A policeman’s vision of Hungary?

It has been clear for some time that Viktor Orbán is convinced that societal ills can be effectively remedied only through law and order. Harsher sentences, building prisons for the ever-growing prison population, and sending children to jail for months if not for years for relatively minor offenses.

The ministry of interior that was incorporated into the ministry of justice by Ferenc Gyurcsány was restored, and in the last year and a half it has acquired greater and greater power in areas over which an interior ministry normally has no jurisdiction. Traditionally, the ministry of interior supervises the police and other related uniformed forces within the country. But not long ago Viktor Orbán announced that “we are all in the hands of Sándor Pintér,” the minister of interior and former high-ranking policeman.

Between 1991 and 1996 Pintér stood at the apex of the centralized Hungarian police force. He was the “országos rendőrfőkapitány” (the national police chief) with the rank of lieutenant-general. In 1996 he took advantage of early retirement and left the force to become a wealthy businessman. He was 48 years old at the time. Two years later he was appointed to be minister of the interior by Viktor Orbán, an office he held until the fall of the first Orbán government in 2002.

Pintér’s appointment was controversial from the very beginning. First, there was a question of his past as a police chief. In democratic countries civilian control of armed forces, including the police, is a jealously guarded principle. Therefore, for example, the appointment of György Keleti, a former army officer, to be minister of defense in the Horn government, was also criticized. The appointment seemed to hark back to the time of the Rákosi and Kádár regimes which, following Soviet practice, named high-ranking military officers to be ministers of defense.

But there were other questions about Sándor Pintér. His name was associated with the Budapest underworld and with certain circles who were involved in an illegal and very lucrative oil adulteration business. See my “Oily business” written in 2007. Pintér naturally denied any connection with the mafia, but he eventually had to admit that he met with a certain Dietmar Clodo who was manufacturing hand-made bombs used to eliminate certain people in this shady world of criminals.

At the time I had another problem with Sándor Pintér. I suspected him of being involved in some way in a series of explosions in front of the apartments or houses of Fidesz and Smallholder politicians. There were no casualties, but these detonations seemed intended to prove that there was something very wrong with the government of Gyula Horn and especially with Gábor Kuncze (SZDSZ), minister of the interior at the time. In fact, Gyula Horn, who liked to criticize his coalition partners, exclaimed: “What kind of public safety is this?”

I believed then and believe even today that Fidesz had something to do with these loud but basically harmless explosions. My suspicion was reinforced when right after the first Orbán government was formed the explosions came to a screeching halt. It is likely that Sándor Pintér’s connections with Clodo and others came in handy to create a sense of insecurity in Budapest and highlight the need for a new government that would bring order at last.

If my suspicion is correct–and I’m certainly not alone in suspecting fishy business here–then it is perfectly understandable why Viktor Orbán insisted on the appointment of Pintér as minister of the interior in spite of serious criticism of the appointment on all those grounds.

Pintér was born in 1948 and, after finishing high school, he entered the Budapest Technological University (Budapesti Műszaki Egyetem) to become an engineer. A year or so later he dropped out–whether for academic or some other reasons we don’t know–and became a truck driver in the Ministry of Interior.

Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior

Pintér eventually enrolled in the police academy, from which he graduated in 1978. He started as an assistant detective in Zugló, a part of Budapest, and from there on kept climbing up through the ranks until he reached the position of police chief of the City of Budapest in 1991. Meanwhile, he finished law school at night and received his degree in 1986. Naturally, he became a member of MSZMP without which no one could achieve a high position in the police hierarchy.

In 2010 it became clear fairly early that Viktor Orbán wanted Pintér to serve in his government again, but this time Pintér sought more power. He wanted to have the organizations concerned with national security and intelligence under his jurisdiction. In addition, the new Anti-Terrorist Center created from Orbán’s bodyguard also became part of the Ministry of Interior.

Pintér’s job keeps expanding. Lately he has been entrusted with the organization of the huge public works projects that will use the unemployed and those who are on assistance.The workers on these mega-projects will be under the supervision of retired policemen. I wrote about this rather bizarre plan in “Forced labor battalions? That’s what they sound like.

Yet another project will fall under the supervision of Sándor Pintér: a low-income housing complex in the middle of nowhere for 500 families who lost their houses or apartments as the Swiss franc rocketed against the Hungarian forint. Most Hungarian mortgages in the last ten years or so were taken out in foreign currencies, mostly in Swiss francs.

The 300 hectares currently owned by the state are about six kilometers away from the closest town of 9,000 inhabitants. There are no paved roads to the town, and travel there is further complicated by a highway that separates the town from the parcel of land. Apparently the water nearby is contaminated. In brief, not the most promising site.

The houses will be built on 0.2-acre lots so the new renters can have a vegetable garden. The houses will vary in square footage depending on the size of the family. Allegedly people will come from all over the country despite the fact that there are no job opportunities in the immediate vicinity. Budapest is about 30 kilometers away. The new tenants will have to sign a contract stipulating that they agree to accept the offer of public work if they are unable to find employment in the private sector.

Both projects sound as if they were born in a head of a military man. Labor battalions and reservations for debtors. Neat and tidy rows of houses with vegetable gardens and toiling family members growing potatoes and raising chickens. And the man of the house might be working on a sports stadium or dam somewhere far away living in a compound comprised of neat rows of trailers.

This latest brainstorm has been called all sorts of things. One opinion piece on the subject sent “Greetings from Forex City!” An internet site specializing in false but funny news “reported” that the site used to be an Indian cemetery but the skeletons had been moved back to North America and therefore all’s well! Népszabadság called the whole project no more than propaganda in the style of Goebbels. György Csepeli, a sociologist, said it harked back to the ideas of the “narodniks” of the 1930s who wanted to have an economic boom through Hungarian agriculture. The project was called “Kert-Magyarország” (Garden Hungary).

The idea of gathering about 500 families into a debtor’s reservation is more than bizarre. It would be a terrible stigma to live in this project. In addition, the government doesn’t have the money to build 500 houses for people evicted from their homes. Moreover, financially such a project makes no sense whatsoever. The real estate market is in terrible shape and therefore prices are low. If the government wants to help these people, it could buy the houses of the evicted debtors and rent them back to their former owners. It would be much cheaper and wouldn’t dislocate hundreds of families.

It would be interesting to know how much Sándor Pintér contributed to these plans. I suspect quite a bit.

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GW
Guest

Were the Pallag investigation documents — which the first Orban government made secret for 80(!) years — ever released, as promised, by the MSzP-led government?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

GW: “Were the Pallag investigation documents — which the first Orban government made secret for 80(!) years — ever released, as promised, by the MSzP-led government?”
I don’t remember but I don’t think so.

Paul
Guest

On the subject of government action on the foreign currency morgage problem, I read an article in the Budapest Business Journal on the government’s scheme, but didn’t understand it.
The scheme appears to offer a fixed artificial exchange rate for three years, that bit seems clear enough, but it’s what happens to the part of the payment due on the difference between the two rates that puzzles me.
If my understanding is right, the mortgagee is effectively bailed out for the first three years, and only has to pay at the artifical exchange rate, but the ‘missing’ payment goes into an account, and it’s what happens to that that I don’t understand.
Does the mortgage payer just have to fund the full cost again at the end of three years, or are they also expected to pay off the accumulated debt in this special account?
Sorry if this sounds confusing, but it’s an indication of just how puzzled I am about the whole thing.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “Does the mortgage payer just have to fund the full cost again at the end of three years, or are they also expected to pay off the accumulated debt in this special account?”
Yes, I’m afraid, you are right. It is a very bad deal.

Member

I think the “special account” is basically added to the overall amount of the mortgage and is then repaid together with the rest of the mortgage. It is a deferral, not a remission of payment.

florian
Guest

As to the housing development for debtors- I envisage rows of paraszt houses made of adobe with verandas. Or more realistically a big white elephant.

chayenne
Guest
As for Pintér. To me he is and forever will be the guy who, when arguing for the need to increase the number of the police force, envisioned a society so impoverished that looting became an everday occurrence. Later political analysts has a field day trying to interpret his words, some said it was a true slip of the tongue, that in a moment of rare honesty he mapped out the future as he truly saw it as a person with insider knowledge. For me it was a kind of moment of truth. As far as I can see, Pintér has never been quite good at communicating, he often says things that should not be said or at least not in that particular form. So if he envisions looters then I start to feel really scared about what the future holds in store for us. This of course raises the question: if the government is aware that such dire times are coming (and mind you, when a situation escalates into looting because of widespread poverty, there’s not much lower a society can go)then why aren’t they trying to prevent it from happening, instead of seemingly going out of their ways… Read more »
Member

chayenne, I agree with you very much.

John T
Guest

Chayenne – there isn’t really a parallel with the UK. While I would agree with you that the budget cuts are too far / too fast, there is a real problem with the UK living beyond its means that has to be addressed. Additionally, the benefits system is not properly targetting the people who really need help and that needs to be changed. Finally, the banks who have exacerbated the debt crisis should be paying a lot more than they are to dig us out of the hole.
But hardly anyone rioting and looting in the UK was starving or destitute. Most were crooks, opportunists or people who are simply cut off from the mainstream. But in the latter group, I have to say they or their families have contributed as much to this state of affairs as Cameron and his miserable coalition have.

John T
Guest
By comparison to the UK, in Hungary we have a government that seems to be doing everything it can to help Hungary sink and become a pariah state. It claims to be business friendly, yet lays into the multi’s and other international institutions. Sooner or later, the multi’s will get fed up and go. What can replace the likes of Audi, Daimler Benz, GE and others – answer nothing domestically. And if they eventually get suspended or booted out of the EU, any idea of getting mass investment from China can be dismissed to. China will only invest if Hungary is within the single market. Equally, if Hungary causes trouble with its neighbours that leads to military action, it won’t simply be an average Romanian or Slovak army facing them, it will be NATO. And I don’t fancy Hungary’s chances against the armed forces of the UK, Germany or France. It seems to me that Hungarian history is littered with people making poor decisions. What is happening now is so depressing, but I have to say that I’m almost at the stage where I couldn’t care less any more. The stupidity won’t go beyond the borders and ultimately, the only… Read more »
Track runner
Guest

Interesting article. What I would love to read is a comparsion between the US and Hungary in terms of how they approach the topic of “law and order”. Could something be adopted from the US system to make the Hungarian one better?

chayenne
Guest
@John T Yes, I’m aware that the great majority of the looters are not destitute, and that there were people apprehended who should not have been there at all if the riots were truly the result of poor people reaching the end of their tether. But As far as I know, the district where the rioting first broke out is the poorest and most crime-riddled one in London. Britain has a huge underclass made up of people living on the dole or social benefits, having no perspective in life…etc. To me the parallel drawn between England and Hungary was purely technical. What is going on in this country is automatically going to lead to the creation of a similarly huge, unmanagable underclass and when it happens …well, there you have the lootings forseen by Minister Pintér. To be honest, I myself am in a situation where I can actutely feel the danger of losing my and my family’s middle class status on my own skin. It’s nothing serious, just the realisation that you are hanging on by a thread and it’s not even about taking a step in the wrong direction, but the absolute helplessness, being at the mercy of… Read more »
chayenne
Guest
John T also writes: ‘It seems to me that Hungarian history is littered with people making poor decisions’. This. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic (although this is supposed to be a typical Hungarian national characteristic)but I’ve always felt that there’s a kind of curse in the working on this country/people/nation. And it don’t mean it as something that would absolve us of anything or an excuse for not taking action or responsibility for our own fate. No, I mean it as a simple statement. I believe in national characteristics but I also believe that there’s the possibility for individuals to rise above these. Still, our history is a long chain of bad decisions. It’s about big dreams and ideas, but lacking the necessary strategies to realise them. It’s about individual talent being stifled at every step by those envious of it. It’s about denying certain characteristics in us which clearly connects us to the East that we have always been desperate to leave behind in our quest for the West. Funny that I’m using ‘we’ when I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body. Maybe because all this is so foreign to me. The mere fact that a… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest
Chayenne: “The mere fact that a person speaks a foreign language, preferably English, suddenly opens up the horizon and puts things in such a different context. I’m not limited to what this country has to offer and I can have an outsider’s perspective.” You put your finger on it. I find huge differences in outlook, for the most part, between those who do and those who do not know foreign languages. At one point I wrote about this in Hungarian in Galamus.hu I recalled a trip from Budapest to Paris with a stopover in Vienna. In the plane I was the only one who spoke a foreign language and thus when the captain announced that we have to leave the plane, everybody just sat there. I was the only one who got up ready to leave. At the end I had to interpret for all the passengers. Without me they were lost. A terrible situation to be completely at the mercy of others. I’m terribly interested in learning foreign languages most likely because of my horrible experiences in Hungarian schools. My next article will be on Rózsa Hoffmann’s completely mistaken notions of teaching foreign languages. And she was trained as… Read more »
John T
Guest

Learning a language or languages is a great help. But much more important is having an open mind.

Odin's lost eye
Guest

When (not if) Hungary leaves the European Union, which is what the ‘Mighty One’ wants (and has said so on several occasions).
Mr Sándor Pintér will become Hungary’s Genrikh Yagoda/Nikolai Yezhov. His duty will be to purge Hungary of all foreign people/influence/ideas, all idegenszívű and other ‘undesirables’/enemies of the state/peoples.
He cannot do this before Hungary abrogates the treaties it has with the E.U. as his duties will contravene Articles 2 through 11 etc of the Charter of Human Rights. The mass forced deportations of Roma will also be another of his tasks. The problem will be that his actions will reduce the population by several millions

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