In the last three days three articles have appeared in two leading English-language newspapers, The New York Times and The Guardian, about the systemic corruption in the Orbán government. The word is out at last: a crime ring, run by Viktor Orbán himself, has taken hold of the Hungarian economy. The beneficiaries are the prime minister and his family as well as a few friends and political cronies.
The foreign press’s new-found interest in the criminal activities of Viktor Orbán was ignited by a short article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal exactly a month ago. It reported that OLAF, the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, had sent a report to the Hungarian government recommending that the authorities take legal action over “serious irregularities” in projects carried out by a company that was controlled by the son-in-law of Viktor Orbán. The very fact that Hungarians had to learn about this damning report from a foreign source says a lot about the lack of transparency in Hungary.
It seems that after almost eight years of brazenly embezzling public funds, 80% of which come from the European Union, the friends and family of the Hungarian prime minister are finally coming under scrutiny. Detailed analyses are starting to plumb the depths of the systemic corruption that has made a small group of people very rich in record time. On the basis of calculations by responsible and usually accurate investigative journalists, Viktor Orbán’s hidden wealth may amount to 300 billion forints, more than a billion dollars.
One of the two Guardian articles by Jennifer Rankin neatly lists all the corruption cases that directly involve the Orbán family, including the growing wealth of Lőrinc Mészáros, which may be only partially his own. The list Rankin came up with is most likely incomplete because sub-contractors do not appear in the databases. Since most of these riches come from the European Union, Viktor Orbán’s anti-Brussels rhetoric is especially jarring. The conclusion is that, as Miklós Ligeti, head of legal affairs at Transparency International, put it, “Hungary is now in the grip of party state capture.”
The article ends with a question: will the European Union have the courage to do something about this theft of EU funds? Between 2014 and 2021 Hungary will have received €25 billion from the European Union, which makes the country one of the largest per capita recipients of the EU’s economic development funds. EU politicians are aware of the wholesale robbery that goes in Orbán’s Hungary, but for political reasons they are avoiding tackling the problem. Ingeborg Gräßle, head of the European Parliament’s budgetary committee who visited Hungary a few months ago to take a ride on Viktor Orbán’s rather expensive choo-choo train, merely says that a new kind of “semi-legal” irregularity is emerging in these post-communist countries, including Hungary. Otherwise, she estimates that in 36% of the cases there is only one bidder for EU-financed government projects, and, let me add, the remainder is most likely fixed. But that’s not all. According to András Inotai, a Hungarian economist, in 2017 5% of the country’s GDP came from EU funding while Hungary’s economic growth during the same period was about 4%. So, all that money is doing mighty little good.
On February 10 an in-depth article appeared in The New York Times by Patrick Kingsley titled “As West Fears the Rise of Autocrats, Hungary Shows What’s Possible.” Hungary is described as “a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture.” What follows is a detailed description of the process by which Viktor Orbán has managed to achieve his goal of an illiberal state. A former Fidesz official described the present Hungarian situation the following way: “sometimes I feel like I’m traveling in a time machine and going back to the ’60s…. All the characteristics and features on the surface are of democracy, but behind it there is only one party and only one truth.” Viktor Orbán is described as one of the strongmen of the age, alongside Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Donald Trump. “Although Mr. Orbán lacks the global profile of those leaders, what he is doing in Europe is seen as part of a broader decline of democracy in the world.”
This is what Hungary looks like from New York and London. But what has been happening since the OLAF report detailing István Tiborcz’s alleged criminal activities was released? First of all, the government has come up with a strategy to divert responsibility from Orbán’s son-in-law to Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s old friend-in-crime, now enemy. This strategy may work on the propaganda level but it will not be sufficient to save Tiborcz from prosecution. But we ought not worry about the future of Ráhel Orbán and her husband. The Hungarian prosecutor’s office has already announced that its investigation of the case will be long and arduous. I have no doubt that after an inordinately long investigation Tiborcz will be found innocent of any wrongdoing. The government propaganda machinery also concocted the story that the European Union’s anti-Orbán forces timed the release of the report to coincide with the national election. It is with OLAF’s help that Soros’s men in Brussels want to remove Viktor Orbán from the seat of power.
Otherwise, all eyes are on Hódmezővásárhely, where István Tiborcz’s business career began. To recap the story: Orbán’s future son-in-law needed money and a contract to establish his business credentials, which he didn’t have. Both were provided through the good offices of the prime minister. Orbán convinced his favorite oligarch at the time, Lajos Simicska, to put some money into the young man’s firm. As collateral, Simicska demanded a share of the business. After two years, Tiborcz and his business partner paid the loan back and Simicska retired from this business venture, which he had never actually run. As for the needed contract, János Lázár, today chief-of-staff of Viktor Orbán but then still mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, suddenly had a burning desire to install new public lighting.
The sleepy little town is now all over the media as a result of the details of the project, which came to light thanks to 24.hu. So, Lázár felt that he had to give a press conference right on the spot. After a general denial of any wrongdoing, he offered a description of the town’s business venture with István Tiborcz. Lázár’s fairy tale about the bidding process and the details of what happened afterward is especially amusing if one reads old articles on the town’s internet news site called Vásárhely Hírek. While there, I also decided to read up on the special election campaign for mayor, which is in full swing at the moment.
The election will take place on February 25. Of course, the scandal around István Tiborcz also touches on the town and the election. There seems to be some anxiety in Fidesz circles about the outcome, although a couple of weeks ago I was certain that the independent candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, who lost his job after he declared his candidacy and was so maligned by his pro-Fidesz parish priest, had not the slightest chance of making a decent showing. But in the last few days commentators have pointed out that the Hódmezővásárhely election is a unique case in the sense that neither Jobbik nor the left-of-center parties have put up candidates and therefore Márki-Zay is facing the Fidesz candidate, Deputy-Mayor Zoltán Hegedűs, alone.
The town was planning to distribute 10,000 forint vouchers to pensioners sometime in March, just before Easter, but, behold, the decision was made to disburse them before the election. The prime minister also invited Hegedűs for a cup of coffee in his office in the parliament, and Defense Minister István Simicskó paid a visit to town to make sure that everybody knows that the old military barracks will be renovated and the Hódmezővásárhely shooting gallery will be the very first one to open in the whole country.
Political observers often complain about Hungarians’ indifference to corruption, which they tend to view as a fact of life. Perhaps there is hope. If Márki-Zay makes a good showing in a town where the deceased Fidesz mayor received 61% of the votes, followed by Jobbik with 17.1% and MSZP-DK-Együtt with 15%, it will give us a clue about public sentiment. A Márki-Zay win could have a measurable effect on the national election on April 8.