Category Archives: Hungary

The state of the Hungarian economy à la János Lázár et al.

Great was my surprise when I read a Reuters article the other day with the intriguing headline: “Poland’s markets losing luster as Hungary’s star shines.” The reporter noted that “it took more than three years for the ‘Orbanomics’ rally in Hungary’s markets to kick in,” but as a result of the unorthodox policies Hungary became a “star performer.” It’s too bad that the rosy picture painted in the article has little to do with reality, as the latest GDP figures indicate. Perhaps the Reuters journalist read too much government propaganda about the sterling performance of the Hungarian economy, as has been touted time and again by Viktor Orbán and slavishly repeated by his ministers, specifically by János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, and Mihály Varga, minister of economy.

János Lázár just celebrated his fiftieth “government info,” his regular Thursday afternoon marathon press conference. The government introduced these allegedly informative sessions to give the appearance of openness and transparency. Lázár has been trying to humor members of the media with his informal style, but often he ends up trading charm for arrogance. And what is even worse: Lázár is caught lying right and left. By now, journalists attending these press conferences refer to them as the “fairy tale programs.”

Lázár exudes self-confidence. He purports to be thoroughly familiar with the smallest details of every issue. If necessary, he will concoct evidence to prove to his listeners that he is absolutely on top of the situation. Such fabrications usually occur when journalists question the accuracy of one of his claims. He is ready to snap back that the information is based on hard facts when his intelligence came either from flawed media reports or from his imagination. One example was his reference to a non-existent police report dealing with the alleged molestation of teenage girls in Körmend by the newly arrived refugees. A couple of hours later the Körmend police announced that the story as reported in the media was false. A somewhat similar example, except much more serious, is Lázár’s claim that the Hungarian government has proof of George Soros’s hostile actions against the Hungarian government and that the evidence comes straight from the secret services. The result is that the parliamentary committee on national security is asking to see proof that the secret services are engaged in spying on civic groups.

Lazar Janos4

And then there are the economic lies. Last week Lázár repeated the assertion, made earlier by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Mihály Varga, about the government’s remarkable reduction of the national debt. Eurostat figures, however, disprove Lázár’s assertion that the gross national debt of six years ago, which he said was 80%, has since been reduced by 10%. The fact is that at the end of December 2009 the gross national debt was not 80% but 78%, and at the end of December 2015 it was 75.3%, which is only 2.7% less. Nothing to brag about, especially in light of the tremendous amount of money confiscated from millions of ordinary Hungarian citizens’ private pension funds, allegedly to reduce the national debt.

These lies have to be perpetuated by ministers like Lázár or Varga because they cannot contradict the “boss,” who keeps repeating the same false numbers. At one point Varga found himself in a most embarrassing situation when he was giving a lecture in which he maintained that the Orbán government had reduced the gross national debt from 85% to 75% when behind him one could see the correct figures on the screen: in 2009 78%, in 2010 80.6%, in 2011 80.8%, etc. How discomfiting it had to be.

So, as we can see, Fidesz politicians are not terribly careful with their numbers. Sometimes, I assume, they simply get confused. It must be hard to keep the numbers straight when you’re keeping two or three sets of books. But they never “forget” that in 2010 Hungary was close to insolvency. They repeat this same story at every possible occasion. Last Thursday Lázár, in order to demonstrate the great accomplishments of the Orbán government, again returned to the allegedly dreadful state of the Hungarian economy after the 2010 elections. “We were not sure,” he said, “whether we’d have enough money to pay the pensioners.” Another dramatic claim that has no foundation in reality.

When György Matolcsy took over the ministry of the economy from Péter Oszkó, he himself admitted that “without further measures the deficit will be 4.3% of the GDP.” What made the situation critical was not any inherited fiscal irresponsibility but the alarming statements made by Lajos Kósa, a high Fidesz official, and Péter Szijjártó, at the time the personal spokesman of Viktor Orbán, about the disastrous financial conditions they were saddled with. In June 2010 both of them claimed that Hungary’s situation was as bad as that of Greece, then in the throes of a deep financial crisis. I assume it was Viktor Orbán, who was visiting Brussels at the time, who instructed them to exaggerate the country’s economic woes to strengthen his hand in his negotiations with José Manuel Barroso. The great ruse backfired, resulting in a disastrous fall in the forint, which then was followed by innumerable economic missteps that shook the financial world’s confidence in the Hungarian economy.

Lázár is a master of invention. He even lied about details of the Paks-II nuclear power plant. As is known, the European Commission has serious reservations about the Russian state company, Rosatom, receiving the tender to build the extension to the power plant without any competitive bidding. Lázár, without batting an eye, declared that “we cannot take responsibility for installing a different kind of technology alongside the Russian one.” Gábor Szabó of HVG suspects that Lázár told this same story to Elżbieta Bieńkowska, European Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship, with whom Lázár met a couple of weeks ago. According to Szabó, there is general consensus among Hungarian experts that Hungary could have used French, American, or South Korean technology because Paks-II will operate completely separately from the existing plant. So, when Lázár said, after returning from Brussels where he negotiated with Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, that the European Union is close to accepting the Hungarian side’s arguments, we’d better take this information with a very large grain of salt.

May 30, 2016

György Matolcsy, the engine of the Hungarian economy, has his admirers

The first quarter year-over-year 0.5% GDP growth apparently shocked Viktor Orbán. He immediately convened an extraordinary cabinet meeting to discuss the situation, which put Hungary among the worst performing countries in the European Union. Later government communication tried to calm nerves by denying Orbán’s panicky response to the bad economic news, but the meeting definitely took place.

It is possible that the news was a surprise to Viktor Orbán, but people familiar with recent economic trends should have been prepared for slower growth than projected. In the last quarter of 2015 industrial growth was 2.4% lower than a year before, and in the first three months of 2016 the numbers were even worse: 4.5% lower than the same time in 2015. According to forecasters, the dismal economic growth just announced is most likely not a fluke. Analysts predict similar figures for the second quarter of the year as well. One of the problems is that 25% of the Hungarian GDP comes from conventional auto manufacturing, which is shrinking due to the emergence of electric cars. This means a 6% reduction in production at Audi and Mercedes Benz, which will perpetuate the present situation. According to government estimates, the Hungarian economy is supposed to grow by 1.7% this year, which is unlikely. High officials of the Hungarian National Bank, however, are even more optimistic. They are dreaming of 3% GDP growth for 2016. Some of the data actually point to a possible recession.

This news couldn’t have come at a worse time. The unorthodox economic policy introduced by György Matolcsy as minister of the economy (2010-2013) seems to be crumbling just when the same Matolcsy, as chairman of the Hungarian National Bank, is in serious political trouble due to his handling of the reserves of Hungary’s central bank. To put it in the starkest terms, Matolcsy in great secret siphoned off about one billion dollars from money accrued as a result of the weakening Hungarian forint and put it into private foundations.

Common wisdom holds that the Hungarian people are so inured to the widespread corruption in the country that they cannot be aroused by any scandal, no matter how large. The latest poll by the Publicus Institute, however, indicates that the Matolcsy case is an exception to the rule. Another tenet of conventional wisdom is that Hungarians are terribly under-informed. Most of them have no understanding of current political events. Well, in the case of Matolcsy’s foundations this notion also turned out to be false. Two-thirds of the people had heard about the scandal, and of those who were familiar with the case 65% considered Matolcsy’s “unorthodox” handling of the central bank’s money outrageous while 58% thought that the bank chairman should resign. Moreover, and this is bad news for Viktor Orbán, 58% of those questioned considered the government responsible for the scandal around Matolcsy’s foundations and only 17% blamed Matolcsy alone.

Given the delicate situation in which Matolcsy and the Hungarian government have found themselves, the last thing they needed was the interview Csaba Lentner gave to 168 Óra, a weekly. Lentner is currently a professor of economics at the Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem (National Civil Service University), a creation of the Orbán government. Lentner had a “colorful” political career, starting off as an economic adviser to the Smallholders’ Party’s parliamentary delegation but in 1997 becoming one of the top officials of the anti-Semitic MIÉP, the creation of István Csurka, a writer and playwright of extremist views. Between 1998 and 2002 he was a MIÉP member of parliament. In 2004 he switched over to Fidesz. As he said in the interview, he is a slow maturing type. Since then he has been serving Fidesz as an expert on economic matters.

What does Lentner have to do with Matolcsy? Plenty. Believe it or not, our diligent bank chairman in his spare time is writing a Ph.D. dissertation. And who is his adviser? None other than Csaba Lentner. But that’s not all. Lentner is also a member of the board of one of the foundations György Matolcsy created. So corrupt and disgusting, but obviously, as it was evident from Lentner’s interview, the two men find the arrangement perfectly normal and acceptable. Válasz, a right-wing publication, considered the interview a gift to the opposition because Lentner’s profuse praise for the chairman was embarrassing for Matolcsy himself.

Lentner on the cover of the right-wing Demokrata "We don't give up the war of independence

Lentner on the cover of the right-wing Demokrata
“We can’t give up the war of independence”

From the interview we learn that the current economic policy of the country is still in the hands of Matolcsy, who as bank chairman is supposed to be concerned only with monetary policy, i.e. money supply, interest rates. In Lentner’s opinion Mihály Varga’s ministry of national economy, which is supposed to be in charge of the government’s fiscal policy, is too slow and ineffectual. “The real economic decisions are made in the National Bank.” Because of the “weakness” of Varga’s ministry it was the National Bank that made the 3% economic growth in 2014 possible by giving three trillion forints for low-interest loans and keeping interest rates low overall. Since 2013, when Matolcsy took over the chairmanship of the bank, “a monetary regime change has taken place.” Matolcsy has become “the engine of the national economy.” In Lentner’s mind Matolcsy is a true genius. It is the “intellectual munition he carries in his head that moves the [Hungarian] GDP.”

Those who are against Matolcsy are traitors to the cause of Fidesz and the Orbán government. Matolcsy’s continued work at the head of the National Bank is the guarantee of Fidesz winning the 2018 national elections. Lentner is certain that in the next two years Hungary’s economic growth will be spectacular. Obviously, the dismal numbers of late make no difference as far as he is concerned.

For Lentner, the members of the Constitutional Court who found Matolcsy’s foundations unconstitutional are traitors who “stabbed him in the back.” Matolcsy has achieved a series of great successes, or, as he put it, he carried out “six years of a victorious military campaign in which we win battle after battle. Matolcsy is the alpha and the omega of the 2018 elections.” He deserves a public statue to demonstrate the outstanding service he has rendered to his country. One could ask why a man of such outstanding mental qualities needs a Ph.D. The answer: “in order for him to make his name great for many centuries,” for which it is necessary “to organize the means of non-conventional economic policy into a scientific system.” I’m so glad that with Csaba Lentner’s guidance this great man will formulate a revolutionary economic theory that will change the face of the world.

I found an article on Jobbik’s internet news site called Alfahír. I usually view their news items with suspicion, but this story about Matolcsy sounds plausible. Matolcsy was named political undersecretary in József Antall’s government on May 24, 1990, but a few months later he left the prime minister’s office by mutual agreement. The likely reason for his sudden departure was the revelation by a member of parliament on October 30, 1990 that Matolcsy was involved in the shady privatization of 90 restaurants owned by the state. It looks as if József Antall had no problem firing someone whom he found to be involved in unethical business ventures. If the suspicion about Matolcsy’s sudden departure from the prime minister’s office is well founded, Matolcsy’s not always straight business dealings are not of recent vintage.

May 29,2016

From gas-fitter to owner of Chateau Dereszla

Today we are going to make a side trip to Tokaj where, believe it or not, Lőrinc Mészáros, who is considered to be Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s front man (stróman in Hungarian), is in the process of buying a vineyard. Not just any old vineyard but Chateau Dereszla, a 54-hectare estate owned by Count Patrick d’Aulan, an internationally known vintner with large estates in France and Argentina. Apparently, Dereszla has been a successful business since about 2000, with well-established markets in Poland and Russia. Mészáros’s purchase of the vineyard came as a great surprise to the locals.

Isn’t it interesting that Mészáros decided to follow in the Orbáns’ footsteps, whose very first business undertaking was a vineyard in the Tokaj region? It was a joint venture with Dezső Kékessy, a wealthy Hungarian businessman from Switzerland. The Orbáns’ share in the company (held in the name of Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife) that Kékessy formed was relatively small, but they became key business partners due to Orbán’s position as prime minister. Here’s how the deal worked. At that time the largest buyer of grapes in the region was a state bottling company that was close to bankruptcy. First, the Orbán government injected billions into the bottling company to make sure that the Orbán-Kékessy Estate’s grapes could be sold. In two years the bottling company received 4 billion forints in state subsidies. But that was not all. The vineyard that they bought was not worth much. The stock was old, and to make it a successful business a large amount of capital was needed to plant new vines. The Orbán government came to the rescue: the Orbán-Kékessy Estate initially received 41,475 million forints and later, on two separate occasions, an additional 64.5 million forints in subsidies. Thanks to the excellent investigative work of the late Krisztina Ferenczi, all this eventually came to light. There was embarrassment but nothing else happened, except that Anikó Lévai quickly sold their share of the estate.

The pending purchase of Dereszla was a well-kept secret, but by now it is certain that the happy new owner will be Lőrinc Mészáros, the gas-fitter and friend of Viktor Orbán. He has never been known as a connoisseur of fine wines, unlike most vineyard owners whose palates have been refined by years of studying the mastery of wine-making.

In the past, before the communist takeover, Tokaj wine was highly regarded, but it soon “became world famous only at home,” as the saying went. Dereszla was first acquired by a French co-op right after the change of regime. Later it was purchased by the D’Aulan family, who put a great deal of money into the operation, planting new stock and introducing the most modern equipment. Although Russia and Poland are the largest markets for Chateau Dereszla wines, they are also available in the United States. The wines of Dereszla were chosen to be among the representative wines served at government functions and at embassies. In 2012 “Count Patrick d’Aulan was honored with the Knight of Merit by the President of the Republic for his dedication and promotion of the wines of Tokay.”

dereszla

So, d’Aulan’s estate will be added to the growing number of business schemes of Mészáros, who over the last few years has become a billionaire. He has so many irons in the fire that he is sometimes confused about just what he owns. A while back he had no recollection of a business he had established in Russia. More recently, he purchased the Osijek football club (NK Osijek). Mészáros’s purchases run eerily parallel to Viktor Orbán’s interests: agricultural land, real estate (hotels), football clubs, and now vineyards.

Why the sudden interest in Tokaj? Andy Vajna, a Hollywood producer and now a businessman in Hungary with close ties to Viktor Orbán, is also interested in purchasing a vineyard in Tokaj. One, maybe the most important reason, to look for estates for sale in the Tokaj region is that 40 billion forints in subsidies are going to be sunk into the region by the Orbán government. This amount is over and above a 100 billion forint package that was announced in January 2014 by János Lázár. The plan is as follows. The state will buy 1,000 hectares, which will then be parceled out either in the form of 25-year leases or even outright sales for those close to the government and Fidesz. There is also talk about planting perhaps as much as 2,000 hectares with new vines, which would make the wines produced in the region more desirable and naturally more expensive. Here and there one can hear talk of a new bridge across the Bodrog river and new roads.

Viktor Orbán’s first business venture in Tokaj 16 years ago was small potatoes in comparison to Mészáros’s purchase of a thriving winery with an established name. Then, the Orbáns were satisfied with a few hectares of third-rate wine produced from old stock that should have been replaced decades before. They were content to sell their inferior grapes to a state bottling company that produced cheap wine. Mind you, that was only an interim solution while they waited for government subsidies to be able to plant new vines. The money at that time came solely from the Hungarian government because in 2000 Hungary was not an EU member. Now it is really free money: the subsidies come from the hated European Union. Unless Brussels gets tired of doling out money to countries that refuse to cooperate in solving the refugee crisis or that have a proven track record of corruption.

May 28, 2016

The anti-George Soros campaign intensifies in Hungary

A full-fledged witch hunt is taking place in Hungary against a not-at-all favorite son, George Soros. Two weeks ago I already wrote a post on the Orbán government’s reaction to the less than flattering remarks of Bill Clinton about Poland and Hungary, two countries that decided that “democracy is too much trouble [and] they want Putin-like leadership.” It was in this context that George Soros’s name was associated in Hungarian propaganda with Bill Clinton’s statement as well as with Barack Obama’s earlier critical words about Hungary. In the last two weeks, however, the anti-Soros campaign has sunk to new depths of depravity.

For anyone who has followed the escalation of the anti-Soros rhetoric in the last week, it is obvious that the effort is well-coordinated, enlisting the full force of the government propaganda machine. Magyar Idők leads the way in the smear campaign. The government paper published two opinion pieces a day apart which tried to counter the opposition’s description of Soros as a man whose Open Society Foundation works “to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people.” The stated goals of Soros’s philanthropy may be “to strengthen the rule of law, respect for human rights, minorities, and a diversity of opinions, democratically elected governments; and a civil society that helps keep government power in check,” but all this is humbug, according to one of the authors. Soros is a CIA agent whose real objective is the destabilization of East-Central Europe and the Middle East. Operating under the cover of humanitarianism, he faithfully serves the global interests of the United States.

CIA

The second article in Magyar Idők concentrated on the “unfounded and unsubstantiated” accusations against György Matolcsy and the Hungarian National Bank, accusations that are really targeting the Orbán government. According to the author, it is Soros who stands behind the U.S. plans to topple the current Hungarian government, this time through Matolcsy’s alleged corruption. Hungary is not the first country where the United States has used the charge of corruption to try to get rid of governments that are “not friendly enough toward the American government.” A prime example of such U.S. interference in the domestic affairs of a foreign country is Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff has been suspended. “One of her sins could have been that she rejected U.S. interference” in Brazilian politics. She was removed because the U.S. found “Brazil’s change of foreign policy direction intolerable: good relations with Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and China.” Of course, this charge exists solely in the imagination of the journalist of this pro-government and fiercely anti-American newspaper. Continuing his tirade, he claimed that American capitalists, in cahoots with the U.S. government, have tried several times to topple the Orbán government but have never succeeded. The only hope of these foreign agents is that they will be able to remove György Matolcsy, which would serve the interests of the unscrupulous speculators but would ruin the thriving Hungarian economy, which is the result of the remarkable performance of Matolcsy.

A few days later János Lázár at one of his Thursday press conferences went so far as to claim that the Hungarian government has proof from secret service sources that George Soros is ready “to actively participate against his most dangerous opposition, the Orbán government.” However, when a journalist asked him whether the civic groups financed by Soros had done anything unlawful, Lázár had to admit that they hadn’t. Soros’s sin is that by financing some of the watchdog organizations he has become part of the opposition.

The government-financed internet site 888.hu came out with a “list of pimps of the Soros network.” Members of this network, according to the site, belong to a loud, aggressive minority that has a much greater influence on the media than their numbers would warrant. The list includes 13 civic groups and think tanks and five or six media outlets. Despite 888.hu’s claim, the fact is that most of these organizations receive only a very small portion of their budget from the Open Society Foundation.

Andy Vajna’s newly purchased TV2 joined the anti-Soros campaign. Its reconstructed formerly popular “Tények” (Facts) now has a five-minute segment called “Tények Extra” that tells the stories of “Billionaires in Hiding.” Needless to say, the first of these segments was devoted to George Soros. Viewers learned how Soros beat his wives and liked to suffocate his lovers.

All this still wasn’t enough for the Orbán government. Now MTI and other pro-government media outlets are gathering information about possible Soros involvement in opposition movements in other countries. Magyar Idők found an interview with Robert Fico, prime minister of Slovakia, who complained that in the March presidential campaign, which he lost, he had to battle not so much his political opponents but “those civic organizations that are often financed from abroad.” 888.hu joined in with a Macedonian case. The internet site discovered that former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski recently charged that it was George Soros who financed the Macedonian civil groups’ anti-government activities. Just like Fico, Gruevski claimed that he has two oppositions: the Macedonian Social Democratic Association and “the paid opposition.” These groups, when “they are not fighting the government, organize all sorts of training sessions and political debates or show up in the media.” According to the former prime minister, Soros and others are especially active in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

The younger generation of journalists who were probably unfamiliar with George Soros’s activities in Hungary in the 1980s and early 1990s are especially fascinated by the sizable amount of money Fidesz and Fidesz politicians received from the American financier. They are the ones who keep asking uncomfortable questions about who, when, and for what purpose Soros gave money to those who now find him to be the devil incarnate. As a result of all those uncomfortable questions, Viktor Orbán apparently told János Lázár that he is ready to pay the billionaire back “if Soros needs the money.” That “generous offer” includes the three million forints Fidesz as an organization received from the Soros Foundation. I don’t know whether this amount includes the 400,000 forints received in 1987 to launch the periodical Századvég. Yes, the establishment of this by now notorious Fidesz think tank was made possible through George Soros’s generosity.

I wonder what the next step will be. Will Orbán’s propaganda machine continue its threatening propaganda against civic groups, especially against legal think tanks? Or, after a few weeks of contemptible attacks on Soros, will the government decide to stop this harassment? I think it all depends on whether the government is able to contain the scandal surrounding György Matolcsy’s corruption case. As long as the case remains a hot issue both at home and abroad, the anti-American, anti-Soros campaign will continue. This way the government can argue that antagonistic foreign sources, i.e. the United States, with the assistance of domestic paid agents, are responsible for blackening the good name of a financial genius. All because their real goal is the removal of Viktor Orbán from power.

May 27, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s favorite party failed to gain the Austrian presidency

On Tuesday Viktor Orbán, who seems to have an iron constitution, took the day off because, as his office announced, he was sick. Yesterday a humorous little piece appeared in Sztarklikk with the title: “That’s why Orbán fell ill.” Surely, the author said, Orbán needed to be revived with smelling salts after learning that Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), had narrowly lost the Austrian presidential election. Well, smelling salts might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Orbán’s disappointment had to be great because it is a well-known fact that Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of FPÖ, and Viktor Orbán greatly admire one another.

At the end of September when Viktor Orbán visited the Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann (SPÖ), and his deputy, Reinhold Mitterlehner, in order to temper months of quarreling between the two countries, the Hungarian prime minister was also planning to meet Strache. Unfortunately, apparently to the great sorrow of Orbán, the planned meeting had to be cancelled in the last minute. The reason was straightforward enough. Strache is persona non grata in mainstream Austrian political circles, and when the Austrians found out about Orbán’s plans they expressed their strong disapproval. In fact, Deputy Chancellor Mitterlehner, whose party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), just like Fidesz, belongs to the EU’s European People’s Party, refused to meet with Orbán if he insisted on going through with his original plan. Reluctantly, Orbán cancelled the meeting.

Apparently Orbán is convinced that Strache is a man of the future. Strache’s threat to build a fence between Austria and Hungary to keep Hungarian workers out of his country didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm for the man. Strache might not like Hungarians working in Austria, but several times he expressed his admiration for Orbán, who is “one of the few honest politicians who don’t want to sell out or destroy Europe.” He added that Orbán is the only European politician who has any brains when it comes to the migrant issue.

The Hungarian government has had strained relations with Austrian politicians of the two governing parties, SPÖ and ÖVP. Even a cursory look at the political news of the last few months reveals repeated insults being exchanged between Werner Faymann and Péter Szijjártó. Although Faymann resigned as chancellor on May 9 of this year, most likely to the great relief of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó, it looks as if his successor, Christian Kern, will be no better from the Hungarian point of view. In fact, I suspect that the new Austrian chancellor will be an even more severe critic of the Hungarian prime minister, whose views are practically identical to those of Heinz-Christian Strache.

A few days ago Kern announced that “it is an illusion to think that the refugee problem can be solved by European countries adopting authoritarian systems as the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has done.” Szijjártó, as is his wont, responded immediately and rashly. According to him, what is an illusion is any hope that with a change in the Austrian chancellorship insults from Austria will cease. Kern’s statement, he said, compared Hungary to Hitler’s Germany. “It is unacceptable for anyone to use expressions in connection with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that are in any way attached to the most monstrous and darkest dictatorship of the last century.” Not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Magyar Idők, the government’s fervent supporter and often unofficial spokesman, followed the Austrian presidential race with great interest, keeping fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer. A day before the second round of the presidential election, Magyar Idők was pretty certain that Hofer would win. The paper also noted that The New York Times compared FPÖ to the Hungarian, Polish, and Slovak government parties. (I don’t know whether the author of the article considered this an insult or not.) An opinion piece that appeared on the morning of the presidential election ran under the headline: “The Freedom Party is the symbol of success while the left is that of failure.”

Heinz -Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer before the presidential elections / Photo APA / Hans Klaus

Heinz -Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer before the presidential election / Photo APA / Hans Klaus

After the election Mária Schmidt, a historian who has great influence over Viktor Orbán, bemoaned the fact that public discourse in Austria is now dominated by baby boomer leftist politicians of the pro-German tradition. She recalled that Orbán in his first term was the first foreign leader to receive Chancellor Wolfgang Schlüssel of Austria, who was at that time considered a pariah in the West because he included the Freedom Party of Jörg Haider in his coalition government back in 1999.

Viktor Orbán’s friend Zsolt Bayer is also disappointed, but he is optimistic that “a new healthy young Europe is coming” that will replace the 70-year-old dying Europe that is full of bedsores. This youthful new Europe will come “from the mountains of the Alps, the fields of Burgenland, from Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.” For Bayer, the Freedom Party of Strache and Hofer is not the depository of far-right views but, on the contrary, the embodiment of “normalcy.” So it’s no wonder that Viktor Orbán and his fellow “normal” far-right friends were disappointed by the election results.

May 26, 2016

Hungary is looking for a new source of funding for Paks-2

This morning one of the very first articles I read about Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Budapest, in Népszabadság, had the following headline: “Good Hungarian-Russian relations don’t depend on the extension of Paks.” The Russian foreign minister uttered these words at the joint press conference he and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave after their meeting. My first thought was that something had gone very wrong with Viktor Orbán’s pet project, the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, to be built by Rosatom and financed by a state-owned Russian bank. The Paks project has been severely criticized by both the Hungarian opposition and the European Commission.

Sergey Lavrov, unlike his Hungarian counterpart, is an exceedingly skilled diplomat who chooses his words carefully. I therefore suspected that something is going on which the Hungarian government had decided not to divulge. This wouldn’t be the first time that we learn from Russian sources details of Russo-Hungarian relations that Budapest decided to keep secret. As the day went by, I became increasingly suspicious because other Russian sources, for example reports on Lavrov’s visit by TASS, the Russian news agency, emphasized the issue of Paks. Rosatom’s contract to build Paks-2, as the project is called, is obviously important to Russia. As Lavrov said, “we consider this project to be a strategic one [and] we are convinced that this project will contribute to strengthening Hungary’s energy security, creation of new jobs, and development of the Hungarian economy in general.” Szijjártó assured the Russians that “the Hungarian side is committed to the implementation of this project in compliance with the plan.”

It was pretty clear even before Lavrov’s arrival that conversations would focus mostly on trade and economic cooperation. In anticipation of his meeting with Lavrov, Szijjártó said that because of the economic sanctions against Russia, trade between the two countries has slowed, and therefore Hungary is seeking direct investment opportunities in Russia. In passing, he also mentioned seeking better relations between Russia and the European Union, which is in Hungary’s interest. According to Russian sources, one of Lavrov’s missions in Hungary was to get Hungarian support in lifting the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia.

Source: TASS / Photo: Alexander Schorbak

Source: TASS / Photo: Alexander Schorbak

Lavrov gave an exclusive interview to Magyar Nemzet in which he expressed his hope that “the Hungarian government, which in the past more than once declared its commitment to the [Paks] project, will be able to give satisfactory answers to Brussels’ questions.” Indeed, János Lázár will make a trip to Brussels in a couple of days to discuss the project once again. He is optimistic that the EU will reach an accommodation with Hungary. He announced that he is expecting “a significant step forward” as a result of his conversation with Margarete Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, whose main objection is that Rosatom received the job to build Paks-2 without a competitive bidding process.

My suspicion of this morning was strengthened this afternoon when, after days of inexplicable silence on the part of the Hungarian media, Népszabadság reported that a few days ago János Lázár said in parliament, in answer to a question of Bernadett Szél (LMP) regarding the Paks project: “Hungary’s money market’s position has greatly improved lately and therefore Hungary is ready and able in the near future to replace the [Russian] loan with capital obtained on the open financial market. Therefore we might be able to finance the project under more favorable conditions.” How this critical announcement was missed by the Hungarian media is simply beyond me.

Since the Hungarian government argued at the time it signed the loan agreement with Russia that the country couldn’t possibly obtain such a large 30-year loan from private sources, Lázár’s announcement is baffling. Moreover, private banks are disinclined to lend money for nuclear power plants because their construction usually takes twice as long as anticipated and costs twice as much. Therefore, it is unlikely that Hungary would receive such a loan from non-Russian sources, especially for a project built by Rosatom.

What lies behind this change of plans? One possibility is that Vnesheconombank simply doesn’t have enough money to finance such a huge project. Last year the Russian government had to sink 19 billion euros into the bank, which was struggling after financing the Sochi Olympics. The other possibility is that the Hungarian government thinks that getting non-Russian funding would appease Brussels, which then would drop its objection to the project. Benedek Jávor (PM EP), who as a member of a Green party is deeply critical of the Paks project, has an explanation for why the EU rejects Russian funding, which unfortunately is not at all clear from the Népszabadság article. His theory is that the European Commission finds the interest rates stipulated in the Russian contract unacceptable (probably a form of state subsidy). If the project were to be funded by non-Russian private sources, this objection would be eliminated, but the project would cost a great deal more.

If the first version is correct, Russia is reneging on its promise to finance the construction of Paks-2, which was presumably the most advantageous part of the deal Hungary had with Russia. Now, if the project is still on but Hungary has to go to the private market in search of funding, Russia gets what it wants without having to make financial concessions. That is, Rosatom will build Paks-2 and the Russian state won’t have to provide favorable financing. The money for the project will flow from western investors into Rosatom’s coffers. This sounds to me like a win for Russia, a loss for Hungary.

May 25, 2016

János Széky on secrets of the past well kept

I’m  pleased to be able to publish this essay by János Széky, whose writings on politics I have admired for years. János Széky is a man of many talents. He was originally known for his translations of the works of such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Mary Renault, Nathanael West, and Norman Mailer. Around 2006 he began writing on politics. He has a regular column in Élet és Irodalom, but one also finds his articles in several other highly respected publications. Last year he published his collected essays on politics that had originally appeared on Paraméter, a Hungarian-language internet site from Slovakia. It was titled Bárányvakság: Hogyan lett ilyen Magyarország? “Bárányvakság” is the Hungarian equivalent of Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a rare eye disease that results in blindness (“vakság”). “Bárány” when it stands alone means sheep or lamb. This compound word gives us a fair idea of what Széky had in mind when he opted for this title.

♦ ♦ ♦

baranyvaksagThe story of a veteran swimming coach and a retired industrial manager enthralled the Hungarian public for five full weeks through April and May, overshadowing more direct and more important political issues. There have been some aftershocks since, but basically the case is closed by now, so we can draw the conclusions with a measure of confidence. While the story and the response was emblematic and even politically relevant in several ways, it seems difficult to explain the backgrounds to anyone who is not intimate with the depths of the Hungarian national psyche. I will try.

On April 5, 2016 two obscure, sub-tabloid websites, specializing in sensational crime stories, broke the news that László Kiss, 75, head coach (official title: “Federal Captain”) of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, had raped a young girl in a backroom (a “service apartment”) of the National Sports Swimming Pool in 1961. He and his two associates were finally convicted in 1962, and released from prison in 1963.

Thirty-six days passed, then on May 11 Kiss, who had by then resigned from captaincy, met his victim, Zsuzsanna Takáts, 73, in the office of the latter’s lawyer. There, in front of the cameras of Hungary’s largest TV channel, he presented her a bouquet of flowers, asking for, and being given, forgiveness. (But, as Ms. Takáts remarked later, forgetting would be more difficult.)

What took place between the two dates was a real drama, full of mysteries, twists and turns. A huge public debate arose. What made it all the more strange was that the usual dividing lines were blurred; defenders and attackers of Kiss came from both the government’s and the opposition’s side. Not even gender solidarity mattered, as in the social media some liberal-minded women stood up for Kiss, only to be reprimanded by men from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

So why was it so important? Why was it political after all? How come it became news again, 54 years after the court’s judgment was made public? Why did it end more or less abruptly with such a theatrical gesture, while many of the details remained uncovered?

A nation of Olympic addicts

First of all, Kiss is not just a successful swimming coach. His name was largely unknown even among sports fans until late September 1988, when at the Seoul Olympics his trainee Krisztina Egerszegi won the 200 meters backstroke. It was a symbolic moment: the 14-year-old, small and slender Hungarian girl, nicknamed “Egérke” (Little Mouse), beat the wardrobe-sized East German swimmers almost effortlessly (back then, it was only rumored that they had been pumped up on steroids under State Security supervision). Watching television, or listening to the radio commentator’s ecstatic cries: “There’s no such thing! And still there is!,” we all saw it as a triumph of sheer Hungarian talent, charm, and ingenuity over raw Teutonic physical power in the obedient service of a hardline dictatorship.

Note the date: September 25, 1988. Glasnost and perestroika were in full swing in the Soviet Union, but the East European revolutions were still a year away. Hungary was considered a model state in the region, way ahead of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The institutional and legal foundations of market economy had already been laid. Relations with the West were excellent. The Young Turks of the communist party had already got rid of the old dictator János Kádár. Although most of them wanted to stop democratization before one-party rule was threatened, for many outsiders it was clear they had reached a point of no return (Fidesz, e.g., had already been formed by that time as an independent youth organization). “We are the best around” was the national feeling, and the unexpected victory in Seoul seemed to be a spectacular proof.

It was all about something deeper, however. Ever since the late nineteenth century Hungarians have been obsessed with success in sports, especially at the Olympic Games. First, while the Kingdom of Hungary was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, we had our separate national teams. So the purpose was to show that we are a separate nation, fit for the world’s stage after all the troubles. Later, after the disaster of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the successive governments, whether authoritarian or totalitarian, used Olympic successes as tools of national-collectivist propaganda to compensate for national humiliation, or lack of liberty, or relative poverty, or all of them. There has been no exception even through the democratic period, so the Hungarian public has internalized it, and found it only natural that we are more successful in Olympic sports than larger, more powerful, or more prosperous nations. There are only a few global lists in which Hungary is near the top (such as tax level or Nobel laureates per capita, at least when country of origin is concerned), but “Olympic gold medals per million people” is the most prominent among them. Here Hungary is an all-time second. And although there are some traditional specialties like fencing or kayak and canoe, nowadays swimming is the only “big sport” (attracting media attention and therefore much money) in which Hungary can still produce world stars.

Out of prison, back to the elite

So one of the first responses to the revelation was that evil and unpatriotic forces wanted to sabotage our swimmers’ successes in Rio. The reason why it was not the only immediate response as would have been natural in such cases was threefold.

First: Many people interpreted it as a covert attack against Tamás Gyárfás, chairman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, whom no one actually likes, and many people would like to see resign. So, unlike in other scandals concerning revered celebrities, a large part of the public tended to give some credit to the news from the very first moment. Second: Kiss’s status had already been weakened somewhat when Katinka Hosszú, the biggest star in Hungarian swimming, and her American husband/coach Shane Tusup humiliated him last January. At a press conference she publicly refused Gyárfás’s offer of c. $45,000 in exchange for taking part in the 2017 World Championship’s publicity campaign. She tore the contract in two and denounced the HSF for providing pitiful Stone Age training conditions to swimmers. Kiss tried to approach her to say some conciliatory words or to ask for an explanation, but Tusup dragged her away before the head coach could reach her. Later it was said that Hosszú would never listen or talk to Kiss during the previous weeks (no one knew exactly why). Kiss resigned immediately (recently there have been hints that he was aware of the danger looming ahead, so this could have been a convenient way of leaving the public stage), but Viktor Orbán himself persuaded him to stay. So he revoked his resignation – for the time being.

Finally, public opinion was divided from the very first moment because it had been sensitized to the issue of poolside sexual offenses by a best-selling book in 2013, in which former swimming champion Nikolett Szepesi described how at the age of 13 she, as well as other young girls, were molested by a masseur, and forced to keep silence by people around the HSF. So when the news broke about Kiss, a lot of people’s automatic first reaction was, “How could they allow this man to work with underage girls?”

Pieces of additional information and disinformation emerged immediately. It “became known” that the victim had died some time ago; that her father was a high-ranking state security officer, otherwise the three young men would not have been sentenced (all false). Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist very popular among left-wing audiences, said he knew the case, and the three young swimmers were handsome, easy-going Lotharios (kind of true), while the girl “just liked to screw around” (false), there was no rape (false), and the young men were framed (false). Aczél had been a regular contributor to Hungary’s largest political daily Népszabadság for 25 years; after this blatant example of sexist victim-blaming they would not hear of him any more.

At least one newspaper acquired the documents of the trial from the archives and began to leak out reliable information in small doses, until Attila Péterfalvi, chairman of the National Authority of Data Protection and Freedom of Information, blocked access to the archived and hitherto public documents, using a legal loophole. It was not clear whose data he wanted to protect.

There were some obvious signs of manipulation. People from the Olympic swimming community said that “in the world of the pools everybody knew,” but would not say why they never shared this knowledge with the wider public. Websites published photocopies of the Hungarian Telegraph Agency’s report on the 1962 judgments, and even an AP report that reached the American press. Kiss’s defenders said this was evidence that nothing had been secret about it. What the defenders deliberately ignored was the fact that this happened in 1961-62, when there was no Internet with search engines, so if one did not remember a two-inch story from the back pages of a newspaper, they could only go to a library to find the piece in the back copies; but if they did not remember, they did not know what to look for in the first place.

Moreover, it happened in communist Hungary, where there was no press freedom. So, on the one hand, the press did not cover the truth or everything that could have been interesting for the general public. (Two of the most notorious but unreported sex scandals of the age involved actors, who were not sent to prison, just disappeared from Budapest theatres for a while, and there was nothing about the real background in the newspapers.) On the other hand, it was unimaginable that a journalist would follow the trail of someone sent to prison without a directive coming “from above.” So what the authorities did was simply unremembering the case: never talking about it again, so everybody duly forgot it who was not “in” on it.

Kiss served 20 months in prison, but this fact was obliterated from the known universe. It was not included in Ki kicsoda, the Hungarian version of Who’s Who, where they (that is, he) falsified the facts and “pasted over” the prison term, saying he was an athlete of Ferencvárosi Torna Club until 1961, and in 1962 switched to another club called Budapesti Spartacus; while in reality he was expelled from Ferencváros in 1961 and was released from prison only in 1963 (at least if that piece of information is true). It was not included in the Wikipedia article nor in his professional biography (Csurka, Gergely, Az edzőfejedelem [The Prince of Coaches], Ringier, Budapest, 2012; the author is now the spokesman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation). When the scandal broke, Gyárfás was ridiculed for triumphantly saying that it was not a secret, “anyone can read it on Wikipedia.” In fact, the text of the article had been edited earlier that day.

There was also confusion about the circumstances of Kiss’s release. In his own version, he was set free with the sweeping Great Amnesty. This was proclaimed in March (officially April) 1963, after secret talks with the U.S. State Department, and resulted in setting free many people imprisoned for taking part in the revolution of 1956. The Hungarian communist authorities did not want it to look like a political retreat, so they extended the amnesty to many non-political criminals who served lighter sentences. Kiss was sentenced to three years at the second instance; he was incarcerated in October 1961; by the amnesty order he should have been released after two years, in October 1963. He won, however, the bronze medal in 200 meters butterfly stroke at the National Championship that year, which was held in late summer. So, counting in the training period, he must have been released several months before October. He himself said he spent 20 months in prison; that would have ended in June. So either there was some other intervention on his behalf, or Kiss lied.

It was a living legend, Éva Székely, Olympic champion at Helsinki, the pioneer of the butterfly stroke, who gave the key to this riddle. She said now that she had wanted to take “this talented boy” out of prison, so she went to a very high-ranking party functionary and asked for his release. That functionary was most probably Béla Biszku, who died six days before this scandal broke out. He was the last surviving member of Kádár’s original junta, overseeing state security as well as prisons – and sports. So what Székely herself revealed was nothing less than that she had facilitated the extralegal release of a condemned rapist by using her own prestige, and asking one of the most hated figures of the communist dictatorship for a favor. In any democracy, such a revelation would have ruined her morally overnight. But as it happened in Hungary, no such response came. This is a perfect illustration of three specific features of Hungarian political thinking: nationalist emotions can override all other considerations such as the issue of dictatorship v. democracy; some people, including star athletes, are not just privileged but beyond any political, legal, or moral scrutiny; and finally, these conditions have not changed a bit since 1963.

That Kiss could continue where he had left off in1961 meant that he was not simply released as early as possible, but that he was immediately retaken to the ranks of a privileged elite within the party-state. Meanwhile, the heroes and legends of 1956 were confined to low-paid, menial jobs. (If they could find a job at all.) In 1965 Kiss quit competitive swimming and became the head coach of Spartacus. The next year he was “given individual pardon” by the Hungarian Presidential Council, which meant a clean criminal record, and being eligible for a “service passport”, which meant he could visit most countries in the world anytime, expenses covered. This at a time when ordinary citizens could travel to the West every third year; and for spending money they were allowed to buy a mere 70 dollars high above the official exchange rate – that is, if their request for a passport was not refused for being “harmful to public interest,” as was the norm for people with a 1956 background.

Dark non-secrets

The main argument of the defense of Kiss was that he “created something unique,” with which he more than atoned for his crime. This was not true for two reasons. On the one hand, there was nothing special about him for 18 years after his release, until he had the luck of meeting a really unique talent in the person of seven-year-old Egerszegi. On the other hand, the method which created world and Olympic champions out of teenagers was not his invention. The merit belonged Tamás Széchy (1931-2004), who, from 1967 on, began to train young boys (many of them under the age of ten) with sadistic brutality. Apart from the extraordinarily heavy training load, he kicked them, beat them with bare hands and a massive stick, humiliated them, and abused them verbally. The children were too young to protest (and did not know it was abnormal in the first place), while the parents approved, partly because the atmosphere in many families was just as authoritarian, partly because they saw it as a way to fame and national glory, and partly because in the world of “socialist” sports, the success of the minors meant privileges and material rewards for the parents as well. And the results duly came: after a long slump between 1952 and 1973, one of Széchy’s trainees, 17-year-old András Hargitay, won a gold medal at the first World Swimming Championship in Belgrade.

What Kiss and other second-rank coaches did was to stick to the inhuman training load without Széchy’s sadistic antics (for which today he would be put in prison), while still retaining much of the original abuse of power, though “mildly” enough by now to apply to girls as well. Until 1988, however, Széchy was the swimming coach in the eyes of the public (who knew nothing about his methods), and many people were just surprised that there was another successful coach around. It had the overtones of dethronement.

The day after the old story came to light, on April 7, the Presidency and the Trainers’ Commission of the HSF unanimously voted for the Federal Captain to stay. While sticking to the “crime-punishment-redemption” theme (“I was given a chance, and I used it,” referring to his later successes as a coach), Kiss himself also suggested that he had been framed. On the next day, however, he resigned not only from the captainship but from his position of deputy mayor in the city of Százhalombatta as well (the local swimming pool was also named after him). This was preceded by a large sponsor withdrawing its support from HSF and also criticism from the local government of Százhalombatta, which happens to be dominated by Fidesz. The debate cut across political lines. The “swimming profession” rallying to his defense was not enough. The original websites which disclosed the news also promised new pieces of information, not too subtly hinting at Kiss’s alleged involvement with State Security (while they themselves have been accused of the same). This is another Hungarian specialty: as there has been no thorough State Security lustration like in Czechia, Slovakia, or Germany, and “the public’s right to know” has been largely denied in these issues, there seems to be (or by all signs there is), a large blackmail database 26 years after the demise of the communist régime, out of which compromising facts can be culled whenever it is profitable for its users.

Kiss also announced that he would seek a retrial, so as to clear his name. This is one of the more obscure chapters of the story. Everybody could have told him his chances were less than slight. Who on earth could have advised him to do such a thing, and why? Kiss seems to have been certain that the victim had died, but who could have told him that?

The scandal dragged on. Apart from moral and gender issues, the debate revolved around Endre Aczél’s victim-blaming version (showing that the Hungarian public is much more liberal, after all, than politicians like to think) and also around the theory that the real target was Tamás Gyárfás, the chairman of HSF. Gyárfás is something of an anomaly in the Fidesz system. Originally a sports journalist, in 1989 he started a media company to sponsor a morning political magazine within the state television’s program. The money came from a businessman György Bodnár, returning from the U.S. to Hungary, whom Gyárfás met during his stay in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games (which Hungary, as well as all Warsaw Pact countries except Romania, boycotted). Bodnár served some time in prison in the U.S. in the 1970s. When in 1994 the weekly magazine HVG asked if he had some ties to the Los Angeles Hungarian Mafia, he said he had no knowledge “of any serious Hungarian group of organized crime operating there.” (It is clear that this network consisted of criminals exported from Hungary from the late 1960s on; and, of course, it had State Security ties.) But that’s another far-reaching story. Anyway, though Gyárfás himself never belonged to the ranks of real oligarchs, his morning magazine Nap-Kelte (‘Sun-Rise’) survived all governments in spite of its definitely left-wing orientation and shabby production, even after Fidesz decided to boycott it in late 2006. It finally ceased to exist in September 2009, half a year before the all-important 2010 elections.

Meanwhile, Gyárfás became one of Hungary’s most important sports officials. He was elected to be chairman of HSF in 1993, and in 2006 he even tried to grab the presidency of the Hungarian Olympic Committee from Pál Schmitt, who was Fidesz’s vice-president back then and later became President of Hungary. (Rumors say the boycott of Nap-Kelte was Fidesz’s revenge for the HOC coup attempt.) And Gyárfás is still in the position now, a year before the 2017 World Aquatic Championships, which involves a $320 million investment. With that much money around, and Fidesz politicians and cronies literally occupying all the important federations and clubs, it would only be logical if Fidesz wanted to get rid of Gyárfás, whom, for some reason, no one has been able to remove from his throne at HSF yet.

Plus ça change…

It looked like another Hungarian scandal that would die off after much excitement, when finally, on May 7, a bombshell was dropped. The victim, who was alive after all, got fed up with the lies, and with her lawyer she approached a reporter from Fókusz, a very popular news magazine program at RTL Klub.

In a harrowing interview Zsuzsanna Takáts, now a retired engineer/manager and a grandmother, recounted how 55 years ago, at 18, she was raped by the three young men taking turns. It turned out that the details were just the opposite of what was spread around. She was not a sex-crazed swimmer who “loved to screw” but a 7-stone, “underdeveloped,” performance-conscious young girl under strict family control, preparing for her university entrance exams. After the acts, during which she lost consciousness, she was told to “wash herself” with diluted vinegar. At that time she was so inexperienced that she did not realize what it was good for. Her stepfather was not a high-ranking State Security officer but a self-employed shoemaker (small entrepreneurship with fewer than ten employees was tolerated; in the economy of shortage, some of these people were quite well off, but politically they were pariahs). Instead of the powerful father moving in to punish the “Lotharios,” somebody first tried to bribe him to withdraw the accusation, and when he refused, unidentified persons beat him up. He responded stoically: it was part of the game, he said, and would not back down. It took several years for Ms. Takáts to recover mentally and physically. Later, when he saw Kiss’s successes, it was as if Kiss was a complete stranger to her.

When Kiss got news of the interview beforehand, he still said it would finally prove him innocent. By that time he had hired one of the most prestigious lawyers in Hungary, Dr. János Bánáti, chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Lawyers. Dr. Bánáti read through the documents of the original trial, watched Fókusz, and the next thing we know is that Kiss made a complete reversal: he apologized, announced that he would not push for a retrial any more, and withdrew all his claims. His name was taken off the Százhalombatta swimming pool, and he said he wanted to spend as much time as possible with his grandchildren. We cannot know whether decency, painfully missing from several episodes of this story, had finally prevailed, or if Dr. Bánáti had persuaded him to act decently after all, or if he found some details in the documents which made it advisable to forget the case as quickly as possible. RTL Klub also showed the scene with the flowers, which some people found insincere, but at least it was back to what we call European norms and normalcy.

The lesson of the story? While some things have changed for the better in Hungary since 1961, some have not changed at all. In that respect, 1989 was not a watershed. Nowadays the public is much more sensitive to any kind of violence – against women, against children. And, what had been unimaginable until this scandal broke out, people would say they don’t want Olympic gold medals at such a price. Still, it was shocking to learn that those who enjoyed undeserved privileges before 1989 would be protected well after the transition; that information deliberately withheld until 1989 could be withheld until 2016 too. In other words, to learn how much of the communist past is alive and kicking in the form of well-guarded secrets and uncontested false values. This time pure chance helped us. If the sub-tabloid website were better off financially, or if Kiss and Aczél were more decent and did not insult the victim, we would never know what Kiss did in 1961 and how it was hushed up for more than fifty years. But knowing that now, we might never know how many similarly hushed-up stories are out there in the real Hungarian universe.

May 24, 2016