Tag Archives: oligarchs

Conservative economists on Hungary’s prospects

It was exactly a year ago that I wrote about the “József Eötvös Group,” organized by a number of conservative economists and legal scholars. In the choice of its name, the group honors József Eötvös (1813-1871), who was minister of education in 1848 and again between 1867 and 1871. Eötvös, along with Ferenc Deák and István Széchenyi, is one of the few admirable nineteenth-century Hungarian politicians whose moderating influence was eventually overshadowed by nationalist politicians with little wisdom.

Eötvös was a writer of some renown who joined the turbulent political life of the 1840s. One of his political aims was the reform of the inhuman conditions of Hungarian prisons. He also worked on the theoretical foundations of a future Hungarian parliamentary system and made sure that it became part of the program of the opposition. He served briefly as minister of education in the Batthyány government (March-October 1848). When, after the Compromise of 1867, he became minister of education again, he was at last able to put his ideas into practice. In the first few months parliament passed his bill for the emancipation of the Jews. A short while later, he completed a reform of the Hungarian school system. Finally, the Nationality Law of 1868 became the law of the land, which was a liberal document at the time.

Robert A. Kann in his monumental book A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918, called Eötvös an enlightened man and added that “had Eötvös’s and Deák’s spirit prevailed, the Hungarian treatment of national groups might not have been inferior to that administered by the Austrian authorities.” Today we would call him a liberal conservative. He is a perfect fit for those liberal-conservative intellectuals who want to offer an alternative to Viktor Orbán’s populism. Interestingly, liberal members of MSZP turned to Ferenc Deák as their idol and established the Ferenc Deák Circle. The two groups are not that far apart ideologically.

The Eötvös Group holds regular open meetings on defined topics. A year ago, when I reported on one of the group’s meetings, the theme was the nature of Viktor Orbán’s system. The key speaker was András Körösényi, a political scientist, who described Fidesz’s world as a political system based on Viktor Orbán’s “oligarchic interests.” It doesn’t really matter where Orbán’s critics come from: their ideas are quite similar. For instance, the liberal Bálint Magyar describes the same phenomenon as a mafia state.

Source: index.hu

This time the topic was the sorry state of the Hungarian economy. While the government is in the midst of a campaign to sell the idea that the economy is booming, the two economists who delivered lectures at the meeting, Tamás Mellár and László Csaba, painted a different, quite grim picture.

It is perhaps telling that while a year ago only a handful of people were interested in the group’s lectures and discussions, this time the place was packed. In fact, extra chairs had to be added, and even then some people had to stand.

Tamás Mellár told his audience that ever since the 1970s for every 1% in economic growth 2.5% of funding has been needed. Thus, between 2001 and 2010, a 17% economic growth required 34% in additional funding. The situation became worse between 2010 and 2015 when, to achieve 10% economic growth, the country needed 35% in additional resources. Most of this came from the European Union, but some of the money came from the nationalization of the private pension plans, loans, and depletion of some of the foreign currency reserves of the Hungarian National Bank. That cannot go on, Mellár declared.

What does Mellár suggest after the removal of the Orbán government? As far as economic measures are concerned, a new government will have to abolish the flat tax introduced by the Orbán government and replace it with a progressive income tax. He would also introduce a wealth or equity tax on the total value of personal assets over a certain limit, which would be one possible way of recapturing some of the public wealth stolen by Orbán’s oligarchs. Instead of forced industrialization, the government should pay attention to new technologies, new business solutions, education, and research. But in order to see any change, Hungarians must break out of the apathy that currently exists in the country. “Now there is no Russian pressure anymore. This time we ourselves caused all this trouble, and we must be the ones who get us out of it.”

Although the government’s predictions for next year are optimistic, László Csaba sees little hope for the expected great economic growth. Interest rates in the United States will most likely rise, and who knows what Donald Trump will be up to. Meanwhile, there is the refugee crisis, populism, low economic growth in Europe, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, slowing emerging markets, and unpredictable oil prices. One cannot count on European Union subsidies forever. Hungary must rely on itself.

He is convinced that “without comprehensive reform of the education system there is no hope.” The government should leave higher education alone. Instead of constantly reorganizing colleges and universities, the government should concentrate on kindergartens and elementary schools because these are the crucial years where students’ futures are decided. As far as the government’s economic predictions promising high growth are concerned, “they are completely unfounded.” Hungarian GDP at the moment, calculated in U.S. dollars, still hasn’t reached its 2008 level. This is worrisome even if it includes the fact that the forint is now weaker against the dollar. “We don’t have enough capital, we don’t have enough manpower, we spend too little on research and development, and the external environment is not favorable. In fact, the only increase we can expect is an increase in debt.” As for the government propaganda regarding recent tax reductions, it is a sham because for each tax cut there are many new increases elsewhere. “There is a feeling of hopelessness in the country.” He concluded his talk with a Seneca quotation: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

Still, there are some hopeful signs. The Momentum Movement’s introductory meeting was filled with interested people. The young organizers urged the audience to ask them questions about their political plans. On the very first day the activists gathered 10,000 signatures of the mandatory 138,000 and by now they reached almost 40,000. People have been standing in line to add their names to the list. The government seems to be taken aback; they didn’t expect such an enthusiastic reception to an anti-Olympics drive. Therefore, attacks on the group began in earnest in the many government-financed newspapers and internet news sites. Since the topic of the Eötvös Group’s next gathering will be “Do we need an Olympics?” pestisrácok naturally discovered a close connection between the learned economists and the young political hopefuls, which apparently does exist. All in all, one can see some early signs of a societal awakening.

January 22, 2017

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

Conspiracy theories in Hungary

Five years ago Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank, published a survey on Hungarian attitude toward conspiracy theories. The result of that study showed that it was mostly Jobbik voters who had a strong predilection for believing in theories suggesting that secret forces are responsible for the state of our world. Publicus Intézet recently conducted a similar survey, which found that the “disease,” most likely due to Viktor Orbán’s consistent, relentless propaganda, has since spread to include a large minority of Fidesz voters as well. Although in Publicus Intézet’s assessment, the typical paranoid who believes in conspiracy theories is someone with a low level of educational attainment who votes for either Jobbik or Fidesz, paranoid impulses are widespread in Hungarian society.

One good piece of news, even though it might be categorized as quasi-conspiratorial, is that 41% of the people surveyed think that it is not the cabinet, the government if you will, that runs the affairs of the country. The spread of opinions on who is in charge is wide. Sixteen percent of the respondents named Viktor Orbán as the sole decision maker, saying that members of the government are powerless tools in his hands. Left-wingers especially (35% of them) think that Orbán is a kind of dictator. But those (11%) who claim that domestic business groups run the country are also most likely not exactly friends of the Orbán government. The same should be true of those who named “a few Fidesz politicians, Habony and Fidesz oligarchs” (7%) as the culprits. Finally, there is another 7% who rather vaguely point to “people, groups of domestic political life.” Forty-one percent is a very high number, especially since 30% of those questioned either didn’t have an answer or refused to respond.

The above group thinks that Hungary is being run by domestic forces, just not the government. There is a second group that accuses foreigners of interference in Hungary’s internal affairs. Thirteen percent are convinced that the country is actually run by international financial circles (13%) which may be a code name for Jewish financiers and businessmen. Six percent believe that the strings are in the hands of the European Union while 4% blame the United States. Specific references to Jews were low (2%).

Once these figures are broken down by party preferences, it becomes clear that Jobbik and Fidesz voters are the most prone to fall for conspiracy theories. The difference between the two groups is marked on only one question: 10% of Jobbik voters are certain that Jews are the ones who actually run the country while among Fidesz voters this number is only 2%.

George Soros was one of the subjects of the survey, which was appropriate in light of the government’s furious anti-Soros campaign of late. Soros became a prominent scapegoat  through Viktor Orbán’s mysterious references to “háttérhatalom/háttérhatalmak,” which I translated as “clandestine power/s.” As far as I can figure out, this clandestine power consists of the U.S. government, the Clintons, George Soros, and the civic organizations financed by him. According to government propaganda, Soros is supporting Hillary Clinton financially for the sole purpose of electing someone president of the United States who has an unfavorable view of the Orbán government. This propaganda, interestingly, seems to have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Only 19% of the people think that Soros and unnamed “clandestine powers” influence Hungarian politics, and a whopping 65% think that “this is just a communication strategy to direct attention away from other serious domestic problems.”

Soros’s name came up on two more occasions. The answers to these questions show that about 30% of Hungarians believe that “George Soros personally has something to do with the refugee crisis” as opposed to 41% who believe otherwise. Note that a lot of people couldn’t or didn’t want to answer. The same was true about Soros’s attitude toward the Hungarian government. To the question whether “he intends to overthrow the Hungarian government” 29% answered in the affirmative. These are high numbers, especially since only 40% think that these accusations are bonkers.

General questions about the refugee crisis show the depth of Hungarians’ confusion over the issue. Seventy-one percent of the respondents believe that “the goal of the refugee crisis is the weakening of Europe.” It is equally worrisome that 53% of the people believe that “American interest groups intentionally generated the refugee crisis.” It is also discouraging that 62% think that “a small elite controls the whole world.” Finally, on another level, 25% of the population believe in the deliberate spraying of people with poisonous materials (chemtrails).

New World Order

It seems to me that Hungarians are more prone to these bizarre conspiracy theories than some other nations. Given my time constraints, I checked only a few U.S. figures on identical questions. A few years ago PPP (Public Policy Polling) found that 28% of American voters believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world. Compare that to the Hungarian figure of 62%. As for chemtrails, only 5% of Americans believe the story of poisonous spraying as opposed to 25% in Hungary. I might add that Republicans are more prone to believe such theories than Democrats, just as in Hungary right-wing voters are more apt to believe in conspiracy theories than liberals and left-wingers.

Although a large majority of Hungarians (79%) admitted that the problem with these theories is that we cannot know how much is true and how much not, still 41% of those questioned think that by “following these theories one gets a more realistic picture than if one tries to get information through official channels.” Decades of government secrecy and disinformation are at the bottom of this skepticism. Unfortunately, the Orbán government’s strategy of blaming “hidden forces” of conspiring against the defenseless Hungarians heightens the paranoid strains that are already strong in the population. The number of believers in these incredible stories has grown in the last five years. The negative effects of the Orbán government’s views can be felt everywhere.

June 19, 2016

How to ruin a businessman with government help? The case of the famed Zsolnay porcelain factory

Zsolt Páva made quite a splash back in October 2009, right after he became the mayor of Pécs in a by-election. One of his first acts was the forcible takeover of the city’s hydroelectric company with a view to expropriating the 48% of the company’s shares owned by Suez Environment, a French company. At 3:00 a.m. security men occupied the headquarters of the firm on the orders of the mayor, and when the employees arrived, they prevented 13 people belonging to the upper and middle management of the company from entering. Prior to the “lock-out” the city fathers, including the MSZP members of the council, had set up a new company with a modest 5 million forint investment.

The optimistic city fathers were sure that Suez would gladly sell their shares for very little money. Wrong. Two years later Suez filed a claim at the Vienna International Arbitration Court seeking €32.3 million (more than 10 billion forints) in compensation for revenue lost. The parties eventually settled for a payment of 3 billion forints, which the city of Pécs was unable to come up. The bill was eventually paid by the Orbán government. At that time I wrote a post titled “Foreign investors in Hungary beware: Pécs and Suez Environment.” The Pécs incident occurred months before Viktor Orbán became prime minister, but surely Páva acted with the encouragement of if not at the instigation of Fidesz. And the case foreshadowed the kinds of crude attacks on foreign businesses that the Orbán government has pursued since.

Now, Páva and the businessmen behind him are embarking on a similar adventure, but this one is unlikely to have the same sorry end that the Suez escapade did. Because this time, it seems, everything will be done “in house.” The city will simply be an intermediary, eventually passing the Zsolnay Porcelánmanufaktura on to a Fidesz oligarch. The methods being employed are akin to those used in the Suez takeover. Just as then, the city has established a new company. It has enticed the majority of the approximately 150 workers to abandon Zsolnay in favor of the new city-owned company. The aim is a forcible takeover of private property.

Vintage Zsolnay vase, ca. 1870

Vintage Zsolnay vase, ca. 1870

Zsolnay became internationally famous in the late nineteenth century thanks to a distinctive style combined with innovative materials. The eosin process was one such innovation, used especially in the art nouveau period. After 1948 the factory was nationalized, and its products bore no resemblance to vintage Zsolnay.

Zsolnay’s exquisite porcelain creations wouldn’t have been enough to keep the factory going. What made it profitable was the invention of pyrogranite, an ornamental ceramic product that is fired at a high temperature. This process makes it acid- and frost-resistant, and thus suitable for use as roof tiles and other outdoor decorative ceramics. Pyrogranite was developed by 1886, just in time for the millennial building frenzy that provided Zsolnay with fantastic business opportunities. Apparently today it is the factory’s tiles that makes the business so attractive as a take-over target.

The current owner of the Zsolnay factory is Bachar Najari, a Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss businessman who arrived in Hungary in 1970 as an exchange student. He is married to a Hungarian and speaks the language fluently. He decided to come to the rescue of Zsolnay for the sake of his wife, who felt very strongly about the survival of this famous porcelain factory.

After 1990 there were many attempts to revive the 150-year-old company, but with no success. The owner just before Najari was so exasperated that he “sold back” the factory to the City of Pécs for one forint.

In 2013 Najari bought 74.5% of the shares from the city for 180 million forints and promised to invest 500 million forints into the enterprise. At the time of the purchase the company had a deficit of 268 million forints, but two years later the loss was only 54.1 million forints. There was also an outstanding loan of 413 million forints taken out by an earlier owner. It is this loan that, in conjunction with the “pillage” of Zsolnay workers, is now being used to wrest Zsolnay from Najari.

The loan was extended by the state-owned Hungarian Development Bank (MFB), whose “core tasks include the provision of funding for growth under favorable terms and conditions to Hungarian enterprises, supporting the long-term development objectives of the state, and obtaining funds from money markets for these purposes.” According to the original agreement with Najari, the city of Pécs was supposed to negotiate with the MFB to convince it to forgive this old loan for the sake of saving the factory. The bank in fact didn’t press Najari to do anything about the loan. But then suddenly, on May 18, MFB informed him that he had 15 days to pay it back in toto.

It is hard to escape the suspicion that the Hungarian government is complicit in this affair. Months ago Zsolnay was declared an “economic organization enjoying strategic priority,” a status that allows the government, if necessary, to take over the liquidation of the company.

The company that the city of Pécs established to squeeze Najari by hiring away his workers will probably become the new owner of record. But the city is unlikely to remain the owner for long. Attila Paár, a Fidesz oligarch, is very interested in buying the factory. In fact, his company has already purchased MFB’s claim against Najari.

Paár is the owner of the West Hungária Bau company, which was in charge of the restoration of the Várkert Bazár. Paár’s name may also be familiar to readers of Hungarian Spectrum because he was the person who “bought” Elios Zrt. when the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office started looking into Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law’s company.

Museum of Applied Arts

Museum of Applied Arts

Why is Paár so eager to buy Zsolnay at this junction? First of all, in the last two and a half years Najari and his wife have considerably improved the financial situation of the company, which was desperate straits at the time of their purchase. Among other things, they have invested a billion forints in the company. Second, several important buildings in Budapest will be reconstructed in the near future, among them the Museum of Applied Arts, whose whole roof was originally covered with pyrogranite tiles made by Zsolnay. The building where the ministry of economy will move in the Castle District also had a Zsolnay roof. As far as Fidesz is concerned, these projects, financed mostly by the European Union, should benefit those Hungarians who are steadfast supporters of the Orbán regime. Najari, who was born in Syria, doesn’t cut it.

June 17,2016

Ferenc Gyurcsány’s latest political road map

As an illustration of how little Viktor Orbán’s minions understand and respect democracy, it is worth recalling Szilárd Németh’s comment about the “outlandish” announcement of Ferenc Gyurcsány after the municipal elections on October 12 that “he will do everything in his power to defeat the Orbán government.” He added that to this end Gyurcsány has solicited “foreign help” in the person of André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest. Németh, by the way, happens to be one of the most unsavory characters in Orbán’s entourage. He is currently the deputy whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation.

Well, if Németh thought that for an opposition party to strive to defeat the Orbán government at the next election is tantamount to treason, he and his fellow Fidesz politicians will have a heyday with Gyurcsány’s announcement at the Demokratikus Koalíció’s congress today. There he declared his hope that the Orbán government will fall by 2016, two years ahead of the scheduled national election.

Politicians of the opposition parties have been reticent to express their views on the civic movements that have cropped up lately, with a new cast of characters.Their restraint is understandable given the organizers’ reluctance to be associated with parties. Any party. At the same time we know that there can be no parliamentary democracy without parties and that sooner or later the civic groups and the politicians will have to come to an understanding.

Gyurcsány decided to break the silence. Whether it was wise or not only time will tell, but at least he came out with the outline of a program, which is more than his fellow politicians on the left have done. Here I will summarize the speech he delivered this morning. I am relying on three independent sources–Népszabadság, Népszavaand Hir24because their reporters were on the spot and filed their reports prior to the appearance of MTI‘s summary.

Let me start with some of the new ideas that appeared in this speech. Earlier, Gyurcsány, while admitting the “mistakes” of the past, wanted to return to 1989 and restore the constitution of that year. Now he is thinking in terms of a new constitution and a new republic. That new constitution should decrease the power of the state and widen the rights of the people, who could express their wishes more directly through referendums. To hold referendums was very difficult in Hungary even before 2010, but since then Viktor Orbán has made sure that the governed have practically no opportunity “to interfere” with the work of his government. With this shift Gyurcsány was obviously responding to the majority view that politics even prior to 2010 was misguided and that it does not provide an appropriate model for future governance.

Source: Népszabadság / photo by Zsolt Reviczky

Source: Népszabadság / photo by Zsolt Reviczky

While he was at it, Gyurcsány introduced his own program without calling it that. One may question the feasibility of some of the items on his wish list, but at least he put them out for public response. He emphasized that although it will be the street demonstrations that will put pressure on the government to resign, these demonstrations must be peaceful.  Meanwhile the opposition forces must prepare themselves for the eventuality that in a couple of years they must be ready to govern and not find themselves in “a democratic chaos.” As far as foreign policy is concerned, a clear commitment must be made to the West. The “double dealing,” the shuttling between Moscow and Brussels must come to an end. As far as domestic changes are concerned,  the courts and the prosecutor’s office must become independent again. The media must be freed from its current stranglehold. People should be able to establish churches of their own choosing. NGOs should be allowed to do their jobs. An independent “anti-corruption office” should be set up. And something must be done about the growing poverty of ab0ut half of the population.

He spent some time on corruption and the world of the oligarchs, pointing out that “the number one oligarch is Viktor Orbán himself,” something that, in my opinion, many people don’t seem to realize when they demand the removal of “corrupt officials” only.

He spent a long time analyzing the current political situation and offering possible answers to it. He pointed out that Fidesz’s achievement of gaining a super majority again did not result in “the stabilization of Viktor Orbán’s power.” On the contrary, it roused people’s ire because of the arbitrary decisions of a government whose support has been decreasing over the years. In a democratic country there is “correction” from within, but in a tyranny one can only revolt. “The Hungarian parliamentary system is practically dead,” and therefore national resistance remains the only option.

Gyurcsány, unlike some other former liberal politicians, said that the disappointment, anger, and passion of the organizers of the demonstrations are perfectly understandable. He was happy to see the flags of the European Union at the demonstrations because that means that they opt for the democracy of the West, not the tyranny of the East. One ought not be surprised, he added, that no programs have been formulated by the organizers of these demonstrations because, after all, first one must reject the current political system. The young organizers have to decide whether they are willing to join an already existing party or whether they want to create one of their own. In either case, they must understand that “there is no parliamentary democracy without parties.” Yes, he knows that the civic leaders who organized the demonstrations are suspicious of politics and politicians. But politics is not dirty by itself; only corrupt politicians make it so.

The Fidesz propaganda machine needed less than an hour after the reports on the DK congress became public to react. The short statement has all the hallmarks of classic Fidesz propaganda: Ferenc Gyurcsány only a few days ago pretended that “he was an elegant stranger who kept himself away from the demonstrations, but by Saturday it became clear that he lied. He admitted that in fact it is the Left that is behind the demonstrations.” According to the government party, “the chairman of the opposition party admitted that the only goal of the demonstrations is the overthrow of the government and he is willing to use all means to obtain this end with force.” That short statement says a lot about the propaganda machine of Fidesz. Unfortunately, misinformation, lying if you wish, is the trademark of the present Hungarian government.

Bálint Magyar’s post-communist mafia state: front men, transaction brokers, and gatekeepers

Yesterday we left off with a description of the kinds of oligarchs who play an important role in Viktor Orbán’s mafia state. Today we move on to the front men (stróman/Strohmann) and their function in the system. According to Bálint Magyar’s definition, they are people without formal position either in politics or in the economic sphere who “serve as bridges between legitimate and illegitimate realms.”

Magyar identifies two kinds of stróman, political and economic. The political front men are people who originally came from Fidesz itself and were put in important government and parliamentary positions–for instance, president of the parliament and president of the Hungarian Republic. Soon enough the leader extended the circle from which he could choose people for key positions. They were either relatives or close friends, or friends of friends. Such appointees can be found heading the prosecutor’s office and the National Office of Justice. Eventually, he drew from employees of companies owned by members of the political family–managers, accountants, lawyers–to fill posts in the ministries. These people are front men of the poligarchs, only instruments, not autonomous actors. In this mafia state the majority of government officials fall into the category of political front men.

An originally Fidesz-appointed stróman after a couple of years can be removed and replaced by another Fidesz-appointed individual, as we have observed recently. Magyar’s explanation is that some of the original appointees owed their allegiance to top poligarchs, for example, Lajos Simicska and his business partner, Zsolt Nyerges. Because of the internal power struggle that is currently going on between Simicska and Viktor Orbán, several of Simicska’s front men have been removed from important positions, like the Hungarian Development Bank and the Ministry of National Development. Perhaps the best example of such a personnel change occurred a few months ago in the Ministry of National Development which was considered to be the stronghold of the Simicska-Nyerges poligarchic duo. Here, after the election, Viktor Orbán replaced Mrs. László Németh, clearly a puppet of Simicska, with his own man, Miklós Seszták, a crooked lawyer. Seszták then fired 200 people from the staff of the ministry, which Magyar calls a bloodless decapitation.

The economic front men act like proxies of the poligarchs, although oligarchs can also have their own front men if for one reason or other they want to hide their presence in an enterprise. Some of the money accumulated by these people eventually ends up in the poligarchs’ secret bank accounts.

What are the characteristics of the economic ventures of strómans? (1) With practically no capital or expertise they receive large state orders. (2) The increase or decrease of their economic activities depends not on economic but on political cycles. They often receive tenders when they are the sole bidders. (3) They act as gateways to the state. They collect the profits generated by large bona fide companies which themselves would be able to do the job but which are are forced to work as subcontractors. (4) Profits of these companies are much larger than of companies not politically connected. (5) The managements of these companies pay themselves inordinately large dividends. Normally, especially in the case of a new company, most of the profit is reinvested in the firm. But these companies don’t have to worry about business expansion. It is the subcontractor’s headache. (6) While successful companies without political connections often encounter aggressive takeover attempts by the government, the companies of strómans never have to worry about such an eventuality.

In sum, the basic goal of the mafia state is the elimination of autonomous positions in the political, economic and societal spheres and their transformation into a patron-client relationship. The men whose names appear in the regularly published list of the most influential Hungarians are all dependent on the good will of Viktor Orbán, be they politicians, entrepreneurs or university professors.

In addition to oligarchs and front men, there is another group of people Magyar calls transaction brokers who are mediators between the actors in illegitimate transactions. These people are often lawyers who are involved in writing grant applications, for example. They are the ones who have the personal network that can facilitate the transaction between, let’s say, the government bureaucracy in charge of monies coming from Brussels and the applicants. Transaction brokers, mostly law firms and institutes attached to ministries, by now have taken over some of the functions of ministries. They are the ones who actually write legislative proposals submitted by individual members of parliament.

There are two types of transaction brokers. One is the so-called gatekeeper who works from inside the administration and who defends and legitimizes illegitimate businesses. The other is the representative broker who by the size of his business could in fact be an oligarch but who is only an economic stróman.

Finally, Magyar spends some time on the nature of the family’s guard and the secret services. One of the very first decisions of Viktor Orbán after he became prime minister was to create a large force of personal bodyguards misleadingly named the Anti-Terror Center (TEK). In addition, there are private security firms often owned by Fidesz oligarchs that have the support of the police or TEK. Magyar even includes in this category the infamous soccer fans of Fradi, a club headed by government functionaries. These football fans can be mobilized if necessary as they were in the fall of 2006. Fidesz again called them out in 2013 when a few students surrounded the Fidesz headquarters. TEK itself has practically limitless powers. Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior under whom the police force functions, is a stróman of Viktor Orbán.

Viktor Orbán and his old body guard, János Hajdu From major to brigadier general overnight

Viktor Orbán and his old body guard, János Hajdu
From major to brigadier general overnight

Supervision of the secret services, since there are several of them, has always been close to Fidesz poligarchs’ hearts. Magyar recalls that in 1990 when Gábor Demszky became mayor of Budapest he resigned his seat in parliament. The chairmanship of the parliamentary committee overseeing the activities of the secret services thus became vacant. Fidesz insisted that the post should go to one of its own. László Kövér was chosen. Until 2005 Fidesz through this committee managed to keep the secret services under its influence. In 2006 the governing socialists closed the secret services’ avenues to Fidesz by firing a number of people known for their close ties to Kövér and others in Fidesz. These Fidesz loyalists who found themselves without a job established their own private concerns and continued their spying activities through old friends still employed by the government. As soon as Fidesz won the election, these people were immediately rehired. Earlier there was a minister whose sole job was the supervision of the activities of the secret services, but after 2010 Sándor Pintér took over this role. Thus both the police and the secret services report to him.

I still have covered only half of the introductory essay by Bálint Magyar. Time permitting, I will continue my summary sometime in the future. However, I think that today’s and yesterday’s posts give you an idea of how Orbán’s mafia state functions. Dismantling it will not be an easy task when the time comes.

Bálint Magyar’s “systemic characteristics of the post-communist mafia state”

Earlier I published several reports on Bálint Magyar’s theory of the mafia state. In fact, I devoted three consecutive posts, the first of which appeared on June 18, 2013, to his description of Orbán’s system of government as a new kind of autocratic regime. Magyar’s analysis of the current Hungarian political system elicited widespread attention in Hungary as well as hundreds of comments on Hungarian Spectrum.

A few months later (November 2013) Bálint Magyar and Júlia Vásárhelyi published an edited volume of essays written by twenty-two scholars from different disciplines who embrace the theoretical framework Bálint Magyar worked out in the first decade of the century. Its title was Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State. The book became an instant bestseller. More than 11,000 copies were sold within a few months. It had to be reprinted four times. I wrote a review of it on Hungarian Spectrum. Again the review prompted a lively discussion, some people finding Magyar’s argument compelling while others disagreed with him. In any case, since the appearance of Hungarian Octopus, the concept has been widely accepted by scholars as well as by the left-leaning Hungarian public. Those who are familiar with the workings of the Orbán regime find Magyar’s description of it a perfect fit.

Book Launch of Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State Source: Népszava

Book launch of volume 2 of Hungarian Octopus: The Post-Communist Mafia State
Source: Népszava

The second volume of Hungarian Octopus has just been published, and it is fascinating. In his introduction Magyar takes into consideration some of the criticisms and additional observations he received during discussions of the contents of the first volume. This introductory essay is so full of information and novel observations that I will most likely have to devote another post to it. But let’s start.

First, Magyar describes the key actors of the mafia state. He begins with the economic-political actors whom Magyar calls “poligarchs” whose ranks include several subcategories: the oligarchs, the front men (in Hungarian stróman/ok), corruption brokers, the family guard/the secret service, and the family privatization of databases. Let me go into some of the details.

Who belong to the class of poligarchs? These are people who attained illegitimate wealth by being members of the political family. Their political power is known but their economic power, their wealth is hidden. They use front men; their money is often hidden in foundations. The chief poligarch is the Godfather–in our case, the prime minister.

Beneath the poligarchs comes the class of oligarchs who began their careers with legitimate business activities and who, as a result of their economic power, acquired political might. In ordinary post-communist states their economic activities are legal, but the way in which they acquire business opportunities often is not. They acquire advantages over their competitors by illegal means. They are, however, more or less autonomous actors. But in Hungary, Magyar argues, the mafia state makes these oligarchs’ autonomy impossible or very limited. As he puts it, “it domesticates” them. They are partly or wholly dependent on the good will of the state.

Magyar distinguishes several type of oligarchs. There are the inner circle oligarchs. They have been close to Fidesz from the early 1990s on, and in part they have accumulated their wealth through their political connections. Currently, they don’t have any political roles but they belong to the small circle of people who are able to formulate policy. A good example of this sub-type is Lajos Simicska. Of course, any of these oligarchs can lose their positions if the Godfather finds their activities objectionable. A couple of the original oligarchs actually ended up in jail when they got involved in illicit activities.

Another sub-category of the oligarchic class is the adopted oligarchs. These people made their wealth during the early murky days of mass privatization, and it was only later that they were adopted by the political family. Their connection to politics now enhances their financial position. Examples of this type are Gábor Széles, owner of the extreme right-wing Magyar Hírlap and Echo TV, and László Baldauf, owner of the CBA chain of supermarkets. These people only serve the policies of the Family;  they can’t influence them.

The next category is the capitulated oligarchs who earlier were quite independent; some were even associated with the other political side. Their capitulation is due to their dependence on state orders. Since they were not considered to be affiliated with the Family in any way, they fell on hard times after 2010. In addition to the lack of orders, the state has all sorts of instruments to make them surrender: the internal revenue service, prosecutor’s office, police. A typical representative of this group is Tamás Leisztinger, who suffered economic hardship already during the first Orbán administration and who by now is the willing or unwilling financier of the prime minister’s hobby, football.

Then there are the fellow traveler oligarchs. These men were the greatest economic beneficiaries of the first twenty-year period after the change of regime. They were sought after by both the left and the right, and they kept an equal distance or equal friendship with both groups. After 2006 the equilibrium between the two political sides shifted toward Fidesz, which forced them to be fellow travelers unless they wanted to lose their preeminent economic positions. Sándor Csányi of OTP and Sandor Demján of Trigánit are perfect examples of this category.

The last two sub-categories are the autonomous and the rival oligarchs. Their numbers are rapidly decreasing. Some of these people are so afraid of the chief poligarch that they dare not support liberal causes at all.

Although I thought I would be able to describe the other key actors of the mafia state today, the story is so intriguing that I don’t want to shortchange you by not covering the details properly. We will continue tomorrow.