Tag Archives: Szigetvár

Another EU project: Renovation of fortified castles and luxury mansions

It was about a year ago that I first encountered two new programs launched by the Orbán government: the “National Castle Program” and the “National Mansion Program.”

The castles we are talking about here are actually late medieval fortified structures, built for the defense of the country. They were especially numerous along the border between Royal Hungary and the Turkish occupied center of the country. The structures in Szigetvár and Eger are perhaps the most famous. It was in Szigetvár that Suleiman the Magnificent died in 1566, as did the captain of the fort, Miklós Zrínyi/Nikola Zrinski, the Croat-Hungarian military leader who led his troops to their death instead of capitulating. Eger, the scene of a Turkish-Hungarian encounter in 1552, was memorialized in the popular novel by Géza Gárdonyi, Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. Both are tourist attractions, so it made sense to put them at the top of the reconstruction list.

The government will salvage 35 fortified castles and renovate 34 mansions. All told, 93 billion forints will be spent on these two projects, “mostly from money coming from the European Union.”

The justification for these two projects is that they will boost tourism. The government estimates that the renovated mansions will attract an extra 800,000 visitors, and an additional 600,000 visitors are expected at the fortified castles. Fifteen billion forints will have to be spent on hotels and services near the structures which, the government hopes, will come from private entrepreneurs. Viktor Orbán assigned János Lázár to supervise these projects. He, in turn, entrusted Undersecretary László L. Simon with the task, but Simon was fired a couple of weeks ago for incompetence.

Most of the fortresses are in terrible shape. Once Hungary reclaimed the Turkish-occupied part of the country at the end of the seventeenth century, the structures no longer had any purpose. They could conceivably have been turned into estates since each of these fortified castles had a so-called “residence tower” (lakótorony), which at one point was occupied by the lord of the castle himself. But these uncomfortable old buildings were eventually abandoned in favor of mansions in the countryside or residences in the capital. And after the soldiers left, the locals pilfered the stones and bricks of the castle to build houses nearby. (This is how most city walls have disappeared over the centuries.)

To what extent should these structures be reconstructed? This question has been the subject of furious debate for a long time between those who consider extensive reconstruction a falsification of history and those who argue for complete reconstruction. The government’s emphasis is on tourism, not the sanctity of architectural history. And visitors are not going to flock to see piles of stones. Therefore, most of these fortresses will be more or less rebuilt. This is certainly true of the fortified castle of Diósgyőr.

Readers who want more information about this government initiative should take a look at an article titled “National Castle Program: Removal of ruins or falsification of history.” Here we learn that at least two of these fortresses will be completely reconstructed and that six will be partially reconstructed. In 17 cases only a section of the former structure will be reconstructed. Nine, most likely buildings too far gone, will receive some treatment to stop further deterioration.

And before

The Diósgyőr Castle after the rebuilding and before Diósgyőr Castle before and after

The reconstruction of the fortified castles may make some sense commercially, but the renovation of the mansions is questionable for several reasons. At the moment these fairly decrepit structures, most of them built in the nineteenth century, are not architectural masterpieces. Most eventually were used as schools or were even cut up into apartments or offices. Something ought to be done with them, but should they be completely renovated on mostly EU money? What does the state intend to do with 34 mansions? I fear that the plan is to sell them at a favorable price to domestic and foreign friends of the Orbán government. We mustn’t forget that István Tiborcz, Orbán’s son-in-law, is now in the real estate business and is involved in the sale of the Schossberger Mansion to a billionaire Turkish businessman.

There is another suspicious aspect of the National Mansion Project. In the last few months the number of officially recognized historic buildings has ballooned. The reason for adding more mansions to the list is simple. A construction company who wins a bid to renovate a historic building can charge up to 400,000 forints per m² both for alteration and construction, while for a non-historic building a company can charge only 320,000 for construction and 220,000 for alteration. In brief, more money can be squeezed out of Brussels if the mansion is of some historic significance or is deemed an architectural masterpiece.

The latest outrage is the government’s change in the payment schedule for construction work on these projects. The original understanding was that for projects designed to stimulate the tourist industry 30% of the amount bid could be received in advance. In April the government changed the regulation. Companies involved in these projects could get 50% of their money up front. On Monday the government decided that, without replacing a single brick, the construction companies could be paid in full. As far as Magyar Nemzet knows, “the European Commission is taking a dim view of this practice,” although at the moment the cost is being borne by the Hungarian taxpayers since Brussels will pay only when all work is finished, which in some cases may be only in 2022.

The Nádasdy Mansion is also the part of the program

The Nádasdy Mansion is also the part of the program

The mansion project may seem lavish, but in fact it is seriously underfunded. It costs an average of 400,000 forints per m² to build an ordinary house in a fashionable section of Budapest. To renovate these residences is extraordinarily expensive. According to the former chief of the office that used to handle issues connected with the country’s cultural heritage, the only sensible move would be to sell these state-owned mansions, as is, to domestic and foreign buyers who would undertake their renovation under strict guidelines. The money allocated for these houses, 1.5 billion per structure, might be enough to guarantee that the roofs don’t leak or perhaps it will cover the cost of an assessment of the physical state of the structures. But if that is the case, what will happen to the money the Hungarian government is giving from its own resources to the construction companies for the renovation of these buildings? A good question.

July 20, 2016

Mass exodus from villages in Baranya County, Hungary

Hungary is witnessing a steady flow of emigrants. Admittedly, one could counter that it is incorrect to call those who seek work abroad emigrants because “to emigrate” means “to leave one country or region to settle in another.” One could argue that these people don’t plan to live abroad for good. However, there is a very good likelihood that people who spend a number of years in another country, establish a career for themselves, make new non-Hungarian friends, perhaps even marry local men or women will not return to their country of birth. A good example of that kind of emigration was the mass exodus of Hungarian citizens, especially from the Slovak-inhabited counties of northeastern Hungary, who left for the United States in the 1880s and 1890s in order to make enough money to return home and live in relative comfort. Most of them never saw Hungary again.

We know that at least 330,000 Hungarians now work abroad. I suspect that most of these people are from larger cities and from regions adjacent to the Austrian border. But today I read a fascinating report about the poverty-stricken south of the County of Baranya which has been witnessing “emigration fever.” The population of this region is in an utterly hopeless situation. There are places where over 50% of the population are unemployed without the slightest hope of finding work. In the entire county there was only one large factory, the Finnish Elcoteq, but in 2011 the firm filed for bankruptcy and between 5,000 and 7,000 people lost their jobs. Until 2011 the lucky ones in these godforsaken villages could find work in Pécs, commuting between work and home. That opportunity is gone.

The Pécs stringer for Népszabadság visited four tiny villages, two close to Szigetvár on the west and two near Sellye, the largest town in the so-called Ormánság. I might add here that the Roma population of south Baranya is pretty high. It always was, but by now there are villages where all of the inhabitants are Roma. This is especially true of the Ormánság. Both Szigetvár and Sellye are marked on the map below.

The reporter’s journey began in Kétújfalu (pop. 667), 13 km from Szigetvár. There even the Fidesz-KDNP mayor’s son moved to Germany where he began as a dock worker but by now has a job as a computer technician. He made 110,000 forints a month as a fire fighter in Hungary; he now makes about three and a half times that amount–1,300 euros a month. The thirty-year-old English teacher in the village school packed up a couple of years ago. She became a housekeeper in the UK. A fifty-year-old locksmith has been working in Germany for the last ten years. Last summer his wife followed him. She was a cook in the school, now she works as a cleaning lady. She gives the impression of being a “secure and self-confident person,” at least this is how the mayor, who is a German-Russian-gym teacher, describes her.

The situation is very much the same in Teklafalu (pop. 343) close by. The first emigrant was a butcher who went to Germany fifteen years ago. His son decided to become a butcher as well in order to work with his father. As soon as he learned the trade he followed his father to Passau where he got a job at the firm his father is working for. The family has two daughters who are still not on their own, but once they finish school the wife is going to follow husband and son. She is ready to work in a factory. After all, in the old regime she worked in a canning factory in Szigetvár.

After the son of our butcher left, interest in emigration grew in Teklafalu. Two women in their fifties left for Germany. The son of one them headed to Italy. A young fellow just left for the Netherlands, but he is not the first one in that country from the village. A young woman left years ago and recently her father followed her; he got a job as a security guard. “He had enough of the poverty,” as his neighbor said.

County of Baranya

County of Baranya

From the Szigetvár region the reporter moved south, close to Sellye, to a village called Bogdása (pop. 295). The place has a Catholic and a Hungarian Reformed church but neither priest nor minister. They come from Sellye for services. The same exodus can be observed here. First, one fellow left for France and soon enough two more followed him. Neither man was unemployed at home; they had jobs but never made more than 120,000-150,000 a month. Now they make about five times that amount as plasterers. One of them is in Rennes and the other in Grenoble. Their sister is planning to go to Austria and would be happy to work either in a restaurant or in a hotel. Another couple moved to England where they work in a Sony plant. As their neighbors say, “they don’t even visit anymore.” Three men from the village work in a slaughterhouse in Germany while three others, also in Germany, got jobs as long distance truck drivers.

The most interesting story is from Drávafok (pop 508). Tímea  Buzás is thirty and Roma. She has been working in the United Kingdom ever since 2006 when she graduated as a midwife. At that time she applied for a job in Drávafok but lost out to someone else. She suspects that her Gypsy origin had something to do with it. So she decided to leave for Great Britain. Because she didn’t know English she first worked in a factory. Two years later when her English improved she got a job looking after elderly people. A year later she got a regular job as a nurse. Today she is head nurse in Crawley and makes 2,500 pounds a month.

In the last six years she paid off her parents’ mortgage on their house (4 million), spent 2 million fixing up their house in Drávafok, bought an apartment in Pécs for 8.5 million, and spent another 2 million fixing it up. She also generously helps others, preparing them for the journey and conditions in the UK. She apparently managed to get jobs for 72 of her acquaintances. Once they are there she helps them open bank accounts, fill out job applications, and find apartments. Out of the 500 inhabitants of Drávafok there are at least 15 people just in England.

These people, six months after arriving in the UK, are able to send home 200,000-250,000 forints a month. Not surprisingly there is great interest in moving to Great Britain in Drávafok. Tímea, who is currently spending her summer vacation at home, was approached by seven of her neighbors in just the past few days. The only impediment is that future emigrants must have some initial capital with which to start their new lives. According to Tímea one needs at least 300,000 forints. Since most of the inhabitants of Drávafok can get only 45,000 forint public works jobs it is almost impossible to scrape together such a sun. Otherwise, I suspect, there would be no way of stopping them.

Until now the Roma of Baranya County didn’t rush to leave the country seeking jobs abroad. That has changed. As one mayor in the region said, the best educated and the most ambitious are the ones who are leaving, which is a real pity.

Yes, this situation greatly resembles what was going on in the northeastern counties of Greater Hungary in the late nineteenth century. The news spread by word of mouth. One villager went to the United States to work in a factory or mine and sent home glowing reports about his good fortune. And more and more packed up until half of the villages had no adult men. This is what seems to be going on today, at least in Baranya. But now the women are also leaving.