The Orbáns and Hungarian gentleman farmers

I just raced through Krisztina Ferenczi’s new book, Narancsbőr (Orange peel). Since I usually read her articles about the Orbán family’s dubious financial dealings, I was familiar with most of the details. Ferenczi’s earlier book was about the Orbáns’ brief encounter with viticulture in Tokaj. They got burned when it came to light that Viktor Orbán as prime minister used his influence to receive a substantial state subsidy for their newly acquired vineyard. It was only through a clever legal trick that Orbán’s skin was saved. Since then he has been super clever and has avoided any kind of business venture that may get him into a tight spot as a possible recipient of subsidies either from the European Union or from the Hungarian state. It is true that his wife, Anikó Lévai, owns some agricultural land in Felcsút, but officially at least it is leased to János Flier, the former electrician I was talking about yesterday and one of Orbán’s likely front men in Felcsút. Lévai claims that the subsidies she is entitled to actually go to Flier. When Ferenczi asked Flier about it, he replied: “You ought to ask her how it is exactly” (Tőle kellene megkérdezni, hogyan is van ez). Flier is obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

So, the Orbáns who got burned with Tokaj are now very careful. And yet the incredible wealth Orbán’s two close friends in Felcsút, Lőrinc Mészáros and János Flier, amassed made the inhabitants of the village more than suspicious. They are convinced that Viktor Orbán is an active business partner in the growing Mészáros-Flier estates. Perhaps he is the majority owner of them.

Ferenczi found many signs that this is probably the case. She talked at length with people who work on the cattle ranch owned by Mészáros, which Viktor Orbán visits frequently. It seemed obvious to them that Orbán is not just a casual visitor there. “He had something to do with the enterprise.” It also came to light that the charolais cows of Orbán’s new son-in-law are also part of the herd of 3-4,000 animals which, by the way, are kept, according to Ferenczi, under terrible conditions. I might also add here as a footnote that in the past at least the people who worked there officially received only 65,000 forints a month; the rest, 35-45,000 forints, illegally changed hands under the table.

Yesterday an article about the new stadium in Felcsút appeared in The New York Times with a picture of the half-finished stadium right next to the Orbáns’ country home. It is perhaps the best picture I have seen of the two together and leads me to believe that the modest abode the Orbáns built in 2003 will not be there for long. If the stadium is a “jewel box,” as Orbán once described it, the peasant adobe house 20 feet away is a jarring eyesore. And that leads me to the very good possibility that the Orbáns have a very much more elegant dwelling in mind: the former country house of the Hungarian Habsburgs nearby. The building was badly damaged during World War II, but it looks as if the Orbán family has plans to rebuild it in its earlier splendor. Viktor Orbán’s father, Győző, who apparently besides his quarry also has a real estate business, purchased the whole remaining estate a few years ago.

Who were the Hungarian Habsburgs? The founder of the Hungarian branch was Archduke József, the much beloved palatine (nádor) of Hungary (1776-1847), who became a patron of art and an important promoter of the development of Budapest and the country in general. It was he who acquired a large piece of land in Alcsút and built a beautiful palace there. He and his family settled in Hungary for good. The last Archduke Joseph (1872-1962) who played a role in Hungarian politics was actually born in Alcsút. By all indications some of the remnants of Archduke Joseph’s estate are in the hands of the Orbán family and, according to some information Ferenczi received on the spot, work has already begun. The site is off limits to strangers. It is guarded by security personnel as well as by a kuvasz named Nárcisz (Daffodil). Orbán admitted that the family has a ferocious dog called Nárcisz, but, he added, “it is in Felcsút.” I guess he didn’t want to say that the animal is actually guarding part of the Archduke Joseph’s estate owned by his family.

The remnant of the Habsburg Palace, Alcsútdoboz Source: Wikipedia Commons

The remnants of the Habsburg Palace, Alcsútdoboz
Source: Wikipedia Commons

As I was reading about the landholdings of Viktor Orbán and Anikó Lévai it occurred to me that this unexpected yearning to be “lord of the manor” (földesúr) is typical of Hungarians who may have achieved great wealth or fame in some other endeavor but think their life is not fulfilled without having some land and preferably a sizable and elegant palace to go with it. One of my favorite Hungarian novels is Kezdetben volt a kert (In the beginning there was the garden) by Anna Lesznai, first wife of Oszkár Jászi. The book is largely based on her own family’s story. The grandfather, a well-known Jewish doctor who amassed a fortune, feels that his life is not complete without owning land. He buys a large estate somewhere in the Uplands (today Slovakia) only to realize that this kind of life is not for him. But then comes his son who finds it very much to his liking. The assimilated well-off Jewish family becomes like their non-Jewish noble neighbors next door. Many of these Jewish gentleman farmers eventually received nobility in the second half of the nineteenth century.

I also read stories about 1956 refugees who made it in the United States or in western Europe and who after 1990 went in search of neglected manor houses and country estates in Hungary. Now they are gentleman farmers. A favorite hobby investment was viticulture. Neglected old vineyards were bought up in Tokaj, and with some state subsidies the new owners planted new vines and are currently trying their hands at producing quality Hungarian wines. A good example of this kind of 1956er is Dezső Kékessy, earlier a business partner of Viktor Orbán. He has a vineyard in Tokaj and also bought a country estate.

In her book Ferenczi recalls a film in which Anikó Lévai talked about her ardent desire to return to the soil. After all, she came from peasant stock. Her father finished only six grades. We don’t know how much land her father had, but she referred to him as a “kulák,” a rich peasant. She hoped, she said, that once her husband retires from politics, she could perhaps start “a somewhat larger organic farm.” I learned while researching this post that the Habsburg archdukes had a “model farm” (mintagazdaság) in Alcsút. Perhaps one day on the old Habsburg lands Anikó Lévai can run an organic farm.

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79 comments

  1. “It may formally be legal, but it is surely not normal that an extra 80,000 normally in Romania living ethnic Hungarian citizen suddenly obtain a permanent address in one district or another just so they could cast their local ballot too.”

    Pumukli this is a valid concern, but permanent addresses are not so easy to come by. You always need the consent of the owner of the house before you can establish an officially registered address there. For example I as owner of a house can consent to Eva S. Balogh living with me and officially registering from that address for whatever reason. I don’t have to give a reason maybe family friend maybe renting maybe I just feel like it, but if I were to accept hundreds of people to register into my house in an important battleground district that’s a quite dangerous crime that is not without risk. Opposition party people who sit on the local voting board, can check every single person voting in their precinct this means checking their name checking their addresses. They have to look out whether many people are coming from the same address especially in battleground districts.
    While this is possible in theory, it can be prevented and reported if the opposition is vigilant on election day.

  2. @kommentelo

    A trusted Fidesz party activist can accommodate 20 new voters in his house easily – on paper.

  3. kommentelo :
    “It may formally be legal, but it is surely not normal that an extra 80,000 normally in Romania living ethnic Hungarian citizen suddenly obtain a permanent address in one district or another just so they could cast their local ballot too.”
    Pumukli this is a valid concern, but permanent addresses are not so easy to come by. You always need the consent of the owner of the house before you can establish an officially registered address there. For example I as owner of a house can consent to Eva S. Balogh living with me and officially registering from that address for whatever reason. I don’t have to give a reason maybe family friend maybe renting maybe I just feel like it, but if I were to accept hundreds of people to register into my house in an important battleground district that’s a quite dangerous crime that is not without risk. Opposition party people who sit on the local voting board, can check every single person voting in their precinct this means checking their name checking their addresses. They have to look out whether many people are coming from the same address especially in battleground districts.
    While this is possible in theory, it can be prevented and reported if the opposition is vigilant on election day.

    Checking the reality of the addresses by the precint election committee in a rural community is a possibility, people know each other well, in Budapest or in bigger towns like Debrecen, Győr, Szeged, however, that is just impossible.

    The voter shows the official address card and that is it, nobody has a clue how he/she obtained that address.

    Probably it was organized by the Fidesz campaign machinery. The canvassing and organizing of the ethnic Hungarians has been carefully managed by Fidesz, I know this first hand.

    Fidesz can easily organize a 100,000 people demonstration, busing people to Budapest from all over Hungary at a whim, why is it difficult to imagine it can have a couple of thousands of die-hard Fidesznik volunteers who would allow other people to register into their apartments? They are promised that these people will de-register a couple of days after elections. I am certain that this is going on. It is not forbidden to “decide to move to Hungary even for two weeks and obtain a permanent address” so why would Fidesz refrain from doing it, if it anyway has the capability?

    According to the latest census, there are altogether 470,000 home dwellings sitting empty in Hungary anyway.

    But nobody will even notice, as we talk about the cities after all, the most rural places are slam dunks for Fidesz, it is not like precint level election committee people have clues in Budapest who lives where in reality and who may be suspicious.

  4. @ kommentelo I am not sure if it is reasonable to assume that even 10% of new voters can be challenged by the scrutineers.

    In one of the districts of Budapest there are 700 more people registered to vote now then two months ago. Let say they try to challenge half of them. Spend two minutes with each (unreasonably little time), and that is 350 minutes or almost six hours!!!!!!!! Will they hold up the vying location until then too?

    I would like to remind you that FIdesz’ own Mate Kocsis’ father who was the Fidesz deputy mayor registered “illegal” residents in order to manipulate the election in 2010. he registered 5 new residents. The village of 90 gained 30 new residents just for the elections.
    tlatszo.hu/2013/06/17/voksturizmus-fiktiv-lakok-a-kocsis-hazban-a-valasztasok-elott/

    Take a look here about the number of voting tourists
    http://szeged.hir24.hu/itthonvilag/2014/04/02/voksturizmus-ujszentivanon/

    An other one: In Tornyospalca’s regular family home there are over 100 people were registered as resident according to the electors list. One of the opposition candidate caught this luckily, and turned to the authorities. I have no idea what the outcome is.
    http://www.napi.hu/magyar_gazdasag/beindult_a_voksturizmus_csalast_sejt_az_ellenzek.579366.html

  5. There are 87,972 votes so far that were mailed in, or dropped off abroad and already accepted by the Election Office.

    47.78% from Romania
    34.81% from e-Landia
    11.61% from Serbia
    5.80% from all other places

  6. Reminder.

    Last predictions for Fidesz by various pollsters before the first round of elections, April 2010.:

    Ipsos 2010. április 6. 62 %
    Nézőpont 2010. április 7. 63
    Tárki 2010. április 7. 61
    Századvég 2010. április 7. 59
    Medián 2010. április 7. 60
    Gallup 2010. április 8. 59
    Forsense 2010. április 8. 60 %

    Average pollster: 60.57%
    Reality: 2010. április 11.: 52.76%

    So the pollsters overestimated Fidesz by 8% !

  7. Last predictions in 2014:

    Nezopont 2014.04.03: 47%
    Median. 2014.04.03: 41% [38-44%]
    Ipsos 2014.04.05: 42.5% [40-45%]

    Average pollster: 43.5%

    Discounting a similar overshooting for Fidesz:

    52.76/60.57 * 43.5 = 37.89%

  8. Very interesting tappanch, what are your predictions for the other parties? MSZP, Jobbik, LMP, 2010 vs 2014 comparsion.

  9. Manni: “But remember: all is legal. These are smart lawyers at Fidesz. In the world of the oh-so-democratic and rule-of-law-worshipping international/transnational organizations that is the single issue that counts. Is it legal? Or not? Because if it is, the story is over. And it is. As we have seen from the EU’s approach towards Orban’s legal shenanigans.”

    Most operations in Communist countries were “legal” too, and yet Orban Viktor would probably find some points “unbearable” and in need of “correction”. So what is it all the time about how “legal” everything is what Orban does and what “superb lawyer” he is. For the record: the feeling that he is almighty is a purely Hungarian one, from outside he is not more than a politician of average intelligence who managed to dazzle people because he caught them over their own weird political ideas. One of it being that Hungarians are “so clever” that they always outsmart the rest of the world. Seen from outside it looks more like Hungarians constantly trying to outsmart each other – harming themselves the most.

    Another consequence is that you lose common standards and reference points. Then “law” and “legality” cannot be distinguished from cheating because you just do not know anymore what it means to be serious, “serious” in actual fact becomes synonymous to “simpleton”, and in the end there is no other way left of doing things than through outsmarting others. You start to believe this is perfectly “legal” (as it is the new “standard”) and a sign of outstanding talents. You can find such behaviour in other countries also, but in Hungary this has apparently already reached a stage where it is difficult for people to imagine otherwise, and where the terminology appears to be missing for situations in which you are just serious, no games about smartness and the ubiquitous “tricks”, and no interpretation as “what a naive person”.

  10. kommentelo :
    Very interesting tappanch, what are your predictions for the other parties? MSZP, Jobbik, LMP, 2010 vs 2014 comparsion.

    My assumption was that the pollsters are exactly as bad as they were four years ago.
    We’ll see.

    So on the party list I see 37.9% for Fidesz from inside Hungary + 3.5% or 0.2 million from Transylvania etc., that will give 41.4% headline number for Fidesz on the party list.

  11. What’s this nonsense about “smart” lawyers? Smartness has nothing to do with anything.
    You have a group that is willing to bend/break any law they wish and have the full power of the government and an evil-willed person behind them. What’s more, their welfare depends on doing the will of one person. And, being Hungarian, they’re willing to do whatever it takes to hold on to their position. Guilt, conscience, integrity have zero relevance in Hungarian society of today.

    What’s more, an un-educated, or badly educated, public is totally incapable of making a rational judgement on what’s happening around them. People cannot think. And why should they: all they hear from an early age in “Christian Hungary” is that the Church will ‘instruct’ them. Thinking? It wasn’t of any use in communists times and why should it be now?

    Hungarians! Darwin would had to have made a serious reset to his propositions if he had known them.

  12. I was two and a half year ago in this estate, which documents one of the largest shame of hungarian history in 20th century. After sowiets occupied the area, the castle with all furniture, documents, etc. burned for days and completely destroyed by the villagers. The remains are only the fassade of the building, the chaple and the garden. Some parts are destroyed almost without any track.

    In the previous years DINPI renewed the entry building of the garden and the big artificial lake.

    I can recommend just before somebody try to build a new royal palace there.

    I found interesting infos here: http://atlatszo.hu/2012/10/25/eu-tamogatasbol-szepul-az-alcsuti-arboretum-az-orban-alapitvanynak/

    My post for remembering this place: http://azso.net/2011/12/15/hazajartunk-alcsuti-arboretum/

  13. AZso :
    I can recommend just before somebody try to build a new royal palace there.
    I found interesting infos here: http://atlatszo.hu/2012/10/25/eu-tamogatasbol-szepul-az-alcsuti-arboretum-az-orban-alapitvanynak/
    My post for remembering this place: http://azso.net/2011/12/15/hazajartunk-alcsuti-arboretum/

    Thanks for this. Based on the article you provided between 2010 and 2012 (the article is form 2012) the Hungarian government and the EU spent over 200 million forint on the arboretum. So, while Orban and Fidesz supported COF (Peace March) was rallying against the European Union, and Orban told them off, he put his hands out for money so his “backyard” will be fixed up.
    I wonder how much EU money has been spent since 2012 and how much more will be put towards this project in order to provide he perfect home for Orban.

    What happened with the EU investigation about how the Hungarian government awards the money by the EU without following the actual EU procedures? Somehow that “investigation went quite.

  14. AZso, I read the following in the Hungarian-language Wikipedia about the last Joseph in Hungary:

    József Ágost főherceg az 1944. október 15-ei nyilas puccs során, szélsőjobboldali magyar törzstisztek ösztökélésére a miniszterelnöktől, Lakatos Géza tábornoktól azt követelte, hogy őt nevezze ki a honvédség főparancsnokának. Lakatos ezt megtagadta azzal, hogy ez a Legfelsőbb Hadúr (azaz Horthy kormányzó) kizárólagos hatásköre. A nyilas hatalomátvétel után a főherceg hűséget esküdött Szálasinak. A budavári főhercegi palota erkélyéről üdvözölte a Szent György téren ünneplő nyilasokat. Feleségével, Auguszta főhercegnével együtt személyesen is részt vett ünnepi gyűlésükön.[5] Egy született arisztokrata, Habsburg főherceg, magyar királyi herceg, császári és királyi tábornagy, a legitim monarchia híve részéről ez a szimpátia nehezen érthető.[6] Életének ezen eseményeiről saját későbbi visszaemlékezéseiben, emlékirataiban semmilyen említést nem tett.

    http://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habsburg_J%C3%B3zsef_magyar_korm%C3%A1nyz%C3%B3

    In brief: he was a supporter of Szálasi. His moral compass I think was a bit off. In 1918 he told Mihály Károlyi that he wants to join the social democratic party and wanted to change his name either to Alcsúti or Felcsúti. At least this is what Károlyi tells in his memoirs.

  15. Now the WSJ has joined the ranks of the Guardian, Spiegel etc – are there any articles at all with a positive outlook on Orbán’s government?

    We can’t count Thorpe’s work for the BBC I think because it also has a lot of critical remarks.

    Only the comment sections of these reports are typical Fidesz apologists – is this all Fidesz’s highly paid (I presume) foreign advisors can come up with?

    Or do we just read the wrong media? What about Fox news or conservative Brits? No one in the foreign media really has a good word on Orbán?

  16. Some1 :

    Voters turnout by 4:00PM Ottawa 72%
    in Toronto by 4:15PM 66%

    I got a report from Washington. Very large turnout. In the past a friend of mine from the DC area was often alone voting in the embassy. Now she described the scene as “zsibvásár” (flee market).

  17. On our way to Germany we heard the news from SDR1 (the Schwab radio station in Stuttgart) at 18.00 – main points re the election in Hungary were:

    Voter participation is very low, lower than last time …

    45% of the votes will be enough for Fidesz to keep its supermajority …

    Really sad.

    PS: We arrived safely and I’ll have a look at everything if time allows!

  18. PS: Our local newspaper belongs to the Südwestpresse (SWP) too, though its local news is not as conservative – but even the conservative Schwab SWP is very critical of Orbán!

  19. The Left is officially over in Hungary. Forget about them, they are an urban minority, irrelevant in rural areas — in an election system that is geared towards the rural regions.

    People just don’t touch leftists and liberals, people are done with them.

    Hungarians are conservative and anti-capitalist. The left is traditionally liberal and conformist re capitalism. This is a complete no-go combination in Hungary now. As the economy will not change, people will want to have protection which apparently the left cannot give to them.

    As it was mentioned, Fidesz can go away two ways.

    Either Orban disappears due to illness/accident or a new, right wing party emerges.

    Both are very unlikely.

  20. wolfi :

    PS: Our local newspaper belongs to the Südwestpresse (SWP) too, though its local news is not as conservative – but even the conservative Schwab SWP is very critical of Orbán!

    I went through an incredible number of German papers. They are all anti-Orbán. One of them called Orbán “der politische Raubtier.” (MDR, Leipzig).

  21. Malna :

    The Left is officially over in Hungary. Forget about them, they are an urban minority, irrelevant in rural areas — in an election system that is geared towards the rural regions.

    People just don’t touch leftists and liberals, people are done with them.

    Hungarians are conservative and anti-capitalist. The left is traditionally liberal and conformist re capitalism. This is a complete no-go combination in Hungary now. As the economy will not change, people will want to have protection which apparently the left cannot give to them.

    As it was mentioned, Fidesz can go away two ways.

    Either Orban disappears due to illness/accident or a new, right wing party emerges.

    Both are very unlikely.

    But what about if the whole economy collapses? Not an impossibility.

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