Never in the brief history of post-Communist democracy has the work of a parliamentary committee attracted such a great deal of attention or triggered such an outcry. Part of the fascination with Hungary's Oil Committee lies not just with the general human preoccupation with the seamier side of existence, the larger than life characters we have become so accustomed to from the pages of countless detective novels—and with a series of unexplained deaths, mafia retaliation hits and bombings, the oil scandals have all the essential ingredients of any paperback thriller—but with the cathartic nature of the whole exercise.
The Oil Committee was convened for the purpose of establishing the facts surrounding the many cases of oil-related tax fraud in Békés County and elsewhere in Hungary. It was charged with the task of succeeding where the police and other investigative authorities had conspicuously, and embarrassingly, failed. That would have been sufficient in itself to elevate its work from a pedestrian sifting through of dry details to the plane of a moral drama. But hidden beneath the surface, another set of implications concerning the operation and character of Hungarian society itself serves to stir the emotions.
Committee Chairman László Pallag, (FKGP, Party of Independent Smallholders) has always claimed to be a man with a mission: his aim no less than that of rooting out corruption and cleaning up public life. If anything good were to come from the Committee's deliberations, then surely lowering the tolerance threshold for enrichment at the expense of the ordinary citizen—literally and metaphorically—would be it. However, collective disenchantment with the unscrupulous behaviour of the few is an inevitable concomitant of freedom, although perhaps not for the most commendable of reasons. Where no legal impediments to enterprise exist, where party membership is not a closed shop, everyone at least has the potential to feather his own nest by fair means or foul. The playing field may not be completely level, but there is at least the illusion that you are what you make of yourself. In such an atmosphere, dishonesty is seen to impart an unfair advantage. It is not that we Hungarians have suddenly woken up to this obvious conclusion; it is just that we now feel empowered to do something about it.
The furore sparked by the oil scandals has proven very revealing about our attitudes to our elected representatives and to authority figures, such as the police and customs officials, in general. One of the paradoxes of the oil frauds, which ambitious politicians (anxious to further their careers by jumping on the bandwagon of righteous indignation) and columnists galore are fond of pointing to, is that they were allowed to continue for so long, that the legislation adopted to eliminate the type of crime involved proved inadequate time and time again. Fraud perpetrated on such a massive scale, with entire trainloads of fuel oil being imported, required wide-ranging complicity for purely logistical reasons. The "oil-bleaching" scam was public knowledge, and yet the authorities appeared powerless to tackle it. Every last one of us knew that—for it to work—the whole system had to be riddled with corruption from the very highest levels downwards, yet we ignored it. It was an open secret. This apparent complacency is difficult to fathom without bearing in mind the pernicious and corrosive effects of over three decades of Communist conditioning under the Kádár regime.
As the story of events has gradually unfolded, the naivety of lawmakers has been commented upon. It beggared belief, cry the wise analysts, who have capitalised on the benefits of hindsight to boast of their superior insights and who go on to attribute this jejune laxity to unfamiliarity with the concept of organised crime. It did not exist either in law or in practice, they maintain.
As far as practice is concerned, I beg to differ.
In the days of the soft dictatorship, the rule of law was continually undermined by the way the political regime functioned. Having lived through the latter part of the era myself, I do not wish to sound too severe in my criticisms, and I fully include myself in the blame, but we all conspired against ourselves to an extent. We tacitly, passively put up with what went on as an annoying inconvenience. Our mistake was to regard institutionalised and politically enforced corruption as an inevitable fact of life. We survived within the system, and, in all fairness, we began questioning it, but whilst we were reasonably well off—particularly compared to many of our immediate neighbours—we were willing to play along with it.
In parentheses, this is also true of the oil scandals: we are open to the charge of hypocrisy, because, after all, many of us were quite happy to fill up our cars at a fraction of the normal price and thereby subsidise the mafia indirectly. There is a certain stage beyond which morality and survival—or, as the case here—morality and mundane creature comforts—become difficult to reconcile. Man has his moments of noble sacrifice, but he remains for the most part selfish, and the prevailing atmosphere under János Kádár was such as to appeal to our baser instincts, eradicating every last trace of idealism.
Legalised corruption in the Communist days pervaded even the middle and lower echelons of our society in the form of wage calculations based on the expectation that practitioners of certain professions would be able to top up their scanty earnings through tips. This was true of everyone from taxi drivers, through petrol pump operators to doctors (though the tips there have a grander sounding name, paraszolvencia or hálapénz, translating literally as "gratitude money").
Under Kádár, a political position was a means of lining one's pockets, of living the good life. Party lackeys were an elite, a caste unto themselves and had many traits in common with today's mafia in the way they went about their business of bleeding the state dry in creating a conspiratorial, secretive world where everyone who counts knows everyone else.
Of course, there are also important differences. Today's organised criminals are beyond the pale, although the law sometimes turns a deliberate blind eye to their activities. This is primarily because the police are starved of resources in absolute terms. This means that they are not able to devote themselves to combating the mafia as they would perhaps like and that certain officers are more likely to succumb to the temptation of accepting bribes as a means of supplementing a pathetically meagre income as opposed to being under political control.
This brings us on to the second difference: politicians no longer have the upper hand to the extent they once did. They do not control the criminals, but have become valuable pawns in a game where billions can be made or lost in the twinkling of an eye. Nowadays, the text of a piece of draft legislation can seal the fate of staggering sums of money by making or breaking business opportunities. Small wonder then that the mafia shows perhaps a greater interest in the minutiae of paragraphs than anyone else bar the people's representatives.
A further difference is that of methodology. The mafia is in many ways simpler and less devious, although its reprisals are more brutal (with the exception of the aftermath of 1956).
The final difference is that of public acceptance. With the "organised crime," of Kádárism, an entire nation took the system, warts and all for granted, maybe not uncritically, but it formed part of our implicit, subconscious world view, and it took some radical shake-ups on the outside for us to dare to believe we could become the masters of our own destiny once again.
Our images of the mafia are, however, not quite so unambiguous as might be expected. Gorged on a diet of sensationalism, disillusioned with the realities of the daily grind, we are fascinated by those, who overstep the boundaries imposed upon us by the law; they assume the status of preternatural beings, another breed, evil, but removed from our sheltered round of commuting and scraping together the cash to pay the bills. We indulge them with a certain grudging admiration: the more unscrupulous, the more we delight in their antics.
Up to a point.
We ultimately crave their downfall—preferably as part of a spectacular sideshow with shootings and chases—by way of consolation and reassurance concerning our own life choices. As the oil scandals prove, crime pays in Hungary, and this is the source of the emotional appeal of the Committee's hearings.
In Hungary we do not expect our politicians to be better than anyone else, to be squeaky clean. Our estimation of them is, on the contrary, quite dismal. Complaining about them is a national sport: to our minds they are a scheming, grasping, manipulative rablóbanda (gang of robbers). In some respects, their conduct is expected to be worse than that of their fellow mortals, since we know they can cover their tracks and escape where criminals cannot so easily. Everyone in power is automatically suspect. This is why when we receive confirmation that, yes, politicians were entangled in the oil scandals, we believe it.
This is why when the Oil Committee idea was first broached and objections were raised as to its necessity (opponents decried it, inter alia, as a waste of public money, a futile gesture of appeasement and as flogging a dead horse), the alarm bells were set ringing, and we attributed them to a last-ditch effort to conceal the sins of the past. Whereas we had our private prejudices about who precisely was in on the act, we still had no means of finally piecing the jigsaw together.
As we mature democratically, we will perhaps wake up to the fact that scandals in our public realm not only send shockwaves through our cosy domestic scene but also ripples far beyond our borders, affecting our national image and reputation. Perhaps we shall begin to be more concerned about our good name in the eyes not only of the EU, with its stringent standards and values to which we officially aspire, but also of the wider international community. In this respect, our image is very much in our own hands and can be our most precious resource. I for one certainly hope that we will realise its true significance before it is too late.