Tag Archives: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

One can always count on a good friend (or an alter ego): Lőrinc Mészáros and Viktor Orbán

I have the feeling that as long as Hungary has the misfortune of having Viktor Orbán as its prime minister there will be no end to the scandalous affairs surrounding Lőrinc Mészáros, the pipefitter from the village of Felcsút whose brilliant business acumen is the marvel not just of Hungary but perhaps the whole world. Since 2010 he has become one of the wealthiest men in the country thanks to, as he himself admitted, God, hard work, and, last but not least, his friendship with Viktor Orbán. Every time one turns around the miracle pipefitter has made a new acquisition. By now he himself is confused about the businesses and properties he owns. Occasionally he has to be reminded by others that he is the owner of this or that property or business. It could be amusing if it weren’t so sad.

I don’t think you would find too many Hungarians who think that Mészáros’s businesses are actually his own. The information made public today only reinforces this skepticism. One of Mészáros’s companies paid a 3 billion forint debt of Cider Alma [Apple] Kft., a company in part owned by Viktor Orbán’s brother-in-law and nephew. No, this figure is not a mistake; we are talking about 3 billion forints or $10.3 million.

To understand this transaction, let’s go back a little in time to the establishment of a number of centers, representing the Hungarian National Trading House (MNKH), under the aegis of the newly reorganized ministry of foreign affairs and trade. An incredible amount of money was poured into these trading centers in far-flung places across the globe. They were supposed to promote Hungarian business abroad. Unfortunately, in the last two years the foreign ministry’s business venture has lost something like 6 billion forints without bringing in an appreciable amount of money as a result of international trade.

At the end of September 2016 444.hu found out that a certain Cider Alma Kft. owes MNKH 3.2 billion forints and that the trading house now has in its possession 5 million packages of 425 ml vacuum-packed corn and 1.5 million 720 ml packets of pitted sour cherries. 444.hu’s investigative team was a bit puzzled and at first couldn’t see the connection between the corn and sour cherries on the one hand and Cider Alma Kft. on the other. But then they found an item from 2015 which revealed that MNKH had lent 3.2 billion forints to Cider Alma to produce apple sauce (not, as its name would indicate, apple cider). A year went by and only 280 million forints were paid back. Obviously something went wrong and Cider Alma was broke. Or, using a slang expression, the whole thing went “alma,” in this sense meaning “went bust.” 444.hu couldn’t resist a good line: “Would you like to have some apple sauce? Call the foreign ministry.”

Close friends with lots of secrets

It didn’t take more than a couple of days for 444.hu to learn that “Orbán’s relatives are dropping from the spaces between the packets of corn and sour cherries.” It turned out that Gizella Lévai, sister-in-law of Viktor Orbán, and her partner, Imre Ökrös, are business partners in three different subsidiaries of Cider Alma Kft. The relationship between the owners of Cider Alma and the Orbán relatives is so close that Ökrös’s two companies, Érvölgye Konzerv Kft. and Kelet Konzerv Kft., became the guarantors of the loan MNKH extended to Cider Alma. There are other Orbán relatives in this particular business venture as well. Most notably, Ádám Szeghalmi, Gizella Lévai’s son, cousin of the Orbán children, is the CEO of Drogida Hungaro, also a subsidiary of Cider Alma.

Hír TV immediately went after the story and asked for details of the deal. Specifically, they launched an inquiry into the fate of that loan. Ordinary citizens are entitled to get such information because MNKH is a state company and therefore the sum in question is public money. Five months later, Hír TV learned that the debt had been sold to Hórusz Faktorház Zrt., which happens to be a business venture in which Lőrinc Mészáros is involved. Factoring is a financial transaction and a type of debtor finance in which a business sells its accounts receivable to a third party at a discount. It is hard to find out much about this factoring company, except the name of its CEO.

Factoring is a common tool of finance, so Jobbik’s spokesman, Ádám Mirkóczki, was uninformed when he said: “I have never heard of a case where one company pays another company’s debt.” Admittedly, this arrangement is atypical. Cider Alma, it seems, had no accounts receivable, only some inventory to sell. Perhaps Mészáros and his business partners thought that the corn and sour cherries could be sold for more than they paid to settle Cider Alma’s debt. Of course, it is also possible, perhaps even likely, that Hórusz Faktorház took over the debt knowing full well that the firm will never see a penny. It was simply an arrangement among relatives. Whether we will learn more about this case I very much doubt. I agree with Ágnes Vadai of Demokratikus Koalíció that Fidesz corruption cases are simply dropped by the prosecutor’s office and this is especially so when the prime minister’s relatives are involved.

The funniest piece on the case was written by Bálint Molnár in Kolozsvári Szalonna (Bacon à la Kolozsvár). It bears the title “Is it surprising that with such stupid relatives the prime minister is flat broke?” The reference is to Viktor Orbán’s latest financial statement in which he went a bit too far in trying to make himself an average Joe financially. He was already quite poor in 2015 according to that year’s financial statement, but by the end of 2016 he was outright poverty-stricken. He does have one and a half pieces of real estate. He is half owner of the family’s Budapest home and sole owner of the house in Felcsút, right next to the stadium. But he and his wife have only 743,000 forints ($2,551) in their checking account, and they owe 5,999,694 forints ($20,600). He still has four dependent children, and his monthly pay as prime minister is 1,558,333 forints ($5,350). Let me add that an average Hungarian family has over 2,500,000 forints ($8,580) in its checking account. Anikó Lévai must be a very frugal housewife. On the other hand, Mészáros is busily buying one piece of property after the other. According to the latest account he is building a football stadium in Osijek, Croatia, where he wants to establish Europe’s best football academy. Oh my, and what will happen to Felcsút?

February 14, 2017

“Visa shopping” in Moscow: The case of Szilárd Kiss

A young man phoned György Bolgár’s popular call-in show, “Let’s Talk It Over,” on Klub Rádió this afternoon. He was agitated over the latest public row within the ranks of the fractured opposition. “Don’t they realize that we are in big trouble? Don’t they realize that if they don’t unite, Viktor Orbán will be the ruler of this country for life just like Putin and Erdogan? It’s all very nice that LMP’s Bernadett Szél managed to get some documents out of the government, but what does she achieve with that? These politicians should try to figure out how to get rid of a dictator.”

It was only a little later that I realized that the caller was talking about documents that Szél has been trying to get from the ministry of foreign affairs and trade for almost two years. The documents were the result of an investigation into the wholesaling of Schengen visas to thousands of Russians without any vetting by a man officially employed by the Hungarian government.

When I read the details of this latest government scandal, my first reaction was: “But this is not a new story.” Two years ago I wrote two posts on the villain of this story, Szilárd Kiss, agricultural attaché in the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow, who was able to extract thousands of visas from the Hungarian consulate in the Russian capital for his friends, business partners, and even prostitutes. At the time that I wrote my first post on Kiss, he was being held in pre-trial detention for defrauding a credit union in Hungary. He had been in trouble with the law in Russia earlier.

A lot was known about Kiss already in 2015. We knew that he moved to Russia in 1990, hoping to establish himself as a successful businessman dealing with agricultural products. He was especially keen on exporting Hungarian wine to Russia, but somehow all his business ventures failed. Meanwhile he developed a wide network of Russian businessmen and high-ranking politicians through his Russian wife or girlfriend of long standing, Yelena Tsvetkova.

After 2010, with the arrival of Viktor Orbán as prime minister, Kiss thought his time had come. After all, Orbán was keen on establishing strong political and economic ties with Russia. Through his influential Hungarian friends, like Csaba Tarsoly, the CEO of the Quaestor brokerage firm that a few years later went under, Kiss was introduced to Péter Szijjártó, the current foreign minister who was then an undersecretary in the prime minister’s office. Szijjártó was impressed and sent Kiss on to Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, who without further ado appointed him agricultural attaché in Moscow.

In 2014, however, the Hungarian ambassador was about to dismiss Kiss because he had failed to pass the vetting process by the national security office. During the investigation it became evident that Kiss had connections to the Russia mafia and perhaps even to the Russian secret service. In addition, it was discovered that Kiss had been involved in a profitable “visa business” on the side. It was known already in 2015 that he had secured Schengen visas for at least 2,500 people without the standard vetting. In 2015 Index learned that Hungarian consulates had, in total, issued more than two million visas since January 2008. The Russian share was staggeringly high: 400,000. That is, every fifth visa had been issued to a Russian citizen.

We knew all that two years ago, yet the Hungarian media and public act as if this revelation is brand new. I sympathize with the caller who said that politicians could spend their time more profitably than fighting for the release of documents. It took two solid years to get the documents, which only confirmed everything that Index had reported two years ago. Of course, it is good to have the proof as well as more details, which “give a frightening picture of what was going on in Moscow.”

Source: Index / Graphics: Szarvas

As a result of the newly available documents we know that half of all Schengen visas issued in 2013 were requested by Monte Tokaj Kft, Szilárd Kiss’s company. We are talking about 4,000 visas, not 2,500 as we thought in 2015. Moreover, these visas were issued to “Russian citizens with ill-defined financial backgrounds and professions” and “without any apparent documented control.” The Hungarian authorities were not even aware of the addresses of these people, their requests were granted within hours, 50% of the applicants had no references, and they didn’t even have to visit the embassy for a personal interview. What Kiss and his accomplices were doing was what we call “visa shopping.” I should add that it is likely that none of these people spent even as much as a full day in Hungary.

Without the consuls’ cooperation Kiss couldn’t have conducted this visa racket. It looks to me as if they tried to defend themselves by claiming “dishonest influence peddling, pressure, or even threats” against them. Are they talking about pressure and threats from Russian mafia bosses? Perhaps, but the internal investigation doesn’t address this topic.

What is also interesting about this case—something we already knew in 2015—is that although the foreign ministry asked the ministry of agriculture to get rid of Kiss, he was not fired outright. Fazekas worked out an arrangement that allowed Kiss to remain with the ministry. He was asked to resign from his diplomatic post, thereby avoiding the stigma of dismissal. In compensation, Kiss was appointed “commissioner of eastern economic relations.” Why the change? Perhaps because the new appointment was based on a contractual agreement for which one didn’t need national security clearance. Kiss thus remained a public servant until January 2015, when he was arrested because of his role in defrauding a credit union.

By now Kiss is free again, awaiting trial. The last time his name showed up in the media was when he was spotted using a car with a diplomatic plate.

The foreign ministry now claims that they filed a complaint with the police regarding the case. If that happened at all, it must have occurred only recently, under pressure from a court order for the release of the report of the internal investigation that took place four years ago, in 2013.

Although it’s good that we know more about the case than we did two years ago, I’m sure the story will be forgotten within days just it was in 2015. In fact, I would be surprised if there were a police investigation at all. Kiss’s visa racket will be at best a footnote in a history book.

The Hungarian government has every reason to downplay this case. Although Szijjártó claims he never worked with Kiss, he can be seen cutting the ribbon at the opening of the visa center in Moscow with Yelena Tsvetkova, wife/girlfriend of Szilárd Kiss, partial owner of the company. It is also unlikely that the Hungarian government would be too keen to investigate the deal Fazekas made on behalf of his friend Szilárd Kiss in the ministry of agriculture.

So yes, we now know more lurid details of the visa scandal, but given the present government’s stranglehold on the police and the prosecutor’s office nothing will ever come of it. I agree with the caller to “Let’s Talk It Over.” Opposition politicians should slowly turn the job of investigative journalism over to the professionals and instead focus on the daunting task of becoming an unbeatable political juggernaut.

February 8, 2017

Fidesz can’t escape from the shadow of the Quaestor scandal

Medián came out with a new poll. This time the company wanted to find out how much Hungarians know about the scandal that followed the collapse of several brokerage firms and what they think about it. One of Medián’s conclusions is that people see a connection between the failures of the brokerage firms and the unpopularity of the government. More failures will only increase people’s distrust of the government. The majority of those questioned, despite the government’s best efforts, think that Fidesz bears a greater responsibility for the lack of proper oversight of these financial institutions than the earlier administrations. It is becoming increasingly difficult to blame the socialists for events that happen after five years of Fidesz governance.

One finding of the poll, which may have important repercussions for the future of the Orbán government, is that the Quaestor affair made the greatest impression on those surveyed. Over 70% of the people asked could name the firm without any help, and another 17% recognized the name from a list of brokerage firms. The other two companies, Buda-Cash and Hungária, are considerably less well known. And this is bad news for the government, because every day, it seems, more details about the close ties between the government and Csaba Tarsoly, CEO of Quaestor, are revealed.

birds

Two recent discoveries further support the suspicion that the Quaestor-Orbán government connection was very close indeed. One of the latest revelations is that the Nemzeti Befektetési Ügynökség, known as HIPA (Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency), which is a government office attached to the ministry of foreign ministry and trade, worked hard to find investors for a Quaestor project called Dunacity. As it turned out, the idea of a “city within the city” was first floated in 2006. It was supposed to be an entirely new building complex in the Soroksár area of Budapest, close to the present National Theater and the Palace of Arts, but not surprisingly, given the 2008 financial crisis, nothing came of it. It seems, however, that in the fall of 2014 HIPA began promoting the idea of Dunacity and published a pamphlet trying to recruit investors for the one billion euro project, along with some other desirable investments. In fact, 444.hu learned that shortly before the March 9 collapse of Quaestor, Levente Magyar, undersecretary in charge of foreign trade, escorted Arab businessmen to the planned future site of Dunacity. The English-language brochure spoke in glowing terms about the “new type of living, where the harmony of apartments, workplace, commerce, entertainment and relaxation is provided.” The government promised a new bridge across the Danube, a free port, and a new metro line. But what was perhaps most telling was that investors were guaranteed a 9-10% return.

The second revelation might be even more damaging, at least indirectly, to the Orbán government. Today János Lázár, who holds lengthy press conferences every Thursday, released the list of 24 municipalities that had purchased Quaestor bonds, which includes the city of Győr, whose football team Csaba Tarsoly owned. Győr’s loss–1,004,505,299 forints–doesn’t top the list. Százhalombatta lost 3,591,830,000 forints. But then why is Győr in the limelight? The reason is that the city of Győr wired this amount to Quaestor’s account on January 16, a day after the National Bank of Switzerland allowed the Swiss franc to strengthen some 20% against the euro. This unexpected currency decision hit large banks and brokerages hard, since most of them were net short the Swiss franc. For instance, Citigroup lost between $150 and $200 million, Interactive Brokers $120 million, and Deutsche Bank $150 million. The Swiss decision also had a negative impact on Hungarian banks, forex dealers, and brokerages. We know that Buda-Cash lost about $22-29 million. Most likely Quaestor was in the same predicament.

It was on April 3 that 444.hu first reported on this “strange coincidence.” Although one of the Győr city officials insisted that the only reason for investing the money with Quaestor was the attractively high yield, the reporter was not convinced. Something was wrong. If Győr purchased government bonds, their yield wouldn’t fluctuate from broker to broker. Therefore, the reporter justifiably suspected that the sudden decision to place that large sum of money with Quaestor, whose owner has invested billions in Győr, was not a coincidence. Moreover, 444.hu checked the city council minutes, where there was no sign of any approval of the money transfer. It was, the reporter concluded, most likely the decision of Győr’s mayor, Zsolt Borkai, a former Olympic champion and currently the president of the Hungarian National Olympic Committee. Let me add that Borkai is a favorite of Viktor Orbán. The prime minister even changed a law to make sure that Borkai could become a member of parliament in 2010. Borkai, before becoming a politician, was the principal of a military school with the rank of colonel. And there was a law on the books that said that a policeman or soldier can become a candidate for or serve as a member of parliament only five years after his departure from the military or the police force. The opposition jokingly called the legislation “Lex Borkai,” something Borkai was actually proud of.

Győr promptly denied the charge, claiming that they made the decision to transfer the money to Quaestor earlier and signed the papers already on January 13. Since no one had seen the contract that the city signed, suspicion lingered on.

Today there was another twist in the story. János Lázár, during his press conference, talked about municipalities purchasing Quaestor and not government bonds. He specifically pointed to the city of Győr as “one of those municipalities that invested money in unsecured Quaestor bonds.” Borkai, whose nerves must be frayed by now, snapped back. Győr bought government bonds, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. It is his duty, he said, “to protest in the name of all 130,000 inhabitants of the city.” This time Borkai arrived with the original copy of the January 13 contract and a document that allegedly proved that the city had purchased government bonds.

So, who is telling the truth? Is it possible that Borkai thought he was buying government bonds but that Quaestor, hard pressed by the events of January 15, used the money to fill some holes in its own portfolio? Yes, it is possible.

The constant barrage of Quaestor stories is further damaging the waning reputation of the Orbán government. And the clashes between prominent members of the Fidesz hierarchy, like Borkai and Lázár, don’t help the cause either. One is just waiting for the next bomb to explode.

The Quaestor story is becoming less transparent despite the release of documents

It was four days ago that I wrote an article titled “A Crime in Search of a More Coherent Cover-up.” Well, the Orbán government is still searching and the story, instead of becoming more coherent, is getting more confusing. It’s hard to know whether the government is intentionally obfuscating the issue or whether it simply can’t concoct a halfway believable plot in which nobody in the government is at fault. The prime minister, we have been told, misremembered. It seems that the buck didn’t stop with him after all. But at the same time he doesn’t want to implicate any of his colleagues. That wouldn’t be good for business.

Meanwhile the police twiddled their thumbs, presumably waiting for instructions from above. Although Quaestor collapsed on March 9 and rumor had it that Csaba Tarsoly, its CEO, was a flight risk, they did nothing until March 26. Finally, two days ago, they arrested Tarsoly.

The chief prosecutor of Budapest, Tibor Ibolya, tried to explain away the delay by saying that “he did not want to prejudice the case” by acting hastily. In order to bolster this claim he had the temerity to quote the guidelines of the European Court of Justice. It is hard to tell whether Ibolya is just incompetent or, more likely, an eager accomplice of the Orbán government like his boss, Péter Polt. To get a sense of the man, I recommend Olga Kálmán’s interview with him on Egyenes beszéd (Straight talk).

QuaestorAlthough we heard earlier that Csaba Tarsoly, CEO of Quaestor, had officially announced the firm’s bankruptcy, the revised account is that no such notification to the authorities ever took place. Tarsoly simply told the National Bank that the company had collapsed; he didn’t file any bankruptcy papers. As a result, Tarsoly and his associates had plenty of time to get rid of evidence, hide assets, and do all sorts of things that would obscure their allegedly illegal activities.

It is possible that a great deal more public money landed in the coffers of Quaestor than the 3.5 billion returned in the form of cash to the Magyar Nemzeti Kereskedőház (Hungarian National Trading House), which is under the jurisdiction of the ministry of foreign affairs and trade. Népszabadság received information that the ministry of agriculture lost millions, but the paper’s Fidesz sources said that its money was not at Quaestor. I, however, wouldn’t be at all surprised if this ministry also had money with Quaestor because of Tarsoly’s close business connections with Szilárd Kiss, the man accused not only of embezzlement but also of possible connections to the Russian Federal Security Service. Kiss was a special favorite of the minister of agriculture, Sándor Fazekas.

The Hungarian public was promised information about the extent of the loss of public funds by tomorrow. This will be a tricky document to put together.

By now the government seems to have realized that it has lost public confidence. Therefore in the last few days it released a number of documents to build a more believable story.

Among the documents the government released is the March 9th letter of Csaba Tarsoly to Viktor Orbán in which the Quaestor CEO asks for government help in saving his firm. He requested a 300 billion forint loan to protect 50,000 small investors, resulting in greater public trust in the Orbán government. The government even released Viktor Orbán’s answer as transmitted by his private secretary:

We gratefully acknowledge the receipt of your letter. The Prime Minister informed the minister of economics of its content. Mihály Varga will appoint a person to conduct the negotiations you suggest. He will most likely get in touch with you today.

It looks as if Hungary’s prime minister was prepared to make a deal with the man whom now he calls a crook.

One would assume, on the basis of these letters, that the man appointed by Mihály Varga actually had a conversation with Tarsoly on the evening of March 9th, which was unsuccessful. Therefore, Tarsoly had no choice but announce, albeit unofficially, the collapse of Quaestor to György Matolcsy, president of the Hungarian National Bank. Today, however, we learned that this sequence of events, however logical, is wrong.

VS.hu asked for additional information from the ministry of national economy, and it actually got what its reporter asked for. Yes, Mihály Varga did appoint Undersecretary Gábor Orbán (no relation to the prime minister), who met Tarsoly not on 9th but on the following day, March 10th. Apparently he didn’t like Tarsoly’s proposal. Undersecretary Orbán “found the plan unrealistic and unacceptable because it would have put the whole financial burden of restitution on the Hungarian government.” Another inexplicable twist in an already badly twisted story. What was the point of negotiation between Csaba Tarsoly and the Hungarian government a day after the unofficial announcement of Quaestor’s collapse? Why didn’t Tarsoly wait until he had a chance to talk to Gábor Orbán? Is it possible that Tarsoly was still hoping to make a deal, even after March 10th? That he viewed the collapse of Quaestor as remediable?

In this story of twists and turns, contradictions and memory lapses, Népszava noticed another oddity. While the prime minister office’s short e-mail to Csaba Tarsoly was written on March 9 at 17:24, Tarsoly’s letter to Orbán was logged in only on March 10th. Naturally, the Hungarian media immediately picked up this anomaly. Admittedly, it may be nothing more than the usual sloppiness that reigns in Hungarian government circles. It might happen, though it seems odd, that a letter would be received and answered before it was logged in. The official explanation is that the office of the prime minister receives an inordinate amount of mail and that the log-in process–all done by hand–is slow. Surely, even Viktor Orbán’s “plebeian government” could afford an electronic automatic scanner which would take care of all this in seconds.

What is much more difficult to explain is why the Tarsoly letter to Orbán, which Giró Szász proudly showed to Antónia Mészáros, a reporter for ATV, last Sunday, March 29, had no log-in information on it whatsoever. Which letter is authentic? The one the government released, with the log-in date of March 10, or the letter Giró Szász showed on March 29, which had never been logged in? I’m sure the government will say that the letter Giró Szász had was a copy of the letter the prime minister received, a copy made prior to its being logged in. But why, when it is in the throes of a scandal, doesn’t the government keep things tidy? It just raises new questions, arouses new suspicions.

Demands for Viktor Orbán’s resignation

Today is one of those days that I have no idea what will happen between beginning to write this post and uploading it. One thing, however, I can be pretty sure of: I don’t have to worry that by tomorrow morning Viktor Orbán will not be the prime minister of Hungary. Although that is what the opposition would like to see.

This morning’s editorial in Népszabadság demanded Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s resignation. And, indeed, Szijjártó’s situation was deemed so grave that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself came to his rescue. At a press conference in Sopron he said that he was the one who decided that all government money invested in bonds issued by private financial institutions must be withdrawn immediately. He announced his decision at the Thursday, March 4th cabinet meeting. The Hungarian National Trading House subsequently withdrew 3.8 billion forints from Quaestor on Monday, March 9th. That very evening Csaba Tarsoly, CEO of Quaestor, announced his firm’s bankruptcy.

The problem with this story is that it doesn’t jibe with earlier statements of the ministry of foreign affairs and trade that praised the Trading House officials who “acted conscientiously when, observing the market developments,” they opted to withdraw Trading House’s money from Quaestor. Because, according to the letter the ministry sent to cink.hu, there was real panic in the first days of March “when the majority of Quaestor’s clients began withdrawing their assets.” The problem with this explanation is that it is not true. There was no outward sign of trouble at Quaestor at the time. Once Orbán decided to bear the odium of what appeared to be insider trading on the part of government agencies, the ministry discovered that its earlier explanation did not accurately reflect the situation and that in fact the prime minister’s version was the correct one.

Many political reporters were stunned when they heard that Orbán had decided to be the fall guy in this scandal. “In the first moment I didn’t understand how [Orbán] could do something like that,” László Szily of cink.hu saidM. Kasnyk of 444.hu at first couldn’t believe that the story was true. After all, with this admission Orbán threw himself into a quagmire of monumental proportions with a possibly serious political fallout. But it seems that Viktor Orbán is confident about his invincibility. He thinks that his position is secure and that he has nothing to fear. Given the Hungarian parliamentary rules he is probably right, although the opposition parties appear to be united in demanding his resignation.

As we learn more about the events leading up to the collapse of Quaestor, it seems that the Fidesz political leadership had been aware that Csaba Tarsoly’s financial empire was in serious trouble for some time. A high-ranking member of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus told an Index reporter that it was likely after Buda-Cash’s collapse that there would be other bankruptcies. He specifically mentioned Hungaria Értékpapír and Quaestor, both of which subsequently failed.

But let’s return to why Viktor Orbán decided to speak up. Most likely because he realized that Péter Szijjártó was in big trouble. He had illegally invested government assets in a shaky private business venture and then, presumably equally illegally, had withdrawn 3.8 billion forints just before Quaestor’s collapse. Orbán gave this young man a critically important position, one that he was not prepared for. But Orbán is not the kind of man who would ever admit that he made a wrong decision, and therefore it would never occur to him to remove Szijjártó from his position. Also, Szijjártó served him with undivided loyalty for such a long time that perhaps Orbán feels obliged to defend him.

Viktor Orbán announcing that it was him who ordered the withdrawal of government assets from Quaestor

Viktor Orbán announcing his decision to withdraw government assets from Quaestor

Let’s take a quick look at the opposition parties’ reaction to Viktor Orbán’s announcement. Párbeszéd Magyarországért/Dialogue for Hungary (PM) was the first to announce their decision to press charges against government officials who, they believe, are guilty of insider trading. Tímea Szabó, co-chair of the party, naively said that they will demand the audiotape of the March 4th cabinet meeting. Good luck! As far as I know, no records of Orbán’s cabinet meetings are kept in any shape or form. Orbán made that decision already in 1998 when he first became prime minister. He didn’t want to become a second Nixon.

Együtt/Together decided that, while they were at it, they might as well send Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, into retirement alongside his old friend, the prime minister. DK is also pressing charges, and they “would like it if the prime minister would assume financial responsibility with his own assets” for the losses at Quaestor. LMP’s spokesman, a practicing lawyer, talked about insider trading, which is a serious crime and for which long jail terms are normally handed down. He even offered an explanation of what might have happened. In his opinion, it was through the close relationship between Szijjártó and Tarsoly that the information leaked out and spread within the Orbán administration. He also raised the possibility that with the ministry withdrawing about 20 billion forints, Szijjártó may have been partially responsible for the collapse of Quaestor. Gábor Fodor of the Liberális Párt (LP) wrote a letter to the prime minister which Orbán will have to answer at the latest in three weeks’ time. Fodor wants to know exactly how Orbán ordered the ministers to withdraw government assets from private firms. Was it in a letter and, if yes, who were the addressees?

Modern Magyarország Mozgalom (MoMa), the party of Lajos Bokros, called the Hungarian state under Victor Orbán a “den of criminals.” He called attention to the seriousness of insider trading for which “in the United States and in Great Britain people receive very long jail sentences.” In Hungary, he claimed, important government officials are involved in such practices. Bokros also wanted to know “how the ministry of foreign affairs and trade has extra money to invest.”

Several MSZP politicians talked about the case and they all called for Viktor Orbán’s resignation. Jobbik’s János Volner, chairman of the parliamentary committee on promoting entrepreneurial activities, plans to convene a meeting where he expects Péter Szijjártó and the leading official of the Hungarian National Bank to answer the committee’s questions. If they don’t get satisfactory answers, they are ready to go as far as the European Union.

Fidesz is stonewalling. The party “doesn’t fall for the socialists’ provocations because after all it was the left that in the socialist broker scandal [i.e., the Buda-Cash collapse] abandoned the Hungarian people.” And in any case, “it is MSZP, Gyurcsány and Bajnai who are involved in the network of brokerages.” I have no idea what the Fidesz spokesman is talking about here.

The last piece of news I read before sitting down to write this post said that MSZP is inviting all other opposition parties to a meeting tomorrow. We will see what the reaction to this call is. If they manage to form a common front, it will be a first.

The sorry state of Hungarian foreign policy

This morning I listened to lectures delivered at a conference,”Az elszigetelt Magyarország és a globális világ” (Isolated Hungary and the Global World), that took place on Friday. The conference was organized by Attila Ara-Kovács, who is currently heading the foreign policy “cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) and who earlier worked in the foreign ministry under László Kovács. Ara-Kovács was joined by Charles Gati, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, for a conversation centering on U.S.-Hungarian relations. Mátyás Eörsi, who was undersecretary of foreign affairs between 1997 and 1999, assessed the Orbán government’s foreign policy and came to the conclusion that as such it doesn’t really exist. Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered a short speech in which he insisted that the whole political system built by Viktor Orbán must be dismantled. There is no possibility of changing the current foreign policy strategy because that would mean a denial of “the essence of the system.” Zoltán Sz. Biró, an expert on Russia, delivered a fascinating lecture on the state of the Russian economy. Finally, Zoltán Balázs, a political scientist whose sympathies lie with the right of center, offered a few critical remarks, saying among other things that the speakers had ignored the resilience of Orbán’s followers. Orbán may go but his devoted admirers remain, and for them Hungary’s martyr complex is very much a reality. I can strongly recommend these lectures to anyone who understands the language.

Zoltán Sz. Biró, while outlining the grave Russian economic situation, expressed his surprise at the ignorance of Hungarian policymakers about the real state of affairs in Russia. Don’t they ever look at the economic and financial data available online? Obviously not, because otherwise Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó should have been more cautious in their approach toward Moscow. But behind their Russia policy is Viktor Orbán’s mistaken notion of “the decline of the West” and thus he put all his eggs in one basket. By now it looks as if even the enlargement of Paks will come to naught.

As for the diplomatic corps, according to Mátyás Eörsi fear is widespread because of the hundreds of “pink slips” handed out to old-timers with diplomatic experience at the foreign ministry in the wake of János Martonyi’s departure. One “bad” sentence and the person’s job is in jeopardy. Thus, nobody offers any opinion that might differ from that of the “diplomatic expert,” Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

The housecleaning was so thorough that Szijjártó proudly announced that “we will lay the foundations of the new Hungarian foreign policy irreversibly, once and for all.” They will not retreat but forge ahead according to what they consider to be Hungary’s economic interest. Two weeks later it was announced that out of the staff of 900 at the ministry more than 200 will be fired, including some who were brought in by Tibor Navracsics a few months earlier. As a result there is total chaos in the ministry, whose new spokesman is a former sports reporter.

Not only is the ministry’s staff decimated but certain background institutions like the Magyar Külügyi Intézet (Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs) no longer exist since its entire research staff resigned en bloc. The administration is in the throes of “reorganization” of the institute. It’s no wonder that no one was prepared for the crisis in U.S.-Hungarian relations that came to the fore in mid-October.

By October and November there was such chaos in the ministry that some of the diplomats were certain that Szijjártó couldn’t possibly remain in his new position. Rumors circulated at the time that the ministry of foreign affairs and foreign trade would split into two ministries and that Szijjártó would be in charge of foreign trade only. This was probably a reflection of the long-suffering diplomats’ wishful thinking.

Others were convinced that Orbán will change his foreign policy orientation and will give up his anti-West rhetoric and policies. However, Attila Ara-Kovács in an article that appeared in Magyar Narancs outlined the impossibility of such a scenario. In the same article Ara-Kovács shed light on the atmosphere at the ministry of foreign affairs nowadays. An ambassador with close ties to Fidesz happened to be back in Hungary and wanted to talk to his superiors in the ministry. He was not allowed to enter the building because, as he was told by the security officer at the door, “you are on the list of those who are forbidden to wander around the corridors alone.”

Since then the situation has only gotten worse.  According to insiders, “in the last two months the chief preoccupation in the ministry is saving one’s job.” By October 34 ambassadors were sacked in addition to the hundreds who were fired earlier. János Martonyi, the previous foreign minister, because of his pro-trans-atlantic sentiments is considered to be a traitor and an American agent by those people who were brought in by Navracsics and Szijjártó from the ministry of justice and the prime minister’s office. Indicative of this new anti-American orientation, a recent order from the prime minister’s office required employees to report in writing all contacts with American diplomats over the last few years.

Szijjártó seems to have a free hand when it comes to personnel decisions. He created a job for a friend of his from the futsal team Szijjártó played on until recently. Despite no degree or experience, the futsal player will coordinate the work of the “minister’s cabinet.” For Szijjártó, as for the prime minister, it is “loyalty” that matters. Among the five undersecretaries there is only one with any diplomatic experience and he is, of all things, responsible for cultural and scientific matters. The newcomers don’t understand the world of diplomacy, so they’re creating their own rules. They are introducing a “new language” for diplomatic correspondence. They tell the old-timers that they mustn’t be “too polite” in official letters. Also, apparently they don’t consider it important to put conversations or decisions into writing. They think that a telephone conversation or perhaps an e-mail is enough. Therefore it is impossible to know what transpired between Hungarian and foreign diplomats. All that writing is cumbersome and slow. It seems that they want to follow the well-known practice of the Orbán government. A decision is made without any discussion and the next day the two-thirds majority passes the new law. But diplomacy doesn’t work that way. It is a delicate business.

Currently, I’m reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin in which his efforts at securing an alliance with France are described in some detail. It took him a year and a half to achieve that feat, which was vital for the young United States at war with Great Britain. And he was a seasoned diplomat. The new staff at the foreign ministry is decidedly unseasoned. Some of them haven’t even been schooled in foreign affairs, history, or political science. Believe it or not, two of the five undersecretaries have medical degrees. A rather odd background, I would say, for conducting foreign policy.

Diplomacy is the antithesis of everything that characterizes the Orbán government. For Viktor Orbán the “peacock dance,” which is basically nothing more than deceiving your negotiating partners, passes for diplomacy. And the new, “irreversible” foreign policy has already led Hungary to the brink of diplomatic disaster.

By the way, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires M. André Goodfriend, as you can see from the photo accompanying this post, attended the conference.

American-Hungarian relations are crumbling

Let me summarize what we know so far about the U.S. action against certain Hungarian businessmen and government employees.

Initially it was reported that ten people were banned from entering the United States, but by now that number has been reduced to six. We definitely know of one businessman who reported on his fate to ATV. It was he who mentioned three employees of the Office of Taxation and Customs (NAV). One of the three was allegedly the president of NAV, Anikó Vida. The spokesman for the tax office did not deny the charge. If the number six is correct, there are still two people about whom we know nothing.

Although the Hungarian government feigns total ignorance of the details and keeps repeating that it is unable to move against the corrupt officials, in fact they have known for two weeks about the American resolve to pursue those Hungarians who have been trying to blackmail American firms and extort kickbacks of billions of forints from them.

M. André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, sketched the timeline of events this afternoon. According to him, on October 6 he had a talk with Levente Magyar, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. During the meeting Goodfriend explained the significance of Proclamation 7750, which is an executive order signed by George W. Bush in 2004. The Proclamation gives the State Department power to ban corrupt individuals and their families from entering the United States. Such a ban can be imposed only by the undersecretary for political affairs–in our case by Wendy Sherman, who is the department’s fourth-ranking official. (Here is a handy chart of the structure of the State Department.)

Levente Magyar must have understood the gravity of the situation because a subsequent meeting was arranged at the request of the Hungarian foreign ministry between Péter Szijjártó and André Goodfriend. This meeting took place on October 13. The American chargé repeated everything he had already told Magyar. Szijjártó then insisted that he reveal the names of those would be affected by the ban. Goodfriend in turn explained that the American government never reveals names in cases connected to Proclamation 7750. What the U.S. expects is swift action against the culprits.

Let’s stop here for a minute. I assume that Viktor Orbán was notified immediately after the encounter between Magyar and Goodfriend on October 6, and I also suspect that the prime minister’s advice was to insist on “proof” from the Americans. When that failed, in typical Orbán fashion the decision was made to launch a counterattack. NAV leaked information to Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper owned by Századvég, a consulting firm and think tank close to Fidesz, that the United States is contemplating evoking Proclamation 7750 against certain Hungarian businessmen in retaliation for NAV’s tax probes against certain American firms. If the Hungarian government hadn’t decided on this counterattack, we perhaps would never have found out about the travel ban on the six, still unnamed individuals. Colossally stupid move, but I think it is typical. Viktor Orbán always has to have the last word.

Since October 16, the day that Napi Gazdaság published its article containing the disinformation concocted by the Hungarian government, the controversy between the United States and Hungary has been escalating rapidly. The Hungarians kept insisting on “creditable proof” while the Americans steadfastly refused to fall into the trap. Moreover, while at the beginning the controversy seemed to be connected only to widespread corruption in Hungary, as time went by it became obvious that the United States might also take action against the Orbán government’s increasingly anti-democratic behavior. A day after the appearance of the accusations against American businesses in Napi Gazdaság, an article was published in Foreign Policy magazine from which we learned that “at a meeting last month, the Community [of Democracies] set in motion a process that could result in Hungary’s removal from the council and withdrawal from the Community. If Hungary leaves, it will be an international acknowledgment  that the nation has ceased to be a democracy.”

What is the Community of Democracies? It is a global intergovernmental coalition of states founded in 2000 at the common initiative of Madeleine Albright and Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek. The organization is headed by a Governing Council consisting of 26 countries, among them Hungary. Apparently it was the United States that suggested that Hungary be removed from the Council and perhaps even from the organization. Or perhaps Hungary might consider a voluntary withdrawal from the Community in order to avoid embarrassment. The likelihood of an American initiative in this case was reinforced by André Goodfriend’s observation that such a move might be warranted under the circumstances.

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

M. André Goodfriend at one of his press conferences

While the Hungarian government is stonewalling, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest, most likely following instructions from the State Department, is delivering tougher and tougher messages to the Hungarian government during fairly frequent press conferences at the embassy. Perhaps the strongest language could be heard this afternoon when Goodfriend explained the reason for American action. In Hungary prior to 2010 the level of democracy and transparency, especially in comparison to some other post-socialist countries, was high. But while in other countries the trend is toward greater democracy and transparency, in Hungary the opposite is true. “If that trend continues it may reach a level where the United States can no longer cooperate with Hungary as an ally.” Clearly, the United States is not joking–as Antal Rogán assumed only yesterday during an interview.

Let’s return briefly to the three high officials of the Hungarian tax office who most likely are implicated in the case. In what way can they engage in fraud and corruption? Here is an explanation offered by Dávid Jancsics, who is currently conducting research at the City University of New York. His expertise is corruption. He learned from two independent sources that the NAV employees demanded kickbacks from two American companies in exchange for tax breaks and a lower VAT. Apparently they demanded 2 billion forints in exchange for these favors, money that the American companies were supposed to pay to a foundation associated with Fidesz for purposes of “research and analysis.” In addition, the NAV officials promised heavy fines on the American firms’ competitors. When the Americans didn’t bite, the NAV officials began threatening them with tax probes. It was at this point that the firms turned to the American embassy and reported the bribery attempts. The implication of this analysis, if it is accurate, is frightening because in this case the tax office is part and parcel of a corruption scheme that appears to be centrally organized.

This takes us back to an old story about a whistleblower at NAV who claimed that high NAV officials refused to investigate obvious fraud cases. András Horváth, the whistleblower, said that he was mostly involved in investigating companies that dealt in agricultural products. Index came to the conclusion that one of the two American companies in question was Bunge, a leading agribusiness and food company. It is a global firm with 35,000 employees in forty countries, including Hungary. They produce among many other things cooking oil sold in Hungary under the label Vénusz. It was well known that the management of Bunge was very unhappy about the VAT fraud and that their efforts to enlist the help of NAV were fruitless. It is possible that after a lot of complaints from the Bunge management NAV officials offered to do something about the competition’s fraudulent business practices but only at a price.

Hungarian journalists in the last few days have asked several business groups, like the German-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, about the extent of corruption in Hungary. The answer is that foreign companies have known for years about corruption involving billions. “Hungary is a part of the Balkans” by now, and the situation is only becoming worse. According to foreign business leaders, Hungarian business life is corrupt through and through. Healthy competition is impossible under such circumstances.

Péter Szijjártó is leaving Budapest for Washington tomorrow to meet Victoria Nuland. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes.