“This is a country in a very dark place, without big common positive experiences and successes.” – Ferenc Gyurcsány
Interview with Ferenc Gyurcsány appearing in the September 15th edition of hvg.
HVG: Ten years after the events, are you curious how the speech was leaked?
Ferenc Gyurcsány: “Practically, no. Naturally I wouldn’t mind if it would come out sometime what happened.”
A lot of people said later, of course not exactly in these terms, that if you had said this in a televised public event in Parliament, it would have caused a much smaller scandal.
“Yes, a lot of people say that and maybe they are right. But back then I said these kinds of things, only of course not like this, and no one really paid much attention. Let’s admit it: There are two exciting parts of the Őszöd speech. You could say that it leaked because it was a secret speech. This of course is not true because it was never secret, but it’s a fact that it “leaked.” The second is that there are three or four quite rough remarks, along with the cursing, which really put a very powerful weapon into the hands of my opposition, and these figures of speech would hardly be defensible in a public forum. Meanwhile, in the content of the speech, it is one of the best speeches since the system change. And it had a different function than a public speech. The Őszöd speech was like this because a party that was reluctant to act had to be shaken up. That is why I chose such an impassioned, exaggerated speech for this situation. If people have to be confronted in a public situation, then of course I formulate my words differently, because again the function is different. That’s why the Őszöd speech couldn’t be given in public, because you can’t curse in public. The speech stands on its own two feet without the cursing. A parliamentary speech is different than a speech intended to shake up my own party in private.”
According to some, Fidesz already came out with the “they lied to us back and forth” rhetoric in the summer of 2006, and they built a campaign on this, which suggests that Orbán and his people knew about the speech well in advance of it going public.
“We are almost certain of this, and we essentially know that Viktor Orbán as president of Fidesz was informed very early of the speech, and knew exactly when and how it was going to be leaked. We also know that Fidesz played a substantial role in the preparations of the riots after the speech leaked.”
What do you mean by that?
“How I said it, literally.”
There were Fidesz-connected groups of soccer hooligans or extreme-right groups who moved out into the streets and, for example, beseiged the television headquarters?
“I can say this: I know today that there are certified state-secret documents in the government that document this factually. I also know that there are copies of these which Fidesz people will not be able to hide, even if they ever have to fear that a change in government will take place and the new government will declassify these dossiers. From these reports it will turn out exactly that top Fidesz’s leaders were involved in these events.”
Were they confronted with this at all, in an informal way? Were they asked “Why are you doing this?”
“We didn’t know this at the time. We know about the involvement of the circle of Fidesz middle-management. But this was said in meetings of the parliamentary law-enforcement commission which were later made public. The secret service’s investigations at that time showed that Fidesz middle-management organized the riots. We determined that already in the Fall of 2006. It was our own clumsiness that we weren’t able to use this knowledge at that time. I learned of the involvement of Fidesz’s higher circles after 2010, but by then I hadn’t been in office for a long time. We also couldn’t use the fact that in the Parliamentary investigations of the September 2006 siege of the television headquarters, Fidesz politicians demanded much stronger action from the police. They asked, for example, why they hadn’t used firearms. Compared to this, where we are now is that I’m the ‘eye-shooter’.”
The breaking of the cordons in February 2007, and the police’s totally passive attitude might have made it clear to the layman, how much the entire state apparatus and the organizations of legitimate violence were in doubt concerning the government. What did you feel from this?
“We felt it too, naturally. Absolutely. The police felt at that time that the left-wing, which 15 years earlier had passed though the eye of a needle and changed from a dictatorial state party to a democratic political force, was also very uncertain about whether, for how long, and to what extent it could use policing force. This uncertainty was in our entire culture. The police were uncertain themselves. They didn’t want to sabotage the situation, but they hadn’t met with that kind of situation themselves since decades before. Of course it’s not just about them: a court procedure came from the breaking of the cordons. The Hungarian courts, however, in an unparalleled way, declared that according to the general principles of criminal law, the general condition of a criminal offense – whether there is such a crime in the criminal code or not – is that it ‘must be societally dangerous conduct’. The courts, however, found the fact that they had broken down police barricades was not societally dangerous, so then they didn’t have to determine separately whether it was vandalism or something else.”
Could there have been political pressure on the courts at that time?
“I don’t have any direct proof, but I can’t rule it out.”
In your own criminal case how did you feel about the attitudes of the justice representatives?
“They wanted to charge me in a lot of cases, but altogether they dared to accuse me in only one. In that case I was informed that lead prosecutor Péter Polt was constantly being informed about the status of the proceedings, and he informed Viktor Orbán, and the Prime Minister always had an opinion about what should be done. I was also informed that significant pressure was on the prosecutors, and that they placed huge pressure on suspects in other cases to accept some sort of informal plea bargain, in which if they testified against me then their sentences would be reduced or dismissed. That’s what it was about for who spoke publicly. I was, however, also informed that at the end of my case – the so-called Sukoró case – the prosecutor wanted to terminate the proceedings for lack of crimes committed, and on official instruction this had to be rewritten as ‘lack of sufficient evidence’. However in the case in question it is almost conceptually impossible to have a lack of sufficient evidence. They accused me with abuse of official powers, but it has to be factually demonstrated where I abused my power, if that’s the charge. Either this happened, or it didn’t happen – but to dismiss for lack of evidence? Absurd.”
To this day people in Hungary recall the spring of 2006 prime minister candidate debates in which according to most evaluations it was clear that you had won over the president of Fidesz. Then as prime minister you had to deal with Orbán. In the end, how do you see him? There were those who told me that it really frustrated Orbán after the Őszöd scandal that he didn’t come to power all at once, that he had to wait until the end of the four-year cycle. If he had become prime minister sooner, maybe he wouldn’t have stepped up against the left so ruthlessly. Do you think we would see a different Orbán if he had gotten into the government sooner?
“I am not good in political psychology analysis, and I really don’t know Viktor Orbán personally. But after the 2002 defeat of Fidesz, which was really a surprise for everyone, he made statements that they must learn from their failure and that next time they must step up against the opposition even harder. That’s why I’m not so sure that the 2006 defeat transformed him into being like that.”
2006 brought the strengthening of the Hungarian extreme right and of Jobbik. All kinds of theories were born from this, conspiracy theories as well, about which political side was responsible, and perhaps with whose support it happened. To what degree do you think the political crisis that formed in the wake of the Őszöd speech could have been the catalyst for this?
“There could be a lot of reasons for this, but I don’t want to look for responsibility with somebody else. We, and I, didn’t feel precisely enough then, what kind of partly social and partly spiritual consequences could come with the kind of restrictive politics which we conducted for a year and half or two years from the Fall of 2006, and how much it was capable of radicalizing certain voter groups. In this sense we have something to do with how people wandered into the Jobbik camp from the right and left alike. All the rest of the allegations, that we intentionally and consciously searched for a way for such a camp to be built, belong to the world of conspiracy theories.”
Don’t you feel that you took the Hungarian left hostage? The other actors can’t swallow you or spit you out either. While you are here, you stand in the perfect place to give Fidesz the opportunity to “Gyurcsány” (meaning to belittle the Hungarian left by invoking Gyurcsány’s name-trans.)
“Is József Tóbiás more exciting because of me? Not because of me. The reason is not in me, but in him and in the party. There is truth in Fidesz’s comments. It is a very conscious political strategy on their part, that the cohesive power of the right chose the clearly indicated image of the enemy. In Hungarian political life, everyone will be an enemy who turns against Fidesz: Bajnai, George Soros, Brussels. I am in an illustrious place in this line. But knowing Fidesz I don’t believe for one moment that if it wouldn’t be me but someone just like me would come along, a leader who opposes them, that they wouldn’t become an enemy of the state in a moment.”
How long do you think this will work? How long can Fidesz belittle the left-wing opposition by invoking your name?
“It’s absolutely going to work for them with an ever-narrowing core. The Öszöd story is ten years old – it hardly means anything to today’s 25-year-olds. Additionally, they also see that in a lot of things that I said there, life proved me right. Was I right when I said that the functioning of the healthcare system in its current state was unsustainable? And that I wanted to stir up my party so that they would dare to handle it? Yes. Was I right when I said that in this education system the disadvantages brought from home were not lessening but growing? Yes. Was I right when I said that we shouldn’t be politicians just so we don’t have to go back to being car painters? That rather there should be an ethos to what we do as politicians? I think so. Quite a few people who in the last years dropped their outrage have said ‘this guy was right’. Not long ago I sat at a roundtable where most of the others were connected with the center-right. It was exciting when at the end of the discussion one of them came over and said, ‘I was there on October 23, 2006 to scream and shout against you, and now I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it’. I think that this is now a part of the Őszöd story too.”
You knew Vladimir Putin personally, you met with him several times. What could be the secret to the surprisingly good relationship between the Russian premier and Viktor Orbán?
“To this I must note that in the middle and end of the 2000s both the European Union and the Obama administration carefully looked at Putin as a democratizing leader. In his first appearance in Berlin, he received a standing ovation from the entire Bundestag. Then in the Russian parliamentary election in the fall of 2011, 17 percentage points had to be lured for him to win. In the spring of 2012 during the Prime Ministerial elections, again he had to lure votes ‘for victory’, although less, it’s true. I think these elections changed Putin. He realized that the politics he had been doing until then doesn’t automatically extend his power, and that’s why tough repression started in the country – the murder of journalists and political rivals, the restructuring of the Russian criminal code, the curtailing of the freedom to assemble – and again he started to validate the Great Russian ambitions of conquest. I didn’t change: I’m not critical of Putin because I’m in the opposition. My relation with him didn’t change until the summer of 2012. We met then in Moscow with our families. But already I didn’t like that Putin. Compared to this, Orbán took the opposite road: when the world still trusted in Putin, he treated our cooperation with him very critically, and then when the world was getting more unsure of Putin and said so, he became one of our major allies. I think all that happened here is that Viktor Orbán was searching for partners for his foreign policy, and he found this in Putin. If one wants to oppose Brussels, after Orbán’s huge foreign policy shift after 2010, as the leader of a medium-small country, then partners are needed, and Putin is perfect for this, currently. The current Polish leader is also an excellent partner in this.”
As Prime Minister you had insight into secret service cases. Is it possible that the current prime minister has any personal issues, or business or property situations, that the great intelligence services, for example the Russians and Americans, wouldn’t know pretty much everything about?
“If they want to, then they can pretty much know everything. I have no doubt about this. If you are asking whether these services could know anything with which they could blackmail a Hungarian prime minister – then I say yes, they could. Whether they would use this, I can’t say. I didn’t meet with these kinds of people during my term of office. In energy issues I had really ugly debates with the American ambassador and with government representatives in Washington. They tried to convince me this way and that way, but they didn’t venture too far beyond applying verbal pressure. Today in Hungary certainly about 600-800 people work in some capacity for the KGB, say the experts. That’s a lot. And they have such capabilities, that if they want to listen to our phone conversations, then they can. If they want to know where we go and when, who we have dinner with, what we talk about, then they can. I think that this has a substantial influence on Jobbik and Fidesz.
How big was this 600-800 number during your time in office?
“Approximately half of that.”
You were regarded as one of the most promising politicians in post-transition Hungary, and then one of the biggest scandals was connected to your name. How do you live with this?
“If I’m to be impartial, I say: this is my personal adversity. But I don’t have any anger in me for anyone at all. It doesn’t harm whoever goes on this track, and is aware that this kind of thing can happen to anyone. In the end I don’t lament how fair or unfair what happened to me was. Or how much it was my fault, or how much it’s thanks to chance or to bad intentioned conspiracies.”
What is your own responsibility?
“Let’s start by saying that I undertook to lead the kind of party with which I was not compatible, either culturally or concerning my own mentality. This coded the later stories.”
When did you realize this? That you weren’t compatible with your own party?
“When our luck began to run out after 2006. And when I saw that Fidesz, among others, could fight their battles in a great unity, while we were incapable of that. When Orbán gave an ultimatum after the leak of the Őszöd speech, that I should be removed from the prime minister’s seat within 72 hours, it put such a pressure on MSZP, and I could expect that they wouldn’t be able to bear it. I called together the Socialist party leadership, who out of sheer fear only wanted to fulfill Orbán’s request. From this perspective of course they were honest that they signaled this. That’s how the decision was formed to call a parliamentary vote of confidence against myself. Then it could be felt that the party had totally changed. Not to get into the introduction of co-payments, not to argue for it, not to explain but rather to escape from it, and this all showed that the party is not capable anymore in those struggles which I called them to in the Őszöd speech. Then and there I convinced them, I got their votes, but I couldn’t get their hearts.”
You mentioned the 72-hour ultimatum from October 2006. A lot of people thought that with this step Orbán truly brought you back into the game from a losing situation. If he had then and there been more moderate, more patient, he could have achieved the coalition government’s ridding of Ferenc Gyurcsány. But after this kind of ultimatum, MSZP couldn’t have done anything else than three days later to confirm your honesty in the parliamentary vote of confidence.
“I rather believe in the truth of Orbán’s private ars poetica, that we can learn from the WikiLeaks cables, and which says that ‘If you can kill your enemy, you shouldn’t put it off’. I don’t believe that the current prime minister as a leader of the opposition gave this ultimatum so that I would remain in office. He did it because he could measure the bravery of the Socialists, and there was a chance that they would back away from me.”
There is also an interpretation that you have a mutual political need for each other as easily graspable images of the enemy.
“I know that still there is this Orbán-Gyurcsány parallel, which is actually in two respects. Concerning our origins, the rural town, the poverty, the first generation intelligentsia, is the same between us. But even more relevant than that is that through Budapest we took completely opposite paths: Orbán became jealous of the downtown elite, he felt that they had taken something from him. Even today he looks down at the big city intellectual elite. I, however, was amazed by them. I thought, wow, you can live like this too! We resemble each other also in that we are both big characters, who live for politics. It’s true. But in our visions there is no similarity at all. Nor between the systems we would like to build. I think that Viktor Orbán started as a very promising European democrat, I saw a lot of very admirable elements in him, too. But from there he became a much more authoritarian personality, and he left everything behind him which was respectable. I started from the state party youth organization, and there’s no doubt they could have berated me as a ‘communist’ because of this. Meanwhile, before the system change, we made statements that we wanted a multi-party system, only more carefully, more slowly, than the Fidesz of today. And from this basis I became a committed democrat.”
Ten years after Őszöd, where do you think the country stands?
“In moral terms, it’s ten years before Őszöd. I mean, it’s in a worse condition than before 2006. But Őszöd didn’t primarily cause moral deterioration. It’s another question whether it helped open the road to hiding what power is doing to this country in a cloak of legality. This is a country in a very dark place, without big common positive experiences and successes.”