The new mayor of Budapest

His name is István Tarlós. He has been in local politics for twenty years. First, he became the mayor of the third district (Óbuda) in 1990. At that point he ran as a candidate of SZDSZ. After a while he became independent but only in name because already in 2006 he ran against Gábor Demszky as an “independent” with Fidesz backing. In those days Fidesz wasn’t strong enough in Budapest to win, so the party hid behind so-called independent candidates. One really has to laugh when one recalls that in 2002 Fidesz’s independent candidate was none other than Pál Schmitt. Schmitt lost by a mile and four years later Tarlós also lost, but not so dramatically. The great independent candidate was in fact so independent that after the 2006 elections he led the Fidesz delegation in the city council. Meanwhile, he kept repeating that he had absolutely nothing to do with Fidesz.

What kind of a man is István Tarlós? He is an aggressive character who likes to threaten people. By training he is an engineer and as such, he claimed, he is much more suited to the job of mayor of Budapest than the sociologist Gábor Demszky was. He is clear-thinking. He is not a muddle-minded intellectual. Well, he is quite right. He is not an intellectual, that’s for sure. Moreover, as far as I could ascertain, he knows no foreign languages, which might be a problem in his new job. He is also bigoted and narrow-minded. He tried to make the Sziget Festival, a large international gathering of young people on an island in the Danube, practically impossible because according to him the noise bothered the inhabitants of Óbuda. When he found out that the gay community had put up an information booth he tried to remove them.

In the last four years or so he was a frequent visitor on Olga Kálmán’s “Straight Talk,” a political program on ATV. Tarlós on these occasions was singularly unpleasant, even as he flirted with the attractive Kálmán. Then a few months before the municipal elections last year Tarlós changed tactics. He was all sweetness and light, insofar as he is capable of such behavior. I had the distinct feeling that he was told by someone that he should appear to be more amiable than he actually is. Of course, he won the election, but his MSZP opponent received about 35% of the votes. The result indicated that Budapest is still, in spite of MSZP’s battered state, a socialist stronghold.

So, Tarlós at last got what he wanted and as soon as the election was over the old Tarlós reappeared. One of the first things he announced was that he doesn’t like the 56-Memorial. He will get rid of it. International competition? Legality? He doesn’t seem to worry about such niceties. There is something else he doesn’t like: the official flag of the city. In fact, since he has been mayor the official flag of Budapest has disappeared from public sight altogether. Tarlós and the Fidesz-Jobbik majority will most likely change it.

In 1873 Buda, Pest, and Óbuda gave up their independent status and created Budapest. They came up with a new flag that was a combination of the flags of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda and carried the colors that had been used earlier: red, gold, and blue.

A few years later Romania became an independent state and adopted a flag with similar colors. In 1930 the city fathers decided it was high time to get rid of the “Romanian” colors from Budapest and simply changed the blue to green. After the war the flag was changed again, displaying among other things the red star. In 1990, after the regime change, the city returned to its original flag and symbols.

However, lately the far-right has been complaining bitterly about the flag. They indignantly ask what “a Romanian flag” is doing in Budapest. It seems that Tarlós decided to oblige and get rid of the hated colors.

But Tarlós seems to be obliging Jobbik in other matters as well. For example, the question of the square that was named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1947. The square happens to be right in front of the Academy of Sciences. The president of the institution, József Pálinkás, suggested to Tarlós that the name be changed from Roosevelt to Széchenyi. Because, as he said, “Roosevelt has no direct connection to this spot.” It seems that even Tarlós had enough to sense to realize that if the new Fidesz city fathers kicked out Roosevelt from Budapest it might not go over too well in the United States. He came up with a marvelous alternative. Roosevelt can move over to Szabadság tér (Freedom square) right in front of the U.S. embassy. How appropriate! He can kill two birds with one stone: oblige Pálinkás and at the same time get rid of this suspicious “freedom” square. I’m almost certain that Tarlós thought that Freedom Square was a creation of the communists like the Soviet Memorial that stands on the square. But Tarlós is wrong. It was named Szabadság tér in 1899 when the old jail that stood in its place was removed. Let’s hope that the whole crazy idea of moving Roosevelt from one square to another will die soon enough.

Tarlós is trying to oblige Jobbik in another matter. The removal of the Soviet Memorial erected to commemorate the liberation of Hungary. But even with the assistance of a Fidesz majority in the city council he cannot do anything about it. It cannot be removed because of a bilateral agreement concerning Soviet/Russian monuments and cemeteries and Hungarian military cemeteries in Russia. Someone must have told Tarlós that international complications may follow any hasty move on his part.

Tarlós wants to change the name of Moscow Square (Moszkva tér) as well. For a while this spot had no name at all. It was only in 1929 that it received the name Kálmán Széll after the famous nineteenth-century finance minister about whom we hear a lot lately. But here too Tarlós must have been warned that Russian-Hungarian relations are bad enough and perhaps Moscow might take offense. As he said, “the Russians are a sentimental lot.” So the mayor came up with yet another “compromise” solution. What about building a small orthodox chapel somewhere and calling the square in front of it Moscow Square! Again, the only thing I can say is, brilliant!

However, I’m happy to announce that the decision was made to name a square in Budapest after Elvis Presley.

March 31, 2011