Tag Archives: George Lázár

Hungarian Roma dilemmas

I decided to return to yesterday’s discussion on the latest developments in the “Bogdán case” because I think it is a much more complex issue than meets the eye or my short summary of the recent events would suggest. Yesterday I didn’t go into the serious differences of opinion between László Bogdán and some Roma human rights activists over the right way to handle the “Roma problem.” In order to understand the situation in which Bogdán finds himself, it is necessary to hear the criticism they level against the mayor of Cserdi. And then there is Bogdán’s offer of Cserdi as a place where refugee families are welcome which, according to some interpreters, might be the reason for the Hungarian media’s suddenly discovering Bogdán’s run-in with the law in 2010.

Let’s start with the latter because it is easier to sort out. First, some background. Bogdán spent three weeks in the United States in March and April, where among other things he gave a talk about the situation of Roma women at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. How did this trip come about? First, in 2015 the Hungarian government made Bogdán Hungary’s ambassador charged with nurturing talented youngsters. Therefore we must assume that the Orbán government considers László Bogdán someone who can represent the country abroad. And indeed, it was Réka Szemerkényi, former Hungarian ambassador to Washington, and Ferenc Kumin, consul-general in New York, who organized his trip. As Bogdán explained to BaMa, a Baranya County news site, they arranged his program, which included trips to 17 American cities. Of course, the highlight of the trip was his speech at the UN where “as a representative of Hungary [he talked] about the Gypsy community in Hungary and his Cserdi initiative.” He reported from the United States to BaMa that he celebrated March 15 with George Pataki, former governor of New York, and was the guest of former U.S. ambassador Colleen Bell at a charity event.

George Lázár suggests in an article in The Hungarian Free Press that László Bogdán’s recent problems stem from his decision to sponsor a Syrian family’s stay in Cserdi. Lázár points out that Bogdán was the “darling” of the government, whose trip to the United States was organized by high officials of the Orbán government. But, he continues, “Everything changed when recently Mayor Bogdán announced that he would welcome refugee families to vacation in his village.” Suddenly, the media suspected that there was something not quite right with László Bogdán. George Lázár, this morning on Facebook, noted that it is hard to imagine that the Hungarian government was unaware of Bogdán’s conviction in 2014, and it cannot be a coincidence that PécsMa discovered this story just now. Did the Hungarian government know about Bogdán’s troubles with the law when, for example, in 2015 he was appointed “ambassador”? I don’t know. But the conviction became final in 2014, just a year before his appointment to the post. Whether the Hungarian government is behind this story surfacing now is hard to tell.

The other aspect of the controversy surrounding László Bogdán is his standing in the Roma community. Roma human rights activists—and independent experts on Roma issues—have serious objections to Bogdán’s ideas. Shortly after his return from the United States, an article appeared in 168 Óra written by András Balázs, an assistant professor of sociology, criticizing the speech Bogdán delivered at the United Nations. His talk at the UN was about the exploitation of Gypsy women by Gypsy men, who look upon them as baby machines. Early marriages and too many children, and thus by the age of 30 they are grandmothers and at the age of 40 they consider themselves to be old. Balázs asserted that Bogdán’s focus on violent Roma men is “internalized racism,” which only strengthens the prejudice of the majority population. Moreover, when the people of Cserdi gave away produce to needy people, he came up with the slogan “We didn’t steal them from you; we grew them for you.” His paternalistic leadership is not conducive to the development of local initiatives. Balázs also blames the media, whose darling “the ambitious mayor” became, while the true Roma human rights activists’ voices can barely be heard.

And that leads us to the fateful meeting between the leadership of the Roma Parliament and László Bogdán on September 25, where the first alleged assault on the mayor took place. The video is available on YouTube, included here. At the meeting there was a clash between two entirely different views. The chief aim of the human rights activists is to reduce the majority community’s prejudice. László Bogdán, by contrast, maintains that the prejudice against the Roma is not entirely unwarranted and that in order to minimize or eliminate prejudice the Gypsy community must change. They must become hard-working and responsible members of society. His opponents consider some of his ideas outright racist. During the two-hour meeting Bogdán received a lot of criticism from Roma leaders who don’t share his vision. Aladár Horváth, who is the president of the Roma Parliament, opened the meeting by comparing the Cserdi model to Jobbik’s Érpatak model, where a bizarre character, Mihály Zoltán Orosz, runs the show “with an iron fist.” As I wrote in a post about Érpatak, “law and order dominate” the village. After this less than complimentary introduction, Bogdán delivered a speech in which he praised the Cserdi model which, one must admit, works very well. In the question and answer period there were some sticky questions about his conviction, and several people compared Bogdán’s ideas on Roma issues to those of Jobbik. There were people who called him a Nazi. At the end, Jenő Zsigó, an important Roma human rights activist, rose and delivered a powerful speech.

Jenő Zsigó at the Roma Parliament meeting, September 25, 2017

Jenő Zsigó, unlike Bogdán, has a stellar background. He comes from a family of musicians, a group that was always considered to be the aristocracy of the Gypsy community. He received two diplomas from ELTE, one in education and the other in sociology. Both of his theses were related to questions about the Roma community. He has been especially active in propagating Roma art and folk music.

In his speech Zsigó compared Bogdán to Gábor Vona, the leader of Jobbik. He accused him of developing a “system of dependency,” a kind of “feudalistic system” where in Cserdi everything depends on him. When Bogdán says that “there is no need for human rights advocates,” he denies the rule of law. When Bogdán says that there is no need to break up the Gypsy ghettos, he is promoting segregation. The speech was an indictment of the things that the human rights advocates find reprehensible in Bogdán’s model.

Unfortunately, Bogdán had to leave, and therefore we don’t know what kinds of arguments he would have used in the face of Zsigó’s criticism. But he promised that, if invited, he would gladly return. I suspect that if Bogdán had had the opportunity, he would have said: “And how much have you managed to achieve with your human rights advocacy? Is there less prejudice today than 30 years ago? I at least can show a village that is thriving.” As a friend remarked to me: “Zsigó is an excellent civil rights and minority leader, who is very convincing. In turn, Bogdán is also an excellent man with real results. The question is which is better in improving the life of the Gypsy community. Both positions have their weaknesses. Zsigó’s fight for equality and tolerance meets head on with the majority’s pejorative opinion, while Bogdán’s talking about ‘good Gypsies’ (people of Cserdi) and ‘bad Gypsies’ (the overwhelming majority) only adds to the prevailing racism in Hungary.”

November 6, 2017

Hungary, as a partner of Iran, is now in the nuclear business

As is customary in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the Hungarian public learned that Iran and Hungary are on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation from The Tehran Times, the English-language voice of the Islamic Revolution. The short notice announcing the arrival of Deputy Foreign Minister Zsolt Semjén said that “following the lifting of international sanctions on Iran, Tehran has strived to fully utilize economic and scientific opportunities, including the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities.” The paper, quoting the English-language Russian publication Sputnik, noted that last week President Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin “decided to sign a memorandum on the development of peaceful nuclear cooperation.” Amerikai Magyar Népszava believes that Putin “blackmailed” Orbán into participating in a nuclear deal with Iran. I’m not sure that Viktor Orbán needed too much prodding. I suspect that the prospect of partnering with Iran in a project to build small nuclear reactors to sell in Africa and Asia boosted the ego of Hungary’s prime minister.

Since having closer economic relations with Iran fits in with Orbán’s “Eastern Opening,” his state visit to Tehran in late November 2015, where the two partners signed a number of bilateral agreements, wasn’t considered extraordinary. What was more telling was a Reuters report from Budapest on February 18, 2016 that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, had proposed a project to design and develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. It would be followed a second project to develop a reactor perhaps as large as 100 megawatts. This proposal was well received by the Hungarian government. As Népszabadság put it, the reactor was offered on a “Persian rug.” It may have been a coincidence, but Salehi’s offer coincided with Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. In any case, Russia is extremely active in the development of Iranian nuclear energy. In the coming years eight power plants will be built with Russian help.

In the months following the Iranian proposal there were frequent visits back and forth between Budapest and Tehran. László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent almost a whole week in Tehran in November 2016, where he was warmly received. President Hassan Rouhani, after meeting with Kövér, said that Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services and the implementation of infrastructure projects as well as Hungary’s competence in the field of industry and agriculture have created proper bases for the expansion of Tehran-Budapest ties.” Kövér assured the Iranians that “Budapest was prepared to cooperate with Tehran in the fight against terrorism.”

On February 8 the English-language section of the Hungarian government’s website announced that “several agreements had already been concluded at the first session of the Hungarian-Iranian Joint Economic Committee,” one of which was that “Eximbank has established an 85 million euro credit line to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses, and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures.” The Hungarian media didn’t pick up this news item, but the Iranian press, including the Iranian Financial Tribune, reported it.

These were the preliminaries to the news on April 5, 2017, which stunned a lot of people in Hungary, that Iran and Hungary plan to sign an agreement on April 8 to expand nuclear cooperation between the two countries. As is clear from the diplomatic traffic between Hungary and Iran, at least since November 2015, this news shouldn’t have surprised anyone–and most likely didn’t outside of Hungary. But in Hungary there were no follow-up reports about this nuclear deal after February 18, 2016, when Ali Akbar Salehi made his initial offer. In fact, the Hungarian media was completely unaware of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s presence in Tehran until two days after Iran’s Financial Tribune reported it. According to the Iranian paper, Semjén arrived with a delegation of five ministers and about 100 businessmen. Semjén apparently assured the Iranians of Hungary’s “profound respect for President Rouhani’s policies” and stressed that Hungary has “always been against sanctions, as [it] tried to hold talks with Iran even before JCPOA’s conclusion.” Semjén is referring here to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and Vice President Hossein Ali Amiri

Once it sank in that Hungary and Iran are indeed in the “nuclear business,” the independent media was up in arms. Népszava found the idea “absurd.” After all, it was only in 2016 that sanctions against Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons were lifted. It is also an absurdity that the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, decided to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian legislation on the books. 24.hu found the timing most unfortunate: “Quite a week for Hungary’s turning away from the West. On Tuesday Parliament votes on amendments that make the functioning of the largest and best American university in Central Europe impossible. On Saturday Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén will sign an agreement on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.” Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu predicted that this agreement with Iran will further tarnish Hungary’s not so “shiny relations” with the United States.

LMP, Hungary’s green party, was naturally outraged. The co-chair of LMP, Bernadett Szél, has been battling against the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant ever since it was first proposed. The party published the following statement: “The Hungarian public learned today that Hungary will sign an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Iran. With Iran, a country about which we cannot exclude the possibility that it is developing nuclear weapons. In addition, it is a well-known fact that Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism.”

More than two months before this news broke, on February 1, 2017, George Lázár wrote an article which appeared in The Hungarian Free Press. Lázár spotted a photo taken at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington where Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi can be seen in the company of Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn and her husband. Marsha Blackburn is apparently quite close to Ivanka Trump, and Lázár suspects that Szemerkényi’s courting of Blackburn was an attempt to get closer to the White House in order to wangle an invitation for Viktor Orbán. However, says Lázár, Blackburn was known to be a strong critic of President Obama’s nuclear deal. She released a statement in 2015 which said in part: “Iranians were chanting ‘Down with America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ as they celebrated Al-Quds day. How can we possibly trust them to act in good faith?” Lázár pointed out that “Prime Minister Orbán is not only a casual friend of Iran but also supports nuclear cooperation with them.” His conclusion was that perhaps Szemerkényi didn’t do her homework before she picked Marsha Blackburn as an emissary between Orbán’s Hungary and the Trump White House.

We know by now that President Michael Ignatieff of Central European University did get to the White House by contacting Fiona Hill, who recently joined the National Security Council as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs. In addition to being the author of an excellent book on Putin, she has written extensively on energy issues. We already know that Mr. Ignatieff has been assured that the U.S. State Department is sending people to Budapest next week. While they are at it, they might inquire about Hungary’s growing friendship with Iran as well.

April 7, 2017

Ten Hungarian banks failed within one year

A couple of days ago George/György Lázár, a frequent contributor to Hungarian- and English-language publications, wrote a witty article in Galamus with the title “Isn’t it odd? Only Hungarian-owned banks go under.” Indeed, Lázár is correct. Since January 2014 ten banks had to be liquidated, and all ten were owned by Hungarians.

The first to bite the dust was the Körmend és Vidéke Takarékszövetkezet, which had to close its doors in January 2014. The Hungarian National Bank fined the bank’s former president and chief operating officer fifteen million forints for his irresponsible handling of the bank’s affairs. Taxpayer money was used to make the bank’s depositors and creditors whole.

A few months later, in June 2014, the largest credit union, the Orgovány és Vidéke Takarékszövetkezet, went bankrupt. Today Imre G., the credit union’s chief operating officer, and two other employees of the bank are in custody.

In August the Alba Takarékszövetkezet lost its right to operate. The bank was woefully short on capital, and the Szövetkezeti Hitelintézetek Integrációs Szervezete (SZHISZ), the supervising authority of the credit unions, found serious irregularities in the everyday running of the bank.

In November the operating license of the Széchenyi István Hitelszövetkezet was withdrawn. The bank had been losing money for years. The regulators told the bank’s managers to raise capital, which, it seems, they were unable to do.

In December the Tisza Takarékszövetkezet had to end its activities after the regulators found serious irregularities in the conduct of the management.

If you think that only Hungarian credit unions have financial problems, you are wrong. The Hungarian National Bank withdrew the operating license of the Széchenyi Kereskedelmi Bank on December 5, 2014, an event that even Bloomberg reported. The owners of the bank were István Töröcskei (51%) and the Hungarian state (49%). Töröcskei’s name cropped up earlier in the case of the Széchenyi István Hitelszövetkezet, at which time certain opposition politicians demanded that he resign his post as head of the Államadósság Kezelő Központ (ÁKK), the office that manages the country’s debt load. At that time, however, Töröcskei convinced his superiors that he had nothing to do with the demise of the credit union, of which he was “only a trustee.”

The Széchenyi Kereskedelmi Bank has a colorful history. It was established in 2008 in the Cayman Islands as SPE Bank, with two billion forints in capital. In 2010 the original owner sold the bank to István Töröcskei and Imre Boros, who changed its name to Helikon Bank and, a month later, to Széchenyi Bank. Imre Boros had worked for years in the Hungarian National Bank during the Kádár regime. After 1990 he became a member of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF), and since the first Orbán government (1998-2002) was a coalition government, he became minister without portfolio. In 2002, after revelations that he was an agent employed by the secret service of the Kádár regime, he was dismissed from the party. Nowadays, Boros is a weekly participant in a program on the extreme right-wing Echo TV, where he masquerades as an economic expert. I should add that Töröcskei is part owner of Echo TV. In the summer of 2013 the Ministry of National Economy, i.e. the Hungarian state, bought a 49% stake in the bank for three billion forints. A year and a half after the Hungarian government found the investment so enticing, the bank went belly up.

István Töröcskei was a favorite of the current government. Why? Well, it all started back when Töröcskei was part owner of Széchenyi Hitelszövetkezet. He gave a sizable loan to Viktor Orbán to start his football academy in Felcsút. Ever since, Orbán has been supportive of Töröcskei. First, he made sure that he was appointed to head ÁKK, then he allowed him to convert his credit union into a bank before the nationalization of all the credit unions. And he allowed the ministry of national economy to sink three billion forints into Töröcskei’s bank.

István Töröcskei / Source: Magyar Hírlap

István Töröcskei / Source: Magyar Hírlap

On the surface everything seemed all right. The bank was growing rapidly. In addition to the three billion forints from the Hungarian government, the Hungarian National Bank “pumped” fifty billion forints into  the Széchenyi Bank in the form of low-interest loans that the bank passed on to its favorite customers, including companies owned by Töröcskei and his business associates. HVG listed a number of such companies in an article published on December 16, 2014, but it was only today that the Hungarian National Bank announced that they have turned to the police to investigate because of the suspicion that the problem at the bank is more than inept management. It may involve criminal activity. Whether Töröcskei ends up in custody, like the chief operating officer of the bankrupt Orgovány és Vidéke Takarékszövetkezet did, we will see, although I doubt it. Töröcskei is far too close to the prime minister to suffer such a disgrace. Orbán is a loyal friend and usually takes care of his own.

The last four banks György Lázár listed are all affiliated with the Buda-Cash Group: ÉRB Észak-magyarországi Regionális Bank, DRB Dél-Dunántúli Regionális Bank, BRB Buda Regionális Bank, and  DDB Dél-Dunántúli Takarék Bank. I wrote about them on February 26.

All these bank failures cost Hungarian taxpayers billions and billions of forints. In some cases, the depositors themselves will suffer great losses because their deposits exceeded 30 million forints, the limit the bank law guarantees. During the lean years after 2008 no foreign-owned bank in Hungary was in trouble because the German, Austrian, and Italian banks kept filling the coffers of their affiliates in Hungary. In the case of Hungarian banks, this is not possible. The Hungarian government is on the hook. As we know, the Hungarian State not only bought a 49% stake in Széchenyi Bank but also purchased outright the Bavarian-owned the MKB Bank, which right after the purchase turned out to be in financial trouble. The Hungarian state had to prop up the bank to save its customer deposits.

It is one of Viktor Orbán’s manias that the majority of the banks in Hungary must be in Hungarian hands. Lázár recalls that Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation in early January called upon the government to acquire even more banks because the “foreign banks are dishonest.” Antal Rogán, head of the Fidesz caucus, accused the “Gyurcsány party” of wanting to prevent Hungarian owners from acquiring banks. “Banks in Hungarian hands offer security for Hungarian families,” Rogán claimed. Lázár points out that just the opposite is true. Prudent Hungarians would do well to avoid Hungarian-owned banks and deposit their money in the banks of the “dishonest” foreigners instead.