"There is no redemption or absolution in the swamp of Hungarian public life" – István Kerékgyártó

June 12, 2017

Translation of interview with former National Radio and Television Board (ORTT) head and author István Kerékgyártó appearing in 168 óra on June 6th, 2017 under the title “The country is being run by people without any system of values.”

“Fidesz very professionally used the loopholes which allowed them to easily deconstruct the democratic institutional system. We can already see that this happened according to plans worked out in advance.”

“In hindsight you can see how frivolously we squandered this fragile democracy and freedom which we established, even though we can finally belong to that West which we have wanted to join for several hundred years.”

“Those living on the periphery of the present government have been convinced that someone else is responsible for all of our problems, mainly Europe. The tons of assistance received from the EU comes to us too, actually. The true losers of the system are insulated from credible information. They only receive the success propaganda. And when it is time for an election, because of being misinformed or because of the threats of the local Fidesz overlords, they vote for the government, even if they themselves end up in the worst situation because of the elimination of democracy.”

“Politicians on both sides . . . wanted to act ethically for the public good. They knew that politics was not just about gaining power, but also about the wise management of public affairs. But those people were gradually excluded from public life. Now, the kind of people are running the country that don’t have any system of values. Their only goal is remaining in power and improving their personal material well-being.”

“There is no redemption or absolution in the swamp of Hungarian public life.”

– István Kerékgyártó, author

István Kerékgyártó graduated with degrees in law and then philosophy, and founded a privatization consultancy company after the transition from Communism. During the final year of the Horn government, he was named the executive director of the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT). He experienced from the inside how the political and economic changes took place in Hungary. Since he has stepped away from public life, he has written several novels and dramas about the successes and failures of Hungary’s wild capitalism. Not long ago he published a volume with the title “The System Changer,” in which the protagonist, a rural intellectual, drops into the fateful events of the 1990s. He has no moral qualms, he expects merely quick enrichment from politics, and he’ll betray anyone at any time for money. We asked the writer whether such characters are operating the current Orbán system. 

18 years ago, you had already written a novel called Property Novel (Vagyonregény) about the system change. Why did you return to this topic? Did you feel that a lot had been left out of that novel, or do you see that time period differently now? 

I, too, was very much part involved in the system change. For ten years prior to that, I had taught history of philosophy at the University in Pécs. At the beginning of the 1990s I took my law degree and formed a privatization consultancy firm with a friend of mine. Then I changed again: I was the executive director of ORTT during the final year of the Horn era and the first year of the Orbán government. When I was 47 I decided to leave public life and focus solely on my writing. Now I have returned to the system change, which I dealt with in my first novel, partly because the topic has really excited me since then, and perhaps because my writer’s tools have developed as well. And it’s true that I see that period very differently looking back from the present. Quite a bit more gloomily.

You even stated that we received democracy and freedom from above as a gift, and that perhaps that’s why we weren’t able to value it. Would revolutionary blood flowing in the streets have been better? 

Certainly not, but you can struggle for political change with more than just weapons. Apart from the narrow democratic opposition, the people of the Kádár era wallowed peacefully in the softening single-party dictatorship, and if it had depended on them, the system change would not have come for a very long time. In hindsight you can see how frivolously we squandered this fragile democracy and freedom which we established, even though we can finally belong to that West which we have wanted to join for several hundred years.

Apart from the elite who suddenly became rich, there were also many who lost a lot during the system change. Masses fell into the kind of poverty they had never previously known. The misery has only deepened since then and the existential gaps within society are enormous. Should we be glad about this “freedom”? 

Of course not. But it’s an even bigger problem that those living on the periphery of the present government have been convinced that someone else is responsible for all of our problems, mainly Europe. The tons of assistance received from the EU comes to us too, actually. The true losers of the system are insulated from credible information, they only receive the success propaganda. And when it is time for an election, because of being misinformed or because of the threats of the local Fidesz overlords, they vote for the government, even if they themselves end up in the worst situation because of the elimination of democracy. Still, in retrospect, we can already see where we made the mistakes.

Where, for example?

We should have cemented rule of law guarantees into the constitution, that changing the election law, let’s say, or the media law, or the changing of members of the Constitutional Court could only be done with far-reaching political consensus. It shouldn’t be able to happen that they rewrite the entire constitution without the opposition, essentially into a single-party tyranny. Fidesz very professionally used the loopholes which allowed them to easily deconstruct the democratic institutional system. We can already see that this happened according to plans worked out in advance. When my first book about the system change came out in 2001, it didn’t even occur to me that we would find ourselves where we are now.

But you saw from close up how privatization was being conducted and who could arrive in positions of power. Still, what did you trust in? 

József Antall still believed in his political ethos, and there was some kind of humility in Gyula Horn in that he understood that the reforms had to be undertaken even though they came with declines in popularity. I later knew politicians on both sides who wanted to act ethically for the public good. They knew that politics was not just about gaining power but also about the wise management of public affairs. But those people were gradually excluded from public life. Now, the kind of people are running the country that don’t have any system of values. Their only goal is remaining in power and improving their personal material well-being. Those grey, eminent figures in the orbit of the present right-wing elite were primarily the ones interested in my “System Changer” book. Those who served their political overlords without moral concerns or inhibitions. It excited me where these people came from and why they became this way. Almost no one knows them, since they avoid publicity, but they play a great role in the maintenance of the system.

The protagonist, Milán Vidra, is a first-generation rural intellectual for whom the system change represented a major financial gain and a career. The majority of the Fidesz leadership came out of this time period as well.

Yes, but it’s still important to emphasize that great scholars, artists and intellectuals grew out of those arriving from the rural, non-intellectual world. The protagonist of my novel, however, is another character.  He’s a hedonistic figure who would like to earn as much money as easily as possible. Before the system changes, he was a party member. But after the system change he joined the anti-communist Independent Agricultural Worker’s Party, and conducts political activities for his multiple university salaries. His career is the story of multiple betrayals. He betrays science, his friends, his father and, of course, his political overlords. He sinks deeper and deeper into corruption, into crime, and thus becomes blackmailable. Finally his political enemies banish him to the Far East, but if he were to return, he would become the victim of the Hungarian gang wars. In my novel, the good doesn’t defeat evil. There is no redemption or absolution in the swamp of Hungarian public life.

Plus, the prime minister of the right-wing party that comes to power overthrows his old coalition ally and pays off one of the opposition leaders. Do you think Fidesz already conducted background bargains with the opposition a long time ago?

Not with everyone but with several members for sure. Serious files are going to come out one day about these cases. I don’t consider it a coincidence that the opposition parties have been continuously occupied with their internal conflicts for seven years. This reminds me of how the state security forces influenced the life of pop music in the past system. The agents of power had to infiltrate the bands and constantly turn the members against each other so the bands would break up as soon as possible. I believe today there are those built-in politicians and little parties which are paid to foment hatred on the opposition side, thereby making uniting against the government impossible.

You wrote places and events into your book from your own life. Did the new parties approach you after the system change? 

There were offers but I, as opposed to my protagonist, was glad that I didn’t have to be at one of the political platforms. I was under no such pressure. I didn’t approach any party and I handled their requests by showing them my organization ID, so they’d know that one organization was more than enough for me. Then I joined the Hungarian Ornithological Society, in which I am still a member. We laughed a lot about that, but after that it never came up again.

You said of your book Property Novel that it was a confession. Do you feel remorse for a lot of things?

Everyone feels remorse for some things. Don’t you?

Those who were never near power and money have had to struggle less with temptation. 

The world of privatization was full of extreme situations. One could see exactly who those investors were that were going to buy, dismantle and destroy the state-owned companies. Nothing could have been done even if they had made the best recommendations according to the law. When they sold the Hungarian sugar factories to foreign investors, we knew what the fates of the factories would be: they would be closed. Together with my business partner, we wrote a note to the State Asset Agency but they didn’t even react. We also knew that for privatization it was necessary to do away with state officials, otherwise it wouldn’t work. Everyone did this.

I took part in business negotiations where the client told me that were anything to leak from the discussions, they would hire goons to break our hands. Privatization was a rough, dangerous world where people were killed for very little money. I was glad when I got out of that milieu.

Then you were named executive director of ORTT (National Radio and Television Council-tran.). You recently spoke openly for the first time about why you resigned from that position.

At the time of the previous director, the first commercial television channels began in Hungary, among them TV2, RTL Klub and Írisz TV, led by György Baló, which all applied for frequencies. The highest bid belonged to the latter, but Gyula Horn directed the ORTT to reject Írisz. Horn didn’t want the station, which was close to the Free Democrats, to win, and MSZP and the right wing supported him. A really low political game followed, and Írisz lost, and sued, and the courts twice rejected ORTT’s decision. Following this, I joined the media authority. The decision-making body to which every parliamentary party with a delegation sent a representative, wanted me to ask for a prosecutor’s office to retry the 40 million forint lawsuit, and that audio recordings no longer be made of the body’s meetings and, of course, of their decisions. I told them that if they approved these proposals, I would resign. And that’s what happened.

Why are you only telling this now? 

After my resignation, I was called by Tamás Forró, who was a former reporter with state radio, and he asked me to make a statement. All I told him was that I didn’t agree with ORTT’s style and with a few of its decisions, but I didn’t get into details. I thought one shouldn’t push himself back into his own nest that he’s just climbed out of.

But the country cannot function if the truth of important public matters always comes out only 20 years later. 

In The System Changer I write not only about the past but about how power currently functions . . . In fact the book ends in the future in 2018.

The prime minister never appears in the novel but you describe him as standing above everyone. You mention him as a slave to the party but it is not difficult to identify him as Viktor Orbán.

I was not the one who coined the name “head engineer.” Acquaintances of mine familiar with the tendering of large projects told me that the decision maker said they first need to ask the “head engineer” if the tender proposal was all right, and only then could construction begin.  The “head engineer” is the professional director of the entire machinery of power.