Today being Friday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave another interview on Magyar Rádió’s Kossuth channel. Naturally, the Quaestor scandal was the first topic to be discussed. After a close reading of the text, I decided that it was worth spending a post on how the story line of this whole sordid affair has been changing from day to day.
Last night I watched an interview with László Kéri, a political science professor who has known Viktor Orbán and his friends ever since their college days. He expressed his total disgust that “in three weeks [Viktor Orbán] could only come up with such an infantile, obvious, and slapdash story.” And that interview took place before yet another version of the government’s involvement with Quaestor was presented today.
So, let me try to summarize what kinds of stories were fed to the unsuspecting public in the last two days. You may recall that yesterday morning Viktor Orbán admitted his personal involvement. He was the one who instructed all ministries at one of the cabinet meetings to check whether they had any assets at certain brokerage firms and, if yes, to withdraw them immediately. He didn’t mention the date of the cabinet meeting, but journalists suspected that March 4th was the most likely date, which was indirectly confirmed by János Lázár, who at a press conference yesterday talked about Orbán’s instruction “only at the beginning of March.” But by today the story changed, most likely because the early March date was too close to the collapse of Quaestor and lent credence to the charge of insider trading.
Therefore, in his interview this morning, again without mentioning an exact date, Orbán said that his decision to withdraw government monies from brokerage firms “was made immediately after the collapse of Buda-Cash, at the time when there was no sign of any other bankruptcies” and not in early March, as János Lázár claimed only yesterday.
At this point, the reporter asked whether it was at a cabinet meeting that “this instruction was uttered,” and more importantly, whether minutes of the meeting are available. The answer to this question was curious. “There must be [biztosan]. We took a look at the situation after the bankruptcy of Buda-Cash and decided that I will call together the leaders of the municipalities, some 60 of them, to the parliament for a meeting. At that [cabinet] meeting we looked at the situation and decided that we couldn’t take such a risk.”
My problems begin with the very first word which, in my opinion, in this context does not carry the meaning of absolute certainty, although the literal English equivalent of “biztosan” is “sure, surely.” I believe that my rendition as “there must be” is more accurate. An unequivocally positive answer in Hungarian would be something like “persze” (of course), or “természeten” (naturally). So, in my interpretation Orbán did not want to give the impression that he could actually come up with a transcript of what took place at this cabinet meeting.
The sentences that I just quoted do not support Viktor Orbán’s assertion that he explicitly instructed the ministers to withdraw government assets from questionable brokerage firms. If you read the text carefully, the only thing that he claims happened at that cabinet meeting was a discussion of the problems of 68 municipalities that kept their assets in one of the four small banks belonging to the Buda-Cash Group. If there is a transcript at all, which I doubt, I suspect one would find a discussion of these municipalities’ plight and absolutely no instructions concerning government assets at Quaestor.
But that was not the only lie that Orbán told in this interview about the Quaestor case. A second concerned the nature of the assets in which the ministry of foreign affairs and trade invested 3.5 billion forints. Again, a word-for-word translation is necessary. “As things stand now, what I know now is that we are talking about government bonds, so it is money that comes from the budget. These state institutions kept their money in government bonds which they purchased from the brokerage firms. So, if I understand it correctly, they didn’t gamble with the money of the taxpayers. They put it into secure paper, but these bonds were at the wrong place.” This story is most likely the brainchild of the last 24 hours because the first time we heard about secure government bonds was at János Lázár’s press conference yesterday afternoon. But then how it is possible that Quaestor didn’t simply return the secure government bonds worth 3.5 billion forints but decided instead to send the 3.5 billion in cash? A reporter actually asked Lázár about the anomaly, but Lázár’s only answer was that the ministry might press charges against the brokerage firm and that this just shows that a bunch of crooks ran Quaestor.
And this was not the end of the lies Viktor Orbán managed to put together for this Friday. The third one concerned a letter that Csaba Tarsoly, CEO of Quaestor, sent to Viktor Orbán. The first story was that Tarsoly’s letter was sent to Péter Szijjártó, Tarsoly’s buddy, with a request for help. He asked Szijjártó to pass the letter on to Orbán. According to Lázár, the letter in which Tarsoly announced the impending bankruptcy of Quaestor reached Orbán “at the beginning of March.” That date sounds plausible because, according to earlier information, it was on March 5th that Péter Szijjártó decided to withdraw the ministry’s money from the firm. But that date is terribly inconvenient for Orbán because it would indicate that he instructed Szijjártó to withdraw the ministry’s assets based on insider information. That must be avoided. So, the letter got postdated to March 9th, the day of Quaestor’s official bankruptcy announcement. Viktor Orbán learned about Tarsoly’s problems on the same day that the Hungarian National Bank was informed of the firm’s collapse.
Today we at last found out that the cabinet meeting at which Orbán allegedly warned the ministers of the impending doom took place on February 25, a day after the collapse of Buda-Cash. But, if this story is true, Szijjártó’s ministry was in no hurry to save the taxpayers’ money. Szijjártó waited nine solid days before he allegedly followed the prime minister’s instructions and demanded a return of their billions. Something doesn’t add up here. But then we know that most crime novelists write several drafts before all the pieces fall into place. Eventually the Orbán government may craft a coherent story.