Tag Archives: Szeged

The real story of the ELI Laser Center in Szeged

Talking about Viktor Orbán’s stamina. After the grueling five-day trip to Beijing and a busy last week and weekend, today Orbán went to the city of Szeged to open the ELI Laser Center.

What is ELI? It stands for Extreme Light Infrastructure, which is a new research infrastructure of pan-European interest. It is a laser project that aims to host the most intense beamline system in the world. The ELI project will be located in four sites. One will be in Dolní Břežany, near Prague. It will focus on the development of short-pulse secondary sources of radiation and particles. ELI-ALPS (Attosecond Light Pulse Source) will be in Szeged, which will be “a unique facility which provides light sources within an extremely broad frequency range in the form of ultrashort pulses with high repetition rate.” In Măgurele, Romania, the ELI-NP (Nuclear Physics) facility will focus on laser-based nuclear physics. The fourth facility’s location is still undecided.

It was on October 1, 2009 that the EU decided to give these three former communist countries a mandate to proceed with the construction of ELI facilities. Being a pan-European project, 85% of all costs would be covered from the European Regional Development Fund. There was only one caveat: these governments didn’t receive extra resources from the European Union for these facilities. They had to use a small portion of their seven-year budget that came from the European Union. It was Gordon Bajnai’s government that signed the agreement, but the whole project, including the decision to construct the center in Szeged, began in 2006 during the second Gyurcsány government.

With this timetable in mind, let’s turn to Viktor Orbán’s speech at the ribbon cutting. First, he made sure that his audience understands that “this facility is not a gift” from the European Union. It was paid partly from the country’s own resources and partly from monies Hungary received from the European Union. And since, in his opinion, Hungary is entitled to the money it receives from the European Union, Orbán considers the money coming from Brussels to be part of the country’s own resources, which could be used in any way he wants. It was a hard decision, he said, because 70-80 billion forints for a single project is a lot. Yet “in 2011 we decided, I believe correctly, to build the largest scientific institution in Hungary’s modern history.” (The Ferenc Puskás Stadium will cost Hungarian taxpayers 200 billion forints, and the cost of the World Aquatic Games has reached 100 billion and counting.)

What happened between October 1, 2009, when the Bajnai government gave its blessing to the project, and 2012, when the Orbán government decided to build the facility? Well, one obvious event was the May 2010 national election when Viktor Orbán again became prime minister of Hungary. Without dwelling on this three-year gap, Orbán said that “today at the time of success, it is unnecessary to recall disputes at the time, but it was seriously debated whether to concentrate on one large investment or not.” The truth is that the Orbán government refused to honor the Bajnai government’s offer of 200 million euros for its construction. Shortly after the election, it withheld one billion forints promised earlier for the planning stage of the project.

Before the municipal elections in October 2010, Lajos Kósa, vice chairman of Fidesz, and the Fidesz candidate for the mayoralty in Szeged held a joint press conference during which they accused the socialist mayor, László Botka, of misleading the people of Szeged. They claimed that no money whatsoever will be coming from the European Union. But, they added, the Orbán government is all in favor of the project and is trying to find the necessary funds, which is not easy under the present financial circumstances.

Of course, all this was just a charade to mislead the people of Szeged, who were naturally keen to have this prestigious project built in their city. The government wanted to use the EU monies for something else, and behind the scenes they were trying to convince the European Union to allow them to abandon the project. As late as August 2012 there was still no decision. László Botka, in an interview at the time, expressed his fear that the project would be cancelled. “Some people are convinced that Orbán is reluctant to spend 10 billion forints on Szeged. Apparently he is thinking of spending this amount of money on Fidesz-led cities. For example, he could divide the amount among 3,000 bakers,” he said sarcastically, since apparently the government was thinking of subsidizing small- and medium-size businesses from the money.

But canceling the undertaking in Szeged would have endangered the ELI enterprise in the Czech Republic and in Romania as well. The decision in 2006 to place the ELI facilities in former Soviet-bloc countries which had joined the Union only two years earlier was a sign of trust in these countries’ ability to create and run first-rate research facilities that were important for the European Union as a whole. So, finally in December 2012—not in 2011 as Orbán claims—the government came to the conclusion that forcing through their original plan and abandoning the project would cast Hungary in a very bad light. It would prove that the former communist countries cannot, after all, be trusted with an important pan-European project of extreme scientific importance. So, they reluctantly gave their blessing.

Orbán now talks about the Laser Center as being of “tremendous value” and proudly claimed in his speech that the very existence of the ELI center is proof of Fidesz’s even-handedness. Too bad that some people have a good memory.

May 23, 2017

Can László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, lead the democratic opposition?

The big news of the day is an interview that László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, gave for 168 Óra’s special Christmas edition. The paper will be on the newsstands only tomorrow, but the word is that Botka, the most popular socialist politician, is ready to lead the united opposition as a candidate for the premiership. Of course, he will accept the job only if his conditions are met by the currently negotiating opposition parties.

First, a few words about Botka, about whom I have written only twice before at any length. He joined MSZP at the tender age of 18. A year later, as a first-year law student in Szeged, he was already the honorary chairman of the party’s youth movement. In 1994 he won his district in the national election and, at the age of 21, was the youngest member of parliament. With the exception of four years, between 1998 and 2002, he was a member of parliament until 2014. In 2002, at the age of 29, he also became mayor of Szeged, a position he has continued to hold even as, at the municipal elections, almost the entire country turned orange.

László Botka in front of the Szeged City Hall

In the last few years Botka’s name was often mentioned as the party’s best bet for the post of prime minister, but the consensus in the party was that Botka was reluctant to accept the nomination, perhaps because of MSZP’s low standing in the polls. Maybe, commentators claimed, he is waiting for a better opportunity. Then last summer MSZP held its congress, and the delegates massively rejected Botka in his bid for reelection as chairman of the board. He felt betrayed and suspected some kind of conspiracy to remove him. He really wanted to remain in this post because, according to the new by-laws, the chairman is now able to influence the party’s strategy for the election campaign. This would have involved decisions concerning partnerships with other parties. My feeling at the time was that it was for this very reason that Botka was rejected as chairman of the board. He was known to be vehemently opposed to any kind of understanding with DK. Since at that point I had high hopes for a rapprochement between DK and MSZP, I was relieved that Botka was leaving party politics.

A couple of weeks later I wrote an article titled “Harmful politicians in the Hungarian democratic opposition,” in which I singled out Bernadett Szél of LMP and Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt. Szigetvári said that his favorite MSZP politician was László Botka. Since “MSZP blackballed Botka, the only conclusion one can draw is that the socialists don’t want to win the election,” he continued. I must say that Szigetvári’s praise of Botka didn’t endear me toward the mayor of Szeged.

Now, six months later, after seeing no signs of a constructive plan for a political formation that could possibly remove Viktor Orbán from power, I have changed my mind. I now think Botka should be given a chance, especially since I see no other viable and attractive candidate. The pro-government media has been floating names of possible contenders for the job, one less likely than the next. For instance, László Andor, former commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion in the Barroso II administration of the European Commission, whose name surfaced in Magyar Idők, is an excellent economist, but it’s hard to imagine him as an inspiring leader.

Although some people might find Botka too assertive, he is exactly the kind of person the opposition needs at the moment. In addition, it seems that Botka has changed his position on cooperation. Back in July I got the distinct impression that Botka believes MSZP can win the election on its own. Otherwise he wouldn’t have vetoed cooperation with DK. By now he realizes that this idea is dead in the water. MSZP can’t win the election on its own. Without cooperation the chances for the opposition are nil.

Botka put forth three conditions for accepting the candidacy. First, the opposition parties should have one common list. This is very important because, apparently, the negotiators still at the table envisage common candidates but separate lists. That would mean that people could cast their second vote for their favorite party, i.e. MSZP, DK, Együtt, Párbeszéd, etc. This would only confuse the electorate. In 2014, they did have a common list, but all the participating parties’ names were printed on the ballot. That was bad enough. Separate lists would be even worse. Second, candidates in all 106 districts would be picked on the basis of electability, not party affiliation. Thus, he would ban any behind-the-scenes negotiations about the number of spots allotted to each party, according to their relative strength at the polls. And finally, there must be prior agreement about the values and policies appropriate for parties on the left of the political spectrum. That means at some level a joint program.

Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read the full interview Botka gave to 168 Óra, I did hear his conversation with György Bolgár this afternoon. I also read an article published in delmagyar.hu, a local internet news site, whose reporter talked to Botka in Szeged. On both occasions he expressed the view that what’s going on at the moment at the negotiating table among representatives of some of the opposition parties is a replay of the 2014 scene. It led to failure then and it will lead to even bigger failure in 2018. “What we need are one million more voters because even if we add up the supporters of all democratic parties we have only half of what Fidesz has at the moment.” These new voters should come from the undecided group, as well as from Jobbik voters and disappointed Fidesz followers. The politicians at the negotiating table “must get their senses back and make a decision by the beginning of next year. Otherwise, they can forget about me. What’s going on right now I cannot, I don’t want to take part in.”

Well, that is plain talk. Unfortunately, initial reactions, admittedly still scanty, are not encouraging. To my surprise, Együtt didn’t want to respond to Botka’s forceful proposal, which is interesting given Viktor Szigetvári’s earlier expression of admiration for Botka. After all, Szigetvári is the co-chair of the party. DK’s spokesman, Zsolt Gréczy, speaking on Klubrádió, wasn’t at all enthusiastic. He pointed out that at the negotiations the person of the future prime minister had not been discussed and therefore he assumes that Botka’s putting himself forth is nothing more than the expression of “personal ambition.” A rather unfortunate way of saying that, as far as he knows, Botka is not the official candidate of MSZP. To reinforce this point, Gréczy reminded his audience that Botka had been squarely rejected as chairman of MSZP’s board only a few months ago. He promised, however, that DK’s leadership will discuss the matter whenever the issue is officially presented to them. I assume the discussion will be brief.

In a few days an article of mine will come out in Népszava’s Christmas issue. In it I expressed my negative opinion of the politicians of the fractious democratic opposition. I am not sure that Botka’s plan would succeed even if all the others wholeheartedly supported him, but what’s going on now seems utterly hopeless to me.

December 21, 2016

János Lázár’s fight with Budapest and Norway

Until now I don’t think too many people ever heard of Nándor Csepreghy, who originally hails from Cluj/Kolozsvár, Romania. In 2002 he moved to Hungary to enroll as a student at the University of Szeged, where he majored in history. A year after his arrival he was already heavily involved in Fidesz politics. His political career began in Fidelitas, the youth organization of Fidesz. As a party activist he was full of rather innovative ideas, some of which, like a video called Gyurcsány Twister, did in fact manage to twist the truth quite a bit. In 2008 he was sent to the United States to study campaign strategies, where he obviously learned something. In 2010 he was the campaign manager for a Fidesz candidate for parliament who easily defeated the MSZP mayor of Szeged, László Botka. In 2012 he was at last rewarded with an important government position. He became undersecretary in charge of government investments “of special importance.” It is in this capacity that Csepreghy has been in the limelight recently.

He has two uncomfortable tasks to deal with. He is negotiating in Brussels with the office handling the Norwegian funds, and he has the unpleasant job of telling the citizens of Budapest that the government will not award the city funds to upgrade the metro. Without these funds metro line #3 may have to be closed because it so old and technologically behind the times that it has become outright dangerous.

In addition to his degree in history Csepreghy also majored in communication, “concentrating on public relations.” Again, he learned well. He talks in full sentences and usually has ready answers to uncomfortable questions. It is perhaps not his fault that he has to deliver messages from his boss, János Lázár, that turn out to be politically unwise, which later he is obliged to cover up.

This is what happened in the case of the Budapest convergence funds. He explained that Budapest cannot receive anything from these funds because they are meant primarily for underdeveloped regions. And, of course, everybody knows that Budapest and Pest County are the most developed regions in Hungary. The inhabitants are  better educated and average salaries are the highest in the country. There was only one problem with this explanation: there are no such regional restrictions on funds in the convergence program. In an interview he helpfully suggested that perhaps the city of Budapest could take out a loan, which the government would guarantee.

Surely, Csepreghy is too low on the totem pole to make announcements of this sort on his own. I’m certain that he was just a messenger of János Lázár, who a couple of days later sent another message to Mayor István Tarlós through Csepreghy: he should lobby in Brussels for more money just as his predecessor Gábor Demszky did.

János Lázár and istván Tarlós

János Lázár and István Tarlós

Once Olga Kálmán of Egyenes Beszéd (ATV) pointed out to Csepreghy that the allocation of funds is entirely up to the government, he had to take a different tack. So, he continued this way: It is true that one-fifth of Hungarians live in the capital, but the government has an equal obligation to areas outside of Budapest. Therefore, the government decided to allocate the money to needier areas, which is only fair.

A day later Csepreghy came up with another story. No decision was made that “all financial resources would be taken away from the capital.” But the amount will be less than would be necessary for the modernization of Budapest’s transport system.

Meanwhile  news reached the public that János Lázár has a fairly grandiose plan of his own for his birthplace, Hódmezővásárhely, where he was mayor between 2002 and 2012. He would like to build a tram-train between Hódmezővásárhely and Szeged (23 km). Tram-train is a light-rail public transport system where the train functions as a streetcar in urban centers but between cities uses railway lines. Whether this is the best way to spend billions, I am not sure. I read that currently very few people use the train between Hódmezővásárhely and Szeged; most of the people use the bus. Apparently daily there are only about 8,000 trips between the two cities. Some people pointed out that no town exists anywhere in the world with a population as low as 40,000 that has its own streetcar system.

After about three days of silence Tarlós decided to say something about the grim news. He tried to be conciliatory, stressing that he and Viktor Orbán would find the necessary funds for the #3 metro line. Up to now Budapest has received 635 million forints, but the renovation would cost about 200 billion. The city sent detailed plans and financial estimates to the government. János Lázár, however, claimed in a public forum in his home town that they had received nothing from Tarlós’s office. Who is telling the truth? I’m almost certain that Lázár isn’t.

The question is why the government would want to pick a fight with Tarlós and why they would strip Budapest of all the money promised in 2013. It makes no sense to alienate the population of the city a few months before the municipal election. Well, perhaps Viktor Orbán and his minions think that, thanks to the new electoral law that was dutifully signed by President János Áder today, the election results are sewn up. With the new provisions the opposition won’t have a chance. Or it might be that the government is trying to curry favor with the rural population who are hurting and who think the inhabitants of Budapest get far too big a slice of the common pie. In any case, Brussels favors upgrading Budapest’s transportation system.

As for Csepreghy’s other unpleasant task, negotiations with the Norwegians are not going very well. The government had to accede to the demand of the Norwegian government and abandon the idea of outsourcing the distribution of the funds to a private firm. According to Csepreghy, there was an understanding between the two sides concerning the fate of the larger amount handled by the Hungarian government. However, Csepreghy continued, no agreement was reached about the funds distributed by the NGO Ökotárs Alapítvány (Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation).

I am not at all sure that Csepreghy is telling the whole truth. Let me quote a Norwegian source, which I trust more. Here is the Norwegian government’s position: “Norway and Hungary have still not reached an agreement on lifting the suspension of the EEA and Norway Grants to the country…. Hungarian authorities have initiated an audit of the EEA Grants-funded NGO program strengthening civil society in Hungary. Responsibility for the program and any potential audits lies with the donor states. … Hungary must meet the requirements stipulated in the agreements, which means that the audit must be halted. At the same time, a solution must be found on the issue of the transfer of the implementation and monitoring of the Grants scheme out of the central government administration. Norwegian authorities have as a precondition that these outstanding issues must be resolved before the suspension of the EEA and Norway Grants is lifted. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is waiting for a response from Hungarian authorities before deciding if and how further meetings will take place. ” According to this summary, nothing has been resolved. Both the EEA Grants handled by the government and the Norway Grants handled by the NGO program are still suspended, waiting for a satisfactory response from the Hungarians.

László Toroczkai: Quite a career from the siege of MTV to the mayor of a small town

Hungarian media and the public attuned to politics have been unable to recover from the shock of a by-election in Ásotthalom, a larger village near Szeged, close to the Serbian border. László Toroczkai, an infamous neo-Nazi who has been banned from Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia because of his openly irredentist views and illegal activities, became the new mayor of the borough. How could this have happened?

“Political scientists” offered some highly unlikely explanations for this outrage, but these people rarely move from their desks in Budapest and therefore have no first-hand knowledge of local  politics and the politicians who more often than not influence the outcome of these elections. Moreover, they rarely bother to delve into the background of events they try to analyze. I who couldn’t just drive down to Ásotthalom had to gather information from at least two dozen sources before I had a fair idea of what was really going in that village.

Two of these political scientists, Gábor Filippov of Magyar Progresszív Intézet (which is becoming less and less progressive) and Zoltán Ceglédi of Republikon Intézet, blamed the democratic opposition for not coming up with a candidate of their own and thus letting Toroczkai be the sole challenger of Ferenc Petró, the former mayor who was just ousted by four of the six members of the council. Let me add that Ferenc Petró has been the mayor of Ásotthalom for sixteen years. Earlier he ran as an independent although the locals knew that he was a Fidesz man. In 2010 Petró decided that there was no longer any reason to hide behind the “independent” label and ran officially as the candidate of Fidesz.

As for blaming the democratic parties (MSZP, Együtt14 and DK) for Toroczkai’s victory, that is total nonsense. The inhabitants of Ásotthalom are known to be super loyal Fidesz voters. At the 2010 national election Fidesz-KDNP received 1,261 votes while MSZP got a mere 205. And yes, there were 164 Jobbik voters. Not an overwhelming number. Petró, the mayor ever since 1998, always won handily. He never had less than 55% of the votes, and there was at least one year when he received 70% of the votes. I would like to see a candidate of the left challenge this Fidesz mayor, however unpopular he is at the moment.

So, what happened? Ásotthalom’s budget shrank due to the policies of the Orbán government and the mayor of the village had to introduce austerity measures. Half of the staff of town hall was let go. Petró was heard making critical remarks about the government’s policies concerning municipalities and had conflicts with the district’s Fidesz member of parliament. According to some sources, Fidesz no longer supported Petró and perhaps even encouraged the four disaffected members of the council to dissolve it and force a by-election. Rumor has it that they had their eye on one of the Fidesz members of the council who in the last minute decided to drop out of the race. That left the door open to our neo-Nazi Toroczkai who moved into the village just this summer. He won with 71.5% of the votes. Mind you, only 37.4% of the voters bothered to go to the polls.

I wrote several times about this young man. He was involved in so many far-right, neo-Nazi organizations that I’m sure one could spend days listing them all. Looking through the laundry list, I’m convinced that in a western country this man would already be sitting in jail instead of running for office.

toroczkai, MTV

László Toroczkai’s great moment in front of the building of the Hungarian Television on September 19, 2006

Toroczkai was born with the pedestrian name of László Tóth, but surely such a great Hungarian patriot cannot be called Mr. Slovak. (Tót means Slovak in Hungarian.) He picked the name Toroczkai, allegedly because his ancestors came from the town of Torockó/Râmetea, naturally in Romania. After all, someone who established the Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (HIVM/Youth Movement of the Sixty-four Counties), a reference to Greater Hungary’s counties, must find his origins somewhere outside of the Trianon borders.

As a high school student Toroczkai had a lucrative business smuggling alcohol and cigarettes from Subotica in Serbia to Szeged where he lived. He began his political career in 1998 at the age of twenty as a candidate of MIÉP. In the same year he became parliamentary reporter for István Csurka’s anti-Semitic Magyar Fórum. On the side, he organized a paramilitary organization called Special Unit of the Sons of the Crown, and a couple of years later in 2001 he set up HVIM, which became one of the most important organizations on the far right. He became known nationally when he led the mob from Kossuth Square to the building of MTV in September 2006. The crowd he led stormed, burned, and eventually occupied the building. During the siege 190 policemen were wounded, some of them seriously. The damage to the building was considerable, costing millions to repair. There were two attempts to charge him for his role in the attack, but both times he was acquitted. Nothing happened to him even when he threatened to murder Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

After Fidesz won the election Toroczkai kept a low profile. And once in Ásotthalom he took on a whole new persona. He frequents the local Catholic Church. The parish priest, who didn’t like the former mayor because he didn’t let the public workers cut the grass of his parish, supported him. Toroczkai is married by now to a Romanian woman from Moldavia and the two have a child. The inhabitants of the village consider him a devoted and caring father. He also seems to have business interests in and around the village where a number of his voters managed to get jobs. In brief, he is popular, especially since he assured the people of Ásotthalom that there will be no austerity program and he himself will work for minimum wage. Moreover, according to a reporter of Népszabadság from Szeged who visited the village, it is almost certain that the majority of the voters have no idea of Toroczkai’s neo-Nazi career and his anti-Gypsy, anti-Jewish, anti-gay and anti-lesbian past and most likely present. The few videos I saw of him showed a young, thoughtful, soft-spoken man who takes his job seriously.

What will happen now? The town hall of Ásotthalom was in a great hurry to make sure that the borough’s website was immediately updated. Toroczkai’s name is already there for everybody to see. Toroczkai has no administrative experience, and the same is true about the new members of the council. Also, one doesn’t know what Toroczkai’s real plans are over and above those soothing words about the great future Ásotthalom will have under his leadership. At one point he wanted to create “a parallel state” in Hungary. I wonder whether it is his secret plan to set up one in Ásotthalom.