On January 2 HVG published a short article with the title “The new year barely begun, Mészáros already grabbed more than one hundred billion.” Of course, they were talking about the “fabulously talented” Hungarian businessman, former pipe fitter, mayor of the village of Felcsút, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s friend or, what more and more people believe, his front man, Lőrinc Mészáros. The information about this latest grab came from the Public Procurement Authority, according to which Mészáros and Mészáros Kft. got the job of reconstructing a 15.7 km railroad line between Százhalombatta and Ercsi, which will cost 49 billion forints. The same company, together with Euro Asphalt, will build a waste disposal system in Ózd at the other end of the country for 4.3 billion forints.
A few days later, on January 10, Válasz reported: “Hang on! Suddenly Lőrinc Mészáros owns 203 companies.” Anyone who’s interested can now look at the list Válasz put together. Less than a year earlier the same internet site recorded only 103 companies owned by this business wizard, whose assets have grown faster in ten years, especially in the last three years, than Facebook’s. When journalists asked Mészáros about his striking outperformance, he responded that “it is possible that I was smarter than Zuckerberg, don’t you think?”
Most of the amassed wealth has come from the European Union. Átlátszó calculated that between 2010 and 2017 Lőrinc Mészáros and his family won public tenders worth €1.56 billion, 83% of which came from EU funds. I might add that of the 203 companies Mészáros and family own, only nine have been the recipients of public procurements, but they were richly rewarded. All told, they won 97 public tenders, half of which were open tenders where the Mészáros firms had no competition whatsoever. A list of the public tenders won over the years can be seen here.
The English-speaking world was introduced to Lőrinc Mészáros’s fantastic business acumen last summer when Bloomberg published an article about him. The story that caught the eye of journalists was that stock in a Hungarian company called Konzum Nyrt., whose sales in 2016 had dropped 99 percent and whose debt ballooned, a year later, after Mészáros bought a 20% share of the firm, grew fifty-fold on the Budapest stock exchange. The article noted that in three short years Mészáros had become the fifth richest man in the country.
It doesn’t matter how emphatically Viktor Orbán insisted during a parliamentary debate that Lőrinc Mészáros is not his front man (stróman in Hungarian), an overwhelming majority of Hungarians are convinced that behind him and some of the other oligarchs is Viktor Orbán himself. Only a tiny minority, 6% of the adult population, can’t imagine that such a connection exists, while 78% consider a connection “very probable and/or possible.” Even Fidesz voters suspect their party leader is hiding behind hand-picked oligarchs. Among them, 31% believe in his innocence, but 60% are either certain (10%) or consider it possible (50%) that the prime minister is heavily involved in the corruption scheme which the majority of voters consider systemic. Of course, opposition leaders like Ferenc Gyurcsány of DK and Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt are convinced that the richest Hungarian today is Viktor Orbán.
Átlátszó came out with a fascinating article in December that tried to put the wealth of Orbán’s oligarchs into historical perspective. They picked the three richest men in the country in 1935: Count László Károlyi, Count Sándor Festetics, and Prince József Habsburg. Their wealth in pengő, the Hungarian currency at the time, is known, but it is hellishly difficult to translate that into today’s forints. Átlátszó asked two economists to come up with some comparable figures. Their results were wide apart, but in both cases they were only tiny fractions of Lőrinc Mészáros’s estimated wealth. Péter Szakonyi, who maintains an annual list of the 100 richest Hungarians, told Átlátszó that “there has never been anyone who got from zero to 120 billion in three years.” Indeed, in the last three years Mészáros has seen an exponential growth in his wealth.
There is no end to the Mészáros story. It doesn’t seem to bother Viktor Orbán that more and more people consider him a crook who through Mészáros is amassing a fortune. Just yesterday it was all over the media that Mészáros’s three children, who in 2015 established a company called Fejér-B.Á.L. Zrt., a construction company, had just won a public tender for the new building of the University of Physical Education. As for the company’s name, B stands for Beatrix, Á for Ágnes, and L for Lőrinc, Jr. According to their website, the company currently employs 120 construction workers and 27 office personnel. The company will share the job with Magyar Építő, one of the favorite companies of the Orbán government. It is this company that is in the process of building the new Ferenc Puskás Stadium and did the work on the Ludovika Campus. Both of these projects are extremely close to Viktor Orbán’s heart. The job that the Mészáros children got, at least on paper, is worth 1.2 billion forints.
The Hungarian edition of Forbes described Mészáros’s wealth as something he didn’t take away from someone; he didn’t acquire it through his business acumen; he simply received it through the good offices of the prime minister of Hungary, who for one reason or other finds this man useful for his purposes. This simple pipefitter must play a key role in Viktor Orbán’s scheme to build his own financial empire. Mészáros is also used to increase the government’s presence in the Hungarian media through his purchase of regional newspapers. From the outside, this relationship between Orbán and Mészáros is hard to fathom, but I’m sure Orbán knows what he’s doing.