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.
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.