For a couple of months there has been no news about the Gripen affair, which at the beginning of June captivated the media. At that time Swedish public television aired a documentary indicating that a certain Austrian count, Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly, received millions of dollars from BAE Systems, Britain’s biggest arms company, for lending a helping hand to the Swedish firm Saab in selling Gripen fighting planes to the Czech Republic and Hungary. Specifically, in the case of Hungary, the allegation was that he received $8 million to lobby the Hungarian government on behalf of the company. In both cases, until the last minute everybody thought that the American Lockheed Martin F-16 plane was going to be the winner and the decision, at least in Hungary, was received with some surprise.
One thing is sure, Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly, husband of an Austrian politician, has good Hungarian connections. He has business interests in Hungary and speaks the language well, which is not terribly surprising since his mother is Hungarian. But then he is also the laird of a Scottish castle that he bought with the proceeds of his secret payments. And, predictably, it seems he has a checkered past.
As far as we know, Hungarian military experts considered the American F-16 plane superior to the Gripen, and they recommended the F-16 for lease and eventual purchase. This recommendation was dated September 6, 2001; four days later it was endorsed by János Szabó, the minister of defense. Yet a few days later, at a smaller gathering of the members of the national security cabinet chaired by Viktor Orbán, the Swedish Gripen was chosen. As was usual during the Orbán government’s tenure, there were neither written minutes nor tape recordings of the meeting. According to some people who were members of the Orbán government, in important matters Orbán alone made the decision. The question is, of course, why did he decide against the recommendation of experts in his government, especially since the decision had a rather negative impact on U.S.-Hungarian relations?
Suspicions were aroused after the Swedish documentary was aired. The opposition (that is, the Fidesz) immediately called for a parliamentary committee that would investigate not the question of why the Gripens were leased instead of the F-16s, but rather why the Medgyessy goverment decided to upgrade the Gripens. That was of course a diversionary tactic; the government parties immediately countered that, in this case, another committee must investigate the original question of Gripen versus F-16. A third committee of experts was also formed within the the ministry of defense and headed by Ágnes Vadai, the newly appointed undersecretary of defense. Vadai announced at the beginning of June that the report of the five-member committee would reach Parliament on September 15.
Today Vadai gave an interview to Népszava (August 13 issue). She revealed that she has been diligently reading the documentary evidence and has found "many interesting details." She refused to be specific but mentioned that the documents allow the reader to learn about "the interests, the values of the people involved, and tell a lot about the way decisions were reached." She added that there are many details in these documents that she doesn’t understand fully. She rather mysteriously added that she was sure that there would be some rational explanation for all the puzzling details or, at least, she "hoped that there is." Stay tuned; this one could be juicy.