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Hungary Prime Minister Admits and Defends His Former Spy Life

Europe: Medgyessy acknowledges that he worked for the Communist secret service--but only against the Soviets.

June 20, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY and PALMA MELIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy admitted Wednesday that he was a counter-espionage officer for the former Communist secret service but portrayed his work as aimed against Soviet intelligence in defense of Hungarian interests.

"I helped prevent foreign spies from getting their hands on Hungarian secrets and ensured they should not be able to block our joining the IMF [International Monetary Fund]," Medgyessy told parliament Wednesday. "I would like to emphasize that a spy-catcher is not an agent, not an informant. Counterintelligence and intelligence are ancient professions and serve to protect the country."

An ex-Communist and former banker, Medgyessy, 59, said his counterintelligence work from 1977 to 1982 was part of his job in the Finance Ministry's international department.

During that period, Medgyessy was part of a team that secretly negotiated Hungary's joining the IMF in 1982, seen at the time as a bold anti-Soviet step. Moscow had blocked Hungary when it tried to join the Western-dominated body in the early 1970s.

Medgyessy also said in parliament Wednesday that keeping Communist-era records secret has made it possible for them to be used selectively for "political blackmail." To eliminate this problem, he said, he will submit an emergency bill to release classified secret service data about politicians.

The proposal would allow the publication of the names of all police informers involved in domestic surveillance activities, he said.

The prime minister's explanations and support for opening up secret police files appeared to deflect efforts by some politicians within his ruling coalition to force his resignation.

The coalition of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats holds 198 seats in the 386-seat parliament, which means Medgyessy's hold on office depends on maintaining firm support within those two parties.

"Twenty-four hours ago, the majority of the Free Democrats had not voted confidence, but today they did," said Gabor Kuncze, the party's leader. "The Wednesday morning speech of the prime minister cleared his past.... Based on the knowledge we have at this time, we consider the matter closed. There is no coalition crisis."

Opposition Still Objects

But Zoltan Pokorni, leader in parliament of the main opposition FiDeSz-Hungarian Civic Party, said Medgyessy "cannot be Hungary's prime minister.... The Hungarian Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats are trying to save that which cannot be saved."

Magyar Nemzet, the newspaper that on Tuesday revealed Medgyessy's counter-espionage role, published a new allegation Wednesday that he had also spied on colleagues at the Finance Ministry--a charge the prime minister immediately denied.

Through a spokesman, Medgyessy said that a document published to back up the domestic spying charge is a forgery and that he will sue the newspaper.

The allegedly forged document includes a signature in Medgyessy's name and states, "We examined the probability of who might become involved in possible counterrevolutionary activity and who might be potential leaders of such activities." It says that at the Finance Ministry and National Savings Bank, 28 people were categorized as "dangerous," 20 as "must be watched" and eight as "must be dismissed."

Were the charge to prove true despite the prime minister's swift denial, it could be more damaging than the revelation that Medgyessy engaged in counter-espionage work, for domestic informers were intensely disliked.

"We are in the middle of a very dirty political game, and the present government should not tolerate it," Kuncze said. The proposed changes to laws on secret service records would "prevent any further misuse of these by politically motivated parties," he added.

Speaking on television Wednesday evening, Socialist Party chief Laszlo Kovacs charged that the allegations had been raised to divert public attention from corruption investigations launched by the new government.

Kovacs said that when the Free Democrats were wavering on whether to support Medgyessy, he warned them "not to have illusions."

"If Medgyessy resigned, the opposition would attack the next prime minister too," Kovacs said. "I say about myself that there is nothing in my past for which I could be accused, but if the opposition forges something against me, as they did today with Medgyessy, and they repeat it eight or 10 times, perhaps that would get on my nerves too."

Security Work a Taboo

Many anti-Communist Hungarians view a history of any kind of security work for the Communist government as unacceptable, partly because it is seen as having involved collaboration with the Soviet Union, which brutally crushed a 1956 democratic revolution here.

Medgyessy worked in Hungary's former Communist government during its waning years in the 1980s as finance minister and deputy prime minister. He was finance minister again from 1996 to 1998 under a government led by the Socialists, who picked him as their candidate for prime minister in April parliamentary elections even though he has never joined the party.

Throughout much of the former Soviet bloc, there have been repeated controversies in the past decade about how to best deal with current-day politicians who have a record of cooperation with secret service agencies. Several countries have screening laws. Details and punishments vary, but their essence is to make it difficult for at least some categories of former secret service employees to hold office.

Times staff writer Holley reported from Rome and special correspondent Melis from Budapest.

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