Tag Archives: Modern Cities Program

Orbán giveth and Orbán taketh away

In April 2015 I wrote a post about the Modern Cities Project that Viktor Orbán came up with, most likely because Fidesz had lost a number of by-elections and had thus fallen short of its comfortable supermajority in parliament. It was time to offer all sorts of material incentives to larger Hungarian cities known as “megyei jogú városok,” which simply means that they also take care of the business of the counties in which they are situated, although not all of them are county seats.

Orbán began a roadshow, visiting city after city. At each place he visited he offered fabulous amounts of money for road construction and all sorts of other projects, many of them having something to do with sports. The most ambitious part of the plan was the modernization of the infrastructure of the entire country, which included converting all of the highways connecting these cities to “motorways” or superhighways. At the time the cost of the package was estimated to be 1,000-1,200 billion forints.

According to the latest estimate, the promise tsunami of the prime minister was much greater than originally estimated. Thus far he has visited only 13 cities of the 23, and 1,200-1,500 billion forints has already been pledged.

Valasz.hu has done an excellent job of collecting all the available data about the Modern Cities Project. Its reporters came to the conclusion that only 80 billion forints has actually arrived at the 13 municipalities. Considering that the deadline for the original plan was 2018, it is unlikely that many gift packages will be delivered to these cities anytime soon.

The latest piece of good news was announced on July 22. The government made some important decisions regarding much needed improvements on M1 and M7. Both are very busy roads on which traffic jams are frequent. M1, which is a two-lane “motorway,” will be widened between Budapest and Győr to become a three-lane road. The same thing will happen on M7 between Budapest and Balatonvilágos.

But a week later, on a Friday afternoon, came the surprise: the projects on M1 and M7 are off. Moreover, road construction around Veszprém was scrapped, as was the construction of a four-lane highway between Budapest and Kecskemét. The last was totally unexpected since only a month ago Mercedes announced plans to expand its factory in Kecskemét. The government has also reneged on promises for new or widened roads around Sopron, Szolnok, Békéscsaba, Ózd, Győr, and Esztergom.

Still, a fair number of projects remain on the books. According to a list provided by portfolio.hu, they are mostly construction projects on roads that connect Hungary with neighboring countries. These projects fall within the European Union’s so-called “Integrált Kölekedésfejlesztési Operatív Program” (IKOP), designed to facilitate efficient international travel through a network of roads across Europe. They can therefore be financed by the European Union. Roads promised to certain cities, however, like the ones around Veszprém, Sopron, or Kecskemét, that serve only local needs must be financed by the Hungarian government. And it is becoming increasingly evident, despite the Orbán government’s boastful comments to the contrary, that the state coffers are not exactly overflowing.

Scrapping the project to widen M1 and M7 may also mean that Viktor Orbán is reconsidering his dream of hosting the Olympic Games in 2024. This road construction was among the infrastructural changes deemed necessary for the feasibility study to be submitted to the International Olympic Committee. Next year’s World Aquatics Championship in Budapest, which the government agreed to host after Mexico changed its mind, has turned out to be a very expensive undertaking. The original cost estimate has already doubled, and we are nowhere near the end of all the necessary construction projects. Perhaps the growing price tag of the Aquatics Championship has tempered Orbán’s enthusiasm for the Olympics.

The media, which as far as I remember didn’t spend much time questioning the feasibility of the promises Viktor Orbán made during his road show, which lasted almost a year and a half, has now discovered that “Orbán’s promises about the future of modern cities were no more than a fairy tale.” A blog writer called the program “a gigantic hoax” because to the very last minute the waves of promises continued unabated when the government already knew that no money was available for the projects.

Indeed, Magyar Idők reported at the beginning of June that “the implementation of the Modern Cities Program” would begin soon and that it would be “the largest investment program of the century.” According to the mayor of Kaposvár, 452 billion forints has been put aside in the 2017 budget for the program. These investments will mean such robust economic development in the regions, counties, and cities that “in Hungary everybody will be able to work who wants to.”

fairy tale

What kind of governance is going on in Hungary where two major road construction projects are announced one day and a week later the decision is reversed? What could have happened during this week? The most obvious explanation is that it was discovered that there is simply not enough money for all the projects promised. But did the government really not know that on July 22? Perhaps one day we will have the answer. At the moment there is only bafflement.

August 6, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s new infatuation with modernity

The Orbán government fell in love with the word “modern.” As we just learned today, the leadership of Fidesz has been dissatisfied with the media portfolio of Lajos Simicska for some time. They considered it old-fashioned and hence ineffective. Therefore, quite independently of the quarrel between Orbán and Simicska, the party’s leadership was thinking of pro-government media that can have a greater impact, especially on the younger generation. They have been working on a new media portfolio under the supervision of Árpád Habony, who will also be part owner of the new enterprise. The name of the company will be Modern Média Group (MMG). It looks to me as if Fidesz is no longer capable of coming up with anything new because, as HVG discovered, there used to be a company called Modern Média. It was one of those bankrupt companies around Fidesz that was sold to Josip Tot, the penniless Croatian guest worker, in 1998.

MMG’s plans are ambitious. They will have an internet site called via.hu that will publish opinion pieces and political analyses. The new owners are also planning to launch a free paper to replace Helyi Téma, which ceased to exist a few weeks ago due to the financial troubles of its owner, Tamás Vitézy. In addition, their plans include a financial paper. There is also talk about a possible radio station. All of this requires a lot of money. Where do Árpád Habony and his business partner, Tibor Győri, who used to be undersecretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, get the money for such a media empire? We pretty well know where Lajos Simicska got his money, but what about Habony, who as far as we know doesn’t have a job? Before 2010 Győri was CEO of Mahír, one of Simicska’s companies, but I can’t believe that he is a billionaire.

I’m rather skeptical of the prospects for this new Fidesz-Orbán media empire simply because government-created propaganda is almost never financially successful. As for modernity, it is the last word one would associate with the Orbán government, which has been doing nothing else in the last five years but trying to turn back the clock.

But that’s not all. The Orbán government has a new project called the Modern Városok Program (Modern Cities Program), which Viktor Orbán launched in Sopron on March 25. Unfortunately for Orbán, his speech on that occasion was totally overshadowed by his revelation in the question and answer period that he was the person who ordered his ministers to withdraw all government money deposited at the Quaestor Group.

His visit to Sopron signaled the beginning of a road show that includes visits to all 23 cities labeled as “megyei jogú városok,” which simply means that these cities also take care of the business of the county in which they are situated although not all of them are county seats. According to plans, about 1,000-1,200 billion forints, coming largely from Brussels, will be spent on “modernizing” the infrastructure. Originally, the government planned to finish all the expressways that would connect these cities to “motorways” or superhighways only by 2020, but given the sorry state of Fidesz and the Orbán government, the decision was made to speed up the process and finish the work by 2018, i.e., before the next election. In addition to an expressway between Sopron and Győr (M1), money would go for renovations of “church and government buildings” in Sopron and for the development of a tourist center at Lake Fertő. The expressway itself would cost more than 100 billion forints.

This “modernization” for Orbán means that “anyone crossing the border between Austria and Hungary wouldn’t notice any difference in quality.” But, of course, we know that not everything depends on new paint on buildings and an expressway leading into the city. What is missing on the Hungarian side cannot be remedied by road building and renovation. What is lacking is a forward-looking government and population.

On April 10 Orbán visited Eger, where the goodies coming from Brussels were more modest than in Sopron–only 30 billion forints. In addition to another expressway, Eger would receive a “national swimming and waterpolo centrum” to the tune of six billion forints. This center will be grandiose: several pools, “not just one or two.” After all, “let’s dream of great things, and do it right,” he said. I guess after the stadiums we can expect many, many swimming centers, which actually makes more sense than the stadium building mania for the nonexistent Hungarian football players. At least Hungarian swimmers and water polo players are world famous. Another six billion will be spent on the famous castle where in 1552 the Hungarian forces successfully defended the town from the Turkish invaders. Mind you, in 1596 Eger fell anyway and became part of the Ottoman Empire. An industrial center will be built, waiting for investors who will be able to reach Eger more easily after the expressway is built to M3.

The next stop was Zalaegerszeg. Another expressway by 2018 and another swimming pool with a recreation center. The city will also build a pilgrimage center devoted to József Mindszenty, the last Prince Primate of Hungary. Mindszenty became a parish priest in the Church of Mária Magdolna in Zalaegerszeg in 1919 and spent almost twenty years there. Although his beatification has been pending since 1996, it looks as if the city fathers of Zalaegerszeg are optimistic about the final outcome. I have no idea how popular such a pilgrimage center will be, but it looks as if the mayor and the city council consider it a good business opportunity.

Of course, the roadshow is not over. There are twenty more cities to visit.

I find the Orbán government’s sudden interest in modernity curious. If anything, Viktor Orbán is a man of the past. Even before he became prime minister in 2010, he fought tooth and nail against modern shopping habits. It’s enough to think of his crusade against the government’s plans to allow over-the-counter medications to be sold outside of pharmacies. And the government’s newly introduced Sunday store closings are supposed to favor small business owners and punish the large supermarket chains.

modernityYes, in the last fifty years or so small business owners have been pushed out of the market. It is sad. Where are the small bookstores? Few of them survive. The small pharmacy I used to visit even in the 1980s is gone. Pharmacies have been replaced by chains. Some large retail outlets, like Walmart, have their own pharmacies. There are fewer and fewer flower shops because every supermarket sells flowers. Certain professions have completely disappeared. For example, typesetting. But there is nothing new about that. After all, when Gutenberg introduced movable type, within a few years scribes lost their jobs. To try to stop these developments by government edict is more than foolhardy. Such an attempt can bring only disaster–backwardness and poverty. Moreover, it is hopeless. Anyone who attempts to stop the clock, unless it is Kim Jong-un in isolated North Korea, is doomed to failure.