I am always happy to avail myself of any excuse to visit Szeged, not just because I am a fervent admirer of Lechner's magnificent architecture, of which the City Hall is a particularly striking example, but because I have always had a soft spot for the inhabitants of the city on the banks of the Tisza. Hence the notion of introducing Szeged to the readers of Central Europe Review proved a particularly appealing assignment.
My first port of call was the local university's Department of Marketing and Management, where I met Mr Ábel Garamhegyi (31), senior lecturer, a dynamic, ambitious and upwardly mobile academic.
Central Europe Review: Mr Garamhegyi, I am sure you will agree with me when I say that there is more to Szeged than Pick Salami and fisherman's soup. Could you give me a thumbnail sketch of the industrial scene in Szeged and put it in historical context?
Garamhegyi: It is true that industrial activity in Szeged has been dominated by the food industry and its related branches, which were always fairly well developed. The reason for this is to be found in the city's natural, geographical surroundings. We are fortunate enough to live in an area particularly suited to agricultural production and the food processing industry in Szeged has been at the centre of this activity, with Pick in the vanguard, occupying a very prominent position. A comprehensive network of suppliers has been built up around Pick, which represents a huge group of companies with an international dimension.
Apart from this, we also have a long-standing tradition of paprika processing - everyone has heard of Szeged paprika - which has now become attached to the Pick group. There are other branches, such as pig breeding, all linked in some way to salami production.
There are, however, other branches of industry in Szeged, which are not related to the food sector. These include light industry. We have a clothes production factory in Szeged, the roots of which also stretch back well into the past. There is also a hemp spinnery. Recently, however, this branch has been in a crisis, as the markets have been in decline and changes will have to be made. These firms, including the hemp spinnery, are situated in the city centre, forming part of the urban landscape and there is an increasing trend - not necessarily felicitous - amongst companies to shift to the outskirts, relocating in retail parks. A large-scale move of this kind would involve a hefty price tag.
To complete the list, we also have Taurus MRG, the tyre producer, which again has played a major role in the city's industrial past. Indeed, it would be fair to describe it as a flagship of local industry. Last but not least, apart from the large number of small industries, we have a matchmaking plant, which has been bought up by Svéd gyufa (Swedish match).
Cyanide in the Tisza
CER: Szeged became the focus of world attention due to the cyanide poisoning tragedy. Is the city still picking up the pieces afterwards? Is the effect on local tourism still noticeable?
Garamhegyi: There are no technical effects on the river any more. The cyanide flowed down the river so quickly that to all practical intents and purposes there is no trace of cyanide in the water any more. The local population is more than aware of this. There are countless actions to encourage people to eat fish from the river and so on. It is beyond all doubt, however, that the further away from the city a potential tourist is, the less precise his information is, the less he is likely to know about the real situation. All he has heard is that there was an incident of poisoning, and he is afraid. At any rate, there has been something of a slump in the tourist sector.
German tourists have been most susceptible to being dissuaded from coming, because they are easily scared off. I do not believe that there are any justified grounds for fear by now. The river has recovered, and I would have said that it has again reached the level of purity it had before the cyanide poisoning took place. This was never particularly clean: we are not dealing with a pure mountain stream, after all, certainly not from a bacteriological point of view, but I am convinced that the river is every bit as suitable for bathing and paddling in as it was before the cyanide disaster occurred.
CER: Szeged has always had an intimate relationship with the Tisza. Could you say a little about the floods that have done so much to shape the consciousness of the city's inhabitants?
Garamhegyi: Yes, Szeged does have an intimate relationship with the River Tisza and its waters. Floods have provided a historical backdrop to the life of the city, and when casting my mind back over history, 1870, the year of the great flood, stands out in particular. As you know, this year the flooding situation in Hungary was critical, though Szeged escaped as good as unscathed. We were able to put defence measures in place, which spared us from major damage. We are accustomed to the sight of restaurants, certain sporting facilities in the floodplain and the shoreline used for sunbathing and swimming ending up under water, but we are used to small-scale floods of this kind and we have learned to live with them as a city.
There was one very interesting phenomenon observed as the water level rose and the flood washed by through Szeged: every day, the people of the city would take a stroll down to the water-level indicator. If you wanted to meet someone, all you needed to do was to head there and ten minutes later your friend would be sure to turn up. It was a kind of "popular promenade." The relationship between the river, flooding and the city has always been a very close one, with river and city living side by side because of the historical dimension.
As I said, however, there was no particular effect this year. As a result of the 1870 disaster, Szeged built up a defence system to avert major flooding and it has proven its worth.
A dash of cultural colour
CER: I know that Szeged has a vibrant cultural life. Would it be fair to say that the city is the cultural centre of the region as a whole?
Garamhegyi: Szeged is the indisputable cultural centre of Csongrád County. It is a city of such size and is so well furnished with cultural institutions that it is safe to maintain that it is unique in the county. I also believe that cultural life in Szeged has an important influence within the country as a whole, particularly in the realm of higher education, which I would deem to be part of culture. In Szeged, we have one of Hungary's biggest provincial universities now that the mergers have taken place [according to the new legislation, general universities have been created from the separate, specialist universities. For example, what might have been a medical university, or an institute of chemistry will now be considered as part of a general university rather than as an independent centre of learning].
I believe this gives the city an added dimension of importance, which no amount of arguing can detract from. The Szeged Theatre provides a dash of colour in Hungary's cultural life. Whilst I am more than aware of Budapest's cultural preponderance, I am nevertheless convinced that the Szeged modern ballet corps is unique. Its style is certainly unique, elevating it far beyond the borders of Csongrád County in terms of its significance. In fact, I reckon that the ballet enhances the city's reputation to international level, placing it firmly in the international cultural arena.
Then we have the Szeged Open Air Theatre Performances (Szegedi Szabadtéri Játekok), which are equally worth mentioning in the same breath as other cultural events of national importance. As to whether at some stage we might be able to conjure up or develop them into internationally renowned performances is another matter entirely. In order to achieve that, more resources than are available today would be required. To put it in a nutshell: more capital would have to be injected and more attention paid to development.
CER: Whenever I have visited Szeged in the past, I have spent quite a lot of time in the Virág cukrászda (patisserie and cafe). Now that it has closed down, the entire square seems lifeless and abandoned. There have been a lot of rumours circulating about the mafia being to blame. Do you have any insights into the affair?
Garamhegyi: As to why exactly it closed down is anybody's guess, and speculations are rife. I reckon Mr Szervánszki could give a precise answer if he wanted to. One thing is for certain: there were differences of opinion between the city authorities and the confectioner's, economic disputes. As to whether there any other conflicts with anyone else beyond these economic differences of opinion is a subject about which I know nothing at all. As I am sure you can imagine, endless gossip is circulating throughout the city. I would have thought this type of gossip was almost compulsory in any city of this size.
The influence the closure has had on the life of the square and on the city centre in general is, by contrast, palpable. You can see it with your own eyes. Other patisseries are delighted by what has happened, because the inhabitants of the city have had to transfer their custom to various other confectioner's. The Virág cukrászda was, however, a striking trademark of the city, contributing to its character and life. Now this trademark has vanished and no one has made any efforts to replace it for months on end. In my opinion, this is a grave mistake. The city should not have allowed this to happen. It is an error on a par with letting a major building collapse.
War and security
CER: International attention also turned to Szeged as a result of the war raging just over the border in former Yugoslavia. Did the war lead to a large influx in refugees? Have they stayed on and has there been an increase in crime locally due to their presence?
Garamhegyi: The people, who settled in Hungary from Yugoslavia, really do fall into various categories. There is the group, who settled in Hungary quite independently of the war precisely because they wanted to commit some kind of economic crime here. The situation in Yugoslavia was unstable and a war economy flourished. It was possible to make a very good living out of it, naturally. Alongside the relatively well-off segments of the population, who crossed the frontier to Hungary, a criminal element also arrived.
The criminals did not stay in Szeged, however. In all probability they buy property here, somewhere to live, or they build a house, but their area of activity is not necessarily confined to the city. You have to realise that the oil affairs were not an exclusively local phenomenon. Government policy itself made an important contribution to their occurrence, as well as other assorted economic factors. The oil business thrived here along the Romanian and Yugoslav borders. Once again this serves to reinforce the impression that there was a network of relationships in place which had very little to do with the war.
The third group was composed of the genuine refugees, who either lost their livelihood and were therefore forced to seek refuge in Hungary, or who did not want to be drafted into the army. The number of young men fleeing the call-up is quite significant. I do not think it is possible to refer to them as criminals, since they simply did not want to be soldiers and they have enrolled in the university, found jobs or whatever.
I do not believe that the crime statistics can be attributed to them. The war gave rise primarily to economic crime and what happened in Italy, where deserters from the Serb army formed gangs of pickpockets and thieves, did not happen here. I do not believe this occurred in Hungary, or, if it did, it was on such a small scale as to go virtually unnoticed. It certainly did not happen in Szeged. The question as to whether there are more criminals in Szeged than elsewhere in the country is often asked. What I usually reply is that there are indeed far more criminals in Szeged than anywhere else in Hungary, but they are all safely locked up in Csillag jail.
CER: Would you maintain then that Szeged is a safe city to live in and for visitors?
Garamhegyi: It is absolutely safe in my opinion. To strike a personal note, I have in the past few years only walked the streets in the evening, because that's when I get off work, but I would classify Szeged as an absolutely peaceful and calm city. You mustn't forget that a substantial proportion of the population is made up of students and the students, thank God, make their way home at night or at dawn. The university has never even remotely had to ask questions about student safety. The question has never even arisen. Basically Szeged is a completely calm and balanced provincial city, where there has been no mafia war or suchlike. Any news to the contrary would be a fabrication of such ridiculous magnitude as to bring a smile to the face.
The collapse and the rise
CER: Hungary has undergone a process of transformation in the wake of the collapse of Communism.
Garamhegyi: Due to my age, I can only really speak about the last few years, but before the collapse of Communism, Szeged was an extremely important intellectual centre precisely because of the accumulation of intellectual capital in the city. As such, it was considered to be very difficult to manage as a centre. It was far more difficult, for example, to spoonfeed people with demagogy here than in an industrialised town. There was an intelligentsia of thinkers, who had to be dealt with in some way. I put the concept of "dealing with" in inverted commas because there were ways and means of keeping tabs on what went on. To give but one example, the university had to be kept under constant surveillance. Thankfully, this has ceased.
The intellectuals of Szeged have always featured as a force to be reckoned with in central government circles. Regardless of which party has been in power, there have always been a number of Secretaries of State or Ministers from Szeged. Pál Vastagh was Minister of Justice in the last government and Raffai Secretary of State in the Ministry of Defence. Then we have László Bényes and János Csirik, Deputy Secretaries of State. All in all, it is fair to say that Szeged has had an important presence in the political life of the country.
As to the changes to the face of the city, what has happened is that certain companies have, unfortunately, gone out of business. The economic change of system has meant that certain construction firms and branches of industry, which traditionally received a great deal of support, have gone to the wall.
Now the situation with our neighbour Yugoslavia has taken a turn for the better. In the old days, Yugoslavia did not belong to the ranks of so-called "friendly" countries [it was not, in other words, a member of Comecon], but that has changed. Now there are great opportunities for developing trade.
There have been no radical changes in public spaces. Statues did not disappear in great numbers. One statue of Lenin moved from Rákóczi Square and then the memorial to the Soviet heroes was moved further away as well, but the complexion of the city as a whole has not been altered substantially. We did not witness mass demolitions of buildings and so on. The Soviet barracks were abandoned and a few streets were renamed, or given back their former names. There were some changes of this type that we didn't understand, such as why János Hunyadi had to yield to - what was it? The Blessed Virgin - no, Holy Trinity! At any rate, the old names were restored.
It is easier to appreciate the change in the public and intellectual life of the city. There is a little more sparkle to it now and all the flowers blossom in a different way these days than before [the reference is to the slogan of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: that every flower should blossom]. The churches are beginning to find their feet as well, a statement, which applies equally to the Jewish as to the Catholic faiths. This is certainly a welcome development.
CER: As we have already mentioned, Szeged is a frontier city. Do you think the city's role will change with Hungarian accession to the EU, which will lead to the introduction of stricter frontier controls? Will any change be for the better?
Garamhegyi: Szeged is a major city so close to a frontier. This fact in itself means that the city's position is subject to a number of complex factors. Its function will change as a result of its proximity to the Schengen external frontiers, but this entails opportunities. Having said that, the functions and influences of which I speak already have an impact on the city. We already have the logistical infrastructure, such as customs offices. At any rate, it is my belief that businesses react more swiftly than the administration. What I mean is that businesses are already reacting to the issue and they are not waiting until accession takes place.
I can see far more serious effects looming in the realm of agriculture to take but one example. Agriculture in and around Szeged will have to be entirely restructured, and this will have major repercussions. It is not a foregone conclusion that these changes will be positive. To be more precise, I feel that they could be positive if accompanied by astute marketing, but there is a lot of scope for screwing the whole thing up.
What I do reckon we can expect is that - and this is something, which may very well have a particularly pronounced effect on Szeged as opposed to elsewhere - once administrative barriers are lifted, the knowledge base, the innovative force and the intellectual capital, which have accumulated here will be able to compete internationally. If we mismanage this process, we will end up in a classical brain drain situation, but if we manage it properly and afford adequate protection and adequate opportunities to our local intellectuals I am convinced that we will reap its benefits.
Let us not forget that Harvard lives off its extremes. In my estimation Szeged could also live off its famous researchers, teachers, developers and scientists, who might set off into the wide world once they are given the go-ahead by EU accession and who might try their luck in research establishments in the West, which have considerably greater amounts of capital at their disposal.
We should bear in mind that at the present juncture a researcher from Eastern Europe in general and Hungary in particular would be confronted by a number of administrative obstacles before he could set off to give working abroad a try. Currently, Hungarian researchers travel abroad to work when they receive invitations to do so. When free movement of workers becomes a reality, Hungarian researchers will seek their fortunes abroad if they feel they are in a position to "sell" themselves. There is a huge difference between the two situations.
This is why I do not subscribe to the view that - provided the opportunities are taken advantage of properly - Western firms will merely snap their fingers and say they want so and so in such and such an area. Instead, the intellectual community of Szeged will feel that it enjoys support and will have the courage to say that yes, I do feel my knowledge has a market value and I will be able to find a client somewhere in the West, who is willing to comply with the conditions I stipulate.
The spread of commercialism
CER: What about the spread of commercialism, as illustrated by the opening of the Szeged Plaza Shopping Centre?
Garamhegyi: The Plaza is the third in a series of investments by major retailers. Tesco was first on the scene two years ago, followed by Cora last year. When Cora opened, Tesco announced that it would not cost them any loss in takings, but I am certain that the several tens of millions of forints spent there every day must somehow be missed by other traders. There will certainly be some kind of shake-up in the sector. The arrival of large-scale retailers will not change Hungarian shopping habits and the structure of the Hungarian market as a whole overnight. We ought not to lose sight of that fact.
I am convinced that certain small retailers will go out of business, because they will not be able to withstand the competitive onslaught of their bigger rivals. If you take the example of consumer goods, Obi and Baumax have been around for some time now and a kind of balance has been struck. Those small retailers, who have been able to offer a competitive advantage to their customers, because they have more know-how, will be able to pull through. They stock specialist products and cater for individual needs. In such cases, it no longer matters that Baumax have longer opening hours and that you can find everything there. The high street shops will survive as well. Naturally, those more or less amateur retailers, who are forced to eke a living out of running a corner shop because they have no alternative source of income or employment, will not survive.
The same will apply to the Plaza. I would hazard a guess that the Plaza will be less of a commercial factor in Szeged than it will be socially. In other words, it will provide a forum for social activity. Visiting the centre will be an event in itself, particularly as it is situated in relatively well-laid out surroundings. This will represent a major advantage. It also adds an interesting dash of colour to the retail park, which is in the process of becoming established in the part of the city stretching beyond Tescos and which includes Baumax, Obi and now the Plaza itself. Further out, of course, we also have Cora, Metro and Praktiker.
The range of goods on sale far outstrips the city's available purchasing power. We should not forget, however, that local purchasing power is supplemented by that of people crossing the border to shop in Szeged. The various retail firms have naturally taken this extra potential volume into account.
CER: I know that you are an expert in all matters relating to marketing. Do you think that enough is being done to promote Szeged? What about focusing on the Internet as a source of publicity? Is there room for improvement?
Garamhegyi: Whether you look at it from the point of view of boosting tourism or of other types of investment, Szeged could certainly do with a substantial city marketing programme. Since you mentioned the Internet, I have to put in a good word for the Szeged website (The Szeged Szerver can be found here), which gives the city a presence and a profile, as it is very well planned and conceived.
A firm by the name of Soft Contact was responsible for creating it and I believe that it is one of the best firms in the region. Its head, Tamás Hárs, has won a large number of awards, and I regard him as an eminent expert in the field. Of course, the fact that a website is not enough is another issue entirely. Far more is called for: existing initiatives have to be bolstered. This goes beyond the website or the city's depiction electronically to include manifestations of the local leaders, such as the way the city's Tourinform office operates. It has been open to severe criticisms on numerous occasions.
Once again we are faced with a situation in which there is a very limited amount of capital for investment. This is not unique, but the region boasts both Szeged and Ópusztaszer [where the National Memorial Park is situated], which are real attractions nationally and indeed internationally, giving it an edge on other parts of the country. We have not really succeeded in making the most of the advantage this implies. Szeged could do a lot more to exploit its resources for purposes of stimulating tourism. Although there have been many small improvements, this continues to hold true.
Summer is well under way. If Szeged were to set itself the aim of encouraging droves of visitors or tourists to come to the city, it could persuade them to stay on longer than the two and a half hours or so that they spend at the open air performances, but it would have to rethink its policy on parking facilities, for example. At the moment, you have to pay for a parking space. I worked with a colleague in Holland in a small town, the exact name of which has slipped my mind. The town had an interest in developing shopping tourism, and the first step on the way to attaining that goal was to provide free parking. The reasoning behind this move was, as the Mayor said in his speech that if I invite someone into my home, I do not expect them to pay to be allowed to sit down in my armchair.
CER: Mr Garamhegyi, thank you very much.
On the Southern Border
Next I headed for Lajos Kossuth Avenue to the offices of the Csongrád County Police Headquarters, where I was scheduled to meet Dr Szilvána Tuczakov, head of press relations. A highly motivated and competent young woman, she was constantly assailed by phone calls and other interruptions during our interview, but this merely served to reinforce my impression of her as an asset to the force, whose diligence it would be difficult to surpass. Whilst waiting for her to satisfy the umpteenth urgent request for information, I had the opportunity to consult some of the background material she had been kind enough to supply.
Csongrád County, with a total population somewhere around the 420,000 mark concentrated in eight cities, 52 village communities and surrounding farmsteads, and of which Szeged is the administrative capital, is dominated by agricultural activity. Both this and its geographical position, bordering two countries, Serbia and Romania, have implications for the type of crime committed there.
Illegal frontier traffic is a typical example, with stolen cars being smuggled across the so-called green border. In order to tackle such manifestations of crime effectively, co-operation between the police and frontier guards has been consolidated, most successfully around Mórahalom. Undesirable forms of tourism have not been eliminated altogether, however. Large numbers continue to enter the country with a view to working on the black market or engaging in other kinds of unlawful activity. (though it has to be said in fairness that foreign visitors are also more likely to become the victims of crime, unable to speak Hungarian and unfamiliar with the surroundings as they are). Exchanging currency remains a popular undertaking, as does cigarette and alcohol smuggling. A clamp down on petty offences has lead to the number of expulsions rising from 391 in 1998 to 472 in 1999.
Crimes against property have increased sharply, with farmsteads forming a particularly vulnerable target. For the last couple of years, the county police force has been running the "Farmstead Programme," in the framework of which officers from the Criminal and Public Safety Departments have contacted the local authorities before making their way to the farms to assess how best to reduce the risks of break-ins on the basis of a questionnaire. In the experience of these officers, the best weapon against crime is for the local community to stick together. If the rural constables, gamekeepers, social and postal workers and regular visitors to the area spend a little time and effort keeping an eye on each other, this usually acts as an effective deterrent to would-be villains. In April of 1998, the introduction of a mounted police service enabled a police presence to be maintained in the more isolated areas of local settlements, where it had previously been as good as unknown.
Central Europe Review: Dr Tuczakov, how does the county police force maintain good relations with the local population? Does it foster links with forces abroad?
Dr Tuczakov: We not only maintain links with other branches of the police force throughout Hungary, but also with our counterparts in other countries. In the Netherlands, for example. This has become easier since 1990. We launched an exchange programme for middle-ranking officers in 1997, which focused on training and boosting knowledge. We prepare a monthly newspaper for internal use called Olló [Scissors]. It contains collections of newspaper clippings for the benefit of those officers, who are too hard pressed for time to have had an opportunity to read through everything that might be useful or relevant to their work. Alongside the articles, information is given in brief about the source. The inspiration for this came from our Dutch colleagues, who produce the original version in exactly the same format, printed on yellow paper.
As far as relations with the local population are concerned, we are very active within the realm of road safety and crime prevention. To give you but one example of an initiative that has proven very popular, we tried to raise awareness of road safety issues amongst schoolchildren by organising the Apple-Lemon Programme. Primary school pupils accompanied officers to busy streets to observe the conduct of drivers. Drivers were pulled over. If they had broken the rules of the Highway Code, the officer would let them off with a caution, but the children would "punish" them by handing them a lemon. The reward for good, safe driving was an apple. One of the main strengths of this action lay not only in raising awareness amongst the children themselves about road safety, but in seeing the effect the "punishment" had on the offending drivers themselves. The impact of the message is far greater in many ways when it comes straight from the lips of a child.
Our roads are increasingly congested and this is naturally reflected in the growing number of accidents. In 1998, over 800 people were injured in road accidents. This is why it is important to target young people, to instil good traffic habits in them. The staff of the County Accident Prevention Committee plays a very active role amongst both primary and secondary school pupils in this respect. From 12 to 16 July 1999 in Öttömös the Committee held its first Summer Camp, open to all children, who had achieved good results in the various traffic contests. The aim of the Camp was to provide a useful way of spending the holiday period, helping the children to cope with traffic and giving them an insight into some of the other aspects of police work.
We have had fruitful relations with police forces in our neighbouring countries, Serbia and Romania. A prime example of this is our long-standing relationship with the Republic of Serbia's frontier home affairs Secretariats. Our cooperation with the Secretariat in Szabadka [Subotica] has extended over an increasing number of fields, but is still primarily focused on combating crime. One of the tangible results of our relations is that we have been able to recover an increasing amount of stolen cars that had been smuggled across the border to Yugoslavia. In 1999, we returned three cars to their owners. The total value of these vehicles was close to the HUF eight million (USD 30,000) mark.
On the Romanian side, we have been in close contact with our colleagues in the Temes [Timiş] County Police Inspectorate General (Temes Megyei Rendőri Főfelügyelőség). With the help of the Romanian authorities we were, for example, able in February 1999 to trace and bring home the eleven year-old girl, who had disappeared from Makó on 4 December 1998. She had entered Romania illegally accompanied by a Romanian man.
One of the milestones in cooperation terms was the meeting between representatives of all three countries held in Szeged on 3 December 1999. It was unique in that it gathered nine police chiefs around one table. During the deliberations, a five-point declaration of intent was adopted, aimed at facilitating mutual assistance and joint actions against violent and organised crime.
Further meetings between the police chiefs of the three countries were subsequently held, with Romania as hosts at the end of January and Yugoslavia at the end of March. The agenda is widening as the meeting becomes increasingly institutionalised, but the basic aim of clamping down on crime in all its manifestations remains the same. It might very well be true that "crime knows no frontiers," but nowadays fighting crime has followed suit.
CER: How would you say the crime situation in Szeged has changed since the collapse of Communism? Has there merely been a quantitative change or has there also been a qualitative change?
Dr Tuczakov: There has been an increase in the number of crimes committed, particularly in crimes against property. The number of break-ins has rocketed. Economic crimes are also flourishing with fictitious firms being set up and an increase in undeclared work. We have also noticed a rise in the number of car thefts, muggings and violent crime in general. However, for the sake of fairness I must point out that this is not confined to Szeged. The city reflects a trend that may be seen all over the country. We have also witnessed the advent of drugs-related crime in the last few years. It affects the county in a variety of ways, as one of the main transit routes for drugs-smuggling crosses our territory. Virtually all kinds of drugs are available and there is a market for them solvent enough to foot the bill. In mid-March, the Intelligence Department seized a haul of 15 kilos of heroin with a street value of around HUF 100 million (USD 369,000). This was one of the biggest consignments ever intercepted in Hungary.
A motorway paved with...
CER: One of my abiding memories of Szeged is the unedifying spectacle of a motorway lined with young ladies of dubious repute displaying their wares in a none too subtle manner. This, however, seems to have disappeared. Is this due to police work or the law on tolerance zones?
Dr Tuczakov: I am glad to be able to inform you that it is the result of good police work. On the first of March, the new law on petty offences entered into force. For the first time in our county, we applied the law on taking petty offenders into custody and punishing them with a short spell in prison. Around noon on 9 May, a couple of officers arrested a 28 year-old woman for soliciting along the E-75 leading out of Szeged. She was walking up and down the roadside making obscene gestures with her hands hinting at the type of sexual service she was willing to provide. On 10 May, the City Court availed itself of the accelerated procedure to sentence her to 30 days imprisonment. As for the tolerance zones, to the best of my knowledge no decision to designate one has yet been taken. It is up to the local authorities to take that decision, as you know.
CER: What about relations with the local population? Would you say the police force has a good image in and around Szeged?
Dr Tuczakov: I can assure you with confidence that we have excellent relations with the local population, and these relations are improving all the time. We receive a large number of thank-you letters from civil organisations and private individuals alike. In the local newspaper Délmagyarország (South Hungary), there is a special column where readers can phone in, the "ringing column" [csörögrovat, so called because this is the verb for the phone ringing]. They can make comments on any aspect of local life, and recently a reader thanked the police for catching and penalising speeders in Constitution Street in Baktó, which meant that it was safe to let the children out on to the streets to play again. On 30 September last year we opened the Victim Protection Office, which offers legal and moral support to the victims of crime, a group so often ignored by our justice system.
We also campaign in local schools to raise awareness about crime prevention. The DADA [Drog Alkohol Dohányzás elleni Akció] Programme is targeted at revealing the dangers of drugs, alcohol and smoking, and we give talks in secondary schools on the subject. Our Accident Prevention Committee does the rounds of schools as well, showing a film called Sokkoló [Shocker], for which we need to obtain prior permission from the school concerned. As the name suggests, it depicts the after-effects of traffic accidents around Szeged quite graphically. The accidents are not necessarily fatal, but you see first hand a smashed bike next to a railway track and the impact of the images is enhanced by the soundtrack. We need to encourage people to stick together in preventing road deaths. Not that our efforts in this area are restricted to children. On 20 May, we held an open day on road safety for children and adults alike. We appreciate feedback from locals and so we foster contacts with minority representatives, the local authorities and residents forums.
CER: Thank you very much.
Political Life in Szeged
Finally, I had the opportunity to speak to Dr Pál Lippai, the first democratically elected Mayor of Szeged following the collapse of Communism. Self-effacing and generous in spirit, he pointed out that the current office-holders were in a better position than he to discuss current problems and disputes, praising their professional qualities. Since January 1995, although he continues to follow local developments closely and plays a part in public life, he has concentrated primarily on his career as a lawyer. Nevertheless, he was able to provide an expert glimpse behind the scenes in Szeged politics, past and present.
CER: Dr Lippai, could you briefly describe the atmosphere in Szeged when you were elected Mayor?
Dr Lippai: On 15 March 1988, the battle on the Chain Bridge [Dr Lippai is here referring to the clash between young anti-Communist demonstrators and the police], the pro-Transylvania demonstration, the programme at the Jurta Theatre [famed as a venue for anti-regime gatherings] and other events demonstrated that the days of Communism in Hungary were numbered.
Imre Pozsgay's [then Minister of State] announcement about the "people's uprising" [during a radio broadcast, when he presented the opinion of the Committee of Historians, reclassifying 1956 from a counter-revolution to the category mentioned], setting up the opposition Round Table, Imre Nagy's reburial and Viktor Orbán's speech in February 1989 all followed on directly from this. All of these were quite visibly restricted to Budapest, however, whilst only a very small circle of intellectuals in the large provincial cities played an active part in examining the issues raised. With the examples of 1953, 1956 and 1968 in their minds, most of them harboured major doubts about a real change taking place.
Only once the negotiations between the leaders of the successor party and the opposition movements had yielded results were the sceptics convinced that an era really was drawing to a close. The process culminated in the four referendums, the subject matter of which activated the hitherto passive masses. Both government and Parliament were prompted by the increasingly radical nature of the situation to respond swiftly to the issues raised. In Szeged, and the same is probably true at national level as well, it was from around then that people began expecting miracles, believing that the new system would put paid to all evils, that the standard of living would improve substantially, as would public safety, that corruption and privileges would become a thing of the past and so on.
It was against this backdrop that 15 March [the anniversary of the Battle for Independence against the Habsburgs in 1848] was celebrated in 1989. The sheer numbers of citizens taking part was quite unprecedented, as was their enthusiasm: it was as if they had assembled to celebrate the start of a new way of life. Most of the miracle-hungry voted for the MDF [Hungarian Democratic Forum] soon afterwards in the general elections, but the new government's attention was occupied mainly by ideological issues rather than economic ones, and this is why it was inevitable that the first symptoms of disillusionment were quick to set in. It took about six months for the honeymoon to draw to a close.
The disillusionment manifested itself in the local government elections in the autumn, where SZDSZ [Liberals] and Fidesz candidates predominated in the representative bodies of local authorities in all the major cities of the country. There were virtually no exceptions to this trend. This was particularly true of Budapest and the major cities of Transdanubia, whereas in Szeged 22 of the 53 places in the representative body were won by the MDF, Christian Democrats and Smallholders, leaving only 20 seats for Fidesz-SZDSZ and one seat for the representative of the Worker's Party [Munkáspárt, the unreformed and unrepentant Communists]. The remainder of the seats were won by independent candidates (the bulk of whom represented the small towns and villages attached administratively to Szeged).
The election results reflected the city's sociological make-up: the housing estates and parts of the city inhabited mainly by workers voted exclusively for the Liberals, whilst the more elderly white-collar employees and intellectuals in the more central parts of Szeged voted Conservative and the vote of their younger, well-off counterparts in Újszeged was distributed over more than one party.
I was elected Mayor on 23 October 1990. Even in the first round of votes it became apparent that the liberals and the independents had cast their votes in my favour and I was immediately faced with the realisation that I would have to take charge of the city with the backing of a minority. This was why I accepted the MDF's offer about prescribing votes based on a two-thirds rather than a simple majority concerning all of the important - even in those days the MDF deemed allocating posts as a matter of the utmost importance - questions in the new Organisational and Operational Rules, the SZMSZ [Szervezeti és Működési Szabályozat]. In exchange, they supported the SZDSZ candidate I put forward for the Deputy Mayorship in economic affairs and the MDF candidate I had singled out for the Deputy Mayorship in human resources. This structure meant that compromises had to be continually sought over the four-year term of office.
Decision-making was a protracted and laborious process, but on the positive side, the need for a compromise meant that decisions were not either rushed through impetuously, by brute force or without any built-in accountability. It is not a matter of pure coincidence that the first concern of our successors in office with a Socialist majority was to abolish the two-thirds rule.
CER: What were the principle tasks that lay ahead of you when you became Mayor and do you feel that you were able to complete your work on the most pressing issues?
Dr Lippai: In cities of county rank, the former two-tier administration was replaced by a single administration with the Republican Office of Representatives [Köztársasági Megbízotti Hivatal] embodying a second level of authority. A new administrative structure had to be created accordingly. We conducted a competition for all the leading posts within this structure.
Dealing with the taxi blockade that erupted on to the scene a few days after I was elected proved to be the most pressing issue, as it affected Szeged particularly severely due to the city's proximity to the two frontiers and the large volumes of transit traffic. Talks in Budapest did not bear fruit for days on end and increasingly it was dissatisfied locals, rather than the taxi driver's organisations, who maintained the roadblocks. I had to go from roadblock to roadblock to talk to them personally in an attempt to convince them to let the buses held up in traffic leave the city and the cars transporting food and fuel enter it.
If I had not been familiar before with the hopeless situation of people, who had lost their jobs and lived in bleak housing estate flats I certainly made up for the deficit in my knowledge during my term of office. Then there was the immediate prospect of preparing for the 1991 budget, where revenue from income tax levied locally dropped by 50 per cent [because from 1990 onwards, the new law stipulated that 50 per cent went to central government] alongside a whole new set of tasks and responsibilities for local government.
All in all, it seemed then - and I continue to subscribe to this view even today - that we succeeded in solving all these problems, with the exception of the post of town clerk. We only managed to confirm the appointment after almost two years had elapsed. In spite of the need to reach compromises that I already referred to the Conservatives considered themselves to be excluded from the city leadership and with the help of a political bully, who never stopped pursuing illusory ambitions to become a Deputy Mayor, they engaged in a relentless attempt to discredit me together with the Liberals in the local press.
Since two heads of the local council in Szeged had previously come to grief over economic corruption and since I had turned down the newspaper's offer of "cooperation" citing my public duties as a motive there was always scope for bombastic reports and disclosures, which all proved to have no foundation whatsoever in reality. At any rate I have always been asked since then - most recently two days ago - in public forums how I was able to bear these vile attacks.
It would seem that in the days of the changeover to democracy I, in contrast with most voters, realised that the problems of the standard of living, public safety, the housing shortage and so on would not be resolved, but I was nevertheless naive, as I expected that freedom of the press would mean that the information printed would be objective and not subject to outside influence and that local authority matters of the utmost interest to the population at large would not have to be presented by tame journalists paid to put forward the party line. My successors have wisened up to this aspect.
CER: How have changes in political leadership affected the city? What is your opinion of the style and quality of local government in Szeged these days?
Dr Lippai: It is not my duty to evaluate the style and quality of the current local authority leaders. At the same time I have to point out that the system of local government as established in the first [post-Communist] term of office had already taken on board the new tasks and responsibilities - such as collecting the tax levied on cars according to weight or taking over the fire brigade to name but two examples - expected of it and had already begun carrying out its functions within the constraints of reduced funding.
This could only be achieved as a consequence of improving internal efficiency and rationalising management. In the first term, the majority of cities of county rank and the districts in Budapest were headed by Liberals looked upon with suspicion by the Conservatives. This situation changed a great deal in the second and third terms, as towns and cities with a population ranging between 50 and 150,000 voted in Socialist and subsequently Fidesz-led councils as a general rule. The same applies to Mayors, who since 1994 are also allowed to hold a dual mandate as Members of Parliament and are closely affiliated to political parties accordingly.
On the one hand, this gives greater scope for interests to be asserted, although the Ministry of Defence has still not handed over the airport in spite of all the efforts we have made from my days as Mayor onwards and the fact that the for six years now the city leaders have been of the same political hue as the government coalition. On the other hand, however, you have to realise that regardless of which government is in power it will always strive towards centralisation, which will obviously bring it into conflict with local government.
Personally speaking, the difference that I see between myself and my successors is that - unlike them - I did not regard myself as a politician, but as an expert, whose task it was to amass a set of demands surfacing within the city and articulating these demands in front of the body of representatives whilst determining priorities in the light of available funding.
Since towns and cities of approximately the same size tend, as a general rule, to be confronted with similar problems I felt that permanent consultation with my peers within the framework of the Association of Cities of County Rank [Megyei Jogú Városok Szövetsége]. My successors were also fortunate enough to enjoy the backing of an appropriate majority in the council assembly, enabling them to concentrate primarily on reaching political agreement and carrying out their public functions. In their activities they have displayed the style typical of the Socialist and Fidesz leaders respectively, but as I pointed out a moment ago they have not been compelled to seek compromises on a day-to-day basis.
CER: On breakfast news the other week I saw a report about a gang of 11 who had bullied vulnerable elderly and ill people into selling their homes to them. This is not the first occasion on which Szeged has hit the national headlines because of crime. In your opinion what is the most typical kind of crime in Szeged and how do you think it should be tackled?
Dr Lippai: I do not believe that Szeged is worse off in terms of crime than other cities of a similar size. It is true that in the first term of office, a four-member family of confectioners was murdered and that Magda Marinko was captured in the city. It is also true that the frontier guard's presence in the proximity of the two borders has become somewhat symbolic and that this does not do anything to improve public safety.
We can count on crime as a means of eking out a living and on the underprivileged situation of ethnic minorities persisting for some time to come, however, as an increase in the standard of living and catching up [with the rest of Hungary] does not render special police work superfluous. My thumbnail sketch covers the important problems faced by the city as well, but as far as I can see it local government only has a very limited set of opportunities to take action in these areas.
The tasks ahead
CER: What problems would you identify as the most urgent and how would you tackle them?
Dr Lippai: To my mind, a more urgent task - certainly more important than erecting statues - is that of getting hold of the airport I mentioned earlier and linking up to international traffic routes. When I was Mayor detailed development plans were drawn up with the help of Munich airport. They were not realised because of the chaotic situation of land ownership and the plans are gathering dust in an archive somewhere.
Another equally important matter would be to build the Western bypass, which has also been planned, and perhaps even more crucially to extend the motorway to the frontier.
At the beginning of 1991 we negotiated the setting up of a new border crossing point at Röszke with the Vojvodinian authorities in order to put an end to the kilometre-long queues mainly affecting workers returning home and tourists. In spite of the clear need for this project it still took almost ten years for the calls to tender to be issued.
The unfortunate episode of the way in which the motorway concession [according to which the government awarded contracts to construction companies, which built the motorways and are entitled to keep the motorway use tolls] was dealt with means that many people continue to lose their lives along the deadly stretch of road between Kiskunfélegyháza and Szeged.
The empty wells left behind on the Algyő oil fields would afford an excellent opportunity for storing natural gas and for exploiting the seasonal price differentials, but neither MOL nor the political leaders in power up to now have considered it necessary to take up this initiative. The scientific capacity of Szeged's university is being left to lie fallow as well. Our local government initiatives in the realm of extending pharmaceutical research to include production of medicines as well have not achieved any results.
CER: Would you say that Szeged, as a provincial city, is less privileged than Budapest? Does Szeged, or for that matter Csongrád County, lag behind the more prosperous areas of the country? Do you think that EU accession will improve the city's lot? Has Szeged received any funding under PHARE?
Dr Lippai: Szeged is as disadvantaged relative to Budapest as any other provincial city. It is beyond all doubt that the airport and motorway are essential to further progress, and they will have the additional spin-off of creating jobs. The textile works, cable factory and other plants have closed down whilst the clothes and paprika factories are in the throes of recession. This has led to the release of a substantial workforce. Neither the service nor the small business sectors are in a position to absorb the redundant workers and so unemployment has assumed massive proportions within the city and even more markedly within a 15 to 20 kilometre radius of the city. In spite of this, the County is not in decline, although you cannot compare it with Transdanubia or the counties along Hungary's Western frontier.
I do not think such geographical disadvantages can be overcome easily by EU accession. To the best of my
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CER: What will be on your agenda for future local government elections?
Dr Lippai: I don't actually have a personal agenda for the forthcoming local government elections, because in the last few years the political situation in Hungary has not developed in a way conducive to allowing any autonomous individual with an independent set of opinions to enjoy the support of any large political party. Without the necessary backing, in other words without the requisite support amongst representatives, even a directly elected Mayor will not produce results.
CER: What has been the most important change in Szeged in the last ten years?
Dr Lippai: The most important changes in the last ten years in Szeged have been the same as the most important changes in the country's other major cities. On the one hand, we have numerous new facilities. Of these, I would place particular emphasis on infrastructure: new roads and drainage systems are being built, we already have eight new school gyms and a brand new mobile auditorium for the Open Air Performances to replace the iron monstrosity [the scaffolding supporting the seats, which, I admit, were not only ugly, but uncomfortable to boot, though I suppose you have to suffer for the sake of culture!!], which so marred the sight of the square. In Szeged we now also have the country's third covered ice rink - though it is true that ice sports do not receive the financial support they deserve. On the basis of the plans we drew up, the second term saw the reconstruction of the inner city area.
At the present moment, for example, work has started on laying decorative paving along the pedestrian zone. The Socialists put up a monument to 1956 and the famous Aba Novák fresco [on Heroes' Gate] is being cleaned of the coat of plaster layered over it by Rákosi and company. We have also removed the remains of the Soviet soldiers from Széchenyi Square to rebury them with due solemnity and respect in a cemetery. The statue of Saint Stephen now stands where they once lay and a statue of Kunó Klébelsberg was recently unveiled. On the other hand, public safety has deteriorated beyond compare since 1990. In the public squares you come across unfortunate homeless people. Even those, who live in flats on the estates, are struggling to keep up with their exorbitant gas, water and electricity bills.
Alongside all of this, the hopes and faith placed in the new society have evaporated and society's morale is perhaps worse than it was earlier. The network of civil organisations has not evolved, but the worst features of capitalism have all put in an appearance. The palatial dwellings of Újszeged, which knock the spots off their Western and American counterparts, and which were funded by dubious sources of income, stand in shrill contrast to the impoverishment of the bulk of society. This is the sort of issue the politicians should be addressing.
In the first term of office, local government assembly meetings were in general open to the public. We introduced the broadcasting of these meetings on local cable TV and the ratings were extraordinarily high. Already in the second term of office, meetings closed to the public became the norm, whereas they had been the absolute exception previously. Now the TV broadcasts have also been curtailed due to lack of funding.
Similarly, a further bad practice has crept in. New public office-holders are exactly what the term suggests, new. Leaving aside a few exceptions, they do not even make the slightest attempt to continue the programmes launched earlier, in fact they start off with radically different ones instead. Although I do not wish to analyse the phenomenon, I reckon that continuously building on past results would better serve the city's interests.
CER: How long do you think it will take the local tourist industry to recover from the effects of the cyanide pollution? What should central government be doing to allay fears expressed by foreigners?
Dr Lippai: I do not think that the impact of the cyanide pollution should be exaggerated. The delay in the democratisation of Yugoslavia is a far more severe problem. This would enable the city to make full use of the potential and advantages inherent in its location near the frontier. Foreign investors - mainly French - who have settled in Szeged would be only too happy to continue on towards the Balkans. For years now, at least in rhetoric, regional cooperation between the Bánát, the Vojvodina and the three Southern Counties has been a reality. This cooperation can only be transformed into a genuine resource once democratisation and economic development become realities.
There is no doubt that once they arrive on the scene Szeged's role in both directions will be considerably enhanced. The political and economic circumstances, with which we are familiar, will mean that we will be forced to wait for several decades for this to happen, however. Until then, our task is to do everything in our power to ensure that the city remains a pleasant place to live in and a centre of development. In order to attain this aim, we must make the fullest and most appropriate use of the natural and human resources available to us.
CER: Thank you very much.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 26 June 2000