It is really amazing how easily unabashed lies flow from the lips of Hungary’s current political leaders. For example, last Thursday at the “government info” session János Lázár announced that the relocation of the prime minister’s office to the Castle District of Buda wasn’t Viktor Orbán’s idea at all. It was Ferenc Gyurcsány who in 2004 made plans to move his office right next to the Sándor Palace, which is currently occupied by President János Áder. A few hours later 444.hu published an article titled “For a moment we believed Lázár that it was Gyurcsány who forced Orbán to move to the Castle.” Well, he didn’t fool me because I have been following Hungarian political events ever since 1993. I knew about only one Gyurcsány plan to create a so-called government quarter near the Western Station where all the ministries, currently scattered in expensive downtown buildings, could have moved into modern office buildings. The idea had to be dropped for lack of funds.
Members of the Orbán government should have learned by now that it is dangerous to come out with such brazen lies because these days journalists can debunk them in no time. And what did they find in this case? That in 1999, during the first Orbán government, the decision was made to move the prime minister’s office to the Sándor Palace, a building then in ruins that between 1881 and 1945 had served as the prime minister’s residence and office. The next project would have been the reconstruction of the former Carmelite Cloister next door to be used for government offices. So, Orbán has been plotting for at least fifteen years to move himself and his huge staff to the Castle District.
The reconstruction and refurbishing of the Sándor Palace began in a great hurry in 1999, to be finished by March 15, 2002. Orbán was certain that he would win the elections, to be held between April 7 and April 21. After all, there were polls that showed Fidesz 10% ahead of the socialists. But he lost, and with his defeat his dream of moving into the lavishly refurbished Sándor Palace collapsed. The most he could do was to hold his last cabinet meeting in the palace. For more details of the story see my post “Viktor Orbán and the Sándor Palace.”
After the election, it was decided not to use the palace as an office for the prime minister. Instead, it was declared to be the office of the president. After Orbán’s return as prime minister, people wondered whether he would boot the president out in order to occupy the Sándor Palace himself, but it seems that he realized this would not be a wise move politically. He now seems to be satisfied with separate quarters inside the former Carmelite Cloister, which will be reconstructed as the prime minister’s office with all its 700 or more employees. The location of the building, right next to the Sándor Palace, can be seen on the photo below. In the background on the right is the former royal palace, which will also be completely reconstructed and refurbished. Orbán has expensive taste.
It was in June 2014 that we first heard about the plans to move Orbán’s office to the Carmelite Cloister. Just for planning the project, the government set aside 1.4 billion forints. A few months later we learned that in 2016 8.2 billion forints and in 2017 5.8 billion forints will be set aside for the reconstruction of the building. This past February it was announced in Magyar Közlöny (Official Gazette) that, in addition, one billion forints will be spent on works of art, I assume for the prime minister’s quarters. Looking at one of the drawings of the plan, I have the feeling that this space will cut out from the interior with most likely a separate entrance for the exclusive use of the prime minister and his visitors. By February of this year newspapers were talking about a total cost of 20 billion forints, which is way over the original 14 billion anticipated in 2014.
One problem facing the architects is that the Carmelite Cloister is a historic building under special, very stringent protection. This particular building is situated in the Buda Castle District, which is one of the nine UNESCO heritage sites in Hungary. No major structural changes are allowed that alter the exterior of the buildings. And yet a few days ago it became clear that Viktor Orbán’s plans include a balcony facing the Danube. As you can see from the video of the interior of the Sándor Palace, it has a terrace with a terrific view of the city, which is always shown to visitors. I guess Orbán is not satisfied with anything less. What UNESCO thinks of the balcony idea we don’t know yet, but Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt is planning to inquire of UNESCO whether it has given its blessing to adding a balcony to the building.
The building has a colorful history. A medieval church that stood there was destroyed by the Turkish occupiers, who built a mosque in its place. The mosque was also destroyed at the time of the liberation of Buda in 1686. The empty lot was given to the Carmelite sisters, who built a church and a cloister in the early eighteenth century. Emperor Joseph II with the Edict of Idle Institutions disbanded monastic orders that didn’t engage in teaching, nursing, or other practical work. As a result, the number of contemplative friars and nuns dropped from 65,000 to 27,000. Joseph expropriated the monasteries and took their money to pay ordinary priests more. The Carmelite sisters’ cloister was one of the victims of Joseph’s reforms. He visited Buda in 1786 and personally decided to transform the church into a theater and the cloister into a casino. It was in this building that Beethoven gave a concert on May 7, 1800. In addition, all the great Hungarian actors and actresses of the nineteenth century who later founded the National Theater played in Várszínház (Castle Theater).
During World War II the building was heavily damaged, and it was only in the 1970s that it was rebuilt and again became a functioning theater with its old name “Várszínház.” Between 2001 and 2014 the Nemzeti Táncszínház (National Dance Theater) rented the building, which they then had to vacate.
I wonder what the fate of this dream of Hungary’s megalomaniac prime minister will be. Will he ever move into the building with a commanding view of his capital, a capital he doesn’t really like? Or will something interfere with his plans, like in 2002 when his cherished dream came to naught? Despite their seeming self-confidence, György Matolcsy’s most likely illegal foundations with their corrupt practices have shaken this government more than the leading Fidesz politicians let on. I suspect Orbán often reflects on the fate of his palace in which he could hold only one cabinet meeting, which must have resembled a funeral after a lost election. He might consider it a bad omen that his new office, so close to the former Royal Palace, will again be ready in an election year. The original deadline for the completion of the building was March 15, 2016, safely tucked between two elections. But now it will be ready for occupancy only in 2018. I’ll bet it worries him.