Tag Archives: Lőrinc Mészáros

A few gems from Viktor Orbán’s “strong and proud” Hungary

There are just too many topics that have piled up in the last few weeks that deserve at least a mention. So I decided that today’s post would be a potpourri.

Lex Felcsút

Hungarians like to use the Latin “lex” for “law” when a piece of legislation proposed by the Orbán government is specifically designed to circumvent already existing legal constraints or has been enacted for the specific benefit or disadvantage of individuals. Here are a couple of examples. When Viktor Orbán wanted György Szapáry, who was over the age of 70, to be Hungary’s ambassador to Washington, he simply changed the law, raising the upper age limit for diplomats. When he wanted Zsolt Borkai, an Olympic champion and former lieutenant colonel in the Hungarian Army, to become a Fidesz member of parliament, the five-year moratorium on members of the armed forces for political office was lowered to three. Thus, Lex Borkai.

In 2015 the Demokratikus Koalíció sued FUNA, the foundation that runs the Felcsút football academy, after the foundation refused to release all the documents between January 2013 and November 2015 that pertained to the billions of tax-deductible forints the foundation received from large corporations. The foundation’s position was that the money certain sports clubs receive this way is not considered to be “public money.” The Székesfehérvár court didn’t agree. It ruled that the so-called TAO money in support of sports facilities (Corporate Tax Program) is considered to be public money and instructed FUNA to provide documentation of their finances. FUNA appealed, but in February the Budapest Appellate Court ruled that the books of the foundation for the required period should be made public. The ruling this time was based not on the public nature of the TAO support but on FUNA’s designation as “a publicly useful nonprofit” (közhasznú) organization. Within 15 days FUNA was supposed to deliver the documents to DK.

Those who had been distressed over this murky set-up full of opportunities for corruption were thrilled. “Here is the end,” said Magyar Narancs in February 2017. But not so fast. Nothing is that simple in Orbán’s Hungary. First of all, 15 days came, 15 days went, and no documents arrived. At that point the Demokratikus Koalíció sued. And the case was moved to the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, for a final decision. There is no decision yet, but the government doesn’t leave anything to chance. On June 27 Magyar Nemzet noticed a small change in the TAO law enacted by parliament a few days earlier. Sports organizations are henceforth no longer designated as “publicly useful nonprofit” entities. If the appellate court decided that the documents must be released because FUNA is a publicly useful organization, the way to deal with this problem is simply to abolish the designation. That’s why this latest fiddling with the law is called Lex Felcsút.

The Poster War

Another perfect example of Fidesz inventiveness when it comes to legislation is the recent law nicknamed Lex Simicska. After a couple of abortive attempts, the Fidesz majority pushed through a law that should have required a two-thirds majority by amending a piece of existing legislation that needed only a simple majority. President János Áder dutifully signed a clearly unconstitutional law. You may recall that these Jobbik billboards, the target of the law change, featured not only Orbán but also Lőrinc Mészáros and Árpád Habony. Jobbik made the right decision when it included these two on their posters. Only yesterday Iránytű Intézet (Compass Institute) released a poll on the popularity of Habony and Mészáros, in addition to that of politicians. These two are at the very bottom of the heap. Habony is most likely seen as the symbol of Fidesz’s very aggressive method of communication, while Mészáros is the symbol of corruption. Clearly the Hungarian people like neither.

A 2010 Fidesz poster right next to Hungária Circus in Hatvan / Source: 24.hu

Lajos Simicska’s firm, Mahír, gave a substantial discount to Jobbik, which Fidesz tried to portray as concealed party financing. But selling advertising spots is like any other business venture where there are no fixed prices. Sometimes they are cheaper–for example during winter. Sometimes they are more expensive–for example, at election time. And, I assume that in certain circumstances personal preferences may play a role. For example, in Jobbik’s case, Simicska’s by now intense hatred of Viktor Orbán must be taken into consideration. Or, conversely, when Simicska worked hand in hand with Viktor Orbán for the good of Fidesz, he gave, as we all suspected, a very good price to his own party. In fact, at the very beginning of the 1990s Simicska purchased Mahír for that very purpose.

Now we know how good a price Fidesz got from Simicska in 2010 when the whole country was plastered with Fidesz posters. Someone made sure that 24.hu got all the documentation covering Fidesz’s deal. Fidesz paid 63% less than Jobbik did for its recent billboards. One billion forints worth of advertising was purchased for 23 million! That’s a real bargain, all right. But that’s not all. Fidesz ordered 4,700 billboards for 23.2 million forints, and they got an additional 1,300 posters gratis. Thus, Fidesz had 6,000 billboards and posters as opposed to MSZP’s 2,000 posters and Jobbik’s fewer than 500 during the 2010 election campaign. But, of course, these parties didn’t have such a generous benefactor. Nor did they have such well-funded party treasuries.

State support of parochial schools

I just read that the Orbán government spends 200,000 forints on children who attend parochial schools and only 54,000 on those who attend public schools. If all children were considered equal, public schools should receive 112.5 billion forints more than they get now. I feel very strongly about this issue, and I find the trend of passing public schools gratis to various churches unacceptable. The kind of education children receive in parochial schools, given the extremely conservative nature of Hungarian churches, may have an adverse effect on Hungarian society as a whole. Moreover, how can the Orbán government justify that kind of discrimination against most of its own young citizens?

Shooting galleries for school children

I left the best for last. Even the Associated Press reported about two weeks ago that Hungarian educational authorities are currently evaluating the installation of shooting galleries in schools to increase the variety of sports available to students. Officials of the Klebelsberg Center insist that the idea has absolutely “nothing to do with aggression and violence.” I saw a high-ranking official of the Center talk about this plan with great fervor in a TV interview, but about two weeks later came the denial. Márta Demeter, formerly an MSZP member of parliament, asked István Simicskó, minister of defense, about the veracity of the news. He flatly denied any such plans. He claimed that the Klebelsberg Center’s inquiries from school principals about appropriate locations for shooting ranges have nothing whatsoever to do with “the long-range defense development program” of his ministry. I’m sure that the Center’s inquiry and Simicskó’s earlier plans of building shooting ranges all over the country are connected. I also suspect that reactions to the notion of putting firearms into the hands of 13-14-year-olds were so negative that the great plan had to be abandoned.

Conclusion

That’s all for today, but I think these few examples are enough to demonstrate that something is very wrong in Viktor Orbán’s “strong and proud” Hungary.

July 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Close friends with lots of secrets

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

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

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

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

February 14, 2017

Silencing the media: Hír TV

I have noticed in the last month or so that Fidesz and the Orbán government are paying far too much attention to Hír TV, which has gone through quite a metamorphosis since February 6, 2015, the day known in Hungary as G-Day . It was on that day that Lajos Simicska told the world that Viktor Orbán and he had parted ways. Moreover, he called Orbán “geci,” which I “politely” translated at the time as “prick.” In the original it was much worse. After this day Simicska’s daily paper Magyar Nemzet, his radio station Lánchíd Rádió, and his television station Hír TV, ceased to be government mouthpieces. I must say that, as a result, the quality of Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV has vastly improved. It is another matter that one can only marvel at the “ideological flexibility” of those reporters who remained, because the change from a pro- to an anti-government stance took place practically overnight.

The loss of Hír TV must have been a heavy blow to the Orbán government, which it tried to redress by getting Andy Vajna, the former American-Hungarian movie producer, to purchase TV2, a commercial station that serves the whole country. Although the producers of TV2’s newscast have been doing their best to tarnish the opponents of the government, Viktor Orbán is still not satisfied. At least this is the impression I got when I heard that Gábor Széles, a far-right Fidesz supporter, was ready to sell his Echo TV to Lőrinc Mészáros. With the change of ownership, the work of making Echo TV, a formerly right-radical station, into a replacement for Hír TV began. At the same time, Fidesz is doing its best to squeeze Simicska’s Hír TV financially.

Hír TV was Fidesz’s channel from the moment of its inception in January 2003. The first president of the company was the same Gábor Borókai who had been the government spokesman of the first Orbán government (1998-2002). Many of the channel’s early reporters actually ended up working for the government after 2010. In October 2015 Péter Tarr, deputy CEO of Hír TV, admitted that “members of the government’s communication team visited the station at least once a week in order to give instructions” to those responsible for the ideological content of the station. By 2007 Hír TV could reach 2.1 million households.

After G-Day, many of the top brass both at Magyar Nemzet and HírTV left, among them the staff of “Célpont” (Target), who were investigative journalists. For a while this very popular weekly program was off the air. Now, however, it is back, and rumor has it that considerable effort, financial and otherwise, is being expended to make it HírTV’s flagship program, alongside Olga Kálmán’s forthcoming interview show. Given the incredible corruption surrounding the present government, a program of this sort is certainly a good investment, especially since ATV doesn’t have the financial resources to include such a show in its programming lineup.

Distressed by all these changes at Hír TV, Fidesz and the Orbán government moved into action. Even earlier, the Fidesz leadership had forbidden members of the government and high officials of the party to accept invitations from Hír TV. Now they are putting pressure on cable companies, suggesting that they drop Hír TV from their offerings. One company, PR-Telecom, obliged and announced that as of January 1, they had dropped Hír TV along with six other, mostly foreign-language, channels. At the same time the company announced that 14 new channels will be available, among them six that are owned by Andy Vajna. While they were at it, the company picked up two porn channels as well. The majority stakeholder in PR-Telecom is an off-shore company in Malta, Central Eastern Cable & Media Group Limited, whose owner is the same man in whose yacht Lőrinc Mészáros was seen in the harbor of Zadar last summer. What a coincidence, don’t you think?

Soon enough Magyar Nemzet discovered that PR-Telekom had received state aid to the tune of 3.3 billion forints a couple of months before the cable company informed Hír TV of its decision to break its contract. The grant (and it’s an outright grant, not a loan) for improvements of the company’s network in certain regions of the country came from money Hungary had received from the European Union. This is how the EU is unwittingly aiding the undemocratic policies of the Orbán government. Luckily, not all is lost as far as Hír TV is concerned. Since the cable company’s breach of contract was illegal, those subscribers who would like to switch service providers can do so without any penalty. At least this is what Hír TV claims on its website.

Meanwhile Hír TV has been hiring people right and left. Some of them came from the defunct Népszabadság, others from the state television. The government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, has been watching all this with a certain amount of apprehension. Its articles talked about the alleged tension within Hír TV because the same Péter Tarr who earlier had complained about government interference in its programming now announced that the channel will be even more “critical of the government.” The newspaper provided a long list of reporters who have already joined or will join Simicska’s cable network.

The government-sponsored Pesti Srácok learned that Simicska’s partner in Közgép Zrt., Zsolt Nyerges, had announced that he is no longer ready to sacrifice his quite significant wealth on Simicska’s “pointless fight” with Viktor Orbán while their business is dying. Apparently the “discussion” was so vehement that it almost turned into a fist fight. Whether such an encounter happened or not (Nyerges denies that it did), Közgép announced Nyerges’s retirement as CEO and the appointment of Ildikó Vida in his stead. Her name ought to be familiar to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum since she used to be head of the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service. She was suspected of corrupt practices and thus barred by the U.S. government from entering the United States.

Viktor Orbán takes the remaining few opposition electronic media outlets deadly seriously. As it stands, by now there are only two government-critical television channels left in the country. Both can be reached only by cable. Hungarian political observers are convinced that 90% of all media today is in government hands. Yet it seems that 90% is still not enough. Viktor Orbán seems set on silencing all voices critical of his regime.

This reminds me of an article by Ekaterina Shulman, a Russian political scientist, which I read in a Hungarian summary. She called Putin’s Russia a “hybrid regime,” 80 percent propaganda and 20 percent coercion. This description of the leading illiberal democracy also fits the regime Viktor Orbán has built in the last seven years. Even the arch-conservative Batthyány Circle of Professors, which in the past had found the state of the country to be picture perfect, recently called attention to the gap between “appearance and reality,” the former having the upper hand in today’s Hungary. And to sustain appearance and suppress reality a government needs a full pipeline of propaganda with a healthy dose of coercion.

January 16, 2017

Sports and politics: a football empire and rebellious swimmers

I was pleasantly surprised this morning because, despite the holidays, I found quite a few topics that might interest readers of Hungarian Spectrum. For today’s post I picked two, both having to do with sports and, naturally, politics.

The football empire of Greater Hungary

I had not been aware until now that the Orbán government has been generously supporting football academies outside the borders of the country. The favorite for a long time was the Romanian academy in Csíkszereda/Miercurea Ciuc, where the former mayor Jenő Szász was a political ally of László Kövér and in general a favorite of Fidesz. According to 444.hu, a couple of years ago the Hungarian government gave one billion forints to the Csíkszereda Football Academy. An additional 300 million came from Hungary’s most successful pipefitter, Lőrinc Mészáros, who, in recognition of his generosity, was named an honorary citizen of the city. Apparently, in the final months of 2016 the government gave another billion forints to the Csíkszereda Academy.

Early this year Mészáros also became the “owner” of the NK Osijek (in Hungarian Eszék), Class I football team in eastern Croatia. The Hungarian government was again very generous. One billion forints was given to a center that is supposed feed new talent to the Osijek football team. Naturally, Mészáros’s own firm, Mészáros & Mészáros, is the chief sponsor of the club, but other Hungarian companies favored by the Orbán government also support NK Osijek: TRSZ, Duna Aszfalt, Magyar Épitő, and West Hungária Bau. As Benjamin Novák explains in Budapest Beacon, “a particular corporate tax benefit scheme allows corporations to write off 100 percent of donations made to sport clubs meeting certain criteria.” Transparency International, which investigated the case, “believes such contributions amount to a diversion of corporate taxes from public coffers to private sports clubs, and that for this reason such contributions should technically be regarded as public funds.”

Until now, at least the public could learn the names of the corporations that were generous supporters of Viktor Orbán’s favorite sport. According to the latest plans, however, this information will no longer be available. Business secrets, you know.

NK Osijek’s stadium / Source: Index

The Hungarian government, directly and indirectly, spends an incredible amount of money on football. Just for Christmas, according to the latest government decree, 50 billion forints was poured into the clubs of five spectator sports, most of them, of course, football clubs.

But why is the Hungarian government supporting football academies in the neighboring countries? In addition to Csíkszereda and Osijek, several other football clubs in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Serbia are the beneficiaries of the Hungarian government’s largess. One billion was sent to the football academy in Mukacheve (Munkács), another billion to the football academy in Dunájska Streda (Dunaszerdahely), and three billion to the Délvidék Sport Akadémia in Serbia. (Today’s Voivodina used to be called “Délvidék” or “the southern parts.”)

And why did Mészáros buy a team? A partial answer may be, as Mészáros admitted in a casual conversation with journalists, that the price for Croat and Serb players in the football market is a great deal higher than for those from Hungary.

 

Right-wing attacks against Katinka Hosszú and her American husband

A month ago I covered the struggle between the Hungarian swimmers and Tamás Gyárfás, then president of the Hungarian Swimming Association (Magyar Úszószövetség/MÚSZ). The swimmers’ case was pressed by Katinka Hosszú, the current star of Hungarian swimming.

Katinka Hosszú was victorious. Once Viktor Orbán made it clear that the upheaval in MÚSZ should cease, Gyárfás knew that he would have to resign. Mind you, although he might be despised by the star swimmers, Gyárfás remains popular with the affiliated club managers. A couple of days ago he received the most nominations for the post of president of MÚSZ, although the chance of his regaining his position is close to nil.

At the end of my post on the storm in the swimming pool, I wrote briefly about Hosszú’s American husband and trainer, Shane Tusup, whom the Hungarian swimming establishment resents. Although he is not an easy man to get along with, I came to the conclusion that this resentment has a lot to do with the fact that Tusup is an American, a foreigner. I recalled a television discussion in which the moderator completely lost his cool and abused Tusup, who thinks he is in Uganda instead of Hungary, which is a powerhouse of aquatic sports. He comes here to teach us?

Since then I have encountered many similar reactions to Tusup and, to some extent, to Hosszú as well. Soon after the world championship (25m) ended in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, an opinion piece appeared in Magyar Idők titled “A strange couple.” At that meet Hosszú received seven gold medals, which should have warmed the hearts of all Hungarian nationalists. But, strangely enough, that was not the case. On the contrary, the author of this particular article tried to minimize the importance of her and her husband’s achievement. The author stressed the prominence of Hungarian swimming ever since Alfréd Hajós received two gold medals at the first 1896 Olympic Games. And, he continued, he hasn’t met any “swimming expert” who would “tip his hat” to Shane Tusup, who is internationally recognized and was named “trainer of the year” three times in a row. The author of the article identifies with Sándor Petőfi, who “admired but didn’t like” mountains as opposed to Hungary’s Great Plains. In fact, the locals hate Tusup with such gusto that the Hungarian Swimming Association neglected to mention his trainer-of-the-year award from FINA, the international federation of aquatic sports.

The latest attack came from an extreme right-wing association called Honfoglalás 2000. Honfoglalás is the official historical name for the arrival of Árpád and his tribes in present-day Hungary. Honfoglalás 2000 is best known for its utter devotion to Russia and to Vladimir Putin. 444.hu has written several articles about this strange group, which thinks so highly of Putin that they suggested he should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. They thanked Putin for occupying Crimea. They demonstrated for the Russian-financed Paks Atomic Power Plant with placards reading “Roszatom: Jó atom!” They demanded that Péter Juhász be taken into custody because, according to them, he called on anarchists to commit disorderly acts. You get the idea.

This group had earlier called on the swimmers “to swim and not engage in political discussions.” Tusup’s name appeared in that statement: “We don’t want America (Shane Tusup) to intervene in our sports; we don’t want to introduce American-style, disgusting election campaign style conditions in Hungary. Hajrá Magyarország, hajrá magyarok!” Orbán finishes all his speeches with this sentence, which means roughly “to the finish Hungary, to the finish Hungarians.”

This time Honfoglalás 2000 is convinced that the storm inside the Hungarian Swimming Association was organized by Shane Tusup, who is purposely creating trouble in Hungarian swimming circles and thus jeopardizing the success of the World Aquatic Championships, which will be held in Budapest next year. The reason for his actions? He wants to make sure that the 2024 Olympic Games will be held in Los Angeles and not in Budapest. “Aggressive American politics by now is attacking Hungary even through sports.” The Hungarian swimmers should realize this and should cooperate with the management of the swimming association for the sake of the success of next year’s games. “Those who are not willing to do so can go, for example, to America where they should compete in Hungarian colors—we don’t hold them back.”

One might ignore all this, arguing that these people belong to the lunatic fringe of Hungarian politics. Unfortunately, my sense is that these sentiments are widely shared by those who follow the affairs of the Hungarian Swimming Association. And their numbers are significant because swimming is one of the two most successful Hungarian sports.

December 27, 2016

Viktor Orbán and Ghaith Pharaon: The end of a business relationship?

Although I’m aware that regular commenters on Hungarian Spectrum seem to be interested only in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, I have to return to Hungarian affairs. After all, the blog’s stated purpose is to acquaint people with the politics, economy, culture, and history of Hungary.

I think that by now readers of Hungarian Spectrum are fully aware that the Orbán government is exceedingly pleased with the result and is looking forward to a close friendship between the two countries. I’m certain that Hungarian foreign ministry officials already envisage Viktor Orbán paying an early visit to the Trump White House. Maybe even a state dinner. Wouldn’t that be splendid?

But let’s get back to Hungarian reality, which is not without its troubles for Viktor Orbán and his closest entourage. The Hungarian prime minister might act high and mighty in parliament when asked about one of his closest associates, Antal Rogán, whose luxurious life style reeks of ill-gotten gains. But Rogán’s activities are symptomatic of wider problems. For instance, the “business activities” of the president of Hungary’s central bank, György Matolcsy, funneled through phony “foundations,” and his “generosity” toward his friends and family, from public funds, haven’t helped the reputation of the Orbán government. By now the majority of the population considers it rotten to the core.

Hardly a day goes by without one of the few remaining independent internet news sites unearthing a new scandal. Just today 444.hu published an excellent piece of investigative journalism showing that the Pénzügyi Szervezetek Állami Felügyelete (PSZÁF), the Hungarian equivalent of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Hungarian National Bank, which incorporated it in September 2013, must have had knowledge of Quaestor’s Ponzi scheme for at least 15 years before the brokerage firm collapsed in March 2015. I provided details of the scandal earlier.

Another story that doesn’t want to die concerns Ghaith Pharaon, a wealthy Saudi businessman who has been a fugitive from justice for the last 15 years at least. I covered the story about three weeks ago, but since then an awful lot of new information has come to light, which I will try to summarize briefly.

First of all, the confusion in government circles about the status of Pharaon is indescribable. Yesterday Index devoted a lengthy article to recounting the range of explanations coming from various government offices about why a fugitive from justice had received a Hungarian visa. The same confusion exists when officials try to explain Pharaon’s exact relationship to Viktor Orbán and his family. These explanations more often than not contradict one another. Some most likely have nothing to do with reality. János Lázár is especially prone to inventing stories for his weekly press conferences. I will not bore readers with these attempts to mislead the public.

On the other hand, I think it is important to note that Pharaon’s business activities were not confined to buying expensive real estate in Hungary from a firm connected to Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz. MOL, the Hungarian oil company, also had business dealings with Ghaith Pharaon through Pakistan Oil Fields Ltd. The deal was sealed only in April 2016. And a couple of days ago RTL Klub learned that the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, which owns Magyar Nemzeti Kereskedőház/MNK (Hungarian National Trading House), which is designed to encourage and smooth the way for ventures of Hungarian businessmen in different parts of the world, broke its contract with one of Pharaon’s Hungarian companies, Pharaon Gamma Kft. MNK naturally denied that the move had anything to do with the cloud over Pharaon.

The Artemy used by Lőrinc Mészáros

The Artemy used by Lőrinc Mészáros

Meanwhile, back in August Magyar Narancs learned about a 35m luxury yacht docked in the Zadar harbor in Croatia, most likely rented by Lőrinc Mészáros. Of course, it was a juicy story that the former pipefitter, Orbán’s front man, not only has a luxury villa on the Adriatic coast but also enjoys the good life on a yacht with a four-member crew on deck. But the story became truly interesting in November when the same reporters discovered that on August 4 Mészáros’s yacht was anchored in the harbor of Split. And behold, Ghaith Pharaon’s famous Le Pharaon luxury yacht, on which he spends most of his days, just happened to be docked right next to it. This was a most unlikely coincidence because, as the reporters found out, Le Pharaon had not visited Split in the three years prior.

Ghaith Pharaonás famous Le Pharaon

Ghaith Pharaon’s famous Le Pharaon

But this is not the end of the story. At the beginning of August Viktor Orbán disappeared for at least a week. The assumption was that he was on vacation. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, inquired from the prime minister’s office about the whereabouts of Viktor Orbán. He was told by Bertalan Havasi, director of the prime minister’s press office, that he was unable to provide any information regarding the prime minister’s holiday plans. Now that Magyar Narancs discovered the strange “coincidence” of the two yachts next to each other, DK suspects that it wasn’t so much a rendezvous between the pipefitter and the “professor,” as Orbán called Pharaon, but a high-level business meeting between the Hungarian prime minister and the wanted man. Today, although the prime minister’s office still hasn’t revealed where Viktor Orbán was on August 4, it claimed that “Viktor Orbán hasn’t even gotten near Split this year.” I doubt that this denial will satisfy the increasingly suspicious public.

And now let’s move on to a slightly different aspect of the Orbán-Pharaon relationship. Orbán in parliament admitted that he had met “Professor Pharaon” at a dinner party given by the Budapest representative of Jordan where Pharaon was the guest of honor. And now comes Mátyás Eörsi, former chair of the foreign affairs committee of the Hungarian parliament and undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs between 1994 and 1998. After hearing the story of Orbán’s meeting with the “professor,” he became suspicious. First of all, it is extremely rare for a prime minister to accept a dinner invitation from a representative of a foreign country. It is even less likely that he would accept such an invitation from the honorary consul of a country that doesn’t even have an embassy in Budapest. Economic relations between the two countries are practically nonexistent. Jordanian exports to Hungary amount to 0.04%, while Hungarian goods going to Jordan are only 0.15% of total trade. Surely, Eörsi argues, the prime minister’s acceptance of this dinner invitation had nothing to do with affairs of state.

Eörsi became even more suspicious when he tried to find out details of direct Jordanian investment in Hungary and discovered that, in the case of Jordan, this is “confidential information.” Normally such investment figures are readily available to the public. On the basis of his research Eörsi suspects, first, that the dinner was organized for the sole purpose of giving Orbán an opportunity to meet Pharaon in person without arousing suspicion and, second, that the subject of their meeting was of a private nature. As for the confidentiality of Jordanian investments the answer is simple enough. Pharaon’s front man is a Jordanian lawyer who is behind the nine Hungarian real estate purchases that have been sealed so far. Surely, the Jordanian partner doesn’t want to reveal details of Pharaon’s purchases, which were most likely acquired on the cheap in exchange for some benefits to the Hungarian partners. I find Eörsi’s hypotheses convincing.

November 15, 2016

Viktor Orbán shut down Hungary’s leading opposition paper

By now the whole world knows that Hungary’s leading daily newspaper, Népszabadság, is no more. Although the Budapest correspondents of Reuters and the Associated Press pointed out that the newspaper has lost $18.4 million since 2007, don’t allow yourselves to be fooled. Mediaworks, which owns Népszabadság, makes plenty of money on its other publications, including several profitable regional papers and the popular Nemzeti Sport.

Fidesz may say that it considers “the suspension [of Népszabadság] a rational economic decision,” but ceasing publication altogether is not considered to be an economically sound choice for solving the financial woes of a business venture. Reorganization, restructuring, reducing the size of the workforce–these are some of the most often used instruments to salvage a company. Suspending publication, by contrast, can be a costly affair. There are most likely contracts in force to print the paper for the next few months, and what about the 30,000 some subscribers who will not receive their daily paper on Monday? No, closing the doors of Népszabadság has nothing to do with economics. It is a sordid political maneuver executed by the far-right, dictatorial leader of a country that can no longer be called a democracy.

The hypocritical prime minister wants us believe that “it would be a violation of the freedom of the press if [Fidesz] would intervene in the affairs of the owner of the media,” but it is almost certain that this sudden move was orchestrated by Viktor Orbán himself. Just as we learned only recently that he had been the one who handed down the order to investigate Ökotárs, the civic group responsible for the dispersion of the Norway Funds, two years ago. He lied then as he does now. At the time of the raid on Ökotárs, he was asked whether he played any role in that shameful affair. He denied it, adding that if he had done so, it would have been a crime. Now we have the proof. We know that the prime minister of Hungary, by his own admission, committed a crime in 2014. And I suspect that he did so again while working to eliminate a paper that must have nettled him, especially lately. I wonder what his next step will be in his quest to destroy all independent media outlets. He has been at it for some time, but earlier he didn’t use such heavy-handed and so openly dictatorial methods. By now, it seems, he no longer cares about even the semblance of legality and media freedom.

Darkness, Thomas Toft / flickr

Darkness, Thomas Toft / flickr

In the last few months rumors were flying that the government was trying to buy, through some middleman, Mediaworks, currently owned by Vienna Capital Partners, a private equity firm. In June 2016 Népszava, the oldest Hungarian socialist newspaper, learned that Heinrich Pecina, the majority owner, asked for a meeting with Viktor Orbán. Interestingly, the Hungarian prime minister had no compunctions about negotiating with the owner of Népszabadság concerning the possible sale of the paper. Népszava at that point believed that the “buyer” would be the mysterious “adviser” of Viktor Orbán, Árpád Habony, who is most likely Orbán’s “stróman,” as a front man is called in Hungarian. Others suspected Lőrinc Mészáros, who is usually described as the ultimate “stróman,” the alter ego of the prime minister whose newly acquired fabulous wealth is only partly his. The employees of Népszabadság were living under the constant threat that they would end up in the street and be replaced by a new pro-government owner, just as happened to Magyar Hírlap in 2004 when Ringier, an international media group with headquarters in Switzerland, sold the paper to Gábor Széles, a billionaire with far-right political views.

The journalists working for the paper might have had their forebodings, but I’m sure they never dreamed of such an abrupt and barbarous end to their paper. The question is what made Orbán set aside all niceties and finesse and show his true ruthless self. It seems that the straw that broke the camel’s back was a recent series of investigative articles that appeared in the paper about Hungarian National Bank Chairman György Matolcsy and Antal Rogán, the propaganda minister.

The paper reported that Matolcsy’s lover, while working for the bank, received an inordinately high salary. And once she left the bank, Matolcsy placed her in lucrative positions at some of the bank’s foundations, which serve as conduits to transform the “profits” of Hungary’s central bank from public to private funds.

As it turned out, that was not the end of the Matolcsy story. Since Matolcsy is in the middle of divorcing his wife, he needed an apartment. Soon enough he found just the right one. A lovely, very expensive apartment in the Castle District of Buda. The only problem is that the apartment belongs to the president of the Hungarian branch of Unicredit, Mihály Patai, who is currently the chairman of the Banking Association. Considering that György Matolcsy is heading the very institution that has a supervisory function over the Hungarian banking system, this whole arrangement is highly unethical and suggests a conflict of interest. Népszabadság had begun to investigate possible favors extended by the central bank to Unicredit.

That was bad enough, but then came another story, this time about Antal Rogán, whose extravagant lifestyle and questionable financial dealings have been the talk of the town for a long time. Népszabadság learned that Rogán, his wife, and one of their sons traveled in princely fashion to a wedding. They used a helicopter. Well, I guess nothing is wrong about traveling by helicopter to a wedding if you have enough money, but the story was not so simple. First, Rogán denied the whole thing–until he was confronted with a photo showing him heading toward the helicopter. At this point he switched his story and talked about a kind friend who generously gave him a ride back from the wedding. A day later it turned out that he had used the helicopter both to go to and to return from the wedding. Lies, lies, lies.

Well, these two or three embarrassing stories about people who are perhaps the closest associates of Viktor Orbán were too much for the mafia boss. He gave the order: shut them down! After all, he had no idea what else those two or three journalists who had worked on the stories know. And what paper that wants to live another day will hire them to continue their work? Shutting down Népszabadság doesn’t merely have a chilling effect; it puts Hungarian investigative journalism into a deep freeze.

Viktor Orbán is a vengeful, vindictive, malevolent man who doesn’t forget and who is ready to pursue his victims until they are utterly destroyed. There is no mercy once he decides that somebody is an enemy. At the top of his enemy list are Gábor Iványi, the kind minister of the Hungarian Methodists; Ibolya Dávid, whom he blames for his lost election in 2006; and Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had the temerity to win a television debate against him. And then there are the other lesser-known victims who at one time or the other stood in his way: they often languish in jail for months or years on trumped-up charges. One could go on and on.

Finally, let me quote a bitter Facebook note by Mária Vásárhely, a media expert: “Thank you, European Union. It matters not how painful it is, but it must be said that without you Hungary wouldn’t have ended up where it is now. If you didn’t finance the building and functioning of Orbán’s dictatorship, the whole edifice would have crumbled already. It doesn’t matter how painful it is to point out, but the destruction of Népszabadság, one of the last bastions of press freedom, was purchased with the immense amount of money you have poured into the country and which is now being used by the criminal oligarchs of a criminal state.”

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of truth in this bitter note.

October 8, 2016

From gas-fitter to owner of Chateau Dereszla

Today we are going to make a side trip to Tokaj where, believe it or not, Lőrinc Mészáros, who is considered to be Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s front man (stróman in Hungarian), is in the process of buying a vineyard. Not just any old vineyard but Chateau Dereszla, a 54-hectare estate owned by Count Patrick d’Aulan, an internationally known vintner with large estates in France and Argentina. Apparently, Dereszla has been a successful business since about 2000, with well-established markets in Poland and Russia. Mészáros’s purchase of the vineyard came as a great surprise to the locals.

Isn’t it interesting that Mészáros decided to follow in the Orbáns’ footsteps, whose very first business undertaking was a vineyard in the Tokaj region? It was a joint venture with Dezső Kékessy, a wealthy Hungarian businessman from Switzerland. The Orbáns’ share in the company (held in the name of Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife) that Kékessy formed was relatively small, but they became key business partners due to Orbán’s position as prime minister. Here’s how the deal worked. At that time the largest buyer of grapes in the region was a state bottling company that was close to bankruptcy. First, the Orbán government injected billions into the bottling company to make sure that the Orbán-Kékessy Estate’s grapes could be sold. In two years the bottling company received 4 billion forints in state subsidies. But that was not all. The vineyard that they bought was not worth much. The stock was old, and to make it a successful business a large amount of capital was needed to plant new vines. The Orbán government came to the rescue: the Orbán-Kékessy Estate initially received 41,475 million forints and later, on two separate occasions, an additional 64.5 million forints in subsidies. Thanks to the excellent investigative work of the late Krisztina Ferenczi, all this eventually came to light. There was embarrassment but nothing else happened, except that Anikó Lévai quickly sold their share of the estate.

The pending purchase of Dereszla was a well-kept secret, but by now it is certain that the happy new owner will be Lőrinc Mészáros, the gas-fitter and friend of Viktor Orbán. He has never been known as a connoisseur of fine wines, unlike most vineyard owners whose palates have been refined by years of studying the mastery of wine-making.

In the past, before the communist takeover, Tokaj wine was highly regarded, but it soon “became world famous only at home,” as the saying went. Dereszla was first acquired by a French co-op right after the change of regime. Later it was purchased by the D’Aulan family, who put a great deal of money into the operation, planting new stock and introducing the most modern equipment. Although Russia and Poland are the largest markets for Chateau Dereszla wines, they are also available in the United States. The wines of Dereszla were chosen to be among the representative wines served at government functions and at embassies. In 2012 “Count Patrick d’Aulan was honored with the Knight of Merit by the President of the Republic for his dedication and promotion of the wines of Tokay.”

dereszla

So, d’Aulan’s estate will be added to the growing number of business schemes of Mészáros, who over the last few years has become a billionaire. He has so many irons in the fire that he is sometimes confused about just what he owns. A while back he had no recollection of a business he had established in Russia. More recently, he purchased the Osijek football club (NK Osijek). Mészáros’s purchases run eerily parallel to Viktor Orbán’s interests: agricultural land, real estate (hotels), football clubs, and now vineyards.

Why the sudden interest in Tokaj? Andy Vajna, a Hollywood producer and now a businessman in Hungary with close ties to Viktor Orbán, is also interested in purchasing a vineyard in Tokaj. One, maybe the most important reason, to look for estates for sale in the Tokaj region is that 40 billion forints in subsidies are going to be sunk into the region by the Orbán government. This amount is over and above a 100 billion forint package that was announced in January 2014 by János Lázár. The plan is as follows. The state will buy 1,000 hectares, which will then be parceled out either in the form of 25-year leases or even outright sales for those close to the government and Fidesz. There is also talk about planting perhaps as much as 2,000 hectares with new vines, which would make the wines produced in the region more desirable and naturally more expensive. Here and there one can hear talk of a new bridge across the Bodrog river and new roads.

Viktor Orbán’s first business venture in Tokaj 16 years ago was small potatoes in comparison to Mészáros’s purchase of a thriving winery with an established name. Then, the Orbáns were satisfied with a few hectares of third-rate wine produced from old stock that should have been replaced decades before. They were content to sell their inferior grapes to a state bottling company that produced cheap wine. Mind you, that was only an interim solution while they waited for government subsidies to be able to plant new vines. The money at that time came solely from the Hungarian government because in 2000 Hungary was not an EU member. Now it is really free money: the subsidies come from the hated European Union. Unless Brussels gets tired of doling out money to countries that refuse to cooperate in solving the refugee crisis or that have a proven track record of corruption.

May 28, 2016