Tag Archives: Horn government

Former PM Péter Medgyessy on the current political situation

Two days ago, when I was covering the negotiations between MSZP and DK, I was initially planning to include a few words about an interview with Péter Medgyessy, who was prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004. Because I launched Hungarian Spectrum only in July of 2008, readers will find relatively little information on him on this blog. But his name came up about a year ago when we learned that the former prime minister, who owns a consulting firm, had received €600,000 from the French company Alstom in 2006, the year in which the City of Budapest made its decision to buy Alstom cars for the new metro line. Medgyessy naturally claims that his consulting firm had nothing to do with the decision in favor of Alstom, adding that it is a well-known fact that his relationship with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and the liberal SZDSZ leadership of the City of Budapest was strained. This may be so, but receiving a high fee from a firm that was already in some trouble over corrupt business practices doesn’t look good.

Medgyessy comes from an old Transylvanian family and can trace his ancestry all the way back to the seventeenth century. After graduating from Karl Marx Economic University, he became a civil servant, working his way up the ladder until by 1982 he was deputy finance minister. After the regime change, he retired from politics and became CEO of a couple of banks. In 1996 he was named finance minister in the Horn government. In 2002 he was chosen as MSZP’s candidate for the premiership and, after a slim victory over Fidesz, became prime minister of the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition government.

Less than three weeks after his inauguration, Magyar Nemzet, a newspaper that had close ties with Fidesz in those days, revealed that Medgyessy had worked as a paid counterintelligence officer under the code name D-209 in the III/II section of the ministry of the interior. SZDSZ demanded that Medgyessy be replaced with someone with a clean record, but MSZP politicians convinced them to support Medgyessy. Two years later, however, Medgyessy lost the support of the coalition partners.When he threatened to resign unless the SZDSZ minister of the economy was dismissed, MSZP refused to stand by him. His resignation was accepted, and MSZP named the young Ferenc Gyurcsány as his replacement.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction, let me turn to the interview itself. Szabolcs Dull of Index visited Medgyessy in his home, where he asked the former prime minister to assess the current political situation. The conversation began with the chances of the opposition parties at the forthcoming election. Medgyessy predicted a Fidesz victory due to the poor performance of the opposition politicians and Viktor Orbán’s superior political instincts. What Medgyessy was referring to here were Orbán’s policies in the face of the migrant crisis. He doesn’t like Orbán’s answers, but he would have done the same thing if he had been in Orbán’s shoes. He also praised Orbán’s public works program. He admitted that the program doesn’t make much sense economically, but it is a good thing to put these people to work, for which they “receive a little bit of money.”

Source: Index / Photo: István Huszti

As for Orbán’s political chances, Medgyessy is convinced that “it will not be the opposition but time that will displace Orbán.” The problem with the opposition politicians, including Gyurcsány, is that “they are made of old stuff,” which is somewhat amusing to hear from a former Kádár counterintelligence officer who served as deputy finance minister in the old regime. They are not only old-fashioned socialist types from Kádár’s times, but “they are also mediocre.” No socialist can successfully take on Viktor Orbán, “who is anything but mediocre.” There is only one person who is up to the task, and that is Bernadett Szél. Medgyessy admits that Szél’s prospects for 2018 are slim, but he believes that she will be ready to lead the country in 2022. Medgyessy’s description of Szél as a person who “can integrate people” is strange considering her categorical and total rejection of cooperation with any other opposition politicians.

At the end of the interview Medgyessy repeated what he had asserted in an interview almost a year ago–that Viktor Orbán can be removed only if MSZP, DK, and Jobbik cooperate. Such a solution might not be a principled political decision, but “what is principled in politics?” The question is not whether the political left likes Jobbik. “There are historical situations which override every other consideration.” As for the problem of a workable coalition government that would comprise left-wing parties and a right-wing Jobbik, Medgyessy’s answer was: “This is the art of politics.” After all, this problem was solved in Austria during Wolfgang Schüssel’s chancellorship between 2000 and 2007 when he formed a coalition government with Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party of Austria.

The interview was not well received in opposition circles. The only person who had a high opinion of the interview was László Kéri, who found Medgyessy’s assessment of the present Hungarian situation correct and convincing. His colleague Zoltán Lakner, whom I consider perhaps the best political analyst in Hungary today, had a strikingly different opinion of Medgyessy and his interview. He said that it is hard to forget Medgyessy’s D-209 past and his rather miserable performance as prime minister. Moreover, someone who doesn’t remember the past accurately might not be the best person to predict the future. Here Lakner is referring to Medgyessy’s repeated claim after his resignation that it was a veritable coup d’état organized by Gyurcsány and other MSZP leaders that removed him from office. And with a D-209 past, “he shouldn’t stand on a moral pedestal because it may wobble under him.”

Lakner’s colleague Kornélia Magyar, in a comment to the above, wondered why Index found an interview with Medgyessy such a good idea just now. What is the editorial direction of Index? Clearly, she is suggesting an ulterior motive behind the publication of this interview. I assume Magyar was making a mental note of the fact that Index is owned by Lajos Simicska, who has been supporting Jobbik.

Jenő Kaltenbach, former ombudsman in charge of national and ethnic minority rights, was blunt in expressing his befuddlement at “keeping alive these political weathervane-corpses (Szili, Medgyessy). Unless because of Fidesz.”

This last point refers to the fact that in November 2015 Péter Szijjártó bestowed a prize on Medgyessy for his work on developing closer relations between China and Hungary. The ceremony took place shortly after Medgyessy in an interview claimed that corruption was not greater during the Orbán government than it had been earlier. As for Katalin Szili, formerly one of the top MSZP politicians who was president of the parliament (2002-2009), she accepted all sorts of jobs from Viktor Orbán after 2010. For example, she became a member of the Nemzeti Konzultációs Testület in 2011 and in that capacity had a hand in writing the new constitution. Since March 2015 she has been working for the Orbán government as a commissioner representing the prime minister himself, dealing with matters related to Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.

What upset MSZP politicians most was Medgyessy’s suggestion of a political collaboration with Jobbik. The party published a statement in which they expressed their opinion that “Jobbik is the party of a billionaire thief while Fidesz is the party of thieving billionaires –one mustn’t vote for either! With these? Never!” Ildikó Lendvai, former party chairman and leader of MSZP’s parliamentary delegation between 2002 and 2009, stressed in a television interview yesterday that, although she thinks highly of Medgyessy and considers him a pleasant and clever man, she found this interview unfortunate. To work together with Jobbik would be a suicidal strategy. She also took issue with Medgyessy’s support of Bernadett Szél. Although Szél is a very promising and talented politician, one cannot have as the common prime minister of the democratic opposition somebody who refuses to work with others.

All of this shows the predicament in which Hungarian opposition politicians find themselves. Viktor Orbán managed to set up a structure that created a trap from which it is almost impossible to break out.

November 9, 2017

Hungary between 1994 and 1998: The memoirs of Vera and Donald Blinken, Part I

It was a month ago that I wrote my first post on Eleni Kounalakis’s book about her years in Hungary which, I understand, will soon be published in Hungary as well. The book is of great interest to those who have been following recent Hungarian political developments. It was for that reason that I devoted, all told, three posts to a description of her book as well as to an analysis of U.S.-Hungarian relations during her tenure.

In the first post on the subject I assumed, as it turned out wrongly, that “no former U.S. ambassador to Hungary has written a book about his or her stay in Budapest since John F. Montgomery’s Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite (1947), which is by and large an apologia for the pro-German policies of Admiral Horthy and his governments.” Soon enough, I received an e-mail from a friend who called my attention to a memoir written by Vera and Donald Blinken titled Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return (State University of New York Press, 2009). Donald Blinken was U.S. ambassador to Hungary between March 29, 1994 and November 20, 1997.

It is an unusual diplomatic memoir because it is a joint venture of Blinken and his wife, Vera, who, as the title indicates, was born in Hungary. She was nine years old when, in 1949, her mother managed to leave Hungary, daughter in tow. Vera was not only a superb manager of the social aspects of the life of an ambassador, but her knowledge of the language and the national psyche was of immeasurable help to Blinken. It seems to have been a perfect partnership.

Donald Blinken was a political appointee, but his background in investment banking came in handy when the Horn government at last began to dismantle the outmoded state companies and started looking for foreign investors. In fact, Blinken developed such good relations with the Hungarian government that before his departure from Budapest he was invited to President Árpád’s Göncz’s office, where he became the first American ambassador to be awarded the Middle Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary, the country’s highest civilian honor. Göncz was sorry that he didn’t have two such decorations because, in his opinion, Vera also deserved one. In November 2002, in New York, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy did what Göncz couldn’t: he awarded her the same medal for her work with PRIMAVERA, a mobile mammography program that she initiated and managed.

My impression is that Blinken, in addition to his managerial skills and business acumen, also had good political instincts. By the time the Blinkens arrived in Budapest everybody knew that the days of MDF and its coalition partners were numbered. Elections were coming up and a socialist victory was expected. Some of the western journalists were certain that the return of the socialists would spell the end of Hungarian democracy. Blinken was convinced otherwise. He was right. During the four years of socialist-liberal rule Hungary made incredible strides toward a full-fledged market economy.

Although Blinken had what it takes to be a good ambassador, his goals in Hungary were greatly facilitated by a very cooperative Hungarian government. He and some of the officials in the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs often worked in tandem. Many examples of this happy relationship are described in the book. Here I want to call attention to one of the most important achievements of this Hungarian-U.S. cooperation–the establishment of a staging area for the Implementation Force (IFOR), which would be deployed in Bosnia and Croatia after a successful Dayton agreement. The U.S. military’s first choice for such a staging area was Hungary. Gen. William Courch, commanader-in-chief of the U.S. Army in Europe, came to Hungary and asked Blinken whether he would “be willing and able to persuade the Hungarian government to let us base our troops in Hungary.” (p. 229)

There were several considerations that might have made such a decision difficult for the Hungarian government. So soon after the Soviet soldiers had left, foreign troops would again be stationed in the country. Moreover, there was the worry that the Serbs might retaliate against the Hungarian minority in Voivodina. After a few minutes, however, Blinken decided to take up the challenge and told the general that “when you’re ready to call on us officially to ask for Hungarian cooperation, consider it done!” A few weeks later a military delegation came to Budapest to “ask the Hungarian officials if they could agree to allow American troops, vehicles, and equipment to enter and be stationed in Hungary…. Without missing a beat, the reply came from across the table: ‘We have been waiting for you since 1956.'” (p. 231) They also made it clear that their contribution should be accompanied by efforts to equip Hungary so it could operate alongside NATO. They expressed their hope for future NATO membership.

Time was of the essence, and the officials Blinken dealt with did everything in their power to expedite matters. As he put it, “Hungary’s robust response to our request for IFOR assistance set the bar high for other European countries and also earned them high marks in Washington and across the other NATO capitals. By putting aside both domestic politics and residual fears from forty-five years of Soviet occupation, Hungary’s swift action demonstrated in a manner no words could express that the country was intent on being taken seriously as a candidate for NATO membership.” (p. 238)

What followed was the reconstruction of an old Soviet airfield in the village of Taszár, not far from Kaposvár. With incredible speed the old dilapidated base was transformed into a permanent modern military station for 3,000 soldiers.

Bill Clinton in Taszár, in the background Vera Blinken / MTI

Bill Clinton in Taszár, with Vera Blinken in the background / MTI

One only wishes that U.S.-Hungarian relations were in such able hands today as they were during Blinken’s tenure. Compare the Horn government’s response to global challenges to Viktor Orbán’s recalcitrant attitude toward European integration or transatlantic cooperation. Reading Donald Blinken’s memoirs, I can only bemoan the fact that Viktor Orbán, however narrowly, won the election in 1998. Four years later Hungarian foreign relations were in a ruinous state. The new government in 2002 had to begin everything from scratch. It was not an easy task and today, once Orbán is gone, it will be even more difficult. It is easy to lose trust but very difficult to regain it, and the damage this time is much greater than it was by 2002. Once a more accommodating government is in power, one can only hope that another Donald Blinken will be on hand.