Tag Archives: Aquatic World Championship

The opening extravaganza of the Aquatic Championships didn’t capture the world’s imagination

The Aquatic World Championships, the largest ever sports event in Hungarian history, began with an expensive opening ceremony on Friday night. The cost of the event has preoccupied members of the Hungarian media. In the last few days journalists have been trying to figure out how much each minute of the two-hour program cost the taxpayers, and they came up with 28.3 million forints or $89,960.

As far as the Hungarian government is concerned, every cent spent was worth it. After all, and now I am quoting the government’s very own Magyar Idők, “because thanks to the television coverage [the director] dazzled the world with a fantastic image of the country.” The justification for holding the event was that tourism would receive a boost that would compensate for the expenses incurred. But the real emphasis was always on image building. People would be overwhelmed by the cityscape over the Danube, the majestic parliament building, and the Royal Castle. The speed with which the organizers managed to put this great show together should also impress the world. Hungary is strong, proud, and competitive.

As far as Magyar Idők is concerned, everything turned out absolutely splendidly. The new Duna Aréna is “one of the largest and most beautiful swimming pools.” As for the opening ceremony, it was “dazzling” as it portrayed “the meeting of water and culture in Hungarian history.” The program generously began with the Roman city of Aquincum, today’s Óbuda. There were eight episodes, which included the Hungarians’ arrival, Renaissance Buda, hussars, the music of Ferenc Liszt and Zoltán Kodály, Hungarian operettas, pop culture, folk songs, and folk costumes. How much did foreigners understand from all that? I suspect not much. In addition, the American CeeLo Green sang “Bright Lights Bigger City” and “Crazy.”

As for the quality of the program, well, that depends on your artistic sensibilities and to some extent on your political views. Reporters from media outlets like Index and 444.hu were less than thrilled. But for the organizers the most important consideration was the impact of this extravaganza. After all, the chief aim of staging the championships was ostensibly to advertise Budapest and Hungary, and therefore they wanted millions of people to be exposed to the events in Budapest. The eyes of the world will be on Hungary, the organizers assured the population. They talked about 5 billion cumulative views.

But came the first day with the opening ceremony on which they spent so much money and the reaction was, how shall I say, less than what they expected. Hours after the event one couldn’t find anything on the internet about this proud moment, which was supposed to spread the good name of Hungary all over the world. No problem. In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary creating an alternative reality is an everyday occurrence.

Hungary’s official news agency, MTI, came up with the simplest solution. It created news showing the opening ceremony being widely covered in the international media. Let me quote the opening lines of its news item. “On Saturday the international media first and foremost concentrated on the opening ceremony of the Aquatic World Championships in Budapest. The objective articles are richly illustrated with photographs, highlighting the most important moments of the ceremony.“ But MTI failed to mention any of those publications that carried the richly illustrated articles. Therefore, suspicious Hungarian reporters who are only too aware of MTI’s habit of falsifying the news tried to verify the MTI report. The blogger of Comment:com checked both Google and Bing and found only one article, in Euronews.com. Here is what it had to say about the opening ceremony: “Crowds in Budapest witnessed spectacular scenes at the opening ceremony of the World Aquatic Championships, the biggest sporting event ever staged in Hungary…. Euronews correspondent Ferenc Horvath noted that the cost of producing the opening extravaganza may break records.” Period.

In addition, this morning a short, somewhat sarcastic little news item appeared in Politico’s “Brussels Playbook”–“Budapest’s Latest Soft Power Play.” It did mention the “flashy opening ceremony,” but the article was really about “the most powerful woman in Hungary,” Katinka Hosszú, who is “a multi-millionaire triple Olympic gold medalist who is using her political skills to form a global professional swimmers union. Watch out, Viktor!” It was from this meager amount of material that MTI created an event reported widely and enthusiastically as a “spectacular and dazzling” performance.

As far as TV coverage of the championship events over the next two weeks is concerned, although sports fans in Great Britain and Canada will be able to follow at least some of the events on BBC and CBC, I fear that not too many Americans will be able to watch them. They will be aired on a brand new sports channel, NBC Olympic Channel, which was launched just today. Thus, for example, the opening ceremony will not be broadcast. It will be a very narrowly focused channel. The programming will be done by NBCUniversal, the International Olympic Committee, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Olympic Channel will be available via some of the large cable providers such as A&T DirecTV, Comcast, and Verizon. But the viewership of programming on a brand new channel will most likely be minuscule.

All in all, the dreams about the fantastic impact the championships will have on Hungary’s image were, I’m afraid, way overblown.

July 15, 2017

The “totally successful” anti-Soros campaign comes to a sudden end

It was over the July 1-2 weekend that Hungary was plastered with thousands of posters showing a smiling George Soros. The accompanying text declared: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!” That is, the strong and proud Hungarians must stop Soros’s efforts to send millions of Middle Eastern and African migrants to Europe, some of whom may end up in Hungary. This latest campaign cost the taxpayers 5.6 billion forints, over and above the 11 billion that had already been spent on earlier anti-migrant campaigns.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of religious Jewish communities, initially issued a bland statement about the unpleasant memories this poster campaign awakens in the Jewish community. A couple of days later, however, András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, wrote a stronger letter to Viktor Orbán asking him to end the campaign and remove the posters. Although the poster is “not openly anti-Semitic, nevertheless it is capable of inducing anti-Semitic sentiments.” He pointed out that these fears are not unfounded because hateful inscriptions had already appeared on the Soros posters that recalled the darkest period of Hungarian history.

Hungarian and old German anti-Jewish poster from the 1930s, side by side

This letter couldn’t be ignored, and Orbán answered promptly. The bulk of the letter was devoted to the perils Hungary faces and the heroic efforts he and his government are undertaking for the safety of the homeland and Hungarian families. Illegal migration is clearly a national security question, and whoever threatens Hungary’s security will have to face the Hungarian state’s political and legal power regardless of ethnic origin or religious faith. He reminded Heisler that he is actually defending the Jewish community by opposing illegal migration, which is the hotbed of the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. “I don’t expect thanks or recognition for our struggle against illegal migration, but a little help from your community would be nice.” Orbán left Heisler’s request for the removal of the billboards unanswered. 24.hu called Orbán’s letter impertinent.

It was at that point that Yossi Amrani, Israel’s ambassador in Budapest, published the following statement both in English and Hungarian on the Israeli embassy’s Facebook page.

I call on those involved in the current billboard campaign and those responsible for it to reconsider the consequences.

No gain can come from such a campaign recalling the historic lesson.

At the moment beyond political criticism of a certain person, the campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear.

It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle.

Yossi Amrani
Ambassador of Israel
Budapest, Hungary

A day after the ambassador called on Orbán to remove the posters, however, on the instruction of the Israeli prime minister’s office the foreign ministry backtracked, criticizing George Soros, who “constantly undermines Israel’s governments.” The foreign ministry’s spokesman refrained from criticizing Viktor Orbán and strongly denounced George Soros. “Israel deplores any expression of anti-Semitism in any country and stands with Jewish communities everywhere in confronting this hatred. This was the sole purpose of the statement issued by Israel’s ambassador to Hungary,” he said. “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros.”

This incident stirred quite a debate in Israel. Chemi Shalev, a Haaretz correspondent, wrote an opinion piece in which he didn’t mince words. According to him, the Israeli embassy in Budapest published an appropriate condemnation of the poster campaign against Soros “until Benjamin Netanyahu stuck a knife in their backs.” According to Shalev, “many Europeans, including Soros’ harshest critics, can clearly identify blatant anti-Semitism in these campaigns. Netanyahu apparently believes that his anti-Israeli position justifies throwing Soros to the anti-Semitic dogs.” He severely criticized Israel for its nationalistic, xenophobic, and insular policies which inevitably leads to “deepening ties and identification with similar countries that think and behave the same way.” Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Netanyahu and Orbán stand shoulder to shoulder despite Orbán’s recent praise of Miklós Horthy.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás (TGM) wrote a short thought-provoking essay in which he tries to define “modern anti-Semitism.” In his view it is not simply hostility toward a people or a religion but is an emotion that is against “universality.” Soros is an expression of that universality which the nationalistic, inward-looking far-right Orbán government finds unnatural. It considers it abnormal that someone identifies with others outside of his own people, religion, or sex. In that sense Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can be viewed as “anti-Semitic.” The Israeli prime minister will feel very much at home in Viktor Orbán’s company, he believes. “The boys will understand each other well.”

Meanwhile George Soros also raised his voice. “I am distressed by the current Hungarian regime’s use of anti-Semitic imagery as part of its deliberate disinformation campaign. Equally, I am heartened that together with countless fellow citizens the leadership of the Hungarian Jewish community has spoken out against the campaign.” In addition, Michael Vachon, director of communications for the Soros Fund Management and spokesman for George Soros himself, sent a letter around to explain what’s going on in Hungary. Apparently, the letter was written by Soros but appeared over the signature of Vachon. In Hungary it was published by 444.hu.

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing to alert you to deeply troubling developments in the heart of the European Union, in Hungary.

It is urgent that you help spread the news about what is happening.

Last week the Fidesz-led government launched a nationwide billboard and television advertising campaign reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hours.

The campaign uses an image of a grinning George Soros with the slogan “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!”

Thousands of these posters have been plastered around the country: on billboards, on the metro, on the floors of Budapest’s trams so that people cannot enter the tram without trampling on Soros’s face.

Understanding the government’s intent, some of the posters have been defaced with hateful graffiti such as “stinking Jew” scrawled across Soros’s face. The government has spent $12.9 million (5.7 billion HUF) on the campaign so far.

Because of its clearly anti-Semitic overtones, the campaign has created an outcry amongst Hungary’s Jews and others. The leader of the Federation of the Hungarian Jewish Communities has called for an immediate removal of the poster as has Israel’s ambassador in Budapest.

Fidesz rejects charges that the campaign is anti-Semitic in nature and claims that the Hungarian government’s goal is to stop Soros’s “migrant campaign,” which they claim is promoting the immigration of a million illegal immigrants into Europe.

The government has consistently and willfully misrepresented Soros’s views on migration and refugees.

As a survivor of the Holocaust who hid from the Nazis in Budapest and later was himself a refugee, Soros knows first-hand what it means to be in mortal peril. He carries the memory of the international community’s rejection of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. It is from the crucible of those experiences that his empathy for refugees from war-torn Syria and elsewhere was born.

Soros’s actual position on migration is that the international community should provide more support to the developing countries that today host 89% of refugees and that Europe should accept several hundred thousand fully screened refugees through an orderly process of vetting and resettlement. He believes that qualified asylum seekers should not have to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach safety.

He also believes that Europe needs a common asylum system that equitably shares responsibility for protecting legitimate refugees rather than placing that burden on only a few countries. Soros’s position is entirely consistent with mainstream European values. The Hungarian regime’s xenophobia and demonization of refugees are anti-European. The claim that Soros is promoting a scheme to import a million illegal immigrants into Europe is Victor Orban’s fantasy.

Please help us spread the word about this anti-Semitic and anti-refugee campaign in the heart of Europe.

At the end of this email I have included sample images of the Fidesz poster campaign. I have also provided links to recent news stories that attempt to explain why George has inspired the wrath of authoritarian rulers around the world.

Regards,
Michael Vachon

The following day ATV reported that, according to an influential Fidesz insider, the anti-Soros campaign is coming to an end. In Orbán’s opinion, the campaign was a “complete success” because it not only solidified the forces of the liberals and socialists but even Jobbik became a defender of Soros. They all showed their true anti-nationalist colors. And the real sign of the success of the campaign is Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that the anti-Soros campaign is not anti-Semitic. But Orbán wants to avoid a situation in which all those posters take attention away from the Aquatic World Championship. So, allegedly, the posters must come down because of this sporting event.

This explanation is questionable. The world championship begins with a lavish opening ceremony on July 14, so one assumes that visitors and athletes will be coming to town already tomorrow and all through Friday. Will it be possible to remove the thousands of posters by then? Or, as some people suspect, is the real reason for the removal of them by July 15 Netanyahu’s arrival on July 18? Perhaps Orbán fears that the sea of posters might change the Israeli prime minister’s opinion of the nature of this hate campaign. MSZP compared the Orbán government’s swift removal of the billboards and posters to the temporary disappearance of most of the anti-Jewish signs before the commencement of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Historians well acquainted with Nazi propaganda methods find more and more common features between German anti-Semitic posters from the 1930s and the two anti-Soros posters that have appeared to date. Almost as if the propagandists hired by the Orbán government turned to the Third Reich for inspiration.

July 12, 2017

Azeri and Russian companies in charge of the Aquatic World Championship’s information technology

I already wrote a post on the escalating cost of hosting the Aquatic World Championship. I collected a few figures, going back to 2014, on the estimated cost of the project when the organizers assured the country that only 23 billion forints would be needed for the whole project. A year later, in May 2015, Magyar Közlöny, the official government gazette, revealed that the government had put aside about 50 billion forints to cover the cost of the two-week event. So, within a year, the estimated outlay doubled. The swimming center that was supposed to be “the new miracle” and “the jewel” of Budapest and that was originally estimated to cost 8 billion forints turned out to be a 33-billion “depressing parking garage,” to quote László Szily of 444.hu. By mid-2016 expenses had reached 90 billion forints.

In May 2017 Miklós Seszták, minister for national development, who is in charge of the project, came out with a new figure. The cost of hosting the Aquatic World Championship will actually be 130.6 billion forints. Index described this announcement as a “bombshell” since no one had dared to contemplate a price higher than 100 billion before. Seszták insisted, however, that, despite that enormous amount of money, the actual staging of the event will cost Hungary only 43.36 billion. How did he come up with that figure? No one really knows, but he refused to include about 85 billion forints in the total cost because, according to him, several big projects, like the rebuilding of the lower wharf on the Pest side or the reconstruction of Margaret Island would have been done sometime in the future anyway.

That was the situation at the beginning of May, but as of yesterday the cost went up a tad more, like by another 35 billion forints, because the figures Seszták revealed at his press conference didn’t include two important items: the technology necessary to broadcast the world championship and the installation of powerful broadband interconnectivity. According to people in the know, these two projects are actually among the most expensive. In addition, the organizers will provide 1,400 cell phones and 600 laptops for use by the athletes, representatives of FINA, and volunteers.

Antenna Hungária, a state-owned telecommunication company, was the “contractor” for these jobs. It hired, without any competitive bids, four Hungarian and two foreign companies to provide the necessary software and hardware for the event. The 35 billion forints didn’t come from the sum put aside for the project but was given, somewhat surreptitiously, to Antenna Hungária outright. Yesterday I detailed the way in which the Orbán government helped ORÖ (Országos Roma Önkormányzat) cover its debts at the end of last year when it gave away 300 billion forints to its favorites. As far as Index knows, Antenna Hungária was also on the receiving end. It got a “gift” of 23 billion so it could hire domestic and foreign companies with a knowledge of internet technology to undertake these jobs.

The people of Budapest and Balatonfüred, one of the other venues, will be the beneficiaries of the free wi-fi which is being installed all along the Danube between Batthyány tér and Margaret Bridge. This will be a permanent installation with long-lasting benefits. But, as usual, there are some questions concerning this project.

Installing the system is WandaFi, an Azeri company with headquarters in Baku. Two Azeri businessmen, Rafik Abasov and Anar Aligioulov, established it in March 2016. WandaFi, according to the promotional material available on the internet, is “an automated engine designed exclusively for hotels, restaurants, and cafes.” A rather strange choice for this particular job because it is supposed to be “a unique marketing tool” that allows hotel and restaurant owners to “get to know” their customers. It collects data that in turn allows the owners to offer personalized services and promotions. In brief, the software is capable of collecting personal data on those who happen to be in the area being monitored. This particular capability worries the opposition parties and the socialist chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security.

Why the organizers could find only a very young Azeri company to do the job I can only guess. One possibility is that one of the satisfied customers of WandaFi is Buddha Bars, a chain of restaurants in Hungary. The Budapest Buddha Bar is owned by two Jordanian investors who are on excellent terms with Viktor Orbán. Or perhaps the ministry of foreign affairs and trade in its eagerness to develop good relations with Azerbaijan, a country Orbán has been courting for some time, looked specifically for an Azeri company capable of doing the job. Anar Aligioulov, the co-owner of WandaFi, was formerly co-chairman of the board of R.I.S.K. Co., which is described as “one of the leading IT companies in the Central Asian and Caucasus markets.” President Ilham Aliyev and Aligioulov know each other. So, it is possible that the Azeri government called the Hungarians’ attention to WandaFi.

The other foreign company is a Russian startup called Marsatpro, which produces software designed to organize sports events. It handles the registration, arrival, departure, and lodging of the participants. But, if Index is correct, this time Marsatpro is responsible for navigation software to be installed in the Audis that will be provided to representatives of FINA. At least Rashit Khairullin, the 31-year-old software designer and head of the company, does have some experience with large sporting events. Apparently, he was involved with the 2013 Summer Universiade in Kazan. This was indeed a large event: 10,400 university athletes from 162 countries participated in 13 mandatory and 14 optional sports.

Still, both are odd choices for the jobs they are ostensibly responsible for. Index tried to find out more about these two foreign companies as well as the four Hungarian ones, but no one is willing to talk.

July 11, 2017

What happened to “the jewel”of Budapest? Nothing good

Let’s talk about money today, specifically the incredible amounts of money the Orbán government is wasting on all sorts of nonessential projects instead of on healthcare, education, research and development, and the alleviation of poverty among a large segment of Hungarian society.

We have spent countless hours discussing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s football mania, which is reaching pathological heights with the construction of countless football stadiums that remain mostly empty during matches. But I have devoted less time to “prestige investments” that are supposed to be testaments to the glory of the “Orbán era.”

These prestige investments are all about proclaiming the greatness of the new era initiated by Viktor Orbán in 2010. Projects like the new museum quarters actually began as a much larger undertaking, which would have redrawn the whole map of the Pest side of the capital. Already during his first administration Orbán started to put his mark on the cityscape. And after 2010 his desire to remake Budapest has only intensified. His desire to rule the country from the medieval center of royal power in Buda’s Castle couldn’t be curbed despite weighty arguments against it. The Aquatic World Championship to be held in 2017 and the possible Olympic Games in 2024 will further alter the look of Budapest. All dictators love gigantic architectural projects that serve as monuments to themselves. Orbán is no exception.

But back to money. Orbán’s projects have all turned out to be vastly more expensive than originally projected. This is true not only of the cost of the stadiums but also of projects that are still unfinished. Here I would like to talk about one such project: the Aquatic World Championship.

I have collected a few figures, going back to 2014, on the cost of hosting the aquatic championship events. The center of the two-week extravaganza will be a new swimming pool complex, originally the breathtaking design of Marcel Ferencz, a well-known Hungarian architect. Since it was to be built alongside the Danube, it would have had a commanding place in the cityscape. Based on the maquettes, the place was described as “the new miracle” and “the jewel” of Budapest. The government official in charge described the building as “the symbol of Budapest and Hungary.” In addition, of course, other buildings had to be constructed and general improvements of the area had to be undertaken, but the optimistic organizers still believed that 23 billion forints would be enough for the whole project.

The original design of the swimming complex by Marcel Ferencz

This sounded very low to people familiar with construction costs, as indeed it was. In May 2015 Magyar Közlöny, the official government gazette, revealed that the government had put aside about 50 billion forints for the project. So, the estimated cost doubled within one year. At that time, government officials in charge of the financing admitted that the swimming complex itself would cost not 8 billion but 23 billion forints. At the laying of the foundation ceremony, Viktor Orbán didn’t quite know what to call this stunning architectural structure. He thought that “palace” was too ostentatious and “komplex” was not a Hungarian word. “So, for the time being, we will just call it ‘aquatic center’ (vízi központ).” I think this description was too modest for such a stunning design. Or, perhaps he already knew something we didn’t.

A year later, new figures surfaced. By mid-2016 expenses had reached 90 billion forints. When Attila Mesterházy, an MSZP member of parliament, inquired about the projected total cost, it turned out that the non-profit company in charge of coordination had no final cost estimates for the project as a whole. In general, the Orbán government loathes revealing any of its activities. Practically everything is a “state secret,” preferably for decades. In this case the government was mum on the design changes that occurred mid-stream. It was suddenly decided that because Viktor Orbán hopes that Budapest will get the nod to stage the 2024 Olympic Games, the “aquatic center” had to be completely redesigned. Instead of the dazzling original design that could seat 5,000, the final building had to seat at least 15,000. Everything had to be changed. Even the entrance to the swimming pool had to be moved from the Danube side to Népfürdő utca. The new design, according to the architect, the same Marcel Ferencz, suddenly became “a huge box.” It is so big that ten ten-story apartment buildings could fit inside of it comfortably.

In January 2016, Origo announced the changes in the design in a fairly lengthy article in which one could see, as it turned out, somewhat idealized pictures of what the building will look like. There was a telling sentence in the generally upbeat description of the design changes: the building may be three times larger than was originally planned, but the cost must remain the same 20 billion forints.

Meanwhile, the construction of this monster continued, and by now the final shape of the building can be seen quite well. According to László Szily of 444.hu, it looks like a “depressing parking garage.” He can’t quite believe that “this something which was built from so much money and is so much in one’s face can be so unimaginative, hulking, maimed, and sad.” To break the straight lines, Ferencz added metal strips symbolizing waves, which in Szily’s opinion only exaggerate “the suffocating sense of hopelessness.” Szily thinks that “this parking garage is the symbol of the Orbán regime’s uncultured greed.”

The redesigned swimming complex by Marcel Ferencz

Szily thinks that one reason the government had to skimp on the sports complex is because thousands times more money is being showered on Orbán’s immediate family and his cronies. I see this case, and some of the other cases not discussed here, somewhat differently.

All of these prestige projects start ambitiously: hiring world-renowned architects, for example, to design some of the buildings in the museum quarters. Then, when reality catches up with the megalomaniac dreamers, the plans must be scaled down. By now, for example, no one knows which projects will be built in Városliget and which will not. Orbán vetoed at least one that he didn’t like. The same thing happened to this new swimming complex. The creation of a truly outstanding structure is beyond the financial means of the regime. Of course, Szily is right that Orbán’s priorities have something to do with scaling back some of these projects because, indeed, fattening up his own family and his oligarchs is his most important consideration. Thus, in the end, Hungary ends up with shoddy, uninspiring buildings.

I should add that there is something else wrong with dictators when it comes to art and architecture. Since theirs is the final word, their ideas on art are stamped all over everything created during their rule. And, let’s face it, Orbán and his friends in power have abominable taste. It is enough to look at some of their creations to date, for example, the Hungarian National Theater. Don’t expect anything remarkable to be built while Viktor Orbán is in power.

January 8, 2017