Tag Archives: Szilárd Kiss

“Visa shopping” in Moscow: The case of Szilárd Kiss

A young man phoned György Bolgár’s popular call-in show, “Let’s Talk It Over,” on Klub Rádió this afternoon. He was agitated over the latest public row within the ranks of the fractured opposition. “Don’t they realize that we are in big trouble? Don’t they realize that if they don’t unite, Viktor Orbán will be the ruler of this country for life just like Putin and Erdogan? It’s all very nice that LMP’s Bernadett Szél managed to get some documents out of the government, but what does she achieve with that? These politicians should try to figure out how to get rid of a dictator.”

It was only a little later that I realized that the caller was talking about documents that Szél has been trying to get from the ministry of foreign affairs and trade for almost two years. The documents were the result of an investigation into the wholesaling of Schengen visas to thousands of Russians without any vetting by a man officially employed by the Hungarian government.

When I read the details of this latest government scandal, my first reaction was: “But this is not a new story.” Two years ago I wrote two posts on the villain of this story, Szilárd Kiss, agricultural attaché in the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow, who was able to extract thousands of visas from the Hungarian consulate in the Russian capital for his friends, business partners, and even prostitutes. At the time that I wrote my first post on Kiss, he was being held in pre-trial detention for defrauding a credit union in Hungary. He had been in trouble with the law in Russia earlier.

A lot was known about Kiss already in 2015. We knew that he moved to Russia in 1990, hoping to establish himself as a successful businessman dealing with agricultural products. He was especially keen on exporting Hungarian wine to Russia, but somehow all his business ventures failed. Meanwhile he developed a wide network of Russian businessmen and high-ranking politicians through his Russian wife or girlfriend of long standing, Yelena Tsvetkova.

After 2010, with the arrival of Viktor Orbán as prime minister, Kiss thought his time had come. After all, Orbán was keen on establishing strong political and economic ties with Russia. Through his influential Hungarian friends, like Csaba Tarsoly, the CEO of the Quaestor brokerage firm that a few years later went under, Kiss was introduced to Péter Szijjártó, the current foreign minister who was then an undersecretary in the prime minister’s office. Szijjártó was impressed and sent Kiss on to Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, who without further ado appointed him agricultural attaché in Moscow.

In 2014, however, the Hungarian ambassador was about to dismiss Kiss because he had failed to pass the vetting process by the national security office. During the investigation it became evident that Kiss had connections to the Russia mafia and perhaps even to the Russian secret service. In addition, it was discovered that Kiss had been involved in a profitable “visa business” on the side. It was known already in 2015 that he had secured Schengen visas for at least 2,500 people without the standard vetting. In 2015 Index learned that Hungarian consulates had, in total, issued more than two million visas since January 2008. The Russian share was staggeringly high: 400,000. That is, every fifth visa had been issued to a Russian citizen.

We knew all that two years ago, yet the Hungarian media and public act as if this revelation is brand new. I sympathize with the caller who said that politicians could spend their time more profitably than fighting for the release of documents. It took two solid years to get the documents, which only confirmed everything that Index had reported two years ago. Of course, it is good to have the proof as well as more details, which “give a frightening picture of what was going on in Moscow.”

Source: Index / Graphics: Szarvas

As a result of the newly available documents we know that half of all Schengen visas issued in 2013 were requested by Monte Tokaj Kft, Szilárd Kiss’s company. We are talking about 4,000 visas, not 2,500 as we thought in 2015. Moreover, these visas were issued to “Russian citizens with ill-defined financial backgrounds and professions” and “without any apparent documented control.” The Hungarian authorities were not even aware of the addresses of these people, their requests were granted within hours, 50% of the applicants had no references, and they didn’t even have to visit the embassy for a personal interview. What Kiss and his accomplices were doing was what we call “visa shopping.” I should add that it is likely that none of these people spent even as much as a full day in Hungary.

Without the consuls’ cooperation Kiss couldn’t have conducted this visa racket. It looks to me as if they tried to defend themselves by claiming “dishonest influence peddling, pressure, or even threats” against them. Are they talking about pressure and threats from Russian mafia bosses? Perhaps, but the internal investigation doesn’t address this topic.

What is also interesting about this case—something we already knew in 2015—is that although the foreign ministry asked the ministry of agriculture to get rid of Kiss, he was not fired outright. Fazekas worked out an arrangement that allowed Kiss to remain with the ministry. He was asked to resign from his diplomatic post, thereby avoiding the stigma of dismissal. In compensation, Kiss was appointed “commissioner of eastern economic relations.” Why the change? Perhaps because the new appointment was based on a contractual agreement for which one didn’t need national security clearance. Kiss thus remained a public servant until January 2015, when he was arrested because of his role in defrauding a credit union.

By now Kiss is free again, awaiting trial. The last time his name showed up in the media was when he was spotted using a car with a diplomatic plate.

The foreign ministry now claims that they filed a complaint with the police regarding the case. If that happened at all, it must have occurred only recently, under pressure from a court order for the release of the report of the internal investigation that took place four years ago, in 2013.

Although it’s good that we know more about the case than we did two years ago, I’m sure the story will be forgotten within days just it was in 2015. In fact, I would be surprised if there were a police investigation at all. Kiss’s visa racket will be at best a footnote in a history book.

The Hungarian government has every reason to downplay this case. Although Szijjártó claims he never worked with Kiss, he can be seen cutting the ribbon at the opening of the visa center in Moscow with Yelena Tsvetkova, wife/girlfriend of Szilárd Kiss, partial owner of the company. It is also unlikely that the Hungarian government would be too keen to investigate the deal Fazekas made on behalf of his friend Szilárd Kiss in the ministry of agriculture.

So yes, we now know more lurid details of the visa scandal, but given the present government’s stranglehold on the police and the prosecutor’s office nothing will ever come of it. I agree with the caller to “Let’s Talk It Over.” Opposition politicians should slowly turn the job of investigative journalism over to the professionals and instead focus on the daunting task of becoming an unbeatable political juggernaut.

February 8, 2017

Our man in Moscow: Szilárd Kiss

The big news in Hungary is still the financial collapse of the Quaestor Group, which may involve the loss of 150-200 billion forints to those who used the companies’ services. The consequences of the bankruptcy might be far-reaching, including a loss of trust in Hungary’s financial institutions.

The more we hear about the details of Quaestor’s ventures the clearer it is that the Hungarian government was heavily involved in the business affairs of Csaba Tarsoly, the CEO of the firm. As the story unfolds, it looks as if two ministries in particular are implicated: the ministry of foreign affairs and trade and the ministry of agriculture. A closer look at the cast of characters reveals that there was one man who had a close working relationship with Tarsoly as well as the two ministers: Szilárd Kiss. Commonly described as an adventurer of dubious reputation, Kiss may have posed, and in fact still may pose, a national security threat to the country.

I wrote about Szilárd Kiss once, but here I would like to say a few words about the likely relationships between Kiss and Csaba Tarsoly; Péter Szijjártó, minister of foreign affairs and trade; and Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture. Today, a month after I wrote a post on Kiss, I believe that he had a much more important role to play in Viktor Orbán’s “eastern opening” than I suspected earlier.

As we know, Kiss has been living in Russia at least since 1990, where he moved in the hope of exploiting business opportunities. His specialty was agricultural products. Eventually, he worked as an unofficial lobbyist for Hungarians who wanted to do business in Russia. But how did Péter Szijjártó and Sándor Fazekas come to know Kiss? I suspect through Csaba Tarsoly, whom Kiss most likely tried to entice into some Russian business venture. Their relationship goes back to 2002 and 2003, way before Viktor Orbán ever dreamed of any “eastern opening.” Szilárd Kiss could be persuasive. As early as 2003 he was named to the board of Quaestor Financial Consulting. Three years later, in 2006, he became a board member and part owner of Quaestor Energetics. He resigned both positions in April 2011 when he became a civil servant.

After the 2010 Fidesz victory and the announcement of the “eastern opening,” Szilárd Kiss’s time arrived. It must have been Tarsoly who called the attention of Péter Szijjártó, an old friend from Győr and the key person in the new foreign policy introduced and directed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, to Szilárd Kiss, who allegedly had important connections in Russia with both businessmen and officials in the ministry of agriculture. Although at present Sándor Fazekas doesn’t want to remember anything about Szilárd Kiss, it had to have been the ministry of agriculture that named him agricultural attaché in the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow.

Szilárd Kiss / válasz.hu

Szilárd Kiss / válasz.hu

István Íjgyártó, the Hungarian ambassador to Russia between 2010 and 2014, knew about Kiss’s shady business dealings and even his brush with the law. And in September 2013 Kiss was about to be dismissed from his diplomatic post. What was behind this sudden decision when apparently both Fazekas and Szijjártó were satisfied with Kiss’s work? The foreign ministry, it seems, learned that Kiss had been vetted by the national security office and had failed the test. It had become evident during the investigation that Kiss had connections to the Russian mafia. His dismissal was not automatic, however, because the Orbán government had changed the law on the vetting of officials. An official’s superior can make his own decision about the dangers involved. Fazekas suggested to Kiss that he resign, thus avoiding the stigma of dismissal. In compensation, Fazekas immediately appointed Kiss commissioner of eastern economic relations. Why the change? Because the new appointment was based on a contractual agreement for which one didn’t need national security clearance.

Szilárd Kiss was also involved in a profitable “visa business” on the side, which he continued even while he was a member of the Hungarian diplomatic corps. All told, he was responsible for getting Hungarian visas for about 2,500 Russian citizens. Considering Kiss’s relations with the Russian underworld, it is very likely that some of his friends from the Russian mafia are today the happy owners of a Hungarian visa. Kiss was also known to be involved in human trafficking. Hundreds of prostitutes received visas through his good offices. How did he manage to acquire all these visas? It was fairly simple. He approached one of his influential Hungarian businessmen to invite Igor, Olga, or Natasha, and with this invitation he managed to convince the Hungarian consulate in Moscow to issue them visas. There was a 2011 case which came to light during a court proceeding against Kiss where a certain Yevgeny Dubrovin gave him 80,000 euros to acquire visas “for his friends.” At the exchange rate at the time, this transaction alone netted Kiss 20.8 million forints. Apparently Kiss had powerful backers in the government and the local officials could do nothing to stop his activities even if they wanted to.

Consulates in general are run quite independently from the foreign ministry, and the Moscow consulate was considered to be a hotbed of corruption. It was for that reason that some officials familiar with the situation in Moscow welcomed the idea of setting up a visa center. A lot of other countries had established such visa centers, all of them run by an Indian company, VFS Global. The Orbán government doesn’t like “orthodox” solutions, however, and therefore the Hungarian visa center in Moscow, VisaWorld-Center Szolgáltató, is owned by Csaba Tarsoly of Quaestor fame and Yelena Tsvetkova, wife or girlfriend of Szilárd Kiss. In addition, Index found out that Tsvetkova has a joint business venture with the same Yevgeny Dubrovin who earlier wanted to buy visas for his friends. There is a good possibility that both Kiss and Tsvetkova have friendly relations with the Russian secret service.

According to a well-informed source, the VisaWorld-Center in its present form may well be a hole in the “shield of Schengen.” In his opinion, it is impossible that the Russian secret service wouldn’t have a fair idea of what’s going on there. Altogether Hungarian consulates have issued more than two million visas since January 2008. The Russian share is staggeringly high: 400,000. That is, every fifth visa has been issued to a Russian citizen.

I think that even this brief description of the network that exists among politicians, businessmen, and the Russian and Hungarian underworld highlights the dangers the Hungarian government poses to the security of the European Union.

The Quaestor story is becoming less transparent despite the release of documents

It was four days ago that I wrote an article titled “A Crime in Search of a More Coherent Cover-up.” Well, the Orbán government is still searching and the story, instead of becoming more coherent, is getting more confusing. It’s hard to know whether the government is intentionally obfuscating the issue or whether it simply can’t concoct a halfway believable plot in which nobody in the government is at fault. The prime minister, we have been told, misremembered. It seems that the buck didn’t stop with him after all. But at the same time he doesn’t want to implicate any of his colleagues. That wouldn’t be good for business.

Meanwhile the police twiddled their thumbs, presumably waiting for instructions from above. Although Quaestor collapsed on March 9 and rumor had it that Csaba Tarsoly, its CEO, was a flight risk, they did nothing until March 26. Finally, two days ago, they arrested Tarsoly.

The chief prosecutor of Budapest, Tibor Ibolya, tried to explain away the delay by saying that “he did not want to prejudice the case” by acting hastily. In order to bolster this claim he had the temerity to quote the guidelines of the European Court of Justice. It is hard to tell whether Ibolya is just incompetent or, more likely, an eager accomplice of the Orbán government like his boss, Péter Polt. To get a sense of the man, I recommend Olga Kálmán’s interview with him on Egyenes beszéd (Straight talk).

QuaestorAlthough we heard earlier that Csaba Tarsoly, CEO of Quaestor, had officially announced the firm’s bankruptcy, the revised account is that no such notification to the authorities ever took place. Tarsoly simply told the National Bank that the company had collapsed; he didn’t file any bankruptcy papers. As a result, Tarsoly and his associates had plenty of time to get rid of evidence, hide assets, and do all sorts of things that would obscure their allegedly illegal activities.

It is possible that a great deal more public money landed in the coffers of Quaestor than the 3.5 billion returned in the form of cash to the Magyar Nemzeti Kereskedőház (Hungarian National Trading House), which is under the jurisdiction of the ministry of foreign affairs and trade. Népszabadság received information that the ministry of agriculture lost millions, but the paper’s Fidesz sources said that its money was not at Quaestor. I, however, wouldn’t be at all surprised if this ministry also had money with Quaestor because of Tarsoly’s close business connections with Szilárd Kiss, the man accused not only of embezzlement but also of possible connections to the Russian Federal Security Service. Kiss was a special favorite of the minister of agriculture, Sándor Fazekas.

The Hungarian public was promised information about the extent of the loss of public funds by tomorrow. This will be a tricky document to put together.

By now the government seems to have realized that it has lost public confidence. Therefore in the last few days it released a number of documents to build a more believable story.

Among the documents the government released is the March 9th letter of Csaba Tarsoly to Viktor Orbán in which the Quaestor CEO asks for government help in saving his firm. He requested a 300 billion forint loan to protect 50,000 small investors, resulting in greater public trust in the Orbán government. The government even released Viktor Orbán’s answer as transmitted by his private secretary:

We gratefully acknowledge the receipt of your letter. The Prime Minister informed the minister of economics of its content. Mihály Varga will appoint a person to conduct the negotiations you suggest. He will most likely get in touch with you today.

It looks as if Hungary’s prime minister was prepared to make a deal with the man whom now he calls a crook.

One would assume, on the basis of these letters, that the man appointed by Mihály Varga actually had a conversation with Tarsoly on the evening of March 9th, which was unsuccessful. Therefore, Tarsoly had no choice but announce, albeit unofficially, the collapse of Quaestor to György Matolcsy, president of the Hungarian National Bank. Today, however, we learned that this sequence of events, however logical, is wrong.

VS.hu asked for additional information from the ministry of national economy, and it actually got what its reporter asked for. Yes, Mihály Varga did appoint Undersecretary Gábor Orbán (no relation to the prime minister), who met Tarsoly not on 9th but on the following day, March 10th. Apparently he didn’t like Tarsoly’s proposal. Undersecretary Orbán “found the plan unrealistic and unacceptable because it would have put the whole financial burden of restitution on the Hungarian government.” Another inexplicable twist in an already badly twisted story. What was the point of negotiation between Csaba Tarsoly and the Hungarian government a day after the unofficial announcement of Quaestor’s collapse? Why didn’t Tarsoly wait until he had a chance to talk to Gábor Orbán? Is it possible that Tarsoly was still hoping to make a deal, even after March 10th? That he viewed the collapse of Quaestor as remediable?

In this story of twists and turns, contradictions and memory lapses, Népszava noticed another oddity. While the prime minister office’s short e-mail to Csaba Tarsoly was written on March 9 at 17:24, Tarsoly’s letter to Orbán was logged in only on March 10th. Naturally, the Hungarian media immediately picked up this anomaly. Admittedly, it may be nothing more than the usual sloppiness that reigns in Hungarian government circles. It might happen, though it seems odd, that a letter would be received and answered before it was logged in. The official explanation is that the office of the prime minister receives an inordinate amount of mail and that the log-in process–all done by hand–is slow. Surely, even Viktor Orbán’s “plebeian government” could afford an electronic automatic scanner which would take care of all this in seconds.

What is much more difficult to explain is why the Tarsoly letter to Orbán, which Giró Szász proudly showed to Antónia Mészáros, a reporter for ATV, last Sunday, March 29, had no log-in information on it whatsoever. Which letter is authentic? The one the government released, with the log-in date of March 10, or the letter Giró Szász showed on March 29, which had never been logged in? I’m sure the government will say that the letter Giró Szász had was a copy of the letter the prime minister received, a copy made prior to its being logged in. But why, when it is in the throes of a scandal, doesn’t the government keep things tidy? It just raises new questions, arouses new suspicions.

Shady Hungarian wheelers and dealers in Russia

When in February I wrote a post on Ernő Keskeny, “the man behind the Russian-Hungarian rapprochement,” I was planning to write about another key figure, Szilárd Kiss, who was also instrumental in convincing Viktor Orbán of the importance of the Russian market for Hungary. At the moment Kiss is in jail in connection with defrauding the already ailing Orgovány és Vidéke Takarékszövetkezet. The fraud itself involved a loan of 700 million forints that Kiss couldn’t pay back but that, with the assistance of the president of the credit union and a businessman friend, he managed to settle for 140 million, 40 of which went into the pocket of the bank president. It is unlikely that Kiss will be able to wiggle himself out of this very tricky situation because he and his businessman friend discussed all the details of the deal on a wiretapped telephone.

That was in the summer of 2013. Even after that date, however, Kiss remained a member of the Hungarian diplomatic corps. Now that he is in jail nobody wants to take responsibility for having hired him, but it looks as if it was the ministry of agriculture, specifically the minister, Sándor Fazekas, who thought that Kiss would do a bang-up job in Moscow, where he claimed to have important friends in government circles. Kiss spent the larger part of his adult life in Russia and has a Russian wife or a girlfriend of long standing, Yelena Tsvetkova, who also has extensive ties to Russian politicians. She is in charge of the newly established Hungarian visa center in Moscow. This is the office where Russian citizens for a certain amount of money can gain permission to settle in Hungary.

Otherwise Kiss worked as a lobbyist for business people interested in Russian or Hungarian opportunities, while making sure that he received payment for his good offices in these transactions. He usually asked people to invest in his own mostly failing enterprises. It was most likely that kind of arrangement that was behind a deal between Sergey Galitsky, a Russian billionaire, and Péter Szijjártó, then still undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, to establish a large logistical center for Galitsky’s chain of supermarkets, Magnit, in Hungary. In return, Galitsky became a partner in one of Kiss’s businesses, Winexport Kft. The logistical center has been shelved.

It is bad enough that one of the government’s top advisers on Russian agro-business turned out to be a swindler. Quaestor, perhaps the largest of the recently failed financial conglomerates, also had a role to play in the foreign business plans of the Orbán government. Quaestor, the financial empire of Csaba Tarsoly, managed the Moscow and Istanbul branches of the government’s Magyar Nemzeti Kereskedőház (Hungarian National Trading House), designed to encourage and smooth the way for ventures of Hungarian businessmen in Russia and Turkey and Russian and Turkish businessmen in Hungary. Yesterday the Hungarian foreign ministry broke the contract with Quaestor.

Szilárd Kiss and Csaba Tarsoly are no strangers. Kiss for years was on the board of at least two Quaestor firms, Quaestor Financial Consulting and Quaestor Energy. The two men had joint business ventures in Russia because Tarsoly believed Kiss’s fabulous stories about his extensive connections in Russia. According to Index, Kiss as usual failed to deliver.

Péter Szijjártó, Elena Tsvetkova, and Csaba Tarsoly at the opening of the Moscow Trading house, November 19, 2014

Péter Szijjártó, Yelena Tsvetkova, and Csaba Tarsoly at the opening of the Moscow Trading House, November 19, 2014

And now enter Viktor Orbán’s friend from Felcsút, Lőrinc Mészáros. While the journalists of Index were looking for Kiss’s Russian businesses, they found a company called Mадьяp that was established in November 2012. Originally it belonged to Kiss alone, but by now he has two partners, a Russian woman and Lőrinc Mészáros. The mayor of Felcsút did not include this Russian business on his financial statement. When confronted by the journalist, Mészáros sounded truly confused. At one point he thought that he was part owner of Verngerskie Produkti, but he was mistaken. That company’s sole owner is Szilárd Kiss.

Mészáros apparently decided to do business with Kiss because Kiss promised him that he would be able to sell his bacon to Magnit, the huge Russian supermarket chain whose owner is a partner in one of Kiss’s businesses. Keep in mind that it was not so long ago that Viktor Orbán himself opened his friend’s mangalica farm. But it is a modest business, while Magnit has 7,500 stores all over Russia. So, the whole thing sounds like a hoax to me, the kind Szilárd Kiss seems to specialize in.

Viktor Orbán’s new type of diplomacy has not only led to Hungary’s isolation. His reliance on shady businessmen who convinced him that old-fashioned diplomacy is a thing of the past has embroiled the country in crooked and/or fanciful business deals. And it seems to me that Orbán hasn’t learned his lesson yet because only a couple of days ago he delivered a lecture to Hungarian diplomats about his philosophy of a new-age diplomacy. Unfortunately, his ideas come straight from swindlers who are already in jail or will be there soon.