Tag Archives: tram-train

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.