The Disappearance of the Political Middle

Hungary has long been divided between its liberal and cosmopolitan capital and the more conservative countryside. During the Communist era, a small democratic opposition emerged that eventually, by the end of the 1980s, split into two political forces: the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz) and the more nationalist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF).

In the first free elections in Hungary in 1990, the Democratic Forum achieved a narrow margin of victory over the Free Democrats. The liberals went into opposition. But they had won over a million votes (in a country of only 10 million people). The country’s first president came from SzDSz, and so did the mayor of Budapest. Four years later, their popularity had sagged a bit, but SzDSz still scored nearly a million votes in the elections.

Today, the party has disappeared. It failed to achieve any seats in the 2010 elections. A successor party, the Hungarian Liberal Party, threw its lot in with a large coalition opposed to the ruling Fidesz party and current Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But this larger coalition came in a distant second. Even in cosmopolitan Budapest, the mayor is a former Free Democrat who has become a conservative Fidesz politician.

Ferenc Koszeg was a key member of the democratic opposition and an editor of Beszelo, a samizdat publication. He also served in parliament with SzDSz. “In 1992, there was a general view that Hungarian society was divided into three blocs – an old-fashioned conservative group that believed in a authoritarian state, a socialist bloc that believed in a paternalistic state, and a liberal bloc that believed in individual freedom,” he told me in an interview in his apartment in Budapest last May. “The proportion of support for these groups was similar – one-third was conservative, one-third socialist, and one-third liberal. The Free Democrats was twice the second largest party in the country, receiving more than one million votes. There was indeed a strong liberal part of the country. But since 1994, the general conviction became that you had to belong to the Right or the Left, and there was nothing in the middle, which is very bad.”

The turning point, Koszeg believes, was 1994, because that was the year when the Free Democrats decided to join a coalition with the Socialist Party. The coalition lasted for 14 years.

“It was absolutely a mistake — not from the point of view of just the party, and the end of the party, but also from the point of view of the country,” Koszeg continues. “At that time, I was still the editor of Beszelo, which became a political weekly after the changes in 1990. In February 1994, I did an interview with Viktor Orban. At that time, SzDSz and Fidesz were very close to each other. It wasn’t the first time we did an interview, and the atmosphere was rather friendly. Orban said, ‘If the liberal Left and the socialist Left come together to make a coalition, then the gap between the Right and the Left will be like a rift between two mountains, and it will take at least 25 years before grass will grow again on the side of this rift.’ Of course, the gap was also very useful for Fidesz. The policy of Fidesz was built on this gap. After the coalition happened, Orban did everything to deepen it and say that Fidesz was good and the Socialist-Liberals were evil. After that, he pushed Fidesz in the direction of a more radical right-wing politics.”

We talked about the impact of Beszelo in its samizdat days and the challenges of maintaining the secrecy of its operations. In 1990 when I interviewed Koszeg, he was involved in the parliamentary effort to reform national security, including the police, so we also discussed the results of those reforms.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember what you were doing and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

It happened in 1989 in November. At that time there was political opposition not only in the narrow sense of the democratic opposition but in the form of a mass movement against the Soviet-type regimes. There was a quite general hope that we could overcome the “soft dictatorship” here and have a real free parliamentary election. Therefore, the events in Germany just strengthened this feeling. Before the events in Berlin and Prague, there was a fear, especially among the more conservative people or parties like the Hungarian Democratic Forum that the Soviets could still change their mind and decide to oppress this movement, first of all in Hungary and Poland, which were the two most progressive countries at the time. With the collapse of East German and Czechoslovak Communism, this fear was over.

This led to a radicalization of the conservatives. The anti-Communists and the sometimes very stupid nationalistically inclined became much stronger than before. It was obvious that their earlier conception of politics, of how to reach a compromise with the Communist rulers, was absolutely false and was only dictated by fear. Afterwards, with no reasons to fear any more, they suddenly became radically right wing.

 

You worked with Pal Kochis in the Dialogus movement, yes?

 

Not so much. But there is a common misunderstanding because there was someone in the Dialogus movement with almost the same name as mine: Ferenc Koszegi, a name that is much more common in Hungarian. This Ferenc Koszegi published some articles in the Western press about Dialogue and the peace movement. A man named Wim Bartels came to Budapest and asked me about these articles. I didn’t know anything about them. He thought that I was trying to camouflage my involvement. But it turned out that it was a misunderstanding. Later Bartels gave an interview to Beszelo, in samizdat. He belonged to the inter-church peace movement, so he was especially interested in the Hungarian peace movement. This Mr. Koszegi became probably, almost surely, an agent of the secret service, and continued his career as a right-wing journalist.

 

He’s still writing today?

 

I haven’t seen his name in the last few years. The samizdat people were interested in the Dialogue movement because it was very attractive and there were many young people who were enthusiastic about it. And they seemingly avoided belonging to the political opposition. They said they were for peace and against missiles, and they were connected to the larger anti-nuclear disarmament movement. Therefore they had a much bigger camp of supporters than the democratic opposition. It seemed not so dangerous. The idea of peace and disarmament was very attractive. Because of this popularity, the authorities were rather tough with them after a while. They were tolerated for half a year, then suddenly the police acted against them. The movement disappeared. Some people joined the state-governed GONGOs (government-organized NGOs). They joined the official peace movement as a youth club. Mr. Koszegi belonged to this group. And some people joined the democratic opposition. There is an excellent journalist now working for KlubRadio, Robert Palinkas. He started in the peace movement and then became a member of the radical opposition.

 

Describe to me if you can when you took your step into the democratic opposition. Was it a specific moment or a more gradual process?

 

It was a gradual process, and it started much earlier. First of all, I’m a bit older than most of the members of the democratic opposition. I was born in 1939. Janos Kis was born in 1942. That means that in 1956 I was already 17. They were 14. This is a big difference. Because of family reasons or background, I had some personal connection to the people who belonged to the Imre Nagy group, not with him but with his press secretary Miklos Vasarhelyi. Therefore I was absolutely for the uprising at that time. I distributed leaflets after the Russian invasion. I was arrested and spent two months in jail. I was very lucky. I was not sentenced.

For me, there was no question that I was against the regime. I had no reform Communist past. On the other hand, I didn’t do anything against it. I started working for a publishing house. My own interest was literature. But my attraction to politics did not disappear. As I met the so-called “Lukacs kindergarten” and Gyorgy Bence, I grew closer to this idea of Marxist-leftist criticism. I liked it, and it became a quite strong friendly company. Its passing over into a political movement was not a change in this sense. It was just a change in the people who belonged to this group.

Usually it is said that the democratic opposition in Hungary began in 1979 when more than 200 people signed a petition against the sentencing in Prague of the people who signed Charter 77. It was quite natural for me to support this action. As a result, I lost my job in the publishing company. I didn’t just sign the petition, but I collected signatures as well. I joined the samizdat. So, this was not a change in my biography.

 

People talk of Hungary as the softest of the Communist regimes, particularly in the 1970s and particularly with respect to economics. You were in touch with other people in the democratic opposition in other countries. When you lost your job and began work in samizdat, did you perceive the situation in Hungary as softer?

 

As a matter of fact, it was softer. But one of the most important statements of the democratic opposition was that essentially Hungary was the same as the other countries in this region. It was still a dictatorship, an undemocratic regime and country. Only the circumstances were softer, and everyday life was better. On the other hand, before 1990, there were two main branches of the democratic opposition. There was this Lukacs kindergarten with Janos Kis and Gyorgy Bence and their friends. And there was Istvan Kemeny group. Kemeny was a sociologist, and his group did a lot of research into the poorest part of Hungarian society and the circumstance of life in the deeper parts of the society. They knew that “softness” didn’t fit with the life of the poor. When Kemeny left the country, Ottilia Solt was the most important person working on that topic. Unfortunately she died very young. But she wrote a very important article in Beszelo saying that the police state is much worse in the deeper part of society. It might be soft to intellectuals and even to the democratic opposition, but it was not soft to the poor and the unemployed or the Gypsies.

 

That runs counter to what people say today about Roma — that their life under Communism was much better then than it is today. Or that the poor during the Communist period at least had access to social services, which have since disappeared.

 

As the market economy was progressing, the Gypsies started losing their jobs. The Communist state didn’t want to recognize that there was unemployment. Instead of unemployment assistance, they introduced criminal methods. In 1985, a law was introduced for tough correction work. This meant that the unemployed were arrested, a place of work was assigned to them, and they had to go to work every day from prison. It was like an 18th-century British workhouse.

 

When did you start Beszelo?

 

In 1981. I belonged to the founding group. At that time, there was a debate over whether the democratic opposition should start to publish a periodical. There was samizdat before, but it was typewritten. At that time there was a possibility to use a mimeograph machine, which was out of use in the West after Xerox appeared. So, it was very cheap in the West and easy to get. But it was hard to smuggle in, because it was strictly forbidden in Hungary. So, the idea to start a periodical began in 1980. Some people said we couldn’t say anything realistic to the people. But others like Janos Kis supported the start of the periodical. About five or six people came together and we started it. But it took over a year to get it started.

 

It took time to get the machine, to get the supplies like paper?

 

This as well. Janos Kis was certainly the spiritual leader of the group. He was very strict with the conspiracy. It was his view and that of others that the names of the editors should be open and printed on the periodical. But the technical background had to be strictly secret. Not even the members of the editorial board knew where the place where Beszelo was printed. Only three people maybe knew this information.

 

Where was it printed?

 

In a private apartment outside of Budapest in a small village on the Danube — near Szentendre. There was a man who did not belong so strictly to this opposition group. He had a rather withdrawn type of life. He decided to buy a peasant house, a very cheap one, and move there. He became a gardener in a government resort. In the cellar of this house, he used this mimeograph machine. It was very strictly secret. One of the reasons why it took such a long time to print it — there was a long waiting period between issues – was that we decided to wait some months after finishing the manuscript and sending it to the printing house.

Later this conspiracy was not so important. But at the beginning it was very uncertain how the state security organs would react.

For distribution, there was a pyramid structure. At the bottom were people who distributed only five copies. The distribution was quite uncertain for a while. As circumstances became a bit easier, it functioned much better. The main person of the distribution was not as the Germans say, a Linksliberal – a Left liberal. But he was also an opponent of the regime, interested mainly in Green issues and urban planning. Later, after the changes, he became a conservative, a member of the Hungarian Democratic Forum. He was not observed. His flat was never discovered.

 

At its height, how many people were receiving it?

 

At the beginning, it was around 1,500 copies. For the first issue in 1981, there was only a 1,000. The issue about the so-called social contract, which was actually about the future of the regime, was very popular. It was the only issue of Beszelo that had two editions. All together there were about 4,000 copies, and later even more. By 1987-88, it was practically not illegal any more. The last three or four issues were somehow tolerated..

But these numbers do not mean too much. Radio Free Europe gave a quite detailed reading of all issues of the Hungarian samizdat. After I lost my job in 1980, I tried to survive as a freelance journalist, but it didn’t work, so I went to work in a bookshop as a bookseller. The bookstores were not very intellectual. For most people in the store, it didn’t mean much that it sold books and not sausages. As the first issue of Beszelo was announced in Radio Free Europe, along with the names of the editors, including my name and address, my colleagues came to me and asked me if I were the person mentioned as the editor. It turned out that all the people working in the shop were regularly listening to RFE. It was true for the whole population: at least a million people were listening to RFE. So, they knew everything that happened with the democratic opposition.

 

What was the response from the state authorities?

 

The state security organizations had officers who visited the cultural firms. An officer visited the directors of the publishing house every second month. I’m pretty sure that my bosses got information about my connections to the people who later played important roles in the democratic opposition. But I lost my job because I had been participating in this collection of signatures for the Charter 77 petition. I was questioned by state security in 1981, before Beszelo started. Before that, there was the 25th anniversary of the uprising, and this was the first time that the democratic opposition had a commemoration of the uprising in someone’s apartment. They had quite an exact list of names of who was present, quite a lot of people. At that time, 20-30 people were brought in for questioning. But it was not a regular criminal procedure. It was just “talking.”

The first time I was part of a criminal procedure was 1983. At that time there was a search of this house. They took me to the station at night. This questioning lasted until 5 a.m. I was absolutely sure that I would get a two or three year prison sentence. Then at 5 a.m., the officers said, “We’ll bring you down to the gate to let you out and next time you’ll get a summons to appear before the police.” That’s when I realized that they decided not to start a criminal process against those who published uncensored writing. The state security service had the right to give fines or even take people into police custody for a month without a court order. It was obvious that they’d decided to avoid the court in our cases, because they faced international observation. Of course, they might have changed their minds. From 1983, I was pretty sure that I would not have to go to prison for this activity. But in 1986, they confiscated my passport. For five years I was not allowed to leave the country. But two years later, the changes began, so I didn’t have to wait the entire five years.

 

During that period, you were still working at the bookshop?

 

I worked in the bookshop for two years. After that, I received an invitation from Open Society, as many people from the democratic opposition did, and I spent several months in the United States. After I returned, it was already 1986. I was one of the organizers of an international commemoration of 1956, signed by Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and East German opposition people. Still having a passport, I went to Prague in October 1986. After I came home, I was called to the passport division in the ministry of interior, and they confiscated my passport. I believed that it happened because of my activities in the United States. I had some lectures at Columbia about the Hungarian situation, and I published an article in the Wall Street Journal. I was convinced that it was a consequence of this. Many years after the changes, when it was possible to get some secret service papers, it turned out that it was because I helped organize this joint declaration in commemoration of the uprising and also because of my trip to Prague and Warsaw

 

When we talked in 1990, you were working on the issue of police oversight in the parliament.

 

I was on the committee on national security. This was a small committee, just 11 members, with a task to oversee the state security service. They changed its name to the national security service. This was my official task in the parliament. Also, inside the League of Free Democrats, I was responsible for police and similar organizations. This was because I believed that to stand up for human rights, you couldn’t start with defending human rights but with controlling the organizations that are able to violate human rights. Therefore I was much more interested in police and security service than in direct human rights issues. Later, as my main job became the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, we carried on this type of activity, monitoring police, refugee camps, and the places where human rights are most violated.

 

You served one term in parliament?

 

I served two terms between 1990 and 1998. In 1998, I decided not to run again. From 1995, I’d become more active in the Helsinki Committee. For three years, it was not really compatible to be the leader of an NGO and to be a member of parliament, especially of the governing coalition. The other reason was that I didn’t agree with the decision of the Free Democrats to join a coalition with the Socialist Party. After my first term, I was undecided about whether to stay in parliament and serve one more term. But practically, according to the law at the time, I had the right to get a pension after I was 59 years old. So I decided to serve until 1998 in order to get the pension.

But still I tried to use this position to influence the situation a bit. In the opposition there weren’t many possibilities — I was participating in the making of laws that needed a two-thirds majority. At that time, the government didn’t have this majority. With the law on police, for instance, it was possible to reach some compromises. But in the second period, when the Free Democrats were in government, the possibilities became broader. I participated in making the laws on refugee asylum and on the national security services, and I was able to influence a little bit the final wording of the laws.

 

The issue of joining the Socialist Party in coalition, which the Free Democrats did in 1994, is still an issue today. It divided LMP, for instance. Do you think it ever makes any sense to have an alliance with the Socialists to achieve some greater goal?

 

I became more and more convinced over time that it was the worst decision that the Free Democrats ever made. It was absolutely a mistake — not from the point of view of just the party, and the end of the party, but also from the point of view of the country. At that time, I was still the editor of Beszelo, which became a political weekly after the changes in 1990. In February 1994, I did an interview with Viktor Orban. At that time, SzDSz and Fidesz were very close to each other. It wasn’t the first time we did an interview, and the atmosphere was rather friendly. Orban said, “If the liberal Left and the socialist Left come together to make a coalition, then the gap between the Right and the Left will be like a rift between two mountains, and it will take at least 25 years before grass will grow again on the side of this rift.” Of course, the gap was also very useful for Fidesz. The policy of Fidesz was built on this gap. After the coalition happened, Orban did everything to deepen it and say that Fidesz was good and the Socialist-Liberals were evil. After that, he pushed Fidesz in the direction of a more radical right-wing politics.

It’s hard to say whether this would have happened or not without this coalition. But we can say for sure that this became a part of the division of the country. In 1992, there was a general view that Hungarian society was divided into three blocs – an old-fashioned conservative group that believed in a authoritarian state, a socialist bloc that believed in a paternalistic state, and a liberal bloc that believed in individual freedom. The proportion of support for these groups was similar – one-third was conservative, one-third socialist, and one-third liberal. The Free Democrats was twice the second largest party in the country, receiving more than one million votes. There was indeed a strong liberal part of the country. But since 1994, the general conviction became that you had to belong to the Right or the Left, and there was nothing in the middle, which is very bad.

 

And that gulf still exists today.

 

Yes, just recently Janos Kis published an article about this — that there won’t be an end to this cold civil war without a historic compromise between the Left and the Right.

 

Yes, he told me it was a 100-year war between the Right and the Left.

 

Yes, the obvious point is that there’s not a constitutional Right or even a constitutional Left — so I’m not sure who can make this historic compromise. These political forces do not exist.

 

One can make several arguments about why Fidesz has moved from its liberal past and toward its right-wing anti-constitutional position. But do you think there is something within liberal philosophy itself that led to this division in society, particularly in Hungary where there was a relatively small number of dissidents compared to Poland and a historic conflict between the liberal intelligentsia in Budapest and the countryside. Perhaps, given this context, the assertion of a liberal philosophy by an elite necessarily led to a reaction.

 

When I was in the United States in 1985, I met several Hungarian émigrés. The mainstream of the émigré community was radical right wing and even fascist. On the other hand, I met people who were not involved in any political movement. Several Hungarian Jews told me that if the Russians left Hungary, the Hungarian Nazis would return. I was very upset to hear that. I had very sharp debates with people over that. I said that it was not true, that of course there was anti-Semitism in Hungary but there was also a strong desire for democracy. Anti-Semitism was used n the election campaign in 1990, but despite this, the Free Democrats, which was considered a Jewish party, got a million votes. It was absolutely popular, and it was very close to winning the elections. The reason it came in second, not first, was not because many of the leaders were Jewish but simply because the Free Democrats didn’t want to win. Perhaps we were afraid to lead the country, given the Jewish background of some of the party leaders. In Austria, Bruno Kreisky was Jewish and returned to the country as a Social Democrat and he was the most popular chancellor in the history of post-war Austria. But among the Free Democrats, there was an ambivalent approach from the very beginning.

Nowadays, anti-Semitism has become really an important issue and social feeling. I don’t know if this was unavoidable. But many people said that the coalition between the Free Democrats and the Socialists was in the interest of the former Communists and the Jews. The Jews, they said, wanted to maintain the positions they had before the changes, and liberalism was their tool to keep their position. It’s not true, but it was a rather effective lie.

The other thing — and this was historically true as well – was this feeling of superiority. The population of the capital city felt superior to the people in the provinces. This sentiment was most obvious when they city people tried to be understanding toward others. This is the worst: when people try to “understand” the problems of others.

 

Yes, it’s patronizing.

 

Janos Kis is right. This has a long tradition. At the end of the 19th century, there was a quite glorious period of economic development here. Budapest became a world city, not just a center of urban development but also the center of the millennium festivities. It was really a pompous city! And there wasn’t just economic development but also a very strong cultural development. At the very beginning of the 20th century, there was a fantastic literary life: periodicals, the new literature, poets and writers, theater. Mahler was the head of the Budapest opera. It was a city of European and world rank.

At the same time, though a bit earlier, there was a trial against Jews, on the basis of a blood libel, that was really a world event. It was perhaps the only such trial where the suspects were part of a modern criminal procedure — not simply a medieval or Russian-style pogrom or persecution. It was a long, open trial with dozens of witnesses. In the end, the suspects were acquitted. But still, even now, an MP in parliament has said that the accused Jews were guilty and they really killed this 14-year-old girl who disappeared.

The central figure in this procedure was the officer of the local gendarmerie who illegally arrested the son of the sexton of the synagogue, who was accused of cutting the girl’s neck. He detained the 15-year-old boy and somehow persuaded him to say before the court that he saw his father kill the girl, and he was the main witness. So, in Budapest, Mahler is directing the opera house, but in Tiszaeszlár in northeast Hungary, this gendarmerie officer is the real dominant power. This kind of gap has a really long tradition, and this provincial Hungary has only become stronger in the last 20 years.

 

I want to ask you about the declassification of files. Some people here say that there is no clear line between the past and today — no lustration law as in the Czech Republic, no complete declassification of files as in East Germany.

 

First of all, concerning the declassification of the files, I’m convinced that it was a mistake. It happened so slowly and didn’t happen fully. It became a means to accuse people of being agents who were not agents, and these accusations slowly acquired moral weight. Actually, nobody was in favor of full declassification at the beginning. The first law, which was suggested by the Free Democrats, was a lustration law, and it was just to open the files of people who applied for elected position or belonged to the highest government positions. This law had nothing to do with the declassification of the files. The declassification came from the Constitutional court. It was the idea of Laszlo Solyom, who brought the idea in 1994 from Germany.

Secondly, in Hungary it was not possible to make this clear line between the past and the present. You can’t say that until 1989 or 1990, there was no democracy and after that it became a democracy. You can say that, but it’s not so simple. The Poles say it’s “my i oni,” or “us and them.” In Hungary that was not the case. Imagine the population standing in a long line. At one end was Janos Kadar and at the other end were the few radical opposition people. In between there were many different positions.

When I began my connection with this Lukacs kindergarten, a colleague of mine at the publishing house told me that it wasn’t good that I joined this group because “those are the people who oppose everything.”

I responded, “But it’s so terrible that everyone agrees with everything the government says!”

He said, “No, it’s not true, nobody agrees with what the government says!”

There was a general feeling that we didn’t like this regime but to manifestly resist it was a stupid thing. It was not in our power to change it, so why disturb our life for nothing? This was a general feeling — we do what we have to do, but at the same time we try to do the best in the field in which we are working. A publishing house was actually for censoring publications, but the people working there didn’t feel like censors. They considered themselves literary critics and their real job was literary criticism. They decided if a book was good for the readers as a work of literature, and their job was to correct bad sentences. As a matter of fact, real censorship was very rare because most writers didn’t write things that couldn’t be published. Interestingly, when censorships happened, it was done against Communist writers!

Gyorgy Aczel, who was the second leader after Kadar and was responsible for cultural policy, gave a book-long interview with a French Communist journalist in which he said that the job of the Hungarian Socialist Party was to be its own opposition. They were convinced that they were not simply the ruling class, but also the opposition to their own rule. This, of course, was ridiculous. But there were a lot of economists who were strongly critical of the socialist economic conception. As a matter of fact, the Marxist economic foundation of the entire Soviet type regime was destroyed by many published works of official Hungarian economists — as well as Polish and Russian economists. The economic foundations of the regime were fully destroyed before the regime collapsed. And this wasn’t simply theoretical. The half-market economy here in Hungary was a compromise with the ideology. So, it’s very hard to say that there was one side and another side here in Hungary.

Even in Czechoslovakia when they tried to block anyone in a party position after 1948 and before 1990 from holding political positions, it turned out that many Charter 77 people had been in political positions in the 1950s. So what do you do with people who had been in prison after 1968? I met right-wing Czechs who said, “Never mind, they were a type of Communist and they committed various crimes against the country and it’s better if they are lustrated.” But they were the people who did the most against the regime! And in Hungary, it was the same. The right wing says that they were the real resistance. But, understandably, there was no right wing resistance. “We had to hide,” they said, “because we were really persecuted.” Some of them hid their convictions so successfully that they made a Party career! Therefore, this type of lustration doesn’t work.

It was a decisive step by Prime Minister Gyurcsany to recognize the reform Communism movement of Imre Nagy and reject the tradition of the Kadar regime. But he said that in 2006, which was 16 years after the changes. Before that, the Socialist Party absolutely rejected that position. I was in parliament in 1995 when the Socialist Party wanted to pass a law about the commemoration of Imre Nagy. The Free Democrats opposed it, saying that making statements about history was not the job of lawmakers.

I had a suggestion. “If you want to have this law,” I said to the Socialist Party, “I would suggest a second paragraph: ‘and we reject the tradition of Kadarism.’” They were absolutely upset and opposed the amendment. They passed no law. Gyurcsany’s decision to leave the Socialist Party and set up his own party was partly based on this disagreement. The Socialist Party wanted to carry on the heritage of Imre Nagy but without losing the heritage of Janos Kadar.

There is still a strong belief that the Socialist Party started the changes in Hungary. I was in Germany in 2009 for a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Munich, one of the editors of the Suddeutsche Zeitung said that Hungary is an especially interesting country because the Communist Party was a leader of the changes. I said, “This is not true!” But they were convinced. I said I’d like to write an article for your paper about this. The editor said, “Well, we’ll see.” But they never answered.

Tom Lantos was several times in Budapest. He was here once in 1989 as the Free Democrats initiated a referendum to elect the head of state after the parliamentary elections. Imre Pozsgay was at the time the most popular Communist leader, and many people wanted him to be president of the republic. The Free Democrats opposed that. It was a very risky question. In the end, there was a slight majority to reject his presidency. Lantos visited the leadership of the Free Democrats, and he said, “How is it possible that you liberals here organized a referendum against Mr. Pozsgay, who is the Hungarian Gorbachev?!” Lantos was a like a headmaster coming to chastise us kids for rebelling against such a great government.

 

Budapest, May 15, 2013

 

 

Interview (1990)

 

As a parliament member of the Alliance of Free Democrats and an editor of Beszelo, the major samizdat publication of the democratic opposition in the 1980s, Ferenc Koszeg has been a key figure in the political transformations in Hungary. Presently, he is working on the parliamentary commission on police issues.

 

Could you describe your recent work and the work you do on the magazine as well?

 

This magazine is called Beszelo, which means “speaker.” It has a double meaning: time that prisoners have to meet. It is not a new magazine. It was founded in 1981 as a so-called samizdat journal and at that time it was quarterly. This was the most respected publication of the democratic opposition, which was at that time illegal. The Alliance of Free Democrats was founded by people who belonged to the democratic opposition and, in part, people who were on the editorial board. So, people say that this is the organ of the Free Democrats, but you could say that the Free Democrats are the party of Beszelo! And last year it became senseless to publish samizdat. The press became free and there was no direct censorship. You did not need a license for publishing. So we decided to change to a weekly, and it took time to get the capital, but it happened. Beginning this year, we began publishing a weekly. At the same time, I became a member of the political committee of the Free Democrats. And I became a candidate and now I am in parliament.

In parliament, I sit with the MPs of the Alliance. I say something if I have something to say. I push a button like other MPs. Just recently we divided up activities and I got police issues.

 

Security issues too?

 

Security issues are divided as well into the secret services and the normal criminal police.

 

Was that your choice?

 

As a matter of fact, I wanted to deal with the police dimension from the point of view of the limitation of political rights. Before going to parliament, as a member of Beszelo, I collected some data on the issue and I wrote several articles.

 

What are the main problems in reforming the police?

 

The police were educated that the most important thing was to control and repress the political opposition. So, one thing is education. Under the new government, the police must be gotten under control much more. Before, people could be beaten up by the police just for walking along the street. In criminal cases, people were beaten up in the jail. I couldn’t say that people were tortured, but there were methods which would not be legitimate in the West. The police did not make clear the rights of the accused and so on. The whole criminal procedure was changed, but the police does not want to accept it. Partly they don’t apply the changes properly. They say that they are not able to enforce the law because they are too much controlled. And there is a consequent police behavior, at least according to my impression, well, I wouldn’t say sabotage but at least a kind of “not doing” against criminality. Just because they would like to show the consequences of democracy. They always complain that the methods are too democratic and that the financial resources for the police are too small. They claim that if they had more money they could do their jobs better.

 

Has the amount of money allocated to the police declined recently?

 

No, not at all. Certainly, it is not very high but it is not less than the salaries for other jobs at the same level of education. The difference may be that the salaries did not rise as other jobs because earlier they were in a privileged situation and now they are not. There was also the emergency police which was founded mainly to deal with political demonstrations and these had a very strong Communist education. The same people are still there. AS far as I know, the ministry wants to raise the number of these emergency police – at the same time as they complain that the regular police are not doing their jobs.

 

What justifications does the ministry give? There are no more political demonstrations!

 

Exactly. They are afraid of unemployment ad the consequences of the decline in the standard of living. I don’t think that they are prepared to avoid the decline. I don’t say that there won’t be unemployed – we cannot avoid it. But still I don’t think that increasing the number of the emergency police will fill an important need.

 

Do you believe that the government is really concerned about unemployed policemen? In Poland, the government is worried about strikes, and one of the purposes of the emergency police or the Polish equivalent is to deal with these potential strikes.

 

The same motivation is here.

 

What about the spirit of revenge? Do people want to hold representatives of the police responsible for what has happened over the last 45 years?

 

Interestingly, not against the police or the emergency police. Average people didn’t meet the police very much. Mostly the police acted aggressively toward younger people. There was an acceptance of the police, even police violence, because many people said it was good against criminals. And against the Gypsies and other minorities and the poor. There was no division between the political and the non-political police. So these feelings are not directed against the police, the uniformed political police – the state security police was quite invisible for most people. They knew that they existed and some people were reported, some harassed because of their political activities. But they knew that there limits and the limits were more or less acceptable. Hungary was called the most joyful barrack in the socialist camp. Which made the regime accepted until the last years.

What people hated much more were the bosses: the managers were not managers but people appointed by the Party. They became now new capitalists who earn quite a lot at a time when people’s lives are harder and harder. These feelings were also supported by populist agitation of some groups inside the governing party. They used these feelings quite well against the other parties; they used it in their propaganda during the elections. The Alliance talked about changes in the system; the current governing party emphasized more changing the people. Their propaganda was quite effective. Everyone had some boss that they wanted to get rid of. As a matter of fact, almost everybody was part of the Communist cadre; practically it was impossible to make a career in economic life without membership in the Party.

It happened just recently that they fired the boss of a major record enterprise. It was an internationally respected firm. The director was loved by some, hated by others. He was loved by a minority of musicians for whom he arranged foreign contracts and hated by others whose records were not successful. He was fired from one hour to the next. The old regime was a bit more cautious.

 

In most countries in this region, the crime rates have increased, especially crimes against property. Has this happened here too?

 

Very much. Mainly as a consequence of the declining standard of living. A big part of the crimes against property are simply crimes of hunger. The police practically don’t do anything about it. They don’t take fingerprints after a robbery, for instance. Another reason for the increase in crime is the much higher level of tourism. 15 million tourists came to Hungary last year, one and a half times the size of the Hungarian population.

 

Are you happy about the transition of the Alliance of Free Democrats from a movement into a party?

 

To be in a political movement, to be in a small oppressed opposition was more pleasant than this being in politics. Human relations were closer, more relaxed. But being in politics is important, even if we are in the opposition. We have a good chance of influencing politics.

 

Are you happy to be in the opposition once again?

 

Yes, it certainly is much easier than being in government. But I must say that sometimes the government does its job so badly that it’s dangerous. And this is bad even for the opposition. People are not accustomed to a multi-party system. They watch TV and see what is happening in Parliament and they don’t make differentiations between the governing party and the opposition party. They think that we are all at the top, at the peak, and that we all rule the country.

This morning, I was in the bathroom in Parliament and I heard two people working. One of them was singing movie hits and then suddenly he began singing Warszawianka, an old Communist song. And the second one wanted to know why he was singing the song. So the first worker replied that “it was better than the songs that the new parties sing. I hate them so much. They are worse than even the Communists. Because at least the Communists understood their jobs. And the new MPs speak in so many different ways and they make idiots of each other.” He spoke as though all people in the parties were all one.

 

What is the status of the press today in Hungary from the point of view of the law and foreign investment?

 

There is a press code and there have been some modifications. So that means that nobody needs any permission to start a paper. It’s also true that papers don’t have owners because they were formerly owned by the state and by organizations such as the Communist party, the Communist trade. The Party was the directing organization of the press. These owners disappeared and the editors tried to find new owners. Therefore they were happy to meet investors like Maxwell. And Springer was able to come in and get seven regional papers without any investment! You can’t mix up Maxwell and Murdoch with Springer. Maxwell and Murdoch paid something for their shares – perhaps not very much – but something. Springer didn’t pay anything. They simply walked into the editorial offices and said, “Look, there will be new elections next week and you may lose your jobs because of them. Sign a contract and I’ll keep you.” Seven of 19 county papers signed. Now, some in the governing coalition, especially the extremist groups, criticize very strongly Maxwell and Murdoch, more than Springer, interestingly enough. I think it is because Springer is close to the CDU. These papers are quite profitable and could be run by the editors themselves.

I think a press law should make some guarantees against monopolies to ensure competition. And most important, to ensure that the foreign investors do not get involved in the politics of the papers. They should concentrate on profits. I know it is very complicated to differentiate between profits and politics. You will not make large profits if you support an unpopular political line.

Within the government there is a demand to get control of the papers. They fear that the press is too critical of the government decisions. On Wednesday, there was a debate in parliament about the press, and a government MP said that he went home to watch the parliamentary debate on TV and his impression was much worse than his impression during the debate itself. He wasn’t able to accept that it wasn’t the fault of the TV! Certainly journalists like to criticize and like to be independent. The papers criticize both sides but of course the government gets more criticism partly because they are the government and they do more and partly because, I am convinced, they do worse than we would do.


4 Comments

  1. Bruce E. Woych

    “This was because I believed that to stand up for human rights, you couldn’t start with defending human rights but with controlling the organizations that are able to violate human rights.”

    As true today as it was then.

    Today, perhaps, more difficult to recognize, identify, acknowledge or distinguish the use and abuse of institutionalized authority as captured by privatized political interests. Between Corporate veils & appeals to National Security, neither Constitution or Human Rights are unconditionally idealized or strictly defended.

    It is ironic in that regard that we might observe that the freedoms gained in the East are inversely proportioned to those lossed in the West; as a consolidation of a murky center that has settled in that “rift between two mountains.” A Political fog enhanced by uncertain terms of legitimation, the usurping of membership representation, and the ambiguity of the general claim to democratic authenticity between the reactionary radicals and the radical reactionaries that dominate the narratives of political discourse.

  2. George Pór

    Great interview. Feri quoting Orban’s “rift between two mountains” reminded me of an interesting paper of the Institute for Cultural Evolution on Depolarizing the American Mind http://www.culturalevolution.org/docs/ICE-Depolarizing-American-Mind.pdf .

    • Thanks, George, for the link — yes, there are definitely similarities between the polarization of opinion in the US and Hungary…

      • George Pór

        > there are definitely similarities between the polarization of opinion in the US and Hungary…

        Yes, and depolarization is unlikely to happen at the same level of consciousness that created the polarization. I think it would take the kind of integral approach that the American authors argue for.

        Last month when I was in Budapest to give a presentation at the Integral European Conference, I hoped to find and connect with integrally informed political players, with no success.

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