Tag Archives: Bajnai government

The real story of the ELI Laser Center in Szeged

Talking about Viktor Orbán’s stamina. After the grueling five-day trip to Beijing and a busy last week and weekend, today Orbán went to the city of Szeged to open the ELI Laser Center.

What is ELI? It stands for Extreme Light Infrastructure, which is a new research infrastructure of pan-European interest. It is a laser project that aims to host the most intense beamline system in the world. The ELI project will be located in four sites. One will be in Dolní Břežany, near Prague. It will focus on the development of short-pulse secondary sources of radiation and particles. ELI-ALPS (Attosecond Light Pulse Source) will be in Szeged, which will be “a unique facility which provides light sources within an extremely broad frequency range in the form of ultrashort pulses with high repetition rate.” In Măgurele, Romania, the ELI-NP (Nuclear Physics) facility will focus on laser-based nuclear physics. The fourth facility’s location is still undecided.

It was on October 1, 2009 that the EU decided to give these three former communist countries a mandate to proceed with the construction of ELI facilities. Being a pan-European project, 85% of all costs would be covered from the European Regional Development Fund. There was only one caveat: these governments didn’t receive extra resources from the European Union for these facilities. They had to use a small portion of their seven-year budget that came from the European Union. It was Gordon Bajnai’s government that signed the agreement, but the whole project, including the decision to construct the center in Szeged, began in 2006 during the second Gyurcsány government.

With this timetable in mind, let’s turn to Viktor Orbán’s speech at the ribbon cutting. First, he made sure that his audience understands that “this facility is not a gift” from the European Union. It was paid partly from the country’s own resources and partly from monies Hungary received from the European Union. And since, in his opinion, Hungary is entitled to the money it receives from the European Union, Orbán considers the money coming from Brussels to be part of the country’s own resources, which could be used in any way he wants. It was a hard decision, he said, because 70-80 billion forints for a single project is a lot. Yet “in 2011 we decided, I believe correctly, to build the largest scientific institution in Hungary’s modern history.” (The Ferenc Puskás Stadium will cost Hungarian taxpayers 200 billion forints, and the cost of the World Aquatic Games has reached 100 billion and counting.)

What happened between October 1, 2009, when the Bajnai government gave its blessing to the project, and 2012, when the Orbán government decided to build the facility? Well, one obvious event was the May 2010 national election when Viktor Orbán again became prime minister of Hungary. Without dwelling on this three-year gap, Orbán said that “today at the time of success, it is unnecessary to recall disputes at the time, but it was seriously debated whether to concentrate on one large investment or not.” The truth is that the Orbán government refused to honor the Bajnai government’s offer of 200 million euros for its construction. Shortly after the election, it withheld one billion forints promised earlier for the planning stage of the project.

Before the municipal elections in October 2010, Lajos Kósa, vice chairman of Fidesz, and the Fidesz candidate for the mayoralty in Szeged held a joint press conference during which they accused the socialist mayor, László Botka, of misleading the people of Szeged. They claimed that no money whatsoever will be coming from the European Union. But, they added, the Orbán government is all in favor of the project and is trying to find the necessary funds, which is not easy under the present financial circumstances.

Of course, all this was just a charade to mislead the people of Szeged, who were naturally keen to have this prestigious project built in their city. The government wanted to use the EU monies for something else, and behind the scenes they were trying to convince the European Union to allow them to abandon the project. As late as August 2012 there was still no decision. László Botka, in an interview at the time, expressed his fear that the project would be cancelled. “Some people are convinced that Orbán is reluctant to spend 10 billion forints on Szeged. Apparently he is thinking of spending this amount of money on Fidesz-led cities. For example, he could divide the amount among 3,000 bakers,” he said sarcastically, since apparently the government was thinking of subsidizing small- and medium-size businesses from the money.

But canceling the undertaking in Szeged would have endangered the ELI enterprise in the Czech Republic and in Romania as well. The decision in 2006 to place the ELI facilities in former Soviet-bloc countries which had joined the Union only two years earlier was a sign of trust in these countries’ ability to create and run first-rate research facilities that were important for the European Union as a whole. So, finally in December 2012—not in 2011 as Orbán claims—the government came to the conclusion that forcing through their original plan and abandoning the project would cast Hungary in a very bad light. It would prove that the former communist countries cannot, after all, be trusted with an important pan-European project of extreme scientific importance. So, they reluctantly gave their blessing.

Orbán now talks about the Laser Center as being of “tremendous value” and proudly claimed in his speech that the very existence of the ELI center is proof of Fidesz’s even-handedness. Too bad that some people have a good memory.

May 23, 2017

Another poll, another loss for Fidesz ahead of a by-election

Three new Medián polls were released today. One is the company’s monthly poll of political support for Hungarian parties. The second is a survey of the population’s assessment of the financial disaster caused by irresponsible management at a number of brokerage firms. And third is a survey of the population’s opinion about the government’s decision to close retail stores on Sundays.

I was looking forward to Medián’s survey of Hungarian political opinion at the end of March because of the forthcoming by-election in the Tapolca-Ajka-Sümeg district that, according to some commentators, Jobbik has a good chance of winning. In addition, it was about two weeks ago that Ipsos came out with a poll indicating a spectacular growth in Jobbik support in the last few months. I’m relieved to see a second poll with a different set of results.

Here are the main findings of the political poll. Since the end of February Fidesz has lost another 3% of its support. The standing of the opposition parties, however, hasn’t changed, with the exception of DK, which gained 2% among committed voters. People’s opinion of the government’s performance is low. Only 29% think that the third Orbán government is doing a good job. In fact, a majority of the people today think that the Bajnai government’s performance was better than that of the Orbán government in the last five years.

orange = total population beige = eligible voters blue = committed voters

orange = total population
beige = eligible voters
blue = committed voters

Jobbik’s popularity has remained constant over the last year: 15% of the population are Jobbik supporters. But the composition of the Jobbik camp might have changed, since 18% of current Jobbik supporters claim that they voted for Fidesz a year ago. The only thing I found surprising in the survey was the relative zeal of Fidesz voters: 60% of them say that they would definitely go and vote if the elections were held next Sunday. This figure seems high to me in light of the recent Veszprém election where one reason for the devastating defeat of the Fidesz candidate was the refusal of Fidesz sympathizers to go to the polls.

When it comes to the financial scandals, the Orbán government has been trying to pin the bankruptcies and their consequences on the socialist-liberal governments. But it is difficult to blame Péter Medgyessy, Ferenc Gyurcsány, or Gordon Bajnai for the bankruptcies after five years of Fidesz supervision of financial institutions. Although government communication hammers the “socialist” theme from morning till night, the people aren’t buying it. The majority of the population (56%) find the current government completely or partly responsible for the situation that developed in the last few months. Only 17% of the population believe that the socialists are largely or completely responsible for the collapse of Quaestor and other brokerage firms.

The results of Medián’s survey on the Sunday closing of retail stores are, for the most part, similar to those of Ipsos on which I already reported. But the Ipsos survey did not break the data down by party sympathies. Medián does, and it looks as if even Fidesz voters are split on the issue (48% for it, 45% against, 7% undecided). The majority of Jobbik voters oppose the new law, and an overwhelming number (70%) of socialist and liberal voters are against it. And 75% of those who at present have no party preferences would like to have the stores open. This last figure is especially ominous for the government party.

Back to the Tapolca-Ajka-Sümeg election. This election has become a litmus test for all three major parties. If Fidesz loses (and it is their race to lose), a further erosion of voters will be inevitable. If Jobbik wins, it will be a sign of the growing acceptance of the party, able at last to send a representative to parliament who was elected in his own right. If the MSZP-DK candidate wins, it will strengthen the left’s image as a force that can replace the Fidesz government. After all, this would be the third by-election in which the candidate of the left wins. So, all three parties are putting a lot of work into the campaign.

Fidesz seems to be the most active. Practically all important Fidesz politicians have showed up in the district and, as far as we know, Viktor Orbán himself will make an appearance in Tapolca, perhaps tomorrow. Fidesz at last seems to taking Jobbik seriously, with both László Kövér and János Lázár calling Jobbik a Nazi party. But it is difficult to attack Jobbik in any detail because Fidesz has moved so far to the right in order to compete with Jobbik that the two parties’ programs are almost identical by now. Because of Orbán’s pro-Russian policy, it is practically impossible for Fidesz politicians to accuse Jobbik of being too close to Russia or to claim that Russia is financing the party which is most likely the case.

According to local gossip, Fidesz ordered a survey that showed a massive Fidesz defeat on Sunday, which may explain László Kövér’s remark that the party didn’t have a critical stake in this election. In the last few days, however, the Fidesz leadership must have decided to try to reverse the situation. This is a risky undertaking. If Orbán goes to Tapolca and Sümeg as promised, makes rousing speeches, and Fidesz still loses, this would further undermine the prime minister’s popularity and the belief in his superior political talent.

At the moment it is difficult to predict what Fidesz will do in the next three to four days. As of this morning, it looked as if Zoltán Fenyvesi, the Fidesz candidate, would take part in a three-man debate on Olga Kálmán’s Egyenes beszéd tonight, but in the last minute he cancelled. This is a surprising move given the party’s earlier decision to show him as a fighting candidate who does not hide from the public as his counterpart was ordered to do in Veszprém.

Parties and supporters of the parties on the left believe that the real contenders are the MSZP-DK candidate, Ferenc Pad, and Jobbik’s Lajos Rig. Jobbik leaders are convinced that the campaign is really only about Fidesz and Jobbik. I have no idea what will happen on Sunday, I can only keep fingers crossed.

Viktor Orbán looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and was reassured

Yesterday, given the very crowded news day, I had  neither time nor space to discuss an article by Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság about some of the details of the negotiations between Russia and Hungary over the Paks nuclear plant. What you have to know about Csuhaj is that she seems to have fantastic connections to important Fidesz and government officials and usually comes up with impressive “scoops.”

As we discussed in the comments, information coming from these circles cannot always be trusted and, in fact, one suspects that some of the leaks that reach Csuhaj might be purposely planted in the leading left-of-center paper. In any case, Csuhaj received lots of information about the Paks deal from her unnamed sources. Some of the information sounds entirely plausible. For example, that the plan to have the Russians build the extension to the power plant was first discussed in January 2013 during Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow.

I don’t know whether any of you remember, but the opposition belittled the significance of the meeting last January and pointed to the extremely short duration of the visit. The left media drew the conclusion that Viktor Orbán offered himself to Vladimir Putin but the president of Russia wasn’t interested. In brief, the meeting was no more than a courtesy visit. Today we know that during that visit Orbán got an offer of Russian collaboration on the Paks project. Apparently he pondered the issue for a few months and by the summer made the decision to go ahead. In mid-summer serious negotiations began, which continued all the way to the last days of December.

According to Ildikó Csuhaj’s source, what inspired the Orbán government to add two extra reactors to the existing plant was its desire to achieve sustainable economic growth. Building such a large project, especially if the story is true that 40% of the work will be done by Hungarian companies, will be a stimulus to employment and will give impetus to faster growth.

So far the story sounds plausible, but what comes after that must be taken with a grain of salt. According to the Fidesz story, Viktor Orbán began making inquiries at large German industrial concerns. Apparently, negotiations were conducted with RWE AG, the second largest utility company in Germany, and Deutsche Telekom. On the basis of these conversations, according to the Fidesz source, Orbán came to the conclusion that what German industry will need in the future is cheap energy. But those nasty German environmentalists are against building reactors on German soil. Given the Russian offer, Orbán apparently hatched the idea of building a large nuclear power plant that will be more than enough for Hungary’s energy needs. The rest of the capacity could be sold to Germany’s energy-hungry industrial complex.

The project couldn’t be financed from private sources as the Finnish nuclear power plant will be. Moreover, Orbán apparently made it clear that the plant must remain in state hands. Thus, a bilateral financial agreement signed by Russia and Hungary was needed which is a first within the European Union.

Csuhaj’s Fidesz source claimed that Viktor Orbán received the European Union’s blessing for the bilateral agreement. Allegedly, János Lázár talked to Günther Oettinger, EU commissioner for energy. The EU Commission even sanctioned closing the deal without a tender.

Apparently, the Edmond de Rothschild Group, a private Swiss banking concern which among other things offers investment advisory services, was especially helpful to the Hungarians in handling all these sticky negotiations with EU officials. The Rothschild Group advised the Hungarian government to get in touch with the law firm Hengeler Mueller, which has offices in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Munich, Brussels, and London. It is a large firm with 90 partners and 160 associates. They give “high-end legal advice to companies in complex business transactions.” It was allegedly this law firm that managed “to convince” the European Commission about the legality of the transaction.

Well, it seems that the European Commission has not yet blessed the deal. Eszter Zalán, the Brussels correspondent for Népszabadság, asked Sabine Berger, the spokeswoman of Günther Oettinger, who informed her that Oettinger’s office will examine the agreement and decide whether it conforms to European laws. This legal scrutiny may take weeks to complete. It also became clear that details of the agreement reached Brussels only in December. The announcement yesterday, however, didn’t come as a surprise to the European Commission.

Domestically, there is an outcry over the agreement, signed secretly with no consultation with the opposition, experts, or the general public. Fidesz politicians responded to this criticism by claiming that it was during Bajnai ‘s tenure that parliament authorized the government to conduct negotiations about doubling the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant. They called members of the opposition, including Bajnai, liars for denying their authorization of the negotiations.

Well, this is not a correct description of what happened in 2009 when the topic of the enlargement of the power plant came up in parliament. Csaba Molnár, then minister in charge of transportation, communication, and energy, was the man who turned in the resolution to which Fidesz is now referring. In it there is not one word about permission to start negotiations with anyone concerning building two more reactors. It simply talks about authorization to begin a study of its feasibility, its environmental impact, future requirements of the population, etc. However, all Fidesz politicians keep referring to this resolution as authorization for making a deal with the Russians.

Finally, let me tell you a funny story that I read in today’s Magyar Nemzet. The article quotes Viktor Orbán as saying, “It was three years ago at one of the meetings of the Valdai Club that Vladimir Putin turned a bit to the right and winked; his eyes told me that everything will be all right. He talked about energy cooperation, about Paks, and about many other matters. He made it clear that Hungary can only win from all his plans. I looked into his eyes and saw that he means it, and Hungary will be a winner of all this.”

Putin turned a bit to the right and squinted

Putin turned a bit to the right and winked

I assume many of you remember another quotation, this time from George W. Bush, about Putin’s eyes. It was uttered in 2001: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” So, I wouldn’t rely on Putin’s eyes if I were Viktor Orbán. And while we are at Putin’s eyes, John McCain said in 2007 : “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three things — a K and a G and a B.” Viktor Orbán should keep that in mind when he gazes into eyes of Vladimir Putin, whom he apparently admires greatly.