Gripen probe fires blanks
The inconclusive report of the committee set up to investigate the purchase of the Gripen jets hardly comes as a surprise given that Hungary has had a series of ineffective investigative committees. It is probable that those concerned have once again prevented compromising information from being made public. There is still a chance that the stalemate will be broken, but this is likely to happen in
From MiGs to Gripens
The Gripen case, which has now come into the spotlight again, extends back to 1992, when the Defence Ministry led by Lajos Für decided to replace the outdated MiG-21s. The Defence Ministry considered acquiring used F-16s and
Both sides bought in
The HUF 110 billion decision (EUR 435.6 million at the time) was explained primarily on economic grounds, but the credibility of this argument was reduced by the fact that making the MiG-29s NATO compatible would have been significantly cheaper. The then opposition of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) criticised the move as too expensive and insisted that a public procurement procedure had not been held, yet one year after entering government they proceeded to increase the costs themselves. Under the 2003 amendment to the contract, the lease of the planes, updated with new features, was extended to ten years at the end of which ownership will be passed on to Hungary, bringing the total cost to HUF 210 billion (EUR 821.1 million at the time). Both the Orbán and the Medgyessy governments came under suspicion of corruption: the former for unexpectedly deciding in favour of the Gripens (a move which also baffled those in the know), and the latter for choosing to amend the contract. However, with time the issue died down.
In June 2007, thanks to Swedish investigative journalism, the Gripen case once again came into the public eye: television channel SVT broadcast a programme alleging that Austrian businessman Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly had received a kick-back for acting as an intermediary in connection with the Czech and Hungarian acquisitions of the fighter planes. The programme refocused attention on the question of the Gripen deal in Hungary, and the government reacted by setting up an investigative committee to look into the Gripen affair, with Ágnes Vadai, Defence Ministry state secretary appointed as its chairwoman.
Whilst Vadai stressed the independence of the other members of the committee, it includes Mária Szabó Buzálné, who leads the national security office of the Prime Minister’s Office, and László Petőfi, who was economic deputy state secretary at the Information and Telecommunications Ministry at the time of the first Gyurcsány government.
When the committee was formed, the state secretary said that the intention was to release all information, whilst at the same time protecting state and official secrets, which could prove that the acquisitions were conducted legally and properly, or if evidence is found that this was not the case, then to name those responsible.
Can’t find fire for the smoke
Despite this, the report, which was completed on 9 November and not made fully public, fails to name any of those responsible and does not add anything to the stance previously taken by the MSZP. It establishes that the acquisition of the Gripen fighter planes took place in 2001 without a public procurement procedure, and that it contravened a parliamentary resolution which planned the acquisition for after 2003. According to the report, however, the 2003 amendment to the Gripen contract was justified and in line with the earlier government resolution on the development of the Air Force.
Not investigating corruption
Although the allegations in connection with the Austrian Mensdorff-Pouilly were what prompted the committee to be established, Vadai stressed that the committee did not investigate the questions of corruption or political responsibility, and said that these will be the task of a parliamentary committee to be formed later. The comment is particularly interesting in the light of the fact that the committee’s chairwoman a few weeks earlier had promised “surprising details”.
The government committee’s report provides hardly any new information, and there is little reason to believe that the parliamentary investigative committee – if it is actually formed – will achieve results that are much more substantial. As with the probes into oil-bleaching and Communist-era informers, the threads of the Gripen case appear too tangled for it to be in anyone’s interests to unravel them.
Finally, it is important to note that more generally significant results cannot be expected from the parliamentary committees since their operation is unconstitutional. Based on resolution 50/2003 of the
Swedes could still break case
Nevertheless, there is still a possibility of a breakthrough in the case. The Swedish Public Prosecutor is investigating the contract amendment made under the Medgyessy government. Due to the statute of limitations of five years for corruption cases in
, Parliament should have framed the rules for the activity of committees by 31 March 2004, but it has not done so. As a result, even now there is no legislation in place, there is no legal sanction for blocking the procedures of the committees, and there is no legal remedy against the decisions of the committees.