Tag Archives: Hódmezővásárhely

Church and State in Orbán’s Hungary

Let me return briefly to Hódmezővásárhely because, since we left this Fidesz stronghold, the city has acquired a special significance. Péter Márki-Zay’s decision to stand as an independent against the Fidesz candidate for the post of mayor has had a greater impact than a local campaign in a provincial town of Hódmezővásárhely’s size would warrant.

As an offshoot of this seemingly ordinary local election, a national discourse on the role of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has emerged. The relation between church and state has been seriously out of kilter in Hungary, an allegedly secular state, for some time. People simply needed a catalyst to begin challenging the incredible amount of taxpayer money that is being spent on churches, not just in Hungary but in the whole Carpathian Basin. And, perhaps more importantly, to ask how appropriate it is to sell the churches’ good will for hard cash. Márki-Zay’s parish priest provided this catalyst.

We knew from the beginning that Márki-Zay is a religious Catholic. Given his close association with the church, he certainly wasn’t expecting what he got from László Németh, whom he calls Father Laci. As Father László promised, on Sunday he delivered a short speech to the congregation in which he made it clear that his flock must vote for the Fidesz candidate because “not since World War II have the Hungarian churches, not just the Catholic Church, had such opportunities as they are getting now—in education, healthcare, social services, publications, and the list goes on. In Hódmezővásárhely we already have the money in our bank account; we are just starting construction of a third Catholic church in town. People knowing all this, knowing the facts, can make the right decision regarding whom they will vote for when they enter the voting booth.” Many people in the congregation were shocked and disgusted, especially because of the implication of the speech: the Orbán government had bought the Hungarian Catholic Church lock, stock, and barrel. Márki-Zay wasn’t expecting “all the hate and evil which erupted in the last ten days.” He and his friends apparently prayed at a Eucharistic Adoration last night for Father Laci, who must be having a hard time after his performance on Sunday.

György Gábor, an expert on the philosophy of religion, has a devastating opinion of Father László’s attitude toward his own religion and his church. “He put a price on the teachings of Jesus. The first person who valorized the teachings of Jesus was Judas; he asked for thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal of him.” In Hódmezővásárhely, as Father László revealed, there is a symbiosis of church and state that is the result of a dirty financial deal.

Let’s take a look at a few recent cases of large sums of money showered on the churches. Defense Minister István Simicskó and Undersecretary Miklós Soltész, who is in charge of state-church relations, just announced a two billion forint grant to two Catholic gymnasiums in District XI. This is over and above the 2.5 billion that had already been dispersed among religious organizations, mostly Catholic, in the district. They explained that giving financial assistance to churches is especially necessary now that “Christian civilization and the lives of Europeans are threatened by other civilizations.” Simicskó added, quoting Carl von Clausewitz, that without faith one cannot have a strong army. We can ponder the meaning of this strange remark.

The same Miklós Soltész proudly talked the other day about the renovation of 5,500 churches in the Carpathian Basin on Hungarian taxpayer money over the last four years. I don’t know how many of these churches are in Hungary and how many in the neighboring countries. And of course, a lot of brand new churches have been built since Fidesz won the election in 2010. Not that Hungary is in dire need of new churches. We know from statistics that the number of regular churchgoers in Hungary is very small. For instance, from the article about Father László’s speech in his church we learned that there was such interest in the event that the number of attendees was about three times normal. As one of the parishioners said, the size of the congregation could be compared only to mass on Christmas Day. So, one cannot help wondering why Hódmezővásárhely needs another Catholic church.

I assume that the situation is no different with the Protestants, yet a number of new church buildings have been erected lately with generous government assistance. The Hungarian Reformed Church is especially favored. After all, Orbán is “református” and so is Zoltán Balog, whose ministry is in charge of church affairs.

Here is one example from the many. The prime minister is apparently a member of the Svábhegyi Református Gyülekezet (Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy), which received a new building seven years ago. Svábhegy/Swabian Hill is one of swankiest parts of Buda. But the congregation had larger plans. It wanted a church center, and its most famous parishioner promised to help. He kept his word. In December the Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő (Hungarian National Asset Management) purchased two lots adjacent to the church to the tune of almost 650 million forints. One was owned by the City of Budapest and the other by District XII. On the one was a workers’ hostel and on the other, two small apartment buildings. No problem. The workers were moved into another building somewhere in the city and the tenants were given new apartments elsewhere. The two lots, free of charge, will be at the disposal of the Hungarian Reformed Church for the Svábhegyi Református Központ for 50 years. I assume that the money for the construction of the center will also come from the taxpayers.

The church of the Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy

Finally, about a week ago Index reported that the government is launching a scholarship program for priests and ministers who will be serving communities in the Hungarian diaspora in the Carpathian Basin as well as in Western Europe and the Americas. Apparently there is a shortage of clerics who can serve Hungarian parishes abroad.

A member of Index’s staff questioned the constitutionality of this planned program. She quoted from the new Basic Laws’ Article VII(3), which states that “the State and religious communities shall operate separately. Religious communities shall be autonomous.” The trouble is that she overlooked Article VII(4), which reads: “The State and religious communities may cooperate to achieve community goals. At the request of the religious community, the National Assembly shall decide on such cooperation. The religious communities participating in such cooperation shall operate as established churches with regard to their participation in the fulfillment of tasks that serve to achieve community goals.” So, forget the unconstitutionality of launching a “clerical scholarship program.”

I might add that the 1989 Constitution read very differently. In it one cannot find the kind of loophole Fidesz put into its own constitution. Article 60(3) says that “The church and the State shall operate in separation in the Republic of Hungary.” No ifs, ands, or buts. Fidesz made sure that everything in the new constitution would serve its plans for reshaping Hungarian society from the ground up.

January 16, 2018

To run against Fidesz might be injurious to your health: The case of Péter Márki-Zay

While we await the fallout from the opposition parties’ refusal to pay the fines the State Accounting Office meted out to them, I thought we ought to visit Hódmezővásárhely, a Fidesz city par excellence.

Ever since 1990 Vásárhely, as the locals call their city, has never had a mayor who was not a member of Fidesz. In 1990, at the first municipal election, András Rapcsák, an engineer, became mayor and was reelected in 1994, 1998, and 2002. In December of 2002 he died suddenly, and his young personal secretary, János Lázár (Fidesz), ran in a by-election and won. Lázár remained Vásárhely’s very popular mayor until 2012, when Viktor Orbán recruited him to be his chief-of-staff. In 2012 one of the deputy mayors, István Almási (Fidesz), ran and won with 52% of the votes. In 2014 he received strong support from the party and got 61.03% of the votes. Just to give you a sense of the strength of the opposition at the last election, Jobbik’s candidate got 17.11% and MSZP-DK-Együtt, 14.99%.

It was under these circumstances that a political novice, Péter Márki-Zay, decided to try his luck as an independent candidate. Márki-Zay is a conservative man with strong ties to the Catholic Church. He and his wife Felicia have seven children, which by itself is remarkable in a country of small families. The other remarkable thing about them is that they spent five years in Canada and the United States and returned to Hungary only in 2009. The apparent reason for their return was their patriotism; they wanted their children to receive a Hungarian education.

I don’t know when Márki-Zay discovered that he may have made a mistake, but shortly after his arrival in Hungary he made some critical observations, according to an article Délmagyar wrote about the family. How is it possible that, despite the international economic crisis, he sees more BMWs in Hungary than in the United States? He told the journalist that “Americans don’t expect help from above. They are not more talented than Hungarians, but their outlook on life is different.” He was impressed with the American habit of doing volunteer work, and he and his wife were planning to do the same in Vásárhely.

The five years in North America most likely contributed to his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Vásárhely. And so, after the unexpected death of Mayor István Almási in November 2017, he decided to enter the race against the Fidesz candidate, Zoltán Hegedűs.

Péter Mári-Zay / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Béla Nagy

On December 29 Vásárhely24, the internet news site of the municipality, reported that Márki-Zay will be the common candidate of Jobbik and MSZP, which turned out to be untrue. The candidate thinks that the fake news was concocted in order to discredit him. It looks as if the very idea of possible united front against the Fidesz candidate in Vásárhely worried the government party, which quickly moved into action against the candidate.

Two days after he announced his candidacy, he was informed that the company for which he has been working for years no longer has any need for him. The municipality placed four or five cameras along the street where he lives, which the city claimed has nothing to do with Márki-Zay, but the timing is suspicious. As an answer to the fierce attack on the independent candidate, all opposition parties decided to support the disillusioned former Fidesz voter who is convinced that “Orbán’s regime is already a failure in the moral sense.” What he sees in Hungary is no longer democracy.

The local Fidesz leadership moved into high gear. Katalin Havasi, the local party chairman, rang the alarm bell and asked “God to save the city from a mayor who is being supported by Gyula Molnár and Ferenc Gyurcsány, people who wanted to close the hospital in Hódmezővásárhely.” The city needs a mayor “who is being supported by Viktor Orbán and who will defend the hospital.” On his Facebook page Márki-Zay expressed his puzzlement over being seen as a threat to the hospital. Why the hospital? Perhaps if he had been in Hungary in 2007 he wouldn’t be so surprised. In that year Mayor János Lázár created total panic over the death of an old drunkard, well-known in the hospital, who died while being transported from one hospital to another. Lázár blamed the healthcare reforms introduced by the Gyurcsány government for the man’s death.

It seems that the Fidesz locals asked János Lázár to take an active part in the campaign. Lázár still lives in Hódmezővásárhely and commutes daily to Budapest. Those close to the scene claim that nothing happens in the city without Viktor Orbán’s chief-of-staff knowing about it. So, János Lázár showed up and offered to work for Zoltán Hegedűs’s campaign. He brought along some promises too. He told residents that the government is planning a very large “industrial program” and that Vásárhely will be one of the beneficiaries.

Meanwhile both Magyar Nemzet and Index sent reporters to the city, hoping to learn more about the mood in Vásárhely. The former reported total apathy. The few people who were willing to talk would vote for the Fidesz candidate, but they were less than happy with the current situation. As one woman said, she was only hoping that “things will not become worse.” People complained about the lack of job opportunities, but they added that without a Fidesz mayor very little money would come from Budapest. Index also found mostly Fidesz supporters, including a man who spoke glowingly about all the development in the city but at the end admitted that he is planning to leave his job that pays 100,000 Ft. and settle in Germany to wash dishes for 1,200 euros. He also added that he had heard Márki-Zay speak, “and he said a few good things.” The reporter found one person who admitted that she doesn’t know for whom she will vote and had a fairly critical view of Fidesz’s migrant policy, complaining about 1,200 refugees but allowing 20,000 Arabs, Chinese, and Russians.

The pro-Fidesz papers, from Origo to Magyar Idők and Pest Srácok, continue their smear campaign against Márki-Zay, calling the candidate a liar with a persecution complex. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a psychological disorder. Márki-Zay is not alone in reporting abuse because of his political activities. Just the other day a Fidesz local representative in Budapest’s District XV shared the travails she underwent because she didn’t follow the political orders from above to the letter. That’s not a pretty story either.

And the latest is that Momentum Chairman András Fekete-Győr’s father lost his job as executive director of the National Deposit Insurance Fund of Hungary. He was deputy director between 1993 and 2010, when he was appointed executive director for five years. Two years ago his appointment was renewed for another five years — that is, until 2020, when he reaches retirement age.

This is how life goes in Hungary for those who don’t walk in lockstep with Viktor Orbán.

January 9, 2018

The end of an Orbán family business?

In November 2014 I wrote a post,”How do European Union funds end up in the hands of the Orbán family?” It was about the new member of the Orbán clan, István Tiborcz, the husband of Viktor Orbán’s eldest daughter, Ráhel. Tiborcz and Ráhel had known each other for at least six or seven years before they married in September 2013. The young man in 2008 was a fledgling businessman, half owner of a small business dealing with electrical supplies. In 2010, however, one of Közgép’s divisions purchased the majority of shares in Tiborcz’s business. From this point on the business, named Elios Innovatív Zrt., changed directions and became the leading installer of LED-technology street lighting. One after the other, Fidesz-led municipalities made sure that the to-be son-in-law’s company received lighting contracts. By 2012 Elios was thriving. What surprised me at the time was Közgép’s withdrawal from the company just when Elios was doing so well. I wrote: “what baffles me is the role of Simicska’s Közgép. I find it more than a little odd that Simicska’s Közgép shows up to support the fledgling business of István Tiborcz, already known to be Ráhel’s boyfriend, only to withdraw from the firm after its spectacular growth. Közgép is not, as far as I know, active in venture capital or private equity.” Now, a few months later, I am no longer baffled. Közgép/Fidesz, because it is difficult to know where one began and the other ended before the Simicska-Orbán fallout, in fact did play the role of venture capitalist. It financed the “promising” company of István Tiborcz, the future son-in-law of the boss. Moreover, it was a surefire investment given Elios’s business profile. Especially since, as it turned out, the government allocated almost 9 billion forints of mostly EU money to upgrade ordinary street lighting to LED technology. And orders from Fidesz-led municipalities could be counted on.

Looking back now on the beginnings of Tiborcz’s business career, I’m almost certain that Tiborcz’s transition from owning a business that sold electrical supplies to owning one that installed street lighting was inspired by Viktor Orbán himself, who by 2010 knew very well that there would be plenty of EU money for more efficient street lighting fixtures. It was to the advantage of the municipalities to embark on such a project because 85% of the cost was covered by EU and Hungarian government money. And given the family connection, business success for Elios was guaranteed.

István Tibor and his father in law, Viktor Orbán having some  homebrew

István Tibor and his father in law, Viktor Orbán, having some homebrew

My suspicion was further aroused when I read lately that János Lázár, then mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, was the first head of any Hungarian city to come up with the idea of LED-technology street lighting. That was in the fall of 2009, before the 2010 elections. At the time such technology was still in its experimental phase, even in the most developed parts of the world. The city fathers approved the idea and soon enough Hódmezővásárhely chose István Tiborcz’s brand new company to do the job. It was this job that established Elios as the expert in LED street lighting technology.

In fact, Elios was too successful, Tiborcz too greedy, or the municipal leaders too servile. Far too many contracts landed in Tiborcz’s lap, and questions kept popping up about his business success, which smacked of corruption and nepotism. Yet, although months went by and negative articles multiplied, Viktor Orbán didn’t seem to be bothered about the unfavorable press. In fact, Nándor Csepreghy, assistant undersecretary for communication involving European Union projects, outright lied to György Bolgár of KlubRádió when the reporter asked him about the inordinate number of projects in which Tiborcz’s firm was involved. He claimed that there were hundreds and hundreds of such municipal orders and that Elios won only a couple of dozen of them. Soon enough it became known that so far only 33 cities have received grants from the EU and the government for street lighting to the tune of 5.7 billion forints and surprise, surprise, István Tiborcz’s firm won 71% of these contracts–that is, close to 4.1 billion forints. Very often Elios was the sole firm that qualified because the demands of the Fidesz-led municipalities were tailor-made to fit the son-in-law’s firm. Details of this highly irregular affair can be found in an article published by direkt36.hu in March of this year.

Although Viktor Orbán acted as if he were oblivious to the growing scandal surrounding his son-in-law’s business dealings, by now we learned that the decision to escape from a very sticky situation was made sometime earlier. They decided “to sell” István Tiborcz’s 50% stake in Elios. On May 28 Napi Gazdaság, the new servile government newspaper, reported that exactly one month earlier, on April 28, István Tiborcz sold all of his businesses that had anything to do with public procurement. The family could no longer stand the constant attacks by the opposition and the antagonistic media.

On April 30, two days after the sale of Elios, HVG reported a “sensational piece of news.” János Lázár himself rejected the city of Jászberény’s proposal because its wording was suspiciously designed to match Elios’s qualifications. Well, in light of our current knowledge that by that time István Tiborcz was no longer a co-owner of Elios, Lázár’s bravery, hailed by HVG, is less admirable than it seemed at the time.

Who is the new part-owner of Elios? His name is Attila Paár, another Fidesz oligarch who has been involved in many large projects, such as the renovation of the Várkert Bazár and the National Civil Service University. On April 23, 2015 he established, together with two partners, a business called WHB Befektetési Kft (WHB Investment), which  five days later purchased Tiborcz’s share of Elios.

Before Tiborcz’s share of Elios was sold, Tiborcz and his partner took out 470 million forints in dividends from the company’s profits, which left the company with only 6.29 million forints on its balance sheet. The deal has all the earmarks of a fictitious transaction.

János Lázár’s fight with Budapest and Norway

Until now I don’t think too many people ever heard of Nándor Csepreghy, who originally hails from Cluj/Kolozsvár, Romania. In 2002 he moved to Hungary to enroll as a student at the University of Szeged, where he majored in history. A year after his arrival he was already heavily involved in Fidesz politics. His political career began in Fidelitas, the youth organization of Fidesz. As a party activist he was full of rather innovative ideas, some of which, like a video called Gyurcsány Twister, did in fact manage to twist the truth quite a bit. In 2008 he was sent to the United States to study campaign strategies, where he obviously learned something. In 2010 he was the campaign manager for a Fidesz candidate for parliament who easily defeated the MSZP mayor of Szeged, László Botka. In 2012 he was at last rewarded with an important government position. He became undersecretary in charge of government investments “of special importance.” It is in this capacity that Csepreghy has been in the limelight recently.

He has two uncomfortable tasks to deal with. He is negotiating in Brussels with the office handling the Norwegian funds, and he has the unpleasant job of telling the citizens of Budapest that the government will not award the city funds to upgrade the metro. Without these funds metro line #3 may have to be closed because it so old and technologically behind the times that it has become outright dangerous.

In addition to his degree in history Csepreghy also majored in communication, “concentrating on public relations.” Again, he learned well. He talks in full sentences and usually has ready answers to uncomfortable questions. It is perhaps not his fault that he has to deliver messages from his boss, János Lázár, that turn out to be politically unwise, which later he is obliged to cover up.

This is what happened in the case of the Budapest convergence funds. He explained that Budapest cannot receive anything from these funds because they are meant primarily for underdeveloped regions. And, of course, everybody knows that Budapest and Pest County are the most developed regions in Hungary. The inhabitants are  better educated and average salaries are the highest in the country. There was only one problem with this explanation: there are no such regional restrictions on funds in the convergence program. In an interview he helpfully suggested that perhaps the city of Budapest could take out a loan, which the government would guarantee.

Surely, Csepreghy is too low on the totem pole to make announcements of this sort on his own. I’m certain that he was just a messenger of János Lázár, who a couple of days later sent another message to Mayor István Tarlós through Csepreghy: he should lobby in Brussels for more money just as his predecessor Gábor Demszky did.

János Lázár and istván Tarlós

János Lázár and István Tarlós

Once Olga Kálmán of Egyenes Beszéd (ATV) pointed out to Csepreghy that the allocation of funds is entirely up to the government, he had to take a different tack. So, he continued this way: It is true that one-fifth of Hungarians live in the capital, but the government has an equal obligation to areas outside of Budapest. Therefore, the government decided to allocate the money to needier areas, which is only fair.

A day later Csepreghy came up with another story. No decision was made that “all financial resources would be taken away from the capital.” But the amount will be less than would be necessary for the modernization of Budapest’s transport system.

Meanwhile  news reached the public that János Lázár has a fairly grandiose plan of his own for his birthplace, Hódmezővásárhely, where he was mayor between 2002 and 2012. He would like to build a tram-train between Hódmezővásárhely and Szeged (23 km). Tram-train is a light-rail public transport system where the train functions as a streetcar in urban centers but between cities uses railway lines. Whether this is the best way to spend billions, I am not sure. I read that currently very few people use the train between Hódmezővásárhely and Szeged; most of the people use the bus. Apparently daily there are only about 8,000 trips between the two cities. Some people pointed out that no town exists anywhere in the world with a population as low as 40,000 that has its own streetcar system.

After about three days of silence Tarlós decided to say something about the grim news. He tried to be conciliatory, stressing that he and Viktor Orbán would find the necessary funds for the #3 metro line. Up to now Budapest has received 635 million forints, but the renovation would cost about 200 billion. The city sent detailed plans and financial estimates to the government. János Lázár, however, claimed in a public forum in his home town that they had received nothing from Tarlós’s office. Who is telling the truth? I’m almost certain that Lázár isn’t.

The question is why the government would want to pick a fight with Tarlós and why they would strip Budapest of all the money promised in 2013. It makes no sense to alienate the population of the city a few months before the municipal election. Well, perhaps Viktor Orbán and his minions think that, thanks to the new electoral law that was dutifully signed by President János Áder today, the election results are sewn up. With the new provisions the opposition won’t have a chance. Or it might be that the government is trying to curry favor with the rural population who are hurting and who think the inhabitants of Budapest get far too big a slice of the common pie. In any case, Brussels favors upgrading Budapest’s transportation system.

As for Csepreghy’s other unpleasant task, negotiations with the Norwegians are not going very well. The government had to accede to the demand of the Norwegian government and abandon the idea of outsourcing the distribution of the funds to a private firm. According to Csepreghy, there was an understanding between the two sides concerning the fate of the larger amount handled by the Hungarian government. However, Csepreghy continued, no agreement was reached about the funds distributed by the NGO Ökotárs Alapítvány (Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation).

I am not at all sure that Csepreghy is telling the whole truth. Let me quote a Norwegian source, which I trust more. Here is the Norwegian government’s position: “Norway and Hungary have still not reached an agreement on lifting the suspension of the EEA and Norway Grants to the country…. Hungarian authorities have initiated an audit of the EEA Grants-funded NGO program strengthening civil society in Hungary. Responsibility for the program and any potential audits lies with the donor states. … Hungary must meet the requirements stipulated in the agreements, which means that the audit must be halted. At the same time, a solution must be found on the issue of the transfer of the implementation and monitoring of the Grants scheme out of the central government administration. Norwegian authorities have as a precondition that these outstanding issues must be resolved before the suspension of the EEA and Norway Grants is lifted. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is waiting for a response from Hungarian authorities before deciding if and how further meetings will take place. ” According to this summary, nothing has been resolved. Both the EEA Grants handled by the government and the Norway Grants handled by the NGO program are still suspended, waiting for a satisfactory response from the Hungarians.