Month: November 2009

The Hungarian service by S.K.

To be precise, it is about public service as the public television company of Hungary, MTV, exemplifies it. This institution started its life in 1957 and held alone the interest of the Hungarian population until the change of the system in 1989-90 and after. The Magyar Televízió, of course, was a state run, communist-directed propaganda tool in the service of building the socialist state. To emphasize its stand in contrast to the despised capitalist past, it was housed in a gorgeous palace in downtown Budapest in the building of the long defunct stock market, only a stone's throw away from the Parliament building.MTV building 

However, the “new” Media Law, enacted in late 1995, reorganized the market to open it up to private broadcasters as well as to regulate the activities of the public television and radio stations. As a natural consequence the western media interests almost immediately entered the market and the number of television stations has grown to six in short order. The state-owned station had to compete on the open market. The street lingo soon baptized it “the Royal TV” to distinguish it from the commercial stations.

At the same time the new media law created a supervisory board, whose members are nominated by the parliamentary parties and an “oversight” committee with delegates provided by civic groups. This latter is more numerous and less accountable than the former, since the civic groups are not elected and often are shady organizations whose membership and goals are dubious. They are chosen in a lottery-like process.

Over the last fifteen years the operation of the public television was nothing short of a spectacular series of scandals. The political parties in power always considered the station as their own mouthpiece. The groping for influence and propaganda advantage was one of the central occupations of every government. Officers and employees were dumped unceremoniously every time the powers that be found this desirable. In the meantime the quality of the programming has deteriorated to inconceivably low levels. The political masters in the governing party’s headquarters held the purse, so the officers of the corporation had to do the bidding of their masters or be fired as it happened most of the time. The number of employees and outside suppliers was in the thousands. So much so that when at one time more that 1200 employees were dumped at once the corporation could continue without any apparent effect. The government poured billions of subsidies into the station and all it required in return was political loyalty. Need I say, the corporation was rife with corruption and ineptitude? The viewer statistics were plummeting. The MTV viewership was around 10% in January this year, but fell further to 8% by July.

No matter how much money was devoted to MTV, the quality declined, the deficit grew and the financial woes multiplied. Four-five years ago the president of the day decided that selling the building would be the saving grace for the Company, because the resulting cash injection would cover the deficit and leave some cash to revamp the institution. This president, Zoltán Rudi, was an accountant so nobody questioned his figures. The building was appraised at 6 billion forints and it was hastily sold to a young Canadian developer for 4.5 billion, with the proviso that MTV is leasing it back for two years, at 2 billion yearly rent until they can move to new premises. So, the deal squandered the “saving grace” in one fell swoop.

In the meantime the mandate of the “ingenious” president expired, he disappeared from the scene, leaving power in the hands of a newly appointed vice president no less ingenious. He also left behind a binding contract that forced MTV to move to a new building in Óbuda, built specifically for them by a private developer, where they will have to pay a monthly rent of 1 million euro, the equivalent of 3.5 billion forint a year for 18 years. Afterwards they can buy the building for 60 billion, although the cost of building it was only 20. As you can see that new building is nothing to sneeze at.


The supervisory bodies meanwhile, in a paroxysm of political horse-trading, failed time and again to agree on the person of a new president by scuttling several competitions for the post. That left Balázs Medveczky, ranking vice president in position to do as he pleases.

The public at large heard first about Mr. Medveczky, when it was announced that he walked into the office of the owner of one of the most established and most watched programs on MTV, called Napkelte (Sunrise), and broke up the contractual relationship then and there effective immediately. This was hard to believe. It became even harder over the following days as he came out with new explanations day after day, every one of which turned out to be a ludicrous, blatant lie. But he stood his ground and immediately launched a substitute program. The main difference between the two was that Napkelte cost MTV nothing but brought them 100 million yearly income, while his own substitute had to be produced in-house and had no advertising contracts at all. All observers of this strange affair agreed that MTV just triggered a very expensive lawsuit to come. Opinions were also nearly unanimous about the motives of Medveczky, clearly showing the political jitters due to the impending Fidesz take over of government and trying to please in advance his future masters.

The producer of Sunrise, Tamás Gyárfás, did not give up easily. He made alternative offers to MTV but was rejected. Negotiation not being in the cards, he decided to wield his considerable influence in government circles and managed to convince the framers of next years budget that MTV’s financial management was terrible, therefore they should not be subsidized any longer. This idea came very handy to the government of prime minister Gordon Bajnai. Being for many months in the throes of a brutal austerity drive, the government decided to cut the subsidy of MTV by 9 billion, effectively leaving them with nothing, adrift to swim, or sink.

MTV is operating with enormous apparatus, thousands of employees and expensive outside production houses produce a less than mediocre result at taxpayers expense. At the same time the commercial TV stations work with a fraction of MTV’s resources and personnel and yet they have a much higher market share and are profitable without any subsidies.

However, Fidesz and personally Viktor Orbán reassured MTV a couple of days ago, exhorting them to hold out just a little longer, because when his government comes to power in the spring help will be soon on the way.


The Hungarian budget debate: Politically motivated economists and others

Twenty-nine people, no friends of the current government, published an open letter in Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap addressed to members of the Hungarian parliament. The men and women who penned their names to the document were even ready to pay for the publication of the letter. MTI claimed that the letter was the work of "well-known economists, among them high-level government employees of the Orbán government." Yes, it is true that there are some "well-known economists" among the signatories, but most of them are neither well known nor economists. Some come from the business world and not all of them occupy high positions. For example, I found one woman who was described on Linkedin as a "marketing assistant." I was also somewhat baffled when I saw the name of Gábor Náray-Szabó, a member of the Academy, who is not an economist but a chemist. (If anyone would like to have a good laugh he/she should visit one of my earlier blogs in which I translated a conversation between Gábor Náray-Szabó and József Orosz in Kontra. The comments to this post are also hilarious.) Perhaps most startling was the name of Ferenc L. Gazsó, the editor-in-chief of the far-right Magyar Hírlap.

Admittedly, there are some well-known economists on the list, but I would say that they are in the great minority. The most prominent are two former chairmen of the Hungarian National Bank: Péter Ákos Bod and Zsigmond Járai. Bod filled the position during the Antall government only to resign under pressure by Prime Minister Gyula Horn (MSZP) while Járai, after serving as minister of finance in the Orbán government, occupied the post between 2000 and 2005. Járai's relations with the Medgyessy and Gyurcsány governments were singularly bad. Some people blame him for keeping the forint artificially strong and thus doing great damage to the Hungarian economy. In addition to these two men another big name is György Szapáry who left Hungary in 1956 and, after receiving his degree in economics at the Catholic University at Louvain, worked for the IMF until 1990. In that year he returned to Hungary as the representative of the IMF. Later he became one of the vice-chairmen of the Hungarian National Bank.

When asked why he decided to sign this letter Zsigmond Járai said that it was out of desperation. He and his fellow signatories are convinced that this budget will only deepen the economic crisis. The letter claims that the budget before parliament is bogus, that it cannot be implemented and therefore will further discredit the country in the eyes of the international financial community. The minister of finance, they write, overestimated the size of certain revenues while underestimating expenses. In addition, the signatories blame the government for postponing necessary reforms and not helping Hungarian entrepreneurs' competitiveness. The letter concludes with: PLEASE DON'T PLUNGE THE COUNTRY INTO NEW DANGER.

Finance Minister Péter Oszkó's reaction was brief but to the point. He accused the signers of the document of partiality and stated that anyone who has a sense of duty and responsibility for the future of the country should vote for next year's budget. As for the bogus budget he brought up the fact that this is the first Hungarian budget to undergo the scrutiny of the European Committee, the International Monetary Fund, the Hungarian National Bank, the State Accounting Office, and the newly founded Budgetary Council. Not one of them thought that the budget used false data.

Today an opinion piece appeared in Népszabadság by Tamás Bauer, himself a well-known economist, publicist, and former member of parliament. The article is entitled "I can't believe that Bod, Járai and Szapáry actually signed this!" And later: "This must be a forgery! Not the text, the signatures." Of course, Bauer knows only too well that the signatures are for real, but he wants to emphasize the absurdity that these people could possibly lend their names to opinions expressed in the open letter. Take Szapáry, for instance. After all, for about thirty years he was employed by the IMF and originally came to Hungary as its representative. He then represented those very principles he now finds unacceptable.

Bauer also expresses surprise that Járai signed this document. Járai who until now time and time again demanded the radical reduction of government expenses. And this budget cuts expenses by 1,000 billion forints. Járai while he was minister of finance wanted to introduce a flat tax but was unable to implement it due to Viktor Orbán's opposition. This budget's tax structure is as close to a flat tax as possible without calling it a flat tax. Bod, a cautious man who believes in gradual change, should really know how deeply and bravely this government reduced government expenses.

How can these three men say, continues Bauer, that "this budget takes the country in the wrong direction just as the bogus budgets of the Gyurcsány government," when they know full well that it was the 2002 Medgyessy budget that moved the country's economy in the wrong direction. As for lack of reform, surely they couldn't mean what they say because this budget contains serious reform steps as far as pensions and family assistance are concerned. The reason that no more could be included is due to the Fidesz initiated referendum that put an end to certain reforms. But then "responsible economists" didn't raise their voices, says Bauer sarcastically.

As far as "plunging the country toward new danger, they could have said that about the 2000 or 2002 budget but then they said nothing." Oh, yes, all that talk about independent experts! Let's face it, they don't exist.

New theories and reality: The case of the Hungarian student

As I mentioned yesterday, theories abound about the reasons for the tragedy at the University of Pécs. Some "experts" blame the media. Others think geographically: all these "bad influences" come from the West. If only the borders were sealed or at least couldn't easily be crossed Hungary would be saved from the scourge of the western world where such murders happen. Aggression grips the country and it spreads rapidly unchecked by a government that is unable to introduce the law and order everybody is longing for.

Politicians especially love that last explanation. Surely if Fidesz-KDNP wins the elections next spring everything will be right again. No murders, no crime, no harsh words exchanged on the streets, drivers will not scream at each other and at pedestrians. An earthly paradise.

Today a new theory emerged on the pages of Népszabadság. According to the author the real problem is "the credit system." Not credit as understood by the financial world; the academic credit system, as in credit hours required for graduation. No joke! Well, let's see how Dóra Varga, a journalist covering education for Népszabadság, manages to make the credit system responsible for this murder and who knows for how many more to follow. Because it is unlikely that there will be a change in the newly introduced credit system. And as long as the credit system is in place there will be murders at universities.

According to Dóra Varga the problem is that "students, with the exception of a few introductory courses, can decide on their own which seminars they will attend and therefore it can easily happen that a student spends every hour with a different set of people." Therefore, she concludes, "friendships and relationships cannot easily develop." What a dreadful situation: a student is free to choose. Instead, I guess Dóra Varga would love to see students attend a compulsory set of classes, always with the same set of classmates.

Let's hope that those days of uniformity and lack of freedom will never return to Hungarian universities. In this particular case my guess is that most of the first-year students were enrolled in introductory courses in biology, chemistry, and physics and therefore were not "running from class to class without classmates," as Dóra Varga imagines the situation at the university.

The explanation for the tragedy is straightforward: Ákos Gere was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. After the fact two psychiatrists began working on Gere's case. They discovered that the student suffered from bouts of depression and "also heard different voices whose genuineness he himself doubted." He was greatly bothered by the fact that ever since his teens he had no friends and he was certain that his acquaintances made fun of him and talked about him behind his back. Although he visited several psychiatrists they didn't discover the real cause of his problems. They were satisfied with prescribing antidepressants that "may have aggravated his condition."

On the day of the murder Ákos Gere may have heard voices again. During the lab he came to believe that his classmates were saying insulting things about him. He left the room three times and finally returned with the gun. After the murder he went up the seventh floor of a nearby hospital with the intention of committing suicide, but he changed his mind because "he wanted to meet with his parents." According to the two psychiatrists who talked with him afterwards, he simply didn't want to believe that he had killed anyone and he wasn't sure whether his classmates had made fun of him or not. Perhaps he had heard "those voices" again.

So it wasn't the media, it wasn't the socialist government, it wasn't the credit system. If anything, it was an incomplete/incorrect psychiatric diagnosis. Of course, most likely Ákos Gere didn't say anything about hearing voices to the psychiatrists he encountered, but the psychiatrists couldn't have probed very deeply. It is so much easier to prescribe antidepressants.

One doesn't have to be a psychiatrist to have a general idea about the nature of schizophrenia, a serious brain disorder that results in hallucinations, delusions, disordered thinking and behavior. Here are some of the symptoms: beliefs not based in reality, such as the belief that there's a conspiracy against you. Seeing or hearing things that don't exist (hallucinations), especially voices. Angry outbursts, trouble functioning at school or work, and social isolation. Gere's classmates were aware that he exhibited all of these symptoms.

So forget about aggression brought in from the West and spread by the media. Forget about a government that cannot keep law and order. Forget about the credit system. If anything, perhaps the training of psychiatrists could be improved. 

Murder at a Hungarian university

There is a tendency in Hungary to assume that bad things happen only in the United States. On the other hand, went the common wisdom until recently, in Europe it is unimaginable that someone would go berserk, enter his school, and kill several teachers and fellow students. Then it happened. First in Germany where a seventeen-year-old student killed sixteen people and then in peaceful Finland where there was a similar shooting rampage with ten victims. After these two European tragedies, the story changed somewhat in Hungarian folk wisdom: in Hungary such things cannot possibly happen. After what occurred yesterday at the University of Pécs Hungarians can no longer tout their spotless record which, by the way, wasn't that spotless but people's memory is short. In 1973 two brothers entered a dormitory for girls in Balassagyarmat and held fifteen students hostage. When the police arrived the two turned their machine guns on them. After negotiations failed, a sharpshooter killed one of the boys. The other gave himself up. That was in those wonderful, peaceful days of the Kádár regime!

It seems that the student who killed one and wounded three others in Pécs was most likely a schizophrenic who belonged to a shooting club and thus was entitled to carry a handgun between the club and his home. Unfortunately, he didn't stick to the rules and arrived at the university with his 9mm parabellum, two magazines, and forty-one rounds of ammunition.

There is a bad habit among certain experts: before they know anything about the details they immediately pontificate. One psychologist announced that the shooting in Pécs is "only the tip of the iceberg" because "aggression spreads like the H1N1 virus." He added that aggression of course existed before but it wasn't so much in the forefront of Hungarian thinking. But through the media it "seeped into our everyday lives." Old story, the media is at fault.

Then it turned out that the boy wasn't, as one fellow student said, "100%." Among other things, he had substance abuse problems and a spotty academic record. Often he didn't show up for classes or labs. He was twenty-three years old but only a first-year pharmacy student. Students normally enter university, including the Faculty of Pharmaceutics, right after high school. The shooting rampage occurred in a biophysics lab.

About the circumstances the only thing we know is that he apparently misbehaved during the laboratory session and was asked to cease and desist. He then jumped up, ran out of the room, and returned with his gun–presumably in his backpack ready to be used. In the total panic that followed he managed to leave the scene but didn't get very far: he tried to find refuge in a nearby hospital. A few minutes later he voluntarily surrendered. However, since then he has refused to say anything.

The minister of education and the minister of justice (also in charge of public safety) immediately drove to Pécs, a fairly long trip from Budapest especially given the unfinished state of the superhighway between the two cities. The minister in charge of public safety immediately suggested making gun laws tougher. Gun laws are very tough in Hungary as it is. Joining one of these clubs that allow their members to have a gun permit is a long, arduous procedure. Although there is a "medical examination," it is a simple physical, but it has to be repeated every year. There is no psychological test. Only security guards have to take such a test and, according to someone who took it, this test wouldn't filter out potential murderers. Indeed, there is no such magic screening technique.

As far as our man's psychological state is concerned, according to people familiar with his case he did see a psychiatrist a few times but he wasn't under his continuous care. Moreover, according to someone who seems to be familiar with the case, the psychiatrist most likely had no idea that his patient owned a gun.

After the psychologist and the spokesman for the Institute of Criminology expressed their expert opinions came the politicians. Now that was a real disaster. The Christian Democrat István Simicskó blamed the government for the tragedy. Because naturally for the actions of a "latent schizophrenic," as the president of the University of Pécs described him, the socialist government is responsible. Because it is obvious that brutal aggression is spreading in the country. He said at a press conference that "in a normal country a decently functioning government can guarantee order and security for the people living there." Domokos Szollár, the government spokesman, called Simicskó's statement "irresponsible and shameful." After all, one should not exploit tragedy for political purposes.

Norbert Miskolczi, whom I called the "chief student" in one of my earlier blogs, also had a few wise words. Miskolczi is the head of HÖOK (Hallgatói Önkormányzatok Országos Konferenciája). In Hungary there is a whole hierarchy of student unions with wide responsibilities and privileges. Each university has a student union that sends delegates to a national organization. Miskolczi heads this national body. Way back then I expressed a very negative opinion of Miskolczi. Well, I had the pleasure of hearing him again today and my opinion hasn't changed in the interim. He, the big cheese, called upon the Hungarian courts to come up with a verdict that would be a real "deterrent." As if a sick man's horrible act would inspire others to murder their fellow students and a very tough sentence would deter them from committing these acts. He complained about the "changing value system that necessarily leads to such acts." Again, the implication is that the government is responsible for this changing value system.

It is unfortunate that everything but everything becomes part of the political tug-of-war in Hungary. Be it the H1N1 virus or the terrible tragedy caused by a troubled young man. But perhaps sooner or later the Hungarian public will realize that there are events that have absolutely nothing to do with what kind of government is in power. After all, the horrific bank robbery that took place in the town of Mór during which eight people were gunned down happened while Viktor Orbán was the prime minister. And I don't remember anyone blaming him and his government for this massacre. Perhaps sanity will return one day.

Past and future Hungarian prime ministers in Russia?

Yesterday after I received numerous comments on my post on Orbán's alleged "negotiations" with Putin, I was inclined to agree with some of you that perhaps I wasn't concentrating on the really important issue. Possibly it isn't important whether the meeting between Putin and Orbán actually took place or how long it lasted if it did occur. The real issue is Viktor Orbán's attitude toward Vladimir Putin's Russia. I had to agree with the comment that " Putin's authoritarian 'democracy' where one really has a strong man leader with the veneer of democracy on the surface, is a political philosophy likely to be near and dear to Orbán's heart. This seems like a relationship made in heaven." Perhaps I concentrated on a minor issue: on Orbán's truthfulness instead of the kind of regime Orbán dreams of, which bears a suspicious resemblance to that of Putin. Or that of Miklós Horthy for that matter.

Although I still think that the above quoted comment makes a very valid point and perhaps we ought to discuss it sometime, yesterday's events strengthen my belief that after all it wasn't a waste of time to probe into the circumstances of this "mystery meeting" as Hírszerző called it. A bombshell hit the Hungarian media yesterday. Two days ago a picture appeared on the Russian prime minister's official website showing Putin and Gyurcsány accompanied by their wives having dinner in a Ukrainian restaurant in Moscow the day before. While Hungarian journalists were searching in vain for some documentation of the Putin-Orbán meeting, here is proof that a few days later Vladimir Putin and his wife spent two hours together with Gyurcsány and his wife.Gyurcsany and Putin This had to be a blow to the Hungarian opposition party and its chairman especially since rumors were circulating, most likely not independently from Fidesz rumor mongering, that Russia is getting ready for an Orbán government and is preparing to sever or at least loosen ties with the socialists. Viktor Orbán himself alluded to a certain ideological affinity between his and Putin's party when he gave an interview on MTV's new early morning program "Ma Reggel"  yesterday. Orbán emphasized that although Putin's party "doesn't copy anybody but builds its own culture . . . basically [United Russia] is a conservative party." During the forty years of the Kádár regime "Russian-Hungarian relations were in the hands of the communists and therefore they know the Russians better in addition to having more personal contacts" in Moscow. However, "that is what [he] tried to end, in [his] opinion successfully," during his negotiations with Putin.

If Orbán indeed succeeded and managed to turn the conservative Putin away from his old socialist friends, it is mighty strange that a few days later the Putin and Gyurcsány families were having a jolly good time over dinner in a Moscow restaurant.

As soon as the news about the Putin-Gyurcsány get together hit Budapest, members of the media got in touch with Ferenc Gyurcsány. He explained to them that the original dinner engagement was originally scheduled for September but because of Gyurcsány's sport injury the meeting had to be postponed. To the inquiry about the possible "new foundations" of Russian-Hungarian relations that Viktor Orbán tried to establish in St. Petersburg, Gyurcsány gave this answer: "On the basis of what I learned about Viktor Orbán's meeting in St. Peterburg, I think it is better for Viktor Orbán if I don't say anything. I consider this the most elegant answer." He added that he was convinced that in the next five months there will be a high-level meeting between the two countries in Moscow.

Yesterday's interview with Orbán on "Ma Reggel" was quite long and János Betlen asked him about all sorts of issues, including the by now infamous visit to St. Petersburg. First, Orbán insisted that he received the invitation not as one of the vice-chairmen of the European People's Party but as "chairman of Fidesz." Betlen seemed to be surprised but Orbán insisted. When asked about the duration of the meeting Orbán first answered rather vaguely: "It was long and thorough." Betlen wasn't satisfied and asked: "More than half an hour?" Answer: "More, yes. More than that, of course." Question: "More than an hour?" Answer: "Well, perhaps not that long … but it is not like a soccer match and one doesn't clock the time…." He then recalled that he had five or six points about which he definitely wanted to mention and he managed to cover them all.

A few days ago Orbán came out with an extravagant promise: he and his government will create an "energy independent Hungary" in twenty years. According to all experts this is no more than a pipe dream. What Betlen wanted to know was how Putin reacted to this plan. After all, it would not be to Russia's advantage if Hungary no longer needed to import natural gas or oil. Great was Betlen's surprise when he heard from Orbán that Putin was outright elated learning about this Fidesz plan. In fact, he told Orbán that Russia "will help" Hungary to achieve this goal. "Really?" asked Betlen. The answer was rather muddled but it seems that since Hungary's nuclear power plant at Paks was built with Soviet help and technology and because the Hungarian government is planning to double Paks's capacity in the near future Russia will have a part to play in the construction. Thus, in this way Russia will assist Hungary to become an "energy independent" country. Should I continue? I don't think it is necessary. Everybody should get the idea.

An internet newspaper learned from a diplomat who was also present at the conference of United Russia that in his opinion there was no way Orbán could possibly have had a private interview with Putin. Apparently there was a huge reception for delegates and guests, and Putin stopped here and there and exchanged a few words with the participants. Thus most likely also with Orbán.

I find it hard to believe that Putin could possibly have had more than half an hour to spend with the leader of a small country's opposition party on a day filled with official obligations. He was one of the speakers at the congress that lasted at least four or five hours. Then there was the reception for 2,000 at which he had to play host. I'm afraid Viktor Orbán is not telling the truth. And that is a very serious problem. This is not some lily-white lie but rather, I believe, the sign of a serious character fault. Can one trust a man who sees the world through a very distorted lens? I don't think so.

Attila Mesterházy: The Hungarian socialists’ candidate for prime minister

It's not official yet, but it is almost 100% certain that MSZP will campaign before the 2010 elections with Attila Mesterházy (age 35) as their candidate for prime minister. Most people think that by nominating Mesterházy MSZP has pretty well admitted that the party has no chance whatsoever at the next elections. Naturally, this is the stated opinion of Fidesz. But Fidesz was joined by the former socialist prime minister Péter Medgyessy who, completely forgetting his own substantial role in causing the downfall of his party, gleefully announced that MSZP is finished and that Mesterházy is a bad choice. Szabolcs Szerető, who writes opinion pieces for Magyar Nemzet, was outright condescending. The title of his piece in today's paper was: "Encouragement," meaning that he would like to give some encouragement to the young man who has no chance. According to Szerető, Ferenc Gyurcsány is not at all thrilled with the choice. I read elsewhere about a week ago that Gyurcsány and Mesterházy didn't get along. According to rumors there were times when the two men wouldn't talk to each other and communicated only through intermediaries. And this when Gyurcsány headed the ministry dealing with youth and sports and Mesterházy was his undersecretary. Nézőpont Institute, a think tank close to Fidesz, conducted a poll showing that only 5% of the voting-age population would vote for Mesterházy while even Lajos Bokros would garner at least 16%. Mind you, Nézőpont's results are almost always off. Moreover, one must keep in mind that in Hungary people don't vote for the prime minister directly.

Apparently Gyurcsány thought that László Kovács, the seasoned politician and diplomat, a real old timer and one of the founders of MSZP, would be a better candidate. Kovács was foreign minister between 1994 and 1998 and again between 2002 and 2004. He also served as chairman of MSZP between 1998 and 2004. Between 2004 and 2009 he was European commissioner in charge of taxation. Although Kovács will be soon "unemployed," it is not at all clear whether he would have accepted the nomination. Those who supported Kovács's nomination thought that perhaps a senior citizen (he was born in 1939) would appeal to the older and more faithful voters of MSZP. Perhaps through him the party could mobilize its base. A young candidate like Mesterházy might appeal more to the younger crowd, but the trouble with young Hungarians is at least twofold: they are overwhelmingly Fidesz and Jobbik supporters and one cannot rely on them at the polls. In large numbers they don't even bother to vote.

I wrote about Attila Mesterházy in my April 3, 2009 blog ("MSZP has put its house in order") where I described him as impressive on paper. Indeed, his scholarly achievements are quite remarkable. He graduated summa cum laude from Corvinus University, received all sorts of scholarships to study abroad, and is able to speak a couple of foreign languages. Former classmates described him as "diligent, conscientious, and a teacher's pet." He was liked by his fellow students although he didn't take part in student activities. He lived off campus with his girlfriend and therefore wasn't in the center of things. His acquaintances were surprised to hear about his rise within MSZP. They imagined him in the "middle management" category.

Interestingly enough Hírszerző, an online paper whose owners are close to MDF, is less damning. The journalists at Hírszerző think that with the choice of Mesterházy "the leadership of MSZP at last might be rejuvenated." According to socialist politicians Mesterházy will not come out of this political struggle as a "political nonentity." He will be able, given his age, to lead the party, even if in opposition for a while, to eventual victory. For his part, Mesterházy promises to be a tough opponent of the "moderate right" and a "merciless enemy" of the far right. He is hoping to be the spokesman not only of socialist voters but of everybody who takes democracy seriously. He also mentioned that MSZP was planning to nominate younger candidates for parliamentary seats in preparation for the campaign.

For the time being the Fidesz leadership hasn't responded to the unofficial news. The only information on the Fidesz website is Szabolcs Szerető's opinion piece from Magyar Nemzet. But it might provide Fidesz with an opening salvo since in it Szerető resurrects the old charge that Mesterházy is tainted as a result of the Zuschlag corruption case. János Zuschlag, a young socialist, received grants for youth projects from the sports ministry headed by Ferenc Gyurcsány when his undersecretary was Attila Mesterházy. Young Zuschlag and his friends apparently misused the monies received. Either they pocketed about 50-70 million forints for themselves or perhaps they used some of the money for purposes of the party, always strapped for funds. In either case, both Gyurcsány and Mesterházy testified as witnesses and told the judge what they knew. Practically nothing. Gyurcsány as minister handled only cases where a lot of money was involved while Mesterházy's work had nothing to do with grants.

Another possible line of attack against Mesterházy is that since Ildikó Lendvai became chairman of the party and Mesterházy became head of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, the MSZP members of parliament have been singularly disciplined: they have voted unanimously for all the proposals of the Bajnai government. So Fidesz might call attention to Mesterházy's connection to Bajnai and his austerity program.

Negotiations between Putin and the Hungarian opposition leader?

Recently I noticed a short news item: "Orbán conferred with Vladimir Putin." Hmm? That was surprising. From the article I found out that Viktor Orbán, in his capacity as one of the vice-presidents of the European People's Party, was a guest at the eleventh national congress of the ruling United Russia Party and that while in St. Petersburg he took the opportunity to talk with Putin. Péter Szijártó, the Fidesz spokesman, was tight-mouthed. The only thing he divulged was that Orbán and Putin had talked about the future of Russian-Hungarian relations. His boss was more expansive when he gave an interview to HírTV (where else?). According to Orbán he indicated to Putin that he wants "to put Russian-Hungarian relations on an entirely new footing." He apparently made some less than complimentary remarks about "the shady socialist characters" who are now in charge of Hungary's foreign policy toward Russia. An Orbán government will "create a true partnership between the two countries" that is appropriate for the diplomacy of the twenty-first century.

This is an unexpected development because Orbán's relations with Russia were singularly bad during his tenure as prime minister between 1998 and 2002. Since then Orbán has been consistently critical of "close" relations with Russia. He and his party severely criticized Hungary's willingness to adhere to the arrangement that would supply natural gas from Russia to Hungary through the Southern Stream. I wrote about the topic twice: first on February 29, 2008 ("All those streams of natural gas") and again on July 29, 2008 ("U.S.-Hungarian relations"). Moreover, Orbán was very explicit about his foreign policy plans vis-à-vis Russia in his May 2008 leaked conversation with young political scientists when he talked about foreign investments in Hungary. According to him there are three possible sources of foreign capital: from Russia, from the Arab world, and from China. But he added: "political relations are another matter." He would keep those on a low level. In March 2007 he gave a speech at a conference in which he went into great detail about the conflicting mentalities of the Russians and the "Europeans" as far as energy policy is concerned. The Russians are using natural gas and oil as a political weapon, said Orbán. The Russian ambassador who was present actually got into a verbal duel with the leader of the opposition, finishing his interjection with "Do we understand each other?" (The former Russian ambassador's Hungarian is impeccable.) In August 2008 Orbán wrote letters to the leaders of Georgia, Ukraine, and Poland in which he condemned Russian military aggression. He drew a parallel between the Russian attack on Georgia and the Soviet behavior in 1956 in Hungary. Needless to say, the Russian ambassador disagreed.

Well, these most recent so-called negotiations are probably, as usual, the figment of Orbán's imagination. From what I have been reading in the last two days it seems that the Hungarian opposition leader managed to exchange a few words with Putin, perhaps in the receiving line. But the initial announcement by Magyar Nemzet (November 20) indicated a much grander occasion. From "Russian" sources the paper seemed to know that the Orbán-Putin meeting would take place in Putin's dacha. (Perhaps some of you remember that Viktor Orbán was supposed to have a meeting with George H. Bush in Kennebunkport but somehow he didn't quite make the plane connection!)

The headline of the article was "Moscow is not afraid: Orbán is planning to visit Putin." I guess "Moscow is not afraid" means that it is not afraid of the arrival of an Orbán government. In the body of the article interesting "details" could be read. We found out that President Dmitry Medvedev would also be present and therefore it was possible that there might be a negotiating session between Medvedev and Orbán. The "invitation" (I guess by the Russians to Orbán) means that Moscow is conducting a pragmatic foreign policy. Russia is counting on a Fidesz victory.

That indeed sounded fabulous, but it was telling that Fidesz's press department refused to confirm the information received by Magyar Nemzet from "Russia". Thus, soon enough Magyar Nemzet turned down the volume considerably. On November 21, that is the day after the initial announcement, it reported only that "at the conference Viktor Orbán as vice-president of the European People's Party was present." However, after the HírTV interview Magyar Nemzet talked about "private talks" between Putin and Orbán. Two days later on November 23 the paper quoted Orbán, saying that he "went there to put Russian-Hungarian relations in order."

At this point the liberal media moved into high gear and its journalists began to snoop around to find out what really happened in St. Petersburg. The first Doubting Thomas was Tibor Várkonyi who penned an opinion piece, most likely sometime on Sunday, published in Monday's Népszava. He found it strange that after important "private conversations" it was once again only Viktor Orbán who gave an interview. He recalled that the same thing happened after Orbán's meetings with Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy. Yesterday the journalists continued their pursuit, and it turned out that the spokesman of Russian president's office confirmed only a "spontaneous meeting" between the two men. They checked the website of the European People's Party to see whether it made any mention of this private meeting but they found nothing. They checked the websites of all important Russian papers and Ria novosti, a news service usually very detailed and reliable, but again they found nothing.

So the only thing we seem to know is that it was a "spontaneous meeting" and that they "were talking about the future of Russian-Hungarian relations." When journalists asked Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, he informed them that Russian-Hungarian relations are good but can always be improved. When he was asked about Orbán's opposition to Hungary's joining the Southern Stream, Peskov's answer was "dialogue is always important." These are fairly meaningless comments. It seems that Orbán again is trying to make hay out of nothing or very little. The question is why.