Recordings have emerged of conversations between an alleged organized crime kingpin telling the Socialist-era director of Hungary’s National Security Service, “I do whatever you say,” as the two seem to plot against political opponents and decision-makers. The revelation has provided an unusual glimpse into the intrigue of an otherwise invisible underworld and set Hungarian media abuzz.
Transcripts of the recordings, declassified and released on Monday, intercepted conversations that took place in 2008 during the previous Socialist-led government, supposedly between Tamás Portik, a well-known figure in Hungary widely considered to be a mafia ringleader, and Sándor Laborc, then director of the NBH. The NBH, or National Security Service, used to be the name for the agency whose responsibilities included counter intelligence. (It was re-named as the Constitutional Defense Office in 2010). Laborc and his superior, György Szilvásy, the minister then responsible for the intelligence services, have disputed the authenticity of the transcripts. The affair has received widespread coverage in Hungarian media, regardless of editorial orientation.
According to the transcripts, the notorious Portik and Laborc talked at least three times in 2008 about political issues, including how to prevent the center-right Fidesz from winning the upcoming elections. Portik, a convicted felon, initiated the meetings and the NBH spy chief considered it important enough to personally manage the matter. No further proof has yet emerged of any operations resulting from the meetings, but the recordings themselves offer a very disturbing image of a Socialist Party administration seemingly on good terms with organized crime. Among the more disturbing revelations is that the person responsible for counterintelligence under the Gyurcsány Government and later - for some months - the Bajnai Government allegedly agreed to use state institutions to blackmail or compromise political opponents, state security institutions that are supposed to prevent such things. What’s more, it appears from the tapes that he intended to do so with the help of a convicted felon and alleged mafia boss, who boasts of his sympathies for the political Left. “I always worked for the Left,” says the voice said to be Portik’s. “Even today I do so. I have never had any troubles with them. Oil, cigarettes, everything.” The two discuss the possibility of setting up compromising traps for decisionmakers and politicians of the Right, using drugs or brothels. In the following excerpt from the tapes, I2 is said to be Portik and X is supposedly Laborc:
I2: I do whatever… whatever you say. I am 150 percent sure, whole-souled, whole-hearted… I don’t think you can ask anything I wouldn’t do. So I say…
X: OK. Any story that can be grabbed fast is OK. So, we should start this way. It would be interesting to try to influence decision-makers… by media coverage… with drugs, or even taking them to a brothel etc. … everything like this would be interesting in the case of anyone.
I2: I guess, I can do such a thing in the future, I have connections with brothels… can I do it myself? I mean, if we need recordings.
X: Well, I think it’s a good solution (everybody laughs), no, I mean, we have talked it over so from now on, this thing is working. What we have to consider is that, OK, that’s fine, but the subject will know where the picture was taken. This is something that shouldn't just be doddered around with. It has to be properly carried through to the end, so if there is something like this, let’s discuss how we could leak it to the public.
I2: I always tell you what we know and then you will… review it anyway.
Hungary is no stranger to such conspiracy scandals. In 2007, a year prior to when these conversations supposedly took place, an eerily similar story emerged in the Hungarian press. Lajos Kósa, mayor of Debrecen in eastern Hungary and a leading figure in Fidesz, was accused of participating in a real estate fraud. Later, however, the source of the accusations admitted that he had been coerced by Portik and the NBH had helped him “gather” the information. Another case, currently in the courts, involves reporters from the right-leaning television news channel, Hír Tv, who had allegedly been set up by a left-wing public figure.
But who are the two persons said to be on the tape discussing operations against Fidesz? Sándor Laborc, born in 1958, is a seasoned intelligence officer. He was a graduate of the KGB’s Moscow spy academy. He worked for the Communist dictatorship’s state security, and then stayed on as a supposedly neutral expert in various branches of the Hungarian intelligence community. He was appointed at the end of 2007 as the director of the NBH, by the Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, and resigned in 2009, under Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, as a result of an illegal surveillance scandal. He has faced a number of cases against him recently, some of them still in process.
Tamás Portik, born in 1972, has more humble beginnings, coming from a state orphanage and starting his criminal career with petty crimes. He developed a reputation as a smart and forceful thug. Demonstrating a capability to direct larger operations, he quickly rose in stature and was reportedly recruited by senior organized crime leaders for the now infamous enterprise called Energol. The CEO of Energol was an obscure figure from the communist cadre, leaving the dictatorship’s Ministry of Interior at the rank of colonel. Energol concentrated its efforts in a scam on oil products built on value-added tax fraud and the helpful cooperation of some customs officers and Socialist politicians. Portik carved out a fortune from what proved to be the business of the century, but it was too much even for his comrades. Fleeing an arrest warrant issued against him in 1997, he disappeared for some fifteen years and returned as an “entrepreneur” only in 2003, under a new Socialist government. Whispers of his role in bloody pay-offs (including bombings) in the late ’90s had long been rumored. Finally, he was arrested after the Orbán Government took power in 2010.
If genuine, the recording clearly suggests that a wing of the Hungarian Socialist Party was connected to organized crime groups with the help of senior security officers and law enforcement. Other incidents that occurred between 2002 and 2010, during the Socialist-Liberal government, have long been suspected as having security agency involvement, where whole departments of law enforcement branches were possibly used for political purposes. In 2006, for example, when protests against Ferenc Gyurcsány following the revelation of the Balatonőszöd speech shook the capital, many suspect that authorities deliberately increased the turmoil, mislead police units, incited hooligans and encouraged the use of excessive force by police troops. The brutality of the police during clashes with protesters affected many innocents. In another case, the Socialist goverment was reported to have used “national security” information on undisclosed plotters from Slovakia to deter the Fidesz-led opposition from holding a street rally. Finally, when six Roma persons were killed in a series of sudden, premeditated attacks by unidentified assailants, few were surprised when a military counter-intelligence officer and his former agent showed up in the story. The degree of hard and fast proof of a direct link between these incidents and the Socialist Party leadership or government varies, but in terms of popular perception, the new Portik-Laborc story has been an unpleasant reminder of an era when this link seemed to many quite clear.
So, what to say about the alleged meetings of Portik and Laborc? Was it simply an inside job?
Mykola Riabchuk, a former anti-Soviet dissident from Ukraine, offers perhaps a fitting description of states run by post-communist forces. He calls them “blackmail states,” where these forces operate under the veil of democracy while mobilizing their former networks, playing the state administration at will and cooperating with organized crime figures to maximize profits and frighten and repress political opponents. This phenomena has been witnessed in Slovakia, Romania, Serbia as well as many of the former Soviet republics. Certainly the use of secret services to compromise opponents is not only a trait of the former Eastern Bloc countries. But we've seen it frequently here and have noticed that it kills the user more often than the target.
Should no new development undermine the credibility of the transcripts, it will be one of the most outrageous scandals since the transition in 1989-90. We probably have not heard the last of the Portik and Laborc story.