The Hungarian public and corruption

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."