The other day I read with some dismay that nowadays the European Union is paying subsidies to owners of vineyards to cut out the vines because there is a glut in wine production not only in Hungary but all over Europe. In addition, very good Australian, South American, South African, and American wines are inexpensive and plentiful.
I had to recall the times when the Hungarian government spent just in one year, in 2001, about 1.5 billion forints for subsidies given to 570 winemakers to plant more wine producing grapes. The number is quoted by Péter Kende, in my opinion the best investigative journalist in Hungary. I have no idea how many winemakers are now getting money to cut out the very same plants they planted eight years ago. Or, if you don't like wine, take milk. A few years ago the European Union was putting a lot of money in the pockets of farmers, urging them to produce more and more milk. Today there is such overproduction that the farmers are pouring the milk down the drain. Literally. Lately in front of some supermarkets. For good measure they also placed a few cow heads on the pavement while they busily poured milk over them. It was a really disgusting scene.
All that brought back the old story of the time (yes, 2001, three years into the prime minister's term) that the Orbán family received government subsidies to improve their recently acquired vineyard in Tokaj. It was in 1997, that is before Viktor Orbán became prime minister, that his wife, Anikó Lévai, purchased a 5.5-acre lot in Tokaj for 100,000 forints. A couple of weeks later she and two lawyer friends of the family joined forces to form a joint venture to grow wine on a total of 48 acres of land in Tokaj. She put up this lot as her share in the company, claiming that it was worth 3 million forints. As it turned out, the learned lawyers didn't know that according to Hungarian law you cannot use agricultural land as a proxy for cash to buy a stake in a company. I don't remember how the problem was resolved, whether the Orbáns had to dig deep into their pockets for the 3 million forints or whether, as often happened, an "angel" helped them out.
In those days the vineyard business seemed lucrative enough. During the socialist period the once highly sought after Hungarian wines, especially from Tokaj, Eger, and the Balaton region had become debased. The big Hungarian state company was mixing wines from various small producers as well as wines from different years, and therefore for even very ordinary table wine one tried to avoid Hungarian labels. However, with the change of regime individual winemakers producing quality wines emerged, and it looked as if there would be big money in these ventures. (As it turned out there wasn't.)
Buying land in general seemed to be a promising business in those days, and even today. Agricultural land prices are still very low but anybody with some business acumen, which both Viktor Orbán and Anikó Lévai seem to have, knows that once the restriction on foreigners buying land in Hungary is lifted, prices will go up and up. In addition to the Tokaj investment, the Orbáns also bought quite a few acres of agricultural land in the village where Orbán grew up. I had to laugh when I heard Orbán say on one of the videos available on his website that once he retires he wants to be a farmer! Somehow I don't think that we will see Viktor Orbán sitting on a tractor any time soon, if at all. My guess is that they purchased the land for speculative purposes.
But let's go back to the year 2004 when during the summer HírTV and Magyar Nemzet found out that Ferenc Wekler, an SZDSZ member of parliament and one of the deputy speakers of the house, requested and received government subsidies to revitalize the old vineyard in his family's possession. Not only that, but he managed to effect a change in the classification of the region to a higher category, a change that would make his wine more valuable. Soon enough he had to resign from politics. Apparently Zoltán Lengyel, who has gone through many parties but in 2004 happened to be a member of the Fidesz delegation, was outraged at Wekler's behavior and wanted to know how many more such scoundrels could be found in the Hungarian parliament. He surely meant among the representatives of the government coalition parties. Well, as it turned out, there were at least two others: Ervin Demeter (Fidesz), formerly minister in charge of national security, and Viktor Orbán. Or rather his wife.
Now there is nothing in the books that forbids members of parliament or the government from taking advantage of subsidies. And there is nothing wrong with the government granting subsidies. But there is a definite conflict of interest if the government hands out subsidies to a company co-owned by the wife of the head of the government. Of the 570 applicants in 2001 481 received less than 10 million forints and only two received more than 40 million in national and county subsidies. The highest subsidy was 44,636,000 forints to the Royal Tokaji Borászati Kft (39 St. James Place, London) whose owner was Sir Nigel R. Wilson. The second highest (34,324,000 ft.) sum granted by the state went to the Szárhegy Dűlő- Sárazsadány-Tokajhegyalja Kft. (a mouthful all right!), that is the tract of 48 acres owned by Anikó Lévai, the two lawyer friends, and by this time a well-heeled Hungarian refugee from 1956, Dezső Kékessy. (Kékessy settled in Geneva and became a research physician and owner of at least two companies: Bio Medical SA and Bio Analitic.) The company also received another 7,151,000 ft. from the Megyei Területfejlesztési Tanács, i.e. the Land Development Council of the Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County. That county subsidy, of course, also came from taxpayer money.
I'm not going to list all the lucrative and influential positions Anikó's partners received during the Orbán period because the list would be too long. But perhaps one example will suffice. Dezső Kékessy became ambassador to France, where his activities were outrageous. His most memorable act was moving the Hungarian embassy from a central, very good address to quarters within the Hungarian House far from the city center. That move cost 200 million forints. And what became of the former embassy ? It was transformed into the private quarters of the new ambassador to the tune of 500 million forints. In general, Viktor Orbán adopted the unfortunate American tradition of rewarding generous campaign contributors with ambassadorships. In Kékessy's case, the contribution may have been personal as well.
When it became known that Anikó Lévai's company had received a very generous subsidy, the not too competent socialist minister of agriculture simply didn't want to believe his ears. Later, when socialist MPs addressed further questions to him regarding this highly suspect subsidy, his only answer was that he was no detective but he would check the archives of the ministry. Well, it turned out to be true enough. Moreover, because of a messy divorce case of one of the owners and the vindictiveness of his jilted wife, copies of the minutes of a critical company board meeting came to light. Viktor Orbán himself had taken part in this meeting. One topic of discussion was how they could privatize certain portions of state-owned Tokaj Kereskedőház Rt., a bottling company and exporter of Tokaj wines. They were especially interested in the research section of the business. As Viktor Orbán pointed out, such privatization could be accomplished only if they divided the business into smaller units and privatized the parts separately instead of the business as a whole. Moreover, as he told them, this could be done only after the elections of 2002. As we know, this business dream didn't materialize because Viktor Orbán's party lost the elections.
One of the most frequently quoted sentences of Orbán at that fateful meeting was that "we shouldn't get the greatest amount" of money granted to applicants. And indeed, they didn't. Only the second highest. And because, as Péter Kende rightly points out, on the application form there was no line to request a specific amount, only the government authorities could decide who would get how much. Therefore it is more than likely that Orbán send a friendly order to József Torgyán, then minister of agriculture, or one of his underlings and instructed him about the details of the grant.
In any other "normal country," I'm certain, the Hungarian equivalent of the attorney general would have immediately begun an investigation. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán sued Élet és Irodalom, the weekly that first published the documents and a series of articles about the case. He and his clever lawyers didn't contest the truthfulness of the journalist's reports; they based their case on a technical distinction. Although the participants themselves called the meeting a "board meeting" (taggyűlés), the company's lawyer argued that it was not an official board meeting because the minutes were not officially filed. The minutes that the jilted wife printed from her husband's computer was therefore an unofficial document. As Viktor Orbán repeated many times, "I have never been present at any board meeting." And what about the rest? Well, Orbán refused to deal with that and so did the Hungarian justice system.