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The attempts to stifle the media which have so outraged Western commentators are not part of a carefully orchestrated plan of press control or part of a wider bid to build a corporate state, but a reflection of the deep animosity and unresolved conflict that exist between the country’s political parties and social groupings, along with the ingrained Fidesz habit of seizing all opportunities to silence and defeat enemies. Such attempts have not invariably achieved their objectives, however. When under pressure from the government the owners of Origo, a popular online news portal, pressed the editor to adopt a more Fidesz-friendly line, he and seven of his colleagues resigned in order to launch an investigative news portal called Direkt36 with the aim of revealing graft in high places, economic cronyism and the abuse of power. So far, Direkt36 has exposed corruption in Budapest’s municipal government, publishing embarrassing details of state contracts won by companies owned by members of Orbán’s family, including his father, brothers and son-in-law, and of a prostitution ring that reportedly catered to legislators and senior government officials, as well as describing the use of offshore accounts by MPs.

Corruption is a serious problem throughout central and eastern Europe; according to Attila Chikán, an economist and former Hungarian economics minister, it constitutes the biggest single constraint on Hungary’s economic development. Together with the growing centralisation of economic decision-making, it explains why the country’s economy has grown less rapidly than those of other Central and East European countries, despite the fact that it was the best-off in per capita terms when Communism collapsed and initially attracted higher levels of foreign investment than its Communist neighbours. When casting judgments on a society in which it was necessary to offer a “gift” in order to get one’s child medical treatment, or to receive the degree for which one had worked, or to obtain benefits to which there was a legal entitlement, Western observers should perhaps go easy on expressions of moral indignation. It is the direction of travel which matters.

In Hungary the direction of travel is far from encouraging, as the tolerance shown towards ministers and officials who have found ingenious ways of continuing their business careers while in office, as well as Hungary’s falling position in Transparency International’s corruption league table, bear depressing witness. Earlier this year, government spokesmen brushed aside Hungary’s poor ranking in the latter by suggesting that this was due to the malign influence of Orbán’s arch-enemy George Soros, who is known to have contributed to TI’s funding and who has described Hungary as “a mafia state”. But it is not necessary to be an admirer of Soros to acknowledge the mounting evidence that the country’s public procurement system suffers from endemic corruption, and that this discourages the foreign investment which the country still badly needs if the pitifully low level of wages — among the lowest in the EU — are to rise. Between 65 and 70 per cent of public tenders are believed to involve corrupt transactions, with the government handing out public funds to those with close ties to the ruling party. More than half of companies expect to give “gifts” to procurement officials to secure contracts.

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