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Mata Hari In Budapest

by DoDo Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 07:16:43 AM EST

If you expected a story on Budapest's sex industry, sorry... this is about a political scandal.

In my introducion to Hungarian politics (and later in my campaign coverage), I mentioned that presently there is a scandal overdrive here - meaning that the nominally leftist-liberal governing coalition and the populist right-wing opposition engage in rapid-fire accusations against the other side, accusations often with not much basis in reality.

The most lurid and least clear one concerns an alleged couple of spies for Romania. The little in the story that is certain: There was a pair of ethnic-Hungarians from Romania who moved to Budapest - the husband worked as the representative of the ethnic Hungarian party in Romania (RMDSz/UDMR), the wife worked at the cultural and education ministries in the sections responsible for relationships with the ethnic Hungarian minorities beyond Hungary's borders -; and the NBH (Hungarian FBI) put them under observation on suspicion of spying for Romania1.


The opposition's version:
The husband damaged relationships where he could, using his easy access to gullible government politicians to get confidential stuff. The wife seduced both the cultural and education ministers, and not just gained information but ruined beyond-borders Hungarian education programmes. To avoid scandal, the NBH just 'chased' the couple from Hungary.

The government's version (in the recently released report of the secret services minister):
The wife did nothing of significance, while the husband's role was to sow division between the Hungarian government and the RMDSz and try to topple the government with scandals, which he did in part by getting access to confidential data from his government contacts, in part by closely cooperating with the Hungarian right-wing opposition (leaking to them, helping them in the double citizenship referendum mess and amplifying intra-Hungarian animosities thereafter), and by trying to taint top government figures in his own scandal once it got out.

Where is the truth? You wouldn't believe...
I don't have the foggiest idea what's the truth. Both versions sound crazy and improbable, don't they? Especially with further details:

The first reports with the opposition's version appeared in the Romanian-Romanian press - why would someone in the NBH leak there? The wife passed a top-level screening before changing ministries - why did the NBH not protest then? And how come the 'chased-away' couple was found by the press still in Hungary, declaring innocence?

As for the government's version: why would the husband need his contacts to get access to classified data, given that his wife had a login? Who will further his work as a spy after exposure by smearing his own wife? Why would opposition politicians go into such a gamble, which will obviously explode in their face soon?

...yet it's true:
While some claims are rather baseless (for example, the seduction part is a waaay-over-interpretation of the chatty tone and a few words in a telephone call), the thing is that apparently, each of the above doubts happens to be opposed to some extent by hard evidence.

The tapes the Romanian papers mentioned exist - the couple, and Hungarian government officials in contact with them, were really observed by NBH, and that despite the wife's previous screening. The NBH truly intended to force the couple outside, and it may have at least been behind their job change.

As for the other version: the NBH does have evidence that the husband got someone's login to the classified database and used it, though no proof that he actually downloaded anything damaging. But the most improbable of them all: there exists a taped telephone call between the alleged spy and the speaker of the main opposition party - and on it, they discuss how ministers could be tainted in the scandal!

Central-Eastern people in politics are truly idiots, aren't they?... (Some earlier idiocy detailed in this diary on Bush and Hungary.)

BTW, the opposition sued the government for libel, claiming the secret services minister's report differs strongly from the NBH's (classified) report it is based on, while NBH leaders deny any significant changes - then again, we should know ever since then MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove's appearance at the Hutton Inquiry that such claims can't be trusted.

  1. A little historical background here: Transsylvania was part of Hungary, but given to Romania after WWI, with a sizable Hungarian minority. Fears of separatism on one side, fears of assimilation on the other ensured constant nationalist conflict since (between Romania and both the Hungarian minority and the governments of Hungary, see latest flare-up in adhoc's diary), complicated by Hungarian - Romanian-Hungarian issues (I wrote of the last big mess, the failed referendum on double citizenship in Hungary).

    The reciprocally silly attitude of nationalist politicians is best showcased with the following anecdote: during the first elected, right-wing government's tenure in Hungary, an liberal opposition leader (later turncoat right-wing PM Viktor Orbán, but this is another story) accused the government of lying. In reply, a right-wing MP declared that "it does not behove to talk like this in Parliament, you talk like this in Bucharest!"

Display:
After launching his campaign by announcing the intent to eradicate poverty (and budget deficits at the same time), PM Gyurcsány now declared that he wants to "promote both the poor and the elite".

If that sounds crazy to you, you are not alone.

Meanwhile, in the newest polls, the prior trend turned around: the governing MSzP again fell behind the opposition Fidesz.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 07:41:14 AM EST
It's very bizarre.  I'll do some more digging at my end.  She was well knwon around here as she basically had her hands on the purse strings of Hungarian money for minority cultural and educational projects.

Musings on life in Romania and beyond
by adhoc on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 09:30:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Could you also tell something about the Romanian-language paper "Cotidianul"?

That's the paper that first wrote about the scandal. I found a cryptic line in an article that "it is considered Fidesz's voice in Romania", which is rather strange - could it be a paper of the Hungarian minority written in Romanian?

Also, what can you tell me about Szatmári Ildikó's effect in Transsylvania? I do not trust right-wing papers' claims (especially since they bought into some forgeries in previous scandals), while the nominally left-wing press (which I don't trust that much either) and the only paper that I would term neutral (HVG) didn't research that angle much.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 10:38:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I forgot: I found out that much about Cotidianul that that paper published the "Béla Markó was a Securitate agent" claims.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 11:37:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Can you please post some links to Hungarian or Romanian sources? Thanks!

p.s. I dropped Rejto/P.Howard's name accidentally on purpose. He'd be worth at least one diary...

A dog's a dog. A Cat's a Cat. (T.S. Eliot)

by BFA (agnes at ims dot uni-stuttgart dot de) on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 10:26:46 AM EST
Yeah, the Hungarian author of whom it is said that he could have been the only one with a lasting global popularity and recurring Hollywood adaptations, had he been translated...

But I'm not sure I have the literary talent to write a diary about him myself - only the short summary below. Maybe you could do it?

Jenő Rejtő was a poor man who got around to a lot of places (lot of shitty places), most notably he served in the French Légion Etrangère in Northern Africa. When he returned to Hungary in the interwar period, he started to hang out at the popular cafés in Budapest, and begun to earn (not much) money by writing pulp fiction under the pseudonym "P Howard". The stories were based on his experiences, they are extremely funny stories mostly in an underworld setting (I mean among criminals) and mostly playing in Africa. He was extremely popular at the time (and ever since), but that didn't save him from becoming a victim of the Holocaust - he was Jewish.

...as for your request for articles, I suggest you start backwards from the last Index article on the issue, there are always links at the end of the article to the two-three previous ones. They give sources, so you can search for the originals in Cotidianul, Transindex, Magyar Nemzet, Népszava and so on.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 10:53:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I could do a weekend blogging about Rejto. The Invisible Legion looks like a good candidate: playing at soldiers for oil, marching into the desert with incomplete or comically inadequate equipment (but a jeep-ful of whisky!) due to rampant  cronyism & corruption... But Rejto at least had Pipi the Berber Lion and Herr Strudl with his Dirndl.

Thanks for the index link. I found some stuff on Cotidianul in the meantime, and I've had two gut reactions to what you wrote and to what I've learned:  the first reaction was, why the hell was this couple put under surveillance, in the first place, when the wife had high level clearance? Was it because they were immigrants, i.e. was it for the same reason why prominent representatives of German, Slovak etc minorities in Hungary had been placed under surveillance some years ago, allegedly for their own good? (This was reinforced as the Cotidianul claimed that the Hungarian paper claimed that the couple had been deported: the thing is, acc. to another source the wife was a Hungarian citizen, so I don't see how she could have been expulsed in the first place.)

The second reaction was that I found the gov-t's explanation a lot more credible viz the husband (who btw was a more recent immigrant) was in Hungary to stir trouble. My impression is that Fidesz has been extremely and dangerously popular among (ethnic) Hungarians in Romania etc. In Romania Fidesz' influence has lead to the formation of right-leaning political formations among Hungarians, and to open rebellion against THE mainstream (moderate) political party of Hungarians in R., the RMDSZ. I can very well imagine a scenario where Mr Szatmari has been a Fidesz-sympathiser whose task would have been to (i) act as a Fidesz mole and (ii) sow dissension between the current Hungarian gov-t and Hungarian political formations outside Hungary.

I think what would be worth a whole series of diaries is the issue of minority politics in C/E Europe in general, and, in particular, the extremely dangerous and irresponsible way in which Fidesz of Hungary has been trying to turn some of these groups into its vassals... It is as if say, Germany would try to exert DIRECT influence on  certain aspects of Romanian politics by "buying into" the political party of ethnic Germans in Romania.

A dog's a dog. A Cat's a Cat. (T.S. Eliot)

by BFA (agnes at ims dot uni-stuttgart dot de) on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 12:41:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, God. It's as if they had learnt nothing from the disintegration of Austria-Hungary.

Then again, Central-Eastern Europe was progressing ok until all went pear-shaped in the 1930's and then they ended up preserved in Communist formol for 45 years.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 12:44:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If it's made of pears (William's pears, preferably), as you describe,  then it's a fantastic beverage!

I have a different take on C/E history: the dismemberment of the H. empire yielded a host of mini-states that were virulently nationalistic in ideology (possible exc.: Czechoslovakia) but in reality inherited the ethnic & cultural heterogeneity of the old, i.e. precisely what they had been fighting against. This holds e.g. for Romania and Yugoslavia.

Hungary (the new, incredibly shrunk Hungary) was more homogeneous, but its population was in shock, b/c of the tremendous territorial  (and cultural) loss after the Versailles/Trianon treaty.

So there several repressive states in the region(more repressive than the H. E. had been) before WWII, and the economic integration of the Empire had also been lost. For Hungary & Romania at least it was a guarantee for a nasty homegrown version of authoritarianism.

I warmly recommend a history of the Romanian Iron Guard by Irina Livezeanu, a Pittsburgh history professor. She traces back the emergence of this homespun fascist movement to the Versailles treaty. More precisely: to the state that Romania was in at the time of the treaty and to the particular way in which it reacted to territorial expansion. The thing is, R. was a relatively poor country with a not-too-numerous intelligentsia when it got expanded with Transylvania and other territories, which were all relatively better developed than the recipient country AND had a multinational (Hungarian, Jewish, German, ...) intelligentsia. So, paradoxically, what should have been the Holy Grail of National Unity for Romania
(Transylvania had a substantial Romanian population!) was getting saddled with a wave of snotty for'ners. (I REALLY recommend reading Livezeanu's work to see what happened next. Her main books should be available at e.g. Amazon.)

A dog's a dog. A Cat's a Cat. (T.S. Eliot)

by BFA (agnes at ims dot uni-stuttgart dot de) on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 01:29:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm happy that the impression you got is close to mine! (Tough I remain more sceptical of the government's version too.)

I have one quibble: it may well be that Tibor Szatmári was a shill for Fidesz, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was a Romanian spy - but that's what would have made him a national security danger to be pushed from his job. It's all messy. And if the NBH acted on its own, why did it leak?

BTW, can you tell me something about the background of Cotidianul - political direction, owners, such stuff?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 02:37:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Here's what I learned from their website today (has to do for the time being, I'm afraid, as my links back home (=Kvar) are not too active).

The URL is http://www.cotidianul.ro Physically, they're in Bucharest. They are published by Poligraph Ltd, a consortium of Regent House Printing and Publishing and Academia Catavencu. The main shareholder of Regent House is the Ratiu family --- could be the same Ratiu who got rich in the West and returned to Romania after 1989 to be one of the re-founders of the National Peasant Party. (I think he is dead by now.)

Academia Catavencu is the foundation/think tank that publishes Catavencu, one of the leading satirical publications of Romania. (Used to be even more powerful when poet/dissident Mircea Dinescu was with them.) I recall (when I went home more often) that they used to be heavily involved with the Soros foundation (but this was around 1995), both as recipients of S. funds and as co-"conspirators".

Think of them as a politically more involved and outspoken Daily Show team, who preached and practised as well. (Even more involved and with considerably more spine than the Hocipo team in Hungary.) But, as I say, these are old memories, I don't know what they look like now. And I don't know if Cotidianul as a daily shares the same spirit.

Do you read http://www.transindex.ro ? It has a daily roundup of the Hungarian press in R. What do you think of Provincia?

The Szatmaris:

>>I have one quibble: it may well be that Tibor Szatmári was a shill for Fidesz, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was a Romanian spy - but that's what would have made him a national security danger to be pushed from his job. It's all messy.<<

If you don't mind my Transylvanian paranoia: (i) typical Budapest mud-slinging and backstabbing, and (ii) what do you taint a Transylvanian with? With being on the "olah" payroll. I mean it is a scenario that conforms to certain Hungarian Hungarians' stereotypes about Transylvanians. Transylvanian hypersensitivity aside, it does look as if T.Sz. had not been completely innocent, but, well.

>>And if the NBH acted on its own, why did it leak?<<
Send a message to Fidesz shills?

Here is the "kolofon" of Cotidianul (German "Impressum", I don't know the English term ):

[[COTIDIANUL este editat de catre Poligraf SRL, care are urmatorii actionari:

SC Catavencu SA (50%) - detine actiunea de control
Regent House Printing & Publishing (RH P&P) SRL 50%

Academia Catavencu
IQ Editex SRL 49,993% (Doru Buscu, Eugen Istodor, Liviu Mihaiu, Sorin Vulpe, Cornel Ivanciuc, Octavian Mardale, Ioan Morar, Viorel Motoc, Mircea Toma)
Fundatia Anonimul 49,993%
Stefan Iordachescu 0,005951%
Camelia Celesta Donen 0,005951%
Camelia Suciu 0,005951%

Regent House Printing & Publishing (RH P&P) SRL
Familia Ratiu 80% Calin Husar 20%]]

A dog's a dog. A Cat's a Cat. (T.S. Eliot)

by BFA (agnes at ims dot uni-stuttgart dot de) on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 03:21:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
>>And if the NBH acted on its own, why did it leak?<<
Send a message to Fidesz shills?

By leaking the part that hurts the government and helps Fidesz and the supposed Romanian policy of dividing the government and RMDSz? Don't get me wrong, I even suspect your 'paranoia' should rather be called "realism", but the jigshaw puzzle still doesn't fit together for me.

On the other hand, I just remembered, it is said this affair has been known to members of the parliamentary committee since spring this year. So it wasn't necessarily a leak from the NBH, the leak could have been a Fidesz operation altogether.

Thanks for the background info on Cotidianul! In this light, that line about being the voice of Fidesz in Romania sounds even stranger, unless it only means that Cotidianul accepts leaks from Fidesz sources. (Also thanks for recommending those two Transsylvanian sites - I have only visited transindex before.)

From what I read, Cotidianul's Securitate accusations against Markó weren't sound - so this may imply their level has declined since you knew them. (Can happen - in my personal opinion, what used to be the best paper in your present country of living and perhaps the world, DER SPIEGEL, declined greatly in quality after Augstein's death.) As for Hócipő, I agree they have become rather crappy (like, IMO, basically all left-liberal Hungarian papers) - however, lately they did some investigative reporting, contributing to the exposure of Viktor Orbán's little tricks and little lies in his appartment changes.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 05:26:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I shall recommend it to by brother (tho' he may already know it)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 05:34:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Amúgy nem vicces hogy egy francia által az Egyesült Államokban telepített portálon két némileg elnémetesedett magyar angolul beszélget magyar ügyekről?...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 05:50:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've just finished a dazzlingly witty reply to your comments in another browser window, and simply cannot post it. Let's see if I can post THIS!

A dog's a dog. A Cat's a Cat. (T.S. Eliot)
by BFA (agnes at ims dot uni-stuttgart dot de) on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 06:18:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
[This is the comment that could not be posted from another browser window. Let's see if it goes through NOW.]

I'll have to read up on the whole affair to have more paranoid hypotheses about who leaked what and to whom and why, and that if X leaked Y about Z in the daily Alpha then in fact Z did W with U, against V.

Pedantry: I used to know Academia Catavencu, the satirical weekly of this group. I knew they've branched out (e.g. they collectively owned a racehorce at one point), but I had no idea they had the daily Cotidianul until today. Or that Cotidianul even existed.

The AC gang used to be very progressive, they even joked openly about being on Soros' payroll and being the Bozgors' shills. But it doesn't follow that the  daily they happen to publish should be just as  open-minded, cosmopolitan and so on. (And the funny thing is, the people who WRITE the weekly A.C. are in fact shareholders and co-owners of Cotidianul. Aside: it's at times like this that I realise what a long way we've come since 1989...)

Although, it may still be the daily that's most open & even-handed with Budapest. (The only article I checked was a surprisingly sane and rational editorial from today about the "minority law" that adhoc wrote about here.)

>>Amúgy nem vicces hogy egy francia által az Egyesült Államokban telepített portálon két némileg elnémetesedett magyar angolul beszélget magyar ügyekről?...<< Ugy ingesamt igen, de a mai napig fogalmam nem volt, hogy magyar vagy. Eppugy lehetnel Bp-n megtelepedett amerikai, nemet, vagy mas kapitalista.

A dog's a dog. A Cat's a Cat. (T.S. Eliot)

by BFA (agnes at ims dot uni-stuttgart dot de) on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 06:19:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
While this incident is like a soap opera, there have been darker episodes.

Before both the 1994 and 1998 elections in Hungary, there has been a short series of bomb attacks - in 1994, in front of national buildings, in 1998, in front of then opposition right-wing leaders' homes or offices -, which didn't hurt anyone, and weren't solved to this day. (The second probably changed the outcome of the elections, just tipping over public opinion.)

IIRC according to newspapers in Slovakia, these bombings were linked to the secret service under the control of Vladimír Mečiar, then PM of Slovakia. Mečiar was an autocratic populist, with a communist past, and a demagoguery mixing chauvinism (big Hungarian and Gypsy minorities there too) and socialism. He was also thoroughly corrupt and a reckless lawbreaker, with ties to organized crime.

The worst he did (unpunished) was not these bombings. It happened that the guy he made President (a largely ceremonial position, but also some vetoes), Michal Kováč, rebelled against him, and there was open war between them.

To make Kováč 'tainted' in public view, in August 1995, he let his secret service kidnap the President's son, force him to take drugs, and then dump him somewhere near the police somewhere in neighbouring Austria so that he is arrested - and kept, for  he was at the time sought for illegal financial dealings. And so they did, but the plan didn't exactly work out: the kidnappers were also stopped by the police, and Kováč's son was cleared of the charges.

And now comes the unfunny part. Investigation into this affair never got to the end: as if Bratislava were Palermo, invetigating judges and chief witnesses were blown up in car bombs. Not even after Mečiar was ousted

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 11:16:56 AM EST
You've got to be kidding. I though those things only happened in Russia.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 11:18:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Some names you may Google for sources in languages you can read in: the secret service was called SIS, led by Mečiar's right-hand man Ivan Lexa (he sat in prison for some time for lesser crimes during his tenure), the car-bombed witness for the kidnapping was called Róbert Remiaš; I didn't found the investigating judges (maybe I mis-remember and they were only removed from their posts, not killed). The 1998 Slovakian secret service operation against neighbouring countries (which officially remained a plan, but according to newspapers was carried out) was code-named Omega.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 11:50:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hey could you name this husband and wife team?  I'd love to trackback and see what the Rom papers said. Mersi!

Pax

Night and day you can find me Flogging the Simian

by soj on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 02:08:13 PM EST
I named Szatmári Ildikó (the wife) in reply to adhoc, the husband is Szatmári Tibor.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Nov 16th, 2005 at 02:31:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks! Sorry i didn't pick that up from the main article.

Pax

Night and day you can find me Flogging the Simian

by soj on Thu Nov 17th, 2005 at 03:11:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW here is a link from Curierul National which says they were arrested for espionage.  Looks like a bit of nasty infighting amongst the Hungarians.

Pax

Night and day you can find me Flogging the Simian

by soj on Thu Nov 17th, 2005 at 03:15:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Arrested for espionage!... So it's not just Hungarian and American papers that make up a story on the fly.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Nov 17th, 2005 at 08:50:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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