Viktor Orbán, accompanied by his wife and a 98-member delegation, visited Vietnam and Singapore between September 22 and 27. Here I will concentrate on the trip to Vietnam.
We know that Orbán is a great admirer of the authoritarian regime of the People’s Action Party in Singapore, which has won every election since the introduction of self-government. The regime is known for its low level of press freedom and restrictions on civil liberties and political rights. So, the affinity Orbán feels toward the city state is genuine. In fact, he alluded to the similarities of the Singaporean and Hungarian political systems in his press conference held after his meeting with Prime Minister Li Hsien Loong. But in Singapore Orbán could only ask the rich businessmen of the Lion City to come and invest in Hungary.
The situation is different in Vietnam, where Hungary would like to sell and invest. This is a far more interesting topic, as far as I’m concerned. Also, I was lucky enough to happen upon a long, detailed description of the trip in an English-language Vietnamese source, which contained information the Hungarian government failed to share with the Hungarian public.
In connection with the Vietnamese trip, the Hungarian media has been preoccupied with two topics. First, the luxury VIP charter plane that the Hungarian delegation used and, second, the construction of a 500-bed hospital for cancer patients in Can Tho, the fourth largest city in Vietnam, with an interest-free Hungarian loan of $60 million. The first was greeted by the public as an unnecessary luxury; the second, with outrage.
After the discovery that the plane used by the Hungarian delegation was an Airbus A340 VIP with 100 lie-flat seats, the non-governmental media took every opportunity to show the luxurious interior of the aircraft. Zoom.hu even provided a brief video of the interior, including the restroom. Of course, the public wanted to know how much this cost the taxpayers, but the figures are not available. Journalists did learn from Bertalan Havasi, press secretary of the prime minister, that the plane was not leased. Rather, the seats were individually purchased. Businessmen who accompany Viktor Orbán and government ministers normally buy their own tickets. This time only four ministers traveled to Hanoi and Singapore, but it is unlikely that the rest of the seats were occupied by paying Hungarian businessmen because from a Vietnamese source I learned that “more than 40 businessmen” accompanied the prime minister and the four cabinet members. That probably means that a lot of lower-ranking members of the government traveled on that plane.
Once the excitement subsided over the luxury plane, people started focusing on the construction of the hospital in Can Tho, a project that, given the state of Hungarian healthcare, elicited some four-letter words from a normally more sanguine blogger, a cancer victim, who told his sad story of what he had to go through in order to receive prompt medical attention in Budapest.
Actually, the story of the Vietnamese hospital is quite curious. Orbán announced the construction of the hospital as a brand new agreement between the two countries, but the truth is that it has been on the back burner for exactly eight years. On September 25, 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai signed an identical agreement with Prime Minister Nguen Tan Dung during the latter’s visit to Budapest. It was also an interest-free $60 million loan, to be paid back in 18 years. In return, Hungarian businessmen would be the general contractors of the project.
A few months after the agreement was signed, elections were held in Hungary and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz won. It was during the second Orbán government (2010-2014) that bidding on the project began, a process that was not exactly transparent. As 24.hu found out, the tender, despite its size and international significance, was announced only on the website of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Békés County. Only two companies applied. Five years ago the winners, a consortium of Novotrading Medical Kft. and KÉSZ Group, won the tender. The latter advertises itself as “one of Hungary’s largest construction companies,” which “built the Nation’s Main Square.” Novotrading Kft. is a bit more mysterious since it is registered as a wholesaler of pharmaceuticals and medical products.
But something went very wrong. KÉSZ Group might have done a decent enough job on the reconstruction of Kossuth tér, but building a hospital in Can Tho was a very different cup of tea. The city is situated in the Mekong Delta, and it is built on marshy land full of canals. It has even a “floating market” that can be approached only by boat. Structures must be built on piles. Apparently because of a faulty calculation, the strength of the piles was misjudged. Even before the construction began, the mistake was discovered and the tender was cancelled. Although the Vietnamese were still interested, the Orbán government abandoned the project.
Whether Hungarian construction companies are today better equipped to deal with the special project of building a large hospital on piles in the Mekong Delta I have no idea, but the Vietnamese are still enthusiastic about the project, especially since Hungary, in addition to the $60 million, promised a further loan of $300 million, which may be increased in the future.
And finally, a few tidbits that Viktor Orbán and his entourage failed to pass on to the Hungarian people. First, Viktor Orbán’s trip was an important event in Hanoi. At least this is the impression I got from the very enthusiastic description of the visit by vietnamnet.vn. Orbán was received by the president, the president of the national assembly, the prime minister, and the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong. He is the most powerful person in Vietnam since, in addition to being the general secretary of the party, he is also the secretary of the Central Military Commission and the de facto head of the Politburo.
Thanks to a Vietnamese news site, we know that Nguyen Phu Trong gave him “a warm welcome” and thanked him for “the Hungarian people’s valuable and efficient assistance to Vietnam’s liberation cause and nation building.” The party secretary “showed his support for stepping up the ties between the two governments and the ruling parties.” He also “spoke highly of the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two ruling parties and expressed his hope for furthering the ties with the Communist Party of Vietnam and heightening the bilateral relations in the coming time.” Well, well. What a surprise. Viktor Orbán is signing a memorandum of understanding between Fidesz and the Vietnamese Communist Party. The man whose government tried to banish the red star from Heineken’s logo and forced the issue of the red star all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, where his government roundly lost the case. Or, the man who insists that he rebuilt the train between Felcsút and Alcsútdoboz just because “the communists destroyed it.” President Barack Obama received Nguyen Phu Trong in the Oval Office in 2015, but surely he didn’t sign any “memorandum of understanding” with the general party secretary of Vietnam. Hungary’s prime minister didn’t have any such compunctions.
Orbán is at home with the extreme left as well as the extreme right. His sympathies for the extreme right were most likely demonstrated in a message he posted on his Facebook page while still in Hanoi: “Budapest gratulál // Budapest gratuliert!” TASS, the Russian news agency, was so intrigued by this “laconic” message that it devoted a whole article to it. As they wrote, “Viktor Orbán mysteriously congratulated Germany on the last elections to the Bundestag. It remains unknown whom Orbán was congratulating: German Chancellor Angela Merkel … or the right-populist party Alternative for Germany.” I believe that TASS had an idea what the right answer was. So do I.