Tag Archives: Pécs

Will Rosatom have its own airfield in Pécs?

A short while ago I devoted a post to the financial collapse of the City of Pécs, which, after many years as an MSZP stronghold, chose Zsolt Páva as its Fidesz mayor in October 2009. Within weeks it became evident that Viktor Orbán, in anticipation of his electoral victory, was using the city as a political laboratory. It was in Pécs that the new Fidesz leadership tried out the practice of “citywide consultations.” Páva sent questionnaires to the inhabitants, asking them questions to which the answer could only be “yes.” One of his most expensive moves, most likely at the urging of Fidesz, was the forcible takeover of the French share of the water company, which years later cost the city three billion forints in a legal settlement. The city’s attempt to take over the famed Zsolnay porcelain factory ended in failure due to the determination of the Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss owner. This was also a costly affair for Pécs because, in the course of the machinations to ruin Zsolnay, the city set up a rival company called Ledina Kerámia and enticed 150 Zsolnay employees to join the phantom firm. The city had to pay the wages of 150 workers for no work whatsoever.

These two financial ventures by themselves have been very costly, but they were only a small fraction of the enormous debt Zsolt Páva and the city council amassed in the last seven years. According to a new website called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), the city owes 7.5 billion forints, which apparently the national government will take over. That’s not all, however. There are several municipal-owned firms that are in the red to the tune of 10 billion forints. This is an enormous amount of money ($29 million) for a city of about 170,000 inhabitants with not much of a tax base. Viktor Orbán, while visiting the city at the end of August for the 650th anniversary of the founding of Hungary’s first university, established in Pécs, asserted that the city’s leadership got itself into this mess and they will have to pay for it.

I don’t think anyone knew at the time just what Orbán meant, but a few days ago local investigative journalists working for Szabad Pécs learned that the government is not planning to bail Pécs out without some kind of compensation. A week ago rumors began circulating in town that the city-owned Pécs-Pogány International Airport will be taken over by the government, which will in turn write off 2.8 billion forints of the city’s debt. On the face of it, such a government purchase wouldn’t be profitable. The number of passengers, which was over 6,000 in 2009, by 2014 had shrunk to 2,500. But the deal might actually be quite lucrative for the Orbán government because the airport will likely be leased to Rosatom, the Russian company that will build the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant. The distance between Paks and Pécs is almost 80 km, but the four-lane M-6 highway is sparsely traveled. Moreover, Mohács along the Danube is only 40 minutes from Pécs. Material could easily reach Paks via Mohács.

Pécs-Pogány International Airport

A few days after the appearance of Szabad Pécs’s article, a Russian delegation led by Alexey Likhachev, the CEO of Rosatom, visited the Pécs airport. He and his fellow Russians were accompanied by members of TEK, Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Center. The delegation first visited Paks. From there they traveled to Pécs to take a look at the airfield. The journalists of Szabad Pécs were on hand and took several photos. I may add that none of the local “government” news outlets said a word about either the government’s takeover of certain municipal assets in Pécs or the possible leasing of the Pécs airport to Rosatom.

The private plane of Alexey Likhachev, CEO of Rosatom, at the Pécs Airport

Despite the visit of Rosatom’s CEO to Pécs, János Lázár denied any knowledge of a deal that might exist between Rosatom and the Hungarian government. As he said, “this topic was not discussed at the cabinet meeting. We did talk about the situation in Pécs, but nothing was said about the exchange of property. As far as the airport is concerned, I read about it in the media.” Of course, the lack of discussion of the matter at a cabinet meeting doesn’t necessarily mean that such negotiations didn’t take place. But Lázár, as usual, went further. He claimed that “if that is important to Rosatom, it has to talk to the municipality. The government has no information, no knowledge of such negotiations. They didn’t approach us with such a proposal.”

Well, as far as we know, the CEO of Rosatom didn’t visit Pécs to talk to the city fathers about leasing the Pécs-Pogány Airport. Moreover, as far as the journalists of Szabad Pécs know, the transfer of certain properties to the government is still on the table.

Today Attila Babos, the local journalist at Szabad Pécs, was invited to publish a longer article in Magyar Nemzet on the possible Rosatom takeover of the Pécs Airport. He claims that it is also likely that, in addition to the airport, the government will take over two city-owned companies: Pétáv Kft., the local district-heating company, and Tettye Forrásház Zrt., the city water company. The latter is the company the city established to take over the functions of the water company operated and partially owned by the French Suez Company. The city promised lower rates, which didn’t materialize, but at least the company is now profitable. Pétáv Kft. is also in the black. But, given the size of the debt, the fear in town is that several other pieces of property might end up in government hands. No one knows whether the city will have any say in what properties it is willing to part with.

Not surprisingly, Fidesz’s name is mud in Pécs. Páva and his coterie of Fidesz politicians, including the two Fidesz members of parliament representing the city, are blamed for the present state of affairs. As Attila Babos said in his article, “not even within Fidesz does anyone seriously think that the government parties [Fidesz-KDNP] can possible win in the city in the spring of 2018.” Still, Viktor Orbán cannot leave the city in the lurch. At the same time, the government feels that it has to make “the city pay” in order to show that such irresponsible behavior cannot be tolerated.

Finally, a few words about Szabad Pécs. On March 22 several internet news sites reported that three former employees of Dunántúli Napló who lost their jobs when Lőrinc Mészáros bought the last eight of the 109 regional papers not yet in government hands, including Dunántúli Napló which has been in continuous existence since 1946, decided to start an online paper, concentrating on Pécs and Baranya County. Without them we would know next to nothing about Rosatom’s interest in the Pécs airport or the quick visit of Alexey Likhachev. That tells us a lot about the state of the Hungarian media outside of Budapest.

September 21, 2017

The Orbán government’s penchant for religious educational institutions

As I was browsing through local Pécs news sites yesterday, I happened upon an article about the beginning of the school year. It wasn’t so much the article that caught my eye but the accompanying photo, which I recognized as a Protestant church service for school children. (The tipoff was the way the kids were clasping their hands in prayer.) From the article I learned that indeed the photo was taken at the Pécs Református Kollégium, which was the site of the official school opening for the whole city. Given that the official ceremony took place in a parochial school, Bishop István Szabó, head of the Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church, gave a short sermon, which was followed by the usual speeches for the occasion. Among the speakers was Péter Páva, head of the local school district, who boasted about the generous government support for education. He claimed that the government will spend 254,000 forints for each and every student next year. If you’re wondering whether Péter Páva is related to Mayor Zsolt Páva, the answer is yes. He is his younger brother. The city and its education are in good hands.

School opening in the Pécs Hungarian Reformed elementary school

I for one find it offensive that the official school opening, at which government and municipal officials give speeches, is held in a parochial school, although I shouldn’t have been surprised because the official national school opening this year was held in a Hungarian Reformed church in Nagykőrös. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, and László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, were among the speakers. The event was organized by the local Hungarian Reformed educational institution, which includes an elementary school, two gymnasiums, and a boarding school. There is no longer even the pretension of a separation of church and state in Hungary.

Last November János Lázár said that “the most important institutions of education in Hungary are the parochial schools and the primary goal of education is to raise good Christians and good Hungarians. Everything beyond that is debatable and indefinite. One doesn’t know whether it would stand the test of time. The lesson of the last 1,000 years is that the nation can endure only through religious educational institutions.” These unacceptable sentences were uttered in the Hungarian Reformed church in Mezőtúr.

Lázár’s speech prompted quite a debate at the time. Perhaps the most thoughtful comments came from Gergely Nádori, a high school teacher in the Alternatív Közgazdasági Gimnázium, an excellent private school in Budapest. He pointed out that Lázár’s words reveal his total lack of knowledge of Protestant religions, which pay special attention to Paul’s teaching that “it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy” (Rom 9:16). That is, no one can create good Christians. It is the gift of God. He also noted that most parochial schools in Hungary today do not have the religious support of local communities. In the majority of the cases, the parents are not religious people; more often than not, they don’t even belong to the church whose schools their children attend. The decision to send a child to a religious educational education is based on utterly pragmatic considerations.

The number of parochial schools has been growing rapidly, especially after the nationalization of schools formerly run by the municipalities. In 2010 there were 572 communities where churches maintained schools. By the 2016/2017 school year that number had grown to 1,308. In 2010 112,500 students attended parochial schools; today their number is 207,800. As a result, some communities ended up without school choice. According to a study conducted by the Magyar Liberális Párt, there are 95 villages without a public school and 30 larger towns where there is no choice when it comes to high school. This is an unacceptable situation, and there are plans to turn to the Constitutional Court for remedy.

Although Hungarian parochial schools often require church attendance and school prayer, the children who come out of these schools are not any more religious than those who attend public schools. Even as the number of parochial schools multiplied, between 2000 and 2016 the number of churchgoers between the ages of 15 and 28 plummeted.

Most parents don’t opt for a parochial school because they want their children to have a religious education. The reason is financial. Parochial schools receive a great deal more money from the state per student than do public schools. The extent of the discrimination is staggering. On the basis of calculations done by the Költségvetési Felelősségi Intézet, a financial think tank, while the state disburses 61,300 forints per child to the public schools, parochial schools get 160,000 forints per student. So, 2.6 times more. In fact, in the next school year the situation will be worse because public schools will receive only 58,300 forints per student, while parochial schools will get 200,000 forints per student. The difference will be 3.4 times in favor of the latter.

Parochial schools have further perks. They don’t have to use the textbooks published by a government publishing house, which, according to the majority of teachers, are inferior to the earlier ones. Unlike public schools, parochial schools don’t have to accommodate all students within their school districts. They can accept only the most qualified students. Thus, the larger the number of parochial schools, the greater will be the already huge gap between elite schools and run-of-the mill or worse schools.

The government also announced at the beginning of July that it will give an additional 22 billion forints to the Piarists for the renovation and expansion of five schools run by the order. They are gymnasiums located in Göd, Kecskemét, Mosonmagyaróvár, Nagykanizsa, and Sátoraljaújhely. The Ministry of Human Resources justified this incredible amount of money by saying that these five institutions will educate 2,500 students. The money will be spent over the next four years. By way of comparison, the government is planning to spend 30 billion forints for the reform of hospitals in Budapest, which affect the health of 4-4.5 million people.

I feel very strongly about this issue. The close relationship between church and state has been an impediment to modernization and to social and economic development. This was true during the dual monarchy and even more so during the Horthy era. My natural inclination regarding this topic was only reinforced by my unpleasant experiences at a parochial school that I attended because of a lack of choice. Therefore, I am saddened that today there are communities where parents must send their children to a religious school, perhaps against their better judgment. And the fact that the Orbán government discriminates against 80% of students attending its own schools is scandalous and shameful. It was also outrageous that Zoltán Balog, in his initial confusion, said that the Hungarian government must wait for the official position of the Catholic Church on the question of in vitro fertilization. It took him a day or so to realize on what dangerous ground he was treading.

September 1, 2017

The City of Pécs, which served as Fidesz’s laboratory, is close to bankruptcy

In preparation for today’s post on the chaotic situation in my hometown of Pécs, I read two pieces I had written in October 2009, shortly after, as the result of a by-election, Fidesz candidate Zsolt Páva became mayor of the city. The first article was titled “Watch Pécs: It will tell a lot about Fidesz plans for Hungary.” Rereading this article eight years later is an eerie experience because indeed Fidesz was using Pécs as a laboratory for its own plans for the country. All the tricks it later employed, including the national consultations, were first introduced in Pécs.

Originally Páva, in true populist fashion, wanted to take the oath of office on the main square, right in front of City Hall, but MSZP and SZDSZ members of the city council, who were in the majority, refused to endorse the plan, considering it “blatant demagoguery.” Eventually, Páva took the official oath inside the building but repeated the performance in public.

Soon enough one “referendum” followed the next, which were the forerunners of the Orbán government’s national consultations. Páva spent a sizable amount of money on these referendums, in which his administration inquired about matters to which the answer could only be “yes.” Doesn’t it sound familiar? Páva also sacked all city employees who had anything to do with the previous administration. In no time he managed to change the composition of the city council by convincing a couple of members to switch parties; thus Fidesz achieved a slight majority in the council. Every company owned by the municipality was audited at a considerable cost because, Páva claimed, the audit would save the city 500 million forints. This was, as it turned out later, simply not true.

His next move was the forcible takeover of the water company in which the minority shareholder was Suez, a well-known French company. Páva ordered security men to occupy the headquarters of the firm at 3:30 in the morning. When the employees arrived for work, the guards prevented people belonging to the upper and middle management of the company from entering. A few days later a new city-owned water company was formed with a capital base of five million forints. (No, that’s not a typo.) The new company promised to pay the salaries of Suez’s 360 employees from their “riches” of five million. Suez was stunned and called the occupation of its headquarters “forcible entry.” Naturally Suez brought legal proceedings against the city. The law suit dragged on for years. Pécs was finally assessed 3 billion forints for its share in the water company, which the city of Pécs was unable to come up with. The bill was paid by the central government.

Something very similar happened in 2016 when the city of Pécs acted as an intermediary, hoping to pass the Zsolnay Porcelán Manufaktura on to a Fidesz oligarch. The factory was owned by a Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss businessman who had bought 74.5% of the shares from the city and promised to sink 500 million forints into the enterprise. The methods were roughly the same as in the Suez case. First Páva and the businessmen behind him established a new company by enticing the majority of the approximately 150 workers to abandon Zsolnay in favor of the new city-owned company. The aim was a forcible takeover of private property. I don’t want to go into the complicated machinations, but a certain businessman with close ties to the Orbán family suddenly had a burning desire to own Zsolnay because of the large restoration projects in the Castle District and elsewhere in Budapest. The roofs of many of these buildings, which had been erected in the last years of the nineteenth century, were covered with pyrogranite tiles made by the Pécs factory. In the end, the city failed because the Syrian businessman wasn’t easily intimidated and had enough money to clear all of his debt to the Hungarian Eximbank, which had been complicit in turning him out of his property. The financial loss to the city as a result of its new “business venture,” which never got off the ground, was again considerable.

By now, apparently, the City of Pécs is close to bankruptcy. For some time, there has been talk about Páva’s possible departure from the mayoralty. About three weeks ago a press conference was scheduled to take place where the mayor was supposed to announce the establishment of the Magnus Aircraft factory in Pécs. This is a huge event for the city, whose economy is in the worst shape among all larger Hungarian cities. Since 2009 the city has lost 13,000 inhabitants, unemployment is high, and investors don’t find the city, far away from Budapest and hard to reach from the West, attractive. Yes, it is a charming city with a rich history, but aside from the university with its 20,000 students it has little to offer economically. The nearby coal and uranium mines have closed and nothing came to replace them.

Együtt: City of Pécs close to bankruptcy. When will Zsolt Páva resign?

So, the intention of Magnus Aircraft to set up a factory is big news. I must admit that I had never heard of this company, which developed the e-Fusion, the first all-electric, aerobatic trainer aircraft. It is a Hungarian company from Kecskemét which describes itself as a multinational group. It has a business arrangement with Siemens, which provides the batteries. What will come of this new technology no one knows, but Pécs is very excited.

The long-awaited press conference was held, sans Mayor Zsolt Páva. Instead, two Fidesz members of parliament representing the district, Péter Csizi and Péter Hoppál, made the announcement. Páva’s absence indicated to those journalists who, after being booted out of the local Dunántúli Napló when it was bought by Lőrinc Mészáros, founded an internet news site called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), that Páva’s position must be shaky. And soon enough came the news on the city’s official internet site that “a new policy making body will lead Pécs” from here on. The decision was allegedly reached by the Fidesz-KDNP members of the city council. The mayor, the deputy mayors, and the two Fidesz MPs will comprise this new group, but its chairman will not be Páva but Péter Csizi. So, as Magyar Nemzet rightly points out, the city will be run by a committee no one elected. Not exactly a democratic solution to a problem.

It is highly unlikely that the decision to establish such a body was made by the Fidesz-KDNP members of the city council. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the decision came from Viktor Orbán himself. Removing Páva at this juncture is out of the question because holding by-elections now would be a suicidal move. According to my calculations, if LMP hadn’t decided to run alone in 2014, Pécs wouldn’t have two Fidesz members of parliament today. In local elections Fidesz cannot rely on foreign votes, and the locals are pretty unhappy with the Fidesz leadership. The last thing Orbán wants is an electoral loss in a major Hungarian city.

According to rumor, Pécs, during the tenure of Zsolt Páva, has accumulated 24 billion forints in debt. The city is close to bankruptcy despite the fact that Pécs did not have to pay the 3 billion forints to Suez by way of compensation. As far as I know, the owner of Zsolnay Manufactura is also suing the city.

The Fidesz laboratory set up in 2009 has failed miserably. Páva did everything that was demanded of him and yet, or perhaps because of it, he drove his city into bankruptcy. Is it possible that once Orbán’s rule is over the country will be in a similar situation despite the regime’s bragging about its fantastic successes? Not at all unimaginable.

Tomorrow Pécs will have a distinguished visitor, the prime minister himself. He is allegedly attending the 650th anniversary celebration of the university’s founding. Well, kind of. It is true that the first and only Hungarian medieval university was established in Pécs in 1367, but it most likely survived for less than fifty years. The real founding of today’s university was in 1921 when the University of Pozsony (today Bratislava) moved to Pécs. But more about that sometime in the future.

August 31, 2017

Two men who put up a fight: Lajos Simicska and Bachar Najari

Among the active members of Hungarian Spectrum there has been a long-standing debate about the most useful attitude toward the Orbán regime’s very existence and future. There are those who get upset when they encounter pessimism regarding the removal of the present Hungarian government. They think that defeatism is counterproductive and take every opportunity to raise their voices against naysayers. Among these people we find some who think that these pessimists are actually Fidesz propagandists whose job is to spread the dogma of Fidesz invincibility. But, to be fair, one doesn’t need to be a Fidesz troll to feel less than optimistic given the state of affairs in the country.

I for one agree that the proverbial Hungarian pessimism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which should be avoided at all costs. But, at the same time, we must admit that overcoming the obstacles that Orbán and his minions have placed in front of those desiring change is a formidable task.

Today I would like to hearten those who are worried about Hungary’s future by writing about two men who decided to stand up to the government. The first is Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s friend from high school, who reaped all the benefits of the mafia state until his falling out with the prime minister about a year and a half ago. The other is Bachar Najari, a Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss businessman, the new owner of the famed Zsolnay Porcelain Factory in Pécs. Although for different reasons, both were targeted for financial annihilation by a corrupt regime. It looks as if the powers that be are finding it difficult to destroy them.

Some people believe that Lajos Simicska’s contribution to the creation, development, and final accomplishment of Fidesz was even greater than Viktor Orbán’s. After all, it was Simicska who brought home the bacon. Of course, in the process he himself became immensely rich. But then came the falling out. Orbán, being a vindictive man, decided to ruin his old friend financially.

Simicska’s most important business venture is Közgép, a construction company that specializes in building highways and railways. As such, it is heavily dependent on government orders. Thus, Simicska looked like an easy target. Indeed, right after the blow-up between the two men, the government suspended midstream the highway that was to be built by Közgép. The second move was that the Public Procurement Authority (Közbeszerzési Hatóság), which handles government tenders, “discovered” that Simicska’s firm had cheated on one of its tenders. It was decided that as punishment Közgép would not be able to compete for any government jobs for three years. Simicska went to court and won, both in the lower court and also on appeal.

Trying to ruin Simicska through Közgép was not enough. Orbán instructed István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest, to break a long-term contract with Simicska’s firm, Mahir Cityposter. In 2006 the firm acquired the right to provide the city with 761 large cylindrical kiosks. The contract was to be good for 25 years. Ten years later the city suddenly “discovered” that the contract was not fair. When Simicska didn’t remove the kiosks by a specified date, the city ordered them to be forcibly removed despite a court order to stop the vandalism. Simicska promptly hired György Magyar, a very able lawyer, who said from the beginning that the case was absolutely clear-cut. And indeed, he was right. A few days ago the court agreed with the argument Simicska’s lawyer presented and forbade the removal of the kiosks while the case is pending before the court of appeal. The city will also have to pay 6.8 million forints in court costs. If the city loses, it will have to pay Simicska 600 million forints in damages.

Perhaps Simicska’s savviest move to date has been to form a consortium with the Italian company Itinera, which has been described in the Hungarian media as “a big gun.” Itinera has been “active in large-scale infrastructure projects and civil construction for more than 75 years in Italy and around the world.” Közgép together with Itinera presented a bid for a 27 km-long section of the M4 highway between Berettyóújfalu and the Romanian border. Their bid was 58 billion forints or approximately 188 million euros. Two other consortiums were also eyeing the job: (1) a consortium of three Hungarian companies whose bid was 84 billion forints or approximately 268 million euros and (2) a French-Slovak-Czech consortium that bid 87 billion forints or 272 million euros.

The difference in price is staggering. It seems that Simicska with this offer wanted to show the fair (admittedly, probably on the low end of fair) price of road construction and to highlight the graft that is normally built into these bids. In the case of the Hungarian consortium it was as much as 26 billion forints or 80 million euros. In this particular case almost 3 million euros per km would end up in someone else’s pocket. Of course, it is still possible to find fault with the Közgép-Itinera tender if Viktor Orbán so desires, saying that price is not everything, but apparently the Közgép-Itinera bid is also best in every other category, including environmental considerations. The consensus is that it will be very difficult to award the project to anyone else.

 

Now we can turn to the case of Bachar Najari, the Syrian-Swiss businessman with a Hungarian wife who also speaks fluent Hungarian. How Najari ended up owning the Zsolnay porcelain factory is a long story, which I pretty well told in a post titled “How to ruin a businessman with government help.” The upshot of the story is that one of Viktor Orbán’s oligarchs, Attila Paár, decided that he would like to own the factory because many of the vintage buildings in Budapest that will be restored or even rebuilt will need the famed terracotta tiles Zsolnay was famous for in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Najari had managed to put the formerly city-owned factory on solid financial footing, and it looked as if from here on it would be a profitable enterprise, especially with the impending sale of roof tiles. There was a fairly large loan which had been taken out by the city earlier from the Hungarian Development Bank for which Najari offered a certain amount of money to settle the account. The bank declined the offer and instead sold the debt for half of what Najari had offered to Attila Paár. Meanwhile, the city of Pécs decided to help Paár along by setting up a bogus company to which it recruited more than half of the workforce of Zsolnay. These workers are actually on paid vacation and no one knows who pays them. The situation was compared by one of the workers of the factory to a gangster film from the 1930s.

gangsters

Najari decided to fight. First he managed to get back his stock, which had been placed under sequestration. He used his own money and made good on the debt he inherited when he bought the factory from Pécs and also paid 90 million in local taxes, although it was a disputed item. Therefore there was no more reason for the city, which owns 19% of the stock, to take over the factory. Then the Kaposvár court refused to register Pécs’s new porcelain manufacturer, called Ledina Kerámia. Finally, the court in Zalaegerszeg turned down the request for a liquidation of the Zsolnay factory. A few days ago the city of Pécs “sold” the nonexistent Ledina Kerámia to an unnamed off-shore company. The city claims that the sale, for 3 million forints, “will ensure the jobs of those workers who were enticed to leave Zsolnay because it was to fold soon.”

Meanwhile work is being done at Zsolnay. Najari refused to be intimidated, and it seems that he managed to foil the attempt to rob him blind.

Although it is not easy, these two cases show that a person can win as long as he has the means and the determination to stop the Orbán regime’s unscrupulous, illegal activities.

September 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

Clash of cultures and politics in the theatrical world

Today I’m venturing into the world of theater–the politics of theater as well as political theater. I’m looking at what happened at the 15th Pécsi Országos Színházi Találkozó (POSZT), a yearly festival where theatrical companies, directors, and actors compete. The festival is organized by the two existing theater associations: the Magyar Színházi Társaság/MSZT (founded in 1998) and the Magyar Teátrumi Társaság/MTT (founded in 2008). MSZT has many more member theaters than the “upstart” MTT. MTT, under the leadership of Attila Vidnyánszky, the controversial director of the National Theater, seems to be a gathering of theaters and their directors who follow a specifically Hungarian theatrical tradition and who tend to be supporters of the current government.

In the past few years, especially since 2010, politics has infused theater life in Hungary, including the festival in Pécs. And, as with everything else, the right–in this case MTT–has been gaining the upper hand. For example, this year the delegate of MSZT, Judit Csáki, was not accepted as a member of the jury. Most likely because her liberal politics and opinions don’t sit well in certain circles.

MTT came into being because those who decided to create a new association felt that they had been pushed into the background by the liberal representatives of the profession. Since 2010 these people have been convinced that “their time has come.” It seems that they’re right. At the Pécs festival the presumably stacked jury chose “for best direction” a play directed by Vidnyánszky. The play, about Attila the Hun (“Scourge of God” by Count Miklós Bánffy), deals with the tension between east and west.

But the real story in Pécs was the “coda” to a performance of Bánk bán by József Katona (1791-1830), a drama based on actual historical characters. The theater company that performed the play in a modern setting came from Novi Sad-Újvidék, Serbia. The scandal had nothing to do with the performance itself: one either likes these completely reworked old plays or doesn’t. What upset some people was what came after the play.

The director decided to cap off the performance with an interactive play between the actors and the audience. The actors proposed a set of future possibilities that might compel the members of the audience to leave the country. For example, would they leave if the euro were worth 650 forints as opposed the current exchange rate, which is less than half of that? Those who would leave if the forint weakened at this point could leave the theater. What if the government fired thousands of state employees? Or if the Hungarian government decided to leave the European Union?

Szilvia Krizsán, best actress, as a rather unusual Queen Gertrude

Szilvia Krizsán, best actress, as a rather unusual Queen Gertrude

Even before the interactive play began, Szilveszter Ókovács, the head of the Hungarian Opera House who was a member of the jury, got up and inquired what all this had to do with Bánk bán. He then left the theater. Ókovács is a Fidesz appointee and a rather controversial one. Others also objected. One historian, who specializes in the history of Hungarian theater, from the balcony voiced his opinion that the whole thing was dilettantish. But most people were ready to play. At the end relatively few people remained seated, but they applauded the performance enthusiastically.

The director from Novi Sad is baffled. He doesn’t understand the vehement reaction to the play’s “coda.” It had been performed several times earlier outside of Hungary–for example in Timișoara/Temesvár in Romania, where Judit Csáki, the theater critic saw it and where, according to her, the audience didn’t consider the idea an attack on the country. Csáki, by the way, played the game and stood up after the question about Hungary leaving the European Union.

So, what is the connection between the interactive game and the theme of Bánk bán? Katona’s play was first published in 1820 but was not performed until 1833. János Arany, the great nineteenth-century poet, in his unfinished essay on Bánk bán, summarized the message of the play as a conflict between “foreign oppression” and “the nation forced to fight for freedom.” The director of this particular production considered the major theme of Katona’s drama to be “love of country.” And, he continued, it is perfectly fitting to ask the members of the audience about the limits to their attachment to the land of their birth.

Some commentators see the affair as a clash between the more cosmopolitan Hungarian communities in the neighboring countries and the right and extreme right in Hungary. György Vári, a historian and journalist, noted in his op/ed piece on the scandal in Pécs that Jobbik, already in February, had taken notice, disapprovingly of course, of the play, which hadn’t even been performed in Hungary yet. In the thinking of the Hungarian right there are certain works of literature and objects of art belonging to the national canon that are sacred. And Bánk bán is one of them. This is what sulinet.hu, an internet site for curious Hungarian children, has to say about Bánk bán. “There are few works in Hungarian literature as important as the drama of Katona…. On March 15, 1848, the audience demanded the performance of ‘the national drama,’ which by then had become the symbol of Hungarian national resistance just like the Himnusz (National Anthem) and the Szózat (Appeal)…. No Hungarian drama of Bánk bán‘s significance has been created since.” It obviously shouldn’t be sullied with the addition of contemporary political theater.

A footnote: In the last few days readers of this blog have been having a spirited discussion about history and historical interpretation. Just like the events of Katona’s play, the topic was a medieval subject. Katona relied on historical data but looked upon the early thirteenth century from the vantage point of the world he lived in. He was a poet, writer, and playwright, not a historian. If we want to know who Bánk bán was and what he did, we’d best consult a history book on the reign of András II (1176-1235).

Viktor Orbán, a desperate man with dangerous ideas

In 2005 Péter Popper (1933-2010), a psychologist, university professor, and publicist whose writings I greatly admired, wrote a psychological portrait of Viktor Orbán. He admitted that he had serious reservations about psychoanalyzing someone he had never met. In addition, he freely acknowledged that he didn’t like Viktor Orbán. But why then did he decide to write this portrait?

He began his explanation by telling a story about a movie hero in an American war film who is transformed from a scrawny, bespectacled, awkward youngster into a fearless leader of his troops because, after seeing what remained of the concentration camps, he “became angry at them.” Popper decided to write because he became very angry with Viktor Orbán and his former college friends. By now there are a lot of Hungarians who are also very angry and who found this brilliant essay by Popper perhaps even more timely now than it was in 2005. So, this 10-year-old essay began circulating again online.

“The name of Viktor Orbán has become a symbol for me. The symbol of the still deeper political depravity of a country with eighty years of moral turpitude behind it.” Popper nonetheless predicted that “we will see him one day on the side of the road as a cast-away piece of stone.” There are signs that Orbán’s “time” might be closer than some think. Perhaps a sense of panic about his impending political demise is responsible for Orbán’s erratic political decisions of late.

The way Viktor Orbán is seen in foreign news / Photo Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / Getty Images

The way Viktor Orbán is seen in foreign papers /  AFP / Getty Images/ Photo: Attila Kisbenedek

If we can believe the speculations offered by the Hungarian media, all of Orbán’s political ideas come from Árpád Habony, a man about whom we know practically nothing. He is Orbán’s chief political adviser with no official title. His lifestyle suggests considerable wealth, but the Hungarian public knows nothing about the source of his opulence. The general belief is that it was Habony who came up with the idea of lowering utility costs, which in a miraculously short time turned Fidesz’s lagging popularity into a huge electoral victory in April 2014. So, the argument goes, Orbán now has total trust in Habony’s extraordinary political intuitions and follows his advice without the slightest hesitation.

Of course, we have no idea how much influence anyone among his very small circle of advisers and politicians has on Orbán’s political moves, but there is one thing I’m pretty much convinced of: he doesn’t share his thoughts with the top party leadership. I’m almost sure that he wouldn’t have the unanimous support of Fidesz bigwigs to combat Jobbik by adopting more and more of their ideas. I’m pretty confident that some of the saner voices in the party would point out to him that Fidesz’s strategy vis-à-vis Jobbik has failed. Adopting half of Jobbik’s party program hasn’t resulted in weakening Fidesz’s far-right opponent. In fact, in the last year or so, as a result of the growing unpopularity of the government party, Jobbik has gained ground. So, moving along the same path makes no sense whatsoever. And yet, it seems, Orbán has opted to do just that.

Viktor Orbán, who has been frequently pestered by reporters about Habony’s role in the decision to conduct a “national consultation” on immigration, on one occasion blurted out that he is the only one who is responsible for whatever happens in his government and that he takes full responsibility for everything he does. For example, for that vicious questionnaire that will further poison the minds of Hungarians. One cannot blame the evil adviser who whispers morally unacceptable thoughts into the great man’s ears. The idea of the questionnaire or his latest brainstorm to reintroduce the death penalty might originally have come from Habony, but it is Orbán who decided that his problems can be solved by moving farther toward the extreme right.

Of course, the rationale behind Orbán’s thinking is that by raising the specter of African blacks and Syrian terrorists his wayward supporters will return to the fold. And if you add the death penalty, which the weak-kneed European Union forbids, the love affair between the prime minister and Fidesz voters will be restored. At least this is what he believes. I think he is too optimistic. Something has been broken, and the shattered pieces cannot be glued together. Especially since the prime minister of a member state of the European Union cannot make unilateral decisions here. He cannot develop anti-immigration strategies tailored for Hungary, and he cannot introduce the death penalty unless he wants to take his country out of the European Union.

The most servile flunkies, like the newly reappointed leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation Antal Rogán, already rushed to Orbán’s rescue by claiming that capital punishment can be the subject of negotiations between a member state and Brussels. He also falsely asserted that the current law is illegitimate because the Hungarian people had no opportunity to vote on the death penalty. He claimed that it was the Constitutional Court that decided the issue. As usual, only a small part of the statement is true. Yes, in 1990 the Constitutional Court instructed the government to delete the article on capital punishment from the Criminal Code because it was deemed unconstitutional. But then, in 1993, parliament did vote on the issue. Orbán wasn’t present, but the nine Fidesz members of parliament all voted against capital punishment. In 2004 there was another occasion when the Hungarian parliament voted on a law that reaffirmed the abolishment of capital punishment. Antal Rogán himself was present and voted for it.

Even as the prime minister incites the population to hatred and vengeance, he continues his trips to the larger cities of the country, promising them pie in the sky. Pécs was the most recent stop on his “Modern Cities Program” tour, another attempt to bolster the popularity of the government. Népszava‘s article bore the title: “Pécs, the land of milk and honey,” which of course was meant ironically. The city is in terrible economic shape, and soon enough the government is planning to locate an “atomic cemetery” for spent nuclear material “in its backyard.” Near one of the most beautiful cities in the country and a former cultural center of Europe. According to the latest estimates, Pécs is unlikely to vote for Fidesz at the next election. No promises of another sports center and a couple of new roads will make an impression there. Even in 2014 it was touch and go.