Month: April 2008

International trends and the Hungarian situation

Bill’s comment inspired me to write about the provincialism of large segments of Hungarian society. For these Hungarians at least three things stop at the border: physical movement, information, and the economy.

In spite of the relative ease with which Hungarians can cross western and northern borders, most people don’t travel abroad but spend their vacations in Hungary. And, of course, a lot of people, especially people in the villages, go nowhere. I have already talked about the poor language skills of Hungarians, which may explain some of the reluctance to venture outside the country.

This lack of knowledge of a foreign language that would enable a person to read foreign news or literature also puts a damper on the flow of information. For a number of years now I have been following the growth of the internet, looking at different political forums, corresponding with people from Hungary, and I am struck by the difference in outlook between those who speak English, German, or French and those who know no language other than Hungarian. Navigating the internet itself requires some rudimentary knowledge of English, and although Hungarians are offering a lot of Hungarian-language sites, the information about a given topic in Hungarian is still poor in comparison to, let’s say, English. It is enough to mention Wikipedia’s Hungarian version. It is not really good for much. While the internet availability of Hungarian television stations is superior to English or American offerings, which is great for me, it does little to expand the horizons of those residing in Hungary. As for Hungarian coverage of foreign affairs, "foreign" often means "regional." Occasionally I can learn something that was not reported here about Serbia, Slovakia, or Romania, but news about the United Kingdom, Germany, or France is fairly sparse.

Perhaps most distressing, large chunks of the population (especially the older folks) think that the Hungarian economy exists in a vacuum, contained by the borders, and that the government controls it. So, for instance, they believe that the government is directly responsible for prices, just like in the good old days. The government can decide that as of January 1 the price of bread, potatoes, oil, what not, will go up, and of course all these prices will rise–as they did! Reinforcing this belief are such announcements as "MOL is raising the price of gasoline by X number of forints," and since MOL is a monopoly (though no longer owned by the Hungarian state) some people think that it is the government that is raising the price of gasoline or natural gas. There is another factor that may play a role in the confusion: public transportation (MÁV, BKV, Volán) is still in the hands of the central or local governments. They are the ones who raise the fares. The same is the case with "district heating," which is in the hands of the local governments. Since the price of energy is going up, the fees for district heating are also climbing. And since most of those ugly Soviet-style apartment buildings that are so badly insulated use district heating, the monthly fees are enormous. Plus there are no thermostats to regulate the heating of individual apartments. Some of the apartments are so overheated that one has to open the windows while in others people are freezing. And who is responsible for all that? Naturally, the government.

The irresponsible opposition politicians add fuel to the fire. They criticize the government, specifically the minister of finance (who is actually doing a wonderful job at reducing the deficit), because he had to upwardly revise the predictions for inflation for 2007 and for 2008. I guess he was supposed to foresee skyrocketing agricultural prices or crude oil reaching $120 a barrel. But they argue that rising inflation is the Hungarian government’s fault. Underlying this argument is an isolationist view of economics. For instance, Viktor Orbán came up with the notion of a patriotic economic policy, whatever that means. It certainly sounds isolationist. Kádár also thought that world trends could be stopped at the borders. The oil crisis of the late 1970s wouldn’t reach Hungary but, surprise, surprise, it did. Even then, when the borders had barbed wires and towers watching whether anyone tried to cross illegally. People might have been stopped leaving Hungary, but economic forces had no difficulty entering. There is no "Hungarian answer," as Orbán’s second minister of finance thought. Actually the current problems began with this finance minister’s "Hungarian answer," which based economic calculations on internal consumption. It was during his tenure, beginning in 2001, when the deficit began to spiral out of control.

The new Hungarian cabinet

One cannot say much about the six new ministers except that, in their photo flanking the prime minister, they are a singularly unattractive lot.  One is wearing a pair of slacks that seems to be about three inches longer than his legs. Another one stands with his legs at least a foot apart. However, it would be unfair to judge them by their looks or poses. What is a bit worrisome is that for the most part they are political unknowns. I’ve heard of three of them: one for a longer period of time, the other two only recently. The one whose name has been familiar to me for some time is István Gyenesei, who will head the ministry dealing exclusively with the local governments. He is the sole independent in parliament (elected with some help from the MSZP). Considering that most of the local governments are in Fidesz hands, perhaps Gyenesei’s appointment will help relieve the tension between the central government and the localities. Also Gyenesei as a member of the cabinet will certainly vote with the MSZP delegation. The second person’s name resonated with me only when I heard that he was the president of the Budapest Engineering University. An academic who started his career as an assistant professor and climbed the necessary academic rungs to reach the top. He will be minister without portfolio, a new post, dealing with research development. The third name is Tamás Székely who until now was the director of the National Health Fund. His name wasn’t exactly a household word until about two weeks ago when Ferenc Gyurcsány asked him to negotiate with the family physicians who threatened to strike if the government doesn’t compensate them for the revenues lost from co-payments. The doctors are happy but whether this is good for Hungarian health care we don’t know yet. In any case, he will be the next minister of health (in twenty years the eleventh!). Then came three appointees unknown to me: Erika Szűcs, an MSZP old-timer who is very much liked in MSZP circles. She is also the deputy mayor of Miskolc, a formerly thriving industrial town now on the decline in a poor part of the country. She will be the new minister of Labor and Social Services. Mónika Lamperth who has been in the cabinet since 2002, was asked to leave her government position and busy herself with party affairs. Everybody keeps repeating that this is not a demotion. Then there are the two unrelated Szabós, Imre and Pál. Szabó (Taylor) is a very common Hungarian family name. Imre Szabó will head the Ministry of the Environment and Waterways (Gábor Fodor had praise for him). He is also an MSZP insider (president of Pest County MSZP). And Pál Szabó will be minister of transportation, telecommunication and energy. He has an extensive business background (already in the Kádár regime). For a while he worked in the private sector, but in 2002 he was named head of the Hungarian Postal Service where he did apparently a very good job.

And there is Gordon Bajnai who keeps going up and up and up. First he was entrusted by Gyurcsány to handle the European Union subsidies, later he became minister in charge of local governments and regional development. Now his work also includes the country’s economy plus national development. Bajnai is perhaps thus became the most important minister in the cabinet. Needless to say that the favorite pastime of Hungarian journalists continues concerning Bajnai’s future. There are some who think that he will be Gyurcsány’s successor. Of course, the whole thing is ridiculous; Bajnai is a technocrat without any political background or connections. If MSZP thought that Gyurcsány were not suitable for the job they would not turn to Bajnai but to someone in the upper echelons of the party. However, for the time being that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.

As for the future accomplishments of this cabinet, only time will tell.

Propaganda and persuasion: Hungarians look at themselves and Hungary

Lately two fascinating polls were taken. Both dealt with the question of how Hungarians perceive their own and the country’s economic situation and prospects. The results are, at least on the surface, baffling. Or perhaps not. Figyelő, a paper dealing mostly with economic issues, asked Szonda Ipsos to conduct a survey about Hungarians’ state of mind concerning the country’s economic situation and prospects. At the same time those questioned had to answer parallel questions about their own households. Let’s first see what people said about their family’s situation: 13% considered it excellent, 70% good, 7% bad, and 8% terrible. At the same time, when the same people were asked about the economic well being of the country, 0% thought it was excellent, only 8% said it was good, 33% considered it bad, and 53% pronounced it outright terrible.

The other assessment came from Tárki and was even more interesting because it allowed us to look at perceptions over time. By and large, the results were the same: people considered their own situation superior to that of the country as a whole. What I found was surprising in the Tárki results was that Hungarians’ optimism concerning themselves and the country has been declining ever since 2003. One ought to keep in mind that in 2002 the Medgyessy government raised civil servant and employees’ salaries by 50%, a decision which today virtually everybody realizes was a huge mistake, one for which the country has been paying heavily in the last two years. However, between 2002 and 2006 real wages grew by 30% and pensions by 40%. And yet pessimism deepened.

Tárki was also interested in what people think of the coming year. Only 10% thought that life will get better, 37% thought that it would remain the same, and 53% were sure that their living standards would decline. This at a time when things are actually getting better. Tárki also asked people what percent of the Hungarian population they think is poor. The answer was unbelievable: 61%! By objective standards it is estimated to be 15%. So while the respondents think that they themselves are living quite well, for some strange reason they think that almost two-thirds of the population is outright poor.

In trying to account for the negative bias in people’s perception of their present circumstances versus their future circumstances and of their own situation versus that of the country as a whole, I think one has to point to the barrage of "negative-speak." While they themselves don’t notice any terrible hardship, they believe the constant refrain of the opposition and the chorus of economists that the country’s situation is utterly dire. Although it is true that the economy has slowed since the austerity program began and the international economic situation is not helpful, the fact is that there is no economic crisis. However, if people hear nothing but that the end of the world is at hand, people will believe it. Why wouldn’t they? After all, they are no macroeconomic experts.

However, if the above is true, how was it possible that in 2006 the voters didn’t believe the Fidesz slogan that "we live worse than four years ago?" Well, if I am right, they didn’t believe it because they personalized the message; Fidesz said they were supposed to live worse and they knew that wasn’t true. Perhaps Fidesz should have said: "Hungary is in an economic crisis!"

The end of the Hungarian coalition

Today the SZDSZ Meeting of Delegates overwhelmingly voted to leave the coalition. There were 434 "yeas," 53 "nays," and 32 who abstained. Among the "nays" was Kálmán Kovács, Gábor Fodor’s undersecretary at the Ministry of the Environment. With this decision something entirely new came into being in Hungary: a minority government. And since it is new, most Hungarians don’t quite know what to do with it. The politically savvy keep saying that in other countries there have been minority governments for years and everything went along splendidly. Yeah, the skeptical Hungarians say, but this or that country is not Hungary. In this country, where the state of political culture is so low, it is impossible to imagine a functioning minority government. Ferenc Gyurcsány, of course, is optimistic, although both he and Ildikó Lendvai, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, admit that before every vote serious "discussions" must take place to make sure that the government’s proposals have the necessary number of votes.

Not only is the minority government a novelty in Hungary but also a government that is not a coalition. Even when a party had a clear majority, for one reason or other a coalition government was formed. The Horn governement (1994-1998) asked the SZDSZ to join them because they wanted to assure the rest of Europe that their reappearance as a serious political force didn’t mean the return to the one-party rule of the Kádár regime. In 1946, the Independent Smallholders’ Party won an absolute majority, but because of Soviet pressure they had to let the communists and the social democrats join them. Thus every freely elected Hungarian government since 1946 has been a coalition government. This is the first time that MSZP alone is shouldering governmental responsibilities.

Europeans love coalition governments and shudder when they hear the phrase "two-party system," as is the case in the United States and for all practical purposes in the United Kingdom. They think that it would be the end of the world if only MSZP and Fidesz, the two major parties, could get into parliament and the two small parties simply disappeared or found themselves outside the walls of parliament. (I didn’t forget about the Christian Democrats but they are really a phony party, a creation of Fidesz. A few Fidesz members simply created a new caucus in order to have more positions in the different committees for their party. Otherwise, out in the real world this party has no followers.) People in countries where coalition governments are not the order of the day find coalitions an awful nuisance. The bickering between MSZP and SZDSZ both in the Horn government and since 2002 bears out this nuisance theory. I’m also sure that the socialists would have been much happier if they had managed to garner a few more votes, gain an absolute majority, and not need the liberals. It didn’t work out that way: they needed an additional four members of parliament in order to form a government alone. Now they are alone and six votes short. (Six and not four because two members due to illness cannot fulfill their duties.)

My feeling is that in spite of the forthcoming difficulties of their minority status, the socialists are somewhat relieved that they are the lords of their own manors. The prime minister, anticipating the departure of the liberals, began looking around for new ministers and while he was at it decided to make a few changes in the governmental structure. To my taste there have been too many changes in the governmental structure over the years. Practically every new government comes up with several new ministries, they divide some, they collapse two into one, or they abolish a few. I think that for serious work within a ministry there is a need for stability. One shouldn’t abolish certain positions only to reintroduce them under some different name as seems to be happening right now. Before the second Gyurcsány government each minister had two undersecretaries: a political and an administrative undersecretary with some resonances to, though a level below, what the British call a permanent secretary. As we know from "Yes Prime Minister," the TV comedy series, the permanent secretary loyal to the Civil Service runs the show while the government appointee knows practically nothing about the workings of the ministry or the issues. Gyurcsány decided to abolish the position of the administrative (who wasn’t at all permanent in Hungary) undersecretary and have only one deputy (undersecretary) of the minister. As the prime minister explained today in a television interview, that decision was not a bad one as some of his opponents charged because the administrative undersecretary was running the ministry while the minister only "supervised" it. However, it seems that after all one undersecretary is not enough and thus Gyurcsány is now smuggling back another undersecretary with a different title and a different job description. The number of undersecretaries on the whole will not be more than now. There are talks about creating the position of "secretary general" in the ministries who will have "coordination duties." This also sounds a bit vague to me. In other walks of life, in my experience at least, coordination means doing nothing or very little.

Otherwise, although András Bánó, the reporter conducting the interview, tried his darndest to find out names and the exact nature of changes in the governmental structure, Gyurcsány only smiled mysteriously. However, we found out that there will be great emphasis on development and on investment in research and education. It will be tomorrow evening that he will make his decisions public. Among his new appointees more will come from outside than from the party leadership. Surprisingly, we found out that there were at least four people who would have been willing to take the post of minister of health. (There are some very brave people in Hungary, it seems.)

One more thing: in June there will be new elections in SZDSZ and as far as I can see at the moment, Gábor Fodor will be the new party chief. Fodor thinks that the coalition should be restored although only after new lengthy negotiations about the future of the coalition. It is somewhat difficult to imagine that the new ministers appointed now by Gyurcsány will be terminated in two months because their jobs are needed by SZDSZ representatives. Unless, of course, there have already been some behind the scenes negotiations between Fodor and Gyurcsány concerning the people to be appointed. Perhaps some of these outside "experts" are also acceptable to SZDSZ. This is just a wild guess on my part but it does sound plausible.

Goy Bikers and the press

No, I haven’t lost my mind. The members of this motorcycle gang call themselves Goy Bikers. If you ask them why, the answer is "because they like the name." Are they antisemitic? Oh, no, far from it. They are only "Christian and national." They also seem to be irredentists and consider themselves the successors to those Magyars who arrived in the Carpathian basin in the last years of the ninth century. Successors to those group of people who with their periodic raids kept the West fearful. Those "adventurers" were known to be excellent horse- and marksmen who on their fast horses could hit their victims while sending their arrows backwards. The emblem of the Goy Bikers therefore makes sense. Goj_motorosok2

Except they sit on motorcycles and not on horses. Very expensive motorcycles. And there are many of them. Every weekend they have an outing. Among the scheduled events have been trips to villages where a lot of Roma (Gypsies) live and where some kind of a crime was committed by Gypsies. It is clear that their intent is to frighten people, people they don’t like. If they don’t like the government then they will try to disrupt some official function as on October 23, 2006, at the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956. They roared by during the unveiling of a memorial to the revolution and made such noise with their bikes that not a word could be heard of Domokos Kosáry, perhaps the greatest Hungarian historian of the twentieth century, who himself spent years in jail after the failed revolution. Let me add that Kosáry at this point was in his nineties.

Anyone who is interested in their activities and their political ideas, if you can call them ideas, should visit their website: where you can order a handsome T-shirt (all in black, of course) pronouncing "I’m a goy!" And by the way, don’t think that there are only a handful of these people who, according to their website, don’t believe that "parliamentary democracy expresses the will of the people."

Until now the main targets were Gypsies, but the Goy Bikers finally decided that they had had enough of the media too. Not all the media, of course, but those who "provoke" them. In a biweekly satirical publication, Hócipő, a journalist named Iván Andrassew who is actually a full-time member of the social democratic paper, Népszava, wrote an article about the Goy Bikers in which he poked fun at them. The Goys didn’t like it. Didn’t like it at all. The answer was to have a Goy Bikers’ demonstration against Népszava on April 29th. This will be a show of force, aiming to frighten the staff.

One has to keep in mind that Népszava is a social democratic paper with a proud tradition. It was established in 1873 and thus is the oldest Hungarian daily. Until  1948 it was the official paper of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party and as such it has gone through a lot: mostly bad things. During the Austro-Hungarian monarchy the Hungarian government wasn’t exactly crazy about the social democrats who in those days were much more to the left than they are today. During the Hungarian Soviet Republic (1919) Népszava was attacked by communists and anarchists. After the fall of Béla Kun’s regime (August 1919) came Miklós Horthy and his national army officers who were certainly no friends of social democracy or Népszava. Two of the paper’s journalists were kidnapped and assassinated. The perpetrators were never punished. The paper was often censored during the Horthy regime, and after the Germans occupied Hungary Népszava’s building was ransacked. After 1948 the communists made sure that Népszava lost its independence; it was relegated to being the official newspaper of the trade unions. Népszava, however, revived in 1990 and it has been a voice of the left ever since. Thus, it supports the socialist government but also gives space to moderate right-wing opinions as well.

The Hungarian left-liberal press and people who are against this resurgence of neo-nazi activism are outraged. Ferenc Gyurcsány promised to be there, in front of the building where they are going to hold a peaceful picnic. Whether the Goy Bikers show up or not, we will see, but if they come they will look like this:


I told you, there are a lot of them and these guys are not poor. Look at those bikes. Millions of forints worth of metal and very few brains in the heads.

“The Night of the Long Bytes” Revisited

On February 20, 2008, I wrote about Zoltán Gubuznai who was Lajos Simicska’s right hand man as the computer wizard at the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service (APEH). When Simicska was named to head the office, the opposition cried foul. After all, Simicska was a close friend of Viktor Orbán, and he was heavily involved in rather shady financial affairs concerning companies owned by Fidesz. These companies were not successful and left behind substantial debt, including some unpaid taxes. The debts couldn’t be collected because, through the good offices of a less than honest lawyer, Fidesz managed to "sell" these companies to foreign nationals whose names came into Simicska’s and his friends’ hands through lost or stolen passports. So it was no wonder that the suspicion arose that Simicska’s appointment was somehow connected to getting rid of incriminating material at APEH. A decision from the top brass to give employees a long weekend further fueled suspicions. The name "Night of the Long Bytes" was born under these circumstances.

After the change of government, the new administration decided to carry out an investigation at APEH, looking for destroyed documents. Nothing surfaced, but the investigators came to the conclusion that somebody did manage to get to individual records without authorization. As it turned out, that man was Zoltán Gubuznai who years later tried to blackmail Sándor Csányi, the richest man in Hungary and president of OTP, Hungary’s largest bank. Csányi received several e-mails during November and December of last year in which Gubuznai demanded 50 million euros. Not a small sum. Csányi turned to the police, Gubuznai was arrested, and he is still in jail because the authorities feared he would flee. And now comes the really juicy part. It turns out that one of the owners of the Finder Detective Agency was none other than Zoltán Gubuznai. Thus there is a real possibility that the documents Magyar Nemzet published yesterday and today (and promises more for tomorrow) actually were given to the newspaper by someone who works at the prosecutor’s office.

To review briefly the revelations of Magyar Nemzet. In the first installment we heard about an unnamed firm and an unnamed client. Unnamed client hired unnamed firm to spy on Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán, and István Kalmár. In the second installment we learned that the firm was Finder Detective Agency, and the man who ordered the detectives to go to work on the project was László Kapolyi, MSZP parliamentary member, head of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, and a rich man whose business interests include energy and electricity. Kapolyi didn’t deny that he hired Finder, but according to him it had nothing to do with politics. He was suspicious of certain foreign businessmen and wanted to know more about them. In the end he didn’t pay the bill presented (for 55 million Fts) because Finder didn’t fulfill its obligations.

Then today came the third installment. The plot thickens. Actually, says Magyar Nemzet, Kapolyi was only the middle man. The real man behind the hiring of Finder was László Keller, the prime minister’s undersecretary in charge of investigating some of the shady business transactions of the Fidesz government. This time the paper produced details of a note taken in which Finder outlines the possibilities of a probe into the affairs of Fidesz. And let me quote: "(1) We know the route of money laundering with the help of [László] Horváth [a Hungarian businessman and honorary consul in Kazakhstan], through Arabic, Kazakh off-shore companies and lawyers’ offices…. (2) We have all the authentic details of Dr. Lajos Simicska’s activities during the so-called Night of the Long Bytes. (3) For the unveiling of Simicska’s incriminating activities in the Magyar Követeléskezelő we need extra money. [The mentioned firm was part of the Hungarian Investment Bank, a favorite bank of the Fidesz government. For example, it was this bank that moved some of the government expenses off balance sheet so these expenses didn't show up as a budget deficit. Otherwise, this firm seems to be basically a collection agency.] (4) The material concerning activities of István Kalmár is hidden in a well secured place. It will need time and money to unearth everything. (5) We are working on Dr. Viktor Orbán’s affairs, details of which we will be able to provide in a week or two. (6) [Something about TETRA, a computer language.] (7) We will be receiving some documentation concerning Tamás Deutsch’s past misdeeds and his connection with SZDSZ." This laundry list, real or imaginary, was obviously intended to make Finder rich. There is a recurring litany about "more money needed."

Keller is abroad at the moment, but he doesn’t deny that he met with a representative of Finder who could be Gubuznai. Keller’s contention is that he couldn’t ignore somebody who was offering information to the government about the possible misdeeds of its predecessor. After all, that was his assignment. However, after the initial conversation either he or somebody in his office decided that it was better not to get involved with these guys. Meanwhile, it turns out that Gubuznai protected himself by recording his conversation with Keller. The recording was made illegally, and Keller claims that it is heavily edited. This is where we are at the moment.

One thing that really upsets me in this imbroglio is the possibility that information of this sort is being leaked from the prosecutor’s office to Magyar Nemzet, a paper specializing in mud slinging and discrediting the MSZP-SZDSZ government. If this is true, it is no wonder that the whole judicial system is suspect. Prime Minister Gyurcsány didn’t mince words when yesterday he expressed his misgivings about the Hungarian judicial system as it currently functions.

By the way, two relevant bits of news. Yesterday about a couple of dozen right radicals entered the Budapest council meeting. They came with whistles and eggs, but these items were taken away from them before they were let in. Deprived of whistles and eggs, they used only their throats. Upshot: the meeting was cancelled. Reason: the police have no right to remove these "demonstrators." And second: the Budapest court decided that Népszava is guilty of claiming on basis of documents they received that Katalin Kondor, former head of Magyar Rádió, was an agent working for the Hungarian Interior Ministry during the Kádár regime. The judges found the expert witnesses (historians) reliable, but they were still not convinced that the documents proved that Kondor was actually working for the security police. Népszava is supposed to pay 3.5 million forints. But the judges were actually nice: Kondor demanded 10 million.

Another Magyar Nemzet fiasco

The latest Magyar Nemzet sensation didn’t even last a day. As suspected, the government was not spying on Viktor Orbán, Lajos Simicska, and István Kalmár in December 2002. But at least this time it was the Magyar Nemzet and not Viktor Orbán who goofed, or lied. Orbán was simply "not surprised." After all, with these communists anything is possible.

Magyar Nemzet decided to reveal some of its secrets, naming the person and the private detective agency who were involved. The man who ordered the "manhunt" was László Kapolyi, MSZP parliamentary member and president of the Hungarian Social Democratic party. In addition, he is one of the richest men in Hungary. A few years ago, on Magyar Hírlap’s list of the top hundred richest people in Hungary, Kapolyi ranked number thirty-four. His business dealings involve energy and electricity. His company, System International, already in 2001 had 20 billion forints’ worth of business. The private detective agency’s name was Finder.

Kapolyi admits that System International had a contract with Finder (signed on December 18, 2002), but it was a general contract (keretszerződés) without specifying any person. Finder’s job was apparently to keep an eye on the different companies belonging to System International "in order to ensure their integrity." Kapolyi emphasized today in a formal statement that "in the contract the question of politics or names of politicians were not mentioned." Finder apparently turned in a bill for 55 million forints plus sales tax. The accounting firm working for Finder subsequently asked System International to return the bill so it could check on some of the details. For whatever reason, neither Kapolyi nor his firms ever paid a penny for Finder’s so-called services. So the latest pseudo scandal just died. Or at least it seems to have died. Knowing Magyar Nemzet, it may have another life. Or the paper might have to come up with a new salacious scoop.

As for Fidesz’s sad financial state I found an excellent cartoon in today’s Népszava.


On the table there is a broken piggy bank. The caption reads: "We must have early elections. Not only the country is broke!"

Indeed, if Fidesz were in power, getting money would be a cinch. However, through the local governments, mostly in Fidesz hands, maybe the party could get hold of some money from the European Union subsidies. It wouldn’t take much in terms of percentage points to do the trick. Perhaps they could even fill up the coffers again. It seems that even MSZP’s occasionally naive members are waking up to this possibility.

Lajos Kósa’s and Ervin Demeter’s reactions were outright hysterical. Their latest is that they will go to the trusted members of the Constitutional Court. However, Péter Boross, former minister in charge of national security affairs, announced this morning on Napkelte (the morning political program on MTV) that this is nonsense. There is nothing unconstitutional about the government’s plans. He blamed the brouhaha on ignorance on the part of the mayors and hasty action on the part of the government. The government should have known that mayors are ignorant. Boross, who is well versed in Hungarian political, legal, and constitutional history, likes to call all people younger than himself (and he is close to 80) ignorant. Someone I don’t think that ignorance is the problem this time.

Hungarian pseudo scandal expanded

"To strike while the iron is hot," an idiom both in English and in Hungarian, seems to be the Fidesz strategy in creating yet another pseudo scandal. As if the current "surveillance" weren’t enough, Magyar Nemzet came out with an unsigned article entitled "Manhunt after three men." The article talks about an alleged surveillance carried out by the Medgyessy government way back in December 2002. The targets were Viktor Orbán, Lajos Simicska, and István Kalmár (former head of the Hungarian Postal Service, Magyar Posta). But, of course, one has to be very careful with Magyar Nemzet as it is well known for its unfounded or misleading reporting.

It seems that the paper got hold of a proposal from an unnamed private detective agency. This proposal, according to the article, came about as a result of "political instigation" (politikai ösztönzésre). Whatever that means; I for one can’t make any sense of it. What kind of "political instigation" are we talking about? Magyar Nemzet likes to be oblique. The "political instigator/instigators" whispered something into the ears of the head of the unnamed firm sometime in November 2002, and on December 13 the firm sent a proposal to somebody. Magyar Nemzet doesn’t reveal the details. We have no idea where this letter was sent. Was it the prime minister’s office where at that point László Keller as undersecretary was in charge of checking on the many very shady financial affairs of the Orbán government? It remains the newspaper’s secret.

In this letter the firm promised that they would gather documents about the criminal activities of Simicska, Kalmár, and Orbán. They promised to gather information about Simicska’s activities as the head of the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service where allegedly Simicska and his friends managed to get rid of some uncomfortable pieces of information about earlier Fidesz companies and their demise. (By the way, the official investigation at the Internal Revenue Service couldn’t come up with anything tangible about the destruction of documents.) As for Kalmár, the author of the letter claimed that he had committed tax fraud. And as for Orbán, the letter claimed that the firm would produce documentation of the former prime minister’s "illegal enrichment of himself and his family, for example, through real estate purchases in Paris." They asked 95 million forints plus expenses for their services.

I assume that the Magyar Nemzet actually managed to get hold of a letter, but we don’t know more than that. We don’t know whether it’s real or fake. We don’t know the sender or the recipient. And we have no idea whether the unknown addressee ever responded to the detective agency’s offer.

The government is investigating while Orbán is not surprised. According to him, the socialist government learned these tricks from the Kádár regime. They simply cannot get rid of the old ways of the dictatorship. "There is nothing new under the sun…. I have known our opponents for a long time. The Hungarian people has had enough time, more than forty odd years to get to know them."

While one could read Magyar Nemzet in the morning, in the afternoon one could have the pleasure of hearing Lajos Kósa talking to György Bolgár in his call-in show. He went a mile a minute without interruption starting with greeting not only Bolgár and the listeners of KlubRádió but also "Comrade Kovács." Who is Comrade Kovács? He is the unknown agent who is listening in on his telephone conversations. (Although later he corrected his earlier statement: not listening now but could listen if this law went into effect.) He talked incessantly and so fast that by the end one hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. But I think that was his aim. I loved a short note by a listener who wrote in the internet forum attached to the show: "Does he ever take a breath?" Why are they this nervous?

This morning Népszava published an article from which we learn that Fidesz is awash in debt. In 2006 the party took out a loan for 1.5 billion and last year an additional 400 million. It is hard to fathom how they could pay everything back by 2010 as they swear they will. This is a heck of a lot of money. Especially for a party in opposition which lost the last two elections.

A new pseudo scandal in Hungarian politics

Such pseudo scandals are called air balloons (luftballon–what a good Hungarian word). It is quite apt: you poke a hole in the balloon and only air comes out of it. Thin air. Nothing tangible. The latest pseudo scandal is that the opposition (more precisely Fidesz) is warming up an old story that had already turned out to be a "luftballon" once. The government, they claim, through the National Security Office (Nemzetbiztonsági Hivatal), is spying on opposition politicians. Government operatives listen in on their telephone conversations, agents follow them, spies are active.The whole works. This kind of accusation failed once. Shortly after the Orbán government was established, during one of the first parliamentary sessions, Viktor Orbán rose and dramatically accused the former MSZP-SZDSZ government of having spied on opposition politicians before and during the election campaign. After months of investigation it turned out to be a "luftballon." To this day it is not clear whether Orbán was misinformed and acted too hastily or whether he just concocted the story. Opponents of Orbán think the latter; a standard refrain is "sure, that man never lies, just think of the surveillance story."

Well, we didn’t get to actual surveillance yet. Only the fear of surveillance, although Lajos Kósa, mayor of Debrecen and one of the vice presidents of Fidesz, already seems to know that big brother is listening to his telephone conversations. (What I don’t understand: why didn’t he report this to the police? Apparently he as an official has the duty to do so.) The fear of surveillance is based on the government’s intention to offer security protection to local governments who will have large amounts of money at their disposal thanks to the generous European Union subsidies. Basically, the central government is offering to vet the individuals and businesses whom the municipalities plan to hire to complete the EU-funded projects. Surely, argues the government, the local authorities would like to know whether the people they are dealing with are on the up and up. To help ensure that there will not be any money laundering, that contractors won’t just split with the money, that no organized crime connections exist. Well, this was translated as spying on the local goverments which are mostly in Fidesz hands after the Fidesz sweep at the October 2006 local elections.

There are two people who are the loudest. One is Ervin Demeter who nowadays is just an ordinary Fidesz parliamentary member but who at one point was the cabinet minister responsible for questions of national security. He rose to this position in a rather unseemly way. He was the MDF undersecretary to László Kövér. This ministry was a Fidesz slot. When Kövér resigned to run the party, Demeter succeeded him the only way he could–by immediately leaving MDF and becoming a member of Fidesz. MDF was stunned, and it was perhaps Károly Herényi who called Demeter "a bread and butter politician" (megélhetési politikus). In any case, Demeter’s reputation was tarnished by this switching of parties solely for the sake of a promotion. Demeter is also not known to be an intellectual giant. But what he lacks in brains he makes up for in spades in pushiness. His performance yesterday in parliament was unspeakable. In vain did Katalin Szili, speaker of the house, tried to restrain him. It doesn’t seem to make the slightest difference what György Szilvássy, the man responsible for national security matters, says, Demeter and Kósa go on with their accusations. Today they even organized an "international press conference" on this very serious matter. Despite the central government’s assurance that the national security protection is not compulsory, that only those local governments who ask for it will receive it, the attack continues.

Meanwhile I’m wondering: why? They burned themselves once with the surveillance business. Why bring it up again when, on the surface, it would seem that this story has nothing to do with opposition politicians? There’s one possible explanation. The government is offering a free service to the local governments, so the municipalities might feel some pressure to accept the service. But if at least some local politicians have something to hide, if they are afraid of having their business relationships exposed, the last thing they would want is some national agency taking the moral high ground. This, of course, is not unique to Hungary or Fidesz (though Fidesz has a reputation for skirting the edges of legality). I live in Connecticut, where our former governor served time for, among other offenses, receiving gifts from contractors doing business with the state and taking an ownership stake in businesses just before they were awarded state contracts. And would he have wanted some federal agency poking its nose into his business? Of course not. Anyway, if the Hungarian government’s offer is decried as a form of spying so that local governments feel no need to accept the offer, then perhaps the seemier side of political life can continue. Just a hypothesis. . . .

Family doctors in Hungary

Since we have no idea what will happen with the family doctors’ lost income from the co-payment, let’s review the current system of paying family doctors. There are about 7,000 family doctors in Hungary who either practice alone or share a practice with one or two others. To establish a practice the family doctor has to have a contract with the local government and with the OEP (National Health Fund). The financing, to my mind, is illogical: these doctors are paid not on the basis of services rendered but simply according to how many patients (of particular age groups) they have. There is a cap to the number of patients who can sign up with Dr. X or Dr. Y. The cap affects doctors in the cities, but is irrelevant in villages where the population has dwindled. Currently there are 134 doctor’s offices where there is no permanent doctor. Another pecularity to my mind is that doctors spend only four hours a day in the office. During the other four hours they allegedly visit patients at home. This might be convenient for some people, but it is an inefficient use of existing resources.

Because these doctors’ monthly "pay" is based solely on their patient population, it is not to their advantage to have sick patients or to perform procedures that they certainly could do (some of them even have specialties) if they can refer the patient on. To give an example. I know a family doctor from the internet; in our discussion group the question of ear cleaning came up. In the U.S. your primary physician cleans your ears, if such a procedure is needed. It’s a simple procedure. You don’t have to be a nose, throat, and ear specialist to perform the job. Yet this particular Hungarian doctor sends his patients to the specialist because, as he said, "nobody pays me for that job." And indeed, from his point of view, he is perfectly right. Perhaps I wouldn’t do it either if I were in his shoes.

During the long negotiations between MSZP and SZDSZ I had inside information that MSZP was planning to change the payment system to one based on services rendered. To help mitigate fraud, the patient would receive a copy of the claim the doctor sent to the insurer. Definitely a step in the right direction. Alas, the idea was dropped. There are new murmurings that the financing of family practices will be put on an entirely new footing. I’m curious what will happen this time.