On December 2 Hír TV’s “Célpont” (Target) focused on the mysterious population growth in certain sections of Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County situated in northeastern Hungary, bordering on Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania. According to the 2011 census, the population of the county is about 560,000. The county is one of the poorest in the country, and, thus not surprisingly, between 2001 and 2011 it lost almost 4% of its population, or about 23,000 people. But since 2013, when parliament passed the law on dual citizenship, the trend has dramatically reversed. In the last four to five years the county has gained 26,000 new inhabitants.
In certain villages close to the Ukrainian border, the official population has doubled or almost tripled, and the trend is gaining momentum. For the most part the new inhabitants live in these villages only in spirit, so to speak. They are registered with the appropriate authorities, but in fact they live on the other side of the border.
What is the reason for this phantom immigration? Back in 1962 the Soviet Union and Hungary reached a bilateral agreement concerning the mutual obligation of the two countries to provide pensions to people who for one reason or another change domicile. So, a Soviet citizen who worked all his life in a Soviet factory or office or on a collective farm could, upon retirement, move to Hungary and get his pension there, as provided for in the existing laws of Hungary, as long as the person forsakes his Soviet, by now Ukrainian, pension. That law has never been abrogated.
Under the present circumstances, the law is a windfall for Ukrainian-Hungarian dual citizens whose average pension in Ukraine is the equivalent of about 25,000 Ft while the average Hungarian pension is 75,000. Moreover, since it is difficult if not impossible to check the work history of the applicants, these new Hungarian citizens often provide false figures to the Hungarian authorities. Thus, in this particularly poor region of the country where pensions are very low, the Ukrainian-Hungarians can easily get two or three times higher pensions than the locals.
The deal is even more attractive if the Ukrainian pensioner remains in his home country, where 100,000 Ft is a considerable amount of money (10,600 hryvnia) since the average pension is less than 2,000 hryvnia. And indeed, most of the pensioners opt for that alternative. It may take some effort and money, but eventually it can be arranged with the help of corrupt officials and corrupt Hungarian citizens.
Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV’s “Célpont” concentrated on the village of Kispalád which, according to Magyar Nemzet, in 2010 had 536 inhabitants but by now has a population of 1,347. But Kispalád is not unique. Apparently there are about 30 villages in the region with a noticeable population growth–as we will see, on paper only.
Kispalád has only three streets: Fő utca, Új utca, and Újabb utca (Main Street, New Street, and Newer Street). The most “popular” of the three is Newer Street, where József Sankó lives. At his address he provides a “home” for 93 Ukrainians, as he consistently calls the phantom inhabitants, whom he hasn’t set eyes on in his life. The man claims that this arrangement was approved, even encouraged, by the mayor of the village, Mrs. Sándor Magyar, shortly before the national election of 2014. She assured the villagers that registering multiple Ukrainians was legal, citing the approval of the officials at the district’s police station. Part of the bargain was that these “ghost” inhabitants would vote for her at the municipal election. It is also possible that Attila Tilki, a Fidesz member of parliament, is also involved, or at least this is what the locals claim. Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County has two electoral districts, and apparently the number of phantom inhabitants is considerably higher in his district than in the other. I should add that it is possible that these new pensioners are not even ethnic Hungarians. At least the locals always refer to them as “the Ukrainians,” and one man who actually settled in the village could barely speak Hungarian, although he has been living in Kispalád for at least two years.
Of course, bribing the inhabitants and possibly the officials costs the prospective Hungarian pensioners money. Some potential “landlords” actually advertise on the internet and list their fees at 40,000-50,000 Ft per person. Some people have amassed several million forints from their “tenants” this way.
As soon as the TV program was broadcast, Balázs Hidvéghi, communication director of Fidesz, called it nothing more than an attempt to “influence public opinion ahead of the electoral campaign.” He claimed that this whole endeavor is the work of Ferenc Gyurcsány, who “incites Hungarian against Hungarian by attacking the voting rights of Hungarians from beyond the borders.” Hidvéghi was certain that Hír TV and Gyurcsány’s party are in cahoots in service of DK’s campaign against the voting rights of dual citizens.
Pension fraud and electoral fraud are linked here. The ghost pensioners are registered to vote in Hungary, helping to assure Fidesz victory in the district, but, since most of them live in Ukraine, do they also cast ballots as non-resident dual citizens? I don’t know, but I suspect it could be pulled off pretty easily.
This is not the first time that Fidesz has been accused of electoral fraud. On April 4, 2014, two days before the national election, Gergely Karácsony and Gergely Bárándy reported that in 12 districts where a Fidesz victory was in doubt suspicious new inhabitants and voters had showed up. It is a well-known fact that the population of Hungary is steadily shrinking, but in these 12 districts the population grew by several thousand. One example was the Budapest district of Zugló, where Gergely Karácsony was running against Ferenc Papcsák (Fidesz). In the two months prior to the election 700 new adult inhabitants were registered in Zugló, while during that same time period Kemecse, population 22,000, in Szabolcs-Szatmár Bereg County, lost about the same number. It turned out that Kemecse’s mayor was the campaign manager of Ferenc Papcsák. The complaint by the two politicians was not only rejected, but they were forbidden by the National Election Office to talk about the matter in the absence of evidence. Something similar happened in Baja before a by-election in 2013. While Baja had been losing a few hundred people every year, in 2013 its population miraculously grew by 1,400 people. By the beginning of 2015 these mystery voters simply disappeared from the books.
Yesterday we learned that the police are investigating the Kispalád case. One should ask why they are only looking into Kispalád when, according to the report, there are at least 30 villages where local officials are most likely similarly involved in the fraudulent practice.
But beyond the 30 villages, why has the Fidesz government allowed this pension fraud to continue when, according to Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, the arrangement costs 1.2 billion forints a year? We all know why, don’t we?