The written and electronic media are full of stories about 1989, a year that saw dramatic political and economic change in Hungary. Instead of one-party rule the country would be a multi-party democracy and instead of "socialist production" capitalism would be the guiding principle of the economy. It was indeed a momentous year; even today one can only marvel at the speed with which this transformation took place. Twenty years is long enough to look back and try to analyze the events and their afterlife. After all, today's thirty-year-olds were small children in 1989; for them the Kádár regime is only history. History that they never learn in school and about which they have a distorted picture. It is either portrayed as the worst dictatorship and communist oppression or it is seen through the filter of their parents as a peaceful paradise when life was "secure." There was no need to worry about anything. Life was predictable.
The major actors of the drama of 1989 have been offering their memories, but almost nothing is being said about the unfinished story of the huge informer network that operated in the country. This network was in place throughout the communist period, and according to estimates during this era about 200,000 informers worked for the ministry of interior under whose aegis the whole complicated network operated. There were different departments whose jobs varied according to types of work. The best known and most notorious was Department III/III that dealt with internal matters. That is, it recruited people whose job it was to spy on their friends, relatives, or co-workers. In 1989-90 the Antall government inherited a huge archives, but some of the material was already gone. In the last few months of the old regime, the people who were running the show at III/III were busily destroying some of the material. Later some additional material disappeared. These documents were not destroyed but stashed away somewhere for later political use. Most likely all democratic governments engaged in this illicit "document-napping." After all, József Antall was able to show some of his political opponents embarrassing proof of their earlier lives as informers. When Viktor Orbán made his right-hand man and former mentor László Kövér minister without portfolio, one of whose jobs was to oversee the archives of the ministry of interior from the Kádár regime, a lot of people were certain that Orbán and Kövér had some specific tasks in mind. And indeed, one "revelation" after the other surfaced over the years.
It was time to do something with these archives. SZDSZ, a party that had little reason to worry about skeletons in its closet, championed for full disclosure. MSZP, MDF, and Fidesz were less sanguine because their leaders knew full well that many of their prominent members had something to hide. The government prepared several pieces of legislation that were dutifully approved by parliament, but each was weaker than the one before. As things now stand, the keepers of secrets claim that they have released everything that does not endanger current counterintelligence agents to an archives open to "researchers." According to the "reseachers" an unnecessarily large amount of the material was withheld. They want much more material to be released. This is where things have stood for at least a year. The government is not too eager to move.
But there are problems even with the material that was released. For instance, historians or journalists unearth the agent status of some "public figure." The past of a public figure is not protected by privacy laws. But the definition of a "public figure" is not legally clarified. For example, leaders of the various religious denominations claim that they are not public figures. Historians think otherwise. A second problem is that in the courts of law it is practically impossible to prove that someone was actually an agent. Krisztián Ungváry, a historian specializing in this area, thinks that, given the state of the archives, out of the 200,000 agents it would be possible to prove the informer status of only a couple of hundred. He knows only too well. He was sued several times and lost every time. As the law reads, it is not enough to have signatory proof that someone joined the informer network; their hand-written reports are also necessary. But these are rarely found together. Most of the agreements are detailed, but often they are not signed. Or if they are signed, the reports the agents wrote either disappeared or have not yet been found. As far as I know, not one of the cases researchers believed to be genuine ended in a verdict favorable to the historian or journalist.
Then there is the question of another department operating under the ministry of interior: Department III/II that dealt with counterintelligence. This department also had several sections. Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy was employed and drew a salary from a section of Department III/II that dealt with foreign economic opinions about Hungary. Lately another section came into the limelight: people who were watching foreigners visiting Hungary, including, I assume, Hungarian-born people who settled in the West either after 1945 or 1956 and later. The reason for the interest in this particular department is the case of Mária Kivágó Iván who worked for this department for about twenty years until 1991. That is, she wasn't fired at the time of the regime change. She simply retired once she reached the appropriate age. Subsequently she became a local politician serving for the last fifteen years or so as one of the vice-mayors of District XXIII in Budapest. She most likely would have retired unnoticed in a few years if the Budapest MSZP bigwigs hadn't come up with her name as a replacement for György Hunwald (mayor of District VII) as a member of the city council. Hunwald has been sitting in jail for at least two months because the prosecutor's office decided that he was allegedly involved in some big-time corruption cases involving property transfers. Because the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition in Budapest had a one-man majority, Hunwald's absence made the council absolutely useless as far decision-making was concerned. The vote on the budget was of paramount importance but nobody moved an inch. Months went by, the deadline was past but no budget. Eventually MSZP convinced Hunwald to resign and they opted for Mária Kivágó Iván. As soon as she was named, the opposition brought up her III/II past. Apparently her past was no secret even before, but then she wasn't as important in Budapest politics and therefore the opposition didn't make hay of it. My feeling is that the Budapest MSZP leaders didn't even consider it an issue. They don't think that a III/II past is of any importance. After all, she was not an informer. III/II is not III/III. The problem is that people in the know are convinced that the divisions between departments were not as rigid as all that. In any event, once the news of her past reached the public, even Gábor Demszky (SZDSZ), mayor of Budapest, said something negative about MSZP's decision to nominate her. Admittedly, the MSZP choice was rather unfortunate but, let's face it, Demszky can only be grateful to the woman with whose help the budget was finally passed a few days ago. (I might add that Mrs. Kivágó Iván resigned immediately after the vote.)
But now comes another twist. It turns out that the head of SZDSZ in District XXI (Island of Csepel) was a colleague of the same Mrs. Kivágó Iván whom they criticized. Gábor Demszky cannot be terribly happy because apparently he was influential in the resignation of Mrs. Kivágó Iván. Put it this way: Népszabadság tried to reach Demszky to ask his opinion on the case in Csepel but he was unavailable. The SZDSZ politician also worked for Department III/II for twenty years. He didn't make a secret of his past.
The whole thing is a mess. As far as I can see, if the political elite had wanted to exclude these people from political life they should have acted accordingly at the very beginning. However, it would have been difficult to enact such legislation for at least two reasons. The transfer from the MSZMP to the multi-party parliament was peaceful. As József Antall said when some of his colleagues complained about men of the past showing up in the new regime's political life: "You should have staged a revolution," knowing full well that such a revolution would have been an impossibility. The other reason is that each party most likely had a fair number of people who were involved with the secret service. By now we even know some of the names. Twenty years later playing political games with the past of certain people is dishonest. Especially when "our communists" are acceptable but "yours are not."