Such pseudo scandals are called air balloons (luftballon–what a good Hungarian word). It is quite apt: you poke a hole in the balloon and only air comes out of it. Thin air. Nothing tangible. The latest pseudo scandal is that the opposition (more precisely Fidesz) is warming up an old story that had already turned out to be a "luftballon" once. The government, they claim, through the National Security Office (Nemzetbiztonsági Hivatal), is spying on opposition politicians. Government operatives listen in on their telephone conversations, agents follow them, spies are active.The whole works. This kind of accusation failed once. Shortly after the Orbán government was established, during one of the first parliamentary sessions, Viktor Orbán rose and dramatically accused the former MSZP-SZDSZ government of having spied on opposition politicians before and during the election campaign. After months of investigation it turned out to be a "luftballon." To this day it is not clear whether Orbán was misinformed and acted too hastily or whether he just concocted the story. Opponents of Orbán think the latter; a standard refrain is "sure, that man never lies, just think of the surveillance story."
Well, we didn’t get to actual surveillance yet. Only the fear of surveillance, although Lajos Kósa, mayor of Debrecen and one of the vice presidents of Fidesz, already seems to know that big brother is listening to his telephone conversations. (What I don’t understand: why didn’t he report this to the police? Apparently he as an official has the duty to do so.) The fear of surveillance is based on the government’s intention to offer security protection to local governments who will have large amounts of money at their disposal thanks to the generous European Union subsidies. Basically, the central government is offering to vet the individuals and businesses whom the municipalities plan to hire to complete the EU-funded projects. Surely, argues the government, the local authorities would like to know whether the people they are dealing with are on the up and up. To help ensure that there will not be any money laundering, that contractors won’t just split with the money, that no organized crime connections exist. Well, this was translated as spying on the local goverments which are mostly in Fidesz hands after the Fidesz sweep at the October 2006 local elections.
There are two people who are the loudest. One is Ervin Demeter who nowadays is just an ordinary Fidesz parliamentary member but who at one point was the cabinet minister responsible for questions of national security. He rose to this position in a rather unseemly way. He was the MDF undersecretary to László Kövér. This ministry was a Fidesz slot. When Kövér resigned to run the party, Demeter succeeded him the only way he could–by immediately leaving MDF and becoming a member of Fidesz. MDF was stunned, and it was perhaps Károly Herényi who called Demeter "a bread and butter politician" (megélhetési politikus). In any case, Demeter’s reputation was tarnished by this switching of parties solely for the sake of a promotion. Demeter is also not known to be an intellectual giant. But what he lacks in brains he makes up for in spades in pushiness. His performance yesterday in parliament was unspeakable. In vain did Katalin Szili, speaker of the house, tried to restrain him. It doesn’t seem to make the slightest difference what György Szilvássy, the man responsible for national security matters, says, Demeter and Kósa go on with their accusations. Today they even organized an "international press conference" on this very serious matter. Despite the central government’s assurance that the national security protection is not compulsory, that only those local governments who ask for it will receive it, the attack continues.
Meanwhile I’m wondering: why? They burned themselves once with the surveillance business. Why bring it up again when, on the surface, it would seem that this story has nothing to do with opposition politicians? There’s one possible explanation. The government is offering a free service to the local governments, so the municipalities might feel some pressure to accept the service. But if at least some local politicians have something to hide, if they are afraid of having their business relationships exposed, the last thing they would want is some national agency taking the moral high ground. This, of course, is not unique to Hungary or Fidesz (though Fidesz has a reputation for skirting the edges of legality). I live in Connecticut, where our former governor served time for, among other offenses, receiving gifts from contractors doing business with the state and taking an ownership stake in businesses just before they were awarded state contracts. And would he have wanted some federal agency poking its nose into his business? Of course not. Anyway, if the Hungarian government’s offer is decried as a form of spying so that local governments feel no need to accept the offer, then perhaps the seemier side of political life can continue. Just a hypothesis. . . .