Tag Archives: environment

The plight of a Budapest city park

In the last few days the Hungarian media has been full of stories about clashes among three groups in Budapest’s famed park Városliget (City Grove): the so-called “grove defenders” (ligetvédők), members of a private security firm recruited from skinheads hanging around football stadiums to protect the demolition/construction crew, and the Hungarian police.

Városliget is one of the oldest city parks in the world, dating to around 1810, although work on it continued through most of the nineteenth century. By now Városliget definitely needs a face-lift to restore it to its former beauty. But what’s going on right now, in the opinion of the grove defenders, is the destruction of the park as a public space for recreation as well as a source of respite from all the stone and brick that makes up Budapest, especially its Pest half. It is being turned into a “museum quarters.”

Viktor Orbán, most likely at the suggestion of the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, László Baán, decided on the creation of a museum quarters. But the idea of clustering museums was in reality just attractive packaging of what amounted to an eviction notice. Several galleries currently housed in the former royal palace must move because Viktor Orbán wants to put the core of his government where in his opinion it belongs, the ancient seat of the Kingdom of Hungary.

And so the Castle District will become the prime minister’s domain and the city park will be turned into the site of some hideous architectural reproductions. Miklós Gáspár Tamás (TGM) put it this way: “Everybody knows what is happening in Városliget. An uneducated, nouveau riche, parvenu political right wants to pay tribute to the sanctified memory of the House of Habsburg, but they must be satisfied with a third-rate fake of the days of Horthy.”

Indeed, billions of forints will be spent and thousands of trees will have to be cut down to create this absolutely unnecessary project to which, on top of everything else, the people of Budapest strongly object. In February Ipsos, a Hungarian polling company, posed several questions, all concerning the future of the Castle District and the fate of Városliget. The overwhelming majority opted for the renovation of the park and against erecting new buildings within the park. In fact, 85% of those surveyed wanted to have more parks in Pest and thought that another park could be fashioned out of the region lying behind the Western Station. A proposal to hold a referendum on the question was turned down by the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court. By now it should be clear to everyone that a referendum can be held in Hungary only if it is in the interest of the government. And surely, given public sentiment in Budapest, the results would have put an end to Viktor Orbán’s dreams.

Who are the “grove defenders”? As far as I can ascertain, we are talking about a group of 40 or 50 people who decided on March 17 to occupy a part of the park where one of the existing buildings is to be razed and a modern building, House of Hungarian Music, designed by the Japanese architect Suo Fujimoto, is to be erected. Ever since mid-March there has always been a small group of people on site to make sure that no demolition work can begin. They are a varied lot. There are environmentalists who chain themselves to trees. There are urban planners and architects who have grave reservations about the kind of “restoration” the Orbán government has in mind, at least in the case of two of the buildings: the Hungarian Museum of Engineering and Transportation and the Városliget Színház.

The Városliget Színház, built in 1874, was razed in 1952. Looking at an old photo of it, I see no particular reason to rebuild it, which is not in accordance with acceptable restoration practices in the first place.

The Városligeti Szinház

The Városligeti Szinház

The Museum of Transportation, which was heavily damaged during World War II, was restored in a truncated form sometime in the 1950s. The government plans to raze the building and rebuild the horrendous original.

The original Museum of Transportation

The original Museum of Transportation

It will not be any better

It will not look any better

Although the majority of Budapesters object to the whole project, very few have been ready to keep vigil at the park to keep the demolishing crew of Bont-Tör Zrt. (Wrecking and Breaking Co.) away from the old museum building. But those who did were not ready to move, and it was almost inevitable that sooner or later there would be a showdown with the company’s private security contingent. In the end even the police decided to enter the fray.

The grove defenders maintain that the private security forces and the police work together. Eventually some of the demonstrators managed to get to the building and chained themselves to the iron bars on the windows, from where the police eventually moved them one by one. About thirty people were removed in this fashion. In the scuffle some of the demonstrators were injured. For example, Imre Mécs (82), a hero of the 1956 Revolution, was knocked over.

The most spectacular event of Wednesday was the ascent of Gergely Komáromy, the leader of a reggae band and one of the grove defenders, to the very top of the chimney of the building. After spending a few hours there, he eventually came down on his own. The police immediately handcuffed him, forced him into a car, and took him to a rehab center. The story from here on is murky. The police’s story doesn’t jibe with his own.

Gergely Komáromy on the top of the chimney

Gergely Komáromy on top of the chimney

Meanwhile, the skinhead security guards had lost patience with the demonstration. When Komáromy again climbed to the top of the roof yesterday, he was followed by three or four guards, one of whom hit him in the pit of his stomach. He collapsed. This time he was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The security guards denied any wrongdoing, but since then a video taken by a smartphone emerged on which one can clearly see the blow. Judging from the short video, I’m not surprised that, as Komáromy told reporters after his release from the hospital, he felt in mortal danger atop that building surrounded by muscle-bound skinheads. As one of the reporters of Index wrote tonight, just watching the video is a harrowing experience, and what is especially upsetting is that the police officers who were present didn’t move a finger. The work must go on because Viktor Orbán is intent on moving to the Castle.

July 1, 2016

The war between the Hungarian government and the NGOs continues

I’m sure that most readers of Hungarian Spectrum are familiar with the tug-of-war between the Norwegian and the Hungarian governments over the disbursement of the Norwegian Civic Funds. These funds are specifically designed to support non-governmental organizations that are involved with issues like democracy and human rights, gender and equal opportunity, youth and children’s issues, the environment, basic services to vulnerable groups, and the empowerment of minority groups, including the Roma. These issues are not exactly high on the priority list of authoritarian governments like the present one in Hungary. Hence the Hungarian government’s harassment of NGOs.

It was about a year ago, right after the election, that attacks on the Hungarian distributors of these funds began. Since that time I wrote three or four posts on the ups-and-downs of the negotiations between János Lázár, the minister in charge of the prime minister’s office, and Vidar Helgesen, the minister in charge of European affairs in the Norwegian government. The Norwegians, unlike officials of the European Union, have refused to cave in to Hungarian demands.

Why did I decide to return to the topic of the Norwegian Civic Funds? Because in the last three months two different independent firms looked over the Hungarian NGOs that are in charge of disbursement and found everything in order. The first firm the Norwegian government hired, Creda Consultinggave high marks to the consortium that handled the disbursement of the funds. It was praised for its “most innovative elements among the 15 NGO programs assessed across Europe.” I’m sure that Creda’s praise for “Ökotárs,” the fund operator, didn’t impress the Hungarian government, which over the last year came up with charges against it–“one for every season,” as Veronika Móra, director of Ökortárs, put it in a recent op/ed article in HVG.

In January the Norwegian government asked the accounting firm PKF Littlejohn to take a look at Ökotárs’s books because, among other things, the Hungarian government accused it of embezzlement. PKF Littlejohn found no evidence of any wrongdoing. Moreover, the accountants didn’t just look at the fund operator’s financial dealings; they also checked on the activities of several recipients of the funds. They didn’t run into any major problems.

After receiving the final results, the Norwegian foreign ministry announced that “Norway stands ready for a dialogue.” The question is whether the Hungarian government is willing to engage in such a conversation. One would think that after two independent expert assessments, the Hungarian government would give up and not risk losing the substantial amount of money the Hungarian government itself receives from the Norway Funds. But I’m not at all sure that the government in Budapest will retreat any time soon. I assume that Norway is satisfied with the way their funds are being dispersed to the NGOs and that a dialogue with János Lázár on this topic would not be a bargaining session. For Lázár to accept the current arrangement would mean defeat for the Hungarian government.

Veronika Móra in her op/ed piece rightly pointed out that the attack on Ökotárs and the Norway Civic Fund is only part of a general assault against NGOs in general. They are the victims of “a deliberate political strategy” aimed at their elimination. Viktor Orbán in his infamous speech that included a reference to “illiberal democracy” called NGOs “paid political activists.” Of course, there are “good NGOs,” those that are involved only in charitable activities. By definition, the Norwegian Civic Fund belongs to the “bad NGO” category. All of the targeted areas defined by the managers of the fund involve public policy. Lázár at one point accused the Norwegian government of deliberately trying to topple the Hungarian government. A few months later Orbán in an interview with Bloomberg talked about registering NGOs that receive funds from abroad. Just the kind of procedure Vladimir Putin introduced.

Normally, after a while, the Hungarian government retires from direct fights of this sort. For example, lately neither Lázár nor his assistant undersecretary, Nándor Csepreghy, speaks about the NGO issue. They assigned the job to the leaders of their own creation CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum/Civic Collaboration Forum), the group that organized the pro-government marches every time Viktor Orbán felt that he needed a show of force for his political survival. Although the leaders of CÖF hotly deny it, the organization is most likely financed by the Hungarian government.

CÖF’s “legal adviser,” Zoltán Lomniczi, Jr., who calls himself a “constitutional expert,” is now the designated spokesman for the government strategy. He is being touted as “one of the most eminent experts” on the subject. According to him, four-fifths of Hungarian NGOs are financed in whole or in part by George Soros. As for the causes these NGOs are involved in–the Roma, drug prevention, and the disabled, according to Lomniczi these are not the most burning issues in today’s Hungary. “The defense of mental hygiene” as a result of the negative influence of the media or the “disfranchisement of Hungarians” in Slovakia or in Serbia are causes that deserve attention. The “eminent expert” accused the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, TASZ, of not raising its voice at the time of the police attack on “innocent demonstrators” in 2006 October. In fact, it was TASZ who took up the defense of those who were the victims of unnecessary force.

Zoltán Lomniczi, Jr. listening to Veronika Móra at ATV's program, Csatt

Zoltán Lomniczi, Jr. listening to Veronika Móra on ATV’s program “Csatt”

Lomniczi’s recent preoccupation with NGOs prompted Egon Rónai of ATV to invite him and three other NGO leaders for a conversation on a program called “Csatt.” Veronika Móra represented Ökotárs and Miklós Ligeti, Transparency International. András Székely, an economist and teacher of religion, spoke on behalf of the “Három Királyfi és Három Királylány Mozgalom” (three princes and three princesses movement). The movement’s aim is to promote a higher birthrate to produce large families. I highly recommend taking a look at the program. Most educational.

Meanwhile, we can wait to see what the Hungarian government’s next move will be to “remedy” the situation with those pesky NGOs.

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.

Hungary’s “national tobacco shops.” Who are the happy recipients of the concessions?

In February 2012 I wrote a post on “Fidesz, the tobacco monopoly, and the tobacco industry’s lobby.” That was when the Hungarian parliament voted to make tobacco a state monopoly. Since then there have been several amendments to the bill, which originally stipulated that the newly established National Tobacco Shops could sell only tobacco products. The changes were necessary because it soon became evident that, since the profit margin on tobacco products is thin, the people who successfully bid to open such a store couldn’t make a living solely from selling cigarettes. Bit by bit other products were added to the list: alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, energy drinks, lottery tickets, and newspapers. But even with the added product lines there were not too many takers, especially in smaller villages.

According to the law one tobacco shop is supposed to serve 2,000 inhabitants. Currently around 40,000 stores sell cigarettes, but because of the above restriction there will only be about 7,000 stores where people can buy tobacco products. Last February I wrote that when I first heard about this scheme “I envisaged 7,000 pro-Fidesz Hungarians as the lucky recipients of these concessions.” Well, not quite. Second-tier party members and their families will be able to establish a number of stores in areas where the financial benefits of the concessions are more or less guaranteed. Meanwhile, in 1,400 smaller communities there were no applicants. Come July, there might not be a single tobacco shop in places like Herend (pop. 520).

by ur1336 / Flickr

by ur1336 / Flickr

The original justification for the establishment of these tobacco shops was that they would assist large families, would give young mothers just returning from maternity leave some extra income, and would provide a living for some of the otherwise unemployed. The final list of recipients tells a very different story.

Doctors who are supposed to tell people about the deadly results of smoking are eagerly participating in this new business opportunity. On paper one person can have only five stores, but there are many cases in which members of the same family applied for and won concessions. In Esztergom, out of the possible sixteen tobacco shops, ten went to one family, judging from the family name that is not exactly common, Sóron. Ádám Sóron received four, Tibor Sóron one, Mrs. Tibor György Sóron five! For the time being we don’t know what the connection is between Fidesz and the Sórons, but I think it is only a question of time before all will be clear.

Another alleged reason for establishing these tobacco shops was the government’s desire to decrease the number of smokers in Hungary. The bill that was passed last year stipulates that no tobacco product can be sold to a customer as long as there is an underage (18 years) child  in the shop. (Let’s not go into how stupid that idea is!) But then, what do I read? The nineteen-year-old Bence Hídvégi, son of the Fidesz mayor of Fonyód, received permission to operate three tobacco shops, two in Fonyód and one in Balatonfegyves. One day his presence in a tobacco shop would have brought business to a screeching halt; the next day he can run the show.

And while we are on the topic of teenage smoking and the number of retailers, it seems that there is no direct correlation between the two. Austria is a prime example. The highest number of teenage smokers in all of Europe can be found there, and the owners of Austria’s 8,000 tobacco shops are the leading lobbyists against any kind of anti-smoking legislation. Moreover, Austria’s overall standing in Europe as far as tobacco consumption is concerned doesn’t support the notion that fewer tobacco shops will result in lower figures. In Hungary the percentage of smokers in the population as a whole is 38%;  in Austria, 34%. Not a huge difference. Moreover, in both countries the numbers are growing.

The real reason for making tobacco a state monopoly was to help domestic tobacco companies. János Lázár, who came up with the idea of national tobacco shops, relied heavily on the “advice” of Continental Zrt. Continental has only about a 10-15% share of the very large tobacco market. The legislation was most likely written with a view to giving an advantage to Continental and discriminating against foreign companies like Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, and Imperial Tobacco. With tobacco as a state monopoly the Hungarian state could decide which products it would stock, and presumably the price of these products, in the tobacco shops.

The Orbán government used Austria as its model, but the Austrian model was flawed–not only in terms of public policy but also with respect to the state monopoly issue. Austria had its own troubles when European Union requirements changed in 1998 and Austria was forced to partially privatize Austria Tabak, the state monopoly that had dominated the Austrian tobacco industry until then. Something quite similar could befall Hungary.

And what has happened to the owners of Hungary’s private tobacco specialty shops? I read about a place, “Ági trafik” in Budakalász, whose owner has had his shop since 1972. His grandfather’s tobacco shop was nationalized in 1950, but twenty-two years later he began anew. He has a sister who is paralyzed. Now he is ruined. He put in an application but didn’t receive a concession. According to some estimates, practically all of the private tobacco shop owners were dispossessed. One owner was approached by two different men who asked him to rent his shop to them. You can imagine how he feels.

Fidesz managed to kill two birds with one stone. They are helping the Hungarian-owned Continental Zrt. carve out a larger share of a lucrative market and, by setting up tobacco shops as state concessions, they are spreading government largess among their followers. Multinational companies and Hungarian private enterprise will once again suffer; Orbán will further extend his economic reach.