'Even History is Poison'

Hungary's Prime Minister Exposed as Former Communist Spy

Peter Medgyessy, Prime Minister of Hungary
Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy (Photo: AFP).

On June 18, the conservative Budapest daily Magyar Nemzet revealed that Hungary’s new prime minister, Peter Medgyessy, is a former communist secret agent. The news had the effect of a small bomb on the Hungarian political scene, and may yet force the prime minister to resign after only a few weeks in office. Medgyessy, who many in the press had previously cast as a gray banker and a technocrat, had only started work on May 27 after tight elections that left the Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt, or MSZP by its Hungarian initials) dependent on an uneasy coalition. To make matters even more difficult for the new prime minister, the Free Democrats (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége, or SZDSZ), whose 20 votes give the Socialists their 10-seat majority, had a rocky relationship with the communist regime’s security forces and were already hesitant to join a coalition with the Communist Party’s direct political descendents.

Moreover, the elections that brought him to power were particularly polarizing. In the June 17 edition of the liberal Budapest daily Népszabadság, two months after the polls closed, journalist Tibor Tamás was still writing about the acrimonious debate surrounding the election. The story followed street demonstrations, some of which were forcibly dispersed with teargas, that led Hungary’s courts to consider the question of a recount. No decision has yet been reached.

So when Magyar Nemzet, which has ties to the recently defeated center-right government, first broke the story, Medgyessy’s first impulse was to deny everything. "I was never a secret agent,” he stated flatly in Parliament the next day. “The article is about forcing politicians to deal with this issue—to deal not with what is important to the country, but with what is important to a few people…. This article was written to divert attention from the achievements shown in the past weeks."

Some days later, Medgyessy amended his story, admitting that he had been a counter intelligence operative for the Interior Ministry from 1977 to 1982, protecting—he says—Hungary’s economic secrets from spies from other Warsaw Pact signatories, who were seeking to scuttle Hungary’s ultimately successful bid to join the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Medgyessy and his supporters have gone on the offensive. The prime minister says he will sue Magyar Nemzet for publishing stories alleging that he informed on his friends in the 1960s and that he wrote reports on “counter revolutionary activities” in 1978. Magyar Nemzet is confident that it has sufficient documentary evidence to back up its claims. Medgyessy maintains the documents are forgeries. He had better be right.

Hungary’s communist regime was looser than many in the Soviet Bloc, but many Hungarians still remember the failed nationalist revolution of 1956, when the Hungarian special police—backed by Soviet reinforcements—crushed a nationalist rebellion, killing hundreds and imprisoning more than 25,000. So if it is proved that Medgyessy was involved in anything more sinister than supporting Hungary’s bid to join the IMF, the SDZSZ may find it politically impossible to remain in the coalition and Medgyessy could well find himself out of a job in record time.

Even as it swung to the right under Viktor Orbán’s leadership, the former ruling party, Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége (FIDESZ), which was founded in 1988 by university students and intellectuals, used its history of opposition to the old communist system to political advantage. But in the political mudslinging following Magyar Nemzet’s revelations, even FIDESZ has been tarred.

In a July 4 article for Budapest’s left-wing daily Népszava, Zoltán Simon leapt to Medgyessy’s defense, charging FIDESZ with hypocrisy, and quoting former Democratic Forum Party (Magyar Demokrata Fórum, or MDF) Prime Minister József Antall’s contention that he had "damning evidence about Orbán's past.” What’s more, Simon reminded his readers, Zoltán Pokorni, a former FIDESZ president and an outspoken critic of Medgyessy, was forced to resign from his position within the party after it came out that his own father had also been a secret agent in the communist regime.

Even as Medgyessy’s supporters have turned the accusations against him back at his political opponents, Medgyessy’s government has begun applying pressure upon Magyar Nemzet. The National Police Force Directorate Against Organized Crime is currently investigating whether the paper is guilty of “violating state secrets” by publishing details of Medgyessy’s clandestine work.

A committee to investigate the matter, called the "Medgyessy Committee," has begun work and will hear testimony from Medgyessy himself. But getting the documentation needed for the investigation is a problem, since many of the documents relating to covert operatives in the old system were removed from official archives and are now in the hands of private individuals. In a July 12 interview with Budapest’s Magyar Hírlap (independent), the president of the committee, László Balogh, asked those who, for personal reasons, "privatized state security documents, to return them free of charge. But,” he reluctantly admitted, “If it were the only way to obtain the truth in this case, I would be willing to buy [the documents.]”

But commentators in all but the most stalwartly Socialist newspapers and magazines seem to have already made up their minds. On July 12, Zoltán Miklósi, writing for the independent newsmagazine, Élet és Irodalom, saw the scandal as tarring the entire Hungarian left: "Until now, the reason Medgyessy should have resigned was that he concealed important details of his past and put the propriety of his democratic mandate in question. [But now] the Medgyessy case has shown us that D-209 [Medgyessy's code number while he was a secret agent] should also resign. Because with Medgyessy, once again, the left's political position has been made untenable, perhaps for decades."

Writing for Budapest’s independent political weekly 168 Ora, Ákos Mester also seemed to have lost any confidence he might have had in the prime minister and his party. "Don't even think that we're over this!” he roared. “And don’t even suggest that we should be more understanding or sympathetic to the unfortunate weakness of the larger and stronger governing party. Don't remind me that all of this happened because the frightfully behaving FIDESZ party wants to return to power, or that the poor Socialists have endured enough already. This is no excuse. Nor is the suggestion that 'the reason the opposition came out with this now is that the government is so successful.' ”

“The fact is,” Mester conclued, “that the big state secret we now see revealed will put the new government's success in jeopardy,”

"It's a devil of a situation," one Socialist representative recently admitted to Attila Bujak, a reporter for the same magazine.

László Balas-Piri and Béla Vanek, editors at Magyar Nemzet used stronger words in their June 18 commentary: “How long do we have to endure these falsehoods?” they railed. “Comrade Medgyessy and his cronies can hardly wait for us all to die, since they will then be able to lie to the Hungarian people as they wish, with no witnesses to the contrary. Be careful, because in the hands of the Communists, even history is poison!”

The Medgyessy Committee’s hearings will begin in August.