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The Hungarian public and corruption

September 30, 2007 Comments off

I’m sure that if one of the pollsters asked about people’s attitude toward politicians, the overwhelming majority would say, "Yes, every politician is corrupt." Moreover, I think that a goodly number would be certain that there is a conspiracy among the parties: "I scratch your back, you scratch mine." And the majority would say that somehow the parties and/or government make sure that these corruption cases never end in a conviction. Of course, not every politician is corrupt, and there is no conspiracy (Hungarians love conspiracy theories), and I very much doubt that the government or parties can actually influence the courts. I think that the low rate of convictions is due to the inadequacies of the Hungarian legal system rather than any direct influence from the other branches of government.

Accompanying the belief in political corruption comes a certain nostalgia for the good old days. Some people are convinced that before the change of regime people were much better than they are today. They were kinder to each other. They were more honest. They were less greedy. Everybody cared for his fellow man. In brief, people were angelic and Hungary was practically heaven itself. I often explain to my Hungarian friends and relatives that human nature doesn’t really change and that people were no better in the Kádár regime than after its fall. In those days there were simply fewer opportunities to do mischief, there was less money involved, and the corruption cases were not exactly advertised.

And that leads me to a recent Szonda Ipsos survey about how much Hungarians’ attitudes have changed in the last twenty years. As it turns out, not much. People’s opinions remain disappointingly stationary. People still think that success can be achieved only through illegal activities. Successful people are smooth operators who are not really decent folks. Also, they think that one person’s financial gain can be achieved only at other people’s expense. This belief might explain why so many people believe Fidesz promises to simultaneously lower taxes and increase spending. The thinking behind it: they will simply take away some fabulous amount of money from someone else. The money is there, just in wrong hands.

And now we come to the latest scandal, the János Zuschlag (and friends) corruption case where about 65 million forints worth of grant money disappeared. Who were the beneficiaries? Most likely Zuschlag and his friends. Such cases happen everywhere in the world, in both the public and private spheres. In American cases occurring in the public sector, the question is sometimes raised "How far did this go? Who benefited (usually in connection with fund raising)?" But since there is rarely any trail to the top, the question quickly morphs into "Will this do any damage to the party?" (The answer usually depends on the party’s popularity; it’s easy to tarnish an already unpopular party with scandals.) In Hungary there is an implicit belief that every trail leads to the top because the centralized model of "the good old days" dies hard. Fidesz politicians are, of course, pushing their advantage in this very sticky situation for the MSZP. Zuschlag after all was a former MSZP member of parliament and is currently a local party leader in Bács-Kiskun county. However, it is most likely that the 65 million forints disappeared into the pockets of these young men and is in no way connected to a corruption scheme that would benefit the party itself. However, given the suspicious nature of the Hungarian public, if the investigation can prove that only Zuschlag et al. benefited, I’m sure no one will believe it. "They managed to get away with it again!"–that will be the reaction.

On the other hand, there is the bizarre Weiszenberger case. This one really stretches the imagination. The so-called smoking gun is a video filmed in 2005, ostensibly from a closet with a potted plant in front. The potted plant isn’t visible on the video, but then perhaps the camera was shooting through a hole in the closet door not in the line of vision with the potted plant. All this sounds like very low-tech James Bond or like simple fabrication.) The video records a conversation in which Weiszenberger promised an 17 million forint EU grant for the Rózsa Motel on the condition that he would receive a 2-3 million forint kickback, part of which would go to the ministry. The problem with this video is that if there is no crime there is no smoking gun. The motel received no EU money. It did receive some money from ordinary Hungarian state funds in 2003, but in the current case this is irrelevant.

Viktor Orbán most likely already knew about the existence of this video prior to September 18, when he first alluded to the "stolen European Union monies" in his speech remembering the storming of MTV. HírTV aired part of the video only a few days ago. A few days later they aired a bit more, but the whole video is still not available. Perhaps Orbán and his friends were in too much of a hurry when they decided to attack the government’s distribution of European Union subsidies. Certainly, this video is no evidence. Gordon Bajnai, the minister responsible for the European Union subsidies, is mighty mad, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some legal action taken. Orbán and company might have jumped the (non-smoking) gun. Unless, of course, the Hungarian public decides that "these corrupt politicians can fix anything."

Journalistic independence: USA and Hungary

September 29, 2007 Comments off

This afternoon as I was once again trying to carve a vegetable garden out of New England clay and rocks I wired myself up in order to listen to my favorite radio station, National Public Radio (NPR). As it happened, they were airing a weekly program called "On the Media," an informative hour on the state of the media. I usually enjoy it and learn quite a bit about the ins and outs of American journalism.

Today there was a five-minute segment that I found fascinating and relevant to my study of Hungarian politics. The title of the piece was "Pride and President," an obvious take-off on Jane Austen’s famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. The jist of the story is as follows. NPR, although funded in part by the government, is not very much to the liking of the current White House. Thus, although NPR tried several times to get a "sit-down interview" with the president, permission was not granted until last January. The White House had only one demand: the reporter should be Juan Williams, senior correspondent on "Morning Edition," the early hour news program. I remember hearing this interview, and I was somewhat surprised at the fairly servile tone of Williams. As the reporter of "On the Media" noted, Williams "served up several softballs" to George W. Bush. Certainly, Bush must have loved Williams’ performance because not long ago the White House offered NPR another "sit down interview" with the president, again, only with Juan Williams.

NPR declined. Ellen Weiss, vice president for news at NPR, explained, more politely than I’m summarizing her comments here, that NPR will not allow a politician to pick and choose with whom he is willing to have an interview and with whom not. A politician grants an interview to NPR, not to a specific reporter. One more interesting bit of information about Juan Willliams. He is, in addition to his job with NPR, a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday. If anyone is interested in the segment of "On the Media," he/she can listen to it here: http://www.onthemedia.org/episodes/2007/09/28/segments/86335. About Juan Williams one can learn more here: http://www.onthemedia.org/episodes/2007/09/28/segments/86335.

Needless to say I immediately thought of the time of the Orbán government when the prime minister gave regular interviews on public radio every Wednesday morning, and he himself designated with whom. The two chosen ones were Katalin Kondor and János Hollós. There was a similar situation with his regular tea-sipping interviews on MTV. He picked János Betlen. Needless to say, none of these people ever asked him any difficult questions. They invariably lobbed softballs, or as the Hungarians say, they served as microphones for the prime minister.

And, akin to the Bush White House, there are reporters that were and still are boycotted by Orbán. I think Orbán’s chief enemy is György Bolgár, but he also avoids all left-liberal papers. I understand that he and his party also blackball foreign correspondents if their reports are not to his liking.

One might say that this is simply political savvy. A government wants to put the best spin on its news and get the greatest exposure for its positive soundbites. When it comes to interviews, it’s only common sense to try to control the situation and opt for a sympathetic interviewer. The commercial radio and television stations can accommodate. Dick Cheney opts for Fox News and stays away from CNN.

But somehow one would like to have public television and radio be a forum in which issues can be intelligently and fairly discussed and where political leaders of all stripes would feel compelled to appear. In the United States intelligence and fairness are abundant; government officials are currently absent. In Hungary intelligence and fairness are in short supply. It’s really critical to change the tone of the Hungarian public media. 

Civility among Hungarian politicians and the press? What civility?

September 28, 2007 Comments off

I decided to write about this topic because yesterday I saw István Mikola, the "doctor of the nation," former minister of health in the second half of the Orbán government, on Olga Kálmán’s program "Egyenes beszéd" (Straight Talk) on ATV. "Miss Manners" would have had apoplexy over his behavior, but it was not unexpected from Dr. Mikola, who is one of the most arrogant, one might even say brutish members of the political elite. (My other favorite in this department is István Tarlós, formerly mayor of Óbuda, now as an "independent" head of the Fidesz caucus in the Budapest city council. He almost became mayor of the entire city. The very idea still sends chills down my spine although I do understand that a lot of people in the city are not satisfied with Gábor Demszky’s performance.)

Well, back to Dr. Mikola and his interview. He was invited to talk about the Fidesz threat that if they return to power the very first thing they will do is eliminate the multiple health insurers and restore the old system. All contracts will become null and void. Ms. Kálmán asked him how a government can cancel a contract between an individual and an insurance company. Mikola was very mysterious and assured her that they know how. Moreover (and presumably more legally), it will be done because the multiple insurance business will be a failure in Hungary just as it was in Slovakia where the Fico government abolished it and has already reverted back to the single state insurance system. Olga Kálmán responded that, as far as she knows, that’s not the case. Well, that infuriated Dr. Mikola who, of course, knows everything. He raised his voice, repeated that he is very well informed, and insisted that there are no longer multiple health insurers in Slovakia. He accused Kálmán of portraying him as ignorant when he was for seven years head of such and such international I don’t know what, and he threatened to leave the TV set because the reporter dared to disagree with him. Eventually he calmed down and the conversation continued. Today Kálmán called the "father" of the multiple insurance business in Slovakia (who, by the way, speaks Hungarian quite well), and it turns out that the great international expert Dr. Mikola was wrong. The Fico government abolished the co-payment but the insurance system was left intact.

I remember an interview with Dr. Mikola when he insisted that in American hospitals 25 percent of patients die because of lethal combinations of prescription medications. This incredible statement was made at the time of the controversy concerning the sale of over-the-counter drugs outside of pharmacies. Nobody questioned him on that until, if I recall correctly, József Nagy had the good sense to ask where Mikola got these figures because he tried to find them to no avail. Dr. Mikola explained to the poor ignorant journalist: "It is a well known medical fact. It has a large literature. I know because I worked in the United States." And he said all this with total self-assurance and complete disdain for his interviewer.

And now to move on from the impolite politicians confronting decent journalists to impolite journalists confronting decent politicians. On Crossfire, a segment of Napkelte, some of the reporters act as if they were prosecutors facing vicious murderers. Not a smile, nothing resembling politeness. Their voices are shrill, accusing glances are flashed, and they are not really interested in the answers. (This may be the norm on Fox TV, but it shouldn’t be acceptable on Hungarian public television.) The latest such scene occurred a couple of days ago when János Kóka, minister of economy and transport in the current government, was the guest. The reporters accused him of enriching his "buddies" (actually "haverok"–originally from Yiddish, now part of the everyday Hebrew vocabulary) through highway construction projects. He answered that these accusations were untrue, but they didn’t really allow him to tell his side of the story. When I inquired where the reporters got their information, the answer was that an article had appeared in Heti Válasz (Weekly Answer), a right-wing weekly. Considering the state of so-called investigative journalism in Hungary, the influence of political agendas, and sometimes the leap into outright fiction, I seriously doubt the accuracy of this particular article. But (speaking theoretically), even if the allegations against a person being interviewed are true and he is a crook, the interviewer should let him try to explain his position. It’s responsible journalism and decent behavior. (Admittedly, most crooks aren’t keen to grant interviews. Think back to the Mike Wallace confrontations on "60 Minutes" where the crooks were singularly camera shy.)

Continuing the thread of journalism in Hungary. Yesterday a video was made public on HírTV on which a two-bit local politician László Weiszenberger from Kiskunhalas can be seen telling the owner of an ordinary motel how to get European Union grants. He tells the businessman, Károly Fodor, that he will definitely receive a grant if he gives him a certain percentage and, additionally, kicks back a percentage of the grant to "the ministry." The motel owner claims that his application for EU money was successful, that he received the grant he applied for. Gordon Bajnai, who is in charge of the European Union grants, instructed his staff to check the 17,000 some grants made since 2002. It turns out that this particular motel received not a cent. Since then Weiszenberger also admitted that he just wanted to look more influential than he is. So he twisted the truth a bit. But before the Weiszenberger retraction, Viktor Orbán announced that the government "in mob-like fashion decided to steal and put into their own pockets European Union grants." And one of the Fidesz vice presidents, Mrs. Pelcz (neé Ildikó Gáll), gave a press conference reinforcing the Fidesz position about government graft. Because of her press conference, Olga Kálmán invited her to appear on "Straight Talk." The problem was that by the time of the interview the news was out that the motel owner had received nothing from EU grant money. I must say that this was the first time that I saw Mrs. Pelcz a bit less sure of herself.

I think it is time for both politicians and members of the media to modify their behavior toward one another. It can only be mutually advantageous.

Lakitelek: Hungarian Populism Twenty Years Later

September 27, 2007 3 comments

Lakitelek is a large village with a population of about 4,000, not far from Kecskemét on the Great Plains. Very little of note happened there–at least not until 1987. In that year, on September 27, in the back yard of Sándor Lezsák, a minor poet, a group of people with an ostensibly laudable political purpose got together. Most of the participants came from the so-called "populist" (népies) wing of the Hungarian intellectual scene: writers, sociologists, lawyers, economists, etc. The "urbanists" (urbánusok) were represented by only one writer, György Konrád, the novelist, whose excellent novel, A látogató (The Case Worker; 1969) brought him worldwide recognition.

First, by way of background, a few words about the populist/urbanist divide. This split among Hungarian intellectuals goes back to the post-World War I period. The populists’ main interest was the countryside, the Hungarian peasant. Populist writers wrote mostly about village life, while populist sociologists gave detailed descriptions of rural poverty. Politically they were a mixed bag: some of them ended up in the far-right camp in the late 1930s and 1940s, others became communists after 1945. The urbanists, as their name indicates, were city folks, often Jewish and politically liberal. I personally favor the urban camp and found populist literature, even as a teenager, distasteful. Most likely because the few trips I made as a child to villages south of Pécs could be associated only with backwardness, primitive circumstances, lack of proper plumbing, and mud, mud, mud. General hopelessness. Even as a teenager I knew that this was not the way to go. My prejudices against the populists have only been reinforced since my youth. After 1956, the populists made a deal with Kádár shortly after the failure of the revolution, while the urbanists sat in jail. And the political careers of those populists who gathered in Lakitelek can probably still be (politely) associated with "mud, mud, mud."

But let’s go back to 1987. This was the year when the serious problems of the regime came to the surface and the party leadership decided that something had to be done. Changes had to be made. During the summer, Károly Grósz became prime minister, and he envisaged some kind of accommodation with the growing opposition. He imagined that perhaps within the one-party dictatorship there could be a group of people who "think differently" but don’t act as an opposition. Therefore their existence could be legalized. This was to be called "reform pluralism."

The populists wanted to take advantage of this reform. They organized a meeting at Lakitelek to establish an organization protected by reform pluralism. They invited Grósz, but he decided not to attend. He advised his liaison with the populists, Imre Pozsgay, a minister in the Grósz cabinet, to do likewise. But Pozsgay didn’t heed his advice; he actually wanted to forge an alliance between the party/government/state and the populists.

At this 1987 meeting speakers dwelt on traditional populist themes but with an increasingly sharp, politically vituperative edge. As always, they idealized the Hungarian countryside and painted a grim picture of the poverty of the villages. But they also talked about the moral crisis, the "people’s spine that has been bent," the "emigration of the rural intellectuals." Budapest, it was claimed, is a foreign contaminant in the body of the nation.

So who, among today’s cast of characters, took part in this meeting twenty years ago? István  Csurka, future secretary of the right-radical antisemitic MIÉP; Lajos Für, former minister of defense in the Antall government, who recently made a speech at the swearing-in ceremony of the Hungarian Guard; Sándor Csoóri, poet, who for a while was head of the right-wing World Federation of Hungarians and who came up with the March Charter, a hodge-podge of intellectual and political nonsense; Zoltán Bíró, who recently claimed that József Antall was a communist agent; and many other people who are currently on the far right.

Although for a while Lakitelek was synonymous with the MDF, one can be sure that none of today’s MDF leaders will be present at the twentieth anniversary. In the wake of Lakitelek the MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum) emerged as the mass opposition party where moderate right of center people like József Antall mingled with István Csurka of decidedly right radical tendencies. (This was a variation of the foreign policy doctrine that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend.") Everybody wanted to see an end to the regime (although, let me add that the MDF was more ready for a compromise, somewhat similar to the Polish suggestion that power could perhaps be shared with the communists).

Then came the real change of regime, and it became obvious that there were huge differences not just between the urbanists who joined the SZDSZ (Szabad Democraták Szövetsége; Alliance of Free Democrats) and the populists who gathered in the MDF but among members of the MDF themselves. First, Csurka left and established his own party. The MDF was so badly defeated in 1994 that it was virtually decimated. In 1998 it could get into parliament only with the help of the Fidesz. Yet another blow to the MDF was the departure of Sándor Lezsák and his like-minded followers who were against Ibolya Dávid’s independent course. Lezsák and his friends first became independent and now are members of the Fidesz caucus.

The "highlight" of this anniversary gathering is that Viktor Orbán will be there! This is really funny. It was Orbán and his friends who kept repeating in those days that they are the Belgians, neither French nor Flemish. Neither populists nor urbanists. Well, it seems that, after all, one cannot be Belgian, especially if his heart is with the nationalism and right-wing sentiments of the populists.

Ildikó Lendvai, head of the MSZP caucus

September 26, 2007 1 comment

I have been wanting to talk about her for some time. Every time I see that she will be on television I make sure that I take time to watch the program. What do I like about her? Her refreshing honesty. Of course, she is a politician and she carefully watches what she says, but even when she doesn’t answer a question ("You know that I can’t answer this") it’s perfectly clear what the answer would be. Her honesty is evident even in her entry in the Hungarian Who’s Who? (Ki kicsoda). Most politicians simply "forgot" to mention their membership in the MSZMP (the Kádár regime’s Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt), but not Ms. Lendvai. It is there in black and white with exact dates and all her functions in the department of education and culture attached to the party’s Central Committee listed. (By the way, an employee in another department was László Kövér, one the founders of Fidesz and best friend of Viktor Orbán.) She was among the charter members of the new socialist party and at the elections of 1994, when the socialists overwhelmingly won the elections, she was elected in one of the electoral districts of Budapest (Budafok-Nagytétény, XIII. district). In 1998 she lost her district but was elected from the Budapest list. A year later she became deputy head of the caucus and in 2002 became its head. She has held this position ever since. Obviously, she is popular with the MSZP delegates. In 2004, at the time of Péter Medgyessy’s inglorious departure as prime minister, the party was split on the question of a successor. The big wigs of the party, including Lendvai, supported Péter Kiss, a somewhat staid politician. Gyurcsány was the surprise winner. Nonetheless, it seems that relations between Lendvai and Gyurcsány couldn’t be more harmonious; they appear to understand each other.

Today Ildikó Lendvai was a guest on Sándor Friderikusz’s very popular show "Friderikusz Ma" (Friderikusz Today). The topic was the Zuschlag and the Mór affairs. Zuschlag is the MSZP’s problem, the mayor of Mór is that of the Fidesz. Both are about possible corruption cases, and Friderikusz wanted to talk to someone high up from the MSZP as well as from the Fidesz. Of course, no one had time to talk about Mór. Friderikusz tried Tibor Navracsics, Lendvai’s counterpart in the Fidesz, but he was busy, Zoltán Balog, who lately has Orbán’s ear and who is otherwise a Calvinist minister, also had some pressing business to attend to. This is not at all surprising. If there is any trouble, the Fidesz leadership collectively disappears. If they don’t talk about certain events perhaps they didn’t even happen or, at least, they will soon enough go away. Unfortunately, this strategy very often works. Especially since the ever growing right-wing media simply don’t report anything that might not show the Fidesz in a good light. The party also gets some help from the prosecutor’s offices and the courts where, one gets the impression, most of the officials are more sympathetic to the right than to the left. (I find this rather paradoxical because, in the one-party dictatorship where many of these people launched their careers, these positions were deemed very sensitive, and only "trustworthy people" succeeded.)

At any event, between the media and the legal system corruption cases on the left always get more attention than do those on the right. In the Orbán government one of the undersecretaries received a suspended sentence for corruption, yet one heard virtually nothing about the case when it was before the courts. On the other hand, Zuschlag’s case is big news, with the media’s slant being that Zuschlag’s embezzlement is somehow linked to the MSZP and/or the government. The prosecutor’s office already asked Prime Minister Gyurcsány to have a little chit-chat with them. He immediately obliged. I don’t remember any corruption case centered around the Fidesz (and there were plenty) where the prosecutors wanted to talk to Viktor Orbán.

What Friderikusz wanted to know from Lendvai is why they didn’t get rid of Zuschlag earlier. The explanation is that, after his tasteless joking about the Holocaust, the party forced him to resign from his mandate, but on the local/county level he was elected to another position. And it seems that the MSZP gives a great deal of autonomy to local political organizations (unlike the Fidesz, where the local party leaders are appointed by Viktor Orbán himself). Right now they cannot deprive him of his party membership because that would prejudice his case. They asked him to give up his membership voluntarily, but he didn’t oblige. So the MSZP is in a bind. Lendvai admitted that this is very bad for the party. At the same time they don’t want to do business the way the Fidesz does.

At the end of the interview Friderikusz brought up the topic of members of the media who seem to be "afraid of the Fidesz" and asked Lendvai why they are not afraid of the MSZP. Her opinion was that yes, they are afraid and not without reason. The Fidesz doesn’t hesitate to use draconian methods to get rid of people who are not to their liking. Sometimes one has the feeling that they would even resort to blackmail if necessary. Or they simply use other people to do their dirty work. A good example was the Fidesz’s demand that "Napkelte," an early morning political interview show on MTV (Hungary’s public television station), fire two reporters, József Orosz and Endre Aczél. Until their demand was met, they threatened, no one from Fidesz would appear on Napkelte. Months went by, Orosz and Aczél stayed, Fidesz politicians slept in. Well, a week ago what did we hear? The head of MTV announced that he had suddenly discovered that Orosz and Aczél have a conflict of interest because they both also have programs on KlubRádió. Mind you, this so-called conflict of interest has been going on for years. It was discovered by Zoltán Rudi, the president of MTV, only now because, it seems, his reelection is in the offing and with this move he is hoping to receive votes from right-wing board members. If I were Rudi, I wouldn’t be so sure. They are not a grateful lot.

Gyurcsány’s housecleaning

September 25, 2007 Comments off

Before I begin today’s blog about Gyurcsány’s housecleaning I would like to do a little housecleaning of my own. I would like to repeat something that may not have caught everyone’s eye. At the end of one of my blogs I mentioned that I will not publish any Hungarian-language comments. Especially not the kind that calls for other people’s murder. I’m not joking. A person called on those who feel like murdering Jews to join him. This same person wrote another lengthy Hungarian language letter in which he verbally attacks several respectable people. He seems to be outraged by anyone saying anything about Hungary who doesn’t live there. I find myself in very good company, I must say. This person is wasting his time writing these lengthy harangues because not one line of them will appear on this blog.

And now let’s return to Gyurcsány’s housecleaning. He wasn’t joking when he came up with his forty-eight points and within them those that were designed to reduce corruption, the share of the black market in the overall economy, and the number of illegally employed workers. In addition, he promised to change party financing, tighten the conflict of interest laws in the political sphere, and revise the rules concerning parliamentary deputies’ declarations of assets. All these were promised on September 10th, at the opening of parliament. Yesterday the prime minister made another speech in parliament, and it seems that the government’s work is well under way because in October the legislative proposals will be brought up for discussion.

A few days ago I reported that at least four parties (the exception was the MDF) were outraged at the very idea that henceforward they would have to show receipts for expenses related to their jobs. Even Katalin Szili, the speaker of the House, took their side and in a letter to the prime minister expressed her opinion that this suggestion was not well timed. Maybe not, but by today it seems that all parties are ready to discuss the matter. The Hungarian electorate (of whatever political persuasion) supports Gyurcsány on this question. If the government is waging war against business people who refuse to give receipts in order to avoid paying taxes, one cannot overlook the almost four hundred lawmakers who are engaged in the same illegal practice. Perhaps even the members of parliament realize that, given the low esteem in which they are held, it is better to give at least the impression of upright behavior.

One of the most challenging items on Gyurcsány’s agenda is to reduce black market activity in Hungary. Gyurcsány quoted experts who estimate black market activity to be about 17 or 18 percent of the GDP, more than twice that in Western Europe. That translates into about 3,000 billion forints in unreported revenue and, when everything is added up, roughly a 1,500 billion forint shortfall in taxes collected. According to the prime minister, if in previous years the government had received this additional tax revenue there would have been no need for the recent belt tightening. Moreover, perhaps certain taxes could have been eliminated. He would like to reduce the 18 percent figure by half. He claims that this is not impossible because Germany and Austria, where at one point the black market share was just as high, managed to get it down to 6-8 percent. (Unfortunately, I don’t know how long a time period he is talking about.)

One thing is sure: the government’s tax auditors have to get cracking. And I can only hope that Hungarian software engineers have written sophisticated programs to identify potential tax evaders because the enforcement team is seriously understaffed. Right now there are only 300 people whose job it is to ferret out tax evaders; in a week another 100 will be hired.

In Hungary there are no criminal penalties for tax evasion. Perhaps this is a civilized approach to the problem, akin to the elimination of debtors’ prisons. But in the United States the threat of imprisonment for tax evasion is the ultimate deterrent. Business people who could play the odds of being caught and paying a fine are faced with jail time. Then the stakes change dramatically.

But, in the realm of the less dramatic, the financial penalties for tax evasion will be increased. In addition, those who employ workers illegally will have pay back taxes and other dues like health insurance. By the way, the illegally employed work force is estimated at 400-500,000! The total work force at the moment is less than 4 million! So, there is a lot to do but, given the promising results of the more serious checking of health insurance, I think it is not impossible. Maybe there will be a little more "order" in this "new order."

Campaign financing–not just a Hungarian problem

September 24, 2007 1 comment

Just because it is a problem everywhere in the world doesn’t mean that Hungarians are resigned to the corruption that accompanies campaign financing in their own country. As elsewhere, the allocation of funds from the national budget to the parties is not enough to conduct a modern political campaign. But Hungarian politicians can’t pick the pockets of their rich friends to the extent that Western politicans do. So Hungarian political candidates have used all sorts of unsavory tricks to get money into their party coffers from other sources. According to people who are more or less experts on the question, one source is kickbacks from companies involved in road construction. During Viktor Orbán’s tenure there wasn’t even a bidding process: one company got the job and that was the end of it. The road construction’s cost was enormously high. Much more expensive than, for example, in Croatia where (considering the country’s topography) one might think that road construction would be costlier than in Hungary, which is fairly flat. Once the socialists and liberals took over they initiated a bidding process and as the result the expenses are somewhat lower, but apparently they are still suspiciously high.

The other illegal source of funds into party coffers comes from the so-called foundations that are bing set up. The "Live a More Healthful Life," "Get Your Kid Off Drugs, " "Have a More Satisfying Sex Life" (these are fictitious) foundation.These phony foundations are used as conduits of funds from the central budget to the party or parties. Foundations are involved in the current corruption case.

But to go back a bit in time: it all started with the notorious case of Márta Tocsik, a lawyer who acted as an intermediary between local administrations and the central government in settling the transfers of properties. Her efforts bore fruit and, since she was paid a certain percentage of the purchase price and that percentage was extraordinarily high, people started to be suspicious. Soon enough there was a parliamentary committee looking into the transactions. The case pretty well ended the ministerial career of one of Gyula Horn’s favorites. But that was just the beginning; the Tocsik affair was largely responsible for the electoral defeat of Gyula Horn and the MSZP. The suspicion was and still is that Márta Tocsik was offered the deal only if some of the very high fees she received would be turned over to the MSZP coffers. In court the guilt of the party’s financial director, if I recall properly, couldn’t be proven.

And here is now the Zuschlag case. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Viktor Orbán is delighted that János Zuschlag, a young MSZP politician, is in trouble. There are already accusations that the trail will lead to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s office. The connection is fairly tenuous: Gyurcsány, who was for a few months sports minister under Péter Medgyessy, was apparently in office when some of these bogus foundations were received funds. One man who is accusing him of knowledge of the cases is former deputy undersecretary Tamás Ocsovai, whom Gyurcsány inherited and found not quite up to the the job. One can read about this in József Debreczeni’s biography of Gyurcsány (Az új miniszterelnök, p. 235).  Obviously Ocsovai might not be exactly a friend of the prime minister. Besides Zuschlag there are several co-defendants, one of whom is in hiding. The prosecutors asked for pre-trial detention for Zuschlag because they are afraid that he might leave the country and because they have proof that Zuschlag has already tried to influence witnesses. There will be many witnesses, over one hundred. The charge is conspiracy to commit fraud. Maximum twenty years. By Western standards that sentence may not seem harsh. But pitted against sentences in Hungary for murder convictions, it’s stiff. In any case, Zuschlag is in jail facing possibly twenty years in jail. The claim is that he and his cohorts applied for money for several foundations and embezzled the money (presumably into their own pockets as opposed to diverting the money to a political party) to the tune of about 50 million forints ($280,000).

As the largest opposition party may rejoice over the misfortunes of the MSZP, in the town of Mór the Fidesz mayor is in trouble. According to a secretly recorded conversation, the mayor and the town clerk discussed the possibility of ending up in jail because they sold some city property to a friend at well below market price.

Off the topic for today, but a news flash: a couple of hours ago the MSZP and the SZDSZ agreed on health insurance. It seems that it was a good idea for Gyurcsány to tell them that he had had enough. They suddenly agreed within a few hours. Isn’t it interesting?

Everybody is fed up with everybody and everything

September 23, 2007 2 comments

Viktor Orbán says "it’s enough." Ferenc Gyurcsány has also had enough of Orbán’s accusations and said "that’s enough."  He is also fed up with the squabbles over health insurance between the experts of the MSZP and the SZDSZ. Katalin Szili, the speaker of the House, is most likely fed up with Ferenc Gyurcsány in general but right now in particular because the prime minister wants to have a bit of order in the House as well as in its members’ accounting practices. As it stands, parliamentary members now don’t have to show receipts for expenses incurred in connection with their jobs. Right now, says she, is the wrong time. But it always seems to be the wrong time. Interestingly enough, with the exception of MDF, all parliamentary parties are in perfect harmony on this issue of protecting their turf. The Fidesz and the SZDSZ–usually the greatest of enemies–wholeheartedly agree that, after all, it’s not the government that supervises the parliament but vice versa. And, of course, the radical right, however splintered, is totally fed up with this "dictatorship" and with Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to the "leader" of the Magyar Nemzeti Bizottság (Hungarian National Committee), László Gonda, he and his followers are so fed up with the prime minister that they will demonstrate until he resigns. All one hundred of them, who started off today at the statue of Mihály Károlyi and ended up at Gyurcsány’s house in the II. district (quite a hike). It is worth mentioning that Gonda’s followers are perhaps lacking the necessary persistence. By the time they got to the house, half of them became very, very tired and went home.

László Gonda and his demonstrators most likely couldn’t upset Gyurcsány very much. First of all, there was a cordon around the house and more policemen than demonstrators. Second, and this is more important, he most likely had a very good day at the first board meeting of the MSZP after the summer recess. He was apparently in good form, spoke for about an hour, and gave one of his best performances. There were no members griping about this or that. He was most critical of the endless "discussions" between the two governing parties over health insurance. They keep meeting, and after each meeting the participants repeat the same refrain: an "agreement is very close, but not quite." Meanwhile, the new system is supposed to be in place by the beginning of next year. As far as I can figure out, the topic of disagreement is over regional insurers versus freely chosen insurers. The MSZP’s original idea was to regionalize a single national insurance company. The other side argued–I think correctly–that this would eliminate competition and only expand the bureaucracy. Originally, the SZDSZ wanted seven or eight insurers (state and private combined) but no regionalization of their competence. Eventually, they had to give in, and they agreed to a combination of the two ideas. That is, the country would be divided into insurance regions and each region would have a default insurer. However, if a person thinks that an insurer outside of the region gives better service, he/she can change providers. This is where we stand now, but for some reason no agreement is in sight.

Gyurcsány rightly pointed out that this endless discussion doesn’t lead anywhere. The politicians involved in these discussion are "frustrated" because they feel that "this or that side dictates to them." He added: "Go home and and throw a tantrum there." No wonder, he said, that the people rightly feel that "these politicians have lost their minds because they are talking about spots of leopards, spots of cows, ribs of worms, stripes of tigers." No joke, some of these experts described the different schemes in those terms. "It is time to finish these discussions and come to a rational compromise." And finally he came up with his big gun: "It is not enough to be big, one has to have the majority in case 2005 didn’t teach us that." What he is referring to is that because of Katalin Szili’s ambitions for the post of presidency the country ended up with László Sólyom since the SZDSZ refused to support her and abstained.

If I were Katalin Szili, I would not stand in the way of changing compensation rules for parliamentary members. As it stands, the basic pay of the members is far too low. They can’t really live on it. So all sorts of tricks are employed. One is that members who are also serving on committees immediately get a 50% boost in their salary. Travel expenses and expenses for housing in Budapest for those from other parts of the country are compensated without showing receipts. One Fidesz parliamentary member as a result of these expense accounts managed to get 10 million forints while his basic pay is 230,000 per month! Committee meetings shouldn’t be scheduled when plenary sessions are held (Mondays and Tuesdays) but apparently they are. Committee members don’t show up at meetings and often send substitutes. These are the kinds of things Gyurcsány doesn’t like. Rightly so. The basic salary should be raised and compensation for fictive expenses eliminated. I am glad that the MDF is willing partner. I think this stance should boost their popularity. Because if anyone is really fed up it is the Hungarian public with the "political elite."

Political scientists in Hungary

September 22, 2007 1 comment

Hungarian vocabulary is changing rapidly, mostly as a result of technological innovation. Sometimes Hungarians translate a foreign word into Hungarian, sometimes they give a Hungarian word another meaning, and sometimes they simply import a foreign word into the language. A few examples. The "mouse," not the animal but the instrument we use when navigating our computers, was translated (a mirror translation) into Hungarian. It is known as "egér." If a concept was totally unknown, such as "@ = at," Hungarians used their imagination. They call it: "kukac," which means "worm." And many words, both English and German, were taken into the language unchanged but, of course, with a Hungarian pronunciation. For example, blog.

This mini-linguistic foray takes me to another variation of linguistic borrowing–the cheapening of a concept. We arrive at the so-called political scientists. Wow, how they irritate me!  Hungarians borrowed the German word for political science ("Politologie") and transformed it into "politológia" and, by extension, "politológus" for "political scientist." The problem is that a person whom we consider to be a political scientist is not the same as a "politológus" in Hungarian. The word "political science" is described in Webster’s as "a social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of political and especially governmental institutions and processes." The "logie" suffix in German reinforces the notion of scholarly, analytical research. So, in brief, a political scientist is a serious scholar who teaches at a college or university and writes articles in scholarly publications and books for (usually) a few hundred interested scholars.

Not in Hungary! These so-called political scientists are basically political commentators, the kind whose articles appear once a week or once a month in major newspapers. In the New York Times they are described as op-ed columnists (mind you, these pundits normally have extraordinary credentials; otherwise they could write op-ed pieces for the local free newspaper). Well, in Hungary ordinary political commentators are called political scientists. The really good ones are satisfied with the simple "journalist" title, but the younger ones (in their late twenties or early thirties) are proudly called political scientists. What makes them political scientists I can’t figure. Most of the ones I have encountered don’t know more than an ordinary, attentive observer of politics. Sometimes less. Some of them are simply propagandists like Tamás Fritz, who doesn’t even seem to be familiar with the Hungarian constitution and has twice already called on President László Sólyom to dissolve the current parliament when he has no such authority in the Hungarian system. And (oh, dear, contrary to my rant of the day) he is allegedly a real political scientist. At least he is a senior fellow at the Academy’s Political Science Institute. Then there is the young political scientist who never struck me as a man of great political insight, Ferenc Kumin, who is now President’s Sólyom’s "famulus," as his not so fawning admirers call him. In case someone didn’t read an earlier blog of mine, "famulus" in Latin means "house servant," but it exists in the English dictionary too, in a somewhat kinder version: servant, assistant of a scholar. Another "politológus" just became the spokesman for the prime minister. And yet another politológus who began his career in the Department of Marxism-Leninism became head of the prime minister’s office under Viktor Orbán, a very important position.

And, of course, what goes around comes around. A political scientist becomes a politician and then becomes a political scientist again. Orbán’s minister, István Stumpf, is now being interviewed right and left as a political scientist. One can imagine what predictions he makes. Kumin, being a young man, most likely will be a "political scientist" again.

Then, there are the "political scientists" who turn out to be successful businessmen. A couple of enterprising political scientists got together and established a business, called "Political Capital."  Although nobody in Hungary can pronounce these two words properly, never mind. The business obviously spreads its political wisdom for compensation, and it must be doing quite well because more and more "political scientists" appear on the rostrum. They also specialize in political advice. I believe, for example, that they are advisers to MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum) and, if I remember correctly, they are becoming international, having established a similar political science business in Bulgaria.

And meanwhile there are the really good political commentators, the ones who call themselves journalists or publicists. There are not too many but one can read their pieces with interest. In foreign affairs Endre Aczél, in internal politics, Tamás Mészáros, Gyögy Bolgár, János Avar, József Debreczeni, just to mention a few. But, bless their hearts, they are not political scientists.

Gyurcsány’s 48 points: the government’s agenda

September 21, 2007 Comments off

I talked about László Sólyom’s speech on the opening day of the fall session of parliament (September 10, 2007), but I didn’t discuss the prime minister’s speech (the one that President Sólyom didn’t want to hear). Gyurcsány gave a detailed plan of action for the government and parliament. He mentioned four important areas of economic and public life that would be emphasized: (1) economic growth and job creation, (2) renewal of the Hungarian educational system, (3) stabilization of health-care reforms, and (4) the establishment of "new order." This last point needs some explanation. Here Gyurcsány doesn’t talk about "law and order" in the conventional sense but about a greater demand for lawful behavior, a commodity in short supply in Hungary.

Within these four large categories he outlined forty-eight subcategories. Why exactly forty-eight? Because, in the Hungarian language, the expression "not to give up the forty-eight" means "to stick to one’s guns." The origin of the expression goes back to the nineteenth century when, prior to the Compromise of 1867 with Vienna, some of the politicians demanded the complete restoration of the Hungarian demands as formulated and accepted in April 1848. As it is quite obvious from the word "compromise," the Hungarians had to give up certain things after all. In any case, Gyurcsány, by making sure that there were forty-eight items in his plan, wanted to emphasize that he stands pat, he doesn’t retreat, and he continues the reforms.

In the economic sphere, he promised more help for small- and medium-sized Hungarian enterprises. With 2,000 billion forints coming from the European Union for business development, the government calculates that it might be able to assist as many as 100,000 companies. He mentioned the widening of foreign markets for Hungarian products and the need to ensure that in the large chains more and more Hungarian products are available. The government is planning to shrink the cumbersome bureaucracy for businesses. It will also promote critical research and development projects with the help of European Union funds.  It will simplify the complicated tax code. It will invest about 500 billion forints just in 2007-2008 for the improvement of the infrastructure. In the same period the government will spend 85 billion forints to create more jobs. Another 30 billion will be spent on adult education and vocational training. There are plans for the development of tourism, a vitally important element in the country’s economy.

As for the renewal of the Hungarian educational system, let me first give you some background. Hungarian schools were modelled in the nineteenth century on the German (to be precise Prussian)  schools. In their days, the high schools, few in number, served their purpose, but eventually they began to be inadequate, especially after the number of students attending them grew fairly rapidly after 1945. Another problem was that even in the 1970s and 1980s relatively few people finished college. In comparison to the West, very few. In the new millennium the number of college students has multiplied, but unfortunately neither the infrastructure nor the teaching staff has grown proportionately. Hence, standards have suffered. Now the government has to do something to correct the problem.

Gyurcsány began his discussion of educational reform with nursery schools because the problems start there. Today there are fewer nursery schools than in the late 1980s. He promised that by 2010 all children of nursery school age will be able to attend nursery school. In elementary schools (the first eight grades) the emphasis will be on the 3 R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic. (As it turns out, there are real problems with functional illiteracy.) Although he didn’t mention the Gypsy problem in general, he referenced the need to change the current policy where Gypsy kids are put into special education classes even if they are not retarded. The government is widening the numbers of those who would get financial help to begin their studies on the high school level. At the moment 20,000, mostly talented Roma kids, get a stipend, but within days 7,000 more will be eligible. Many schools will be renovated and modernized.

As for health care, he talked about "stabilization and development." There is no question that the sudden, extensive changes created a certain level of chaos, only exaccerbated by the physicians’ lack of cooperation. One hopes that eventually the new system will work better. The immediate plans include the reform of the family physician network and a different financing for these doctors. At the moment an incredible system is in place (devised during the Antall government). The family doctors can have a certain number of patients who decide to choose them as their primary physicians. They get paid a certain amount per capita. One patient never sees the doctor, another sees him every week, but the primary physician gets the same amount of money for both. Therefore it is not really to the advantage of these doctors to perform certain procedures, even if they would be quite capable of doing so. Instead, they send the patients immediately to the specialists in one of the many (far too many) hospitals. They act as bureaucratic clearing houses since you need the family physicians’ referral to go and see a specialist. As far as I know, this per capita financing sytem will be changed. Doctors will be paid according to the procedures they perform.  The government also plans to set up a system by which the medical institutions could have an independent economic existence, instead of waiting for monies from the ministry. They want to pay special attention to outpatient servies that are underdeveloped in Hungary, especially in rural areas. The government would also like to create four to eight high-level oncological centers and, given the dismal cancer statistics in Hungary, they are badly needed. Until fairly recently, there was no such specialty as "oncology." Finally, he promised that by the end of October the government will come up with a solution to create a system of health insurance. At the moment the two governing parties, MSZP and SZDSZ, can’t agree on the way insurance companies should operate in the new system. At the moment we don’t know who will win.

The program of "the new order"  was the final area where Gyurscány promised changes. Financing of parties and campaigns is a mess. (It is a mess in the United States too and for the same reasons.) The amount of money the parties, depending on size, receive from the budget is ridiculously low. Each party claims that it didn’t spend more than the allotted amount, but everybody knows that it’s a big fat lie. Gyurcsány promises to change the system by 2010. He also wants to have new rules concerning the budget that would prohibit overspending. And then there are the parliamentary "allowances": currently parliamentary members don’t have to show proof of their job-related expenses. The government wants to change this too. Good luck! The MPs are already grumbling, regardless of which side of the aisle one is talking about. Gyurcsány also wants to do something about the black market, which, according to calculations, amounts to about 17-18 percent of the GDP and translates into a loss of 3,700 billion forints in revenues. Zero tolerance in traffic safety? Well, one could be surprised about this: right after the black market comes traffic safety?  But it’s yet another instance, however trivial, of the need for extensive legal reform. In this case here’s the rub: you have conclusive electronic proof that a car with license plate "XYZ" was speeding, but the owner of the car says "I wasn’t a driver," and nothing can be done. Gyurcsány promised that soon enough the owner of the car will be responsible for traffic violations. Period. He also promised more serious measures against those who do damage to the environment and greater consumer protection. Finally, he mentioned the hot potato of Hungarian politics at the moment: the question of hate speech. This will be a hard nut to crack because the Fidesz and perhaps the SZDSZ might not vote for it.

A really difficult agenda. Yet if only half of these programs are fulfilled, it would be a bonanza for the government and a sure path to electoral victory.

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