I have been sitting here for at least an hour trying to find the right words to describe the madhouse Hungary has become, thanks to Fidesz politicians. This metamorphosis has occurred incrementally, starting in 2002 when Viktor Orbán lost an election he believed was his. Ever since, he has been whipping up prejudices buried deep–or not so deep–in people’s psyches, poisoning the very soul of the population. Wars against the enemies of the country are declared practically every day. Right now the Hungarian government is fighting against Brussels, against the migrants, and, yes, against Heineken, the well-known Dutch brewery. And while they are at it, they are declaring war against all foreign breweries.
Heineken’s encounter with the Orbán government is one of the strangest stories you will run across anywhere because I very much doubt that any government of a western country (probably not even the Trump White House) would engage in such a futile, idiotic fight over an issue which in fact has nothing to do with Hungary.
Heineken moved to Romania in 1998 and five years later bought a run-down brewery in Miercurea Ciuc/Csíkszereda, the county seat of Harghita/Hargita County in an area where the majority of the population is Hungarian. With the brewery came the name of one of the beers brewed in Miercurea Ciuc–Ciuc Premium, or as local Hungarians called it, “csíki sőr.” In 2014 a new, small brewery was set up in Sânsimion/Csíkszentsimon which produced what they called “Igazi Csíki Sőr,” or “Real Csíki Beer.” The company that produces the “real stuff” is owned by András Lénárd, a Romanian-Hungarian businessman, and Lixid Holding BV, a Dutch company. Heineken’s Romanian subsidiary sued for trademark infringement and won.
Soon enough a simple commercial legal case became a national issue. Apparently, the upheaval around the court’s verdict came in handy for the struggling brewery that was producing the Real Csíki Beer. The case was portrayed as a struggle of David against Goliath, a small local company against a heartless, profit-oriented multi-national.
The story is not new. The Transylvanian division of Átlátszó.hu produced a long report on the case already in July 2015, but it was only at the end of January 2017 that the decision was handed down. Real Csíki Beer cannot be produced under this brand name.
The verdict was met with indignation by supporters of the Dutch-Hungarian mini-brewery. They argued that one cannot confuse the names of the two brands since they don’t really resemble one another. One is in Hungarian and the other is in Romanian. However, as locals pointed out, the Hungarians in the area never asked for a bottle of Ciuc but always for a bottle of Csíki sőr. In any event, the case quickly became a national issue: András Lénárd, the co-owner, became a symbol of the oppression of Romania.
In no time the matter became a political football in Hungary. The first party that took up the cause of the brewery was Jobbik. It asked for a boycott of Heineken beer and urged the government to declare Igazi Csíki Sőr a Hungaricum, whose trade name then couldn’t be touched. Fidesz had to move. It couldn’t let Jobbik reap the political benefits of such a potentially inflammatory issue.
By March 13, 2017, Fidesz devised a strategy that could make Heineken’s Hungarian subsidiary miserable in punishment for what Heineken Romania did to the Szeklers of Romania. János Lázár and Zsolt Semjén proposed modifications to the law on the use of totalitarian symbols for commercial purposes. Heineken’s red star, which Hungarian law considers a totalitarian symbol, is the symbol of the company. As of now, the commercial use of such symbols is permitted, but if the Lázár-Semjén modification of the law is passed by parliament (and why shouldn’t it be passed?) Heineken would have to change its logo in Hungary. If not, Lázár announced, the culprit could be jailed for two years for noncompliance. I should add that Heineken’s red star has nothing to do with communism or the Bolshevik revolution. Apparently it was a medieval symbol whose points symbolize water, earth, air, fire, and magic power. Heineken adopted it to highlight the uniqueness of its brew.
The owners of the small brewery in Transylvania invited Lázár to visit the place to see the production of the same beer under a different name: “Tiltott sőr” (forbidden beer). Lázár, who is a busy man, readily agreed. Lázár’s enthusiasm for the tour is amusing since he claims to be completely unfamiliar with the taste of beer.
As far as totalitarian symbols are concerned, one ought to remind Lázár that in the past the Orbán government lost two such cases in the European Court of Human Rights. I somehow doubt that they would fare any better this time. And to compound their potential legal problems, a few days later Semjén came very close to offering financial assistance to the brewery of Real Csíki Sőr, to the chagrin of some internet publications such as Kolozsvári Szalonna.
Antagonism toward foreign-owned breweries incited by the government is now spreading all over Hungary. The case encouraged the president of the Association of Mini-Breweries to blame the four large multi-national breweries for the difficulties these small companies encounter in the market place. He of course didn’t mention that craft beer is very expensive and that, as a result, demand is low.
Now that Lázár and Semjén have begun a war against foreign-owned breweries it looks as if the government is seriously contemplating giving financial assistance to the mini-breweries. Lázár also announced that regulations governing breweries should be reconsidered, which I assume means passing legislation that would discriminate against the large companies and promote the business interests of small Hungarian firms. The government news site 888.hu went so far as to claim that “there is no good and inexpensive Hungarian beer because of the multi-national companies.”
So, soon enough the four large companies–the U.S.-Canadian Borsodi Brewery, the Austrian Pécs Brewery, the Japanese-owned Dreher, and Heineken–can join the foreign-owned supermarket chains in facing extra taxes and other discriminatory measures. All this because Igazi Csíki Sőr many miles away in a foreign country lost a fight over a trade name. Utter madness.