A different kind of media war: Lajos Simicska versus Viktor Orbán

What a day! A shakeup–no, an earthquake–at Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Nemzet Online, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió, all part of Lajos Simicska’s media empire.

For those who have been following Hungarian politics over the last few years Lajos Simicska needs no introduction. He was the favorite oligarch of the Hungarian prime minister. His companies won about 40% of all government contracts financed by the European Union. What fewer Hungarians remember about him is that in the early 1990s it was Lajos Simicska who saved Fidesz from financial collapse. As Zsolt Bayer, a friend of both Simicska and Orbán, admitted, “without [Simicska] there would be no Fidesz today.”

This is not the place to go into all the gory details of this financial rescue operation. Suffice it to say that the young democrats received a piece of property from the Hungarian state for a party headquarters, which they subsequently sold. They invested the proceeds in all sorts of business ventures that failed, one after the other, leaving behind millions in company debt and unpaid value added taxes. It was Simicska and a lawyer friend of his, Csaba Schlecht, who came up with the master plan. They “sold” the failed companies to bogus individuals who couldn’t be traced. Among them were homeless people who for a few forints agreed to go to a notary and sign anything that was put in front of them. Two of these people became especially infamous. Simicska and Schlecht got hold of the passports of a Turkish guest worker in Germany, Ibrahim Kaya or, as he is known in Hungary, Kaya Ibrahim, and a Croat named Josip Tot. The scandal broke during the first Orbán government, and naturally the police made no serious effort to find the culprits. One could say that Fidesz was born in sin.

For the better part of a year rumor had it that the relationship between Orbán and Simicska had soured. All sorts of hypotheses were put forth about the reason for their fallout. The most prevalent was that Orbán no longer wants to be beholden to one person and would like to widen the financial circle around Fidesz. Soon enough there were signs of Orbán’s efforts to loosen the ties with Simicska, and of Simicska’s response. By last fall a number of journalists who were absolutely devoted to Viktor Orbán were sacked at Magyar Nemzet. In early January we learned that Orbán no longer wants to help the Simicska media empire with advertisements by state companies. These media outlets have to stand on their own feet; he will throw his financial support behind the state television and radio. It was clear that something was brewing, but what really brought matters to a head was the announcement yesterday that the Hungarian government will substantially lower the advertisement tax on RTL Klub and, instead, every media outlet, even the smallest ones, will have to pay a 5% tax on their advertising revenues. That was the last straw for Simicska, who went on a rampage today.

Source: Magyar Narancs / Photo: Dániel Németh

Source: Magyar Narancs Photo: Dániel Németh

First, Simicska got in touch with Népszava last night and told the social democratic paper that “the media war will most likely become total” from here on. He told them that he considers the government’s proposed tax on advertisements “the latest attack against democracy.” In an interview with Origo he claimed that it is not money that is his first consideration, but “what will happen if one day Viktor Orbán scratches his head and decides that he will double the tax?” In brief, he is complaining about the same thing the German businessmen did to Angela Merkel.

When Simicska really lost his cool was early afternoon after he learned from his own paper, Magyar Nemzet, that Gábor Liszkay, editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and CEO of HírTV; Ottó Gajdics, editor-in-chief of Lánchíd Rádió; Gábor Élő, editor of Magyar Nemzet On Line; Péter Szikszai, deputy CEO of HírTV; Péter Csermely, deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet; and Szabolcs Szerető, deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, had resigned. Their conscience, they said, does not allow them to work for a paper not in the service of Viktor Orbán.

Well, at that point Simicska went berserk. The man who in the last twenty years hardly ever appeared in public and who never gave an interview suddenly gave interviews to everybody who phoned him. He answered the phone himself and, in response to questions, spewed an array of four-letter words. First he talked to József Nagy of Hír24 and allowed him to publish their recorded conversation. He accused Viktor Orbán, whom he repeatedly called “a prick,” of being behind the resignation of his top management. He also talked about a war between two men, one of whom will fall and that fall can be “physical,” which may mean death, but he is ready even for that. “They can kill me! They can shoot me or there will be a hit-and-run accident.” From an interview with Origo we learned that Simicska and Orbán haven’t talked to each other since last April.

Perhaps the most revealing interview with Simicska was conducted by Magyar Narancs. Here he insisted that he “maximally disapproves of the government media policy” which in another interview he explained involves dividing media outlets into three categories: those who are absolutely loyal to Viktor Orbán and the government; those who here and there are critical; and the enemies. Of these three Orbán can tolerate only the absolute loyal ones and will systematically eliminate all the others.

Apparently Simicska doesn’t like Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian foreign policy either. And let me quote him verbatim on the topic. “No, I don’t like it at all. I grew up at the time when the Soviet Union was still here and I don’t have pleasant memories of the activities of the Russians in Hungary. I can’t really see any difference between the behavior of the former Soviets and the political behavior of today’s Russians.”

At this point the interviewing journalist interrupted and reminded Simicska that, according to rumors, his disagreement with Orbán has more to do with business than anything else. For example, he was left out of very profitable business transactions connected to Russian natural gas. But Simicska insisted that “there are more important things in life than money.” He and Orbán initially got together “to dismantle a dictatorship and the post-communist regime. It turned out that this is not an easy task. One must work at it. But I did not join Orbán to build another dictatorship to replace the old one. I’m no partner in such an enterprise.”

After the journalist reminded him that he and Orbán have been close friends for thirty-give years and therefore it must be hard to part in this way, Simicska said, “I must admit that it is a great disappointment. I thought he was a statesman, but I had to come to the conclusion that he is not.”

Simicska didn’t have much time to waste. As he said, Magyar Nemzet must be published tomorrow and he has to appoint a completely new top management. Moreover, Gábor Liszkay, editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and CEO of HírTV, was a shareholder in these companies. Simicska had to buy him out. Within a couple of hours the deal was completed. Simicska apparently paid Liszkay 100 million forints or “thereabouts.” Gábor D. Horváth, the only top journalist who didn’t quit, became the editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, and Simicska himself took on the role of CEO of HírTV. And who became the editor-in-chief of Lánchíd Rádió? You won’t believe it. The same old Csaba Schlecht who managed to “sell” the bankrupt Fidesz companies to Ibrahim Kaya and Josip Tot.

I’m looking forward to seeing the articles published in the “new” Magyar Nemzet tomorrow and the days after. Will the pro-Russian and anti-American articles still appear, or will there be a noticeable change in the coverage of Hungary’s relations with Russia, the European Union, and the United States? If yes, then Simicska’s claim to having serious disagreements with Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy can be taken seriously. Otherwise, it is just a lot of hot air.

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53 comments

  1. I fear you may be right, buddy, this could be just another false dawn.

    We have two problems here on HS – first we tend to see Hungary through Western eyes (even the Hungarians amongst us), and secondly we tend to grasp at every straw of hope that comes along. The end result is that we don’t really understand what is happening (and why), and we typically put a lot more weight on things like this falling out than they deserve (hope over experience/reality). Hence my scepticism.

    But, having said all that, I think there may actually be something worth getting excited about going on here. For a start, this is not an isolated incident, the Orbán government has staggered from one cock-up to another in the last few months – all the signs of the last days of a failing government (in a Western context, and with a decent opposition, they would be in serious trouble by now). And, secondly, this really IS a serious falling out within the governing mafia – not just a non-story blown up by our wishful thinking.

    The problem is that, even if this is the beginning of the end for Orbán, or even for Fidesz, where will that leave Hungary? As I have said often before on HS, the only thing worse than Orbán could well turn out to be getting rid of Orbán.

    In Ten Days That Shook the World, Reed says (or quotes some as saying) something like, “the only thing worse than Lenin, was the death of Lenin”. Who will be Hungary’s Stalin?

  2. One correction: the Fidesz-linked companies did not go broke for reasons of poor management. Rather, their business model was to capture the value-added tax instead of paying it to the government, asset-strip the company and then discard the carcass heavy with accumulated liabilities.

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