Tag Archives: agriculture

The new Hungarian landowners or, as some call them, “ersatz peasants”

In the last few days opposition papers have been having a great deal of fun over the “degree” that Lőrinc Mészáros received that made him eligible to be a bona fide tiller of the land (földműves). Without this piece of paper Mészáros, former gasfitter and current billionaire, and his family wouldn’t have been able to purchase over 1,400 hectares of land from the Hungarian state.

Those of you who still don’t know who Lőrinc Mészáros is shouldn’t fret. Almost no one knows much about the man, except that he is a very close associate of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. How close a financial relationship they have is a topic of hot debate in Hungarian public discourse. There are even some totally cynical human beings who believe that Lőrinc Mészáros doesn’t really exist.

Meszaros es Orban

Lőrinc Mészáros and Viktor Orbán

The modest village gasfitter is by now an international player. For example, he just became majority owner of the NK Osijek football club, although as a youngster he wasn’t even interested in the sport. But I guess as mayor of Felcsút and CEO of the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy, a personal foundation of Viktor Orbán, he has to be a soccer enthusiast. Or at least act as if he is.

The land auction the Orbán government initiated is a bonanza for those who are lucky enough to be able to purchase parcels of agricultural land, mostly because of the European Union subsidies they receive simply for owning them. The whole scheme, critics maintain, is a perfect opportunity to fill the pockets of Fidesz politicians, their relatives, and their business partners.

On paper everything looks squeaky clean, as Fidesz politicians repeat often enough. First of all, only bona fide farmers are eligible to purchase land in Hungary. There are three ways to be considered a farmer. First, by having a degree from one of the agricultural colleges or by graduating from a specialized agricultural high school. A person can also qualify as a farmer if he has been the owner of a farm for the last three years. There is a third category, however: the so-called “golden eared farmers” (aranykalászos gazdák) who finish a crash course consisting, at least on paper, of 400 hours of instruction, costing around 250,000 forints. Businessmen, politicians, lawyers, and their family members flocked by the thousands to finish the course before the land auctions began. These are the people one irreverent journalist called “the ersatz peasants.” And with good reason because, as vs.hu revealed in October 2015, most of these courses are phony and the institutions that offer them merely diploma mills.

The number of farmers grew rapidly throughout 2015. In the summer of 2014 there were only 34,000 “tillers of the land,” including Mrs. Viktor Orbán, but by the end of last year that number had jumped to 106,000. Not all of them were “ersatz peasants” but many, including Fidesz politicians, were. For example, Fidesz MP Balázs Győrffy, president of the National Agrarian Association and one of the chief promoters of the land auction. His story is really bizarre. It came to light a few days ago that Győrffy, given his position, was planning to hide his purchase of 150 hectares of land. He arranged a loan of 160 million forints for his chauffeur to purchase the land. Immediately after the chauffeur became the owner, he sold one square meter of land from his 150 hectares to Győrffy. Since the new land law stipulates that a neighbor has the right of first refusal, the chauffeur subsequently sold all 150 hectares to Győrffy.

Mészáros, unlike Győrffy, didn’t try to hide his and his relatives’ land purchases. As far as I know, his family won the most land of anyone in the auction game. The Mészároses received several parcels amounting to 1,400 hectares. Győrffy’s 150 hectares pales by comparison. But, of course, Mészáros is in a very special position. He is considered to be Orbán’s alter ego.

Mészáros had owned land earlier without needing to be formally qualified. This time around, however, like the rest of the applicants he had to get a piece of paper to be eligible to purchase more land. HírTV discovered that the former gasfitter took his “exam” miles away from Felcsút at an agricultural establishment close to Szekszárd. When the director of the place was questioned, he told the curious journalists that Mészáros “had received instruction at his own farm and only took the exam at [their] place.” From the conversation the reporter got the impression that this particular examination center is a favorite among pro-Fidesz oligarchs.

Együtt became so suspicious that they decided to go to the police asking for an investigation of the case. They charge that the “diploma” was given without the “student” fulfilling the necessary requirements and that therefore it is actually a forgery. Consequently, the Mészároses’ land purchases are illegal. Of course, we all know that nothing will come of that investigation.

There is a Hungarian slang word “kamu,” which comes from the word “kamuflázs” (camouflage). It means “phony,” “unreal.” Most likely the diplomas of Mészáros and the Lázár brothers are “kamu.” But so was the announcement by the president of the Péter Pázmány Catholic University, Father Szabolcs Anzelm Szuromi, that he had just been appointed a research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge University. He added that he had been invited to be a member of the university’s accreditation committee. Upon investigation, the whole story turned out to be “kamu” and the announcement was quickly removed from the university’s website.

From top to bottom graft, lies, and corruption. How long will the Hungarian people put up with all this?

February 16, 2016

Do you want to buy Hungarian agricultural land? Pay up for a sham course

You may have noticed that I hardly ever touch on any subject related to agriculture. One reason is that I don’t know anything about it, but the other is more personal. In 1946 my father inherited some land and got it into his head that he wanted to be a gentleman farmer. The peasants in the village watched his endeavors with some skepticism because they were certain that you cannot learn anything about farming from books. As it turned out, they were not quite right. Some of my father’s experiments were actually quite successful.

The trouble was that he decided that I, being an only child who would inherit the farm, had to learn something about agriculture. (Mind you, a few years later Mátyás Rákosi upended my career as a farmer. The government took the land away.) So, every Sunday I received a little booklet with an enticing title like “How to Grow Corn” or “How to Grow Wheat.” By the end of the week I was tested on the material, which mostly went unread. During one summer I was taken for “practical training” where my performance was abysmal. Instead of looking after the hired hands, I fell asleep under the shadow of a haystack.

All that came to mind when I heard of the quickie course offered to would-be farmers. Now that approximately 380,000 hectares of state land will be auctioned off, many people want be “cultivators of the land.” But they can buy agricultural land only if they are bona fide farmers. And who is a bona fide farmer? Someone who has been in the business of farming for at least three years or who has completed a course consisting of 480 hours of instruction both theoretical and practical.

The course, costing approximately 250,000 forints, is offered by private companies–by now perhaps as many as a dozen. It is in high demand, with thousands of people ready to take it in the hope of being able to buy land and thereby receive the generous European Union agricultural subsidies. Businessmen, politicians, lawyers, and doctors, mostly from Budapest, are flocking to enroll so they can take part in the land auction that starts at the end of November. Graduates of the course, the new “gentlemen farmers,” are called “golden ear of wheat farmers” (aranykalászos gazdák).

Horror stories have surfaced about what’s going at these so-called educational companies. Even their websites make it pretty clear that attending lectures or engaging in practical training is unnecessary. The tests themselves are “flexible.” For example, one company advertises that “since it is already cold, the ‘student’ himself can structure the practical part of the exam.” Failing an exam is unknown.

An ad for one of the courses: "Last opportunity! Enroll now!"

An ad for one of the courses: “Last opportunity! Enroll now!”

After the first article appeared about this scam, which was discovered by vs.hu, opposition MPs inquired from the minister of agriculture, Sándor Fazekas, what he knows about these phony courses. As is this government’s wont, he refused to investigate. He told Zoltán Gőgös, MSZP’s agricultural expert, that if anyone has a suspicion of wrongdoing he/she should go to the police. So, HírTV decided to visit one of these companies with a hidden camera where a woman pretty well confirmed the charge that it was offering bogus pieces of paper that would allow a person to buy and cultivate land. On the basis of HírTV’s video, in no time István Tényi, a constant visitor to police stations, decided to launch a complaint.

Népszabadság collected a few priceless stories from these newly graduated “golden ear of wheat farmers.” According to one, “no living person has ever failed this course, perhaps not even a dead one.” Or “there were thirty of us in the group but not one of us knew anything about agriculture. We had a long discussion before the test whether ‘birka’ (sheep) and ‘juh’ (just a different word for sheep) are the same animal or whether they belong to different species.” This man spent a weekend becoming a farmer. That’s right, a 480-hour course in a weekend. “One day they took us around the farm and we saw pieces of agricultural equipment, but only from afar and not in motion.” It often happens that the answers are attached to the test questions. “The examiner told us that we will all pass because we have to acquit ourselves in real life and not at a test.”

Once someone completes this course, for his time and money he receives a so-called T-license (T as in tractor) that allows him to drive a tractor. Yes, in Hungary you need a licence to drive a tractor on your farm. Looking into the situation in the United States, I found the following. Rick Perry, governor of Texas, while running for the presidency of the United States in 2011 said the following at one of his election stump speeches in Iowa: “Now you tell me whether this is true or not. But one of my fellas just told me, he said that they’re talking about a new regulation that if you drive your tractor … across one public road, you’re going to have to have a commercial driver’s licence. Get out of here! You’re kiddin’ me. I mean, what are they thinking?”

It’s bad enough that in Hungary you need a T-license to drive a tractor. If you have an ordinary riding mower you need a K-license (K as kert/garden). I could say along with Rick Perry: “Get out of here!” A license just to mow your lawn? Unreal.

But it’s even more unreal that if you’re not already a farmer  you have to complete a phony agriculture course in order to purchase a piece of land larger than one hectare.

By contrast, let’s say that you want to buy agricultural land in the United Kingdom. According to The Financial Times it’s a great investment. No proof of your agricultural expertise and no license to drive your tractor is necessary. Because the government regulation clearly says that “if you pass a regular car driving test (category B) you’ll get entitlement to drive agricultural tractors and mowing machines.” As it should be in a normal country. If you go to the list of Hungarian driver’s licenses, you will find that both the T and the K license fall into the “national category.” I would call it “national absurdity.” Not just the licenses. The whole thing.

The “real” Hungarian watermelon season begins

I’m happy to announce that Hungarian consumers no longer have to wait. It’s watermelon season. In the last month alone more than 200 articles appeared about the excellence of watermelons grown in Hungary. The Orbán government fell in love with the watermelon and made it “prestige produce,” as MTV’s Híradó called it. Or, put another way, it became a national fruit, which is really funny considering that watermelon in Hungarian is called “Greek melon” and the Hungarian word for “melon” (“dinnye”) comes from one of the Southern Slavic languages. Watermelon arrived in Hungary sometime in the later fourteenth century, most likely from the Byzantine Empire with which Hungary had close relations.

Watermelon may be called “Greek melon” in Hungarian, but the ministry of agriculture began a campaign against buying “Greek melon from Greece.” Instead, consumers should buy “Greek melon from Hungary.” Preferably twice as many as they would normally buy. Why? Because Hungarian watermelon is much better than the Greek import and because there is an overproduction of watermelon year after year.

Shortly after the formation of the second Orbán government the ministry of agriculture decided to subsidize watermelon production. And they promoted the idea of farmers using their land to grow watermelon. Why watermelon? I have no idea, especially since growing melons is an expensive undertaking, and growers specializing in watermelon have only a month to sell enough watermelon to provide them with income for a whole year.

Growing melons requires a lot of land. It is also labor and capital intensive because one needs greenhouses equipped with incubators and farmers have to carefully graft watermelon plant shoots onto squash vines. Yes, you heard it right. This is a fairly new method that makes the watermelon plants more resistant to blight and disease. Growers tell us that the final result is practically indistinguishable from the old-fashioned watermelons. And the ministry assures people that these hybrid melons are absolutely safe, unlike some of those coming from elsewhere.

From the very beginning there have been problems with Orbán’s prestige product.  During the summer of 2011 many jokes were cracked about how “Orbán will slip on a watermelon peel.” Although the government set up “watermelon stands” which growers could rent for very little, there was minimal interest. Because of overproduction, prices were low. The lowest prices could be found at László Baldauf’s CBA chain, which is a favorite of the Orbán government. In addition, the weather was lousy: it was cold and wet, and watermelon needs a warm climate and lots of sunshine. No wonder that Greece, Italy, and Spain are large exporters of melon.

The summer of 2012 was not much better. Prices were again terribly low. Gyula Budai, undersecretary of the ministry of agriculture, blamed the supermarket chains for buying imported watermelons about a month before the Hungarian season began. An abundance of watermelons in June would reduce interest in the superior Hungarian melons in July. At this point the ministry put pressure on the supermarket chains and forced uniform pricing on them. They had to promise that they would not sell watermelon under 99Ft/kg. Apparently, the chains thought that the Hungarian Competition Authority (Gazdasági Versenyhivatal/GVH) had given its blessing to the deal. They were mistaken, and when GVH learned about the price fixing they investigated and threatened the participants with heavy fines. At this point a Fidesz MP, who himself was a watermelon grower, suggested a change in the law that allowed GVH to investigate agricultural cartels only with the permission of the ministry of agriculture.

But who knows where it came from?

But who knows where it came from?

In 2013 the ministry again tried to force price controls on the supermarkets, but they refused because such an agreement would have meant banning practically all imported watermelon from the Hungarian market. They were also afraid that the European Union might investigate and fine the businesses for engaging in price fixing. By the end the government only asked the firms not to buy Hungarian watermelon for less than they were paying for Italian or Macedonian imports.

What is the situation today? The campaign is on. About three weeks ago an article appeared with this headline: “Be careful, imported watermelons have already appeared in the stores!” According to a headline in Figyelő: “One doesn’t have to bear it much longer: the watermelon season is about to begin.” “Only two more weeks and the watermelon season will begin!,” says an article in Népszabadság, with the author adding that “this will be the real Hungarian season.” We learn from the article that watermelon is being grown on 5,800 hectares, mostly in the southern section of Békés County, along the Romanian-Hungarian border. Almost half of the watermelon is exported, primarily to Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland.

Meanwhile some of the supermarket chains have made their peace with the Orbán government. Lidl stocks Hungarian watermelons earlier than any other chain because for them “assisting Hungarian farmers, in particular watermelon growers, is very important.”

The ministry of agriculture urges people not to buy Greek watermelon/görögdinnye because by buying the Hungarian product the customer will support 11,000 Hungarian families engaged in melon growing. The crop looks very good. About 220,000 tons of watermelon are expected to reach market this year. Meanwhile the National Office of Taxation and Customs–NAV (Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal)–is out in full force to find people who are selling watermelon at roadside stands. Farmers who have the requisite permit can sell their own produce at roadside stands. But the NAV officials found a few stands where watermelons of unknown origin were being sold. They were promptly confiscated.

And latest happy news on the watermelon front. An internet site from Pécs announced that “the watermelon season has burst onto Pécs.” The watermelon comes from the Ormánság region of Baranya, south of Pécs. The article assures consumers that not only is watermelon available but also “freshly picked squash from reliable peasant women [kofa] at the markets.” I guess one can’t be too careful when screening peasant women who sell squash.

Viktor Orbán’s new enemies: large landowners

Today I’m returning to Viktor Orbán’s so-called interview with Zsolt Bayer on Echo TV last Friday because the prime minister uttered a few sentences that might have an impact far beyond the fortunes of Lajos Simicska, the object of his ire.

I should emphasize that during the conversation Lajos Simicska’s name was never mentioned, but it wasn’t necessary to name Orbán’s old friend. Everybody in the audience knew whom they were talking about.

Zsolt Bayer wanted to know why the two old friends fell out. We know from Simicska himself that he disapproved of Orbán’s pro-Russian turn in foreign policy. Moreover, although in the past he had been supportive of Orbán’s domestic agenda, he was not willing to follow Orbán on a road that would lead to a Putin-style autocracy. Naturally, Orbán had to offer another explanation for his quarrel with Simicska. He could have come out with an explanation that might even have rung true. He could have said that Lajos Simicska, who has several media properties, became furious at the government’s plans to introduce high levies on advertising. Hence the fight. Indeed, Simicska made no secret of what he thought of the advertising tax. But Orbán didn’t choose this route. Instead, he came up with an utterly implausible story.

Orbán explained that there was a very simple explanation for the strife between the government and the media owners. These media oligarchs are also large landowners, whose interests will suffer under the provisions of the new law on land use (May 1, 2014), which prescribes that only 20% of all arable land can be in the hands of landowners who own or lease more than 1,200 hectares of farm land. No one who has followed the Simicska story could possibly believe a word of this, but why then did the prime minister come up with such a tale? Népszabadság suspects that Orbán used the occasion to announce his newest targets, owners or co-owners of large landholdings.

It is not easy to find one’s way in the labyrinths of EU agricultural policy and its implementation in Hungary. One thing is sure, a lot of money is spent on agricultural subsidies. Hungarian farmers will receive 350 billion forints in SAP (single area payment) subsidies every year between 2015 and 2020. A large landholding is considered to be anything over 1,200 hectares. There are 525 such agribusinesses in the country. Until now they received 20 billion forints per annum in SAP subsidies, but from here on they will get nothing. Those whose holdings are between 1,037 and 1,200 hectares will get 5% less than before. All the “savings” will be given to those who raise livestock or who grow vegetables, agribusinesses that are more labor intensive. According to the estimates of the ministry of interior, such a restructuring may result in 50-70,000 new jobs, something most experts doubt.

It is true that Lajos Simicska and some of his fellow oligarchs, like Zsolt Nyerges, Sándor Csányi, and Tamás Leisztinger, do have very large landholdings and that until now they received enormous sums of money from Brussels. Just last year they pocketed close to 16 billion forints in subsidies. But moving against the large landholders may have some serious consequences. Currently, about half of all available land is in the hands in agribusinesses cultivating more than 1,200 hectares, an arrangement that currently serves the market adequately. Government interference in that structure might result in dislocations in the market place. Moreover, farmers of small- and middle-size holdings are chronically short of capital, so this government policy might hurt the efficiency of Hungarian agriculture.

szanto

There is another problem. Since Hungarian law forbids the concentration of very large landholdings in one hand, the majority of the 525 large farms are actually owned by smaller farmers who jointly cultivate large tracts. With the elimination of these “collective” farms, thousands of small farmers might be hurt. Moreover, these farms, which are well equipped with agricultural machinery, often perform tasks for really small farmers who can’t afford expensive machinery for their plots.

Apparently, as is customary in the Orbán government, policy makers are not worried about any of this. If these owners have to leave, some new ones will come. But, as experts rightly point out, these newcomers might not have the expertise, the knowledge of the market, or the equipment necessary to continue farming in an efficient, market-friendly manner.

Such a restructuring of Hungarian agriculture is no insignificant matter. These 525 large farms produce one-fourth of Hungary’s agricultural output and employ 50% of all agricultural workers. They produce 40% of the livestock and almost half of all sowing seeds. So, if something goes wrong with this great plan, and I’m almost sure that it will, there can be serious consequences. It is a well-known fact that a larger concentration of landholdings usually results in greater efficiency and hence lower prices. As it is, Hungarian farmers complain that they are unable to compete with foreign products, which can be sold at lower prices even with the cost of transportation.

Of course, this is not the only problem with the law on landholdings. After taking a good look at the law, the European Commission decided that there were some serious deficiencies in it. From the relatively short article on the subject, it looks as if one of the objections of Brussels centers on the non-Hungarian ownership of land. That was pretty well expected from commentaries on the law by people familiar with the position of the European Union. What seems to me of greater significance is that the European Commission has problems with the very definition of the word “farmer” (gazdálkodó). It is so narrowly defined that very few people could ever qualify for the position. Moreover, the law seriously interferes with the freedom of property owners who can sell their lands only to “farmers,” i.e., only to those who themselves would cultivate the land. Such undue interference in civil property transactions, in my opinion, is unacceptable. Otherwise, it’s a jolly good law!

How can the American black locust become a “Hungaricum”? Just ask Fidesz

Way back in  2008 the decision was made that the European Commission should take over the fight against alien invasive species in the territories of the Union. Although zoologists and biologists of the member countries had urged their governments to act, little progress had been made. Finally, it was decided that the problem must be handled centrally.

Years have gone by, but then we know that the EU’s bureaucracy is not known for its speedy resolution of issues. The bill was presented to the European Parliament only in September 2013, and it was in January of this year that the European Parliament discussed the matter. It turned out that at the urging of Hungarian scientists the European Union was planning to put the Robinia pseudoacacia, known in Hungary as white acacia, on the alien invasive species list. The plan is not to eradicate the acacia tree–that would be an impossibility–but rather to check its spread.

akac

This particular variety of acacia tree is native to the United States. Interestingly, it  is called the black locust in this country. Black locust trees can be found in the Appalachian Mountain regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio in addition to some areas farther west in Oklahoma and Arkansas. It is considered to be an invasive species here as well, and its control is regulated. American scientists admit that “control of black locust is difficult and no technique has been identified as entirely effective.”  The most cost-effective method is prevention.  Hungarian scientists are of the same opinion, and since 2009 the white acacia has been on the Hungarian list of alien invasive species. The Hungarian decision was made at that time without any pressure from the outside. Yet in the last few months the Orbán government has fought tooth and nail against the inclusion of the acacia on the EU’s list of undesirable species.

The hysteria about the fate of the acacia was initiated by Béla Glattfelder, a Fidesz member of the EP, who rose in the European Parliament during the debate of the bill to protest the “attack” on the acacia tree, which is considered to be an important agricultural asset for Hungary. After all, half of all acacia trees in the European Union can be found in Hungary and the tree is an important source of income for tens of thousands of people, especially beekeepers and owners of private forests. He emphasized that honey made out of the flowers of the acacia is a true “Hungaricum.” In addition, acacia wood is a valuable building material.

As soon as he got wind of what was under foot, he alerted owners of acacia forests and beekeepers, who formed an alliance to “combat the domestic and foreign endeavors to limit the spread of the acacia.” The coalition under Glattfelder’s guidance started lobbying to have both the acacia tree and acacia honey be declared  “Hungaricums.”

Glattfelder is an old Fidesz hand. He was a member of the Hungarian parliament between 1990 and 2004. In 2000 he also became undersecretary in the ministry of economics, dealing mostly with agricultural matters. Since 2004 he has been a member of the Fidesz delegation to the European Union. His name does not, however, appear among those who might represent Fidesz after the 2014 EP election. So this may be Glattfelder’s last hurrah in Brussels.

After Glattfelder sounded the alarm, the Hungarian ministry of agriculture moved into action. The ministry made it clear that the Hungarian government will fight the impending legislation. It is as outlandish to eliminate the acacia tree as it would be to forbid the growth of corn. As if anyone planned the eradication of the acacia tree.

The hysteria spread far and wide, with assistance coming from Glattfelder and Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture. Headlines like these have appeared in the last three or four months: “What will happen to the acacia? Will the Union destroy it?” Or “Hungarian honey and acacia forests are in danger!”

By the end of February the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Ecological Institute felt that it was time to enlighten the Hungarian public on the true state of affairs. The scientists pointed out that the information that had appeared in the Hungarian media was “based on the most outrageous misconceptions and false allegations.” The institute tried to set the record straight but, as we will see later, not with great success.

The acacia forests are not endangered. On the contrary, acacia trees grow on 463,000 hectares, about a third of all Hungarian forests. Since 1990 the area with acacia trees has grown by 150,000 hectares and it is still growing. The real problem is that acacia trees are all over, along country roads, sometimes very close to areas under ecological protection. They spread rapidly. There are places where they managed to eradicate native flowers, even animals. The scientists specifically mention Echinops ruthenicus (szamárkenyér), about whose blue flowers Sándor Petőfi wrote lovingly in 1844. Because of the acacia they are now practically nonexistent. According to the scientists, 200,000 hectares are currently threatened by “the acacia invasion.” What they would like to prevent is the tree’s spread into this 200,000 hectare area.

Of course, the scientists didn’t manage to counteract the hysteria created by Fidesz and the Hungarian government. On March 12 Sándor Fazekas held a forum in Kunhegyes close to the area where there is perhaps the largest concentration of acacia trees in Hungary. Here he indignantly stated that the Union has no right whatsoever to tell Hungarians what kinds of trees they can grow in their own country. In his opinion, the acacia tree is a “Hungaricum” whose spread should be encouraged.

A day after, on March 13,  Hungary using a legal loophole vetoed the draft bill in the Council of Europe. It was a compromise bill that had already been accepted in the European Parliament. That bill didn’t mention the acacia or any other offending species. But Hungary refused to sign it because they didn’t receive a 100% guarantee that acacia would not be on the list.

For a while it looked as if Hungary had managed to avert “the danger” to the would-be Hungaricum. The Hungarian government was elated, but then came the letdown. A week after the veto the Council of Europe passed the draft bill. Mind you, the fate of the acacia is still not clear. No explicit guarantee came from Janez Potocnik, the commissioner responsible for environmental issues, but the Hungarian government hopes that its lobbying was not in vain. The final bill will be voted on only in the fall of 2015.

Meanwhile we are being told that the American black locust will be a Hungaricum.

The end of an internationally known organic demonstration farm and school?

I don’t write too often about political events that affect agriculture. First, I don’t know much about the topic and, second, I don’t have a genuine interest in it. In fact, I have a certain aversion to agriculture, most likely dating to my childhood and the very negative impressions I gained from occasional visits to poverty-stricken southern Baranya villages. That is probably also the reason for my negative feelings about the literature produced between the two world wars by writers who extolled the virtues of the Hungarian peasantry and its way of life. At a very early age I came to the conclusion that there was nothing wonderful about village life because it meant backwardness and poverty. Instead, I believed then and continue to believe now that we should eliminate the gaping differences between city and countryside.

Earlier we talked about the land-lease program that has been under way for a number of years. Parcels of lands owned by the state are leased for twenty years, allegedly to young farmers with initiative. In reality, in the most recent competitions many of the lots were handed over to Fidesz party faithfuls who had no experience in farming. One often heard about fairly prosperous farmers whose main source of income was animal husbandry but whose grazing land was taken away from them;  they were forced to sell their sheep or cows. There were heartbreaking stories of  poor people who applied to have their leases renewed but lost both their land and their livelihoods to politically connected applicants who could receive EU subsidies even if they left the land fallow.

One case really shook me. It was the fate of the Kishantos Rural Development Center, which includes a 452-hectare organic demonstration farm which has been in existence for twenty-one years. It began as a local grass-roots organization but grew and prospered with the help of German experts who helped design the farm. József Ángyán, a professor of agriculture at Gödöllő, Hungary’s agricultural college, was also heavily involved. In 1995 the center acquired a lease for a plot of land on which they established a school to teach young farmers about organic farming. The philosophy of Kishantos was rooted in the ideas of N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), author, poet, philosopher, and teacher. He was the ideological father of  “folk high schools,” educational centers for adult education. “Folk high schools” became popular in Hungary at the end of the 1930s and were revived right after 1945, but with the communist takeover they were forced to close their doors.

Over the years the Kishantos educational center developed ties with Danish and other European partners and organized international exchange programs. As the manager of Kishantos said, “the main goal of that program is to offer experiences for young Hungarians to learn about democracy and sustainability in practice.”

The school and the center are financed from the income the farm earns. But the lease for the 452 hectares of state-owned land expired on October 31, 2013.  The Hungarian Land Fund, representing the state, decided to put an end to the Kishantos organic farm and educational center. It put the acreage, cut up into ten different lots, on the auction block. It is clear that the Orbán regime wanted to ruin Kishantos.

The reason? There can be several. One is perhaps József Ángyán’s involvement in the project. Viktor Orbán promised Ángyán an agricultural strategy based on small family farming.  Ángyán was pleased that his ideas would become reality and therefore accepted Viktor Orbán’s offer of a seat in parliament.  Soon enough, however, Ángyán became disillusioned and turned against the Orbán government’s distribution scheme for state land. The second reason might be that the project’s philosophy does not mesh with Viktor Orbán’s ideas about the Hungarian ethos. Kishantos is dedicated to “spreading the idea of sustainability and democracy.” The founders claim that Kishantos is “the only project in Europe where sustainable agriculture, ecological farming, education and democracy have been functioning together in perfect harmony.” Not exactly the kind of philosophy the Fidesz folks would be terribly keen on.

Sunflowers in the good old days in Kishantos

Sunflowers in the good old days in Kishantos

Kishantos applied for all ten lots but were unsuccessful. They received none of the land they had cultivated for the past two decades. The farm’s management appealed the decision. Although there was no verdict by the time the spring seeds had to be sowed, they decided that the land shouldn’t remain fallow while litigation was underway. Therefore they opted to go ahead with the planting. Their reasoning was that if they win the case they will have their usual crop and if the new owners win they will be the beneficiaries of the Kishantos people’s labor. Well, this is not how the new owners saw things. A week before Easter several tractors arrived and harrowed under the plants that were already green. One rarely can see such barbarity. What kinds of owners would these people be who could destroy acres and acres of young seedlings? The whole thing is outrageous.

The harrowing of the fall crop is under way

So much for the tender seedlings

Well, the crop is gone, but this may not be the end of the story. Kishantos’s fate remains in the hands of the courts and early indications are favorable. I for one very much hope that Kishantos will stay and prosper.

What does the Demokratikus Koalíció stand for?

On September 3, I wrote about an opinion piece by Tamás Bauer, vice-chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Its title was “Electoral mathematics: The Demokratikus Koalíció’s position.” Bauer argued for DK’s right, based on its numerical support, to receive at least 8 or 9 electoral districts. He added that DK’s positions on many issues differ from those of both MSZP and Együtt2014-PM and therefore it deserves a parliamentary caucus.

At the end of that post I indicated that I would like to return to DK’s political program because relatively few people are familiar with it. I had to postpone that piece due to DK’s very prompt answer to MSZP. On the next day, September 4, I posted an article entitled “The current state of the Hungarian opposition: Negotiations between MSZP and DK.”

Over the last few days it has become obvious to me that Ferenc Gyurcsány has already begun his election campaign.  Zsolt Gréczy’s appointment as DK spokesman signaled the beginning of the campaign, which was then followed by several personal appearances by Ferenc Gyurcsány where he began to outline his program. Surely, the amusing video on being a tour guide in Felcsút, “the capital of Orbanistan,” was part of this campaign. So, it’s time to talk about the party program of the Demokratikus Koalíció, especially since only yesterday Attila Mesterházy answered Ferenc Gyurcsány’s letter to him. I elaborated on that letter in my September 4 post.

You may remember that one of the sticking points between the two parties was whether DK is ready to have “an electoral alliance” as opposed to “a political alliance.” Gyurcsány in his letter to Mesterházy made light of the difference between the two, but as far as the socialists are concerned this is an important distinction. Yesterday Attila Mesterházy made that crystal clear in his answer to  Gyurcsány which he posted on his own webpage. According to him, a “political alliance” means the complete subordination of individual parties’ political creeds to the agreed upon policies.  In plain language, DK “will have to agree not to represent its own political ideas during the campaign.”

Since DK’s program thus became one of the central issues in the negotiations it is time to see in what way DK’s vision of the future differs from that of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM. Here I’m relying on Tamás Bauer’s list of the main differences.

(1) An MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM alliance following an electoral victory will only amend the new constitution and the cardinal laws that are based on this new constitution. The Demokratikus Koalíció, on the other hand, holds that the new constitution is illegitimate because it was enacted without the participation of the opposition. Therefore, according to DK, the new constitution must be repealed and the constitution of the Republic must take its place.

(2) MSZP-E14 by and large accepts the policy of Viktor Orbán on national matters and would allow people living outside of the borders to vote in national elections. The Demokratikus Koalíció rejects this new law and would put an end to these new citizens’ voting rights.

(3) MSZP-E14 does not seem to concern itself with the relation of church and state or the Orbán government’s law on churches. DK would restore the religious neutrality of the state and would initiate a re-examination of the agreement that was concluded between Hungary and the Vatican or, if the Church does not agree to such a re-examination, DK would abrogate the agreement altogether.

(4) MSZP-E14 talks in generalities about the re-establishment of predictable economic conditions and policies that would be investment friendly but it doesn’t dare to reject such populist moves as a decrease in utility prices or the nationalization of companies. Only DK is ready to openly reject all these.

(5) MSZP-E14 accepts the tax credits that depend on the number of children and therefore supports an unjust system. DK, on the other hand, wants to put an end to this system and to introduce a system that treats all children alike.

(6) Együtt2014-PM opposes the concentration of land that is necessary for the creation of  a modern and effective agriculture. The policy of small landholdings was the brainchild of the Smallholders Party, which was largely responsible for the collapse of Hungarian agriculture after the change of regime. MSZP is against foreign investment in Hungarian agriculture. The Demokratikus Koalíció intends to liberalize the agricultural market. DK thinks that agricultural cooperatives should be able to purchase the land they currently cultivate. It also maintains that foreign capital should be able to come into Hungary in order to make Hungarian agriculture competitive again.

(7) The attitude of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM toward the conflicts between the European Union and the Orbán government is ambiguous, while the Demokratikus Koalíció unequivocally takes the side of the institutions of the Union against the Orbán government.

These are the points that Tamás Bauer mentions. But as the Gyurcsány campaign unfolds more and more differences will be visible. For example, only yesterday Gyurcsány talked about his ideas to abolish the compulsory retirement age and to financially encourage people to demand higher wages in order to maximize their pensions after retirement. During this talk in Nyíregyháza Gyurcsány made no secret of the fact that his party is working on its election program.

So, it seems to me that the Gyurcsány campaign has already begun. Maybe I’m wrong and Gyurcsány will give up all his ideas and will line up behind MSZP-E14, but somehow I doubt it. Even if he tried, he couldn’t. Temperamentally he is not suited for it.

Meanwhile, an interesting but naturally not representative voting has been taking place in Magyar Narancs. Readers of the publication are asked to vote for party and for leader of the list. DK leads (52%) over Együtt 2014 (29%) and Gyurcsány (54%) over Bajnai (32%). Of course, this vote in no way reflects reality. What it does tell us is that the majority of readers of Magyar Narancs are DK supporters. Something that surprised me. If I had had to guess, I would have picked Együtt2014.

As for Ferenc Gyurcsány’s visit to Felcsút, I wrote about it a couple of days ago. The video is now out. This morning I decided to take a look at it because from Zsolt Gréczy’s description on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd the whole scene of Fidesz cameras following them everywhere sounded hilarious . At that time the video had been viewed by about 5,000 people. Right now the number of visitors is over 53,000.

Clips from The Godfather are juxtaposed with scenes from Felcsút. The video ends with the wedding of Vito Corleone’s daughter. While Gyurcsány is narrating the enrichment of the Orbán family, two people, one of whom is the Fidesz regional secretary and the other perhaps the cameraman of the Puskás Academy, follow him everywhere and record his every move and word. Definitely worth seven minutes of your time.

Since I am no fortune teller I have no idea what will happen. A couple of things, though, I’m pretty sure of. DK will never agree to drop Gyurcsány as their party leader. And Mesterházy indicated that this might be one of the MSZP demands for an agreement. Or at least that Gyurcsány not be DK’s top candidate, or possibly any candidate. Otherwise why would he have asked: “Are those media predictions that the Demokratikus Koalíció plans to nominate the chairman of the party, Ferenc Gyurcsány, for the second slot on the list true?”

At first reading I didn’t notice this linguistic oddity. The letter is addressed to “Dear Mr. Party Chairman, dear Feri” and continues in the second-person singular: “te.” Now that I returned to the sentence in order to translate it, suddenly I noticed that Mesterházy switched from “te,” which in a personal letter would have been normal, to “Ferenc Gyurcsány” in a letter addressed to Ferenc Gyurcsány.

What will the final result be? I have no idea. Let’s put it this way, it’s much easier to predict the outcome of Hungarian soccer matches than the outcome of opposition politics.