Tag Archives: Miklós Seszták

Valiant efforts to sell Viktor Orbán’s version of 1956

Let me start with a brief summary of some events that will take place in Budapest and Washington on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. I’m certain that Viktor Orbán can never forgive fate that he was not the prime minister of Hungary on the fiftieth anniversary of that important event in the history of the international communist movement. After all, a fiftieth anniversary carries a great deal more weight than a sixtieth. Ten years later, Orbán is trying to compensate for that missed opportunity. Mind you, he was certainly not inactive on October 23, 2006, when he orchestrated a demonstration that eventually became a large-scale struggle between the inexperienced and ill-equipped police force and the rabble that had been egged on by Fidesz politicians for weeks. They had a second revolution in mind.

Now he is basking in glory, as if he and his kind had a legitimate right to speak about those days. The Orbán government has spent an inordinate amount of money both at home and abroad on the celebrations, but as far as I can see the results are meager. One of the Hungarian papers triumphantly announced that Hungary will have a very important visitor for the anniversary in the person of Polish President Andrzej Duda, who will appear alongside Orbán as he delivers his speech in front of the parliament building. The article made it clear that Duda will be the only foreign visitor in Budapest on that day. A rather interesting situation. Is it possible that the Hungarian government didn’t invite any foreign dignitaries for fear of being rebuffed and therefore settled for a show of Polish-Hungarian friendship that has an important message to convey to the rest of the world today? In any case, given the hype surrounding this not so significant anniversary, the absence of foreign visitors is glaring.

The Washington events are not faring any better as far as I know. The Hungarian government originally wanted to organize a conference on the significance of the 1956 revolution at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, but the Center refused to hold the event. Of course, it is hard to know what the management of the Center had in mind when it declined the request of the Hungarian government. There are a couple of possibilities. One is that the participants were mostly members of the government instead of scholars. The second complaint of the Center might have been the lopsidedness of political views of the participants presented to them. Well-known scholars of 1956 were most likely left out on ideological grounds. At the end, the conference had to be moved to the National Defense University, where it was held on August 12.

The theme of the conference was “1956: The Freedom Fight that Changed the Cold War—Geopolitics and Defense Policy.”  Donald Yamamoto, senior vice president of the National Defense University, and Réka Szemerkényi, ambassador of Hungary, welcomed the audience. The keynote speaker was István Simicskó, minister of defense. In connection with Simicskó it is perhaps worth remembering that he was the only member of parliament who voted “no” to Hungary’s joining the European Union in 2003.

Finlay Lewis, a journalist from CQ Now and CQ Roll Call, was the moderator of the morning session, during which Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack from the Institute for National Strategic Studies and the National Defense University, László Borhi, a historian from Indiana University, and Áron Máthé, vice chairman of the Committee of National Remembrance, Budapest discussed “Cold War Geopolitics and the Broader Context to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.” Peter Zwack’s only connection to Hungary is that he is the son of Péter Zwack of Unicum fame. He doesn’t speak Hungarian. László Borhi has written several books on U.S.-Hungarian diplomatic relations, but apparently he is far too close to Mária Schmidt. Áron Máthé is a fairly young historian who so far has published one book about a court case against a number of Arrow Cross men in 1967, which has nothing to do with 1956.

After a coffee break an hour was devoted to “the memory of the 1956 revolution and freedom fight,” during which “Time Capsule 1956—Revolt in Hungary” was screened and Imre Tóth, a member of the revolutionary government of 1956, spoke briefly. I didn’t manage to find anything about Imre Tóth’s precise role in 1956, but I heard from a friend that he might have been an employee of the ministry of foreign affairs, which was in utter chaos during October-November 1956.

After lunch were four more speeches, including one by Tamás Magyarics from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Magyarics’s specialty is U.S.-Hungarian relations.

On the same day the ribbon cutting ceremony of the “1956 Hungarian Freedom Fighters Exhibit” took place at the Pentagon. Present were U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James J. Townsend, Ambassador Colleen Bell, Defense Minister István Simicskó, and Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Ambassador Bell delivered this short speech:

Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to be here today at such a special event. Ambassador Szemerkényi, Minister Simicskó, special guests and friends of Hungary, I am honored to be here.

As many of you may know, I serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and I have the honor of representing the United States and President Obama in Budapest. During the past two years, I have grown to love the Hungarian people and their devotion to freedom. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Minister Simicskó and greatly appreciate all he and the Hungarian Defense Forces do to make Europe a more free and democratic continent. Thank you for your contributions to NATO, as well as all of the other bilateral and multilateral exercises you participate in on a continual basis. The Hungarian military has deployed – and currently remains deployed – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, the Balkans, and the Baltics. Even if our countries don’t always see eye to eye on all issues, our troops still stand shoulder to shoulder. Hungarian forces’ contributions to democracy and freedom help to make the world a freer place in which to live.

As friends and allies, the United States and Hungary share a faith in democracy. We share a common heritage, cherishing our rights not as subjects or vassals, not as dependents or followers, but as citizens.  We are citizens bound together by our love of liberty, and our willingness to serve.

That is why we are here today – to honor those very brave men and women who sixty years ago attempted to throw off the yoke of communism. Today, in a free Hungary, in the United States, and in many other places around the world, we honor their memory and sacrifices.

Thank you so much for joining us here today. Köszönöm szépen.

Finally, a controversial bronze statue depicting a young boy, a “Budapest Lad/Pesti srác,” will be unveiled on October 16 in Washington.

"The Budapest Lad" in Washington I guess they don't dare to show the rest

“The Budapest Lad” in Washington

The Budapest version of the statue "Pesti srác

The Budapest version of the statue “Pesti srác”

I must say that the Budapest version is a great deal better from an artistic point of view, but as the photo of the model for the statue demonstrates, these kids couldn’t possibly have known what the revolution was all about.

pesti-srac3I really should devote a post to the interpretations of the Hungarian Revolution put forth by Fidesz over the years. Initially, the party viewed the event as a “bourgeois democratic revolution.” But then the Fidesz leadership found their real idols, about 200-300 street fighters who were mostly working class youngsters and whose leaders as time went by became far-right spokesmen for those revolutionary times. They claimed that the real heroes and leaders came from their ranks, as opposed to those anti-Stalinist communists who were responsible, in the final analysis, for the outbreak of an armed revolt. Members of Fidesz have never been admirers of Imre Nagy. As Orbán said years ago, “Imre Nagy is not our hero.” For a while, they even contemplated removing his bust from a site near the parliament building.

These young street fighters did have a role to play in forcing the Nagy government to transform itself into a coalition government of sorts. But had the revolution been successful and had it ushered in a period of consolidation, these unruly groups would most likely have been quietly disarmed and eliminated. For Orbán and Fidesz, however, these kids and their intransigent leaders are the embodiment of 1956.

Of course, there will be speakers from Hungary at the unveiling: Miklós Seszták, minister of national development, Zsolt Németh, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Hungarian parliament, and János Horváth, former doyen of parliament. Horváth was born in 1921 and left Hungary in 1956 for the United States. In 1992 he was the Republican candidate for Indiana’s 10th congressional district, which was a fairly hopeless undertaking against the Democrat Andrew Jacobs, Jr., who held the seat between 1983 and 1997.

Colleen Bell will also give a speech, which is somewhat strange since, to the best of my knowledge, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and Thomas Melia, USAID’s assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia, declined invitations to the reception organized by Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Keep in mind that both of them have been and still are heavily involved in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Hungary. Their refusal to attend is not a good sign.

It matters not how many billions the Orbán government is ready to spend on this sixtieth anniversary extravaganza as long as the whole democratic world is watching what’s going on in Hungary with horror. As long as foreign observers and politicians look upon Viktor Orbán as an ally of Vladimir Putin and someone who wants to destroy the European Union. No amount of paint or bronze can cover the grime that has accumulated in Hungary in the last six years.

October 14, 2016

Hungary stops supplying gas to Ukraine and makes its own gas deal with Russia

The news of the day is Hungary’s decision to stop the supply of gas to Ukraine despite its pledge to assist its beleaguered neighbor. Although the AFP news service assumes that the decision came after “threats from Moscow,” I have a different take on the matter. To make my case I have to go back a few weeks in time.

It is true that Russia was playing games with its gas supply to Poland and Romania, but Hungary was in no way affected by these Russian measures, most likely because of the cozy relationship that exists between Putin and Orbán. On the contrary, in the last few months large amounts of gas arrived in the country from Russia. Currently, the storage facilities are 60% full, and even larger amounts of natural gas will come from Russia in the next few months. Poland indeed had to temporarily stop its supply of gas to Ukraine on September 10, only to resume its operations two days later when Russia assured Poland that it would send an adequate supply of gas to the country in the future. Romania began receiving less than the usual amount of gas on September 15.

Instead of worrying about natural gas from Russia, on September 18 a very upbeat article appeared in Magyar Nemzet telling its readers that “we can be the gas center of Europe.” The article reported that two days earlier Miklós Seszták, minister of national development, conducted negotiations with Anatoly Yanovsky, Russian deputy minister for energy affairs, concerning the storage of 500 million cubic meters of Russian gas in Hungary “to facilitate the supply of Europe with gas in case of irregular transit shipments through Ukraine.” These plans are not new.  They were apparently first discussed in October 2012 when Aleksey Miller, CEO of Gazprom, had a meeting with Viktor Orbán in Budapest. However, the precondition for such a deal was the nationalization of the storage facilities. The Hungarian government subsequently purchased them from the German company, E.ON, at an incredibly high price. Although auditors warned the government about the pitfalls of the deal, Orbán insisted. It looked as if he did not care about the price. Now we know why.

Yanovsky had barely left Hungary when Aleksey Miller arrived in Budapest. The meeting of Miller and Orbán was kept secret from the Hungarian people, who read about it on Gazprom’s website. This is not the first time that we learn about important meetings and bilateral negotiations from the media of countries for whom close relations with Hungary, a member of the European Union, are important but who are not exactly friends of the West. The Hungarian government would rather not inform the world about its dealings with such countries as Iran, Belorussia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. According to Gazprom, “the talks were focused on the issues of reliable and uninterrupted gas supplies in the coming winter period. The parties paid special attention to the implementation of the South Stream project and noted that it was progressing on schedule.”

Source: Gazprom.com

Source: Gazprom.com

This morning, three days after the Miller-Orbán meeting, Viktor Orbán announced that Hungary would indefinitely suspend supplying Ukraine with natural gas. According to Itar-Tass “the decision was made to meet the growing domestic demand for gas,” FGSZ, the Hungarian company operating the pipeline, said. Yet MTI reported today that even Serbia might be able to receive gas from the Hungarian storage facilities. So, surely, there is no shortage of gas in Hungary. The European Union is anything but happy about the suspension. Helen Kearns, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, in an answer to a reporter’s question on Hungary’s unilateral suspension of the gas supply to Ukraine, said that “the message from the Commission is very clear: we expect all member states to facilitate reverse flows as agreed by the European Council.” Naturally, Naftogaz, the Ukrainian gas company, also urged its “Hungarian partners to respect their contractual obligations” and said the Hungarian decision “goes against the core principles of the European Union single energy market.”

After delivering his usual Friday morning radio interview Viktor Orbán left for Berehove (Beregszász), in the area of Ukraine south of the Carpathian Mountains officially called Zakarpattia Oblast, to deliver a speech at the Hungarian-language college situated in the town where about half of the population is Hungarian speaking. Altogether there are three smaller territorial units within the oblast where there are significant Hungarian populations: in the uzhhorodskyi raion (33.4%), in vynohradiv raion (26.2%), and in the area around Berehove where they are actually in the majority (76.1%). Altogether there are about 120,00 Hungarians out of a total population of 1,254,614. The distribution of Hungarians in the oblast can be seen here.

Orbán indicated in his early morning interview today that Hungary will support Hungarians in the neighboring countries who demand autonomy. Although he did not specifically mention the Hungarian diaspora in Ukraine, he was obviously also talking about them. This was not the first reference to possible autonomy for Hungarians in this region of Ukraine. At the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian crisis Orbán already mentioned such a demand. He made it clear, again not for the first time, that his main concern in this very serious international crisis is the fate of the Hungarian minority. He promised his audience that Hungary will not do anything that would harm his Hungarian brethren, which I found interesting in light of the decision to cut the flow of gas from Hungary to Ukraine.

While Viktor Orbán was in Berehove, representatives of the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine got together to come up with an energy deal that would ensure the supply of Russian gas to EU members and Ukraine over the winter. In return, Ukraine would repay $3.1 billion of its debt to Russia.  The first installment, $2 billion, would be due by the end of October and the rest by the end of December. If Russia agrees to this deal, it would avert an immediate crisis, although it would not resolve the deeper dispute over what price Kiev should pay for past and future deliveries. The Ukrainian government earlier filed suit with the Stockholm Arbitration Court against Russia for making it overpay for gas since 2010. A decision may be reached by next year.

On the one hand, Ukraine seems to be happy that, after so many unsuccessful attempts, there is hope of an agreement but, on the other hand, it is unhappy that the price of Russian gas “is dependent on the decisions of the Russian government.” According to Kyiv Post, “Ukraine will under no circumstances recall its suit from the Stockholm Arbitration Court.”

If this deal goes through, as it seems that it will, perhaps it was unnecessary for Hungary to unilaterally and abruptly stop the flow of gas to Ukraine. By this decision Orbán further emphasized his pro-Russian sympathies and undoubtedly further alienated himself from Western governments.

Magyar Nemzet and the Orbán government: A falling out?

While we were analyzing the relevant sentences in Viktor Orbán’s speech of July 26 in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tuşnad an interesting exchange was taking place between Magyar Nemzet and the very government which this newspaper until now at least loyally served. The first spat between former friends occurred when the government contemplated levying extra taxes on companies which had received the bulk of government orders paid with funds from the European Union. Magyar Nemzet also expressed its disapproval of advertisement taxes on the media. In order to understand the reason for these indignant editorials one must understand that the company behind Magyar Nemzet is part of a complicated labyrinth of firms belonging to Lajos Simicska and his close business partner, Zsolt Nyerges.

These rumblings in Magyar Nemzet have only intensified since Orbán’s infamous speech. The editors of the paper, most likely encouraged by the owners, seem to have had enough of the boorish and aggressive behavior of people surrounding Viktor Orbán. Csaba Lukács received the job of writing an article about Viktor Orbán’s speech which created such turmoil all over the world. Of course, Lukács’s article was duly appreciative of the great thoughts of the prime minister. And he suggested that the opposition’s fierce attack on the speech was unwarranted because, after all, Orbán “only dared to state that the liberal organization of the state administration had failed and instead one must find something else.” As we know, he said more than that, but one can’t expect a journalist of Magyar Nemzet to expose the truly dark side of the speech.

At the end of the article, however, Lukács added a paragraph that had nothing to do with the weighty political matters discussed in Tusnádfürdő. Lukács, a Transylvanian native who moved to Hungary shortly after the regime change, noted with dismay that “the number of people around  the prime minister who are quite servile toward him but who show stupid aggressiveness toward everybody else has multiplied at a frightening speed lately. A typical example of the type is the press secretary of the prime minister who physically attacked our cameraman while he should help the work of the journalists. We would like to note: neither boorishness and aggressiveness, nor even panting servility, is a civic [polgári], Christian conservative virtue.” Well, that is a daring act in today’s Hungary.

Press Secretary Bertalan Havasi didn’t leave this paragraph unanswered. He accused the journalist of Magyar Nemzet of lying, pure and simple. He claimed that he was standing with his back to the cameramen and therefore couldn’t possibly have attacked them physically. In fact, he was the one who received verbal abuse from them.

Magyar Nemzet didn’t back down; instead, it provided the gory details of the encounter. In the newspaper’s version Havasi punched the cameraman of Magyar Nemzet in the stomach. As a result he lost his balance and fell on another cameraman, who also lost his balance with his own camera hitting him on the head. When the cameraman told Havasi that “you shouldn’t do that,” Havasi asked: “And then what will happen?” At which point the cameraman told him off by using an obscene word. I might add that Magyar Nemzet’s cameraman ended up in the hospital.

Bertalan Havasi is a constant companion of Viktor Orbán / Photo MTI

Bertalan Havasi is a constant companion of Viktor Orbán / Photo MTI

Opposition papers had great fun watching this exchange of words between the normally servile Magyar Nemzet and the almighty Bertalan Havasi. I’m sure that they were sorry that the cameraman didn’t hit the press secretary, as he threatened, because this is not the first time that Havasi has behaved in an unacceptable manner. In fact, the pro-government publication Válasz also noted that “Bertalan Havasi has gotten into altercations with several members of the press corps before.” Válasz seconded the opinion of Csaba Lukács that Havasi is “aggressive and arrogant and his behavior is unworthy of a public servant.”

Of course, Válasz is quite right, but Havasi’s reaction  “And then what will happen?” is typical not only of  him but of the whole regime. And the reaction is understandable, even justified, since there are no limits to the power of the prime minister and the people serving him.

I have already written about the troubles Orbán’s only new minister, Miklós Seszták, is encountering. The media discovered that as a lawyer Seszták was involved in some highly questionable business transactions. Since that post in Hungarian Spectrum some more dirty business dealings were unearthed, of which perhaps the most serious is a 30 million forint EU grant for Seszták’s car dealership. Of course, he himself did not apply for the money; an old high school friend came to the rescue. He spent the 30 million adding new offices to the already existing building of the dealership. In addition, Seszták seems to own some businesses registered in Cyprus, considered in Hungary to be offshore since Cyprus is a favorite haven for Hungarian tax evaders.

Enter Magyar Nemzet again. This time one of the three deputy editors-in-chief, Péter Csermely, wrote an editorial (vezércikk) with the title: “The minister should step aside.” Csermely didn’t mince words; he said that Seszták is unfit for the job of minister of national development. Or for any kind of high political position. After the appearance of this editorial, cink.hu quipped that “Magyar Nemzet became the printed version of the RTL Klub” which since the introduction of the advertisement levy makes sure that their news broadcast always contains some less than savory affair of either Viktor Orbán or some of his close associates.

And what was the reaction to Magyar Nemzet’s demand for Seszták’s resignation? Exactly the same as Havasi’s was in Tusnádfürdő: “And then what?” Nothing! Seszták has no intention of resigning because he obviously can count on Viktor Orbán’s support. And that is enough in Hungary not to worry about any repercussions of illegal activities.

For one reason or other Seszták seems to be a pivotal man in the new administration. So far he has focused on cleaning house, getting rid of about 200 employees in the ministry. What course the newly staffed ministry of national development will take is unclear, but Orbán obviously decided that the old guard had to go.

Since it is extremely difficult to get any information about Viktor Orbán’s inner circle, Hungarian journalists are just guessing about the reasons for Magyar Nemzet‘s new tone. One of the most commonly held views is that there has been a falling out between Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska, the paper’s owner. The prime minister wants to curb Simicska’s influence in the Hungarian economy and through it on Hungarian politics. Something is certainly afoot, but I guess it will take some time before we can uncover the real reasons for the exchange of words between Magyar Nemzet and the Orbán government.

Viktor Orbán and his oligarchs: Impending power struggle?

I am always amused when I read that this or that politician from the opposition loudly demands the resignation of this or that minister. Equally amusing, if you can call it that, are the demands that President János Áder not sign this or that piece of legislation. It is also becoming quite obvious that hoping to get redress from the Fidesz-appointed constitutional court is equally hopeless.

A couple of weeks ago I introduced the readers of Hungarian Spectrum to Miklós Seszták, the new minister of national development. The title of the post was “Another corrupt official: The minister of national development and his ‘businesses.'” After Seszták’s highly suspicious activities as a small-time lawyer came to light, there was the usual choir demanding the man’s resignation. Viktor Orbán’s reaction in such cases is always “no comment.” As if nothing had happened. Seszták stays. Moreover, it seems that he was chosen to perform some very important tasks in the new Orbán government.

Only a few weeks have gone by since his appointment, but Seszták is emerging as one of the newest “favorites” of Viktor Orbán. More than a year ago a video circulated on the Internet showing Viktor Orbán, Miklós Seszták, and Károly Nemcsák, an actor, drinking pálinka and singing an off-color song about the hussars of Fehérvár. Surely, their relationship was closer than is normal between the prime minister and a very ordinary first-time member of parliament. But, of course, no one could have suspected at that time that Miklós Seszták would become one of the new confidants of Viktor Orbán.

What is Miklós Seszták supposed to do in the next few months? It looks as if one of his jobs will be to change the management of some state companies. The number of state enterprises is very large as is, but Viktor Orbán is planning to have even more soon enough. Naturally, Seszták is eager to accomplish the task. He promised quick action on the removal of certain undesirable people at the helm while he also announced further nationalizations. For example, Orbán wants to have the whole Magyar Villamos Művek Zrt. be taken over by the state. Seszták assured the public that “there is money for it.” It looks as if the Hungarian government also has money for the purchase of Bombardier MÁV Kft, some percentage of which is currently in foreign hands.

It didn’t take long to learn that Seszták has another job to perform which began as early as May: every state enterprise received a letter instructing the management to suspend all contracts with outside firms. The reason? Allegedly to ensure “responsible business practices” at the state enterprises. The suspension order was e-mailed, which the not too smart employees of the ministry sent out with all addresses visible. Since someone squealed in one of these companies, by now we know that the number of companies is greater than 100. This employee also said that in the instructions it was pointed out that some of the contracts “that are necessary for the normal running of the business can be renegotiated,” but he added that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what one can consider the “normal running” of a business. The same whistleblower suspects that in most of these companies both acquisitions and R&D have come to a screeching halt.

oligarchs

László Szily, blogger of Cink, who received the information from the whistleblower, immediately asked the ministry about possible personnel changes either at the ministry or in the companies. He received the following answer:

We are in the middle of analyzing the effectiveness of individuals both at the ministry and in the companies. In case we think that the lack of effectiveness is the result of the incompetence of the leadership we will make the necessary personnel changes. At the same time we do not want to decapitate the enterprises. If there are personnel changes, we will announce them in the next few weeks because we don’t want to keep anybody in uncertainty.

MSZP finds it amusing that Orbán picked a man accused of corruption to check on the allegedly corrupt state company managers. Amusing or not, something very interesting is going on. Rumors have been circulating for a number of years that both Fellegi and his successor, Mrs. László Németh, were Lajos Simicska’s people. As for Lajos Simicska, his business empire is vast and, especially since 2010, he has been the greatest beneficiary of European Union subsidies and state orders for road building and other construction projects. What the relationship is between Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska, besides friendship, no one knows. Until now everybody was convinced that what is good for Simicska is also good for Orbán. But now, the latest moves undertaken by Miklós Seszták on Orbán’s orders indicate that perhaps Orbán has had enough of Simicska and his friends.

There are further signs that something else  may be afoot that would weaken the power of some of the oligarchs. Yesterday 444, an online news site, received a copy of a bill the government apparently wants to put before parliament. It would introduce a 15% tax on all companies that have been involved in road building in the last seven years. That would mean a tax of 20 billion forints on Simicska’s company, Közgép. All this indicates to me that Viktor Orbán now feels strong enough (especially with his budget in desperate need of a new source of revenue) to turn against his former friends and put an end to their further enrichment and thus political influence. Cracks seem to be appearing in the Fidesz monolithic wall.

Another corrupt official: The minister of national development and his “businesses”

Today’s scandal involves the newly appointed minister of national development. In case you get confused with all the “national” stuff, this is the ministry that was led in the last couple of years by the mysterious Mrs. László Németh. The one nobody had heard of before and the one who had only a high school education.

In 2010 when the ministry was created it looked as if the minister initially appointed to head this new ministry was destined to play a major role in the affairs of the Orbán government. Viktor Orbán appointed his former professor and senior adviser Tamás Fellegi to the post. Fellegi, especially at the beginning, traveled madly back and forth between Beijing, Moscow, and Budapest. It was also this ministry that was supposed to handle the subsidies coming from the European Union. After a few months, however, Fellegi’s job of dealing with China and Russia was taken over by the prime minister himself and Péter Szijjártó, the young “genius” of Orbán’s inner circle. Fellegi resigned or was let go. Then came Mrs. Németh and with her a total lack of transparency about the activities of the department. She was presumably unable to handle such a high position in a “key ministry.” She was the only minister whose tenure Orbán decided to terminate this year.

The new minister is Miklós Seszták , a member of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP). The appointment raised some eyebrows for at least two reasons. One was Seszták’s lack of any background in economics, finance, or administration. He is a small-town lawyer. Actually the only one in his hometown, Kisvárda (pop. 16,000), 22 km from the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. And the second problem was Seszták’s less than sterling record as a lawyer; he has been linked to some very shady business ventures.

Viktor Orbán had to be aware of Seszták’s participation in suspected corruption cases because at least since January 2013 his name had been all over the newspapers. Miklós Seszták was involved with an EU financed venture which the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) found fraudulent. This was not the first time that the EU questioned the allocation of grants, but the Hungarian government normally protested or at least tried to explain them away. This time there was no question and the Orbán government did not contest the allegations.

The story goes as follows. There were five companies that received 21.25 billion forints from the EU to develop broadband internet access. But there was a bit of a problem. All five companies were established only a couple of weeks before they applied for the grant and some of the owners overlapped. In addition, Seszták happened to be a member of the board of one of these companies, Enternet Invest Zrt.

Miklós Seszták / Photo MTI

Miklós Seszták / Photo MTI

Miklós Seszták has considerable experience in establishing companies; as it turned out, his services were used to set up over 800 bogus companies in the last decade. The story goes back to 2005 when Figyelő, a respectable paper dealing with business and finance, reported that these companies were all registered under two addresses in Kisvárda where Miklós Seszták had his law office. When the reporter visited the two family houses, they found a middle-aged woman, Erzsébet Kovács, who hailed from Ukraine. When asked, Kovács announced that she is handling an international business venture that concentrates on direct marketing. The business has partners in ninety different countries and for easier communication and flow of goods it was necessary to register these foreign nationals in Hungary just as the Hungarian companies are registered in those countries where they have business interests. When the reporter inquired from APEH, the tax office, he was told that everything was in perfect order with these companies. Nothing illegal was going on. It seems that APEH did not find it odd that all the owners of these companies were citizens of countries outside the European Union. Russians and Ukrainians.

By 2009 Index found that the largest “company cemetery” was in Kisvárda. Why are they called “company cemeteries”? Because not long after their establishment and registration they disappear. In one of the Kisvárda addresses four-fifths of the 550 companies were already liquidated while at the other address three-fourths of the 201 companies were gone.

According to Index‘s updated account, 700-800 companies were registered at three different addresses in Kisvárda. Index claims that the “company cemeteries” were still functioning between 2007 and 2009, by which time four-fifths of them were liquidated, leaving substantial debts behind. All three buildings belong to Miklós Seszták. In one of them, in addition to the phony businesses, one could find until recently the local Fidesz office.

Establishing phony companies must have been a lucrative business. At least Seszták did very well financially in the last decade or so. It was only in 1996 that he opened his law office in Kisvárda, and he couldn’t have amassed a fortune from an ordinary small-town practice. Yet today he is one of the richest members of parliament.

LMP, Együtt-PM, DK, and Jobbik are demanding Seszták’s resignation. MSZP has said nothing as yet. What will happen? I assume what normally happens when a Fidesz scandal hits the newsstands. Fidesz acts if nothing has happened. They are sure that eventually the noise will die down and everything will go on its merry way, including Seszták’s appointment. And they are right. In any other country such scandals would have brought down the government years ago. But not in Orbán’s Hungary. I don’t know what is needed for the Hungarian people to wake up and say: no more!

Hungary’s new friend: Turkmenistan’s dictator

The Hungarian media is full of stories about the visit of the bloody dictator of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, to Budapest. The trip has been in the making for a long time. It was Hungary that initiated talks between the two countries when in November 2011 President Pál Schmitt was dispatched to Asgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. In January of this year Péter Szijjártó announced that the two countries had signed an agreement on economic cooperation. It was at that time that it was revealed that the Turkmen dictator himself will visit Hungary sometime in June.

As for the economic ties, Szijjártó claimed that there are hopeful signs that the relatively low level of trade between the two countries will grow substantially in the near future. He revealed that there are already Hungarian “success stories” in the food processing industry and in agriculture. A Hungarian firm is involved with the construction of a large brewery. He also indicated that Turkmenistan intends to modernize its oil and gas sector and would welcome Hungarian participation.

Trade between the two countries is indeed very small: until 2010 it amounted to only 10-15 million dollars a year, but by last year it had reached 110 million dollars. Just to give you an idea of the relative size of this trade relationship, Turkmenistan is not among the top 50 trading partners of Hungary.

Szijjártó also mentioned the possible construction of a gas pipeline, which is currently under discussion between the European Commission and Turkmenistan. Clearly, Hungary’s interest lies primarily in Turkmenistan’s gas reserves, which are the fourth largest in the world.

The opposition loudly protests this cozy relationship between Asgabat and Budapest, pointing out that Turkmenistan is second only to North Korea in having the darkest dictatorship and that the only significant difference is that North Korea is very poor while Turkmenistan is flush with cash from the sale of natural gas to Russia and China. One can read more about the situation in Turkmenistan in the U.S. Human Rights Report of 2013.

Pro-government commentators point out that, after all, Ferenc Gyurcsány also visited Turkmenistan in the summer of 2008. Indeed, he did and apparently had a six-hour talk with Berdimuhamedov. He went there to show the United States that, despite rumors that he was against the Nabucco pipeline, the pet project of the EU and the United States, he was serious about finding a way of getting gas from outside of Russia. Apparently he came back convinced that the Nabucco project would not materialize. He turned out to be right.

The Trans-Caspian project was first conceived in the late 1990s.  Talks between the European Union and two of the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, officially began on September 7, 2011, but there was not much follow-through. In the wake of the protests in Kiev and the ensuing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, however, the Trans-Caspian pipeline gained new urgency. In December 2013 it was announced that negotiations between Turkmenistan and the European Union would begin in early 2014. The Russian response was swift. Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, indicated that “external interference in the Caspian region will strain the situation in the region and can have a negative impact on the five-party negotiations,” that is, among Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and, naturally, Russia.

In earlier Hungarian reports on Szijjártó’s trade negotiations, no mention was made of Turkmen natural gas, but on June 14 Trend, an Azeri site, said that “Hungary is interested in receiving Turkmen gas under transnational projects.” The next piece of information, from MTI, stated that Baymyrat Hojamuhammedov, deputy prime minister for oil and gas, told the newly appointed minister in charge of national economic development Miklós Seszták that Turkmenistan in the next two decades plans to more than triple its production of natural gas and wants to lay pipelines toward Europe, Pakistan, and India.

While Hojamuhammedov was visiting Miklós Seszták, Turkmen Foreign Minister Raşit Meredow was talking with Péter Szijjártó. Note that, flouting diplomatic protocol, the Turkmen foreign minister met only with Péter Szijjártó and not his Hungarian counterpart, Tibor Navracsics.

As for Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, he first met President János Áder in the Sándor Palace. Áder talked about the modernization of Turkmenistan and possible Hungarian participation in the Turkmen economy. It was no more than generalities. Berdymukhamedov’s announcement was, on the other hand, more interesting. He pointed out that “in a political sense the two countries’ points of view resemble each other in many ways. Both find stability and security important.” Turkmenistan is “grateful to Hungary for representing her in the United Nations.” He added that “the foreign ministers of the two countries continue their consultations concerning foreign policy.” He hopes that “Hungarian experts” will help Turkmenistan in its economic and social programs. Finally, he invited János Áder to Asgabat. It looks as if the two got along splendidly. The Hungarian media watched every move of the two men and even noted that their handshake lasted eight seconds!

Source: AFP. Photo Igor Sasin

Source: AFP/ Photo by Igor Sasin

Berdymukhamedov’s official program included a meeting with House Speaker László Kövér. Nothing has been said so far about a possible meeting between Berdymukhamedov and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, although it is hard to imagine that such a meeting would not take place.

Let me add a funny note. Hungary was just admitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries, joining Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, and Turkey. The request came from former deputy-speaker of the parliament Sándor Lezsák, who started his career in MDF but who now can be placed somewhere between Fidesz and Jobbik. He is among those who refuse to accept the Finno-Ugric origin of the Hungarian language and overemphasize the importance of  Turkic loan-words in the vocabulary. Anyone who’s interested in Turanism, which is closely linked to the idea of Hungarian being a Turkic language, can read a fairly good summary of the movement here or, in Hungarian, here.

I also thought that you would appreciate a picture of Berdymukhamedov on horseback. He even participates in horse races. In one of them, he was thrown off his horse but, never fear, just as a good dictator should, he won the race anyway.