In the last few days quite a few alleged corruption cases have surfaced that may deserve closer scrutiny. For today’s post I picked one, the story of the Hungarian pavilion at the Milan World’s Fair. It might be amusing if it were not so sad. More than five billion forints were spent building a pavilion and designing a program that was supposed to say something meaningful about Hungary’s contribution to sustainable agriculture and the environment. The result? Hungary ended up with a monstrous building and an inferior kitschy exhibition that most Hungarian visitors are outright ashamed of.
The building was more or less ready by the deadline, May 1, when the Expo officially opened. Several Hungarian politicians showed up for the event. Among the media, only MTI (the state telegraphic agency) and the state television station were invited. As if the organizers and the politicians involved in the project realized that it would create a scandal at home. The fewer people who know about it the better.
The man who was responsible for the project is Géza Szőcs, a Hungarian poet originally from Cluj/Kolozsvár, who with a detour to Switzerland returned to Eastern Europe. He went first to Romania, where he served in the Romanian Senate (19901-1992), and eventually settled in Hungary, where in May 2010 Viktor Orbán appointed him undersecretary in charge of culture in the ministry of human resources. In two years it became crystal clear that Szőcs was a disaster in the job, and although the prime minister doesn’t like to fire people, Szőcs was let go. As a consolation price he became of the many chief advisers to Orbán and, in addition, got the job of overseeing the Milan Expo.
Szőcs turned out to be as unfit to be a government commissioner (kormánybiztos) as he was to be an undersecretary. The first scandal attached to his name in this capacity was the choice of a design for the pavilion that would house the Hungarian exhibition. Arbitrarily he opted for the runner-up instead of the one that was approved by the Association of Hungarian Architects. All organizations that have anything to do with architecture were horrified, as was the public.
What most likely captured the imagination of Géza Szőcs were the two “wheels,” which apparently are shaman drums. Szőcs’s father apparently was fascinated by early Hungarian history and the origins of Hungarians. And one of Géza Szőcs’s first projects was launching genetic research that would decide once and for all the connection between Hungarians and other people speaking Finno-Ugric languages. An absurd idea for at least two reasons. First, linguistic relationships have nothing to do with genes. Second, genetic research of the kind Szőcs proposed has already been done, and it turned out that the genetic makeup of Hungarians is in no significant way different from that of any other European group.
The winning (but rejected) design, at least in my opinion, was more in keeping with the theme of the Expo. It depicted an old-fashioned water-mill, which would have played into the idea of renewable energy. Moreover, Hungarian mills had a very important role to play in the economic development of the country. This is what it would have looked like.
András Földes of Index listed six Hungarian sins which, in his opinion, are all present in the pavilion and exhibition. The first two are lack of competence and conceit. The other sins are a lack of transparency, (suspicion of) corruption, blaming others for one’s own failures, and being elusive. Szőcs first blamed the Italians for the delays and then hid from the journalists on the day of the opening. Földes also includes a seventh Hungarian sin: cheapness (kisstílűség). Lots of money spent on inferior, tasteless items.
By the time the pavilion was built, it bore no resemblance to the original design, the result of which was that even the creators refused to give their names to the project. It is hard to decide which is more hideous, the design or what became of it. As Földes points out, at least in the original design the shaman drums looked like shaman drums and there was a recognizable garden. The final result (below) reminded Földes of a 19th-century steam engine. But why then is the pavilion called the Garden of Life?
Hungarian visitors, and not just journalists, tell us that there are mighty few people who are interested in the Hungarian exhibition which, instead of having a main theme, simply displays items traditionally associated with Hungary, including dried red peppers that hang everywhere. In the past, Hungary employed its best chefs for such occasions. This time even the food is inferior (and expensive).
The same András Földes who reported on his impressions of the pavilion yesterday published a second article after Index received some information from the ministry of human resources on expenditures connected to the “Garden of Life.” The list of financial misdeeds is too long to itemize, but here are a few. The government spent 60 million forints for 16 documentary films which up to now no one has seen. Apparently, the films have absolutely nothing to do with sustainable agriculture. Instead, some historians talk about relations between Hungary and Lombardy. EuroAtlantic Solutions, a firm known to American-Hungarians as a lobbying group owned by Tamás Fellegi, a former professor of Viktor Orbán and his first minister of national development, was also involved in the project. Budapest Beacon reported already in March that Fellegi’s firm received $2.85 million to organize and promote the Hungarian pavilion in Milan. The agreement included organizing events, travel arrangements and lodging, catering, marketing, public relations, creative work, and media management. Judging from the reports about the poverty of events and programs, EuroAtlantic Solutions was overpaid.
The ministry of human resources, which is responsible for the project, is up in arms. They are certain that the journalist who wrote the article did so in order “to discredit” Szőcs and the ministry. They will sue Index and those opposition parties who, on the basis of Földes’s report, are asking for a police investigation into Szőcs’s activities. I have the feeling that the ministry and Szőcs would be much wiser to let sleeping dogs lie.