There are some people who, after being named to a higher office, lose their heads. Or, to use another "head" metaphor, their heads swell. They think that they can do anything their hearts desire. They become officious, rude bosses. This is what happened to Zoltán Illés, undersecretary in charge of the environment in the Ministry of Agriculture.
People who know Illés personally claim that after he spent a year and a half at Yale University doing research he suddenly considered himself the best, indeed the only expert on the environment in the whole of Hungary. I don't know what kind of research he did at Yale because he doesn't divulge any details about his time in New Haven, but his background is in chemistry and biology. Since then he spent another year and a half in the United States as a Fulbright-Humphrey scholar at Duke University in North Carolina.
Because he was born in Subotica (Szabadka), Yugoslavia, he speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian and his English is good enough for him to be an associate professor in the Central European University's Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy. All this is rather impressive, but a lot of people in the field have reservations about Illés's knowledge of environmental issues. In any case, he has been an ardent champion of the environment, mostly devoting his time to opposing projects which in his opinion were harmful to the environment. I remember one huge fight he led about an underground garage in Budapest which entailed cutting out some old trees and replacing them later with younger ones. If I recall, the garage was never built.
While he may have been effective as an environmental activist, one cannot say too many good things about Illés since he became undersecretary. Not long ago he announced that "he didn't expect any in-fighting in his department because anyone who resists his orders will be removed." Well, that's one way of having peace and quiet at the work place. He also came out with this gem: "I don't expect an assistant undersecretary to make professional decisions; it is quite enough if he simply follows my decisions that were reached in the possession of adequate competence." There is no teamwork here. The boss says what is to be done and his underlings follow orders. Surely, the man thinks that all his decisions are foolproof. After all, he is the only one who has the necessary competence.
A few days ago, Illés came up with an entirely new system of recycling. No discussion with anyone involved. He announced that he is ready to listen to them but "there will be no compromise." Then why bother? He is not interested in arguments to the effect that the new system might mean a loss of jobs because when it comes to this project "economic difficulties are no excuse." People argued that the introduction of the system might create chaos for at least half a year but that didn't make an impression either. He has made up his mind and that's that.
The latest Illés move was even more bizarre. He was on his way to some official function when he made a side trip to the site where a road is being built between Balatonendréd and Lulla. The road is about 10 kms long and at last it will allow the people of Lulla and Tab to reach the main highway next to Lake Balaton within a few minutes. At the moment there is one village which is only 10 kms from the lake as the crow flies but the inhabitants of the place must travel 33 kms to reach the highway. The people of Lulla and Balatonendréd have been waiting for at least fifty years for this road to be built. They managed to get all the necessary permits (33 in all!) and, more important, the money (3.5 billion forints), mostly from European Union subsidies. According to current plans the road will be finished by the end of next year.
Enter Zoltán Illés, the almighty undersecretary. He located the engineer in charge of the project and ordered him in no uncertain terms to stop work immediately. Locally, the incident caused total dismay. The local political leaders didn't want to believe their ears. The mayor of Balatonendréd told MTI that "the workers on the spot are still trying to recuperate from their shock at the behavior of the undersecretary." The mayor of Lulla was also informed that the "undersecretary's manner during his talks with the building contractors was unacceptable." He added that it is really extraordinary that an undersecretary makes decisions in a case that in no way belongs to his competence.
Illés wasn't moved. Although he was told on the spot that all the building permits were in perfect order, he didn't care. As he said, "one can write anything on a piece of paper." In plain language, he doesn't care about legality. He will stop the construction single-handedly.
The construction is being done by the Nemzeti Infrastruktúra Zrt (NIF) which is a company under the umbrella of the Magyar Fejlesztési Bank, the only state-owned investment bank. As soon as the new government was formed, all these state-owned companies got new CEO's, loyal Fidesz men. NIF also got a new chairman, Ferenc Orosz. The new head of communications at the firm is the favorite youngster of Fidesz–Dániel Loppert, whose name became known in 2002 when at a function he called Prime Minister Péter Megyessy a traitor and the police arrested him. They were a bit overzealous and Medgyessy himself intervened. Fidesz immediately approached the then teenager Loppert who subsequently became active in Fidelitas, the youth organization of Fidesz. Now, thanks to Fidesz's electoral victory, Loppert got a nice job. Loppert simply said that Orosz and Illés will get together this week to discuss the matter of the road construction.
I do hope that the two men will have an amiable discussion. After all, this will be all in the family, and according to László Kövér as well as Viktor Orbán, people with similar political outlooks easily find common ground. Mind you, they made that claim as a rationale for voting for Fidesz in the local elections–to get more goodies from Budapest than they would otherwise. I hope that this principle works in the thorny question of road construction as well.