In two weeks: a crime-free Hungary
Or at least this is what Sándor Pintér, the new minister of interior and former police chief, promised the country. On May 3 Pintér announced: "We have arrived. There will be order and public safety in the whole country. In two weeks people will feel a noticeable change. They will no longer be afraid."
Pintér started his quick fix by concentrating on the northeast corner of the country and announced that 300 policemen would be sent immediately to the area and thus every village will have a resident policeman. Of course, that meant that these 300 men were missing elsewhere. Moreover, this reassignment had to be very temporary because it is impossible to permanently transfer men to new locations without providing housing and building police stations in places where there were none before.
There was another problem with policing the countryside. Because of the immense flood that hit certain parts of the country, policemen were sent to help with the rescue effort and therefore, I assume, there were even fewer men to pay attention to major or minor crimes.
But immediate action is usually welcome by the public because it shows forcefulness and resoluteness. Of course, people who know anything about the Hungarian police force are aware that there are very serious structural and personnel problems that cannot be fixed in two weeks by temporarily transferring 300 people to other locations. According to some estimates 3,000 new policemen would be needed, but first they have to graduate from a police academy and Hungarian training is a fairly long affair. There have been attempts to entice retired but still young policemen to return to work, but their pensions are generous and in addition they are usually employed by security companies at much higher salaries.
More than two weeks went by and journalists went to villages in Borsod County asking the mayors whether the police presence was any greater now than before. As it turned out, almost all of them reported no additional personnel. In one or two places there were some inquiries about the possibility of providing housing for the family of a policeman sometime in the future. In one place the deputy mayor reported that the only change that occurred was the appointment of a district police supervisor who will regularly visit the village from a town that is 40-50 kilometers away. Effective supervision from such a distance is hard to imagine.
In Nyíregyháza the number of policemen on duty was even smaller than before because of the flood that threatened other localities. According to the police chief it is unlikely that there will be a substantial increase in the numbers of the police force in the foreseeable future.
The other question the reporters posed was whether the people living in Borsod are actually concerned with the high rate of crime in the area. The surprising answer from several hamlets was that crime wasn't a great problem in the past and that the situation hasn't changed one way or the other in the last two weeks.
But since the deadline for noticeable change expired Sándor Pintér felt he had to give a report on the state of affairs. And I assume no one will be surprised to hear that the action he initiated was a great success. He achieved his goal. Because, and now listen carefully, he "expected a decrease in the number of criminal cases." Of course, this is not what he said and such a decrease doesn't mean much. After all, for years now there has been a decrease in the number of violent crimes as well as robberies.
More important to Fidesz's law and order campaign is managing the psychology of fear. One heard often enough that people are afraid to leave their houses. That in fact they are afraid even inside of their houses. The statistics clearly show that there are fewer crimes year after year, but the fearfulness lingers. My feeling is that a great deal of this fear was actually generated by Fidesz politicians who remember only too well that one reason for MSZP's loss in 1998 was a wave of explosions close to the houses of opposition politicians. Naturally, the minister of interior, Gábor Kunze (SZDSZ), was blamed for this outbreak of criminal activities. It certainly didn't help the MSZP-SZDSZ government's chances at the elections. And then came the change of government and behold, the explosions came to an abrupt end.
At the time that Pintér promised that in two weeks the whole country would feel secure again György Bolgár on his talk show expressed his doubts about the possibility of such an abrupt change. A very wise man phoned in who said that in fact he is almost sure that the atmosphere will change. Because if politicians managed to convince people that their lives are threatened it will surely be possible to convince them of the opposite. I suspect, indeed despite all sorts of theoretical reservations I even hope, that the gentleman will be proved right.