It’s time to return to one of the largest scams the Orbán government has come up with to date: the sale of “residency bonds.” The project was launched in 2013. It allowed a citizen of a non-European Union country to “buy” a resident permit for a duration of five years by purchasing €250,000 worth of Hungarian government bonds. In 2015 that amount was raised to €300,000.
Many countries, including the United States, offer residency permits to foreigners willing to invest substantial amounts of money. Such an arrangement might be justified on such economic grounds as job creation and an incentive for the influx of foreign capital.
The Hungarian scheme bears no resemblance to the practices of other countries. The sale of residency bonds creates “instant cash” that is spent as soon as it is received and that will have to be paid back, together with the accrued interest, in five years. The sale of 3,874 residency bonds over the last two and a half years has brought at best a minimal benefit to the national economy, at worst a loss. That Hungary has sold so many residency bonds is understandable because this is about the cheapest way for a person to become a lawful resident of one of the member states of the European Union, and hence to be able to conduct business anywhere in the EU.
Hungarian residency bond purchases have another unusual feature. The prospective buyers of the bonds do not manage the transaction directly by dealing with the Hungarian administration. Their only contact is an agent designated by the government. And on paper at least these agents seem to be the only real financial beneficiaries of the sale of the bonds. For every bond package they sell they receive between €45,000 and €60,000 as a processing fee, charged to the purchaser. The other peculiarity of this transaction is that agents don’t pass on the full €300,000 to the Államadósság Kezelő Központ (Center for the Management of Government Debt) because they receive the bonds from the government at a discount of no less than 2%. So between the processing fee they charge and the discount they receive, agents get between €74,000 and €80,000 per bond package. As Népszabadság rightly pointed out, after five years the purchaser of the bonds will gain about as much on the deal as the agent does within a few weeks.
The whole scheme smacks of corruption. Most likely the people who were chosen to be agents were ready to share these incredible sums of money with members of the Hungarian government or Fidesz party leaders. Currently there are four such agents, of whom only one is registered in Budapest. The others operate out of Malta, Cyprus, and Singapore.
Also on the receiving end is a Budapest law firm which, according to Tamás Wiedemann of Magyar Nemzet, must have made almost five billion forints in the last three years. Heading the firm is Kristóf Kosik, who is a close acquaintance of Antal Rogán, who as the chairman of the parliamentary committee on the economy is the mastermind behind the whole scheme. Kosik’s law firm is the only one that can represent the foreign applicants at the Bevándorlási és Állampolgársági Hivatal (Office of Immigration and Citizenship). The Kosik Ügyvédi Iroda receives €5,000 per application. Since 3,784 applications have been approved since 2013, Kosik’s law firm must have earned €18,920,000 in three years from this little business.
Népszabadság also calculated the amount of money the Hungarian government is losing on these residency bonds. The economists who looked at the numbers came up with the figure of €17.4 million to date. The reason for the loss is that in 2013 the government fixed the interest rate they would pay on the bonds at 2.46%. In the beginning the Hungarian government did okay because the interest rate in the open market was almost 5%. So they were getting cheap instant cash. But by June 2014 the interest rate on euro bonds had dropped to under 2.4%, which was lower than the guaranteed rate on the residency bonds. By now the interest rate in the open market is around 0.5%, while the Hungarian government is still paying the rate fixed in 2013.
While the Hungarian government just declared a “total mobilization” in preparation for a referendum against the refugees and has been carrying out a massive campaign against outsiders, it has quietly allowed 3,784 individuals and their families to settle in Hungary. That may mean close to 16,000 individuals, who come mostly from China, Russia, and the rich Middle Eastern countries. Vetting these individuals is extremely superficial. An applicant makes an appearance before one of the agents and gives details about himself and his past activities. On the basis of this information the Hungarian authorities have 30 days to conduct an investigation. Once that is done, the happy new resident and family can settle in Hungary and travel and conduct business throughout the European Union.
As the result, it is likely that some unsavory characters have managed to settle in the European Union through the Hungarian residency program. The same Tamás Wiedemann who found out about the monopoly Kristóf Kosik’s law firm has on handling applications at the Office of Immigration also learned of at least one Russian, who had been convicted of tax fraud and was most likely a fugitive from justice, who easily managed to get permission to settle in Hungary. It was done in the following manner. Each applicant must produce an “erkölcsi bizonyítvány” (certificate of good conduct). But the Office of Immigration accepts the certificate of good conduct even if it comes from a third country. Thus the Russian fugitive from justice first went to Saint Kitts and Nevis, where he obtained the necessary document attesting to his good conduct and stating that he had had no run-in with the law.
Naturally, the government’s reaction was denial. Csaba Dömötör, undersecretary in Antal Rogán’s Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister or, as people on the street call it, the propaganda ministry, announced that the article “is based on frivolous suppositions and calumnies.” He added that it is difficult to take the story seriously because Wiedemann didn’t give the name of the individual. Magyar Nemzet’s journalist pointed out in an interview on ATV yesterday that he is forbidden by law to reveal the name of the individual, and he would also have transgressed the law on securities if he had given details.
Rogán’s propaganda ministry might be cocky but Mihály Varga, minister of the national economy, was much more cautious and told ATV that perhaps the law governing the rules of residency requirements can be changed “if necessary.”
September 7, 2016