Tag Archives: Zsolt Páva

Will Rosatom have its own airfield in Pécs?

A short while ago I devoted a post to the financial collapse of the City of Pécs, which, after many years as an MSZP stronghold, chose Zsolt Páva as its Fidesz mayor in October 2009. Within weeks it became evident that Viktor Orbán, in anticipation of his electoral victory, was using the city as a political laboratory. It was in Pécs that the new Fidesz leadership tried out the practice of “citywide consultations.” Páva sent questionnaires to the inhabitants, asking them questions to which the answer could only be “yes.” One of his most expensive moves, most likely at the urging of Fidesz, was the forcible takeover of the French share of the water company, which years later cost the city three billion forints in a legal settlement. The city’s attempt to take over the famed Zsolnay porcelain factory ended in failure due to the determination of the Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss owner. This was also a costly affair for Pécs because, in the course of the machinations to ruin Zsolnay, the city set up a rival company called Ledina Kerámia and enticed 150 Zsolnay employees to join the phantom firm. The city had to pay the wages of 150 workers for no work whatsoever.

These two financial ventures by themselves have been very costly, but they were only a small fraction of the enormous debt Zsolt Páva and the city council amassed in the last seven years. According to a new website called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), the city owes 7.5 billion forints, which apparently the national government will take over. That’s not all, however. There are several municipal-owned firms that are in the red to the tune of 10 billion forints. This is an enormous amount of money ($29 million) for a city of about 170,000 inhabitants with not much of a tax base. Viktor Orbán, while visiting the city at the end of August for the 650th anniversary of the founding of Hungary’s first university, established in Pécs, asserted that the city’s leadership got itself into this mess and they will have to pay for it.

I don’t think anyone knew at the time just what Orbán meant, but a few days ago local investigative journalists working for Szabad Pécs learned that the government is not planning to bail Pécs out without some kind of compensation. A week ago rumors began circulating in town that the city-owned Pécs-Pogány International Airport will be taken over by the government, which will in turn write off 2.8 billion forints of the city’s debt. On the face of it, such a government purchase wouldn’t be profitable. The number of passengers, which was over 6,000 in 2009, by 2014 had shrunk to 2,500. But the deal might actually be quite lucrative for the Orbán government because the airport will likely be leased to Rosatom, the Russian company that will build the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant. The distance between Paks and Pécs is almost 80 km, but the four-lane M-6 highway is sparsely traveled. Moreover, Mohács along the Danube is only 40 minutes from Pécs. Material could easily reach Paks via Mohács.

Pécs-Pogány International Airport

A few days after the appearance of Szabad Pécs’s article, a Russian delegation led by Alexey Likhachev, the CEO of Rosatom, visited the Pécs airport. He and his fellow Russians were accompanied by members of TEK, Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Center. The delegation first visited Paks. From there they traveled to Pécs to take a look at the airfield. The journalists of Szabad Pécs were on hand and took several photos. I may add that none of the local “government” news outlets said a word about either the government’s takeover of certain municipal assets in Pécs or the possible leasing of the Pécs airport to Rosatom.

The private plane of Alexey Likhachev, CEO of Rosatom, at the Pécs Airport

Despite the visit of Rosatom’s CEO to Pécs, János Lázár denied any knowledge of a deal that might exist between Rosatom and the Hungarian government. As he said, “this topic was not discussed at the cabinet meeting. We did talk about the situation in Pécs, but nothing was said about the exchange of property. As far as the airport is concerned, I read about it in the media.” Of course, the lack of discussion of the matter at a cabinet meeting doesn’t necessarily mean that such negotiations didn’t take place. But Lázár, as usual, went further. He claimed that “if that is important to Rosatom, it has to talk to the municipality. The government has no information, no knowledge of such negotiations. They didn’t approach us with such a proposal.”

Well, as far as we know, the CEO of Rosatom didn’t visit Pécs to talk to the city fathers about leasing the Pécs-Pogány Airport. Moreover, as far as the journalists of Szabad Pécs know, the transfer of certain properties to the government is still on the table.

Today Attila Babos, the local journalist at Szabad Pécs, was invited to publish a longer article in Magyar Nemzet on the possible Rosatom takeover of the Pécs Airport. He claims that it is also likely that, in addition to the airport, the government will take over two city-owned companies: Pétáv Kft., the local district-heating company, and Tettye Forrásház Zrt., the city water company. The latter is the company the city established to take over the functions of the water company operated and partially owned by the French Suez Company. The city promised lower rates, which didn’t materialize, but at least the company is now profitable. Pétáv Kft. is also in the black. But, given the size of the debt, the fear in town is that several other pieces of property might end up in government hands. No one knows whether the city will have any say in what properties it is willing to part with.

Not surprisingly, Fidesz’s name is mud in Pécs. Páva and his coterie of Fidesz politicians, including the two Fidesz members of parliament representing the city, are blamed for the present state of affairs. As Attila Babos said in his article, “not even within Fidesz does anyone seriously think that the government parties [Fidesz-KDNP] can possible win in the city in the spring of 2018.” Still, Viktor Orbán cannot leave the city in the lurch. At the same time, the government feels that it has to make “the city pay” in order to show that such irresponsible behavior cannot be tolerated.

Finally, a few words about Szabad Pécs. On March 22 several internet news sites reported that three former employees of Dunántúli Napló who lost their jobs when Lőrinc Mészáros bought the last eight of the 109 regional papers not yet in government hands, including Dunántúli Napló which has been in continuous existence since 1946, decided to start an online paper, concentrating on Pécs and Baranya County. Without them we would know next to nothing about Rosatom’s interest in the Pécs airport or the quick visit of Alexey Likhachev. That tells us a lot about the state of the Hungarian media outside of Budapest.

September 21, 2017

The Orbán government’s penchant for religious educational institutions

As I was browsing through local Pécs news sites yesterday, I happened upon an article about the beginning of the school year. It wasn’t so much the article that caught my eye but the accompanying photo, which I recognized as a Protestant church service for school children. (The tipoff was the way the kids were clasping their hands in prayer.) From the article I learned that indeed the photo was taken at the Pécs Református Kollégium, which was the site of the official school opening for the whole city. Given that the official ceremony took place in a parochial school, Bishop István Szabó, head of the Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church, gave a short sermon, which was followed by the usual speeches for the occasion. Among the speakers was Péter Páva, head of the local school district, who boasted about the generous government support for education. He claimed that the government will spend 254,000 forints for each and every student next year. If you’re wondering whether Péter Páva is related to Mayor Zsolt Páva, the answer is yes. He is his younger brother. The city and its education are in good hands.

School opening in the Pécs Hungarian Reformed elementary school

I for one find it offensive that the official school opening, at which government and municipal officials give speeches, is held in a parochial school, although I shouldn’t have been surprised because the official national school opening this year was held in a Hungarian Reformed church in Nagykőrös. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, and László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, were among the speakers. The event was organized by the local Hungarian Reformed educational institution, which includes an elementary school, two gymnasiums, and a boarding school. There is no longer even the pretension of a separation of church and state in Hungary.

Last November János Lázár said that “the most important institutions of education in Hungary are the parochial schools and the primary goal of education is to raise good Christians and good Hungarians. Everything beyond that is debatable and indefinite. One doesn’t know whether it would stand the test of time. The lesson of the last 1,000 years is that the nation can endure only through religious educational institutions.” These unacceptable sentences were uttered in the Hungarian Reformed church in Mezőtúr.

Lázár’s speech prompted quite a debate at the time. Perhaps the most thoughtful comments came from Gergely Nádori, a high school teacher in the Alternatív Közgazdasági Gimnázium, an excellent private school in Budapest. He pointed out that Lázár’s words reveal his total lack of knowledge of Protestant religions, which pay special attention to Paul’s teaching that “it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy” (Rom 9:16). That is, no one can create good Christians. It is the gift of God. He also noted that most parochial schools in Hungary today do not have the religious support of local communities. In the majority of the cases, the parents are not religious people; more often than not, they don’t even belong to the church whose schools their children attend. The decision to send a child to a religious educational education is based on utterly pragmatic considerations.

The number of parochial schools has been growing rapidly, especially after the nationalization of schools formerly run by the municipalities. In 2010 there were 572 communities where churches maintained schools. By the 2016/2017 school year that number had grown to 1,308. In 2010 112,500 students attended parochial schools; today their number is 207,800. As a result, some communities ended up without school choice. According to a study conducted by the Magyar Liberális Párt, there are 95 villages without a public school and 30 larger towns where there is no choice when it comes to high school. This is an unacceptable situation, and there are plans to turn to the Constitutional Court for remedy.

Although Hungarian parochial schools often require church attendance and school prayer, the children who come out of these schools are not any more religious than those who attend public schools. Even as the number of parochial schools multiplied, between 2000 and 2016 the number of churchgoers between the ages of 15 and 28 plummeted.

Most parents don’t opt for a parochial school because they want their children to have a religious education. The reason is financial. Parochial schools receive a great deal more money from the state per student than do public schools. The extent of the discrimination is staggering. On the basis of calculations done by the Költségvetési Felelősségi Intézet, a financial think tank, while the state disburses 61,300 forints per child to the public schools, parochial schools get 160,000 forints per student. So, 2.6 times more. In fact, in the next school year the situation will be worse because public schools will receive only 58,300 forints per student, while parochial schools will get 200,000 forints per student. The difference will be 3.4 times in favor of the latter.

Parochial schools have further perks. They don’t have to use the textbooks published by a government publishing house, which, according to the majority of teachers, are inferior to the earlier ones. Unlike public schools, parochial schools don’t have to accommodate all students within their school districts. They can accept only the most qualified students. Thus, the larger the number of parochial schools, the greater will be the already huge gap between elite schools and run-of-the mill or worse schools.

The government also announced at the beginning of July that it will give an additional 22 billion forints to the Piarists for the renovation and expansion of five schools run by the order. They are gymnasiums located in Göd, Kecskemét, Mosonmagyaróvár, Nagykanizsa, and Sátoraljaújhely. The Ministry of Human Resources justified this incredible amount of money by saying that these five institutions will educate 2,500 students. The money will be spent over the next four years. By way of comparison, the government is planning to spend 30 billion forints for the reform of hospitals in Budapest, which affect the health of 4-4.5 million people.

I feel very strongly about this issue. The close relationship between church and state has been an impediment to modernization and to social and economic development. This was true during the dual monarchy and even more so during the Horthy era. My natural inclination regarding this topic was only reinforced by my unpleasant experiences at a parochial school that I attended because of a lack of choice. Therefore, I am saddened that today there are communities where parents must send their children to a religious school, perhaps against their better judgment. And the fact that the Orbán government discriminates against 80% of students attending its own schools is scandalous and shameful. It was also outrageous that Zoltán Balog, in his initial confusion, said that the Hungarian government must wait for the official position of the Catholic Church on the question of in vitro fertilization. It took him a day or so to realize on what dangerous ground he was treading.

September 1, 2017

The City of Pécs, which served as Fidesz’s laboratory, is close to bankruptcy

In preparation for today’s post on the chaotic situation in my hometown of Pécs, I read two pieces I had written in October 2009, shortly after, as the result of a by-election, Fidesz candidate Zsolt Páva became mayor of the city. The first article was titled “Watch Pécs: It will tell a lot about Fidesz plans for Hungary.” Rereading this article eight years later is an eerie experience because indeed Fidesz was using Pécs as a laboratory for its own plans for the country. All the tricks it later employed, including the national consultations, were first introduced in Pécs.

Originally Páva, in true populist fashion, wanted to take the oath of office on the main square, right in front of City Hall, but MSZP and SZDSZ members of the city council, who were in the majority, refused to endorse the plan, considering it “blatant demagoguery.” Eventually, Páva took the official oath inside the building but repeated the performance in public.

Soon enough one “referendum” followed the next, which were the forerunners of the Orbán government’s national consultations. Páva spent a sizable amount of money on these referendums, in which his administration inquired about matters to which the answer could only be “yes.” Doesn’t it sound familiar? Páva also sacked all city employees who had anything to do with the previous administration. In no time he managed to change the composition of the city council by convincing a couple of members to switch parties; thus Fidesz achieved a slight majority in the council. Every company owned by the municipality was audited at a considerable cost because, Páva claimed, the audit would save the city 500 million forints. This was, as it turned out later, simply not true.

His next move was the forcible takeover of the water company in which the minority shareholder was Suez, a well-known French company. Páva ordered security men to occupy the headquarters of the firm at 3:30 in the morning. When the employees arrived for work, the guards prevented people belonging to the upper and middle management of the company from entering. A few days later a new city-owned water company was formed with a capital base of five million forints. (No, that’s not a typo.) The new company promised to pay the salaries of Suez’s 360 employees from their “riches” of five million. Suez was stunned and called the occupation of its headquarters “forcible entry.” Naturally Suez brought legal proceedings against the city. The law suit dragged on for years. Pécs was finally assessed 3 billion forints for its share in the water company, which the city of Pécs was unable to come up with. The bill was paid by the central government.

Something very similar happened in 2016 when the city of Pécs acted as an intermediary, hoping to pass the Zsolnay Porcelán Manufaktura on to a Fidesz oligarch. The factory was owned by a Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss businessman who had bought 74.5% of the shares from the city and promised to sink 500 million forints into the enterprise. The methods were roughly the same as in the Suez case. First Páva and the businessmen behind him established a new company by enticing the majority of the approximately 150 workers to abandon Zsolnay in favor of the new city-owned company. The aim was a forcible takeover of private property. I don’t want to go into the complicated machinations, but a certain businessman with close ties to the Orbán family suddenly had a burning desire to own Zsolnay because of the large restoration projects in the Castle District and elsewhere in Budapest. The roofs of many of these buildings, which had been erected in the last years of the nineteenth century, were covered with pyrogranite tiles made by the Pécs factory. In the end, the city failed because the Syrian businessman wasn’t easily intimidated and had enough money to clear all of his debt to the Hungarian Eximbank, which had been complicit in turning him out of his property. The financial loss to the city as a result of its new “business venture,” which never got off the ground, was again considerable.

By now, apparently, the City of Pécs is close to bankruptcy. For some time, there has been talk about Páva’s possible departure from the mayoralty. About three weeks ago a press conference was scheduled to take place where the mayor was supposed to announce the establishment of the Magnus Aircraft factory in Pécs. This is a huge event for the city, whose economy is in the worst shape among all larger Hungarian cities. Since 2009 the city has lost 13,000 inhabitants, unemployment is high, and investors don’t find the city, far away from Budapest and hard to reach from the West, attractive. Yes, it is a charming city with a rich history, but aside from the university with its 20,000 students it has little to offer economically. The nearby coal and uranium mines have closed and nothing came to replace them.

Együtt: City of Pécs close to bankruptcy. When will Zsolt Páva resign?

So, the intention of Magnus Aircraft to set up a factory is big news. I must admit that I had never heard of this company, which developed the e-Fusion, the first all-electric, aerobatic trainer aircraft. It is a Hungarian company from Kecskemét which describes itself as a multinational group. It has a business arrangement with Siemens, which provides the batteries. What will come of this new technology no one knows, but Pécs is very excited.

The long-awaited press conference was held, sans Mayor Zsolt Páva. Instead, two Fidesz members of parliament representing the district, Péter Csizi and Péter Hoppál, made the announcement. Páva’s absence indicated to those journalists who, after being booted out of the local Dunántúli Napló when it was bought by Lőrinc Mészáros, founded an internet news site called Szabad Pécs (Free Pécs), that Páva’s position must be shaky. And soon enough came the news on the city’s official internet site that “a new policy making body will lead Pécs” from here on. The decision was allegedly reached by the Fidesz-KDNP members of the city council. The mayor, the deputy mayors, and the two Fidesz MPs will comprise this new group, but its chairman will not be Páva but Péter Csizi. So, as Magyar Nemzet rightly points out, the city will be run by a committee no one elected. Not exactly a democratic solution to a problem.

It is highly unlikely that the decision to establish such a body was made by the Fidesz-KDNP members of the city council. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the decision came from Viktor Orbán himself. Removing Páva at this juncture is out of the question because holding by-elections now would be a suicidal move. According to my calculations, if LMP hadn’t decided to run alone in 2014, Pécs wouldn’t have two Fidesz members of parliament today. In local elections Fidesz cannot rely on foreign votes, and the locals are pretty unhappy with the Fidesz leadership. The last thing Orbán wants is an electoral loss in a major Hungarian city.

According to rumor, Pécs, during the tenure of Zsolt Páva, has accumulated 24 billion forints in debt. The city is close to bankruptcy despite the fact that Pécs did not have to pay the 3 billion forints to Suez by way of compensation. As far as I know, the owner of Zsolnay Manufactura is also suing the city.

The Fidesz laboratory set up in 2009 has failed miserably. Páva did everything that was demanded of him and yet, or perhaps because of it, he drove his city into bankruptcy. Is it possible that once Orbán’s rule is over the country will be in a similar situation despite the regime’s bragging about its fantastic successes? Not at all unimaginable.

Tomorrow Pécs will have a distinguished visitor, the prime minister himself. He is allegedly attending the 650th anniversary celebration of the university’s founding. Well, kind of. It is true that the first and only Hungarian medieval university was established in Pécs in 1367, but it most likely survived for less than fifty years. The real founding of today’s university was in 1921 when the University of Pozsony (today Bratislava) moved to Pécs. But more about that sometime in the future.

August 31, 2017

How to ruin a businessman with government help? The case of the famed Zsolnay porcelain factory

Zsolt Páva made quite a splash back in October 2009, right after he became the mayor of Pécs in a by-election. One of his first acts was the forcible takeover of the city’s hydroelectric company with a view to expropriating the 48% of the company’s shares owned by Suez Environment, a French company. At 3:00 a.m. security men occupied the headquarters of the firm on the orders of the mayor, and when the employees arrived, they prevented 13 people belonging to the upper and middle management of the company from entering. Prior to the “lock-out” the city fathers, including the MSZP members of the council, had set up a new company with a modest 5 million forint investment.

The optimistic city fathers were sure that Suez would gladly sell their shares for very little money. Wrong. Two years later Suez filed a claim at the Vienna International Arbitration Court seeking €32.3 million (more than 10 billion forints) in compensation for revenue lost. The parties eventually settled for a payment of 3 billion forints, which the city of Pécs was unable to come up. The bill was eventually paid by the Orbán government. At that time I wrote a post titled “Foreign investors in Hungary beware: Pécs and Suez Environment.” The Pécs incident occurred months before Viktor Orbán became prime minister, but surely Páva acted with the encouragement of if not at the instigation of Fidesz. And the case foreshadowed the kinds of crude attacks on foreign businesses that the Orbán government has pursued since.

Now, Páva and the businessmen behind him are embarking on a similar adventure, but this one is unlikely to have the same sorry end that the Suez escapade did. Because this time, it seems, everything will be done “in house.” The city will simply be an intermediary, eventually passing the Zsolnay Porcelánmanufaktura on to a Fidesz oligarch. The methods being employed are akin to those used in the Suez takeover. Just as then, the city has established a new company. It has enticed the majority of the approximately 150 workers to abandon Zsolnay in favor of the new city-owned company. The aim is a forcible takeover of private property.

Vintage Zsolnay vase, ca. 1870

Vintage Zsolnay vase, ca. 1870

Zsolnay became internationally famous in the late nineteenth century thanks to a distinctive style combined with innovative materials. The eosin process was one such innovation, used especially in the art nouveau period. After 1948 the factory was nationalized, and its products bore no resemblance to vintage Zsolnay.

Zsolnay’s exquisite porcelain creations wouldn’t have been enough to keep the factory going. What made it profitable was the invention of pyrogranite, an ornamental ceramic product that is fired at a high temperature. This process makes it acid- and frost-resistant, and thus suitable for use as roof tiles and other outdoor decorative ceramics. Pyrogranite was developed by 1886, just in time for the millennial building frenzy that provided Zsolnay with fantastic business opportunities. Apparently today it is the factory’s tiles that makes the business so attractive as a take-over target.

The current owner of the Zsolnay factory is Bachar Najari, a Syrian-Hungarian-Swiss businessman who arrived in Hungary in 1970 as an exchange student. He is married to a Hungarian and speaks the language fluently. He decided to come to the rescue of Zsolnay for the sake of his wife, who felt very strongly about the survival of this famous porcelain factory.

After 1990 there were many attempts to revive the 150-year-old company, but with no success. The owner just before Najari was so exasperated that he “sold back” the factory to the City of Pécs for one forint.

In 2013 Najari bought 74.5% of the shares from the city for 180 million forints and promised to invest 500 million forints into the enterprise. At the time of the purchase the company had a deficit of 268 million forints, but two years later the loss was only 54.1 million forints. There was also an outstanding loan of 413 million forints taken out by an earlier owner. It is this loan that, in conjunction with the “pillage” of Zsolnay workers, is now being used to wrest Zsolnay from Najari.

The loan was extended by the state-owned Hungarian Development Bank (MFB), whose “core tasks include the provision of funding for growth under favorable terms and conditions to Hungarian enterprises, supporting the long-term development objectives of the state, and obtaining funds from money markets for these purposes.” According to the original agreement with Najari, the city of Pécs was supposed to negotiate with the MFB to convince it to forgive this old loan for the sake of saving the factory. The bank in fact didn’t press Najari to do anything about the loan. But then suddenly, on May 18, MFB informed him that he had 15 days to pay it back in toto.

It is hard to escape the suspicion that the Hungarian government is complicit in this affair. Months ago Zsolnay was declared an “economic organization enjoying strategic priority,” a status that allows the government, if necessary, to take over the liquidation of the company.

The company that the city of Pécs established to squeeze Najari by hiring away his workers will probably become the new owner of record. But the city is unlikely to remain the owner for long. Attila Paár, a Fidesz oligarch, is very interested in buying the factory. In fact, his company has already purchased MFB’s claim against Najari.

Paár is the owner of the West Hungária Bau company, which was in charge of the restoration of the Várkert Bazár. Paár’s name may also be familiar to readers of Hungarian Spectrum because he was the person who “bought” Elios Zrt. when the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office started looking into Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law’s company.

Museum of Applied Arts

Museum of Applied Arts

Why is Paár so eager to buy Zsolnay at this junction? First of all, in the last two and a half years Najari and his wife have considerably improved the financial situation of the company, which was desperate straits at the time of their purchase. Among other things, they have invested a billion forints in the company. Second, several important buildings in Budapest will be reconstructed in the near future, among them the Museum of Applied Arts, whose whole roof was originally covered with pyrogranite tiles made by Zsolnay. The building where the ministry of economy will move in the Castle District also had a Zsolnay roof. As far as Fidesz is concerned, these projects, financed mostly by the European Union, should benefit those Hungarians who are steadfast supporters of the Orbán regime. Najari, who was born in Syria, doesn’t cut it.

June 17,2016

Viktor Orbán’s letters to the Hungarian people: An expensive habit

After the citizens of  Esztergom voted Tamás Meggyes, the long-standing Fidesz mayor of the city (1999-2010), out of office, the Fidesz-majority city council brought the normal functioning of city hall to a virtual standstill. Starting with preventing Éva Tétényi, the new mayor, from occupying her office, they did everything under the sun to paralyze the governance of the city. Articles appearing in the media often called attention to the fate of the city that had the temerity to drop a Fidesz official who also serves in the Hungarian parliament. They predicted that if by some miracle Fidesz loses the next elections this is the fate that will befall the new government.

Less attention was paid to the city of Pécs which had held a municipal by-election a year and a half earlier. Pécs was unlucky with its MSZP mayors. One died as the result of a car crash and his successor died of cancer shortly after he took office. Thus in May 2009, a year before the national election in which Fidesz-KDNP won a two-thirds majority, a Fidesz candidate, Zsolt Páva, decisively beat MSZP’s Katalin Szili, who was at the time the speaker of  parliament.

More attention should have been paid to this by-election in Pécs. With hindsight we can see that the city was in many ways Fidesz’s laboratory for its national election campaign. Moreover, once the new Fidesz mayor occupied his office, his political strategies also foreshadowed what was to come after the party’s landslide victory in 2010.

It was in Pécs that Gábor Kubatov, the party’s campaign manager, put into practice what American advisers taught him about grass root campaigning. The lists his activists compiled became infamous when his bragging about his knowledge of all the “communists” in Pécs became public. But once Fidesz found out that this new campaign style worked splendidly on a small scale, the party decided to apply it nationally.

I’m almost certain that during his first days in office every step Páva took was dictated from above. Otherwise, it seems unimaginable that the mayor of a city of less than 200,000 would on his own initiative forcibly oust a foreign company from the city (and hence the country as well). I think we can say with some degree of confidence that Viktor Orbán had already formulated his plan to nationalize utility companies. What strengthens this hypothesis is that shortly after the expulsion of the French company in Pécs, János Lázár, then still mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, population 40,000, uttered similar threats. Lázár’s threats never went any further, most likely because of the very strong reaction of French president Nicolas Sarkozy to the assault on French companies.

At any event, immediately after he was ensconced in his office Páva began writing letters to the citizens of the city, asking their opinions on various matters. They were supposed to register their views and send back their answers. At the time I thought that this was a very clever way of engaging the citizenry. Not that I thought the answers had much significance or effect, but I considered it a clever political move.

One of Viktor Orbán thirteen letters

One of Viktor Orbán thirteen letters

It seems to me that the barrage of letters with which the new Fidesz mayor in Pécs surprised his voters was again a test. If these letters had a positive impact, perhaps the practice could be adopted once Viktor Orbán became prime minister of Hungary. And indeed, the Pécs experiment worked. At the regular municipal elections the once solidly socialist city switched sides. Fidesz gained an overwhelming  majority on the city council and naturally Páva was reelected.

And so Prime Minister Viktor Orbán began his “correspondence with the Hungarian people.” His first letter was sent out in September 2010 followed by eleven or twelve more since, to the tune of 3.4 billion forints (taking the total number of letters to be twelve) according to an estimate by Index.  Népszava calculated on the basis of thirteen letters that 4.4 billion forints were spent on the letters themselves in addition to the cost of their accompanying ad campaigns. They estimated that about 5 billion forints were spent on Viktor Orbán’s penchant for “direct communication with the people.” The journalists of Népszava also figured out what kinds of  sorely needed goods and services this sum could have purchased. For example, 900 ambulances or the salaries of 350,000 people employed in the public works program.

In the beginning some of the more naive souls actually sent back their answers, and the government proudly announced the success of their solicitation. But as time went by fewer and fewer letters were returned. The overwhelming majority ended up in the garbage. On at least one occasion one of the trade unions organized a campaign to collect the letters and sell them for recycling, giving the proceeds to charity.

One of these letters was sent to inhabitants of towns with populations of fewer than 5,000. It explained to them in what manner and to what extent the central government would finance these smaller boroughs. Here it seems that the soothing explanations actually presaged drastic cuts. Just the other day Róbert Molnár, mayor of Kübekháza (population 1,600), received 3,480 forints for the month of July. This is not a typo. Kübekháza needs about 5 million forints a month just to meet its critical expenses. The electric bill alone is about 40,000 a month. Róbert Molnár with the full support of the town council sent the 3,480 forints back to the government. They found the sum insulting. And Molnár is a Fidesz politician who in fact was a member of parliament between 1998 and 2002. Naturally he made quite a splash since he made sure that the media outlets were informed.

The latest missive was a thank you note straight from Viktor Orbán to those who allegedly signed one of the two million petitions Fidesz received in support of  lowering utility prices. A nice gesture, one could say. But it seems that among those being thanked, according to more and more Hungarians who are speaking out, were family members long dead. One becomes a bit suspicious. Suspicious about Fidesz’s lists in general, about the number two million, and about the whole phony pen pal game.