Month: December 2007

New Year, new politics in Hungary?

I very much doubt it. By year’s end Ferenc Gyurcsány’s position had become stronger within his own party and perhaps even in the country as a whole. Viktor Orbán, who after the 2006 elections looked finished, rose out of the ashes. He is very good at reinventing himself. After a setback he is deeply depressed for a year or so but then recovers and with new energy attacks his opponents whom he actually considers his and the country’s enemies. Right now according to all polls the Fidesz is doing very well while the popularity of the two government parties is very low. But there is nothing new in that. In the spring of 1995 the MSZP’s popularity was just as low as it is now. And the Fidesz, after the 2002 elections, was 20% behind the MSZP in popularity. In the last days of the Medgyessy government the MSZP’s popularity was extremely low and the Fidesz’s lead was again about 20% over the socialists. Yet within a few months after Gyurcsány’s taking office as prime minister, the Fidesz lost 19% of its earlier gains. In one month (between August and September 2004) Gyurcsány’s personal popularity grew by 17%!

With such extreme fluctuations in polling results no responsible commentator can predict what will happen in the future. I certainly will not attempt it. A lot depends on the intricate interaction between the two major parties and, of course, the international economic situation. What I wish for everybody’s sake is that 2008 will be brighter economically and politically than 2007 was.


Ambulance service in Hungary

Thank God, I have never seen an ambulance from the inside. It is rather rare that one hears the siren of an ambulance in our neighborhood: the little town I live in has a population of 4,500. The area of the town is large but the houses are far from each other because the town is located in a watershed area: lots of forests, brooks, lakes, rivers, and few people. When a couple of years ago an ambulance came to our road we all knew that there had to be something very wrong with Mac, one of our neighbors. And indeed, he had had a stroke. Luckily it was a fairly mild one and he more or less recovered except for slightly slurred speech.

But even in the nearby larger city when an ambulance, siren wailing, navigates traffic, we may not know the patient but we do know that he is in rather serious condition. If he were just not feeling well, a relative, a neighbor, or a friend would take the person to the doctor or to the emergency room in a car. Running an ambulance service is an expensive affair and most insurance companies (including Medicare) pay for ambulance transport only if there is a real medical reason. Medicare, for example, is explicit about when one can expect payment for an ambulance ride: "When you need to be transported to a hospital or skilled nursing facility for medically necessary services, and transportation in any other vehicle would endanger your health."

This is the situation in a country infinitely richer than Hungary, where a much higher percentage of the GDP goes for healthcare. In Hungary, an ambulance, at least until now, was often used as a convenient mode of transportation to and from the hospital or the doctor’s office. Let’s say someone had an operation in the hospital and was ready to go home. Even if the patient had a relative, friend, or neighbor who was willing to take him home, he had the right to be driven home in a fully equipped ambulance. Or if the patient went to a doctor’s office and the family physician decided that he needed further tests or he had to check into a hospital, the doctor simply called an ambulance.

Can you imagine that? I can’t. Well, this "horrid" ministry of health can’t either, and at last they decided to do something about it. From here on, similarly to the situation here, an ambulance will be used only if it is medically warranted. (I may add here that some of the Hungarian ambulances also have full-fledged doctors on board instead of paramedics only.) The ordinary "transportation of patients" will be done by private companies and their vehicles will be regular cars or vans. I still find this quite luxurious considering that the insurance companies here don’t provide such services.

Olga Kálmán’s program on ATV today will perhaps illuminate the thinking–which I consider rather peculiar–in Hungary. The spokesman of the Hungarian ambulance service explained that from here on the doctor will have two different forms: one for ambulance service and one for ordinary patient transportation and he will decide which one is appropriate. If I had been Olga Kálmán, I would have been satisfied with this information, but not Olga. She came up with the following hypothetical: "What if the doctor decides that ordinary patient transportation will suffice but on the way to the hospital the patient suddenly becomes very seriously ill and after all he does need the services of an ambulance? What will happen then?" The spokesman for the ambulance service explained that in this case the driver of the van will call an ambulance. But, said Olga, "Isn’t that dangerous? Precious time is lost!" Only in a country where the healthcare system until now paid no attention whatsoever to cost would such a comment seem normal.

Olga Kálmán wanted to have some figures on how much money can be saved by this "revolutionary" change in ambulance service. The spokesman had no hard figures but gave an example. In a smaller town there are two ambulances. These two ambulances do nothing else all morning but collect patients from the nearby villages and take them to the doctors or the hospital. If they are lucky they are finished by noon. I don’t think that higher mathematics is needed to figure out the cost and the resulting savings.

A is needed in Hungary

What a fantastic idea it would be. I really should try to convince someone in Hungary to start a web site that would monitor all the misstatements and distortions, if not outright lies, of Hungarian politicians and the media. While the American occasionally can’t find anything to complain about for a whole week, I’ll bet the calendar of a would have several entries a day. The closest thing to factcheck in Budapest is a retired gentleman who over the years has written thousands of letters to the editor in which he politely corrects all the wrong dates and wrong facts. But for one person the job is far too big.

To highlight some of the problems, I’ll focus on professed "facts" about foreign countries. There are two kinds of political misstatements: the outright lies and the wrong facts due to ignorance. It is occasionally difficult to decide which is which. But I’ll try to sort them out. Let’s start with misstatements of the ignorami. These usually occur when politicians who know little or nothing about foreign countries offer as truths what are in fact falsehoods about life outside Hungary (perhaps influenced by a political agenda but not outright lies–that is, there is no intention to tell a falsehood). American, Canadian, French, English, and German examples abound; if one knows anything about these countries the information given is often wrong. This is true not only of politicians but of reporters as well. Even better informed journalists with limited foreign experience can come up with real doozies. It is irritating when a respected Hungarian commentator confidently lectures about the American Medicare system and it turns out that he doesn’t have the foggiest idea of its basic workings.

Then there are the willful lies. One of my favorites is István Mikola and the question of over-the-counter drugs sold outside of pharmacies. (Here we’re talking about the likes of aspirin.) Mikola claimed that in the United States 25% of the people who end up in hospitals are the victims of medication poisoning due to the fact that they are able to buy certain drugs in the local supermarket. Once Mikola or any other politician starts to spin such a line they don’t let go. For days they go from station to station, radio and TV, repeating this mantra. This nonsense from Mikola was in circulation for at least a week before one Hungarian journalist had the guts to confront him: the journalist checked all available statistics and found nothing resembling Mikola’s claim. Mikola is not easily intimidated. He announced that "I lived and worked in the United States. This is a well known fact; there is a sizable literature on the subject." But, once confronted, he had the good sense to know that his spin campaign had run its course and stopped repeating his "conclusive" statistic.

However, it seems that they are people for whom facts are not important. I heard a really funny interview with a writer on food who criticized current Hungarian chefs’ training. He mentioned that Hungarians like to boast that the world’s best cuisines are the French, the Chinese, and the Hungarian; according to him, this is not true. To which the television personality replied: "But don’t you think that people need this kind of praise?" True, not true? Doesn’t matter. It makes us feel good. Rather dangerous, I would say.

Hungarian holidays and their extensions

Sitting in the United States and keeping tab on Hungarian affairs is an interesting undertaking when holiday follows holiday. On Sundays and on holidays there is practically no news in Hungary. Life stops. While here The New York Times appears every day, the big Hungarian dailies have no Sunday editions at all, and they don’t appear on holidays either. And if only these holidays were one-day affairs. But no, they usually last two days: two days at Christmas time, two days at Easter, two days at Pentecost. Admittedly there are a few papers that appear only on Sundays, but they are really not full-fledged papers. During extended holidays the situation is especially dire because normal television programming also comes to a screeching halt: political reporters and their daily or weekly programs disappear altogether. They take a long extended holiday and cheerfully announce that we can meet them again, let’s say, on January 8. But Hungarians consider their lives very stressful: one hears nothing else but that life nowadays is so rushed. There is no time for anything. Not like in the good old days. I hate to think what it was like in the good old days.

But these holiday schedules are not confined to journalistic endeavors. I heard with amazement that it is illegal to have a store open after 2 p.m. on December 24! No last minute shopping there. Even greater was my surprise that the Hungarian stock exchange was closed for five solid days. Do you remember the panic on Wall Street after 9/11 when it was the question of reopening the stock exchange? The urgency! On the other hand, I just heard that the Japanese stock exchange is closed for a whole week. Well, obviously these cultures have different ideas of holidays and rest.

I just heard the new president of Magyar Rádió trying to explain the philosophy behind the radio’s programming schedule. Of course, this "new" programming is not at all new elsewhere, but it is new in Hungary. What he was talking about was that every day the programming slots will be set. The listener knows what to expect if the clock shows 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. I am a faithful listener of NPR (National Public Radio) and find it comforting that the news begins every day at 5 a.m. and lasts for two hours when it is repeated for those who get up later. Right now I’m writing this hoping that it will be finished by 4 p.m. when I can walk and listen to "All Things Considered." This type of programming in television and radio gives structure to our lives. However, Hungarians are not enamored with the new programming. A reporter already announced that this "mechanical" programming is boring. I guess they like the excitement of the unknown!

The same reporter found it absurd that the new president of MR, following Western European examples, renamed the three radio channels. Formerly known as Kossuth, Petőfi, and Bartók, they now have the more mundane names MR1, MR2, and MR3. Kossuth Rádió was the flagship station, named following the communist takeover for the Hungarian-language wartime broadcast of Radio Moscow (which no one listened to in Hungary). When two more stations were added, I guess it seemed natural to the "branding gods" to name them after a poet and a composer. At least Bartók Rádió is an all-classical music station. No poet would ever have laid claim to Petõfi Rádió. Now that we are moving into the digital age and Magyar Rádió will have several more stations, the decision was made not to follow the old system of naming stations after historical characters. Kossuth is already called MR1, Petőfi MR2, Bartók MR3. Well, our reporter is outraged: who is ever going to call Kossuth Rádió MR1? Of course, eventually everybody. After all, they changed street names all over the country and people managed to learn the new names. Every time I hear comments like this I become a little sad because it shows the extreme conservatism of the Hungarian people.

By the way, one can only hope that MR1’s news program will be broadcast at the same time every day, 365 days a year.

President Sólyom and the Hungarian health care reform

Surprise, surprise!  Sólyom didn’t sign into law the proposed health care bill. Not that for a moment I thought he would just sigh and sign, but I was afraid that he would send the bill to the Constitutional Court for review. Because it seems to me that if President (formerly Chief Justice) Sólyom sends something over to the Constitutional Court, especially if he points out to the honorable members what he sees as problematic, you can bet your bottom dollar that the honorable members will wholeheartedly agree with the former chief justice on every point. (If for no other reason Sólyom’s former position on the court should have precluded him from consideration as a presidential candidate, but I have the feeling that those who came up with his name never thought of this particular problem.)

In any case, one can be quite happy that he decided only to send the bill back to Parliament for further consideration because, if all goes well, that will be the end of the story. If–with or without change–the parliamentary majority votes again to approve the bill, according to the Hungarian constitution Sólyom will have to sign. Right now the socialists and the liberals swear that they will not waver. However, the bill has to be discussed once again in committees and in full session, and if the government parties decide to wait until the first days of the normal parliamentary session the whole painful business will go on again for at least two more months. Meanwhile, of course, the opposition will be also active and there will be renewed propaganda against the reforms. There may be new strikes, further threats from the Hungarian Medical Association. In brief, all the horrors of the last year and a half will be repeated again.

The letter Sólyom wrote to Katalin Szili and the Parliament is an interesting document. In the preamble of the six-page letter, he summarizes his objections. First he disapproves of "the methods of the bill’s framing." Second, according to him "the bill doesn’t contain all the necessary guarantees." And third, "the bill’s effects are uncertain." One could, of course, say: indeed, the only certainty in this life is death (which may be expedited if Hungarian health care isn’t improved).

According to Ferenc Kumin, earlier "political scientist" now the "famulus" of Sólyom–as one of his critics called him, the President has been diligently consulting with experts on health care issues. The problem with "experts" in general and in Hungary even more so, is that there are right-wing experts and left-wing experts. Experts on both sides have all sorts of titles and positions but not suprisingly they hold entirely different views on almost everything under the sun. Knowing Sólyom, I’m sure he invited both sides, inquired about their opinions, and then picked and chose whatever he liked. The result is a patchwork of often contradictory opinions.

Sólyom emphasizes that such a far-reaching reform as this health care bill must be based on consensus in parliament. It cannot become a political football. Unfortunately, it has already become one: the Fidesz refuses any kind of cooperation with the other parties in this question or anything else. But I don’t think that Sólyom’s chiding of Fidesz will make the slightest difference in this respect. Sólyom also bemoans the lack of trust on the part of the population without which, according to him, no such far-reaching and important law should be enacted. The only thing he seems to forget that it is the Fidesz, with a great deal of help from the medical establishment, that foments the dissatisfaction.

Another complaint is that no "impact study" was undertaken during the preparation of the bill. But health care reform is exceedingly complicated, and it’s virtually impossible to foresee all possible ramifications. Moreover, I think that most impact studies are simply wasteful bureaucratic exercises.

While Sólyom goes into great detail about the extra cost of running several funds and therefore seems to support one centralized system and national solidarity (i.e. everybody according to his means and everybody according to his needs), he complains about the lack of real competition which, according to him, can be achieved only through competition among the health providers. But this, to my mind, means privatization of hospitals, something which would be an even more radical departure from the earlier socialist system.

I’m sure that they will be many comments from real health experts on Sólyom’s epistle. Here I have just jotted down my first thoughts on the document.

Season’s Greetings

Parliament is closed, Gyurcsány is most likely off with his family to rest a bit, President Sólyom has the next few days to ponder what to do with the health care bill, and I am taking a break too. For months now I have been diligently following Hungarian political events and I must say that I’m happy that the year’s end is close. It was a very difficult year for Hungary, although not as dire as the opposition attempts to portray it. Inflation was higher than anticipated and real wages are about 4-5% lower than a year ago. On the bright side the deficit was dramatically lowered in a year: from almost 11% to a little over 6%. Prime Minister Gyurcsány thinks that the worst is over, although a lot depends on the international economic situation, which is not as bright as it could be. Yet I remain optimistic.

All in all, the year ended relatively well. The very important health care bill was passed and even if the president sends it back to parliament or to the Constitutional Court the bill can be always changed a bit to meet with the approval of the Court. It may mean some delay, but the bill cannot be killed. The strike was a flop, while other state employees managed to get reasonable raises through negotiations without any strikes. The family doctors are fairly happy with the co-payments which remain in their pockets. The people have realized that it is nice to be able to buy non-prescription drugs outside of pharmacies, and they are surprised to see that several prescription drugs are cheaper today than before. If the changes introduced bring tangible results in the hospitals and doctor’s offices, the people will realize that the end of the world is not yet at hand.

On this optimistic note I wish all my readers a peaceful and happy holiday season,

Eva Balogh

Molotov cocktails and a beating in Hungary

Who would have thought that Molotov cocktails would once again be used in Hungary? The last time I saw them was in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but then it was understandable. The youngsters on the streets had no firearms that would be effective against tanks–hence Molotov cocktails. But in a peaceful country in 2007? Alas, yes.

There have been three incidents involving Molotov cocktails in less three months. The first took place in Adony (Fejér County) where somebody surely didn’t like the socialist parliamentary member, László Ecsődi. Two Molotov cocktails were thrown at his house on the evening of October 23. His wife was at home, he was away. The Molotov cocktails didn’t do much damage but, as far as I know, to this day no one knows who the culprits were.

Lately there have been more ugly attacks on MSZP headquarters or members of the government. Last Monday two Molotov cocktails were thrown into the MSZP headquarters in District III of Budapest. To give you an idea of how inept these people are: they put not gasoline but diesel oil into the bottles. Not surprisingly, although they went through the window, they didn’t cause any real damage because they didn’t ignite. Surprisingly, the police managed to find the two left-handed culprits: a twenty-one-year-old college student and a twenty-nine-year-old computer scientist. One from Budapest and the other from Szentendre, the picturesque little town north of Budapest and apparently one of the centers of right radicalism. (Interestingly enough, Szentendre was the birthplace of the Arrowcross movement in the second half of the 1930s. Obviously, there is nothing new under the sun.)

There was another attack with Molotov cocktails against SZDSZ party chief János Kóka’s unfinished house. Here again there were two Molotov cocktails thrown, but these guys seemed to have known the difference between gasoline and diesel oil. There was considerable damage but no one was injured because no one was in the half-built house.

And then on to the "Case of the Baffling Beating": two or three masked men, according to his account, attacked Sándor Csintalan in the underground garage of his apartment house. They called him a dirty Jew, beat him up, and robbed him.

It is difficult to make a coherent story out of Csintalan’s past based on the information he himself gave in the Hungarian Who’s Who (Ki kicsoda). He claims that he is Jewish, but he began his studies (between 1975 and 1977) in the Kossuth Lajos Katolikus Főiskola. I have never heard of such a Catholic college and, although I tried to find information, I came up with nothing. His next station was the Ho Chi Minh Teacher’s College, where he spent a year (1977-78) in Budapest and three years allegedly in the Eger branch of the same teacher’s college. (The teacher’s college in Eger needless to say no longer is named after Ho Chi Minh.) He began to teach in the lower grades (first eight) in Csepel, a working-class district in Budapest. For years he was active in the Communist Youth Organization (1982-1986). He joined the Party (MSZMP) when he was still quite young (in 1977). In 1990, after being a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party (long gone), he joined the MSZP and soon enough became one of the vice presidents. He broke with the party sometime at the end of the 1990s and subsequently joined the Fidesz. For the last few years he has appeared weekly on the right-wing HírTV with a political call-in show with a very right-wing agenda.

As I indicated, he is not a sympathetic character. He behaves even on screen like a boor. Perhaps some people actually say that Csintalan deserved what he got. One thing is sure: he looked pretty bad after the attack and Csintalan, the showman, made certain that no one cleaned up the blood running down on his face before pictures were taken. He was taken to the hospital where policemen were guarding his room. Although there was a lot of blood the wounds turned out to be superficial. Csintalan’s stories, according to the police, changed every time he told them. But he eventually settled on the following: two or three masked men waited for him in the garage and they beat him with metal rods up, calling him a dirty Jew. He was certain that these men were professionals, perhaps former members of the Hungarian secret police. According to Csintalan, although his attackers were right-wingers, the real culprits were the communists, his former comrades. The MSZP was behind this attack. It was a message to Viktor Orbán. A pretty unbelievable story, if you ask me.

The police suspects that it was nothing but a simple case of robbery but Csintalan claims that taking his few thousand forints was just an afterthought in order to make it look like a robbery.

The Office of National Security immediately announced that they would organize a special unit whose job it will be to find Csintalan’s attackers. A few days later there was an e-mail message from a mysterious Liberating Army of the Arrows of Hungarians (Magyarok Nyílai Felszabaditó Hadsereg): they claimed responsibility. The problem is that no one has ever heard of the Liberating Army of the Arrows of Hungarians.

As time goes on, the story gets fancier and fancier. Csintalan told Magyar Nemzet that his own father was also beaten badly at one time and his death (three heart attacks) was somehow connected to this beating. I also noticed that Nap-Kelte (the early morning political show on MTV) called Csintalan in the hospital one day and Csintalan’s voice was strong and fairly cheerful at the beginning, but as soon as he found out from where the call came from, his voice became weaker and weaker and at the end inaudible. In any case, I will be interested how this bizarre story will end.