An outcry followed an article that appeared in Kisalföld, a regional paper serving the county of Győr-Moson-Sopron in the northwestern corner of the country. The newspaper learned that people who are currently employed as public workers had received notices to appear at the Hungarian Army’s recruiting center in Győr. If they do not oblige, their names will be deleted from the list of those seeking employment.
Following up, a reporter for the paper got in touch with the recruiting office. He was told that at the recruiting center public workers will receive information about careers in the military and will be given the usual tests. If a person is fit to serve and refuses, he will lose his public work status and therefore his job. Well, that sounded very much like eighteenth-century British impressment. Moreover, within a few hours it became known that public workers in other counties as well will have to pay a visit to the recruiting office. It seems as if the ministry of defense is planning to involve the whole country, hoping to get new recruits this way.
The ministry of defense didn’t outright deny the story reported by Kisalföld. The ministry’s statement stressed only that “acceptance of service is not compulsory. It is merely an opportunity.” That’s fine and dandy, but since it is the ministry of interior that is in charge of the public works program, any retaliation would come from that ministry. After all, according to the rules and regulations, if a public worker declines a job offer, he loses his public works job. But today the ministry of interior assured the public that as long as the public worker shows up at the recruiting office, he will have fulfilled his obligation and will not have to worry about his job in the public works program.
We know that the Hungarian Army, according to some estimates, needs an additional 8,000 men and women, but this doesn’t strike me as the best way to beef up the numbers. Yes, at least in theory, military service could benefit those young men and women who lack the skills necessary to get steady, good-paying jobs. Ideally, the army could offer them an opportunity to learn useful skills. But the Hungarian army is not that kind of a place. Moreover, the pay is low.
It is hard to get exact figures on the pay of military personnel. In 2012 Csaba Hende, then minister of defense, in an answer to a socialist MP, said that enlisted men and women on average receive 137,425 forints a month, non-commissioned officers 191,157, and officers 389,522. The take-home pay is about half of these amounts, that is only $246 for an enlisted soldier. In 2011 a career advisory site outlined possibilities for youngsters if they chose a military career. According to information the site provided, 4,800 people visited the recruiting centers in 2011 but only 1,170, among them 80 women, got to the point of actually submitting an application, and only 837 were accepted. According to the career advisory site, a private first class’s basic pay was only 106,000 forints, a corporal made 119,000, a buck sergeant 130,000, and a sergeant 142,000 forints. No wonder that interest in signing up is minimal.
At the very end of 2014 the government at last announced a 30% hike in salaries, starting July 1, 2015, and it promised that by January 1, 2019 salaries will be 50% higher on average than now. The government loves to talk about what they call “életpálya,” which simply means “career,” usually used with an adjective like “katonai életpálya” (military career) “pedagógus életpálya” (teaching career). I came to the conclusion that having a career in their vocabulary means earning “a salary one can live on.” Even with all the wage hikes, the ordinary enlisted man will not have a military “career.”
Despite all the rhetoric, the Orbán government, instead of allocating more money to the military, systematically reduced its funding. For the latest wage hikes the ministry simply had no money. The added expenses were covered by the prime minister’s office.
Hungary is supposed to have a military force of 29,700 men and women. In June 2014 Csaba Hende talked about 5,921 unfilled jobs in the army. And, he said, past efforts at recruitment had yielded meager results. Since then another 2,000 or so have left the army. Thus, the size of the Hungarian army at the moment is only 22,000. Therefore, at the end of 2015 the decision was made to increase the intensity of recruitment in 2016. The army began advertising on the internet and decided to launch mobile recruiting centers, I assume in smaller towns and villages.
It is on the level of enlistees that shortages are acute. According to military analysts, the shortage of personnel could easily be remedied if the army would change the balance among officers, non-commissioned officers, enlisted men, and civil servants. As it stands now, the percentage of professional officers in the force is 30%. If their numbers were reduced to 10%, a great deal of money would be freed to pay the enlisted soldiers and the non-commissioned officers better. Apparently, a healthy mix would be 10% officers, 30% non-commissioned officers, 50% enlisted men and women, and 10% civilians. But such a move would meet stiff resistance from the officer corps, especially the “untouchable” general staff. As long as a more reasonable balance cannot be introduced, the recruitment effort will not be successful.
But let’s return to the deal between the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior. As it is, the public works program is used, especially in smaller places, as a political weapon. Most of those who take part in the program are at the mercy of the mayors, who decide who will and who will not be hired. In smaller places, although voting is secret, it is easy to figure out whether the fairly large public works crew voted for Fidesz. These small-town mayors behave like feudal lords during the reigns of weak kings, who carved out large regions where they acted like “kiskirályok” (little kings). In fact, people refer to these local tyrants as little kings.
The people who have no way to earn money outside of the public works program are in a subservient position economically and politically. I suspect that the ministries of defense and interior thought that some form of impressment was a capital idea, a policy that would fly under the radar. I do hope that the assurances coming from the ministry of the interior are for real because otherwise Hungarians are in bigger trouble than we think.