man who beat him to a pulp and as a result he lost sight in one eye.

And the final story for today that shows in addition to the total disregard of rules and regulations another negative aspect of Hungarian life, especially noticeable for someone who has not been living there for a long time. The coarseness of discourse, often displayed in road rage. Here there is no class distinction: the "intellectual" and the bicyclist messenger speak and behave exactly the same way. The bicyclist bicycles where he is not supposed to, the driver of a car honks at him, the bicyclist gets angry and hits the top of the car with such force that there is dent. The two "gentlemen" use unspeakably foul language and at the end the gentleman driver pulls out a pistol. According to him it was just a toy, others think that it was for real. When questioned, the messenger admitted that there is a separate lane for bicyclists but it is faster to zig-zag among the cars. In any case, there is no sign that would forbid him to use the lanes for cars. When someone reminded him that the traffic rules do actually forbid what he did, he just shrugged his shoulders and said that if the messengers used the bicycle lane they would never arrive on time. Rules, regulations, what are they? Nothing!

So, I think Mr. Gyurcsány is trying the nearly impossible. I wish him, of course, the best of luck.

Getting acquainted with Katalin Kondor

July 29, 2007 1 comment

Because yesterday there was a demonstration on behalf of Katalin Kondor, former director of the Magyar Rádió and recently on the list of those staff members whose program was cut, I decided that I should get better acquainted with her and listen to some of her programs (available on the Magyar Rádió’s audio archives). A while back I almost had a real encounter with her on account of a letter to the editor I wrote in which I dared to correct her recollection of a short story she had read as a child. Katalin Kondor is not the kind of person who would let herself be contradicted. After the appearance of my piece, she wrote an angry letter to the editor-in-chief. As for the wrong facts, she was ready to concede that the author was not Alexei Tolstoy but, according to her, Leo Tolstoy.  I still maintain that it was most likely Maxim Gorky, but fortunately the whole controversy came to naught. The paper didn’t publish her letter and I didn’t insist on Gorky.

Katalin Kondor had two one-hour programs. On Saturdays, she put together a program called Reggeli Krónika (Morning Chronicle). This seems to be a mixed bag: songs, poetry, interviews with authors, etc. The Sunday program is called Névjegy (Calling Card) which seems to be an interview with a single person of the "correct" political persuasion.

Let’s start with the Morning Chronicle. Although by all her writings and utterances Kondor seems to be hard as nails, in this program her behavior bordered on the sugary phoney. The music, at least this past Saturday, was heavily patriotic: the birds sing nicer in Hungary than anywhere else. Or, Ferenc Rákóczi’s yearning to return to Hungary, sung by an opera singer who was already losing his voice in my childhood in the 1950s. There was more "modern" fare too, but this had a jarring quality to it: the group put modern lyrics to music that imitated the ancient Hungarian pentatonic scale. We also learned about the enthusiastic and wonderful God-fearing people who organized an exchange program between Transylvanian Hungarians and the "fatherland." Where did the money come from? They prayed and prayed (in Hungarian it sounds really funny: kiimádkozták). Then there was a heartwarming interview with a man whose hobby is to act as "vőfély" at weddings. In the old days in the villages the "vőfély" called the people to the wedding and acted as the master of ceremonies at the celebration. Our modern "vőfély" proudly announced that he has already fulfilled this role in seven hundred weddings. He does all this without compensation because he thinks that’s his calling. He immediately produced a few traditional doggerels. From the above I think it is quite clear that the whole program has a musty, antiquated atmosphere with a nationalistic, folkish, Trianon-laden overlay. At the end, Kondor had an interview with an author who wrote a "novel" about a real-life high school teacher in Veszprém who was executed after the 1956 revolution. What was interesting was that Kondor made sure the author included in the interview his contempt of "those people" who now take part in the yearly remembrance of the school teacher but who, had they lived then, would have asked for a heavier sentence just as the local party secretary did in 1958.

The "Névjegy" (Calling Card) is, as its name reveals, an interview with a single person. This time it was a sculptor, János Blaskó. I learned from the interview that Blaskó was asked by the town of Székelyudvarhely in the center of Transylvania to have a Hero’s Square, somewhat similar to, although certainly more modest than, the monumental group of statues of famous Hungarian kings in Budapest. One can see the Budapest statues here:

http://www.diamond-congress.hu/eaec2007/images/thisite/pict/hosok_tere_f.jpg

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture of Blaskó’s heroes in Székelyudvarhely. Blaskó’s heroes are not just kings, but writers as well. He did a statue of Albert Wass, although Wass couldn’t be identified because after the war he was condemned to death for his activities against Romanians and Jews. But we are told that "we can learn a lot of history from Wass, especially when it comes to the truth about Trianon." The sculptor also included Attila’s youngest son, Csaba, who allegedly, after the Huns’ defeat, led his people to Transylvania. Of course, there is absolutely no historical evidence for this, but Blaskó is not too fussy about historical accuracy. According to him, Attila the Hun was a highly cultured man who was educated in Byzantium and who spoke both Greek and Latin. Well, that was also new to me.

Blaskó reassured the Transylvanian Hungarians that at least 2.5 million people, those who today would vote for the Fidesz, "love Transylvania." Presumably, those who don’t vote for the Fidesz don’t care a hoot about the Hungarian brethren in Romania. Blaskó gave a lengthy lecture on xenophobia. According to him, very soon there will be more "aliens" than natives in Hungary and Hungarians will not be able to speak their own language. These aliens will give an entirely different character to the whole country. Moreover, the current government ruins the villages, "annihilates" (kiirtja) the mailmen, and very soon there won’t be even pubs where people can talk about politics. The villages will be ravaged, the land that contains "the ashes of our ancestors" will be in foreign hands. Western Europeans will invade the still pure land of Hungary, everybody will be on the move "except us," who will be too poor to move anywhere.

And this program appears on Hungary public radio financed from the central budget. This is how they "enlighten" the average undereducated Hungarian who listens to Kondor’s program. It’s a shame.

The agony of the Hungarian Public Radio

July 28, 2007 Comments off

It would be too long to tell the whole story of the ups and downs–mostly downs–of the Magyar Rádió. After 1990, the year of the change of regime, it took a long time, perhaps three to four years, to enact a media law that made possible the establishment of multiple, competing television and radio stations. Meanwhile there was the old state television and radio with the same left-wing staff. The conservative Antall government wasn’t happy with this situation, realizing that media support was very important for a political movement. Thus, the government started to meddle in the affairs of the so-called independent public television and radio. The government removed the head of television and radio. In response, the liberal president, Árpád Göncz, overstepping his constitutional powers, refused to countersign the appointment of the new nominees. Eventually, he had to oblige, and the government installed the men who was ready to do a little house cleaning. The new media head of the radio let 118 staff members go. It was true that Magyar Rádió had about three times as many employees as were necessary, but the firings were too obviously political in nature. So (for those who have followed American business news) Chainsaw Al with a twist.

As soon as the first democratically elected conservative government lost the elections, the 118 fired employees, with the new government’s blessing, practically occupied the radio station. They had already prepared the day’s news, pushed aside the old guard and occupied the microphones. It was rather tasteless, I thought at the time. Thus, the old management was restored. Yet the station was losing audience rapidly. The reason was that it was no longer the only show in town; hundreds of radio stations had sprung up. They were modern, they were "with it," while the Magyar Rádió was stuffy, if not deadly dull. To this day, the announcers speak such "perfect" Hungarian, their pronounciation is so-so correct that it hurts one’s ears. Nobody speaks that way. At noon, the bells of different churches ring, celebrating the Battle of Nándorfehérvár, nowadays Belgrade, where János Hunyadi beat the Turks back in 1455. Bells of different churches, carefully selected according to denomination. Daily there is some time put aside for religious thoughts, again, one day Catholic, next day Lutheran, the following day Hungarian Reformed and Jewish. In brief, this station is behind the times and not economically viable.

But, to go skip back a bit. Four years of the left wing Horn government went by, Viktor Orbán became prime minister, and the attack on the radio and television continued. More and more people were let go, once again for political reasons. According to some observers the Fidesz practically gave away the public television and radio to the MIÉP, a party of the extreme right, in exchange for the MIÉP’s support in parliament. The programming started to shift rapidly toward the extreme right.

And, of course, there is the management of the radio. Without going into the details of the complicated way the head of the radio is selected, the right-wing members of the board managed to choose Katalin Kondor, a former media celebrity turned right-winger, as president of the Magyar Rádió. With her appointment the situation became even worse. Moreover, although Orbán left, Kondor remained, despite the fact that the liberal reporters tried everything to discredit her. For example, though it is most likely true that Kondor in the Kádár regime was a more than willing informer, she managed to convince the courts (she loves to sue people) that not a word of the documentation against her was reliable.

It was only about a year ago that Kondor at last departed. Well, not completely, because although she was no longer the head of the radio, she remained on the staff. Her successor was György Such, who had rather ambitious plans to reorganize and modernize the Magyar Rádió. In the new format, one channel was a hip all-music station, while the structure of the other was completely revamped. Once again he tried to trim the staff, but this time the firings seemed to be more even handed. He eliminated a cabaret program, directed by a well known liberal comedian, because few people listened to it. Oh dear, Katalin Kondor also got a pink slip as the program director of a program.

The reaction has been incredible. Listening to the complaints of those who lost their jobs, it becomes clear that these people really looked upon the Magyar Rádió as a sinecure. They intended to stay as long as they wished or until they died. One man, who is 54 years old, went on a hunger strike. All of them are suing the radio for age discrimation. Kondor hasn’t said anything yet, but today about 150 people were demonstrating on her behalf in front of the radio’s headquarters. Knowing Kondor’s behavior in the past, I have the feeling that the story hasn’t ended here.

Hungarian attitude toward the past

July 27, 2007 Comments off

As I wrote earlier, on SZDSZ insistence a new committee has been formed to seek out and reveal the names of the thousands and thousands of informers active during the Kádár regime and even before. János Kenedi, the chairman of the committee and a well respected historian specializing in this area, believes that there may finally be the political will to make the names of the informers available. He would like to put the list on the internet. Surely, for some people, especially for the SZDSZ, this matter is critical. But how important is it for the population as a whole? It seems not that terribly.

Yesterday afternoon pollsters contacted 500 citizens nationwide by telephone. The results are interesting. Only 34% of those questioned thought that knowing the names of the informers, especially after so many years, was at all important. A small majority (55%) believed that new, important names of informants would emerge. There was not a significant percentage difference between those who thought the names should be revealed and those who thought the names should not be revealed (34% as opposed to 39%), but here party affiliation made a huge difference. Only one-fifth of the Fidesz voters thought that the list should be kept secret, while 49% percent of the MSZP voters opposed the release of the information. It is somewhat curious in light of the above statistics that 54% of the sample thought that one must confront the past while 34% would simply bury the whole archives. But confrontation need not entail consequences. About half of the sample thought that there should be no consequences for those exposed as informers; they wished them happy retirement years. Thirty-four percent claimed that they would hold the person in contempt. When it comes to politicians who were informers, the population is far less tolerant. Here 60% of the sample said that they should disappear from political life. Once again party affiliation made a huge difference. Seventy-six percent of Fidesz voters would ban them from politics while 60% of MSZP voters would let them continue their present political careers.

On the surface this political divide is logical. One would assume that the left would have more skeletons in its closet than the right. Yet those politicians whose names have surfaced thus far as possible informers are mostly right-wing politicians. Here are a few names identified by an earlier committee headed by Imre Mécs, then SZDSZ, now an MSZP MP. In alphabetical order: László Bogár (Orbán government, undersecretary), Imre Boros (Orbán government, minister), Szabolcs Fazakas (Horn government, minister), Zsigmond Járai (Orbán government, minister), Béla Kádár (Antall government, minister), János Martonyi (Orbán government, minister), Péter Medgyessy (Medgyessy government, prime minister), László Nógrádi (Orbán government, minister), Ferenc Rabár (Antall government, minister), Ernő Raffay (Antall government, undersecretary), László Sárossy (Antall government, undersecretary). One might also add István Csurka, head of the MIÉP, a far-right antisemitic party that supported the Orbán government, and the Fidesz mayor of Kaposvár, a former head of the Christian Democratic Party. A cursory look reveals that there are more names on the right than on the left. So, if I were a Fidesz supporter, I would be less sanguine in this respect.

At last the money is coming from Brussels

July 26, 2007 Comments off

In the next seven years Hungary will receive 22.4 billion euros (more than ten thousand billion forints) from the European Union. The idea is to close the gap between the rich and the poorer countries of the union. How this money will be used is of crucial importance. Such financial help can be used well and used badly. Ireland used the money very well while Greece, for example, used it very badly. The Hungarian government realizes the importance of decisions concerning the spending of the money and therefore worked out a seven-year Plan of National Development headed by Gordon Bajnai, a young businessman, who at the last reorganization of the cabinet became minister without portfolio. According to all reports Bajnai is doing a very good job.

Wednesday Prime Minister Gyurcsany and Bajnai together gave details of the plans for the next two years, during which about 2,800 billion forints will be spent on 271 projects. Out of these 271 projects 191 have already been accepted and contracts can be signed within six months. However before signing the contracts Bajnai’s office will conduct a very thorough examination of the proposed expenses. They will make sure that no unnecessary expenses will be encountered.  Another 80 projects met with governmental approval theoretically, but they still need further work and refining. In addition, by the end of the year there will be approximately 150 projects for which regions and local governments can apply.

Among the projects for the next two years one can find investments of national significance, educational programs, and 123 different projects for highway construction. As far as the development of infrastructure is concerned another 882 kilometers of highway can be built. When an application is approved, the project must be finished within three years. Otherwise, the European Union wants its money back.

Among the projects of cultural and historical significance is the Hungarian Royal Castle’s renovation. The cost will be about 22-23 billion forints, of which the Hungarian government will shoulder about 10 billion. The rest will come from Brussels and the private sector (about 12-13 billion forints). The Museum of Fine Arts will have a new underground section. The Franz Liszt Academy’s more than one hundred year old building will be restored. The Hungarian government’s contribution here will be 10 billion forints. The Szentendre (north of Budapest, along the Danube) outdoor museum will have a new northern Hungarian village, a market town typical of the Hungarian plains, and an old historical railway station. The different parts of the outdoor museum most likely will be connected by a miniature railroad. In Balatonfüred, in the old early eighteenth century city center will be a new building for a local history collection and for an information center. The planners kept a watchful eye on the tourist industry, which is of great importance for the country’s economy. According to people familiar with tourism, the Hungarian share lags behind for example the Czech Republic and, of course, behind Austria.

In Sárvár, close to the Austrian border, the city hospital will be modernized and a new wing will be built and it will serve as a rehabilitation center for the whole region. Between the Danube and the Tisza rivers where almost desert-like conditions exist, several projects will be built in order to increase the water supply.

These are only examples of some of the many, many projects. Once these monies are pumped into the economy, there should be an immediate improvement in employment and economic growth. No wonder that Viktor Orbán would very much like to have early elections because although it is true that if elections were held today the Fidesz would win, this situation most likely not going to remain so indefinitely.

A few months ago poor Bajnai appeared on the early morning political interview show on MTV and the three reporters attacked him mercilessly that there is only talk, talk, and talk and no money. Not a cent. When will the money come? Bajnai tried to explain that a lot of work must be done before the projects’ contracts can be signed, but the reporters were not satisfied with his answers. Now at last they can be satisfied that the money is more or less allocated and with January 2008 work on the actual projects can begin.

Cops in crisis

July 25, 2007 Comments off

In Hungary there is one centralized police force–until recently under the watchful eye of the minister of interior, nowadays under the minister of justice and security. A month or so ago there was a major personnel shakeup. The government fired the chief of police of the entire police force, László Bene, a surprisingly intellectual looking officer, and the chief of police of Budapest, a not so intellectual looking Péter Gergényi. The triggering event was the alleged rape of a young woman by policemen in the early morning in downtown Budapest. Right there on the street. In daylight. The story didn’t sound too convincing to me, and I thought Prime Minister Gyurcsány acted a bit hastily. As it turns out, my suspicions were not without foundation. Although there is still no final verdict, it looks more and more as if the five policemen accused in the affair were not guilty of rape but perhaps of some extortion. Of course, since the firings the prime minister has frequently been asked by reporters whether, given these new developments, it would not have been prudent to wait until the investigation was finished. Gyurcsány’s answer invariably is that his decision to fire the two men preceded this event: several other things had taken place that showed a deep crisis within the Hungarian police force. For example, cameras recorded a policeman after a bank robbery taking a large amount of money from the bank. Another story that came to the surface was that a group of policemen who patroled a certain highway received bribes from a tow truck company in exchange for preferential treatment in highway accident calls.

In addition to the problem of corruption, the police have also not been particularly talented at solving criminal cases. Let’s start with one of the worst crimes ever in Hungary. Five years ago, two men broke into a small branch of the Erste Bank in Mór. In the course of the robbery (with a very modest take) they killed eight people. The police responded quickly; on the same day they named two men whom they were already looking for as suspects in another crime. Unfortunately these were not the bank robbers. A few weeks went by and the police came up with two new names. One was subsequently convicted and, despite only circumstantial evidence and often conflicting testimony, received life without parole; the other’s case is still pending. Fast forward to a few months ago, when the police were looking for another murderer in another town in another case. One thing led to another, and it turned out that at last they had their men. For example, the fingerprints of one of the new suspects matched those found in the bank (which, of course, didn’t match those of either of the two earlier convicted men). One of the newly charged men, in pre-trial custody, took justice into his own hands and committed suicide in his cell. It seems that prisoners are supposed to clean their own cells, so a mop is kept in the cell. The arrested man opened the window, put the mop across, made a rope out of his sheet and hanged himself. A botched end to a botched case.

There are also many unsolved high profile cases. About ten years ago a wealthy businessman was driving in broad daylight somewhere in Buda and stopped at a red light. A car pulled up next to him and shots were fired. The businessman was dead. The DNA of the perpetrator is available, but in ten years nothing has been unearthed.

In February, fifteen shots were fired from a machine gun at the Hungarian police force’s headquarters in Budapest. The police to this day have no idea who did this or why. Although there were eyewitnesses who, among other things, pointed the police to a black Volvo, the police until now have found nothing.

Last fall’s disturbances began with the "siege" of the MTV (the Hungarian Public Television) building. A few days before the "siege" a recording surfaced on which one can hear a distorted male voice in the name of "Soldiers of Democracy" threatening to set the capital on fire if the government did not resign before September 20. The next day the MTV’s siege took place. The police found again nothing and they have since stopped the investigation.

The last major unsolved crime is the murder of a Fidesz councilwoman in Debrecen. She was killed in her own home on April 7. In this case there is not even a suspect.

These cases may cast doubt on the professional competence of the Hungarian police (though, of course, there are cold cases in every country). But there is one area in which the situation has improved. In the past, especially during the Orban government in which the minister of interior was the former chief of police, it seemed that the police force chose not to pursue some politically sensitive investigations. For instance, the police dragged their feet when probing corruption cases that would have been embarrassing to the government. They simply couldn’t find people, even when it turned out that the person’s address and telephone number was in the telephone book.

So now the police force has a new chief. Let’s hope he’s tough on corruption and smart on detection.

The doctors and health reform

July 25, 2007 Comments off

A new opinion poll was published today that gives insight into the thinking of approximately 40,000 Hungarian doctors about the health care reforms still under way. This is the first solid indication of what we all suspected: most of the doctors’ political views lean toward the right. Most of them reject the reforms, although they admit that the reconstitution of Hungarian health care is necessary.

If one looks at answers to questions about specific aspects of the changes one might think that the doctors are actually supporting the reforms. They agree, for example, that the non-paying freeloaders must be eliminated, most of them agree that certain surgical procedures do not require a hospital stay, they think that certain hospitals should offer specialized services, they also think that perhaps it would be fair to establish a first come, first served principle to schedule surgical procedures because even they realize that "gratuity" can decide who will be operated on tomorrow and who in three months.  There were sixteen questions all told, and out of these sixteen in only four cases did the majority say that the reforms were harmful or not beneficial. These were: changing membership in the Medical Association from compulsory to voluntary, introducing a minimal fee for certain drugs, closing certain hospitals, and prescribing generic drugs unless the patient insists on non-generic.

But when it came to questions concerning the general scope of the reforms, the opinions were less favorable. Only 10% of them said that they more or less support the reforms, 22% said that they are somewhat against the reforms, and 23% are outright against them. The main reason for the rejection is undoubtedly job or income insecurity. It is one thing to accept the reforms in theory and another to feel the possible negative effects of these reforms on their own lives. Eighty-five percent of physicians working in hospitals claimed that some jobs were lost as a result of the reforms and only 39 percent of all doctors could report improvements.

It is hard to judge the accuracy of these reports about the situation in the hospitals or in the offices of primary physicians because, when they were asked about their income, almost half of them claimed that in the last year their incomes were significantly lower than before: 16% less. Moreover one-third of those asked refused to answer any questions concerning their income. Of those who answered, only half claimed that they ever received any "gratuity." As usual, the givers and the receivers remember differently about the sum of these "tips."  Those who admitted receiving a "gratuity" claimed that the monthly sum was, on average, 46,000 ft. That would be about 11 billion forints nationwide. Patients remember (in another poll done by the same polling company) more than the double this amount: 28 billion forints. The doctors claim that since the introduction of co-payment their income from "gratuity" has fallen by 40 percent (which, of course, again may or may not be accurate). One interesting footnote: the majority of the doctors, just as the majority of the population, think that "the gratuity is unfair, but one must live with it because one cannot put a stop to the practice."

Of course, their financial situation influences the doctors’ opinions. The family physicians and doctors who work with special contracts feel that their situation is better now than before, mostly because of the introduction of co-payment. Within the hospitals the doctors in higher positions complain most because they claim that the reforms have already negatively affected their incomes. The young doctors in theory support the reforms but are afraid that they will be the first ones to lose their jobs if someone is let go from the staff.

However, it seems that money is not everything and here comes the question of political commitment. Even the family physicians who benefit from the co-payment would vote "no" on a possible referendum on the question. Here they follow their favorite party’s lead. After all, the Fidesz initiated the referendum on this and other health-related questions. Perhaps it is unfair to say that the Hungarian doctors’ resistance to the reforms depends on their political leanings, but one thing is sure: according to the poll, three-quarters of them would vote for the Fidesz or one of the other opposition parties at this moment. I might add to this that the Hungarian medical profession was always very conservative. My hunch is that even if the reforms have beneficial effects in the next three years, they will still vote for right-wing parties.

Hungarians are enterprising

July 23, 2007 Comments off

Every sixth or seventh Hungarian is a businessman. That is, he has registered himself as the owner of a company. The number of businesses grows but, alas, so does the number of bankruptcies. In the first half of this year there were almost 30% more bankruptcy proceedings than during the same period last year. We are talking about 9,390 such cases. Most of them end without the slightest hope of survival. Yet the number of newly registered businesses has grown again by more than 10,000. Right now there are 1.2 million businesses in Hungary. According to experts, only 200,000 would be warranted given the size of the country. For comparison, in Austria there are 340,000 small businesses.

Some of these so-called enterprises are the results of pressures of circumstances. For example, the "enterpreneur" lost his job and had a little money to invest. So, he tries his luck as a businessmen. Most of them work in the building industry or open a small shop. The competition is fierce, and there is also a black market competing with the registered businesses. No wonder that the number of bankruptcies is so high. However, it seems that bankruptcy doesn’t discourage people. Out of 19,000 new business owners 17,500 already went bankrupt at least once.

Starting a business is always a high risk proposition. The Small Business Association claims that only two-thirds of small business startups in the United States survive the first two years and that less than half make it to four years. Very few, however, declare bankruptcy. Perhaps the difference between American and Hungarian business bankruptcies is the level of startup capital, perhaps a difference in bankruptcy laws.

Whatever the case, the fact remains that there are too many very small businesses competing for a fraction of the Hungarian public’s disposable income. I assume that eventually the situation will change. According to György Vámos, secretary of the Association of Merchants, a certain movement toward larger business units is already noticeable. Let us hope so, because this is certainly not a healthy situation.

One country or two?

July 22, 2007 Comments off

Sometimes one wonders. If you pick up the Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation)–once a respectable paper, but by now nothing more than the mouthpiece of the Fidesz, the political situation is outright terrible. I couldn’t find anything about today’s opening of a very important new bridge at Dunaújváros across the Danube that will open the area on the left bank of the Danube to foreign investment. This region was previously very difficult to reach and could be approached only through Budapest. Thousands tried to be the first ones to cross the bridge on foot. I couldn’t find anything about the 90 billion forints that the New Development Plan will allocate to "research and development" in the next few years. I couldn’t find anything, not surprisingly, about the fact that the number of signatures on a protest against gay bashing is growing rapidly. By now, over 800 well-known names can be found on the list.

But what can one read in Magyar Nemzet? Interesting things, for sure. One item is the unveiling of a memorial alongside Highway 47 where there have been several fatal accidents in the past few years. The memorial reads: "To the Memory of Souls." It seems that in 2002 Highway 47 was upgraded to a four-lane highway except for a four kilometer section that is still unfinished. This highway connects Orosháza and Szeged, and goes through Hódmezővásárhely which is a Fidesz stronghold with a mayor and parliamentary member, a certain János Lázár. Mr. Lázár’s name has been bantered about lately for two reasons. One was his greediness when it came to compensation for his alleged expenses connected to his parliamentary job. He got the highest sum of all 386 parliamentary members. The other was his inflammatory style. Perhaps the worst of his verbal abuses was his statement when a man died in the ambulance while being taken from Hódmezővásárhely to another city’s hospital that "this man was the first victim of the health reforms." He also accused the minister of health of genocide. An investigation revealed that if anyone was guilty, it was Mr. Lázár’s hospital, which refused to treat the patient.

Once again this weekend Mr. Lázár didn’t mince words. At the unveiling of the memorial he accused the government of not finishing the four kilometers of the old two-lane highway because it wants "to punish Hódmezővásárhely." Thus the government would rather endanger its citizens’ well-being; in fact, it kills people because Hódmezővásárhely didn’t vote the right way. And he added: "this is an excellent example of human viciousness."

What else is wrong? Everything. Yes, it is too hot and most of the ambulances don’t have air conditioning. As the other papers announced, the ambulance service (state owned) is planning to purchase new airconditioned vehicles, but there are about 900 ambulances and one cannot change the whole fleet overnight. According to Magyar Nemzet the Fidesz demands the immediate installment of air conditioning in all of the ambulances. According to their experts it would not cost much: "only" half a billion forints.

The government spokesman today announced that the ministry of health is planning to create "mobile pharmacies" for villages where there is no pharmacy in the vicinity. This is reported in Magyar Nemzet thus: "The government closes pharmacies in the villages." They add: "first they closed post offices and now they will close pharmacies. First came the mobile post office, now comes the mobile pharmacy."

Another headline reads: "No extra money for schools or hospitals." The news comes from an interview in Népszabadság with Gordon Bajnai who is in charge of the very substantial financial help that Hungary will receive in the next seven years from the European Union. The allocation of this money is of critical importance for the country’s future. Greece used its money very badly, Ireland very well. In any case, Bajnai spoke of some unacceptable requests for different projects. For example, small villages were asking two billion forints for refurbishing their schools. Bajnai pointed out that the whole yearly budget of these communities was no more than 20-30 million. He added: "We want to refurbish 700 schools and we have to be very careful about the money. We figured the amount per student." The Magyar Nemzet’s translation: "No extra money for schools or hospitals."

One really wonders how long things can go on like this.

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