It was last October that I wrote a fairly long post about the Orbán government’s plans “to stop time” and restore Kossuth tér, the area around the Hungarian parliament, to its pre-1944 state. Everybody suspected that although the square did need some refurbishing, something the Gyurcsány-Bajnai governments also contemplated, one reason for the reconstruction was the removal of a statue of Mihály Károlyi, the president of the First Hungarian Republic (1918-1919). Károlyi has been the bête noire of the Hungarian right ever since he was made the scapegoat for the drastic loss of territories after the end of World War I.
The earlier governments’ attempts at improving the square were stymied by–guess who? The Fidesz opposition. The square’s “owner” was District V. And who was and still is the mayor of District V? None other than the super legislator of the current parliament, Antal Rogán. The party used Rogán as their instrument to stop any attempt to remove, for example, a fairly large parking lot reserved for members of parliament from the square. The idea was to construct an underground garage and replace the asphalt that currently covers the area with a park. Antal Rogán had grave objections to building the garage and effectively put a stop to it.
Change of scene. Fidesz wins the elections with a two-thirds majority. One of the first things the new government did with respect to the square was to “nationalize” it. Mr. Rogán, the jealous mayor of his district, didn’t object. He gladly allowed himself to be deprived of a prime piece of real estate. Once the state owned the square, the Orbán government could do practically anything it wanted with it.
Not much information leaked out about the actual plans for the square until a few days ago when suddenly a wall was built around the area lying north of the Parliament building. Enterprising photo journalists managed to take a few photos of the site around the controversial statue of Mihály Károlyi. Within twenty-four hours all the trees one can see on the photo taken on February 28 were cut out.
Kossuth tér, February 28, Photo by Miklós Teknős, Népszabadság
According to Népszabadság the planners got rid of the trees even though there are still no definite plans and no contractor has been hired. Yet even if the final plans are not available, it seems that the decision has been made to build an underground garage on this particular spot that will serve members of parliament and also visitors to the building.
As for the trees, I was terribly surprised to hear how fast and without any fanfare they got rid of at least a dozen trees when a few years ago the building of an underground garage was foiled by Zoltán Illés, Fidesz member of parliament and an ardent environmentalist. There were at least two occasions when Illés managed to stop the building of much needed underground garages: in 2004 on Jókai tér and in 2009 at Nagymező utca. Mr. Illés, who today serves as undersecretary in charge of the environment, interestingly enough didn’t come to the rescue of the trees on Kossuth tér.
As it turned out, the project manager for rebuilding the square is another old Fidesz hand: Tamás Wachsler. Wachsler, according to his biography found on the parliament’s website, joined Fidesz in the middle of April 1988. He was one of the core members of this independent youth organization and became a member of parliament (1990-1994). Wachsler was something of a curiosity because in 1994 he dared to challenge Viktor Orbán for the position of chairmanship of Fidesz. Naturally, he lost.
Wachsler was forgiven for his impertinence and was named undersecretary in the Ministry of Defense during the first Orbán administration (1998-2002). That particular ministry was given to the Smallholders. Since Wachsler’s relations with the smallholder minister János Szabó were quite strained, two years later Wachsler resigned his post. After that he disappeared from political life.
Today, however, Wachsler made two appearances. First, he phoned in to György Bolgár’s talk show to inform Bolgár and the listeners that he is the project manager of the “Imre Steindl Plan” (SIP). This is the first time I’ve heard of the Steindl Plan, the name given to the refurbishing project of Kossuth tér. Why not? We have an Ignác Darányi Plan; we have a Kálmán Széll Plan; we have a Zoltán Magyary Plan; we have a Károly Ereky Plan. So why not an Imre Steindl Plan? After all, he was the architect of the parliament building.
Wachsler informed us that they had permission to cut out the trees. Where does one get permission to fell trees in front of parliament? In the city hall of District V, that is from Antal Rogán, Fidesz member of parliament. Naturally, he gladly granted permission. (Though it’s not clear that he even has the jurisdiction to be so generous; after all, it’s no longer his property.) Our undersecretary for the environment, the militant Zoltán Illés, didn’t chain himself to the trees as he did in 2004 and 2009. After all, as the Latin saying goes: mutantur omnia nos et mutamur in illis (all things change, and we change with them). Trees are not so important now as they were then.
All this was accomplished without anyone on the outside knowing about it. The environmentalists were also quiet. The Working Group for Air (Levegő Munkacsoport) is “struggling for survival,” according to its president András Lukács, who complains bitterly about the severe cuts in subsidies. They had to let some people go and there are so many problems that the small staff can’t handle them all. Maybe true, maybe not. We do know that the environmentalists, who used to resist practically all projects, have been conspicuously silent in the last two years.
Meanwhile, although Népszabadság thought that there were no plans yet, Project Manager Wachsler seems to know quite a few details, judging from the information he gave to MTI today. Attila József’s statue will remain but, if I understand it right, they will move it because at the moment it is not in the right place. After all, he isn’t facing the Danube. As for Károlyi’s statue, although Wachsler claimed not to know its fate, he seemed to know that the City of Siófok, birthplace of the artist Imre Varga, would like to have it for a park that would showcase Varga’s statues. A final decision will be made soon. In any event, because of the underground garage Károlyi’s statue cannot stay where it is now.
It is really remarkable how speedily and without any of the protracted negotiations that characterized the earlier government’s activities the Fidesz government operates. Suddenly everything is ready to go. But at what price?