Tag Archives: pensioners

Ghostly Ukrainian citizens on Hungarian pensions

On December 2 Hír TV’s “Célpont” (Target) focused on the mysterious population growth in certain sections of Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County situated in northeastern Hungary, bordering on Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania. According to the 2011 census, the population of the county is about 560,000. The county is one of the poorest in the country, and, thus not surprisingly, between 2001 and 2011 it lost almost 4% of its population, or about 23,000 people. But since 2013, when parliament passed the law on dual citizenship, the trend has dramatically reversed. In the last four to five years the county has gained 26,000 new inhabitants.

In certain villages close to the Ukrainian border, the official population has doubled or almost tripled, and the trend is gaining momentum. For the most part the new inhabitants live in these villages only in spirit, so to speak. They are registered with the appropriate authorities, but in fact they live on the other side of the border.

What is the reason for this phantom immigration? Back in 1962 the Soviet Union and Hungary reached a bilateral agreement concerning the mutual obligation of the two countries to provide pensions to people who for one reason or another change domicile. So, a Soviet citizen who worked all his life in a Soviet factory or office or on a collective farm could, upon retirement, move to Hungary and get his pension there, as provided for in the existing laws of Hungary, as long as the person forsakes his Soviet, by now Ukrainian, pension. That law has never been abrogated.

Under the present circumstances, the law is a windfall for Ukrainian-Hungarian dual citizens whose average pension in Ukraine is the equivalent of about 25,000 Ft while the average Hungarian pension is 75,000. Moreover, since it is difficult if not impossible to check the work history of the applicants, these new Hungarian citizens often provide false figures to the Hungarian authorities. Thus, in this particularly poor region of the country where pensions are very low, the Ukrainian-Hungarians can easily get two or three times higher pensions than the locals.

The deal is even more attractive if the Ukrainian pensioner remains in his home country, where 100,000 Ft is a considerable amount of money (10,600 hryvnia) since the average pension is less than 2,000 hryvnia. And indeed, most of the pensioners opt for that alternative. It may take some effort and money, but eventually it can be arranged with the help of corrupt officials and corrupt Hungarian citizens.

Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV’s “Célpont” concentrated on the village of Kispalád which, according to Magyar Nemzet, in 2010 had 536 inhabitants but by now has a population of 1,347. But Kispalád is not unique. Apparently there are about 30 villages in the region with a noticeable population growth–as we will see, on paper only.

Kispalád has only three streets: Fő utca, Új utca, and Újabb utca (Main Street, New Street, and Newer Street). The most “popular” of the three is Newer Street, where József Sankó lives. At his address he provides a “home” for 93 Ukrainians, as he consistently calls the phantom inhabitants, whom he hasn’t set eyes on in his life. The man claims that this arrangement was approved, even encouraged, by the mayor of the village, Mrs. Sándor Magyar, shortly before the national election of 2014. She assured the villagers that registering multiple Ukrainians was legal, citing the approval of the officials at the district’s police station. Part of the bargain was that these “ghost” inhabitants would vote for her at the municipal election. It is also possible that Attila Tilki, a Fidesz member of parliament, is also involved, or at least this is what the locals claim. Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County has two electoral districts, and apparently the number of phantom inhabitants is considerably higher in his district than in the other. I should add that it is possible that these new pensioners are not even ethnic Hungarians. At least the locals always refer to them as “the Ukrainians,” and one man who actually settled in the village could barely speak Hungarian, although he has been living in Kispalád for at least two years.

József Sankó with 93 national consultations received by his “tenants”

Of course, bribing the inhabitants and possibly the officials costs the prospective Hungarian pensioners money. Some potential “landlords” actually advertise on the internet and list their fees at 40,000-50,000 Ft per person. Some people have amassed several million forints from their “tenants” this way.

As soon as the TV program was broadcast, Balázs Hidvéghi, communication director of Fidesz, called it nothing more than an attempt to “influence public opinion ahead of the electoral campaign.” He claimed that this whole endeavor is the work of Ferenc Gyurcsány, who “incites Hungarian against Hungarian by attacking the voting rights of Hungarians from beyond the borders.” Hidvéghi was certain that Hír TV and Gyurcsány’s party are in cahoots in service of DK’s campaign against the voting rights of dual citizens.

Pension fraud and electoral fraud are linked here. The ghost pensioners are registered to vote in Hungary, helping to assure Fidesz victory in the district, but, since most of them live in Ukraine, do they also cast ballots as non-resident dual citizens? I don’t know, but I suspect it could be pulled off pretty easily.

This is not the first time that Fidesz has been accused of electoral fraud. On April 4, 2014, two days before the national election, Gergely Karácsony and Gergely Bárándy reported that in 12 districts where a Fidesz victory was in doubt suspicious new inhabitants and voters had showed up. It is a well-known fact that the population of Hungary is steadily shrinking, but in these 12 districts the population grew by several thousand. One example was the Budapest district of Zugló, where Gergely Karácsony was running against Ferenc Papcsák (Fidesz). In the two months prior to the election 700 new adult inhabitants were registered in Zugló, while during that same time period Kemecse, population 22,000, in Szabolcs-Szatmár Bereg County, lost about the same number. It turned out that Kemecse’s mayor was the campaign manager of Ferenc Papcsák. The complaint by the two politicians was not only rejected, but they were forbidden by the National Election Office to talk about the matter in the absence of evidence. Something similar happened in Baja before a by-election in 2013. While Baja had been losing a few hundred people every year, in 2013 its population miraculously grew by 1,400 people. By the beginning of 2015 these mystery voters simply disappeared from the books.

Yesterday we learned that the police are investigating the Kispalád case. One should ask why they are only looking into Kispalád when, according to the report, there are at least 30 villages where local officials are most likely similarly involved in the fraudulent practice.

But beyond the 30 villages, why has the Fidesz government allowed this pension fraud to continue when, according to Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, the arrangement costs 1.2 billion forints a year? We all know why, don’t we?

December 23, 2017

“The saddest video of the year”–Orbán’s encounter with Bözsi néni

Viktor Orbán traveled more than 300 miles to visit the town of Csenger, where he opened a swimming pool. The trip was actually a homage to the work of Imre Makovecz, an architect whose worldview and nationalism were close to Viktor Orbán’s heart. Personally, I don’t like either Makovecz’s architectural style or his shocking views. But Viktor Orbán embraced his architecture and was comfortable with at least some of his views. After Makovecz’s death, practically all the buildings built for the Puskás Academy, including the arena, were designed in the Makovecz style. So, it’s no wonder that Orbán took time to visit Csenger, because this is Makovecz land. Beginning in the 1980s Csenger’s center was rebuilt, mostly by Makovecz’s architectural firm. And once Orbán was in Csenger it was natural for him to take a look at another Makovecz-style creation, the Memorial Park in Nagygéc, where there are several Makovecz-inspired buildings, including the House of Survival, the Lookout, and the Visitor’s Center.

What captured the imagination of the public, however, was neither the swimming pool in Csenger nor the Memorial Park in Nagygéc but a short video Viktor Orbán shared with his admirers on Facebook. Antal Rogán’s propaganda team, which is attached to the prime minister’s office, decided that a visit to one of the six inhabitants of Nagygéc, a village that in fact no longer exists, would be a splendid idea. The plan backfired. Reactions to the video were decidedly negative. Pro-government media outlets opted simply to ignore it, while independent news sites wrote sarcastic articles about the encounter.

Nagygéc, once a village of about 700 inhabitants, was in the floodplain of the River Szamos/Someș, about 10 km from the Hungarian-Romanian border. In 1970 the whole village was destroyed, and the decision was made to abandon it. The inhabitants were given land elsewhere as well as a certain amount of money to build new houses and rebuild their lives. But a handful of people whose houses survived the flood refused to move. Today there are six inhabitants of the area that was once Nagygéc, two original villagers and four newcomers from Romania.

Nagygéc’s Hungarian Reformed Church is a historical monument. One part of it was built in the twelfth century and the other part during the reign of King Mathias (1458-1490). The church was close to collapse when a couple of years ago 560 million forints were spent on its renovation and the creation of the Memorial Park. The money, of course, came from the European Union. The rescue of the church was appropriate, but whether money should have been spent on a memorial park in the middle of nowhere I’m not at all sure.

But let’s go back to the video taken in the extremely modest abode of the widowed Mrs. Imre Csúcs, or as she is known to her friends Bözsi (nickname of Erzsébet) néni. Néni is an annoying Hungarian epithet used for older women, especially those of lower socioeconomic status. Her dwelling is a two-room adobe house which, as we learned elsewhere, she can’t afford to heat properly. She has some chickens and two very clever pigs. Later we also found out that she had started a little business growing cucumbers. It was to this poverty that “the good king” arrived with a bouquet of flowers. The video reminded most people of Mátyás Rákosi’s similar visits to the homes of industrial workers or peasants of cooperatives where short discussions took place about the blessings of socialism even though years after the war food rationing had to be reintroduced.

Bözsi néni’s house / Source: HVG

Judging from an article written after the video went viral, the actual encounter may not have been as bad as the video. But on the video Orbán seems to be singularly uninterested in Bözsi néni’s daily existence. People noted that the prime minister perked up only when he paid a visit to the pig sty to see the two pigs. Otherwise, commentators concentrated on a short exchange about the size of Bözsi néni’s pension. She wished that there were elections every year because in every election year her pension is raised. It was at this point that Orbán, in the fashion of a true autocrat, asked: “Do I raise it normally?” Bözsi néni did remember that she got a 1.6% higher pension the last time, but Orbán reminded her that this was not all. “And I sent you a check too, do you remember?” She remembered that “gift” as well. Orbán told her that if at the end of the year the numbers are in order “I will raise it again.” The reaction to this exchange was one of total disgust. Orbán acted as if it depended on his generosity whether pensioners receive an increase in their stipends or not when in fact the law orders the government to raise pensions, depending on the rate of inflation. In American terms, pensioners are automatically given an annual cost of living adjustment.

Most of the commentators were nauseated because of cheap propaganda, and some of them wrote caustic remarks about the encounter. I found one on, of all places, alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s internet news site, which dubbed the meeting of Orbán and Bözsi néni “the saddest video of the year.” Here is a village of six inhabitants with no future. Even its present is “just, just.” Interestingly, this is not the first public appearance of Bözsi néni. Half a year ago Vasárnapi Hírek published a report about her. It said that she has money to heat only one room and even that only at night. The mention of the little raise in her pension “breaks one’s heart and clenches one’s fist.” According to the author, “Nagygéc is not only a little village condemned to death but the perfect, terrifying symbol of this whole wretched country and this vile and hypocritical regime.” Where from the millions coming from the EU they build a memorial park instead of building a road and bringing in gas and plumbing. “A memory country (emlékország) which sends messages to the past instead of to the future.”

Grotesque? Sad? Both, I’m afraid.

May 9, 2017

The first draft of a “party program” of the Hungarian democratic opposition. Part II

Yesterday when I left off I was talking about the opposition’s concern over the very low Hungarian birthrate, which is resulting in a steadily aging population. At the moment the Orbán government is discussing a scheme by which every woman over the age of 18 who gives birth to her first child would receive a sizable amount of money–the most often heard figure is 300,000 forints–in addition to a flexible scheduling of the subsidies already given to women after childbirth. Most people don’t think that this scheme would make families rush to have children given the current economic situation. As I mentioned, the democratic opposition doesn’t have any better ideas on the subject except that they want to put an end to the current unfair distinction between legally married and unmarried couples who have children. In addition, they promise to put an end to child hunger.

Naturally, they pay a great deal of attention to the welfare of the large population over the age of 65. They promise not only to raise pensions to match the rate of inflation; they also plan to reintroduce a “premium” that would be indexed to economic growth. They make a renewed promise of free public transportation to everyone over the age of 65. They would also again allow pensioners to work while drawing their pensions and would allow people to work beyond the retirement age. Out of these promises the only one I object to is free public transportation for everybody over the age of 65. I think that forcible retirement is untenable in a democratic society and that in certain professions it is outright injurious to the public interest. I am thinking of judges and university professors, for example.

The next topic of the provisional party program is healthcare, and I must say that it is one of the weakest points of the program. Here we have only vague generalities. I understand, however, from a television interview that the hospitals would remain in state hands and that the new government would stick with a single centralized state insurance system. Only yesterday I was listening to an interview with Erzsébet Pusztai (earlier MDF, now a member of Lajos Bokros’s conservative party) who was won over to the idea of privatizing healthcare. What does she mean by that? Basically, that doctors would be the owners of their own practices. Having doctors as state employees guarantees failure, she contends. I tend to agree with her. Therefore I don’t expect any great positive change in the quality of Hungarian healthcare as a result of a change of government. In the first place there is no money to raise salaries and, even if they did, the problem lies not only with low salaries but with attitudes.

The MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM negotiating team / MTI, Photo Lajos Soós

The MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM negotiating teams / MTI, Photo Lajos Soós

Naturally, the democratic opposition wants to put an end to the Kulturkampf introduced by the Orbán government and they make all sorts of promises of state subsidies to make culture readily available. As for the state of the media and the media law, which they surely want to change, they said nothing about MTV, MR, and Duna TV. I’m afraid that these organizations would need a complete change of personnel; otherwise the new government will end up with a far-right state media of low quality.

The Internet wasn’t left off the list either. They promise to pay special attention to making broadband available everywhere in the country and to encourage Internet usage and computer literacy.

These two parties at least don’t want to take away the voting rights of the new Hungarian citizens from Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia. The reason I didn’t include Slovakia here is that Slovakia introduced legislation that forbids dual citizenship and therefore there were very few people who applied for Hungarian citizenship and, if they did, it was in secret. I personally wouldn’t support that right and from what I read on the subject a lot of people would vote along with me on that issue. The document does make special mention of the democratic forces’ opposition “to the use of  the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries as instruments of Hungarian political parties,” but as long as voting rights are ensured there is no way of preventing party politics from spilling over the borders. On that issue, I’m with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció.

Finally, the democratic opposition pledges its support of European values and Euro-Atlantic cooperation. They realize the changing nature of the European Union, but Hungarian national interests must be protected in cooperation with and not against the European Union. Hungary wants to be a partner in the building of a stronger and better European Union.

* * *

Commentators, on the whole, responded positively to the beneficial effects of the joint declarations and the parties’ willingness to work together. Most of them think that once the first step toward an electoral alliance is taken the number of undecided voters will drop and support for the opposition will increase.

In addition to this document the opposition came out with another one that deals with the nomination of MP candidates. I will spend some time on that document in the future, but until then suffice it to say that this particular document pretty well ensures that there will be a single common party list, which is an absolute prerequisite for any success against Fidesz at the next election.

Breaking News: Sándor Csányi, CEO of OTP, the largest Hungarian bank and the premier holder of Forex mortgages, dumped almost 2 million shares yesterday, allegedly to invest in his other businesses. OTP stock has been under pressure recently as a result of rumors about a new government scheme to help the approximately 100,000 people who are currently incapable of repaying their Forex loans. This generous assistance would come at the expense of the banks. Since details of the plan are unavailable, we don’t know how large a haircut the banks would have to take, but the hit might be substantial. I guess that Csányi, who by the way has been a big supporter of the prime minister, decided to bail while he still had some equity left. In the wake of his mega-sale (and I assume that sooner or later we’ll find out who was on the other side of that block trade–again, rumors are flying), OTP stock lost about 9% today.