Tag Archives: Pécs

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.

The Orbán government’s latest “unorthodox solution”: A unique toll system

The Hungarian public is fixated on everything related to cars and driving, especially when it’s a question of money. Announcements about gasoline prices are daily fare in Hungary. If the price of gasoline goes up or down a couple of forints, it’s big news. Hungary is a poor country, we must not forget. Perhaps the most serious crisis since the change of regime occurred when it was announced that gasoline prices would have to be raised substantially. A blockade of all roads nationwide by taxi drivers paralyzed the country for three days and forced a government retreat.

Therefore it’s mighty strange that the Orbán government, already under considerable domestic and foreign pressure, decided to introduce a new toll system–and a badly designed one at that, which is bound to encounter serious opposition.

The system is geographically based. Each county, and there are nineteen of them in Hungary, is a separate toll unit. A driver who plans to drive on a toll road but strictly within the confines of his county need purchase only a single “matrica/vignette.” A few decades ago that might have been reasonable. A trip from Pécs to Harkány was considered to be quite a journey, and going to Hosszúhetény was an outright adventure. But these days, even with lower gasoline prices, people with cars are a lot more mobile.

The maps the government provided to make car owners’ lives easier are confusing. Some of them even had mistakes. If I figure it right, a person driving from Budapest to Pécs on the relatively new superhighway will need four matricas. Admittedly, the new county matricas are a great deal cheaper (5,000 Ft. each) than the former pass that was good for the whole country at 42,980 Ft/year. But what a hassle to figure out what counties you’re going through each time you plan a trip and which passes you’ll have to buy before you venture outside your own county. Even worse, think about those occasions when you have to get somewhere quickly–a family illness, a business emergency, the funeral of a colleague. You don’t just gas up the car and go. You also have to make sure you have the appropriate passes.

Let’s take a not too far-fetched example. A businessman who travels frequently from Pécs to Budapest will have to buy three or four matricas. And let’s say his family also wants to visit an aunt in Somogy or in Zala. The expenses start adding up.

The suspicion is that the government eventually wants to stop issuing those matricas that are good for a limited period of time. They are handy when the family goes on holiday to Lake Balaton or the Mátra Mountains. For ten days they pay only 2,975 Ft.; for a month, 4,789 Ft.

Drivers had to purchase their matricas by January 1, but as of December 29 no matricas were yet available. The new system was introduced in a great hurry without adequate preparation, as even Gergely Gulyás, the honey-tongued Fidesz politician, had to admit. By Friday (January 2) the computer system handling the issuance of matricas at gas stations crashed. There were long lines of people standing in the cold and rain in front of the headquarters of the office that takes care of the country’s roads. Purchasing passes online was not any easier because the site couldn’t handle the traffic.

And confusion reigns. Csaba Hende, the minister of defense and a member of parliament for Vas County, is furious. Based on the information he received, he promised his constituents that M86, a road between Szombathely and Vát, was going to be toll free. Came the surprise the following day: anyone using this new road will have to get a county matrica.

Utpalyak

There are bits and pieces of roads–because this is what we are talking about–where the introduction of tolls makes no sense. Perhaps the most egregious example is the road to the Budapest Airport. A single trip a year to and from the airport would require a Budapester to buy a county matrica.

The attached map gives some idea of what I’m talking about. As you can see, M1 and M0 serve a very important function: to save Budapest from heavy thru traffic, mainly the thousands and thousands of trucks that cross the country toward the north, the east, and the south. It is hard not to notice that certain parts of a single highway are free while other parts are toll roads. The reason is that those sections marked in green were built with EU support, for the specific purpose of ridding Budapest of the heavy truck traffic that is environmentally harmful. The European Union demanded that these roads remain toll free. Well, on the map they are marked free, but the roads leading to these free sections are toll roads, so, contrary to EU intentions, truckers don’t get a free ride around Budapest. You may ask what the orange-colored sections signify. These three short sections are still within the limits of Pest County, but if you drive onto them, you must have a county matrica for Fejér County in the case of M1 and M7 or Nógrád County in the case of M3. The distances are small. The trip from Törökbálint to Pusztazámor, for instance, is only 17.3 km or 10.7 miles.

A civic group that already blocked the M1 and M7 superhighways for a minute in December is threatening the government with an ultimatum. They now promise a total blockade of all roads if the government does not withdraw the new county toll system by the end of February. They will also demand the resignation of the Orbán government. The organizer is Zoltán Büki, a businessman and Együtt-PM activist in the county of Nógrád.

László Bogdán, the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi

The support of the three opposition parties for Albert Pásztor, former police chief of Miskolc, as the city’s mayoral hopeful caused a huge political storm which still hasn’t subsided. Representatives of the Hungarian liberal intelligentsia or the intellectual elite, as Hungarians like to call this group, have been up in arms. How could these parties ever support a man who five years ago showed himself to be a racist?

Actually, the real target of their ire is the Demokratikus Koalíció. Since the central leadership of Együtt-PM distanced itself from the party’s local representative in Miskolc, critics left Együtt-PM more or less alone. They didn’t bother themselves with MSZP either because, as some of them admit, they don’t have great expectations of the socialists. After all, the party led by Attila Mesterházy, echoing Fidesz, endorsed “law and order” as an answer to society’s ills. DK is the only party that had consistently stood for the rights of all minorities. Its members and voters, all polls indicate, are the least prejudiced against foreigners, Gypsies, Jews, and gays. The intellectual elite expected more from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party. How could it support a racist?

And here we are in trouble because, as I know from personal experience in private debates with friends and acquaintances, we cannot even agree on what racism is. There are people who think that mentioning the ethnic origin of a person already indicates racist tendencies. Thus, when Albert Pásztor the other day announced that he will treat everybody the same without “regard to origin,” some people cried foul. He shouldn’t have mentioned people’s ethnic origins at all. And yet there are a large number of policemen who are truly racists and who don’t apply the same standards when dealing with Gypsies and non-Gypsies. So, if Pásztor wants to treat everyone equally, this should be considered a step in the right direction.

Some people are reluctant to talk about some of the serious problems that crop up between Roma and non-Roma. But is it racism to talk about the difficulties that exist between the majority and the minority cultures? I guess it depends on the source. One can detect the attitude of the speaker easily enough. Criticism can be well-meaning or hateful.

And what should we do with a Gypsy who passionately wants to change the situation of his fellow men and women but who at the same time is very critical of the majority of the Roma today. I am thinking of László Bogdán, the mayor of Cserdi, a village that lies between Bükkösd and Szentlőrinc in Baranya County.

Bogdán is a man in his late forties who became the mayor of Cserdi about nine years ago. He has transformed the heavily Roma village. How did he do it? The change didn’t come overnight, but by now his accomplishments are known as “the cserdi csoda” (the miracle of Cserdi). When he became mayor, Cserdi was riddled with petty crimes. On the average 200 a year. Today, there are only two or three. Unemployment was extraordinarily high, just in all Baranya villages with large Roma populations. Today, anyone who wants to work can.

László Bogdán (in the middle) is visiting Duisburg, Germany

László Bogdán (in the middle) is visiting Duisburg, Germany

Bogdán was born in great poverty. He told Olga Kálmán the other day on ATV that he was thirteen years old when he finally had a pair of shoes of his own. Thirty years ago he got a job at a multinational company, cleaning the yard of the factory. Then one day they needed someone to pack the factory’s products. He kept going up and up until he was heading a department. Why he left his cushy job I have no idea, but he decided to run for parliament. When he lost, he settled for being the mayor of Cserdi, his birthplace.

Cserdi by now owns a fair sized forest the residents themselves established. They have 3,500 square meters of green houses, and they sell their produce in Pécs. They even had extra to give away to poor people in Budapest. The village owns a house on Lake Balaton. They fixed up most of the houses in the village. Bathrooms were installed in some of the Roma houses that had not known such a luxury. This summer Cserdi organized a summer school for the children. All this is an incredible accomplishment.

And yet Bogdán is a controversial man because of his rather draconian methods of dealing with his workers. He expects excellence, punctuality, and very hard work. And he is harsh with those who don’t perform. If one of the public workers doesn’t show up on time, he is “punished.” He has to read aloud from Micimackó ( Winnie the Pooh) to his fellow workers. He took some of the young people to a jail in Pécs so they could see what is waiting for them if they end up there.

Is Bogdán’s method more effective than some of the others that are being tried at a few places–very few places–in the country? I really don’t know, but I was impressed by the man. He is intelligent and very outspoken. For instance, if it depended on him, he would abolish the whole system of Roma self-government since he believes it does more harm than good. Many of the leaders, as he put it, are barely literate, and their aggressive behavior only alienates the majority population.

László Bogdán’s interview with Olga Kálmán / Egyenes beszéd / ATV

I have no idea whether Bogdán is right. But let’s go back to my pondering about who is racist and who is not. Is Bogdán a racist because he is more critical of the Roma community than most non-Roma? Is it racist to say, as he does, that Gypsies “must learn how to behave”? These are very difficult questions.

We know that the great divide between Roma and non-Roma Hungarians must be minimized. And this means that both sides have to change. The majority population will have to shed its incredible prejudice while the minority must be given the opportunity to achieve a higher economic and social status. But it is hellishly difficult to find the right way to this goal.

Official announcements on the fate of the Jews in Pécs, 1944

A few weeks ago I received a newly published book entitled Kötéltánc (Rope walking) by Sándor Krassó, a Holocaust survivor from Pécs. It is not a work of a professional historian but of an eyewitness, not a comprehensive history of the fate of the Pécs Jewish community but snippets from the year 1944. I managed to identify a few people who appear in the book, among them a high school classmate of my father and the woman who had an elegant children’s clothing store with whom I had quite a dispute over the winter coat I was supposed to get.

Perhaps the most moving part of the book was the list of official announcements that appeared in the local paper, Dunántúl, between March 23 and July 6, 1944, the day the Jewish inhabitants of the city and some smaller towns nearby, about 6,000 people in all, were led to the main railroad station to be sent to Auschwitz. The Pécs Jewish community had been gathered into the ghetto on May 6, which was sealed on May 21. I don’t think I have to add anything to these terse announcements. They speak for themselves. They also happen to be relevant to our discussion about the nature of the Horthy regime’s final days.

March 31: “Jewish households cannot employ Christian servants. … Jewish engineers, actors, lawyers must be removed from the professional associations … From April 5 on all Jews over the age of six must wear on the left side of their coats a canary-yellow six-pointed star.”

April 1: “László Endre, administrative undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, told the reporters of Esti Újság that the government decrees are only the beginning of the final solution of the Jewish question. In the opinion of the Hungarian nation the Jewry is an undesirable element from moral, intellectual, and physical points of view. We must seek a solution that would exclude the Jewry from the life of the Hungarian nation.”

April 6: “On Wednesday the cabinet made the decision to limit the free movement of Jews within the country.”

April 9: “Jews by April 10 must report the details of their radios by registered mail.”

April 15: “A Jew must declare all his assets on official forms. His assets cannot be sold, given to someone else, or pawned.  He must separately declare real estate. A Jew cannot own stocks and cannot have more than 3,000 pengős in cash. Failure to follow this order may mean six months of incarceration.”

April 18: “All Jewish white-collar employees must be dismissed.”

April 19: “Ten people were charged for failure to wear the yellow star… one of them was interned.”

April 21: “All Jewish merchants must shut down their stores.”

April 23: “Jews can receive 300 grams of oil and 100 grams of beef or horse meat per month.”

April 25: “Dismissed Jewish clerks cannot be employed by the same firm even as laborers.”

April 27: “Jews cannot purchase lard.”

April 30: “All Jews must turn in their bicycles to the Pécs police station within twenty-four hours.”

May 4: “Within three days Jews must turn in their musical instruments and pieces of art.. .. For example, pianos, violins, records, paintings, statues, ceramics.”

May 6: [The authorities designated a certain part of town as the ghetto.] “Each room housed five people…. Out of the twenty Jewish doctors in town, five moved into the ghetto.”

The Pécs Railroad Station

Source: www.vasutallamasok.hu / The Pécs Railroad Station 

May 10: “Jews cannot take any valuables into the ghetto… They are allowed to take 50 kg total including bedding … Pécs Jews turned in 38 tons of lard, two tons of goose fat, and 60 kg of smoked meat. … Their radios must be turned in on May 11 and 12.”

May 12: “The government commissioner in charge of the press ordered all forbidden Jewish books to be collected for 5 pengős per ton.” [including works by such authors as Heinrich Heine, Martin Buber, Stephan Zweig, and, among Hungarians, Ferenc Molnár, Frigyes Karinthy, and Sándor Bródy]

May 18: “The City of Pécs offers for sale Angora rabbits turned in by the Jews.” [On the same day there were four suicides by Jewish men and women.]

May 20:  “The Pécs police authorities suspect that Jews are giving their jewelry and gold to Christians for safekeeping. All valuables of Jews belong to the state. Christians who harbor such goods will be severely punished. They can be interned.”

May 21: “No Jew’s book can be published…. Tens of thousands of Jewish books will be reduced to pulp…. We are making a reality of what Ottokár Prohászka and Lajos Méhely demanded.”

June 11: “1,200 claims were received for Jewish houses and apartments.”

July 2: “The Jewish ghetto will be closed. The Christian families can move back to their old apartments shortly.”

July 6: [the day Pécs  Jews boarded the box cars] “The ghetto is empty.”