I assume not too many people remember Gabriella Selmeczi’s unfortunate encounter with Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. I think even fewer remember her trouble with Tesco where she refused to pay for some baked goods she consumed on the spot. The lady, it seems, is accident prone.
Her beginnings were humble. Father finished agricultural “technikum.” Technikums were introduced in the Hungarian school system in 1950 as high schools for professional training. Graduates at the age of eighteen could start careers as technicians. In 1983, however, he decided to launch a business, a fast-food establishment called “Landoló falatozó.” “Landoló,” because it was close to the airport in Budaőrs where planes “land.” Gabi (as she calls herself even today on her website) after finishing high school became a waitress in the family restaurant. Two years later she was admitted to the Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátó Főiskola, a college that is supposed to train people to work in restaurants and hotels as middle managers. Later she finished journalism school in Esztergom and for a short while worked for the local television station in Budaőrs.
Armed with this rather modest academic background she got involved with Fidesz back when Viktor Orbán headed a radical liberal party of young democrats. She organized a Fidesz group in Budaőrs and soon enough caught the attention of “the boys,” as the Fidesz leaders were called in those days. Perhaps they liked her seductive blue eyes. (I know that’s catty, but she does look like something straight out of a Tennessee Williams play.) In no time Selmeczi was a member of the party’s steering committee and later one of the vice-chairmen. In 1994 she became a member of parliament and has been an MP ever since. She has been assigned primarily to committees that deal with local government, health, and social issues.
When in 1998 Viktor Orbán won the election and formed a coalition government with the Smallholders, she was picked to be one of the undersecretaries in the prime minister’s office in charge of social security. It was at this time that she ran into trouble. After spending only a few months on the job she, along with István Balsai, another undersecretary, had to resign. Népszava learned in May 1999 that Selmeczi, Balsai, and Béla Gyuricza (an ailing Fidesz member of parliament) sent a letter to Senators Jesse Helms and Joseph Biden. The letter, signed by 31 Fidesz MPs, asked the senators to name Steven M. Jones, a high-ranking financial manager of Lockheed Martin, as the next U.S. ambassador to Hungary.
One could ask: what on earth did Selmeczi have to do with Lockheed Martin? Simple. She had a boyfriend, Gábor Rónai, who was the lobbyist for the firm in Hungary. Lockheed was not only lobbying for Hungary to buy F-16 planes; it was also hoping to receive an order for the computerization of the Hungarian social security system. As it turned out, the IT business didn’t materialize and, as we also know, a couple of years later Orbán against the advice of his military experts decided to buy Gripen instead of F-16 planes. Balsai, who was the mayor of Székesfehérvár at this point, had received assurances from Lockheed that if Hungary purchases their planes the headquarters of the giant firm will be in Székesfehérvár.
This was a scandal that by its very nature didn’t stop at the borders of Hungary. CNN reported on the event, and there was considerable pressure on Viktor Orbán to do something. The scandal even reached the White House and the State Department. Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright expressed their total confidence in Ambassador Peter Tufo, who still had two years to go. Balsai and Selmeczi resigned, most likely not on their own volition. Gyuricza, who was Orbán’s national security advisor, was already in the hospital dying of cancer.
The Tesco story was also ugly. Selmeczi ate some croissant-like item while shopping and, when she was reminded by an employee that she will have to pay for it at the cash register, she hit the ceiling. She made a scene about her status and about her “diplomatic passport.” Yet Selmeczi remained an important member of Fidesz and its parliamentary faction.
And now what do we see? Selmeczi is returning to her earlier “field of expertise,” social security. The most interesting aspect of her current activity is that while now she is warning people of the pitfalls of private pensions funds, at the time of their introduction in 1997 she was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea. But I guess for some people this kind of double-faced behavior doesn’t cause any heart palpitations.
As for her qualifications, I have my doubts. It seems that while she was an MP and gave birth to two children, she also managed to get a law degree from the Catholic University. No mean feat. She learned another language as well. In 1994 she claimed have a mid-level exam in English and by now she also knows German. The only thing missing from her resume is a stint at Goldman Sachs.
If Viktor Orbán is serious about compensating people for their losses because of his decision to withhold payments to the private pension funds, the task before Gabriella Selmeczi will be enormous. As far as I can ascertain, she has no background in finance whatsoever.
Her own website shows a person of rather simple interests who is focused on women’s and self-help issues: health, self-improvement, “inner equilibrium,” “reasons for greater appetite,” “the emotions of babies,” “better use of leisure time than television,” and other such fascinating subjects.
One wonders whether it is really true that Fidesz, in spite of the party’s immense success at the polls, lacks competent experts. Of course, in their eagerness to get rid of everybody who ever held a responsible job in the last few years they fired first-rate people and filled the positions with political appointees or simply with friends. A good example is the newly appointed head of the environmental inspectorate in charge of the area where the red sludge covered acres and acres of land and three villages. The new chief inspector is a former secretary of Zoltán Illés who himself is ill suited for the job. Illés fired practically all the competent staff, from the heads of the national parks to the civil servants dealing with environmental issues.
György Matolcsy’s own expertise is questionable, and now he fired the man who knew everything there was to know about putting together a budget. For the time being, his job has not even been filled. But even the most important decision makers seem to be ignorant of European Union rules. Levying taxes on telecom companies, for example, would seem to show that Matolcsy and Orbán have no idea about the Union’s ban on extra taxation of such firms. (The more callous and yet more intellectually generous suggestion would be that they are simply throwing as many revenue raising schemes as they can against the wall and seeing what sticks–or what the EU is willing to swallow in the interest of Hungarian economic stability.)
So far, their efforts seem to be motivated almost exclusively by political considerations. Panem et circenses.