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Hungary: Government Proposes Further Opening Of Communist-Era Files

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Hungary's government says it will request parliament to change current legislation to allow the further opening of communist-era secret police files. The announcement follows Socialist Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's admission last week that he was a counterintelligence officer during communism. Medgyessy's confession came after his past was revealed in a conservative opposition newspaper. He argued he had previously concealed his past because the current law does not allow the naming of those currently or formerly involved in counterintelligence activities. The proposed changes will allow the naming of all public figures who were involved in dealings with the secret police and will finally enable the identification of police informers.

Prague, 27 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Hungarian government has proposed changes to the laws on communist-era secret police files to reveal the names of all public persons who had been members of or collaborators with the political police.

The draft law, which is likely to be submitted to parliament next week, also provides for the identification of police informers, whose identities are protected under current legislation.

The Socialist-Liberal coalition's initiative follows Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy's admission last week that he was a communist counterintelligence officer from 1977 until 1982.

Medgyessy, who became prime minister in April following the ex-communist Socialists' tight victory over the center-right FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Party, confessed his past only after revelations were published in the conservative opposition daily "Magyar Nemzet."

Medgyessy said his duty as a secret agent in the Finance Ministry was to keep Hungary's bid to join the International Monetary Fund secret from the Soviet Union. Hungary finally joined the IMF in 1982, despite Soviet opposition.

Medgyessy, a 59-year-old banker who held various positions in Hungary's Finance Ministry between 1966 and 1987, rejected opposition claims that he also spied on his colleagues.

He argued that he had kept silent about his past because of the current secrecy law, which bans counterintelligence agents from revealing their activities until 2020.

The scandal caused upheaval in the Socialists' coalition partner, the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which numbers many former anticommunist dissidents among its members.

In a bid to secure the continued backing of SZDSZ, whose withdrawal from the coalition could have triggered a government crisis, the Socialists agreed to push forward with the liberal-proposed changes to the laws on secret police files.

Writer Miklos Haraszti is a former anticommunist dissident and a prominent member of SZDSZ.

Haraszti told RFE/RL that the new draft law provides for access to the archives of all former secret police departments and to the files of all public personalities past and present, including those in the media, justice, clergy, and state companies.

"The hardcore of it [the draft law] is that all [former communist secret police] departments and all public figures' past files will be accessible. I don't think that will change [in the law's final shape]. The big debate is about the clerics, about the journalists, about directors of state-owned businesses, about judges, etc. That will be one debate, while the other debate will be what to do with the officials of the same kind of the past 12 years beyond the present cycle."

The communist-era secret service, known as the 3rd division of the Interior Ministry, had five departments: foreign intelligence, or department 3/1; counterintelligence, or 3/2; department 3/3, which dealt with domestic political repression and was the most infamous; military intelligence and counterintelligence, known as 3/4; and 3/5, the technical department, which dealt with surveillance.

Under a law proposed in 1990 under Hungary's first postcommunist government, led by center-right Prime Minister Jozsef Antall and adopted in 1994, only department 3/3 archives -- domestic political repression -- were opened.

The past activities of departments 3/1 and 3/2 -- foreign intelligence and counterintelligence -- remained protected by a veil of secrecy because they were deemed as protecting national interests.

However, Haraszti says that all departments -- not only 3/3 -- were involved in acts of political repression and that they collaborated closely with one another.

The current law gives public office holders one month's notice to withdraw from office before making their files public.

But Haraszti says that by delaying the law's adoption for four years, the then-government managed to avoid the screening of the first parliament's members.

"But it [the first law] was not adopted until 1994. The right-wing majority, the right-wing government of Hungary, the first freely elected government of Hungary, postponed the passing of even that limited lustration (screening) law until the very last moment, so that it has become valid only for the second parliament. So the first parliament's MPs were never lustrated (screened)."

Former Finance Minister Ivan Szabo has been quoted as saying that one-tenth of the members of the 1990 parliament used to be linked to department 3/3.

A subsequent 1995 law gave citizens access to their secret police files. But unlike in other former communist countries, the measure provided for the names of informants in the files to be blackened to protect their identities.

Haraszti says the new draft law comes with two important improvements. On the one hand, it opens access to archives belonging to all former five departments of the secret police. On the other hand, it finally allows people to know the names of those who informed on them, following the model of the Gauck commission in former East Germany.

The office currently administering the files is under parliament's control. But Haraszti says it is the secret services -- the direct inheritors of the communist secret police -- which decide which files can be declassified.

Under the draft law, the office will be renamed the Historical Archives Office of the Secret Services and placed under the control of the Culture Ministry.

Haraszti told RFE/RL that a joint committee, made of members appointed by the government, the judiciary, the general attorney, the political parties, and the president's office, will ensure that files of public figures from all five departments will be transferred to the archives office.

"This will be the committee whose only task will be to decide who is a public figure, and from then on, they don't have any other task than to secure that all papers of that given person from any department will be given to the archive."

But former Prime Minister Viktor Orban's FIDESZ party was also quick to come up with its own proposal to amend current legislation, which provides for all former members of the communist leadership to be banned from holding office -- a measure which, if adopted, would lead to Medgyessy's exclusion from public life.

However, the Socialist-Liberal alliance holds a 10-mandate-strong majority in Hungary's 386-seat parliament, and the conservatives' proposal stands little realistic chance of approval.

Analysts note that the Medgyessy scandal and the government's decision to amend the secret police files laws came amid increased political tension in Hungary.

The tension was apparently caused by the Socialists' decision to launch investigations into accusations of possible abuse of public funds during the previous government's term in power.

Robert Wright is a Budapest correspondent for London's "Financial Times." Wright told RFE/RL that "It has to be said that this revelation has come against a background of an extremely tense situation in Hungarian politics, with the two sides really in the worst relationship they've been in since the change of systems in 1990. And accordingly, both sides are becoming much less restrained in the way they attack each other. And the new center-left government has certainly been much tougher than many people would have expected in investigating what many people believe was fairly widespread corruption under the previous center-right government."

Socialists have openly accused FIDESZ of using the information against Medgyessy to trigger a crisis in the coalition and divert public attention from their own problems.

But Medgyessy last week warned that investigations into misuse of funds will continue. Meanwhile, the coalition announced it will push ahead with debating the new draft law so that it can be adopted before this fall's local elections.

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