EU money is not the only thing that comes and goes in Hungary. Oligarchs come and go as well.
A few years ago Zoltán Spéder, a banker who is among the thirty richest men in Hungary, was given the red carpet treatment. Even laws were changed to make his business activities easier. Today a full-scale character assassination is underway against him, and the police have already searched his bank and his media company that is behind the successful, informative online news site Index.
Spéder seems to be the kind of fellow who tries to get along with people in power without paying much attention to ideology. For example, as head of FHB Mortgage Bank he maintained good relations with András Simor, chairman of the Hungarian National Bank at the time, and worked together with Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai. Nonetheless, he is considered to be close to Fidesz, whose leadership he got to know well in the early 1990s when Spéder was still part of the upper management of OTP, Hungary’s largest bank. After 2010 the successful banker, by this time heading FHB Mortgage Bank, was chosen by Viktor Orbán to head a bank in which the state had a majority stake that was intended to compete with OTP. The vehicle for this scheme was the forcible integration of a number of independent credit unions headed by Spéder. The story of “the rape of Takarékbank” can be read in English in Budapest Beacon.
So, a couple of years ago Zoltán Spéder was the darling of the government, the key man in a new state-owned bank that was meant to have a much larger share of the market than any privately-owned commercial bank in the country. Well, this plan has been abandoned, and I wouldn’t be at all be surprised if Spéder were soon in custody.
First, the new government-financed tabloids, 888 and Ripost, followed by Andy Vajna’s TV2 in the service of the government, began a witch hunt against the man. The second move was a change in the law, taking away Spéder’s special status. Third, NAV, the Hungarian tax office, is investigating Spéder. And finally, yesterday police arrived at the offices of Spéder’s bank and media company and took away computers and other evidence.
The pro-government media’s attacks on individuals and institutions are obviously ordered from above because they move more or less in unison. For example, the very first issue of Árpád Habony’s new free paper Lokál had an article: “Who is this Zoltán Spéder and what does he want with our money?” Ripost published pictures of Spéder in baggy shorts talking with an unidentified man and a well-known businesswoman on a city street, arriving at the absurdly primitive conclusion that Spéder is down and out, a man who has to conduct his business on the street. TV2 did a number on him in the series introduced a week ago “Billionaires in Hiding.” If you recall, George Soros was the first victim. Spéder has the distinction of being number two on the hit list. The “revelations” were mundane: he has a swimming pool, a tennis court, and expensive cars. The program mentioned his “political connections” but wisely remained silent about who the politicians are with whom Spéder is so friendly. “He robs you if he likes you, he robs you if he doesn’t like you because he must always win,” the anchor of the program said.
Character assassination is a specialty of Viktor Orbán. 444 calls it a vendetta. And naturally FHB’s shares plummeted. On Monday it opened at 702 forints. Thursday’s closing print was 540 forints. Since the Hungarian state owns 4.8 million shares in Spéder’s bank, Hungarian taxpayers lost 783 million forints in the last few days thanks to Viktor Orbán’s action against Spéder.
Commentators are trying to find the real reason for the massive, concerted attack on Spéder. There are different hypotheses. (1) Spéder and/or Index offended Viktor Orbán, György Matolcsy, or both. (2) Orbán as early as January was angered by Spéder’s capital raise for FHB via a private placement, which reduced the state’s share in the bank to 40%. The prime minister in one of his radio interviews called it “an unfriendly, not to say, hostile move” that Spéder must rectify. And there are some other theories that are too bizarre for serious consideration.
Until now, commentators have spent little time assessing the role the journalistic activities of Index might have played in Viktor Orbán’s ire against Spéder. On April 28 Index reported that, according to the paper’s sources, TEK, Viktor Orbán’s anti-terrorist force, was sent to Uganda to bring Orbán’s son home “when it turned out that he had joined a Christian group doing charity work in Africa.” A few hours later Index had to retract the story after it turned out that it was not true. Since then the investigative journalist who was responsible for the article left Index and is now employed by Népszabadság. Of course, this wasn’t the only story that appeared in Index that annoyed Orbán and the people around him. The publication in general is sharply critical of the Orbán government’s less than sterling performance and its incredible corruptness.
According to W. Árpád Tóta, my favorite commentator who worked for Index a few years ago, before 2010, that is before Fidesz won the election, Spéder had never interfered with the content of articles that appeared in Index. Sometime after 2010, however, he approached Tóta and tried to convince him to tone down his criticism of Orbán and Co. Tóta immediately left for HVG. But it looks as if Spéder wasn’t aggressive enough in changing the tenor of the paper. In any case, Tóta warns Spéder in an opinion piece titled “Let’s not be friends” that “to have a friendly relation” with the government is totally useless. To be on friendly terms with the government in Hungary means to be friendly with Orbán, but friendship involves a give-and-take relationship. And Orbán is incapable of any relationship that is not based on total subordination. It is worthless, Tóta argues, to court the man in hope of his goodwill. The policy of appeasement doesn’t work with Viktor Orbán, there is no friendship with a tyrannosaurus.
Finally, Tóta gives some advice to the oligarchs who made the mistake of trying to have a friendly pact with Viktor Orbán. “You can find many good places for the money that you have snatched over the years in no small measure thanks to this false friendship.” In brief, hide your money abroad somewhere and keep thinking of how to get rid of Viktor Orbán. I’m afraid in Spéder’s case this option is no longer available.