Tag Archives: László L. Simon

Another EU project: Renovation of fortified castles and luxury mansions

It was about a year ago that I first encountered two new programs launched by the Orbán government: the “National Castle Program” and the “National Mansion Program.”

The castles we are talking about here are actually late medieval fortified structures, built for the defense of the country. They were especially numerous along the border between Royal Hungary and the Turkish occupied center of the country. The structures in Szigetvár and Eger are perhaps the most famous. It was in Szigetvár that Suleiman the Magnificent died in 1566, as did the captain of the fort, Miklós Zrínyi/Nikola Zrinski, the Croat-Hungarian military leader who led his troops to their death instead of capitulating. Eger, the scene of a Turkish-Hungarian encounter in 1552, was memorialized in the popular novel by Géza Gárdonyi, Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. Both are tourist attractions, so it made sense to put them at the top of the reconstruction list.

The government will salvage 35 fortified castles and renovate 34 mansions. All told, 93 billion forints will be spent on these two projects, “mostly from money coming from the European Union.”

The justification for these two projects is that they will boost tourism. The government estimates that the renovated mansions will attract an extra 800,000 visitors, and an additional 600,000 visitors are expected at the fortified castles. Fifteen billion forints will have to be spent on hotels and services near the structures which, the government hopes, will come from private entrepreneurs. Viktor Orbán assigned János Lázár to supervise these projects. He, in turn, entrusted Undersecretary László L. Simon with the task, but Simon was fired a couple of weeks ago for incompetence.

Most of the fortresses are in terrible shape. Once Hungary reclaimed the Turkish-occupied part of the country at the end of the seventeenth century, the structures no longer had any purpose. They could conceivably have been turned into estates since each of these fortified castles had a so-called “residence tower” (lakótorony), which at one point was occupied by the lord of the castle himself. But these uncomfortable old buildings were eventually abandoned in favor of mansions in the countryside or residences in the capital. And after the soldiers left, the locals pilfered the stones and bricks of the castle to build houses nearby. (This is how most city walls have disappeared over the centuries.)

To what extent should these structures be reconstructed? This question has been the subject of furious debate for a long time between those who consider extensive reconstruction a falsification of history and those who argue for complete reconstruction. The government’s emphasis is on tourism, not the sanctity of architectural history. And visitors are not going to flock to see piles of stones. Therefore, most of these fortresses will be more or less rebuilt. This is certainly true of the fortified castle of Diósgyőr.

Readers who want more information about this government initiative should take a look at an article titled “National Castle Program: Removal of ruins or falsification of history.” Here we learn that at least two of these fortresses will be completely reconstructed and that six will be partially reconstructed. In 17 cases only a section of the former structure will be reconstructed. Nine, most likely buildings too far gone, will receive some treatment to stop further deterioration.

And before

The Diósgyőr Castle after the rebuilding and before Diósgyőr Castle before and after

The reconstruction of the fortified castles may make some sense commercially, but the renovation of the mansions is questionable for several reasons. At the moment these fairly decrepit structures, most of them built in the nineteenth century, are not architectural masterpieces. Most eventually were used as schools or were even cut up into apartments or offices. Something ought to be done with them, but should they be completely renovated on mostly EU money? What does the state intend to do with 34 mansions? I fear that the plan is to sell them at a favorable price to domestic and foreign friends of the Orbán government. We mustn’t forget that István Tiborcz, Orbán’s son-in-law, is now in the real estate business and is involved in the sale of the Schossberger Mansion to a billionaire Turkish businessman.

There is another suspicious aspect of the National Mansion Project. In the last few months the number of officially recognized historic buildings has ballooned. The reason for adding more mansions to the list is simple. A construction company who wins a bid to renovate a historic building can charge up to 400,000 forints per m² both for alteration and construction, while for a non-historic building a company can charge only 320,000 for construction and 220,000 for alteration. In brief, more money can be squeezed out of Brussels if the mansion is of some historic significance or is deemed an architectural masterpiece.

The latest outrage is the government’s change in the payment schedule for construction work on these projects. The original understanding was that for projects designed to stimulate the tourist industry 30% of the amount bid could be received in advance. In April the government changed the regulation. Companies involved in these projects could get 50% of their money up front. On Monday the government decided that, without replacing a single brick, the construction companies could be paid in full. As far as Magyar Nemzet knows, “the European Commission is taking a dim view of this practice,” although at the moment the cost is being borne by the Hungarian taxpayers since Brussels will pay only when all work is finished, which in some cases may be only in 2022.

The Nádasdy Mansion is also the part of the program

The Nádasdy Mansion is also the part of the program

The mansion project may seem lavish, but in fact it is seriously underfunded. It costs an average of 400,000 forints per m² to build an ordinary house in a fashionable section of Budapest. To renovate these residences is extraordinarily expensive. According to the former chief of the office that used to handle issues connected with the country’s cultural heritage, the only sensible move would be to sell these state-owned mansions, as is, to domestic and foreign buyers who would undertake their renovation under strict guidelines. The money allocated for these houses, 1.5 billion per structure, might be enough to guarantee that the roofs don’t leak or perhaps it will cover the cost of an assessment of the physical state of the structures. But if that is the case, what will happen to the money the Hungarian government is giving from its own resources to the construction companies for the renovation of these buildings? A good question.

July 20, 2016

The Orbán government presses on

Some stories simply refuse to die. Although I have spent more time than usual on the corruption case involving the Hungarian tax authority (NAV), the American corporation Bunge (the complainant), and a Fidesz-established foundation called Századvég, which one of its former associates called a front for money laundering, I think I ought to say a few more words about the latest developments.

Today a new list of possible subjects of the U.S. ban was published by NépszabadságIn addition to Ildikó Vida, chair of NAV, three deputy chairpersons are on the list. All three are women: Mrs. Dezső Csillag, Marianna Dávida, and Katalin Somos. The fifth person is most likely Péter Heim, president of Századvég. The sixth person’s identity is still not known, but he is presumed to be an influential businessman. Right after the news broke about the American decision to ban six Hungarians from entering the United States, “an unnamed businessman” rushed to ATV to share the bad news he received from the U.S. embassy. Although hypothetical lists appeared earlier, none of them sounded plausible to me. This one rings true. Now we just have to find out who the influential businessman is.

The opposition parties keep demanding Ildikó Vida’s resignation, and there has been talk about organizing demonstrations to the same end. In my opinion, such demonstrations would be a waste of time and effort. Fidesz functionaries don’t resign under pressure from the opposition. Moreover, most likely Viktor Orbán doesn’t want her to depart right now because that would be a sign of weakness when he just decided to tough it out. At the moment he might be very angry at her for revealing that she told the government about the U.S. decision, but he needs her to keep the tax office working to enrich Fidesz.

I might add here that I’m becoming more and more convinced that APEH/NAV was an instrument of Fidesz’s money collecting scheme even between 2002 and 2010 when the party was in opposition. Of course, since then the financial opportunities have become much greater. Now not only pressure on businesses yields kickbacks but also huge amounts of public money from government sources land at Századvég and from there go God knows where. The Eötvös Károly Intézet, a legal think tank, wanted to review the “studies” ordered by the Ministry of National Development from Századvég. Unfortunately, they were unable to get hold of the studies, but they managed to learn the exact amount of money Századvég received from the ministry between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012. According to the information, the ministry paid out 939,632,750 Ft. and still owed 5,936,845 Ft. Given the personnel and the capacity of Századvég, EKInt figured that the ministry paid 470,000 Ft. (almost $1900) per page for studies ordered by the ministry. Századvég’s answer was that they also provided other kinds of services to the ministry. Of course.

"Good morning my sunshine!" Source: veranus.blog.hu

“Good morning my sunshine!”
Source: veranus.blog.hu

It is equally useless for the opposition to turn to the chief prosecutor for remedies as two Együtt-PM members of parliament tried to do today. They were politely called in for a personal meeting with Péter Polt, who explained to them that his office cannot do a thing as long as they don’t know the exact charges. He wrote a letter to the U.S. attorney general and, if he reveals the details, they will certainly act. Of course, Polt knows perfectly well that the U.S. attorney general can’t release the details. So, that argument is pretty safe. Polt also reassured them that investigations have been going on for some time at NAV and that Ildikó Vida is in no way involved with the cases under investigation. So, this is yet another dead end.

Corruption may not move massive crowds, but internet users may yet have reason to take to the streets. If my reading of the bits and pieces of information that are being released about internet usage is correct, something might be in the offing that is much worse than a steep usage tax. I read with some suspicion that László L. Simon, undersecretary in charge of culture, would like “to improve” the quality of the internet. He also drew attention to the dangers lurking online and called on young people to leave cyberspace and join real-world groups. The fact that Tamás Deutsch is still entrusted with a “national consultation” on the issue of the internet also points in that direction.

Besides the internet, potential protesters should keep an eye on the the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP)’s harebrained idea to close larger chains on Sundays. I’m hoping that the government will not fall for this proposal because of its adverse economic consequences, but anything is possible from this crew. I bet a lot of people would gather for a demonstration against closing the plazas and the malls on Sundays.

Another suggestion to keep pressure on the government is a large demonstration against closing half of the gymnasiums and forcing students into inferior trade schools. Parents, students, and teachers would make a hefty crowd.

There are no governmental checks to Orbán’s drive to create a national illiberal democracy where freedoms are being compromised and increasing numbers of people are living in poverty. Parliament is under firm Fidesz control, and the constitutional court has been packed with Fidesz judges. Only the people can speak against this regime, but they must pick their causes wisely for maximum effectiveness.

The tax chief Ildikó Vida versus the Hungarian government: Who is lying? Most likely both

Practically daily I hear callers to György Bolgár’s program on Klubrádió, Let’s Talk It Over, ask: “Do these  people think we are that stupid?” ‘These people,’ of course, are the current leaders of Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his coterie.

Well, the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” Moreover, until recently their assumption was correct. A large percentage of Hungarian society swallowed everything that was shoved down their throats. In fact, not much shoving was necessary. The gullible and often fanatic followers of Viktor Orbán refused to face the ever more obvious fact that members of this government brazenly lie. Day in and day out. The lies are necessary, at least in part, to cover up the illegal acts that are being committed daily.

As we all know, lies by their very nature multiply. A vain woman decides to lie about her age and from that moment on her whole life story must be adjusted, a difficult task. As Abraham Lincoln said, “No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.” Well, Hungarian officials are now trying to reconcile contradictory stories. Earlier lies about the alleged corruption case at the Hungarian tax authority (NAV) must be adjusted to square with the new revelations coming from Ildikó Vida, the chairman of NAV and one of the people put on the U.S. travel ban list. I must say that government officials are turning out to be less accomplished liars than one would expect from this experienced crew. The only man who cannot be caught uttering truly contradictory statements is Viktor Orbán. He is a master.

So, what happened today? Ildikó Vida gave a long interview to Magyar Nemzet in which she admitted that she and several other employees of NAV are on the list of six individuals who have been barred by the American government from entering the United States. The reason? Their involvement in corruption cases that hurt the interests of American firms operating in Hungary. This decision couldn’t have come as a shock to the Hungarian government because in the past two or three years the Americans have expressed their displeasure numerous times over the growing corruption in Hungary. Yet the government did nothing, which is not at all surprising because it is my firm belief that corruption is an integral part of the mafia state of Viktor Orbán that has been so aptly described in the two-volume The Hungarian Octopus. 

All right. So we know for sure that Vida is on the list, but as I said earlier, most of us were pretty sure that this was the case. Her sudden disappearance for a two-week vacation only reinforced that suspicion. What was new in this long interview is that Vida told Magyar Nemzet that she informed an unnamed member of the government right after she received the letter about the American decision. That was shortly before she embarked on her vacation on October 22. The problem is that in the last three weeks numerous government members, including the prime minister, have denied knowing any details of the case. They repeated time and again that they would be most willing to cooperate with the American authorities but unfortunately they can’t because they don’t know who is alleged to be involved. In brief, they were caught lying. Besides Viktor Orbán, the list of those who claimed they knew nothing includes János Lázár, Mihály Varga, and Péter Szijjártó.

But, of course, Vida herself is not exactly truthful when she claims that the accusations against her are baseless. The United States government would not embark on such a sensitive bilateral move against an ally without hard evidence. Vida’s threats to seek “legal satisfaction” in court are ridiculous. In the first place, M. André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires and the messenger of the bad news from Washington, did not reveal her name or that of any other person barred from entering the U.S. Moreover, he, as all other members of the diplomatic corps, has immunity against prosecution. Another strange aspect of the case is that Vida’s loud complaints about her ignorance of the American accusations are also bogus. She had and still has an opportunity to find out more about the case at the U.S. Embassy. Up to now she has shown no interest in doing so.

vida ildiko2

Those nasty Internet addicts have a wonderful time with Ildikó Vida

We found out from Ildikó Vida’s interview that there will be an investigation into NAV’s activities. She said that she will investigate the whole organization with “microscopic precision.” The head of the tax office who is accused of corruption will be in charge of the investigation into corruption in the organization. A perfect solution, don’t you think?

This interview is also interesting from the perspective of Ildikó Vida’s relationship to the Orbán government. Surely, Vida did not have to tell the whole world that she informed the appropriate official sometime between October 17 and 22 that she had been barred from entering the U.S. as a result of alleged corruption. After all, by this revelation she pushed Viktor Orbán and his government into a corner. On the surface her move seems both calculated and antagonistic. Observers of the Hungarian political scene immediately connected the dots: Vida has been a close associate of Lajos Simicska, whose current relationship with his old buddy Viktor Orbán is less than rosy. Orbán would like to curb Simicska’s power over politics while Simicska is fighting back with critical articles on some of the Orbán government’s latest attacks on businessmen.

Ildikó Vida is not too eager to cooperate with Fidesz politicians. Last week the parliamentary committee on national security asked her to appear today at its meeting. She did not show up. Instead she sent one of her deputies, Árpád Varga, who most likely could not provide any information to the committee members. Szilárd Németh, chairman of the committee, perhaps in frustration, announced that they will ask Goodfriend to appear before the committee sometime next week. My hunch is that Németh and his friends will not have the pleasure of the American chargé’s company.

In the meantime the official lying continues. Mihály Varga told an inquiring journalist that Ildikó Vida informed him only yesterday about her misfortunes. When a journalist called Szilárd Németh’s attention to the fact that there are only two possibilities in this case–either Vida is lying or the government is–he announced that he sees no contradiction between the two statements. László L. Simon (Fidesz), a member of the committee, is now asking Vida to please tell the government who the “appropriate person” was to whom she told her story. Perhaps that man “forgot to pass on” the information. There is a saying in Hungarian when somebody tells an especially big lie: “And the ceiling did not fall on him!”

Political observers often express their admiration of the Orbán government’s “communication skills.” This time something went very wrong, which is actually not all that surprising. Viktor Orbán and his crew think that good communication means constant lying to foreign politicians and the Hungarian public. Yet we know the other famous quip attributed to Lincoln: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Or a proverb, which also exists in Hungarian, “the pitcher goes to the well once too often.”

More resolute foes of Orbán’s plans for Hungary come from unexpected quarters: Luxembourg and Norway

In the past four years most of the battles between Viktor Orbán and the European Union have ended with a victory for the Hungarian prime minister. Or, if the Budapest government was forced to make changes in some of its controversial laws, they usually smuggled in other equally controversial provisions while allegedly fixing the problems with the first version. Eventually, the “bureaucrats” of Brussels, worn down, were satisfied with superficial, inconsequential changes that did not matter as far as Viktor Orbán’s long-range plans were concerned. But now he is confronted with other kinds of foes: Norway, which does not belong to the European Union, and the Luxembourg-based RTL Group, Europe’s leading entertainment company which is majority-owned by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann. Neither of them seems to be a pushover.

I was surprised to see that almost three weeks had passed since I first wrote about the war between the Hungarian government and RTL Klub, the Hungarian subsidiary of RTL Group. At that time I reported that the Hungarian government had proposed a bill that was designed to tax the advertising revenues of all media outlets on a sliding scale depending on profitability. RTL Klub is the most profitable television station in the country and hence would get hit the hardest. In fact, the proposed tax of 40% on its revenues could cripple it. Since more than half of all revenues from the advertising taxes would come from RTL, it became evident fairly early in the game that the whole bill was designed to target this particular television station.

The answer from RTL Klub was swift: the news editors decided to spend more time on political news than before, and they made sure that every day there was some story that reflected badly on the government. The government answered in kind. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy (basically the minister of finance), instructed the Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal (NAV/National Office of Taxation and Customs) to examine the tax history of RTL Klub because, as he put it, “there is a suspicion that some of the transactions of Magyar RTL Klub in the past years are fictive; they don’t reflect actual business activity but are designed solely for tax write-offs.” It was at this point that an MSZP member of parliament charged that Hungary was no longer a country of law  (jogállam). The government was using the tax authorities to “punish” companies not to its liking.

The management of RTL didn’t cower. They told reporters that NAV has been after the company constantly. By now they have a department that deals only with tax matters. They have nothing to hide, and they invited NAV to come and investigate. It turned out that the “suspicious transaction” was a 2011 loss of 23 billion forints. The loss came about in the following way. RTL Klub purchased two cable companies which a year later were sold to its parent company. Apparently this transaction is a perfectly legitimate business practice. Because of this loss, RTL wouldn’t have to pay advertising tax this year. And that cannot be allowed.  Thus, the government had to come up with some other way to get to RTL.

Source: http://www.targetgdpi.com/

Source: http://www.targetgdpi.com/

So came the old Orbán trick. If the law for one reason or another doesn’t have the desired result, let’s change the law. And indeed, as one newspaper put it, before the ink had even dried on the bill came an amendment according to which a company would be exempt from the tax this year only if its profits were either zero or negative in 2013. Clearly, this amended bill targets only RTL Klub. As László L. Simon, the man who presented both the original bill and its amendment, said, Hungarian newspapermen were the ones who called attention to this loophole. Since the government wants to make sure that everybody pays an equal share of the tax, they decided to change the bill.

Yesterday L. Simon for a solid 17 minutes tried to explain the intricacies of his amendment to the audience of ATV while a helpless young reporter sat and listened without interrupting him. He was less lucky when he made the mistake of giving an interview to RTL Klub. As a result of this interview it became evident that L. Simon doesn’t know what is in his “own” amendment. So much for law making in Hungary.

The RTL Group refuses to throw in the towel. Only yesterday a long interview appeared with Andreas Rudas, the director responsible for South-Eastern Europe, who as you might suspect from his name has a Hungarian background. He made it eminently clear that what is going on right now “is not a question of money” as far as the RTL Group is concerned. The firm is ready to stand by media freedom and to go to the highest courts to win against the Hungarian government.

During the course of the conversation we learned that Lis Mohn, the widow of Reinhard Mohn who was the owner of the media conglomerate Bertelsmann, serves on the supervisory board of the firm. And what is also important is that she is a good friend and supporter of Angela Merkel. Rudas revealed that he knows that the topic of what is going on with RTL Klub in Hungary is being discussed in Berlin as well as in other European capitals. RTL Klub is prepared to sue and they don’t care how much it will cost or how long it will drag on. It seems that Orbán has found his match in the business world.

Equally resolute is the Norwegian government. On June 25 a letter was sent to the Prime Minister’s Office which was brief and to the point concerning the suspension of the Norwegian Grants. No lifting of the suspension can take place until the demands of the Norwegians are met, which include the immediate cancellation of “the on-going audit by the Government Control Office.” The letter added that the “audit of the Hungarian NGO program is the responsibility of the Financial Mechanism Office in Brussels.” Well, that is clear enough. No answer has come yet from János Lázár’s office. As Népszabadság commented on the situation: “Lázár and Co. ran into a cement wall.”

In both cases we will see who will break his head first on that cement wall.

Renewed attack on the Hungarian media: freedom of the press is at stake

As I was settling down to write this post, a large demonstration in Budapest was just coming to an end. It was organized by journalists who protested the sudden firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, one of the best and most widely read internet newspapers. Gergő Sáling, the editor in question, has been working for Origo for twelve years, but it was only in November 2013 that he was named editor-in-chief of the paper. Why did the owner of Origo, Magyar Telekom, decide to sack Sáling? Origo has the reputation of being an independent site that views Hungarian politics in a critical manner. But rumor has it that pressure was put on Origo to change its government-critical posture, and as a result editors-in-chief have come and gone lately. It seems that Sáling was not pro-government enough. In fact, he made the mistake of allowing András Pethő, one of the journalists at Origo, to investigate the latest Lázár affair.

The sign says "Is it still possible to bark?" Source: Klubrádió

The sign says “Is it still possible to bark?” Source: Klubrádió

The Origo affair is only the tip of the iceberg. Since winning two elections in a row, Fidesz and the Orbán government have decided to attack the remaining remnants of Hungarian democracy with full force. Besides the NGOs, their other target is the media. This time, however, they may have gone too far. Something unexpected happened. Even right-wing journalists joined liberals to oppose the latest plans to silence critical voices.

A new bill was submitted for consideration to levy heavy taxes on media outlets’ advertising revenues. The new bill proposes taxes on all such revenues but on a sliding scale. Those outlets with the largest advertising revenues would have to pay a tax of 40%. The bill seems to have been aimed at RTL Klub, the largest foreign-owned commercial television station in Hungary. The other important commercial station is TV2, but it seems it would be spared the 40% levy. You may remember that TV2 was recently purchased by mysterious buyers suspected of being closely connected to Fidesz. So, the first reaction was that the Orbán government wants to eliminate TV2’s only serious competitor by financially ruining RTL Klub. The management of the television station claims that if they are forced to pay such a hefty sum on their advertising revenues, they might as well close their doors. Soon enough they will be bankrupt. In fact, RTL estimated that its share of the ad tax would be about 4.5 billion forints, nine times its 2013 profits.

The story might not be so simple, however, because it looks as if TV2’s management is also up in arms and ready to join RTL Klub’s protest. I also heard rumors that even HírTV might join them. That may be only a rumor, but today’s Magyar Nemzet came out with a scathing editorial on the advertising tax. Péter Csermely, deputy editor-in-chief of the paper, viewed the bill as a bald political move: “the two-thirds indeed wants to step on the throat of freedom of the press.” Strong words from Csermely who normally on the P8 program makes Fidesz politicians look good with his softball questions. In his opinion, taxing advertising revenues makes no sense whatsoever because the central budget will receive only nine billion forints from this new tax while every ten forints spent on advertising adds fifty forints to the GDP. So, he came to the conclusion that the proposed tax is meant to put a lid on free speech and the press.

But that is not all. László L. Simon, the Fidesz member of parliament who proposed, or more precisely lent his name to, the bill, threatened that further taxes, this time on internet social media, will be introduced. And speaking of the internet, a few days ago the Constitutional Court came to the conclusion that comments attached to articles are the responsibility of the publishers. This ruling may mean that online newspapers will no longer allow readers’ comments.

But let’s return to the Lázár affair that ended with the firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo. Some time ago, one of the journalists at Origo went to court because the prime minister’s office refused to give out details about secret trips János Lázár took. The courts backed transparency and the law and ruled that the details of the trips, rumored to be very lavish, must be revealed. The prime minister’s office reluctantly obliged. It turned out that the cost of these trips exceeded the wildest imaginations of the journalists. In November 2912 Lázár spent three days in London. The bill was 920,000 forints. In March 2013 he spent two days in Switzerland that cost 469,000 forints just for lodgings. In July he traveled to Italy, again for only two days, which cost the taxpayers 582,000 forints. Upon further probing, Origo found out that the bill totaling 1.97 million forints for these three trips actually covered the expenses of two people.

Lázár was incensed. He wrote a snotty “reply to the article of origo.hu” and posted it on the webpage of the prime minister’s office. The letter included such sentences as: “I am glad that the independent Hungarian courts find it important to get acquainted with my traveling habits.” Or “Appreciating the unbiased, objective, and correct reporting and valuing the journalist’s work in the defense of the Hungarian budget, I decided to renounce the travel allowance that I am entitled to.” He specifically mentioned András Pethő’s name, adding that he would like to make his day with this gesture. One’s immediate reaction is: if Lázár was entitled to the travel allowance, why is he returning the money?

We still don’t know much about the nature of these trips, but it was reported in the media that the persons who accompanied Lázár were “interpreters.” That is curious because, according  his official biography, he speaks both German and English.

Today we found out a few more tidbits, at least about the trip to London. According to Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for the Demokratikus Koalíció who gave a press conference on the subject, Lázár stayed at the Crowne Hotel, the most expensive accommodations in London. Apparently, that is the favorite hotel of members of the Hungarian government. Lázár’s job, it seems, was to convince the British to allow a meeting of Viktor Orbán with David Cameron. In fact, Viktor Orbán hoped that Cameron would come to Budapest to demonstrate his support of the Hungarian prime minister. DK learned, however, that Lázár completely botched his negotiations in the Foreign Office and in the end Szijjártó had to be sent to London to straighten things out.

And a final note. The reporter for the official Hungarian telegraphic agency, MTI, was present at the press conference. In fact, he even addressed a question to Zsolt Gréczy. However, MTI chose not to report on the event. That means that the details DK unearthed will get to very few newspapers and online outlets because they all receive MTI news free of charge. I read about it in Népszavabecause one of its reporters was there. This would not be the first time that the MTI management decides not to publish reports that do not reflect well on the Orbán government. So much for transparency and truth.

The free Hungarian media is under renewed attack, but it seems that this time even pro-Fidesz journalists are ready to stand by their colleagues on the other side of the great divide in Hungarian politics. They seem to realize, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Viktor Orbán’s revolution devours its own children: the case of László L. Simon

Culture and the Orbán regime. It’s a real oxymoron. Culture is the last thing that interests either Viktor Orbán or his football buddies. He rarely appears at cultural events and, if he does (he and his wife attended the production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman a few days ago),  it is not because of his burning desire to hear Wagner’s music but because he wanted to demonstrate his support for Szilveszter Ókovács, his controversial choice to be the new director of the Hungarian State Opera.

Viktor Orbán hasn’t been very lucky with his picks for undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs. His first choice was a Transylvanian poet, Géza Szőcs. According to people who apparently have some knowledge of the connection between Szőcs and Orbán, Szőcs was a favorite of Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife. Szőcs had no administrative or political experience and gave the impression of a blunderer with grandiose plans in a time of austerity. Viktor Orbán had cut back on state subsidies for culture; football stadiums took priority over theaters and concert halls. Moreover, if he spends money, let’s say on ballet, that money is allocated only to his political lackeys.

Szőcs simply didn’t work out, but he also had to be frustrated because he had less and less of a say in formulating cultural policies. Hungarian film making was taken out of his hands and given to Andy Vajna, an American-Hungarian producer of blockbuster movies, including the Rambo series, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and the multiple Terminator movies. The result? In the last two years no Hungarian movie was produced and for the first time in living memory there was no Budapest Film Festival this year.

Szőcs had to leave; instead, he was named a trusted adviser to Viktor Orbán. When a few months later he was asked what kind of advice he was giving the prime minister, Szőcs admitted that Orbán hadn’t yet availed himself of his wise council. I do hope that he will get a few dollars because, as far as I know, Szőcs is a poor man with nothing to fall back on financially.

Szőcs was replaced by another poet, László L. Simon. According to people who know the works of both Szőcs and L. Simon, the former is a truly talented man while L. Simon is not exactly a literary giant. However, L. Simon apparently does care about the state of Hungarian culture and was deeply saddened by the lost state subsidies in the field of culture. He began his activities by announcing to everyone that he will be able to represent the interests of the cultural institutions more forcefully than his predecessor.

Yesterday, eight months after L. Simon began his new career as undersecretary for cultural affairs in the Ministry of Human Resources, he was dismissed. Lately there have been rumors to the effect that L. Simon and Zoltán Balog don’t see eye to eye on many issues. One of these issues was the role of György Fekete as the head of the Hungarian Academy of the Arts. You may recall the controversy surrounding this new official institution that seems to serve as a spearhead of the Orbán government’s growing efforts to force liberal elements out of the cultural sphere and place cultural institutions in the service of the government.

In spite of strenuous objections Zoltán Balog decided to appoint György Fekete to head the Academy of Arts, and it seems that this was too much for L. Simon, who objected to his appointment. But L. Simon lost time and again to his minister. Balog, who never liked the ever active L. Simon, eventually lost his patience and decided to fire his undersecretary. The problem was that he had neglected to inform L. Simon of his decision before the media (Népszava, Magyar Nemzet) got hold of the story. And L. Simon simply couldn’t believe what was happening to him. He kept saying that he didn’t criticize Fekete and he swore that he would not resign. He was baffled. Only yesterday he appeared at a cultural event held at the House of Terror in his capacity as undersecretary in charge of culture while the media reported his dismissal as a fact.

During the event the dismissal was actually mentioned by the participants. Gergely Karácsony (PMP) told L. Simon, “Let’s face it, Laci, you lost this game,” meaning  the fight over the the Hungarian Academy of Arts. L. Simon haughtily answered that Karácsony was merely a parliamentary member without party affiliation and that his remark was shameful.

Circus Parade / The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Circus Parade / The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

And finally, let me translate a few sentences by Árpád W. Tóta, one of the best young commentators on Hungarian politics, on the fate of L. Simon. “One cannot be just a little Bolshevik.  It is not worth trying even at Heti Válasz.” What does Tóta want to say here? L. Simon tried to mitigate the harshness of the Orbán Kulturkampf, but the regime doesn’t tolerate half-hearted efforts. Yes, this is clear even for those who are not intimately familiar with the Hungarian political scene. But what about this dig about Heti Válasz? This weekly is supposed to be “the moderate” voice of Fidesz, but Tóta warns us that even there one shouldn’t try to stray from the official party line.

“Yes, one cannot be just a little ‘bolsi’ because there is in the waiting room of the big boss a 100% loyal man who is more ‘bolsi’ than he is, someone who will state in writing that he will not think, he will only serve.” Tóta doesn’t feel sorry for L. Simon. After all, it was less than a month ago that he was telling us that the problem with Róbert Alföldi, the director of the National Theater, was that Alföldi doesn’t have faith in the divine order and that his artistry is characterized by chaos and dilemma. So, it is understandable that the government wants to pick a director whose thinking is closer to its own ideology.

The government found someone whose ideology is closer to its own than that of L. Simon, the little “bolsi.” “How do you like it?” Tóta asks. Perhaps L. Simon should recognize that this is the logic of the regime. The party worked that way even in opposition and will work that way as long as it exists. What is going on in Hungary is “the triumphal procession of  unfit brown nosers.” We know who is responsible for all that: “the guffawing dwarf who is staggering in the middle of the circle with absolute power…. To be a little ‘bolsi,’ as it became clear, is not really worth the try.”