RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
RFE/RL NEWSLINE 26 August 1999
SLOVAK OPPOSITION FAILS TO OUST MINISTER. Only 40 out of
the 114 deputies present voted in favor of a motion to
dismiss Pal Csaky, deputy premier in charge of minority and
human rights issues. The motion was submitted by the
opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which
blames Csaky for the exodus of Slovak Roma to Finland,
saying he neglected the Romany problem because he was
preoccupied by Hungarian minority issues. HZDS deputies
criticized the participation of the Hungarian Coalition
Party in the government coalition, saying that party is
attempting to revive a "Greater Hungary," CTK reported on
25 August. MS
HUNGARIAN PRIME MINISTER DENIES IRREDENTIST GOALS. "Border
revisions do not figure in the Hungarian government's
agenda in any way," Viktor Orban told Hungarian Radio on 25
August. He said he does not feel it is necessary to
distance himself from the irredentist aspirations of the
extreme-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (see "RFE/RL
Newsline," 23 August 1999), arguing that the party has no
political influence in Hungary. He noted that responding to
its calls for the annexation of parts of Vojvodina would
only trigger polemics that would harm the country. MSZ
HUNGARY'S MOST CELEBRATED CRIMINAL
by Michael J. Jordan
On the surface, it's a bit baffling. Hungary--a small
country proud of its contributions to world culture and
science and currently striving to join the club of Western
democracies--is holding up as its hero a man accused of 28
bank robberies. Vendors are hawking mugs and T-shirts of
Attila Ambrus. Fans have set up a Web site. A U.S. company is
considering buying the movie rights to his life story, and a
German firm wants Ambrus to promote its new energy drink.
So why the hoopla for a hood? The answer lies buried in
the Hungarian psyche. After nearly 500 years in the yoke of
foreign powers and 10 years of scandal-tainted capitalism,
the public has channeled its loathing of the "state" into
support for a criminal who holds up state-owned banks and who
recently humiliated police with a daring escape from a high-
"It's like the mouse laughing at the cat," says Gyorgy
Csepeli, a Hungarian social psychologist, who admits to being
an Ambrus admirer. "Here there has always been a clash
between state institutions and the people, with the state not
seen as a part of society but as something distant and
dangerous. So people love to see when the state can't control
a situation." He adds, "I also have no empathy for the
police. Before 1989, I was beaten several times."
Indeed, Hungarians are thrilled to see Ambrus preying on
two of society's most despised institutions: the banks and
the police. During four decades of communism, the police
ained a reputation for ruthlessness in persecuting opponents
of the regime. Not only were they feared, but their perceived
"stupidity" made them the butt of many Hungarian jokes.
Meanwhile, banks and the bosses who run them are a
powerful symbol of the postcommunist transition. While a
handful of Hungarians have become very rich, most of the
public is not doing as well. The average salary is about $200
The perception is that Ambrus is giving banks and police
their comeuppance. He is often compared with Sandor Rozsa, a
Hungarian Robin Hood-like figure of the early 19th century
who ambushed the wealthy as they traveled between Budapest
Ambrus's modus operandi has been just as important for
his image as have his targets. A former goalie in Hungary's
professional hockey league, Ambrus is viewed as a
"gentlemanly" criminal: clean-cut, polite, and good-looking.
He sometimes arrives at heists dressed in a jacket and tie;
sometimes he leaves flowers for the bank teller.
And he has robberies down to a science: The police have
a four-minute response time, so he usually gets the job done
in two or three minutes. His getaways display similar
panache. Ambrus has routinely hailed taxis, but once he swam
across the mighty River Danube.
In a telephone poll of Hungarians earlier this month,
three-quarters of respondents said they are rooting for
Ambrus. "I support [Ambrus] even though by stealing from
banks he's also taking from us," says Zoltan Hajos, a street
cleaner. "So I'd rather see him go after the rich."
Of course, there are Hungarians with a more sober
attitude. "Ambrus is a criminal who should be punished," says
Szilard Morzsa, a retired economist. "I think the people who
like him are those who watch these idiotic American movies
and think this situation is like America."
Ambrus's six-year crime spree appeared to be over in
January. As police staked out his home, Ambrus was captured
when he came to collect his dog. Hungarians saw this as
another sign of his humanity.
Then on July 12, he again grabbed headlines by tying
together bed sheets and rappelling from the fourth-floor
window of his Budapest jail cell. The escape was caught on
videotape, but the guards were short-handed that weekend and
failed to respond.
However, what many of Ambrus's fans are unaware of is
that Ambrus has also been charged with attempted murder in
connection with a March 1998 robbery. With police in hot
pursuit, Ambrus reportedly turned and fired a pistol at them
several times. Police failed to publicize the alleged
incident at the time, however, and the belated charge has
some supporters claiming it is an attempt to frame Ambrus.
Jozsef Jonas, a Hungarian crime reporter who had an
exclusive jail-house interview with Ambrus before his escape,
says police are in a quandary over how to proceed. "If they
criticize Ambrus and try to convince the public he's not a
good guy, the public may think just the opposite."
The media, for their part, are finally taking a more
critical look at Ambrus. Television news has now revealed
that he had numerous brushes with the law earlier in life and
has failed to provide for his impoverished parents in the
countryside. Meanwhile, Ambrus, through his lawyer, Gyorgy
Magyar, is parlaying his notoriety into profits. There's the
possible movie deal with an unidentified U.S. company and the
energy-drink promotion. In addition, his published memoirs
will be hitting the book stores shortly.
While doing business with a convicted criminal is not
illegal in Hungary, critics question the morality and ethics.
"My client has realized he could make more money being on the
wrong side of the law, in more ways than one," Mr. Magyar
says. "I'm just representing his interests, ensuring that his
name and image are not used improperly. Ethics have nothing
to do with this."
The author is a Budapest-based journalist
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