Tag Archives: Alstom

Metro 4: The largest case of Hungarian fraud and corruption

Now that the complete OLAF report is available online, we can all settle down and try to read 103 pages of dense prose detailing “irregularities, fraud, corruption, and misappropriation of EU funds.” A five-member OLAF group began their investigation in January 2012 after the Court of Auditors and the Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy of the European Commission contacted OLAF, asking the office to scrutinize the case. During the investigation, the OLAF staff got in touch with only the City of Budapest and Péter Medgyessy, prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004, whose consulting firm worked for Alstom Transport S.A., one of the firms accused of wrongdoing.

The total cost of the project was €1,747,313,606, of which €696,490,000 came from the Cohesion Fund. According to OLAF’s calculation, “the financial impact on the Cohesion Fund is €227,881,690.”

The release of OLAF’s final report put an end to the political game Fidesz and the Orbán government had been playing with the document. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, and his deputy, the honey-tongued Nándor Csepreghy, did their best to get as much political mileage from the affair as possible. Lázár intimated that an international socialist-liberal conspiracy was behind the corruption that occurred at the Metro 4 project. On another occasion, he claimed to have filed charges against Gábor Demszky, mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010, Csaba Horváth, deputy mayor between 2006 and 2009, and János Atkári, an adviser to Demszky. Csepreghy must have known that none of these people was mentioned in the document, but in a long interview at 888.hu he intimated that even Ferenc Gyurcsány, prime minister between 2004 and 2009, may have shared responsibility for the misappropriation of funds. A few days later he claimed that other politicians might also be implicated.

All this is just political fluff. What we know from the OLAF report is that the City of Budapest signed a contract in 2004 with Budapesti Közlekedési Vállalat (BKV), the city-owned transit authority, which was commissioned to implement the project. Most likely that was a major mistake, which led to a lot of difficulties later. Any project, especially such a large one as the construction of a metro, needs a general contractor who oversees the project. BKV’s staff was not equipped to coordinate the work, which led to innumerable hiccups during construction.

Throughout the project the Hungarian media, especially the online site Index, reported many suspicious cases of overspending. But these cases were actually small potatoes, like too many consulting firms and lawyers making millions for very little work. Although several such cases are described in the final report, the bulk of the money OLAF would now like to be returned came from serious irregularities during the acquisition of tenders by huge corporations.

According to OLAF, 96% of the “irregularities” occurred in contracts signed by six large firms: Siemens AG, the largest manufacturing and electronics company in Europe; Swietelsky, an Austrian construction company from Linz; Strabag, the largest construction company in Austria, based in Villach; a Hungarian company called Hídépítő Zrt., which as its name indicates builds bridges and roads; the BAMCO consortium (Vinci CGP, Strabag, Hídépítő Zrt); and Alstom, the French multinational company operating worldwide in rail transport, including the manufacture of metro trains.

I left Alstom to last because it was in regard to Alstom that OLAF got in touch with Péter Medgyessy, who received €600,000 in 2007-2008 from Alstom for two years of consulting. This payment occurred after Alstom had won the tender with apparently the worst offer. Medgyessy naturally claims that his consulting firm had nothing to do with the Alstom case, adding that it is a well-known fact that his relationship with Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and the liberal SZDSZ leadership of the City of Budapest was strained. What his relationship with Gyurcsány had to do with BKV deciding to purchase overpriced Alstom cars is beyond me. I have no idea whether in a court of law Medgyessy would be found innocent or not, but in ethical terms his behavior was highly suspect.

Siemens, the German company which was in charge of electrical works, received 31.7 billion forints (€102,303,730) for the job. Since OLAF claims that Siemens most likely received inside information during the bidding process, the European Union wants the Hungarian government to pay back the whole amount. The same is true of Alstom’s 22.9 billion forint (€73,892,769) tender. BAMCO also won the tender in an irregular manner, and therefore the European Union demands the return of 8 billion forints (€25,817,360). The EU also demands 7.6 billion forints (€24,523,364) from Swietelsky, which was responsible for the interior of the metro stations. Strabag-Hídépítő, in charge of structural work on the station at Baross Square, received 3.7 billion forints for its work but because of procurement irregularities 2.5 billion forints (€8,067,751) should be returned.

Another politician who, although not mentioned by name, was most likely involved in the metro case is László Puch, former financial director of MSZP, whose company Media Magnet Kft. just purchased the ailing Népszava and Vasárnapi Hírek. Media Magnet, according to the OLAF report, received 331 million forints (€1,068,110) from Siemens for advertising. The report notes that “this company was in charge of the campaign of the political party which was in a decision-making position in the case of Metro 4.” In 2010 Index reported that BKV ordered all sorts of superfluous studies from Media Magnet on such things as, for example, the state of the cable television market. There is a strong suspicion that some of this money ended up in MSZP’s coffers.

The biggest culprits will most likely be found among the representatives of the named companies and those BKV officials who were in contact with them. There’s no question that the guilty parties should be punished, but judging from the outcomes of earlier corruption cases I have my doubts that we will ever hear about all the dirt that OLAF unearthed. I’m also pretty sure that Fidesz will try its darndest to drag high-level politicians into the morass around BKV.

I see that Gábor Demszky will be represented by György Magyar, one of the “star lawyers” in the country. On February 3 Magyar announced on ATV that Demszky had signed only three contracts during the many years of construction. One was the contract between the city and the government in which the parties agreed that 79% of the construction cost would be borne by the government and the rest by the City of Budapest. The second contract dealt with a loan the City had to obtain for the project. The third was the contract that gave full authority to BKV for the implementation of the project.

Fidesz naturally wants to have a parliamentary investigation into the case, which will lead to further accusations on both sides. If Hungary had a decent prosecutor’s office and an independent chief prosecutor, it should undertake a speedy, thorough, unbiased investigation of the case. Unfortunately, this is the last thing we can hope for under the present circumstances.

February 6, 2017

OLAF finds irregularities–fraud and possible corruption–in the Metro-4 megaproject

So what else is new? Politico reported that the European anti-fraud office, OLAF, after looking into the financing of Budapest’s fourth metro line, found “serious irregularities—fraud and possible corruption.” OLAF recommended, because it has no authority to do anything else, that Hungary return €228 million to the European Commission and €55 million to the European Investment Bank. OLAF’s investigation covers the period between 2006 and 2015. As Politico noted, this period spans not just the two Orbán administrations “but also two Socialist-backed governments that ruled between 2004 and 2010.”

I have already written about the difficulties surrounding the building of this new metro line, so I will not recount the story here. Suffice it to say that when the line was eventually finished, it bore little resemblance to the original plans. It was only about 7 km long, running between the Kelenföld train station in South Buda and the Eastern Station on the Pest side. Originally, it was to run all the way to the outer sections of the city in Bosnyák tér, but because of financial difficulties the second part of the project was abandoned. As a result, the line is severely underutilized. And its cost was enormous. Benedek Jávor, Párbeszéd MEP, considers the project as it stands now “completely senseless.”

It is difficult to come by hard figures, but Politico puts the total cost of the project at €1.7 billion. According to the Hungarian version of Wikipedia, the cost was 450 billion forints, of which 180 billion came from the European Union and almost 170 billion from the central government. The City of Budapest contributed about 70 billion. The balance most likely came from the European Investment Bank.

As soon as the news of OLAF’s findings reached Budapest the debate began over who the guilty party is. The government’s first reaction was that it had absolutely nothing to do with the project. Everything was handled by the City of Budapest. (The City of Budapest, I would note, didn’t get a copy of the 104-page report OLAF sent to the government.) According to Lord Mayor István Tarlós’s office, as far as they know all the irregularities occurred between 2006 and 2010. So, the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments and Gábor Demszky, former lord mayor of Budapest, are responsible for all the “irregularities” while the Orbán government is blameless. This is hard to believe.

Since the government has not released the OLAF report, we are in total darkness about the nature of these “irregularities.” I am, however, somewhat suspicious about their alleged timeline. For starters, it was only in September 2009 that the European Commission made the decision to finance the first 7-km section of Metro-4. Of course, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that fraud and corruption occurred before that date. Most likely it did. We know only too well how business is conducted in Hungary, especially when it comes to the prospect of “free money” from Brussels.

As you can see, no money was spared on the appointments

What strengthened my suspicion of the Orbán government’s culpability in this affair was an article that appeared in the government mouthpiece Magyar Idők only a few hours ago. The title of the article is telling: “Brussels wants to saddle Orbán with the affairs of Medgyessy and Demszky.” Brussels, it would seem from the headline, is pointing the finger at Orbán. Perhaps in anticipation of such a finding, the Orbán government set out to shift the blame to Medgyessy and Demszky.

Péter Medgyessy was prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004. After his political career ended, he returned to his consulting business and in this capacity received 597,000 euros from the French company Alstom in 2006, the year when the final decision was made by the City of Budapest to buy Alstom cars for the new metro line. In December 2014 Alstom was found guilty of paying more than $740 million in bribes to government officials around the world.

A few months ago Hungarian authorities began an investigation into the connection between Medgyessy and Alstom. The final verdict on Medgyessy’s innocence or guilt has not yet been reached, but even if it turns out that he lobbied the Demszky administration on behalf of Alstom, for which he received money from the company, it is unlikely that OLAF considers this something for which either the Hungarian government or the City of Budapest is responsible. Unless, of course, they can prove that Medgyessy tried to bribe the officials responsible for the decision to buy Alstom cars. It seems, however, that the investigative committee set up by the Budapest City Council in September has been singularly unsuccessful in proving that any of the lobbyists tried to bribe those responsible for the decision. The final report of the committee has not been published yet, but probing questions by the right-wing media to Fidesz members of the committee have failed to unearth anything about money exchanging hands in connection with the purchase of the Alstom cars.

We can’t expect any information on the OLAF investigation from official sources for months. But, just as in the past, it can easily happen that the document will be leaked to the Hungarian media. After all, Politico is in possession of certain material already. Until then it’s a guessing game.

December 22, 2016

Business ethics is not the strong suit of Russians and Hungarians

Almost a year after the City of Budapest decided that the Russian company Metrovagonmash would refurbish the old trains of the Metro 3 line, the first reconditioned train arrived from Russia via Poland.

Originally, the city had wanted to purchase new cars, especially since the old Soviet-made trains on Metro 2 had already been replaced by new modern Alstom trains and the brand new Metro 4 line also uses Alstom cars. In the final minutes of the negotiations, however, the government announced that they would guarantee the 60 billion forint loan the city needed only if the money was used to recondition its cars, not for the purchase of new cars. Once that was decided, the choice was between Metrovagonmash and Skinest Rail, an Estonian company. Skinest’s offer was lower by 9 billion forints, it offered a 30-year guarantee instead of 25, and its motor design would have ensured savings in energy use. But Skinest was excluded from the bidding process because it had eight “formal” mistakes in its bid. These so-called “formal” mistakes always come in handy when Hungarian authorities want to bar someone from the bidding process.

Already at that point Erzsébet Gy. Németh, the only DK member of the city council who alone voted against the Metrovagonmash contract, suspected a connection between the Russian loan to build the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant and the Russian firm’s winning tender. Antal Csárdi, the only LMP member of the body, said at the time that “all signs point to the likelihood that Viktor Orbán during this trip to Moscow in February 2015 promised Putin that the Russian company would get the job.” He told Magyar Nemzet that Alstom sold new metro trains to Paris for less money than Budapest was paying the Russians for refurbished ones.

So, the first train arrived and with it the great surprise. There is a good likelihood that the train, consisting of six cars, is not the one sent to Russia to be reconditioned but a product that Metrovagonmash began manufacturing in 2009. Since the train’s arrival, experts who have examined it are coming to the conclusion that the Russians didn’t touch any of the old trains, described by many as wrecks. Instead, they got rid of some of their older, unsold trains sitting in their warehouses.

The first reburbished/new metro cars / MTI / Photo: Zoltán Máthé

The first refurbished/new metro cars / MTI / Photo: Zoltán Máthé

But why would the Russians resort to such deception? According to those who are convinced of the deceit, the Russians couldn’t possibly compete with manufacturers like Alstom with their less modern, technologically less advanced trains and therefore would most likely have lost in an open bid. But if that is the case, the Hungarian government is also implicated. After all, it was the Orbán government’s decision about the loan guarantee that forced BKV to sign a deal for reconditioned trains and thus enabled Metrovagonmash to get rid of 37 trains with 222 cars. It is likely that BKV, the city’s transit authority, was also complicit in the deception because immediately after signing the contract, the Hungarian side came up with new requirements, possibly to match the model the Russians were planning to send to Hungary.

Mayor István Tarlós doesn’t find anything wrong with this fraud concocted between the Russian and Hungarian governments, Metrovagonmash and BKV. His first reaction was that the opposition’s favorite pastime is hairsplitting. “Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that these cars are new. Then when did the city get a better deal? When for its money it gets refurbished ones or completely new ones?” He has no problem with the Russian and Hungarian governments’ trickery as long as, in his opinion, the city ended up on the winning side.

But did the city do well on the deal? Figures provided by media outlets differ greatly. Origo states that the city paid 69 billion forints for reconditioning the old cars while brand new trains would have cost 90 billion forints. However, according to Origo’s calculation, the cost of refurbishing the cars in Russia actually cost 84 billion forints because the city had to borrow 9 billion forints in foreign currency and the interest for the 15-year loan is 15 billion forints. Portfolio, disregarding any added costs, comes up with €1.33 million per Alstom car as opposed to €0.98 million for the Russian ones. But even if these cars are new, Portfolio adds, their technology is obsolete.

What are the technological deficiencies? What most people will miss will be air-conditioning. The Russians installed some kind of ventilation, but it is hard to tell whether this solution will do the trick. Also, the train uses an outmoded spring instead of modern air suspension and has an antiquated ATO (automatic train operation) which, according to Index, is as if we filled a modern office with Commodore 64s. And Budapest is stuck with these trains for 30 years.

Shortly after the appearance of the Népszabadság article BKV released a lengthy statement in which it “rejects the criticism of the high-quality reconditioning” of the metro cars. It touts the “most modern components,” the “extension of the guarantee without any additional cost,” and “the early delivery of the prototype.” The statement complains about the negative attitude of some people and expresses BKV’s joy at receiving the first six-car unit. And it goes on and on. Only one thing is missing: an outright denial that these cars are new. Attila Gulyás, the head of one of the unions of BKV workers, is taking BKV’s side. He claimed in a radio interview that BKV’s representatives visited Metrovagonmash during the reconditioning phase, and therefore “there are eyewitnesses to the reconstruction.” Otherwise, Gulyás finds these cars much more attractive than the Alstom ones. I guess he likes the Russian-style design, to which he is more accustomed.

Erzsébet Gy. Németh (DK) has already decided to file a complaint based on the suspicion of corruption, fraud, and deceit. LMP is contemplating the same unless BKV within a week can come up with creditable proof that the cars that arrived from Russia are refurbished and not new. As long as the chassis is new, a vehicle is considered to be new, and it is not difficult to determine whether the chassis is forty years old or brand new. LMP’s Antal Csárdi claimed that the Russians accompanying the cars encountered some difficulties with the custom officials, who had their doubts about the identity of the cars. If true, this is an unprecedented case in the business world.

June 3, 2016

Letting the fox guard the henhouse: Hungarian prosecutors undermine justice

The thread that connects today’s topics is the state of the Hungarian legal system. As it stands, Hungary has a thoroughly corrupt prosecutorial system and a judiciary that at times shows itself to be truly independent despite considerable pressure from the executive branch. All three topics I’m addressing today are in one way or the other connected to these two branches of the legal system.

Let me start with a surprising verdict handed down today by the Budapest Court of Justice. Altus Zrt., Ferenc Gyurcsány’s company, sued Viktor Orbán because in May 2015 Orbán claimed that Altus is a bogus company created for the sole purpose of generating revenue from the European Union to finance Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció. Altus is actually managed by Gyurcsány’s wife, Klára Dobrev, an economist and law professor who teaches banking and financial law. The firm received, in an open bid process, a large contract from the European Union to evaluate the use of subsidies by member states and to suggest solutions for their more effective use. Given the political atmosphere in Hungary, Altus, regardless of the quality of its associates, can’t get jobs in the country and must offer its consulting services abroad.

Altus decided to sue Viktor Orbán for slander. Today the Budapest Court of Justice declared that Viktor Orbán’s claim was false and ordered the prime minister to refrain in the future from similar libelous statements. He will have to pay Altus 270,000 forints for court costs. And finally, and this is the one that must hurt Orbán the most, he has to openly express his regret for ever having made such a statement. I don’t know who that brave judge was, but the verdict is simply breathtaking. No one remembers such a verdict against a sitting Hungarian prime minister. Of course, this decision is not final. I’m sure it will be appealed.

Viktor Orbán must be livid. Fidesz immediately released a statement which, in total disregard of the verdict of the court, declared that “even a blind man can see that Ferenc Gyurcsány is financed from Brussels.” Fidesz’s spokesman quickly segued into Péter Medgyessy’s business transaction with Alstom, the French company that provided cars for the new Budapest metro line, the M4. “On the left only the companies and the size of the bribes change, the essence remains. Both Gyurcsány and the other socialist prime minister [meaning Medgyessy] conducted business through their wives. We are looking forward to Gyurcsány’s answer about how much money he received from the bribe of Alstom because, after all, it was during his premiership that the Alstom contract was signed.” Well, it is time for Gyurcsány, who a few years back swore that he would sue anybody who falsely accuses him of anything, to start proceedings again, this time against Fidesz.

That takes us back to the Medgyessy case, which I already mentioned in a post. Since then ten articles dealing with Medgyessy’s involvement with Alstom have appeared in Magyar Idők. The government obviously finds the case extremely useful politically. But how did Magyar Idők get hold of the story in the first place? The articles that appeared in the government paper are based on detailed information, including individual bank transactions. It is unlikely that the source of the information is the Medgyessy couple’s bank. We mustn’t forget that in the last couple of years the Hungarian prosecutor’s office has been investigating Alstom’s possibly illegal activities in Hungary in connection with the metro cars. So it is highly probable that Magyar Idők, just like its predecessor Magyar Nemzet, received the documents directly from the prosecutor’s office, headed by Péter Polt, chief prosecutor of Hungary and an old friend and protector of the prime minister. And this is a crime.

Marianna Polt-Palásthy

Marianna Polt-Palásthy

One cannot overemphasize the importance of Polt to Orbán’s system. It is no exaggeration to say that without Polt, or someone as crooked and loyal as he is, Orbán’s mafia state would have collapsed a long time ago. He is the one who stands between Viktor Orbán and justice and ultimately jail. So, it’s no wonder that Polt receives special treatment. A few months ago we heard that TEK, Orbán’s private bodyguard, will also guard this precious man, who is not entitled to such protection by law. And a few days ago, thanks to the documents released by the Hungarian National Bank’s foundations, we learned that Polt’s wife, Marianna Polt-Palásthy, personnel director of the bank, is also the chair of the board of Pallas Athéné Domus Scientiae, a member of the board of Pallas Athéné Domus Mentis, and a member of the Kecskeméti Duális Oktatás Zrt. She was hired by György Matolcsy in 2013, originally with a salary of 2.3 million a month, but by now she makes five million. Matolcsy’s salary was just raised to five million. So, while the chairman of the bank was making only two million, the director of the personnel department made five million. I wonder why. (Oh, those wives….) We also mustn’t forget about the extra remuneration for her jobs on the foundations’ boards.

And one more story about the Hungarian prosecutor’s office. It has something to do with the Quaestor scandal about which I wrote a year ago. The Quaestor affair is often described as Hungary’s Madoff case, except that here it is likely that the Orbán government itself was involved. Several ministries invested in Csaba Tarsoly’s pyramid scheme, and to the very last minute before the company collapsed Tarsoly was hoping for, and expecting, a government bailout. In brief, a thorough investigation of Csaba Tarsoly’s fraud case is not to the advantage of the Orbán government. And that takes us to our next story.

The victim's of Tarsoly's pyramid game The sign reads: "Orbán get lost and take your cronies along"

The victims of Tarsoly’s pyramid game
The sign reads: “Orbán get lost and take your cronies along”

It is becoming an everyday occurrence that the prosecution’s cases are so poorly prepared that cases that seem very strong even to outsiders are lost time and again. One of the worst offenders is Budapest Chief Prosecutor Tibor Ibolya who, contrary to his family name, is anything but a “violet.” In fact, he has gotten into all sorts of trouble with the courts and judges for speaking in ways the judges found unacceptable. In the Quaestor case Ibolya’s office dumped thousands of documents, absolutely unsorted, into the lap of the judge, not even indicating which documents supported what charge. Among the documents the judges found music, private documents, and photos that had nothing to do with the case. The court sent the whole mess back, asking Ibolya’s office to put their case together in a proper manner because what the court received was useless. Thus far Ibolya refuses to oblige. But the court isn’t budging either. If there is no action by May 31, the whole case against Tarsoly will be dropped. The suspicion is that this is exactly what the prosecutor’s office, with the active encouragement of the Orbán government, wants.

And one final word. It is Péter Polt’s office that is supposed to investigate the legality of the establishment of the Hungarian National Bank’s foundations even as his wife is deeply involved in and profits from the whole illegal scheme.

April 29, 2016

The Orbán regime’s reaction to the scandal at the Hungarian National Bank

The Hungarian National Bank cagily released the documentation on its foundations’ grants and contracts Friday night after 5 p.m., but the timing didn’t help much. The outcry was immediate. And ever since, more and more revelations have been adding fuel to fire, from the grants given to relatives of György Matolcsy to the extra money that went to the wife of Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt. (In addition to her regular job as one of the department heads of the bank she also sits on the boards of several foundations.) The opposition, including Jobbik, is up in arms. All parties demand an investigation as well as the abolition of the six foundations which, by all accounts, were established illegally.

News travels fast, especially nowadays. The Financial Times carried the story of the resignation of the journalists at vs.hu on its front page. The New York Times and the Washington Post also covered the story.  Bloomberg had a complete rundown on Chairman Matolcsy’s machinations with the almost one billion U.S. dollars that was moved from the assets of the National Bank to private foundations. If something like this had happened in western Europe, it would undoubtedly have resulted in the resignation of the chairman of the central bank and perhaps even the whole government. In Hungary, however, nothing of the sort will happen. As Lajos Bokros, the former finance minister, put it when asked about the consequences, “I have no illusions. As long as we are saddled with the Orbán regime, nothing will change.”

Despite the many juicy stories surrounding this case, we shouldn’t get bogged down in details. The important thing to keep in mind is that the very establishment of these foundations was illegal. Bokros in a post on Facebook summarized the legal objections to Matolcsy’s “unorthodox” handling of the assets of the central bank. (1) All money that is accrued over the fiscal year by the bank must be put into the budget of the Hungarian state. Matolcsy, in office now for three years, has not been doing this. (2) The National Bank cannot establish foundations because by doing so it siphons public funds from the budget. (3) The Bank cannot utilize funds for public purposes because the utilization of public funds can be done only with the approval of parliament. (4) The Hungarian National Bank cannot get involved in the formulation of fiscal policy. Its only job is the formulation and execution of monetary policy. (5) The National Bank cannot attempt to transform public money into private funds because that is intentional theft and fraud.

Péter Róna, another economist and banking expert, in a conversation with György Bolgár on Klubrádió this afternoon added that the only assets Matolcsy could have used to buy works of art, musical instruments, or even to establish foundations were the bank’s private “income” from dues paid by banks and entrance fees to view the bank’s numismatic collection, which when Róna was a member of the board of directors a couple of years ago was no more than 4 billion forints a year. The foundations received 260 billion forints, more than 17 billion went for real estate, and an incredible amount of money was spent on artwork, including a picture by Titian for 4.5 billion forints.

From the general silence, it is apparent that members of the government and Fidesz-KDNP MPs find the whole scandal most unfortunate. When journalists asked questions of László Kövér and Viktor Orbán in the corridors of the parliament building, the politicians just kept going, eyes fixed on the floor. They refused to utter one word. Some of the lesser characters tried to act dumb. The excuse of one of the Fidesz deputy chairmen, Szilárd Németh, was that since he has only a simple cell phone, not like the journalists with their smart phones, he had heard nothing about the whole thing. I suspect that they were told to remain silent in the hope that eventually the whole scandal will just die down. However, I would like to remind Árpád Habony and Antal Rogán, head of the propaganda ministry, that this kind of strategy didn’t work in President Pál Schmitt’s plagiarism case.

Behind the stony silence I suspect fear because journalists of four independent organs were told yesterday that they will not be able to enter the parliament building for an unspecified duration. The four publications are Népszabadság, HVG, Index, and 24.hu. Letters notifying the editors-in-chief of the decision asked the editors to instruct their colleagues to obey the rules governing the presence of journalists in the parliamentary building “in order to maintain your publication’s parliamentary accreditation.”

In addition to the silence, the decision must have made somewhere high up, most likely in Fidesz, to leak a ten-year-old story according to which Péter Medgyessy, prime minister of Hungary (2002-2004), received 597,000 euros from the French company Alstom while he was serving as “traveling ambassador” for the country. After Medgyessy resigned, his successor Ferenc Gyurcsány named him to the post as a kind of consolation price. At the same time, however, Medgyessy returned to his old consulting business. Magyar Idők claims that the money Medgyessy received from Alstom was not compensation for his consulting services but a bribe in connection with Alstom’s bid for the metro cars for the new M4 metro line negotiated in and around 2006. Alstom was found guilty of paying more than $750 million in bribes to government officials around the world in December 2014. To make sure that the story sticks, a few hours later Magyar Idők also published a tabloid-like editorial.

Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, announced that “no prime minister in the 25 years of our democracy was accused of such a crime. Péter Medgyessy must give an account of that sum.” The prime minister’s office immediately joined the chorus, and its spokesman promised an investigation into how “this money is connected to the governance of the left.” They will investigate not only the affairs of the former prime minister but also those of former Budapest mayor Gábor Demszky. As for Medgyessy, he admits that he received almost 600,000 euros from Alstom through a Danish and Austrian company but claims it was all on the up and up.

Of course, at this stage we have no idea what transpired, but I must admit that 600,000 euros for a consulting fee is pretty steep. I heard Csaba Molnár (DK) contemplate the possibility that the reason for Medgyessy’s rather sympathetic attitude toward the Orbán government of late might have something to do with Fidesz’s holding this information over his head. Of course, this is just speculation, but it was rather embarrassing when a few months ago Medgyessy claimed in a radio interview that the Orbán government’s corruption is no different from corruption during the socialist-liberal period. I guess this also included his own two years as prime minister.

I’m sure that the pro-government media, including state TV, will keep this issue alive while an investigation will immediately begin into the bribery charge against Medgyessy and perhaps even against Demszky. Meanwhile, of course, nothing will happen on the Matolcsy front.

April 26, 2016

Another Russian-Hungarian deal, good only for the Russians

In the past few years passengers have been evacuated from one metro car after the next on the M3 line in Budapest because the cars started to smoke. These Soviet-made cars have been in service since 1978 without any refurbishing. The most modern metro cars nowadays are guaranteed for 30-35 years. It was high time for these old cars to be retired. Line 2, which was completed in 1970, had the same vintage Soviet cars, but they were replaced by air-conditioned Alstom Metropolis trains in 2013. It was also Alstom that provided the cars for the M4 line that opened in March 2014. Thus, it would have made a lot of sense to seriously consider Alstom’s bid to provide 37 trains with 6 cars each for the M3 line.

Well, this is not what happened. After years of often acrimonious discussions between the central government and Mayor István Tarlós, a decision was reached a few months ago. The M3 line is not getting any new trains. The Soviet cars will be refurbished, allegedly because of cost. Commentators and experts are skeptical.

But let’s start at the beginning. In order to get rid of the by now dangerous old cars Budapest figured it would have to take out a 60 billion forint loan, for which it needed the central government’s guarantee. It was a few months ago that at last the Orbán government said it would guarantee the loan, but only if the money was used to refurbish the old cars, not to buy new ones. The city’s hands were tied. They would have to settle for fixing up the old trains.

Originally 22 companies were interested in getting the job, but BKV, Budapest’s transit authority, found only five that could meet the requirements. Alstom was not among them. In the end, the competition was between two companies: the Russian Metrovagonmash, whose predecessor, the Mytishchi Machine-building Factory, produced the original trains, and Skinest Rail, an Estonian company whose owner is Oleg Ossinovski, an Estonian-Irish citizen. Magyar Nemzet learned that Skinest Rail planned to have the job done in Ukrainian Krykov Railway Car Building Works operating in Kremenchug if it got the job, which it didn’t.

It was only about a week ago that the final decision was reached: Metrovagonmash was the winner. BKV’s arbitration committee ruled that Skinest’s bid couldn’t be considered because, according to Hungarian public procurement law, it had eight “formal” mistakes. It is amazing how often a company is excluded from the bidding process because of “formal mistakes.” Skinest claims that they not only underbid Metrovagonmash by 9 billion forints but offered a 30-year guarantee as opposed to the Russian 25-year guarantee. The Skinest motor design would also have ensured savings in energy use.

Budapest ended up with a project that will cost 69 billion forints, while it can borrow only 60 billion. The balance must be found in Budapest’s very tight budget.

Napi.hu, an economic internet news site, finds the deal “inexplicable.” Everybody suspects foul play here. And not without reason when one reads that László Deák, CEO of Alstom Hungária Zrt, told Magyar Nemzet that “months ago they approached city hall saying that for 75-81 billion forints (242-250 million euros) they would deliver 37 trains with six cars each.” The difference between the 69 billion Budapest will have to pay for old refurbished trains and the Alstom’s offer for new cars is relatively small. (As a point of comparison, “the fence” will cost close to 30 billion forints.) Moreover, after negotiations the city might have been able to lower the price even further. István Tarlós, however, claims that he has no information of any such offer.

By now, Hungarian internet sites have published pictures of the likely Metrovagonmash creations by finding old Soviet-made cars refurbished by the same company. Here is one from Moscow.

Moscow metro

Compare that with the Alstom cars running in Budapest:

alstom2

The city council with its large Fidesz majority naturally voted to accept Metrovagonmash’s offer with the dutiful assistance of the MSZP members. There was only one person who voted against it: Erzsébet Gy. Németh of DK, who suspects a connection between the Russian loan to build the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant and the Russian firm’s winning tender. Antal Csárdi of LMP abstained. He was even more specific in his criticism. According to him, all signs point to the likelihood that Viktor Orbán during his trip to Moscow promised Putin that the Russian company would get the job to refurbish the metro trains. He told Magyar Nemzet that Alstom sold new metro trains to Paris for less money than Budapest is paying the Russians for refurbished ones.

As I said, BKV and the Budapest government claimed that the decision to settle for renovating the old cars was financial. In fact, Tibor Bolla, CEO of BKV, in an interview today alleged that the new trains would have cost at least 90-95 billion forints, an estimate based on prices obtained during earlier negotiations for the trains.

But that’s moot. Cost didn’t figure into the city’s current decision because the choice to refurbish the old cars instead of purchasing new ones was not in their hands. It was in Viktor Orbán’s. So, let’s assume that Orbán had an understanding with Putin about the Russian firm’s involvement with metro cars on the M3 line. Why didn’t he then simply specify new cars manufactured by Metrovagonmash? That would have meant an even a bigger chunk of money for the Russians. I suspect that he was afraid that Metrovagonmash, with its still fairly conservative design and technical know-how, might not have been able to compete successfully with, for example, Alstom. Declaring the Russian company the winner would have been too obvious. Having the same Russian company fix up the old cars that it manufactured forty years earlier looked like a much safer bet.

As it turned out, even that wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. The Russians won only on a technicality. Two days ago Skinest Rail submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission over the procurement procedure. The Estonian firm “contends that its bid was more favorable in every key aspect, as its proposal meets all modern technical requirements–asynchronous drive, disc brakes, pneumatic suspension, longer life cycle, etc.–and the eight points cited by BKV Zrt. as reasons to disqualify the Skinest bid are formal in character.” The press release further noted that “a Hungarian Parliament bill for the acceleration and simplification of certain development investment projects in Budapest was passed on the same day as the announcement of the tender winner, and was dubbed the M3 Act because of its focus on the M3 modernization project.”

Although Skinest claimed in its formal complaint to the European Commission that the bill passed by parliament “limits legal remedies available to contending bids,” according to Bolla, CEO of BKV, Skinest is mistaken, and since then they have asked for remedies in Hungary. Skinest will not, however, be able to compare the two competing tenders because of Metrovagonmash’s insistence on secrecy. I wouldn’t be too optimistic if I were Oleg Ossinovski. Estonia/Ukraine can’t beat Russia in Budapest.