Archive for September, 2008

Fidesz political culture and its consequences

September 30, 2008 1 comment

Yesterday the honorable members of the Hungarian parliament gathered again at their first open session of the week. The video of the session is already available on the site of the Hungarian parliament. Here is the link. In order to access the speeches one must click on the length of time in the third column:  I am especially calling attention to the speeches of Imre Iváncsik, undersecretary of national security, and the short answer of Ervin Demeter who, after all the evidence to the contrary, announced that neither he nor Fidesz had anything to do with UD Zrt. The loud laughter of the MSZP members attests to the ludicrousness of this claim.

Iváncsik spoke three times, and it was after the second time that an overly sanguine Fidesz member of parliament in a rather loud voice shouted: "You'll be hanging!" The Fidesz member, Sándor Arnóth, is a new addition to this particular parliamentary session although he was a member of parliament earlier. He joined Fidesz in 1994 and two years later became a member of parliament. In 2002 he won again, but in 2006 he lost the election and had to be satisfied with a place on a county list from which he didn't managed to move into the parliamentary delegation. However, three months ago József Pálinkás, Fidesz member of parliament, was elected president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and he resigned his seat. The party decided on Arnóth as his replacement. Arnóth is the mayor of Püspökladány, a town of about 8,000. Otherwise, he used to teach history to high school students.

The outcry that followed Arnóth's outburst was so loud that Viktor Orbán acted right on the spot. He and Arnóth disappeared  behind closed doors in the parliament building and fifteen minutes later Arnóth resigned. I think that the faces of these two men tell a lot. Arnoth Sandor es Orban Viktor  Yesterday evening a political commentator applauded the swiftness of this decision. As he said, other parties wouldn't have acted so rapidly. Well, I'm not sure whether speed is such a virtue. To my mind this case again shows that Fidesz is not a democratic party. It is enough for the chairman to sit down with Arnóth for fifteen minutes and the whole thing is over. Not like the removal of Kornél Almássy from MDF. There the delegation unanimously voted on his removal from the party and hence from the delegation, and that decision was reached only two weeks after the revelations of Almássy's duplicity. By the way, yesterday Almássy was sitting among the independents, and an MDF member with a good sense of humor put a nice big orange on his empty desk. The orange is a Fidesz symbol.

As for the success of Fidesz at confusing an issue that reflects badly on the party and its leader one must say that they are masters of what Hungarians call "blurring." Indeed, I have already received letters from Hungary, admittedly not from the brightest bulb on earth, who admits that she doesn't have a clue what is happening. A television station asked its viewers to vote on which party is guilty in this case: half of them said Fidesz, the other half MSZP! One must admire these guys' skill in confusing issues so thoroughly that people don't understand what happened. When it is so simple.

Those who wanted to know the details could listen to the tapes or read the newspaper articles, listen to the interviews, from which it is crystal clear that there was a private firm engaging in, among other things, illegal activities. That firm managed to infiltrate government offices, break into e-mail accounts, and look into bank accounts. It was also spying on politicians and government employees. The National Security Office became suspicious, got permission from the judiciary for a wiretap, and behold what did they hear one day? Two important Fidesz politicians having conversations with the CEO of this firm. In one conversation the head of UD Zrt. is scheduling a meeting with László Kövér "to report" to him, while in the other Ervin Demeter is asking the same man for information on the comings and goings of the head of the National Security Office. So there is nothing mysterious in this case. Yet Fidesz has managed to confuse people by repeating false accusations about the illegal wiretapping of politicians. In order to make the accusation stick, to have more punch, they are even suing György Szilvássy, although they must know that the prosecutor's office will not pursue the case. (Or, at least, I hope not.)

By the way, after what we now know about UD Zrt. a lot of people are wondering whether József Horváth and his associates had anything to do with excellent quality tape that recorded Ferenc Gyurcsány's speech at Balatonőszöd in the summer of 2006 and that was made public in September, shortly before the municipal elections. A not unreasonable hypothesis. Perhaps we will find out because according to Imre Iváncsik the evidence is overwhelming. He was talking about thousands of documents and months that would be necessary to analyze them. And I hope that my Hungarian informant is not right when she predicts that all these will remain state secrets for at least 125 years!

The Hungarian conservatives: MDF

September 28, 2008 1 comment

I guess I haven't really spent enough time on MDF although it's a party I cheer on as a vital part of the Hungarian political landscape. Earlier I wrote about the origins of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum in the spring of 1990, shortly before the change of regime. I also wrote about the divide between the populists (narodniks, népiesek) and the urbanists in Hungarian literature between the two world wars. Most of the people involved with MDF at the beginning were in some way influenced by the populist tradition while the successors to the urbanists gathered in SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége = Association of Free Democrats). These were the two large parties at the time but by now both are very small. MDF nearly died as a result of the extremely difficult first four years in power while SZDSZ shrank to practically nothing after agreeing to form a coalition with the socialists. According to some of the recent polls neither party could get into parliament if elections were held next Sunday. However, this is not the final word on these two parties. They have been many times close to extinction, but at the end a miracle happened: they reached the magic 5% of the popular vote. The most unexpected miracle was MDF's revival as a totally independent party at the last elections. They refused to cooperate with Fidesz because they didn't consider Fidesz a truly conservative party. Indeed, it is not. Viktor Orbán is willing to look both to the far right and to the left if he thinks that either move will help ensure his goal of regaining power. If I were to dare predict the future of these two small parties, I think that MDF has a greater chance of survival at the moment than SZDSZ whose recent strategy has been ridiculous, perhaps even suicidal.

There is a very outspoken, funny, and often undiplomatic man, a historian called András Gerő. His field is late the nineteenth century, mostly the Habsburgs, but he is interested in and quite knowledgeable about a wide range of things. He also has some unconventional opinions about current affairs. Most of the time I find him very entertaining. A few days ago Gerő  was a guest on András Bánó's new show, A tét (The Stake) which I compared to Washington Week in Review. The four invited guests were discussing the present political situation and Gerő in his characteristic way burst out: "I simply cannot understand the leaders of these two parties. Here is this MDF whose leaders want early elections when it is quite clear that they would find themselves out of parliament." Well, this is just one odd thing about the MDF strategy. Ibolya Dávid, whose party was almost stolen from her by Fidesz at least twice, repeats with each election that "we are not going to help either Viktor Orbán or Ferenc Gyurcsány become prime minister of Hungary."

Or just yesterday the grand old man of MDF, Péter Boross (80), briefly prime minister of Hungary after József Antall's death in 1993, categorically announced that "the party would never lean toward the left because that would be incompatible with the heritage of József Antall." My first question would be: what would MDF do if election results were such that MDF could determine the outcome by opting to become a coalition partner with either Fidesz or MSZP? According to Boross they would get together with the same Viktor Orbán who twice tried to ruin their party. And because of the alleged "heritage" of Antall, they would refuse to cooperate with Ferenc Gyurcsány. Well, someone who is as proud of his knowledge of Hungarian history as Péter Boross is should know that Gyula Horn's socialist party of 1993 (Antall died in December of that year) is not the same socialist party as today's. Gyurcsány is not Horn. A small party like MDF shouldn't say such things because there might be a time when they would have to sit down with the socialists to talk about their common future. After all, the same Péter Boross tells at least twice a month in Napkelte (Sunrise in MTV) that today's right reminds him of the right of the 1930s. He talks about the right-wing newspapermen's activities then and now and how similar their styles are. He adds every time that this is very dangerous. Surely, under these circumstances it doesn't make sense to be hidebound just because of the heritage of József Antall. A party has to to be flexible. Its leader must decide what is good for the party and the country.

And very briefly, let me recount what happened to young Kornél Almássy who a few weeks ago announced his candidacy for Ibolya Dávid's position. Apparently, he went around the country to gather support from party leaders and was quite successful. But then came the CD that reached Ibolya Dávid. On it was a telephone conversation between an official of UD Zrt. and Sándor Csányi, president of OTP, about certain people very close to Fidesz who want to use Almássy to remove Dávid. Dávid had a brief heart-to-heart with Almássy who withdrew his candidacy and urged his supporters to stand behind Ibolya Dávid. For two weeks he couldn't be reached, but suddenly two days ago he reappeared in a press conference. I don't know what kind of assurances he must have gotten from Fidesz, but they had to be substantial. After all he must have known that after his press conference he would be kicked out of the party and MDF's parliamentary delegation. According to parliamentary rules, a man in this situation must sit with the "independents" and only after six months can he change party affiliation. There is no question where Almássy will be once the six months are up. But surely, this wasn't all. I'm almost certain that Almássy was promised a favorable position on the Fidesz list to ensure his election to parliament the next go round. So he decided to speak. Unfortunately, his "tell all" was over the top.

His stories about being blackmailed by the MDF leadership reminded people of gangster films about the 1920-1930s in Chicago. (Yes, but with an action hero comic book twist.) He claimed that one of his supporters was kidnapped by members of the Hungarian FBI (who wore badges) and who kept him locked up in an apartment somewhere in Somogy County. He claimed that an unknown man approached his wife and two small children and tried to frighten them by recounting what terrible things would happen to them if Almássy didn't immediately abandon his quest to become the head of MDF. He announced that the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service (APEH) decided to look into his wife's finances when his wife has been at home with the children receiving the modest child support every young mother is entitled to. He claimed that the same supporter who had been kidnapped phoned another supporter of his and asked him to throw his cell phone into the Danube because of God knows what. According to Almássy, at the meeting of the nominating committee the Hungarian National Security Office's men kept order and displayed their "weapons," allegedly to frighten him and his followers into submission. Moreover, these HNSO people were capable of zapping the cellphones of certain people in the room. These cellphones "burned out."

No wonder that Károly Herényi, head of the MDF delegation, said that the revelations about Almássy's activities unhinged him and that he should seek psychological help. Indeed, I wonder what Viktor Orbán thought of this performance. I'm not sure whether Fidesz struck a good bargain.

“Polypgate” in Hungary: new developments

September 27, 2008 2 comments

This morning I found an article in Népszabadság announcing that the complete contents of the CD received by members of the parliamentary committee on national security had been uploaded overnight on YouTube. Yes, all thirty-two of the telephone conversations out of which Fidesz made public only seven. The mystery man who put them up was januspannonius68. Janus Pannonius (1434-1472) was the only really notable poet of the Hungarian Renaissance and the Bishop of Pécs.  Perhaps our man's first name is János just as Pannonius's Hungarian name was. Pannonius in this case simply means Hungarian. What 68 is, I'm less certain but perhaps it has something to do with the "student revolution" of 1968 whose fortieth anniversary was celebrated all over Europe, including Hungary.

The Népszabadság article had links to seven or eight of the telephone conversations and I listened to them via these links. Then I put the YouTube site among my "favorites" with the intention of going back to the original site to listen to them all later. That was a mistake. A few hours later when I tried to reach januspannonius68's audios, they were gone. The message was that because of "violation of terms" the tapes were taken off of YouTube. That was certainly fast.

Luckily an internet newspaper, Hírszerző, gave brief descriptions of those telephone conversations Népszabadság found important enough to mention. They were internal conversations held between employees of UD Zrt. and did not involve Fidesz. It seems that the seven tapes Fidesz published were indeed the only ones directly linking Fidesz to UD Zrt. But the new tapes make it crystal clear that the UD guys were involved in criminal activities. (I don't know Hungarian underworld vocabulary, so I'm at a disadvantage when it comes to fleshing out these conversations.)

Two conversations center around the illegal purchase of a machine gun. I know nothing about guns either, but my understanding is that this particular machine gun was very powerful. From the conversation it is not clear who the potential buyer is, but the price was set at "sixty rugós." Help me out again–is this like calling a five-year term in a U.S. prison a nickel?  I'm familiar with the ordinary meaning of the word, but according to a Hungarian dictionary of slang expressions "rugó" means a 1,000 Ft. banknote. Can one really buy a machine gun with forty rounds of ammunition from an underworld source in Hungary for 60,000 Ft.? Sounds like a steal to me.

A very long telephone conversation was about breaking in or spying on a lawyer's office not far from Parliament on Bálint Ballasi Street. The caller reports that he surveyed the scene and found two unoccupied apartments in the same building that could be rented to keep an eye on the situation. He also says that some of the telephone and internet lines run outside and are therefore fairly easily accessible. In addition some wireless eavesdropping might be contemplated, and he casually mentions that the lock on the door is of the ordinary kind. The law firm apparently specializes in mergers and acquisitions.

Another conversation begins with a discussion about tracing Gordon Bajnai's movements, friends, e-mails, telephone conversations. Another charming conversation is about putting pressure on someone who owes money to the parents of a certain István Macskásy. The nice guys of UD Zrt. had a little chit-chat with the debtor and they "gave him until February 15, but after that we will break his hand… [and] this actually means that the boys will show up on the tenth and if necessary they will take him." I wonder where to. UD Zrt. was also interested in money laundering. Someone would like to know where some money landed in Cyprus and was told that finding out about the details "is not half an hour, it is a fairly long affair, it costs money." The UD employee adds that "we have our friends over the big water who can help, but it is true that in such a case the cash register often clicks."

As for spyware there is a conversation between a woman and a man. The woman is asking for a program rewrite of spyware that was placed on the computer network of MOL, the Hungarian oil refining company. The man is obviously not too happy with the prospect of rewriting the program but the woman indicates that the program as it is is useless. From the conversation it is evident that this was not the first occasion that UD's computer wizards were working on the program because the man reassures her that "this is no longer in such a state that someone easily can discover it."

So this is the company two Fidesz politicians, two former ministers in charge of national security met with frequently. These are the people who received requests from these well-known Fidesz politicians to check out their political opponents.

As for who might be responsible for the januspannonius68's audios on YouTube I have no idea. At first, when I heard that the thirty-two conversations had made their way to the internet I was almost certain that the government was involved. After all, Szilvásy's hands are tied, and certain important MSZP leaders were making noises about finding a way to make these conversations public. But who has the right to take them off? Perhaps UD's friends "over the big water" helped? My total unfamiliarity with this world prevents me from even guessing.

“Polypgate” in Hungary

September 26, 2008 Comments off

We know a little more today about this whole sordid affair than we did yesterday, but not much more. One reason for the news fog is the Hungarian parliamentary structure, where minority parties can chair parliamentary committees. The chairman of the committee on national security happens to be István Simicskó, nominally a member of the Christian Democratic delegation. As I mentioned earlier, this whole Christian Democratic delegation is really a fiction. There is no party behind it. There were originally some Christian Democrats, but their party disappeared; today's Christian Democratics got into parliament from the Fidesz list. Then some of them got the bright idea to form a separate delegation because that way Fidesz could increase its committee representation. And while they were at it they decided to put twenty-two people into the delegation in order to have a larger body than SZDSZ even if only by one member. Simicskó thus ended up in the Christian Democratic delegation.

The parliamentary committee on national security has been boycotted by Fidesz and Christian Democratic parties ever since last December because of the appointment of Sándor Laborc as head of the National Security Office. According to rumors, prior to Laborc's appointment the secrets of the National Security Office were "open secrets." Leak followed leak and these leaks most likely first went to Fidesz and from there to Magyar Nemzet. Eventually, the government got fed up and nominated Laborc in whom they obviously had trust. Fidesz (and of course its appendix, the Christian Democrats) were mighty upset and used Laborc's Soviet background as an excuse to vote against his appointment. The committee has eleven members and last April MSZP and SZDSZ had six members out of the eleven. Thus they had the majority. But then came József Gulyás (SZDSZ) who decided to vote with the opposition against the Laborc nomination. However, parliamentary committees have no veto power, and Ferenc Gyurcsány decided to go ahead with the nomination. Because the government needs only a simple majority vote in parliament to confirm an appointment, Laborc became the head of the Hungarian FBI. Fidesz was furious and decided to boycott the weekly meetings.

To complicate matters, according to parliamentary rules, committee meetings can be scheduled only by the chairman. Until now the following scenario took place. Simicskó, the chairman, scheduled the meeting in order to conduct ordinary business, but he and three Fidesz members were not present. But since the "polypgate" story broke, Simicskó has been unwilling even to convene the committee.  And, of course, without an official meeting nothing can be accomplished. Thus, on Tuesday Szilvásy couldn't present his evidence because it wasn't an official meeting of the body. Eventually yesterday Szilvásy, upon the request of the MSZP members, gave them a CD containing the alleged proof, but no official discussion of the evidence is possible because there is no scheduled committee meeting.

Once MSZP members received the "smoking gun" CD, Fidesz members also demanded a copy of the CD. Szilvásy obliged. Now the situation has become very complicated. Szilvásy is unable to make the CD containing the documentation public because he needs the approval of the people involved. And surely he will not get that approval. At the same time Fidesz decided to make public seven telephone conversations because László Kövér and Ervin Demeter, the people on the line, agreed. Apparently there are thirty-one telephone conversations on the CD. Fidesz made seven available and put them on the Fidesz homepage. Anyone interested can find the seven tapes here: Needless to say, Fidesz released only those tapes that they considered safe. Four out of the seven are no more than calls discussing the time of meetings. Kövér is especially careful about not saying anything on the telephone. There are three conversations between him and József Horváth of UD Zrt. and all three are only about future meetings. The fourth such conversation is between Demeter and Horváth, but this is a bit more telling. It turns out that Demeter had tried to reach Horváth earlier but his cell phone was off "because [Horváth] had a meeting with Laci [nickname of László Kövér]." From that one can gather that meetings between Kövér and Demeter, both members of the committee on national security, and Horváth were frequent. According to rumors there are close to two hundred such telephone conversations and SMS's.

On the disclosed calls Demeter asks Horváth some questions. One is quite innocent. There was a huge disagreement between Fidesz and the government concerning help from the National Security Office to check past activities of firms who will be getting European Union funds. That was interpreted by the opposition, rightly or wrongly I have no idea, as a national security check on their own people in the local government. One must keep in mind that in most of the local governments Fidesz is in the majority. When Fidesz complained and accused the government of not quite honest intentions, Szilvásy answered that this was the situation during their tenure as well. Demeter simply wanted to know from Horváth, then employed by the National Security Office, whether this was the case. So that was innocent enough.

The other Demeter-Horváth conversation was less innocent. It is clear from the conversation that Horváth was asked to check out Laborc's travels and his movements in general. That apparently belongs to the category of state secrets and therefore receiving such information must be illegal. The conversation Fidesz put on their homepage tells the sad story that the investigation was unsuccessful. "Unfortunately" Laborc was not paying a visit to Russia. Moreover, he doesn't even meet most likely secret service types attached to the Russian embassy. Not like his predecessor. Most likely, Horváth adds, he does all that purposely, although if he followed his real inclination he would be having beer with these security guys from Russia regularly.

In the last day or so Fidesz went all out, deciding that the best defense is a good offense. Again, the government is on the defensive and because of the legal restrictions the playing field is not exactly level. Szilvásy cannot say anything, can't give any proof, while Fidesz can come up with seven fairly innocent conversations. Meanwhile, most people who listened to the CD are convinced that UD Zrt. indeed acted as a shadow national security office. If this is true, Kövér, Demeter, and any other politician involved should be banished from political life. However, knowing the Hungarian situation, this is quite unlikely.

The Hungarian intellectual elite

September 25, 2008 1 comment

I know that I should say something about the "polypgate" affair that is getting to be more and more interesting and more and more confusing. "Polypgate" is the new name for the latest political scandal in Hungary. The name is the result of something György Szilvásy said about UD Zrt. According to the minister UD Zrt. developed a network that was like a polyp that spread its arms all over the country and over all sorts of government agencies. In any case, "polypgate" is getting increasingly difficult to understand mostly because the people involved are making every effort to hide their roles and original intentions. More than that, they are trying to put the blame on the other side. By now the young Kornél Almássy (MDF) has regained his voice and is telling horror stories about the illegal activities of the government security officers. The lawyer of UD Zrt. is suing select newspapers, television stations, and, by name, József Debreczeni. Sándor Csányi is writing letters to the police complaining about computers that were seized at the headquarters of UD Zrt. but in fact belonged to him. And on top of everything Fidesz made public seven conversations between László Kövér and Ervin Demeter and József Horváth, an owner of UD Zrt. Needless to say, out of all the tapes only those were made public that contain no incriminating evidence. Meanwhile, the MSZP-SZDSZ members of the committee on national security got the proof they asked for and are certain that crimes have been committed. In return, the legal expert of Fidesz, Róbert Répássy, is demanding Szilvásy's resignation. I hope that in a day or two we will understand a little bit more. So today I would rather talk about an article by Péter Róna, the economist, who can write intelligently not only about the Hungarian economy but also about Hungarian society–in this case, its intellectual elite.

The article, a critique of László Lengyel's recent forays into the political sphere, is entitled "Authority and Democracy." By way of background here's a brief bio of Lengyel, who claims to be an economist, a political scientist, and a writer. Well, it is true that he wrote a lot of books, mostly collections of political essays. As far as his academic credentials, the only degree from an academic institution I could find was a law degree from ELTE (1969-1974). Yet he became a "candidate of economic sciences" in 1985. The "candidate" degree was something like a Ph.D. but the degree was given out by the Academy of Sciences. It was a copycat version of the Soviet system.

Lengyel was an important figure in the late 1980s when he worked for the Pénzügykutatói Intézet (Institute of Monetary Research) and was the co-author of an influential book called Fordulat és reform (Change and Reform). Lengyel joined the Communist party as a young man, allegedly because he wanted to reform it from within. The authorship of Fordulat és reform cost him his membership in the party, and from there on he was a revered figure in circles opposing the Kádár regime. In any case, Lengyel became a well known figure who besides writing on economic topics also specialized in political science. Mostly prognoses of what will happen in the future. His claim to fame was that none of his predictions ever panned out. His analyses usually revolved around personalities whom he liked to compare to animals. Perhaps he got the inspiration from Isaiah Berlin (The Hedgehog and the Fox).

Róna thinks that Lengyel is typical of a certain segment of the Hungarian intellectual elite. This elite imagines a political arrangement that is the result not of the popular will but is based on the leading role of the intellectuals. He was apparently the first person to come up with the "government of experts" as a solution to Hungary's alleged ills. Róna in this article that appeared in Népszabadság (September 24) is actually arguing with something Lengyel wrote in the same paper (September 13) entitled "In No Man's Land." Róna accuses Lengyel of proposing to ruin the reputation of the political elite (be it either left or right) to ensure the leading role of the intellectual elite.

Róna then continues to dissect what Lengyel has to say. According to Lengyel Gyurcsány's trustworthiness is questionable because his program "was written in three days, he didn't consult with anyone, and this is the seventh variation" of his ideas. Thus, the problem with the program is not its content but that it was written in a short time. The fact is that this essay was a very well prepared study that showed serious work, most likely by a score of people in the ministry of finance. Another alleged problem was that the prime minister didn't consult with the intellectual elite or at least with the party's presidium. Róna rightly points out that the party's presidium is not an elected body. Let's assume that the presidium doesn't support Gyurcsány's ideas. Does this mean that the prime minister cannot share his ideas with the nation?

Róna then goes into some detail about Lengyel's penchant for comparing political figures to either animals or Shakespearian characters. Lengyel's so-called analyses "ever since Cicero have been called ad hominem attacks that are looked upon in western civilization with suspicion if not contempt. However, this method of argumentation is the vocabulary and syntax of Hungarian public discourse today." What is important to these intellectuals is not the actual economic situation and the political program but whether "Orbán or Gyurcsány is a tiger, or who is a psychopath, a liar, a cheat, etc." The explanation for this "grotesque" situation can be found in Hungarian's society desire for a leader. Preferably a strong leader. Róna seems to have been struck, just as I was, by the findings of Pál Tamás's sociological study about the spread of right-wing ideology that supports his thesis by underscoring Hungarian society's need for authority. For someone who will tell them what to do. Róna feels that no change in Hungarian society at large can be expected as long as the intellectual elite "wants to have political power."

One thing is sure. While the business world successfully morphed from socialist production to capitalism, intellectual professions have refused to budge. It's enough to look at  health care or the Academy of Sciences that is very happy with the Soviet model that was forced upon it in 1948-1949. After all, it became a mammoth organization with hundreds of research institutes and very nice extra income for three hundred some academicians. Intellectuals heralded the change in the late 1980s but now they feel threatened. Deep down, I'm certain, they feel that democracy has cheated them of their leading role in society.

The other Hungary

September 24, 2008 3 comments

I decided to take a look at today's Magyar Nemzet and summarize its version of the news. It is definitely worth reading the leading right-wing paper now and again not because one can rely on its reports but because one finds an entirely different Hungary in its pages. After a brief account of today's (real) headlines, I will move on to the news items I found on the first page of the online edition of the paper. It is depressing reading and, if it's true that most Fidesz voters read only the Magyar Nemzet, it is no wonder that they think the country is on the verge of collapse.

First, the two most important news items of the day. The cabinet got together this morning and approved János Veres's proposed budget. After the meeting Veres summarized the current economic situation and gave a brief outline of the key items in next year's budget. One would think that the general provisions of next year's budget would deserve coverage by a leading daily, but no, the only thing the readers of Magyar Nemzet can learn from their favorite paper about the budget is that "according to Mihály Varga [minister of finance in the Orbán government] the budget doesn't provide answers to the real economic problems of the country." Period.

The other big item is that the government spokesman announced that József Bencze, head of the country's police force, revealed that he had received telephone calls from Ervin Demeter, former minister of national security under Viktor Orbán, and Sándor Csányi, head of OTP bank and the richest man in Hungary, who tried to convince him to stop the investigation of UD Zrt. Demeter's call took place on September 11, a day before Ibolya Dávid revealed the contents of the telephone conversation between János Tóth, co-owner of UD Zrt, and Csányi. Yet Demeter, according to Bencze's notes taken after the conversation, seemed to know that there would be revelations concerning the attempt to blacken the name of Dávid. The next day Csányi phoned Bencze complaining that the police took certain computers from UD Zrt. that belonged to OTP and therefore may contain confidential data. He wanted them back. All this sounds pretty devastating for some Fidesz politicians and for the head of OTP. Yet there's nary a word about these new developments in Magyar Nemzet. However, the paper mentioned that Fidesz members of the committee on constitutional matters walked out when the committee asked to hear what György Szilvásy had to say about this whole affair. The paper adds that they walked out because the telephone conversation and other evidence were "illegally made public."

So let's see what Magyar Nemzet found newsworthy. The very first item is that some Gypsy organizations are under investigation because they may have embezzled 140 million forints. Moreover, one of the well known Gypsy leaders, Orbán Kolompár, is among the accused. The next big item is that the IMF doesn't recommend lowering taxes without concurrently lowering expenses. Considering that the convergence plan will remain intact next year and that MSZP is fighting tooth and nail not to upset its balance sheet one wonders what Magyar Nemzet is talking about. Then there is another piece of bad news, reported all over the media, that Hungary's airline Malév that was purchased by a Russian firm is in trouble (given the high price of oil not surprisingly) and will have to let go quite a few pilots. Considering that Fidesz was against selling the airline in the first place in spite of heavy losses that had to be made up from the budget, it is not surprising that  Magyar Nemzet is happy to report this piece of news and adds maliciously: "the Hungarian government is not planning to step in." And while we are on the subject of Russia, the paper reports that Zsolt Németh, former undersecretary of foreign affairs who has been making sharply anti-Russian statements of late, announced that "the Southern Stream endagers Nabucco." As we know from other sources, Nabucco is in trouble quite independently from the Southern Stream.

Then comes another attack on the police and the way they handled the disturbances. On the whole, people praise the police for slowly but surely learning to handle street demonstrations and violence. But Magyar Nemzet must find something to criticize. Although the demonstrators can cover their faces, the policemen must have ID numbers prominently displayed. Zoltán Balog, Fidesz chairman of the parliamentary committee on human rights, began talking about "fictive numbers." First of all, we haven't read until now about any fictive numbers. However, there might be a duplication of numbers because the policemen came to Budapest from all over the country. And while they were on the topic, they decided to say something positive about the right-wing hard core. Magyar Nemzet proudly announced that no participant of Hungarian Democratic Charta was attacked by the "rabble." The word rabble was put between quotation marks, meaning of course that they don't consider them  to be such.

Péter Szijjártó had to resort to an old piece of news because it was more than a month ago that the news appeared about the price of a government home page that cost 200 million forints. Admittedly, this sounds like a very high price, but this site can be accessed by newspapermen who happen to be working outside of Budapest and it is only through this site that they can get the latest government news. Either Magyar Nemzet or Szijjártó decided to warm up this old topic and talk about "the shameless government squandering" when the country is in terrible economic shape. Another Fidesz parliamentary member, István Balsai, claims that cheap electricity goes to one of Gyurcsány's firms.

As for the UD Zrt. affair, according to Magyar Nemzet the government's "card of antisemitism and terror" didn't work and that's why they came up with this wiretapping business. The paper accuses István Hiller, minister of education and culture, of passing on billions to "circles close to him" from monies received from the European Union. And Ferenc Gyurcsány was impolite the other day when he opened another section of a super highway. The mayors of the nearby villages were not seated in front. Continuing its list of sins, the government is planning to kill the very profitable Szerencsejáték Zrt. (Hungary's state gaming company) by contemplating making online gambling legal. And if that is not bad enough, the firefighters didn't get their wages. And retail sales dropped by 2.2%. No wonder, when the pensioners will receive an increase of only 1.1%  next year. Finally, the Fidesz-leaning Nézőpont Institute (a think tank) came out with the latest. Even MSZP voters want early elections.

After that one can start crying. We know that good news is not news, but that much bad news is really unbearable. No wonder that those who read Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap, watch Echo TV or HírTV are as gloomy as they are. And this has been going on now for six years. The population of the country is hopelessly divided into two groups who see the world entirely differently.

Sources of information in Hungary

September 23, 2008 1 comment

First a few words about the sources of information available to Hungarian journalists from government sources. A lot of people complain that officials often refuse to answer inquiries. Thus, the general public doesn't always get the information it is entitled to. Then there is the question of information we who live abroad are able to gather. Sándor assumes, I think wrongly, that the information we can receive is somehow filtered. It is true that representatives of the media can attend press conferences, but a blogger considered to be a journalist (yep, yours truly) can gain access to government press conferences via the internet. It's true that I can't attend the press conferences of the non-government parties, but their homepages are fairly up-to-date. One thing I do miss is the kind of personal knowledge of people's backgrounds and motives. For example, X.Y. left A.B. paper and started an internet newspaper. I would like to know whether he left his earlier job on his own volition because that might give me insight into the profile of his new venture. Or I don't have knowledge of social networks: who is a friend of whom, who used to be a friend of whom. This kind of knowledge can come only from personal contacts. But otherwise as far as news goes I don't think that people living outside of Hungary are at a disadvantage.

In fact, often the journalist living in Hungary is as much in the dark as we are. A good example is this UD Zrt. case. Although György Szilvásy, minister without porfolio in charge of the National Security Office, claims that he has proof that his predecessors, László Kövér and Ervin Demeter, are involved in running a spy network through UD Zrt. he cannot say anything more because the law doesn't allow him to. So he goes to the parliamentary committee on national security where he tells the members (minus three Fidesz and Christian Democratic delegates who have been boycotting the meetings) that he has proof but doesn't have it on him. The members, not surprisingly, demand proof. So on Thursday Szilvásy will bring the proof. Why in the world didn't Szilvásy bring it today?  Dragging this whole thing out for another day or two only fuels Fidesz's accusation that Szilvásy is nothing more than "the producer of a soap opera," as Demeter described him.

I heard three participants report on the parliamentary committee meeting, and I must admit that I don't know a heck of a lot more than before. Szilvásy said that the investigation has been going on for over a year and that the investigators learned that the spy network was able to gain access to confidential state, business, and bank material. The spies targeted several government members in addition to members of parliament on both sides of the aisle–I assume MSZP, SZDSZ, and MDF. Péter Boross (MDF) said that if the National Security Office's allegations are well founded, these people (Kövér and Demeter) must disappear from political life. Szilvásy said that the investigation is now in the hands of the police and that the people under investigation are József Horváth and János Tóth, two owners of UD Zrt., and Tamás Morvai, an employee in charge of the computer network. Most likely he is the mastermind behind planting spyware on their targets' computers. The third person I heard was József Gulyás (SZDSZ), but he had nothing interesting to add.

Some of the statements on the other side were telling. Ervin Demeter, two hours before the beginning of the closed-door meeting of the parliamentary committee, announced at a press conference that the accusation against Fidesz is baseless. Demeter seems to be a bit too nervous because this is the second time that he anticipates events. He admits that he knows József Horváth and is in constant touch with him, but these telephone calls and meetings have nothing to do with anything illegal. Meanwhile János Tóth admits that Demeter wanted to find out something about "a possible private trip of Sándor Laborc to Russia." Recall that Fidesz (with some help from SZDSZ member József Gulyás) voted against the appointment of Laborc to head the National Security Office because he had studied in Moscow. Interestingly enough Fidesz had nothing against Laborc when he  worked in the National Security Office between 1998 and 2002! Then his four years in Moscow didn't seem to matter.

I'm sure that releasing dribs and drabs of the story doesn't help the government's case. It would be much better to come out with the accusations swiftly and in a clean manner. Leaks are inevitable and often the information that surfaces is not reliable. False reports allow the other side to attack. As it is, the lawyer for UD Zrt., Barnabás Futó, who usually handles cases for Fidesz, has already announced that he is planning to sue newspapers and journalists for spreading false information. He singled out for mention József Debreczeni, who did write a pretty devastating opinion piece on the alleged Fidesz involvement in the spy ring. István Stumpf announced today that he is suing Ibolya Dávid. Soon enough it will be a maze of suits and most likely the alleged illegal activties of Kövér and Demeter will be forgotten. Guilty or not, they will get off the hook. This is truly frustrating.

Reactions to last night’s events in Budapest

September 21, 2008 1 comment

First I want to talk about the unofficial reactions. The reactions of ordinary people, left and right. Some of the comments I received via e-mail, others I culled from various right-wing blogs or comments to articles about the events in on-line papers. On the left liberal side, people consider the latest "revolution" a joke. The last gasp of the extreme right. On the right, I noticed a certain embarrassment. How is it possible that "even the Gypsies" had an orderly, dignified demonstration while on the right the "rubble" once again managed to gain the upper hand? Some of the right-wing commentators try to distinguish themselves from this football hooligan mob by calling themselves "the national radicals" (a nemzeti radikálisok) as opposed to "the extreme right"–those burning cars on the street. Of course, this is a distinction that so far has been without a difference. But perhaps the extreme right is starting to splinter, as it has so often in the past.

My hypothesis was reinforced today by news items concerning four prominent figures of the extreme right. First, I read that the "captain general" (főkapitány) of the Hungarian Guard is quitting his post because of policy differences with Jobbik, the party that created the Guard. The "captain general" doesn't want to be the instrument of any party. The Guard, according to him, is a politically independent formation whose key task is to ensure the well being of the nation. Second came Dr. Attila Kakukk (can't let it go by without mentioning that "kakukk" in Hungarian is "cuckoo"), the president of Magyar Önvédelmi Mozgalom (MÖM/Movement of Hungarian Self-Defense). In his speech he attacked the people behind, a most extreme right web site that bounces around the world from ISP to ISP; it gets shut down on one only to reemerge on another. According to Kakukk is in the service of the Hungarian National Security Office. If anyone has the patience to look at the video made of the disturbances last night ( ) the crowd must be the ones in those idiotic outfits that Dr. Kakukk called "caftans." Dr. Kakukk, by the way, is a vet. And third there is György Budaházy, one of the best known characters of the group. Beside inciting people to riot, he was selling his own merchandise: flags, T-shirts, masks, and other presumably desirable items for those participating in last night's events. Apparently, that didn't go over too well with some of the others whose marketing sense is not so well developed as Budaházy's. Finally we have László Toroczkai of the Sixty-Four Counties Movement. Of course today's Hungary doesn't have sixty-four counties. (Greater Hungary, including Croatia-Slovenia, had 72 counties but Toroczkai is generous: he excludes Croatia's eight counties.) Thus we have an idea what kind of group that is. Toroczkai's most memorable words were: "Mi árpádháziak vagyunk, ők meg szarháziak." One doesn't have to know much Hungarian to figure that one out if one knows that "szar" means "shit." Toroczkai's boys from the sixty-four counties might not be the most beloved among the extreme right because the troubles began with them and it seems that some of the right wingers now think that this whole affair was an embarrassment that was over within forty-five minutes. However brief the encounter was, the damage was considerable because the escaping crowd managed to break everything they could lay their hands on.

The official reaction is the expected: Fidesz and the Christian Democrats blame Gyurcsány, the government, and MSZP for what happened. They provoked it. If they had just had the good sense to stay at home and not talk so much about democracy and the fear of neo-nazism, nothing would have happened. And all that talk about tolerance and love. (By the way, on one of the posters on the other side I saw the word "Hate" prominently displayed.) It is to the government's advantage to provoke these violent outbursts to prove that there is a right-wing danger when actually there is nothing of the sort.

Zoltán Balog, a protestant minister, Fidesz parliamentary member and a member of the parliamentary committee on human rights, accused the police of forcing part of the "peaceful crowd" into a nearby church and not allowing them to leave. This information came from Krisztina Morvai, the all-time "favorite" of our Sándor. (See his comment of today.) This of course defies the imagination. Churches are sanctuaries, protecting people against legal authorities. That is, cops can't go into a church and start rounding people up. Morvai has for a number of years been living in la-la-land. However, she's still a professor at the Budapest law school. It is awful to think what this woman must teach the future lawyers of Hungary. But I guess the university can't get rid of her because of contractual obligations as well as for "political reasons." Poor persecuted right-wingers in this communist dictatorship!

As for the fifteen people arrested. They are already at home. Just like in other dictatorships! I must say that I don't understand the Hungarian police. They arrest fifteen people for relatively minor offenses in comparison to the serious charges that could be leveled against those who incited the crowd: Budaházy, Toroczkai, Kakukk, Morvai, and the rest. As long as people can call citizens to arms against a democratically elected government with impunity the extreme right will remain energized. Unless, of course, internal strife weakens the cause. I'm betting that right-wing strife trumps police cowardice.

There is no end to violence in Hungary

September 20, 2008 3 comments

Everybody predicted that there would be trouble today. Three demonstrations were scheduled: (1) the Hungarian Democratic Charter initiated by Ferenc Gyurcsány but supported by many thousands who are worried about Hungarian democracy, (2) one of the Gypsy organizations that has had enough of Hungarian Guard and other anti-Gypsy formations, and (3) the far right that is against both the Gypsies and the Democratic Charter.

The Gypsies managed to get about 1,500 people together in an orderly, peaceful demonstration; the Charter people apparently gathered about 10,000. These two groups eventually merged into one. All went peacefully. Quite a few kilometers away at Heroes' Square the far right gathered. Their leaders urged them to fight, fight, fight. They talked about civil war, gave out black masks, and told the crowd to go and attack the enemy. Perhaps tomorrow I will know more about the size of the crowd; initial published estimates ranged from 500 to 5,000. After the fiery speeches followed by cries of "Fegyverbe" (To arms!) some of them started marching toward Parliament. They managed to rough up a newspaperman even before they began their journey. Some of them wore Arrow Cross uniforms, and the whole thing became an antisemitic and anti-Gypsy demonstration. Once they got to the square in front of parliament they tried to attack the Soviet memorial and the policemen who defended it. They threw Molotov cocktails, picked up cobblestones, burned cars, broke into a police car and stole its contents. The police answered with tear gas.

Some of them attacked groups of people who were leaving the Charter demonstration. One older woman was injured and, although we don't know yet about the severity of her condition, she was taken to the hospital. Fifteen people were arrested. What I would like to know is whether those who called people to arms and offered free masks and told them to attack others are among them. Because if not, these unspeakable acts will continue. Tomorrow we will know more.

A week in Hungarian politics

September 19, 2008 Comments off

There is a new weekly program on ATV called "A tét" (The Stake). The moderator is András Bánó who used to be one of the moderators of "Napkelte" (Sunrise) on MTV, the Hungarian public television station. I don't want to go into the gruesome details, but about a year and a half ago there was incredible political pressure put on the producer of "Napkelte" to get rid of reporters not to Viktor Orbán's liking. It all began by Fidesz boycotting the program: no Fidesz politician would show up for an interview. (In fact, they still don't.) Then they named two reporters they definitely wanted to be fired. Eventually under pressure one resigned his position, but that was not enough for Fidesz. Most likely Fidesz approached the president of the public television station (at the end of his term and hoping to be reelected) and intimated that if he fired a couple more objectionable reporters on the staff he might receive support from the right-wing members of the board. He obliged. One of these two was András Bánó who for a few months was unemployed but eventually was hired by ATV, known as a liberal station, to replace Olga Kálmán of "Egyenes beszéd" (Straight Talk) who went on maternity leave. As of September Kálmán returned, but Bánó got the opportunity to have a weekly program of his own. That is "A tét." The format of the program is that Bánó invites four "political scientists" to discuss the political events of the week. The first week was rocky: his choice of guests was politically lopsided, with three right-wingers (one of them István Stumpf, by now infamous in the Ibolya Dávid scandal) against one committed supporter of the government. Well, Bánó learned something from that experience, and in the last two weeks he managed to put together a more intellectual, enjoyable program. "A tét" reminds me of our public television's "Washington Week in Review." Anyone interested may find the video or podcast of the American version at  The url for the video  of "A tét" is The video is recorded in two half-hour parts.

In any case, Bánó usually asks the question: "Who was the winner and who was the loser of the week?" This week's guests were József Debreczeni who likes to call himself a publicist because, as he says, he is not an independent observer; Zoltán Kiszelly, a political scientist who often contributes to Népszava, the oldest social democratic paper of Hungary; Zsolt Pétervári, also a political scientist who can often be heard on József Orosz's program Kontra (Klub Rádió); and Zoltán Somogyi of Political Capital, the firm advising MDF. The four men were pretty much in agreement: the winners were Ibolya Dávid and Ferenc Gyurcsány while the losers were Fidesz, Viktor Orbán, Gábor Fodor, and Almássy Kornél. Fidesz and Viktor Orbán were Debreczeni's choice; the reason for this choice is obvious. Debreczeni's reading of the by now infamous telephone conversation is that it was Fidesz and Viktor Orbán himself who wanted to get rid of Ibolya Dávid and thus through Kornél Almássy pull MDF closer to Fidesz. By the way, this is Ibolya Dávid's interpretation of the telephone conversation as well.

Ferenc Gyurcsány was considered to be a winner because his party managed to survive a vote for the dissolution of the parliament and because he gave a well received lecture to the students of Corvinus University (previously Karl Marx University), an institution specializing in economics, business, and finance. By now Gyurcsány's visits to Corvinus have become a yearly event; in an auditorium that seats 500 he gives a lecture on the current state of the Hungarian economy. Out of the four analysts only one, Zsolt Pétervári, thought that "it is not the business of a prime minister to give lectures." All the others felt that since other prime ministers give talks in front of businessmen or members of the academy, why shouldn't the Hungarian prime minister do the same? Especially, in my own opinion, when the prime minister is as good a lecturer as he is. I'd bet that Gyurcsány would be "lecturer of the year" based on student votes at any university in the world. First of all, he really knows what he is talking about. That does help. Second, he has an incredible memory for numbers and events. He needs no notes. He stands there and talks off the top of his head about complicated economic matters in a way that everybody, even the students' grandmothers, could understand. Moreover, they would be convinced that he was right. That is a talent that a politician should certainly take advantage of. For anyone interested in this last Gyurcsány lecture here is the link: 

Everybody agreed that Gábor Fodor was one of the losers of the week. He managed to get himself and his party into an untenable situation. There are only two bad choices left for SZDSZ: either they help Viktor Orbán and Fidesz into power, and they don't really want to do that, or they crawl back to Gyurcsány and MSZP. And they don't want that either, especially after they categorically announced "never with Gyurcsány." As one of the participants rightly said, SZDSZ leaders sound confused because there is no way of reconciling this dilemma. I don't know what the outcome will be, but I wouldn't predict a long tenure for Fodor as leader of SZDSZ.

Tomorrow will be a busy day on the streets of Budapest: The Hungarian Charta will march in favor of democracy, freedom, and tolerance and against the extreme right. The right is also organizing. In addition, the Gypsies are gathering to show that they have had enough of the Hungarian Guard that seems hell bent on intimidating the Gypsy population. Fidesz already announced that it is the left-liberal crowds who are provoking the population by going out on the streets. We can all recall that Fidesz organized dozens and dozens of street demonstrations in the last few years while the left sat at home hoping that nothing terrible would happen.

Today I participated in a radio program (Kontra, Klub Rádió) the topic of which was the Hungarian extreme right. One of the participants was a film maker of Gypsy origin. He said that he is afraid to go out on the street at certain times. He is not sure whether he will return home. And he added: these people are not the unwashed masses. He encountered medical students who hated Gypsies so much that if eyes could kill he would already have been dead. And he added: I would not like to be one of their patients. I was shocked. Unfortunately it was the end of the program and I couldn't respond.


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