On the surface, it's a bit baffling.
Hungary - a small nation proud of its contributions to world culture and science, and now 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. An American company is considering buying the movie rights to his life story, and a German firm wants Mr. 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 a criminal who holds up state-owned banks and recently humiliated police with a daring escape from a high-security jail.
"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 gained 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.
Banks, and the bosses who run them, meanwhile, are a powerful symbol of the postcommunist transition. While a handful of Hungarians have become very, very rich under privatization, most of the public is poorer. The average salary is about $200 per month.
The perception is that Ambrus is giving banks and police their comeuppance and thus scoring one for the little guy. 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 and Vienna.
Ambrus's modus operandi has been just as important for his image as 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 swam across the mighty Danube River.
In a telephone poll of Hungarians earlier this month, three-quarters said they were 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 more sober Hungarians. "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."
His six-year crime spree appeared to be over in January. As police staked out his home, Ambrus, with plans to leave the country, was captured when he came to collect his dog. Hungarians saw this as another sign of his humanity.
For months, there was little further talk of the daring robber. Then on July 12, he again grabbed headlines by tying together bedsheets 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.
"Everybody's laughing at it because the police are so ridiculous," says Istvan, a stockbroker who declined to give his last name. "They stop everyone in the street for almost anything, but when there's something serious, they can't do anything about it."
What many like Istvan are unaware of, however, is that Ambrus has also been charged with attempted murder, stemming from 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 jailhouse 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, is 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 American company and the energy-drink promotion. In addition, his published memoirs will be hitting the streets in two weeks.
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."
Ambrus has reportedly agreed that of the revenue from his new business deals, half will go toward repaying banks for their losses. If that happens, he may receive the minimum of what is usually a five-year to 15-year sentence for robbery.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society