Tag Archives: István Garancsi

“The great Fidesz gas theft”

On Friday Viktor Orbán summarized his administration’s achievements at a conference held in Bratislava/Pozsony.  The short English-language talk was mostly about the accomplishments of his unorthodox economic policies, but he briefly called attention to the necessity of having a strong domestic capitalist class. In Hungary, just in other former socialist countries, he admitted, there is not enough capital to enable local entrepreneurs to become really powerful economic engines. But, he added, “we are getting there.”

Under these circumstances how can a country create a strong monied class in record time? If conditions were normal, it would take a considerable length of time for local businessmen to grow organically and compete successfully with foreign companies. If, however, you want instant super-rich capitalists, I can see only one way of achieving that miracle: to make sure that the state creates a legal framework that allows public money to be funneled into private hands. And this is what the Orbán government has been doing in the last five and a half years. The case study I’m sharing today–MET Holding–is most likely only the tip of the iceberg.

The story is not new, but now we have most of the documentation to prove what we have suspected all along: a few of Viktor Orbán’s close friends have made billions at the expense of the Hungarian people.

In 2007 MET Group, headquartered in Switzerland, began operations “in natural gas retail and wholesale trading in the European market as well as in the retail sale of natural gas to industrial customers in Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia.” Five years later, in 2012, MET Holding was established to manage and support the subsidiaries of MET Group.

Shortly after the election in 2010 Orbán promised cheaper energy to consumers. In order to lower prices, the state-owned MVM (Magyar Villamossági Művek) was allowed to dip into its gas reserves, which it could then replenish with cheaper gas from the open market, through a pipeline from Austria. The cheaper gas was supposed to be sold to hospitals, schools, and public buildings. MVM claimed, however, that its own retailer, MVMP (MVM Partners), didn’t have enough experience, so they would have to use a Swiss subsidiary of MET Holding, METI (MET International), for the transactions. As a result, MET itself reaped about 80% of the gain that the cheaper gas coming from the West offered to MVM. That is, the savings from the cheaper gas went to the shareholders of MET Holding instead of to Hungarian consumers.

In order to make that business deal legal, the Orbán government simply changed the regulation governing trading via the pipeline. In 2011 Tamás Fellegi, minister of national development, signed a new regulation allowing MVM to be the sole trader of gas from the open market. The arrangement, which was originally intended to remedy a one-time shortage in gas reserves, was extended year after year. The Hungarian government was perfectly happy to have MET, a private company, be the chief beneficiary of the cheaper gas coming from the West and not the state-owned MVM. This arrangement, by the way, is coming to an end on July 1 because Hungary is currently under an infringement procedure for allowing a single company to use the gas pipeline without holding any auctions.

We knew some of these details already last fall. I wrote about them in November, but then we had no documentation and hence no hard proof. Since then, however, Bertalan Tóth, an MSZP member of parliament, sued MVM for refusing to release the documentation of what is considered to be “a bizarre arrangement” between MET and MVM. Tóth won in the court of first instance and, after MVM’s appeal, also in the court of appeal. He received thousands of documents back in January, but it took months to wade through them and reconstruct a plausible scenario of three years of shady transactions. This morning summaries of the documents appeared on MSZP’s website. On the basis of the documents, the losses the publicly-owned MVM suffered in three years may be as high as 100 billion forints. In November, the estimate was only half that much.

Some of the details that have emerged from these documents are truly bizarre. For example, MVM bought MET’s gas on the Austrian side and later gave it back to MET on the Hungarian side and charged only 2.3-3.5 ft./m³ for shipping. It is also clear from the documents that MVM’s claim that MVMP, the subsidiary created to be a retailer for MVM, was not experienced enough to do the actual buying and selling on the open market was an outright lie. MVMP did a brisk business already in 2011 and 2012 and bought gas for MVM 16.55 forints cheaper than MET did. It even happened that MVMP bought gas from MET on the Austrian side and sold it back to MET for a lower price. MVMP didn’t lose any money because the gas sold back to MET included some gas purchased from another company at a much lower price. From the documents it looks as if MVMP acted only as a “mailman” between MET and MVM. MVM didn’t lose money on its transactions with MET, but its own profit was minimal.

Viktor Orbán and István Garancsi

Viktor Orbán and István Garancsi

Since the documents were released only this morning, there hasn’t been much time to comb through the material. Moreover, Tóth and his experts on gas transactions figure that perhaps 1,000 documents are still missing, without which the picture is far from complete. Still, the skeleton of the story is there. The Orbán government used the power of the state and its ability to change laws to pass public money to private individuals.

One of the owners of MET, by the way, is István Garancsi, who is described as the new Lajos Simicska. He is the owner of the Videoton Football League which, in turn, has close connections with the Ferenc Puskás Academy. Garancsi is considered to be one of Orbán’s frontmen. He is the one who just signed a contract with the Hungarian government to build the sites for the Aquatic World Championships to be held in 2017.

World Aquatics Championship in 2017 with an eye toward hosting the Olympics in 2024

Writing posts for Hungarian Spectrum is a constant learning process. For example, what did I know about FINA’s World Aquatics Championships? Nothing, but now that Hungary foolishly offered to hold it in two years’ time I had to learn something about them in a great hurry. These world championships have been held every two years since 1972. The aquatic sports that are included are swimming, diving, open water swimming, synchronized swimming, and water polo. Hungary happens to be very competitive in aquatic sports, in seventh place in the all-time medal count, after the United States, China, Russia/Soviet Union, Australia, East Germany, and West Germany/Germany.

The aquatic world championships were held in Barcelona in 2013 and this year in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. Hungary was slated to hold the games in 2021, but in February of this year “a fantastic opportunity” presented itself. The Mexican city of Guadalajara decided that, for economic reasons, it would not be able to host the games in 2017. Surely, that came as an unpleasant surprise to FINA, the international governing body of aquatic sports. FINA’s president, Cornel Marculescu, asked Budapest whether they would be willing to switch. Tamás Gyárfás, who has been the president of the Hungarian Swimming Association since 1993, tried to sound cautious, but he was obviously excited about the prospect. The question was whether Viktor Orbán could be persuaded to spend large sums of money on the projects that had to be built in record time.

In less than three weeks, on March 11, 2015, Orbán and Marculescu signed the agreement. The eagerness of the prime minister might have something to do with Gyárfás’s clever pitch. It looks as if he sold Orbán on the idea by pointing out that if Hungary organizes a successful aquatic world championship in 2017, this might tip the scale in Hungary’s favor in its bid to hold the 2024 Olympics in Hungary. Such an argument most likely made an impression on Orbán, who has been dreaming about hosting the Olympic games in Budapest for at least fifteen years and would dearly love to do so while he is still prime minister of Hungary. And the clock is ticking down on his self-projected 20-year rule.

President Cornel Marculescu of FINA and Viktor Orbán, March 11, 2015

President Cornel Marculescu of FINA and Viktor Orbán, March 11, 2015

Gyárfás’s original figure for the project was 23 billion forints, which sounded low. And, indeed, it was. In mid-May Magyar Közlöny, the official government gazette, revealed that the government had put aside about 50 billion forints for the project for the next three years. As usual, government members came up with conflicting explanations for the discrepancy, which confused Hungarian journalists. In the end, it turned out that the original 23 billion figure will cover only the new swimming center that will be built where the Dagály Bath is currently situated, in a not so elegant section of the city. In addition, an incredible number of other projects will have to be completed before the world championships of 2017 can be held.

The vastness of this enterprise can be gleaned from an interview with Tamás Gyárfás, in which he gives a partial list of requirements for holding the games. There will be at least two centers of activities, one where the Dagály Bath is now and the other on Margit Sziget (Margaret Island). The competitors will have to be transported between the two locations, either by bus or perhaps by small boats on the Danube. The road where the Dagály Bath is located is in terrible shape. It has to be fixed. It turns out that the city also needs a building where the wares of hundreds of companies that manufacture sports items can be displayed. He also talked about a road between the metro station and the swimming complex. In addition, a pedestrian bridge will be built between the Dagály complex and Margit Sziget. But that’s not all. Margit Sziget also has to be fixed up. There are a couple of eyesores there: neglected tennis courts and buildings. They are thinking of having a “panorama restaurant” on top of the swimming complex. Yes, this would raise the costs by 1-2%, but in Gyárfás’s opinion it will become the favorite place in the capital. And let’s not forget about Balatonfüred where “at least one new center is needed” which later could be used as a conference center. The list seems endless.

Viktor Orbán’s latest foray into the world of sports has already drawn criticism even though work on the projects hasn’t yet begun. The organizers ordered a video with a song celebrating the event which turned out to be more about Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz politicians than about the swimmers. In the three-minute video Viktor Orbán appears nine times, Lajos Kósa, seven, Tamás Gyárfás six, and Zsolt Borkai, president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, three. Among the many famous Hungarian swimmers, only Katina Hosszú and Dániel Gyurta can be seen. László Cseh, the famed five-time Olympic medalist, doesn’t appear at all. When Gyárfás was asked about this odd video, he assured people that they will change the video from time to time. However, Viktor Orbán’s role in this whole enterprise is so significant that his person cannot be ignored.

Who will benefit most from the government’s decision to hold the aquatic world championships? It will undoubtedly be István Garancsi, who is viewed as the next Lajos Simicska. His Market Építő won the contract for the 49 billion forint project. The opposition party PM argues that the contract should be voided because it was signed before the publication of the government authorization of the project. The PM chairman demands that Garancsi be disqualified. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Billions diverted from Hungarian state coffers to natural gas broker

Thanks to Budapest Sentinel, we now have an English translation of an article published on the internet site 444.hu with the title “This is the way to make the most money in Hungary.” Earlier I wrote a post about MET Holding A.G., headquartered in Switzerland. It is partly owned by MOL, the Hungarian oil company, and partly by Hungarian individuals–people formerly employed by MOL and businessmen with close ties to Viktor Orbán. At the time there were a lot of questions about this very successful company, but since then 444.hu‘s journalists managed to ferret out details of MET’s business model. As a result of their work, we now know how the Orbán government manages to divert public money into private hands. We can be certain that this is not the only enterprise that specializes in creating a new business class on taxpayer money. Enjoy!

* * * 

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives Hungarian prime Minister Viktor Orbán a knowing wink in January 2014

President Vladimir Putin gives Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a knowing wink in January 2014

  • MET has made huge profits on natural gas since 2011
  • For this it needed the help of the government and state-owned MVM (Hungarian Electric Works)
  • Russians are also involved
  • Even as MET makes a lot of money, its business partner MVM requires state support

Over the past four years a Swiss-based company partially owned by various off-shore companies was given the opportunity by Hungary to enrich its owners in a totally unique fashion.

The Hungarian subsidiary of MET managed to make a huge amount of money by securing an exceptional place on the domestic gas market thanks to government orders and wonderful contracts.  After tax profits in 2012 alone were nearly HUF 50 billion (USD 225 million).

The government was so generous that all three opposition parties (MSZP, Jobbik, and LMP) filed complaints of misappropriation, fraud, and money laundering.   The National Office for Investigations, however, found no crime and did not open an investigation on the basis of any of the complaints.   Over a year ago MSZP, and now LMP, formally requested the MET gas contracts from MVM.  The parties are awaiting a court decision.

The machination that opened the road

It is not clear whether the elimination of the KÁT (obligatory electricity purchasing system) played a role in MET’s success, or whether one followed from the other, but the story starts here.

The KÁT was a unique kind of state support available in the case of renewable technologies or power plants producing both electricity and heat.  Here the second pillar of KÁT is interesting, which numerous local governments have to thank for being able to obtain heat inexpensively for district heating.   The theory was that the so-called “connected production” producing both electricity and heat was environmentally friendly because it made more efficient use of energy.  In this way the gas-fired power plants also qualified for state support and could supply heat cheaper.

The price of KÁT was built into the cost of electricity.  But in 2011 after a long debate the part pertaining to power producers was eliminated.  There was a big scandal about it.  For example, it was on this matter that former state secretary for energy matters János Bencsik clashed with then Fidesz caucus leader  János Lázár who submitted the bill.  Lázár won the battle and from July 2011 producers of electricity and heat no longer received supports from KÁT, and therefore could no longer provide a discount to many dozens of cities.

It was for this reason that the government issued a decree providing cheap gas to the settlements and institutions that suffered.  585 million cubic meters of gas was released from Hungary’s strategic gas reserve for this.  In this way it was possible to avoid increasing the price of district heating to many dozens of cities.  However, it was necessary to replenish the gas.

We’re replenishing, we’re replenishing

Let’s first look at the replenishment of the gas taken from the strategic reserve because that was the biggest business.

For many years it has been possible to purchase gas less expensively in Western Europe than the gas coming from Russia on the basis of the contract concluded (with Gazprom) in 1995.  (Of course, the gas coming from Western Europe may also have originated in Siberia, it is merely a matter of Russian pricing).

In the hope of obtaining cheaper western gas, the government issued a degree whereby the HAG pipeline between Hungary and Austria could be used free of charge in the interest of replenishing gas reserves.  Under normal circumstances gas traders would compete with one another for the right to use the pipeline, with the one paying the most given the right to use it.  This is a EU requirement, by the way.

However, given the extraordinary need to replenish gas, this obligation was temporarily suspended.   In the name of energy security the government made it possible to access the HAG pipeline without auction for one year between July 2011 and July 2012.  The government was very generous.  Minister for National Development Mrs. László Németh’s pencil cut a thick line.  In the interest of replenishing the 585 million cubic meters of gas used to compensate KÁT victims, it ordered that 2.9 billion cubic meters of gas could be transported without auction, in other words, very cheaply.

Furthermore, the law providing special access was extended from year to year, always with reference to energy security.  The current arrangement is valid through the end of June 2015.

For the past four years it has been possible to import a total of 19.6 billion cubic meters without having to compete for the right to use the pipeline.  All of this in order to replenish 585 million cubic meters of gas.  As the discounted quantity of gas completely used up the pipeline’s free capacity, during this time others could not access the HAG pipeline.  In other words, beyond the fact that the government put someone in a very favorable position, it also removed all competitors from the road.

According to the decree originally two companies were entitled to import gas without auction: the gas trading company (MVMP) owned by state-owned MVM (Hungarian Electric Works), and a small amount by E.on.  The gas business unit of the latter was acquired by the state in 2013 and given over to MVM.  In this manner, since then MVM has been the only beneficiary of this arrangement.

Apart from the long-term contract concluded with the Russians, only the state could import gas cheaper.  However, somebody else also made money off of this.  To be more precise, somebody else primarily made money off of this.

How does MET come into the picture?

Profits arising from the sale of gas imported inexpensively by MVMP could have enriched its owner, the state.  Or it could have sold the gas cheaper to consumers, and in this way help decrease utility costs.  But it did neither.  The arising profits were collected by the Hungarian subsidiary of Swiss based MET Holding.

The model works as follows:

  • One of MET’s subsidiaries, METI, bought cheap gas from the west
  • It sold the gas at the Austrian-Hungarian border to MVMP
  • MVMP imported the gas by availing itself of free access to the pipeline in accordance with the decree on energy security, extended annually
  • On the same day MVMP sold the gas at minimal profit to MET
  • MET was than free to sell the gas to Hungary for whatever it could

So in practice the state allowed a market player to use the pipeline.  This is indicated by the fact that, according to the contracts, only such cash traded hands as was necessary for MET to pay MVMP a small margin for transporting the gas over the border.   This was HUF 2.50 (USD 0.012) per cubic meter.  Gas purchased from MET was HUF 32 (USD 0.15) cheaper per cubic meter in 2012 than the gas arriving from Russia on the basis of the long-term contract.

A year ago, an unknown individual posted part of the contracts concluded between MVM and MET online, without which no one would have found out what is happening.

And what became of the gas taken from the storage tanks?

The whole matter started when the government released 585 million cubic meters of gas from strategic storage in order to help those for whom district heating became more expensive as a result of the decrease in KÁT. Except part of the gas went to MET.

The official reason for this was that no one else needed the cheap gas.  According to the explanation, by the time the government decree was issued obliging MVM to release the cheap gas, every district heating company and potential beneficiary had already contracted with the market for the gas quantity required for the year.  MVM then decided that if it could not sell directly to those consumers leaving it in the lurch, it would issue a tender to sell the cheap gas.

In September 2013 and February 2014 Hungarian Socialist Party MPs Tibor Kovács and István Józsa posed questions relating to Mrs. László Németh, then Minister for National Development.  From her answers it is possible to figure out what happened.

From the answer given by Mrs. Németh in September, it can be determined that of the 585 million cubic meters of gas, only 270.6 million cubic meters could be supplied indirectly to the beneficiaries.  In other words, half the gas inventory was given over to traders.

And from the answer she gave in February 2014, it turned out that the trader was MET.

All of this the government found to be appropriate considering that by ministerial decree MVMP had to take delivery of the reserve gas.  And if it did not find a customer it was only logical that it sell the remaining gas through public tender with the requirement that the trader sell the gas to the KÁT victims.

Too much money, too little money

In 2012 it was readily apparent who was making money on this.  Even as the gas trading unit of MVM closed the year with a loss of half a billion forints (USD 2.3 million),  MET’s owners were able to take HUF 55 billion (USD 205 million) worth of dividends out of the company.

For a long time MVM was one of the largest revenue generators for the state.  Furthermore, it always had a lot of cash on hand.  It was precisely for this reason that from the first decade of this century it routinely happened that if there was a problem, MVM helped with the budget.   The trick was frequently employed by which the state took a few billions out of MVM if it got into temporary trouble.

Next to the state’s loss, MVM’s losses were negligible.  But one of Mol’s subsidiaries, FGSZ also lost on this construction because for years it could not issue a tender to use the HAG pipeline.  Fortunately, Mol was the 40 percent owner of MET.  (Mol stands for Hungarian Oil Company. -ed.)

But who are the owners?

This is not possible to know with certainty.   Even MET Hungary Zrt. CEO Gergely Szabó wasn’t willing to reveal this information to Figyelő.

What is certain is that MET Holding AG was registered in Switzerland, which has numerous subsidiaries. 40 percent of the holding company is owned by Mol, 10 percent by a Swiss company by the name of MET ManCo AG, in which Benjámin Lakatos has an interest.  The 38 year-old Lakatos, who is also the director of MET Holding, previously worked for Mol and is considered to be a confident of Mol CEO Zsolt Hernádi.

50 percent of the company belongs to WISD Holding, which owns numerous miscellaneous companies via a complicated network of offshore companies.  (Hungarian investigative website) Átlátszó previously unearthed that, among the companies in which WISD has an ownership interest, are companies owned by István Garancsi and György Nagy.  Garancsi is the owner of the Videoton football team and a good friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Zsolt Hernádi.

In the domestic business world György Nagy is considered an ally of OTP president Sándor Csányi.   Garancsi and Nagy are owners of WISD through their respective Cypriot companies, Inather Ltd. and Westbay.

The third known owner of WISD is Small Valley Investments Ltd., which is registered in the British Virgin Islands.  According to our information the company is owned by Russians, and that altogether they own 20 percent of MET Holding.

The fourth owner of WISD is a Swiss company by the name of Deneb Algedi Invest AG which is also owned by Benjámin Lakatos.

Viktor Orbán comes up

In Autumn of this year a Swiss and a Roman paper published articles claiming that the reason Viktor Orbán traveled to Switzerland may have been to conduct MET business.  A number of Hungarian energy experts are of the opinion that the articles appearing in the foreign papers were a warning on the part of foreign secret services that they were watching the opaque energy deals of the Hungarian government with Russia.  The articles appeared in two relatively minor international papers that are not in the habit of breaking stories of world economic importance.

Even before the Swiss article appeared, there were a lot of rumors that MET was very important to the Prime Minister.  The theory was that the company is an important part of the new economic elite being organized around the Hungarian head of government.

The Russians were also needed

In 2007 Mol founded the company that grew into MET Holding, and which the oil company was the only owner at the beginning.  In 2004 Mol sold its gas unit, but with the establishment of MET retained the possibility of returning one day to the gas trade.

In 2009 a company registered in Belize (Normeston) bought half of MET, at which point the Russians acquired an interest.  Belize is a Central American company where the institution of “introduction shares” exists.  This means that those people receive the dividends who can personally show that the shares are physically with them.  It is not necessary for them to introduce themselves.  That Russians were behind the company was confirmed by Gergely Szabó, MET Hungary CEO to Figyelő.   The company needed the Russians in order to help obtain gas cheaply:  “We also hoped that through its owners MET could obtain gas advantageously”.   That Russians are involved in the company through Small Valley, I heard from person familiar with Mol matters.

As Szabó explained, the Russians can obtain gas inexpensively.  There are those who believe that they are the other leg to MET’s wonderful rise.

Anyway the Russians are willing to sell gas to a given country cheaper than what is provided by the official, long-term contract, and creates various trading companies for the purpose of conducting the business.

This is how the business works

The trade in gas is the most profitable business on this side of Europe because:

  • Huge quantities of it are needed, and it is possible to sell it in huge amounts.  Even with small margins it is possible to make huge profits in a short period of time.
  • Because it arrives through pipelines, it is easy to establish a monopoly situation with it: only those with access to the pipeline can also sell it.
  • The market is influenced by state regulations.  Who obtains the favors of the authorities needn’t be afraid of competitors.
  • It is almost impossible to obtain gas that is not Russia.  Whoever is on good terms with them shall be showered in gold.

In these parts nearly all the gas comes from Russia, where the state has a monopoly and where the huge company by the name of Gazprom is responsible for production, delivery, as well as trade.  The Russians like to agree on gas prices separately with countries in this region for long periods, whenever possible.  The last of the so-called long-term contracts concluded by Hungary in 1995 for twenty years expires this summer.  There is no agreement regarding its extension and for this reason there is a lot of movement in the Hungarian gas market these days.

The long-term contracts are always political decisions often determined over the course of negotiations between the Kremlin and the government of the other country.  Gazprom sells the same gas at prices that vary by as much as three-fold.  There were times when Gazprom sold gas to Bulgaria for USD 600 per cubic meter but only charged Belarusian USD 167. There really is not other product on the international market for which there really is no price.  Nobody knows how much it costs to produce gas in Russia, and the Russians sell to their customers based on whatever momentary political interests dictate.

The buyers have little choice in the matter.  For example, in Hungary most households heat with gas, and much of the electricity is produced from gas, which is indispensable for industry.  So gas is required.  And it is difficult to choose among suppliers.   Oil prices exist because it is possible to change sources of supply:  oil comes in a barrel and in containers from just about anywhere.  For this reason oil prices are, for the most part, uniform.  A seller cannot allow himself to play with prices.  However, this is not the case with the delivery of gas, which is tied to pipelines.

There is also a cheaper one

So the gas enters the country on the basis of a price structure contained in the 1995 agreement.  But if the Russians want, they supply the same gas for less.

The Russians anyway created a shadow model as well.  In certain cases, seemingly harmful to their own market, they also sell gas cheaply to certain beneficiaries.  The way the model works is that they set up a trading company that is allowed to purchase gas from Gazprom at a reduced price, and then sell it to the target market for less than what is provided for by the long-term contract, but still with a respectable profit.

The Russians operate such brokerage companies for two reasons: on the one hand it enables them to sideline those among their own people the Kremlin happens to target.

On the other hand, it enables them to create and control the oligarchs and politicians of the target country.  Operating such a brokerage company is not only a good investment from the point of view of bribing oligarchs in the target country.  In general, through these companies it is also able to blackmail the target country even if its partners lose their influence as a result of a domestic political change or domestic showdown.   If a country becomes addicted to cheap gas, then whoever is in power thinks twice before deciding whether to terminate the grey business with the Russians at the price of higher utility costs, or for the new people to take the warm seats of the oligarchs of the previous cycle.

In this manner it is possible to earn a lot of money without effectively doing any work.  The brokerage companies sell the same thing as their competitors from the same sources.  They simply are able to access it less expensively.  Apart from paper work there is no other task.

There is some indication that MET partially works on the basis of this model.  There is no proof of this, but various domestic energy industry experts believe it is likely that the company can purchase Russian gas in Western European less expensively thanks to its Russian owners.

How does a more sophisticated model work?

The largest of such brokerage companies to ever exist was the Russian-Ukrainian RosUkrEnergo, which during its heyday in 2006 was able to make USD 785 million in profits in just under one year (this is about one half of the profits Austria’s ÖMV made in 2013).  Apart from this, neither refineries, nor petrol stations, nor anything else had to be maintained.  All that was required was the work of some lawyers in Switzerland.   RosUkrEnergo bought gas at a discount on the Russian side of the Russian-Ukrainian border, and then sold it on the other side.  Naturally, nothing happened to the gas itself.  The transaction only took place on paper.  Half of the company belonged to Ukraine Oligarch Dmitrij Firtas, the other half belonged to a Swiss subsidiary of Gazprom.

Reuters estimates that Gazprom lost USD 2 billion in under a few years by selling gas cheap to Firtas.  Except Firta was one of the most influential people in Ukraine for a long time.  More than half of the members of parliament literally took instructions for him, and in this way it was possible to manipulate Ukrainian politics to suit Russia’s needs.

For a while in 2009 Firtas was taken out of the business when Yulia Timoshenko became the Ukranian prime minister.  Then they took him back.  And then after (former Ukrainian president) Jankovics’ failure, he once again fell out of the picture.  He is presently under house arrest in Vienna, and most recently called attention to himself by announcing that Hungarian and Romanian paid assassins were threatening his life

However, the Hungarian connection does not only appear with Firtas.  He was the owner of a former Hungarian company by the name of Emfesz which, in its heyday, supplied Hungary with one-quarter of its gas, and which operated according to the same model: it gained a market for itself in Hungary with cheap gas from RosUkrEnergo.   In only a few years, Emfesz became the 27th largest company in Hungary out of nothing.  This also shows the huge amount of easy money can be found in this business model.

Is MET the new Emfesz?

With the failure of Emfesz Hungary’s shadow model domestic player died out.  But it appears that a new company, MET, was able to step into its place, but just a little differently.   The Russians appeared as owners of MET in 2009.  That was the year when Firtas was pushed out of the gas trade, and with this Emfesz’ fate was sealed.

MET happened to become the large winner of the KÁT gas compensation in spring 2011 when Hungary and Russia opened a new chapter in relation to energy.  At that time the Hungarian government purchased a 21.4 percent interest in Mol from Russia’s Surgutneftegaz.  It is not possible to know who the owners of Surgutneftegaz are, but it is for certain that we are talking about companies that are close to the Kremlin.   This company, for example, supplies petrol to the Russian military.

At the time the purchase of the shares in Mol appeared to be a victory: using state administrative means the Russians were prevented from having a say in the running of MOL, and the government considered the business to be a national security success.  They claimed to have arranged for us not to be at the mercy of the Russians.  However, in retrospect it appears that the business may have been the start of a new Russian-Hungarian energy cooperation involving the political leadership of the two countries.   This is indicated by the fact that until that time Fidesz regarded Russia with suspicion.  However, since 2011 the friendship between the two governments has strengthened, and they are more and more cooperation agreements to show for it.

MET is expanding

These days MET is visibly strengthening, and it is readily apparent that the company’s ambition goes beyond simply bringing gas to Hungary.  Last year it purchased the Dunamenti Power station which produces electricity from gas and which is the country’s second largest producer of electricity.  The power plant almost went bankrupt before MET acquired it.  MET was able to save the power station by acquiring gas less expensively than the French.

In the same way, MET acquired GDP Suez Energy Holding Hungary Zrt. last year, which was the domestic electricity trader for the French company.

Offshore is not a problem

The Hungarian government officially opposes the spread of offshore companies to Hungary.  The new Fundamental Law officially opposes the spread of offshore companies in Hungary.  According to the new Fundamental Law the government of Hungary may not conduct business with companies whose ownership structure is not transparent.   Among MET’s owners are numerous offshore companies which, with powerful help from the state, are able to find fantastic opportunities in Hungary.

 

Mysterious trips of Viktor Orbán and János Lázár to Switzerland

Today I will have to pull up my socks if I want to give even a semi-coherent summary of the growing scandal surrounding a company called MET Holding A.G. with headquarters in Switzerland. The holding company, established only a couple of years ago, is partially owned by MOL (40%) and partially by Hungarian individuals–people formerly employed by MOL and businessmen with close ties to Viktor Orbán.

First of all, it’s hard to decipher the company’s structure which is, as is often the case with enterprises like MET Holding, extremely complicated. Second, since it is likely that MET Holding, in addition to its regular activities, also serves as a money laundering operation for Fidesz as well as Viktor Orbán and his friends, those involved do everything in their power to conceal the company’s business activities, ownership, financials, and so on.

I should go back a few years to February 2010, only a month before the national election and the birth of the two-thirds majority, when the U.S. Embassy in Budapest compiled a report entitled “Allegations of political corruption surround unbundling law.” From the lengthy report we learn that “it is an open secret in Hungary that MVM and MOL provide significant funding to the two main political parties, with MVM rumored to favor the Socialists and MOL favoring Fidesz.”

MET Group predated this U.S. report. According to its promotional material, it began operating in 2007 “in the natural gas retail and wholesale sector benefiting from the market liberalization starting in 2004.” Currently it is active in wholesale gas trading in the European market as well as in the retail sale of natural gas to industrial customers in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Croatia. Five years later, in 2012 MET Holding was established with the objective of being “a central holding organization to manage and support all the subsidiaries of MET Group.” (If you want to know why MET Holding might have been layered on top of MET Group, I suggest you take a look at “How a Holding Company Works.”)

Shortly after the election in 2010 Orbán promised cheaper energy to consumers. In order to lower prices the state-owned MVM (Magyar Villamossági Művek) was allowed to dip into its gas reserves which it could then replenish with cheaper gas from the open market. MVM could have bought the necessary gas directly from Austria, but instead it purchased gas through MET. According to the figures that are available about the transaction, MVM gained little while MET made about 50 billion forints on the deal.

The owners of MET, in addition to MOL, are István Garancsi, a personal friend of Viktor Orbán and owner of Orbán’s favorite football team, Videoton, and György Nagy, one of the founders of Wallis Asset Management Co., a private equity/venture capital firm. Both men have close ties to Zsolt Hernádi, the beleagured CEO of MOL who is accused of bribery in Croatia, and to Sándor Csányi, his deputy and the CEO of OTP, Hungary’s largest bank. Heading MET Holding is Benjamin Lakatos. He expects sales this year to total some 3.8 billion euros.

Most likely nobody would have cared about this Hungarian company with headquarters in Zug, Switzerland, if Hungary’s prime minister hadn’t been so involved in negotiations with Putin as well as with Russian energy companies, in particular Gazprom and Rossatom, the Russian company that specializes in building nuclear power plants. Rossatom was chosen to construct two extra reactors at the Paks power plant. Given the widespread concern over Viktor Orbán’s dealings with the Russian autocrat, Swiss journalists started probing into this mysterious MET. A  well researched article appeared on November 3 in TagesAnzeiger, which was later reprinted in Basler Zeitung. According to the Swiss paper, MET Power, MET Marketing, MET International, and MET Holding all share the same Zug address. Benjamin Lakatos is the CEO of all of them. Zug, by the way, is about 20 km south of Zurich.

I understand that the company’s management is made up of former MOL employees who know the energy business inside out but who found greater opportunities outside of MOL. Lakatos is very proud of his achievement of building MET Holding in two years from practically nothing to a sizable player in the energy business, though one cannot help but be suspicious of a such a sudden rise in fortune. Moreover, given the cozy relationship in the past between MOL and Fidesz, one wonders what role MET may play in the possibly continued reliance of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán on MOL as a source of illicit money. With István Garancsi’s name in the cast of characters, one becomes doubly suspicious since he is often portrayed in the Hungarian press as Orbán’s front man.

Source: www.tagesanzeiger.ch

Source: www.tagesanzeiger.ch

And now let’s move to more recent events that might have something to do with MET Holding. I’m patching the story together from several sources. You may recall that the editor-in-chief of Origo, an online news portal, was dismissed because one of the reporters of the internet site was too curious about a couple of very expensive trips János Lázár, the most important member of the Orbán government after the prime minister, made to Great Britain and Switzerland. Lázár for a long time resisted revealing any details of these trips but eventually after a court order the prime minister’s office released some information. Among the bits and pieces of information that Origo received, there was one item that might be relevant. Origo was informed that János Lázár during his Swiss trip “held conversations with a German citizen about German-Hungarian and Russian-Hungarian relations.”

More than a year later there was another trip to Switzerland. This time it was a private affair. Viktor Orbán and his wife and János Lázár and his wife spent a weekend in Zurich. First they stopped in Germany to visit a “family friend” and then off they went to Zurich, allegedly to attend a concert given by a children’s choir from the Szekler areas of Romania. Quite a lame excuse for traveling to Zurich because earlier this same group gave three concerts in the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest. There was also a side trip to visit a friend in Germany. Is he perhaps the same man Lázár held talks with in March 2012?

About a week ago Viktor Orbán made another trip to Switzerland. This time the occasion was a family visit (including his wife and their two youngest daughters) with Rachel, who is enrolled in a fancy, expensive hotel management course in Lausanne. Since, again, this was a private visit, the prime minister’s office refused to release any information about the trip. However, thanks to an eagle-eyed person, Orbán was spotted at the  Zurich railroad station having a beer with an unidentified man. Since the Orbáns decided to travel back to Hungary by train, a stopover in Zurich was unavoidable since there is no direct train from Geneva, a forty-minute train ride from Lausanne. But why did he choose to go by train from Lausanne all the way to Budapest, a trip that takes altogether 16 hours and 22 minutes? He said that wanted to spend more time with his children. Well, I could imagine many more pleasant ways of spending time with my family than sitting in a second-class train compartment. Suspicious Hungarians already have their own theory: for one reason or other, Orbán chose to travel by train because there is no inspection of either persons or luggage on trains. I find that difficult to believe. I hope that we are not at a point that the country’s prime minister is carrying millions of euros in his suitcase.

Although one can probably discard such speculation, one should take more seriously the information received by the Demokratikus Koalíció that while in Zurich Orbán met representatives of Credit Suisse and Pictet Bank. Pictet is a private bank which in 2012 was the target of a U.S. probe into the use of foreign banks by wealthy Americans seeking to avoid paying taxes. Pictet specializes in “wealth management.” As for Credit Suisse, which is one of the most powerful banks in the world, it also had its problems with the law. In July 2014 Credit Suisse reported a loss of $779 million because of the settlement of a tax evasion case in the United States. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, emphasized that they are not accusing Orbán of anything; they simply want to know whether he met with representatives of these two banks as the prime minister of Hungary or as a private individual.

All in all, the picture that emerges from the few pieces of information we have is not pretty. Orbán has enough trouble as it is. Tonight another 10,000 people demanded Ildikó Vida’s resignation–and his as well.

“Is Hungary being ruined by a scoundrel or a fanatic?” A debate

Bálint Magyar’s interview describing the Orbán regime as a post communist mafia state made a big splash in Hungary. The phrases “mafia government” and “mafia state” spread like wildfire. Readers may recall that I gave a fairly detailed summary of this interview in three parts under the title “Bálint Magyar: Viktor Orbán’s post-communist mafia state.”

Given the Hungarian penchant for open discussion it was not surprising that soon enough a critique of Magyar’s thesis appeared in the same publication, Élet és Irodalom, in which the original interview had been published. Gábor Horn, the author of the critique, is, like Magyar, a former SZDSZ politician. Horn disagrees with Magyar in fundamental ways. A week later, Horn’s article was analyzed by Mihály Andor, a journalist whose articles and short pieces often appear on the Internet site Galamus.

I will leave a discussion of  the merits of Horn’s arguments to the readers. I’m sure that an animated debate of his and Arnold’s arguments will follow. Here I will merely add a few new pieces of information that might be relevant to the discussion.

Gábor Horn considers Magyar’s analysis a good starting point, but he himself sees Viktor Orbán and his regime “fundamentally differently.” After briefly outlining Magyar’s thesis, Horn says that Magyar is on the “wrong track.” His findings are the “result of wrong perception.” Because “the situation is worse.” It would be better if Hungary were a well organized mafia state. Mafias work rationally.  Mafia leaders want to gain maximum profit, they leave those who don’t break the rules alone, they are interested in prosperity.

But, Horn claims, “the government of Orbán is anything but rational. … Viktor Orbán is not a godfather, not an anti-Semite, not a racist as so many people want to portray him. None of that is true.” He is not a mafioso, although Horn admits that people close to him “managed to receive considerable economic advantages.”

Instead, “Viktor Orbán truly believes in his own version of a unique third road for Hungarian economic development.” Here Orbán echoes those populist/narordnik/népies writers and ideologists of the 1930s who thought in terms of a third road, something between socialism and capitalism, that would make Hungary a prosperous, mostly agrarian state.

Source: artsjournal.com

Source: artsjournal.com

So, Horn continues, the “mafia-like signs” are not the bases of Orbán’s system; they are only “collateral expenses” of the real goal. After all, Orbán knows that politics costs money. He “tolerates these political expenses but neither individual enrichment, money in general, nor economic gain is the goal of his politics.” This (I guess the mafia-like behavior) is “an important instrument in the service of the GREAT BELIEF.”

In Horn’s opinion it this zealous belief in an ideal economic and social system that drives him to take on the European Union, the IMF, the multinational companies, the banks, and everything else that stands in his way. Just as he truly believes that the old-fashioned school system serves his vision because it will lay the foundations for a better world. He is doing all this not because of dictatorial impulses but because he is convinced that “individual ideas are common fallacies and fallacies lead to blind alleys.” Orbán truly believes that the steps he is taking will lead to “the salvation of the country.” They are “not for his individual enrichment and his family’s economic supremacy.” Horn quickly adds that naturally Orbán has no objection to “doing well himself, but that is only a secondary question for him.”

Horn is also certain that “not for a moment does Orbán think that we don’t live in a democratic country. He just thinks that interpreting the law according to his will also serves the interests of the people. As all followers of the third-road ideology, he moves in a system completely outside the realm of reality, except in his case he manages to receive unlimited authority to execute his ideas.”

This is more or less the gist of Gábor Horn’s argument which, it seems, didn’t convince everyone. It certainly didn’t convince Mihály Andor. After reading Bálint Magyar’s interview and Gábor Horn’s article, he posed the question whether “the country is being ruined by a scoundrel or a fanatic.” That question can be answered definitively only by looking into Viktor Orbán’s head. Since we cannot do that, we have to judge from his actions, and from his actions “a cynical picture emerges of a man who wants to grab and hold onto power at any price.”

Andor outlines a number of Orbán’s moves that aim at sowing hatred between different groups in order to ensure his own unlimited power. If it were only great faith that motivates him, he wouldn’t have to turn man against man. When it comes to ideology, the originally atheist Orbán “paid off the churches that would take up the work of educating obedient servants of the state.”

If Orbán is not primarily interested in his own enrichment, what should we do with all the information that has been gathered over the last ten or fifteen years about the shady dealings of the extended family? Andor finds it difficult to believe that Orbán’s attitude toward money is no more than “collateral expenses in the service of politics.” Andor, like so many others, including Ferenc Gyurcsány and Mátyás Eörsi, believes that the Orbán family’s enrichment is one of the principal aims of the prime minister of Hungary.

Andor brings up a recent news item. Lőrinc Mészáros, mayor of Felcsút and chairman of the Puskás Academy, just took out 800 million forints worth of dividends from his construction company that employs 250 men. I wrote about this mysterious fellow who not so long ago worked as an artisan. He used to lay down gas pipes going from the main into the houses of Felcsút. Today he is obviously a billionaire. And, by the by, he also received 1,200 hectares of land through the land lease program of the Orbán government. Some people think that the connection between Orbán and Mészáros is more than meets the eye. They suspect that Mészáros is a “stróman” (the Hungarian spelling of the German Strohmann, dummy, front man) in Viktor Orbán’s service.

And more news about the strange financial dealings touching on the Orbán family appeared only yesterday. In 2008 Mrs. Orbán (Anikó Lévai) purchased a 90m² apartment on Gellért Hill where Ráhel (24), the oldest Orbán daughter, lives. Krisztina Ferenczi, an investigative journalist who has been looking into the Orbán family’s enrichment for at least ten years, found out lately that the apartment right next door was purchased by István Garancsi, who just happens to be the owner of Viktor Orbán’s favorite  football team, Videoton. He is also the man who owns the only credit union that will not be nationalized, ostensibly because he is in the middle of converting it into a full-fledged bank. Most likely Orbán told Garancsi about the impending nationalization and advised him to begin converting his credit union into a bank to save his business. By the way, it was Garancsi’s credit union that lent a considerable amount of money to the Puskás Academy.

It turns out that Orbán’s only son, who plays for Videoton, has been living in Garancsi’s apartment ever since 2011. Apparently the young Orbán is neither a good football player nor a particularly enthusiastic one. He played only once last season. But Garancsi doesn’t seem to hold that against him. He is renting out his apartment to the young Orbán. The financial details are of course not a matter of public record.