József Ángyán

The end of an internationally known organic demonstration farm and school?

I don’t write too often about political events that affect agriculture. First, I don’t know much about the topic and, second, I don’t have a genuine interest in it. In fact, I have a certain aversion to agriculture, most likely dating to my childhood and the very negative impressions I gained from occasional visits to poverty-stricken southern Baranya villages. That is probably also the reason for my negative feelings about the literature produced between the two world wars by writers who extolled the virtues of the Hungarian peasantry and its way of life. At a very early age I came to the conclusion that there was nothing wonderful about village life because it meant backwardness and poverty. Instead, I believed then and continue to believe now that we should eliminate the gaping differences between city and countryside.

Earlier we talked about the land-lease program that has been under way for a number of years. Parcels of lands owned by the state are leased for twenty years, allegedly to young farmers with initiative. In reality, in the most recent competitions many of the lots were handed over to Fidesz party faithfuls who had no experience in farming. One often heard about fairly prosperous farmers whose main source of income was animal husbandry but whose grazing land was taken away from them;  they were forced to sell their sheep or cows. There were heartbreaking stories of  poor people who applied to have their leases renewed but lost both their land and their livelihoods to politically connected applicants who could receive EU subsidies even if they left the land fallow.

One case really shook me. It was the fate of the Kishantos Rural Development Center, which includes a 452-hectare organic demonstration farm which has been in existence for twenty-one years. It began as a local grass-roots organization but grew and prospered with the help of German experts who helped design the farm. József Ángyán, a professor of agriculture at Gödöllő, Hungary’s agricultural college, was also heavily involved. In 1995 the center acquired a lease for a plot of land on which they established a school to teach young farmers about organic farming. The philosophy of Kishantos was rooted in the ideas of N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), author, poet, philosopher, and teacher. He was the ideological father of  “folk high schools,” educational centers for adult education. “Folk high schools” became popular in Hungary at the end of the 1930s and were revived right after 1945, but with the communist takeover they were forced to close their doors.

Over the years the Kishantos educational center developed ties with Danish and other European partners and organized international exchange programs. As the manager of Kishantos said, “the main goal of that program is to offer experiences for young Hungarians to learn about democracy and sustainability in practice.”

The school and the center are financed from the income the farm earns. But the lease for the 452 hectares of state-owned land expired on October 31, 2013.  The Hungarian Land Fund, representing the state, decided to put an end to the Kishantos organic farm and educational center. It put the acreage, cut up into ten different lots, on the auction block. It is clear that the Orbán regime wanted to ruin Kishantos.

The reason? There can be several. One is perhaps József Ángyán’s involvement in the project. Viktor Orbán promised Ángyán an agricultural strategy based on small family farming.  Ángyán was pleased that his ideas would become reality and therefore accepted Viktor Orbán’s offer of a seat in parliament.  Soon enough, however, Ángyán became disillusioned and turned against the Orbán government’s distribution scheme for state land. The second reason might be that the project’s philosophy does not mesh with Viktor Orbán’s ideas about the Hungarian ethos. Kishantos is dedicated to “spreading the idea of sustainability and democracy.” The founders claim that Kishantos is “the only project in Europe where sustainable agriculture, ecological farming, education and democracy have been functioning together in perfect harmony.” Not exactly the kind of philosophy the Fidesz folks would be terribly keen on.

Sunflowers in the good old days in Kishantos

Sunflowers in the good old days in Kishantos

Kishantos applied for all ten lots but were unsuccessful. They received none of the land they had cultivated for the past two decades. The farm’s management appealed the decision. Although there was no verdict by the time the spring seeds had to be sowed, they decided that the land shouldn’t remain fallow while litigation was underway. Therefore they opted to go ahead with the planting. Their reasoning was that if they win the case they will have their usual crop and if the new owners win they will be the beneficiaries of the Kishantos people’s labor. Well, this is not how the new owners saw things. A week before Easter several tractors arrived and harrowed under the plants that were already green. One rarely can see such barbarity. What kinds of owners would these people be who could destroy acres and acres of young seedlings? The whole thing is outrageous.

The harrowing of the fall crop is under way

So much for the tender seedlings

Well, the crop is gone, but this may not be the end of the story. Kishantos’s fate remains in the hands of the courts and early indications are favorable. I for one very much hope that Kishantos will stay and prosper.

Tax fraud scandal in Hungary

On November 8 a surveyor of taxes, András Horváth, turned to the prosecutor’s office to report a breach of fiduciary duties committed by the top leaders of NAV (Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal/National Office of Taxation and Customs). During his press conference he stood between representatives of two civic groups, Levegő Munkacsoport, an environmental organization, and Vállakozók Érdekvédelmi Szövetsége (VÉSZ), basically a lobby group of small entrepreneurs.

Horváth claimed that large-scale cheating goes on with fictitious VAT reimbursement payments, especially in the case of large multinational and domestic companies. Since Horváth was mostly involved with agricultural products and foodstuffs in general, I assume that the companies he was talking about are mostly large food chains. He claimed that the loss incurred in just this sector of the Hungarian economy amounts to about 1.7 trillion forints per year, more than 10% of the country’s entire yearly budget of 15 trillion forints.

The interest was great at András Horváth initial press conference / Photo Ákos Stiller

The interest was great at András Horváth’s initial press conference
Photo Ákos Stiller

Horváth seems to be a naive soul because before his revelation he turned in his resignation and was expecting to sever relations with NAV only in two months’ time. I guess you will not be surprised to hear that Horváth was immediately dismissed from NAV and that currently NAV is in the process of pressing charges against him.

When Index asked for details from NAV, they were told that tax fraud is usually committed through complicated layers of phony companies and that therefore it is often impossible to find the culprits despite the concerted efforts of NAV’s employees. The spokesman for NAV emphasized that the more than one thousand large multinational and domestic companies actually provide 42% of all tax revenues. These companies are thoroughly investigated.

Yet NAV, either on its own or because of prodding from above, immediately announced an internal investigation. Keep in mind that NAV has 23,000 employees, and yet over the weekend in only two days’ time (November 9-10) the “investigation” turned up nothing. I have the feeling that the internal probe couldn’t have been too thorough.

On Tuesday, November 12, disappointed by the internal investigation of NAV, Horváth put all his trust in the government, emphasizing that he has no political motivations. He just wants the truth to surface. In fact, he was an early Fidesz party member and has old friends in the party from those days. He indicated that he knows two of the “highest dignitaries of the land.” I think he was talking about János Áder and László Kövér. He also said that he wrote two letters to leading politicians in the Prime Minister’s Office and he definitely knows that one reached the person for whom it was intended. I assume again that this was János Lázár. Exactly when Horváth wrote to the person in the Prime Minister’s Office is not clear, but we definitely know that he wrote a long letter to Antal Rogán, head of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, back in November 2011.

Rogán didn’t seem to remember any such letter. His only recollection was that somebody stopped him in the corridor of the parliament and exchanged a few words with him. But then Horváth released his long, detailed letter which Átlátszó.hu, an investigative online paper, published in its entirety. At that point Rogán’s memory was jiggled, but he still claimed that the letter contained only generalities. It is true that Horváth didn’t mention any names, but he indicated that some of the high officials of NAV were getting paid off for their “leniency” and that some of them had become quite rich in the process.

The way the fraud was committed does look complicated, but in essence it entails a phantom supplier who gets reimbursed for VAT, which is the highest in the European Union. Thus a product for which the Hungarian company paid 100 forints to, let’s say, a Slovak company cost the Hungarian company only about 80 forints and thus its profit margin is about 20-25% higher than it would have been without the assistance of this phantom company. There is a drawing of the scheme in Index.

Fidesz naturally suspects political motives behind Horváth’s revelations. Mihály Varga, minister of economics, warned Horváth that he as a civil servant is not supposed to engage in political activities. Horváth insists that politics has nothing to do with it and that the law is on his side. After all, he says, the law is supposed to shield those who unveil corruption and fraud. But Horváth is in trouble because so far his case has not been taken up by the prosecutor’s office. They want additional information, which sounds like a diversionary tactic. Knowing the political orientation of the prosecutor’s office, I will be most surprised if Horváth’s case is ever taken up.

Meanwhile, of course, the case became thoroughly politicized. It couldn’t have been otherwise. András Schiffer’s LMP immediately moved into action. Next Friday the party will stage a demonstration for “the purity of the tax office and for the upstanding taxpayers.” At the same time, LMP and József Ángyán, formerly Fidesz but now an independent member of parliament, initiated the process to set up a parliamentary committee to investigate the NAV case.

The establishment of such a committee must be supported by 77 members of parliament. As it turned out, in addition to the seven-member LMP only a few independents, a handful of Együtt-PM, and Jobbik members signed the petition.  And that’s not enough. Without MSZP there can be no committee investigation of the case. DK members also refused to sign. The reason for both MSZP and DK holding back was the signatures of Jobbik members. They refuse to join any parliamentary action in which Jobbik is involved.

It is true that, even if the necessary number of signatures had been obtained, the investigative commission most likely wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Fidesz would have voted it down flat. But at least the charge couldn’t have been leveled against MSZP that they were reluctant to sign because they didn’t want their own part in the tax evasion scheme to be unearthed. Indeed, the reason for their refusal to sign doesn’t sound quite genuine, as some Együtt-PM members point out, because in the last three years MSZP members signed several documents on which one could find Jobbik names as well. Attila Mesterházy’s explanation for MSZP’s action (or lack of action) in this case is that the party decided to boycott Jobbik in parliament and elsewhere only recently.

I’m not sure whether refusing to collaborate with Jobbik in every instance is necessarily a smart political tactic. My feeling is that Mesterházy and others can explain their reasons until they are blue in the face, yet people who are inclined to equate the two parties when it comes to corruption will never believe them. And these are exactly the people whom Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy want to convince to vote for them. Of course, those who argue that nothing would have come of the investigative committee are right, but at least MSZP could have avoided another reason for labeling them a corrupt party, just as corrupt as the “mafia government” of Fidesz.

Fidesz pow-wow in Gyula, February 5-7, 2013

On my Facebook page I discovered a note that István Vágó, the television personality, posted about a Tacitus quotation. In Latin it goes like this: “corruptissima re publica plurimae leges.” One doesn’t even have to know Latin to get the gist of the sentence. “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.” Well, well, perhaps Viktor Orbán should read Tacitus’s Annales in his spare time. The sentence in its entirety has even more relevance to Hungary: “And now bills were passed, not only for national objects but for individual cases, and laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.” “Bills passed … for individual cases”! Count the ways the Orbán government has resorted to this dubious practice.

More and more laws are being hatched with the greatest of ease and without any compunction. Just today Lajos Kósa, managing director of Fidesz, announced that the temporary provisions the Constitutional Court found unconstitutional can easily be remedied. “It is simple: the Constitutional Court didn’t accept our concept that there is a Basic Law and there are the temporary provisions. So, we just have to combine the two. Not a big deal.” This is how legislative work is being conducted in today’s Hungary.

Lajos Kósa made this statement in Gyula, close to the Romanian border, where the Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary delegation is holding a three-day meeting. Orbán is also attending this gathering. Earlier, the opposition forces announced a demonstration protesting the Orbán government’s policies to be held in conjunction with this meeting. A few hours later the Peace Marchers said that they would go to Gyula in support of the government. Indeed, busloads of pro-government sympathizers showed up from all over the country. They even came from Romania. I saw a sign indicating that the men and women behind the sign were from Oradea/Nagyvárad. As usual, the pro-government sympathizers were more numerous than the opposition forces thanks to the nationwide recruitment organized by so-called civic groups that by all indications are financially supported by the government. One of the organizers of the Peace March was Zsolt Bayer, the notorious anti-Semite who also wants to solve the Roma question “by any means.”

In the past few details of  these Fidesz pow-wows leaked out to the public, but it seems that party discipline is becoming frayed as difficulties mount. It doesn’t matter how often government officials repeat that the Orbán government’s almost three years in office “have been a success story,” fewer and fewer people believe the government propaganda. After all, according to the latest polls, 75% of the adult population of Hungary think that the country is heading in the wrong direction. It is thus not surprising that inside the Erkel Hotel where the meeting is taking place there were apparently a few tense moments.

A few hours after the commencement of the “retreat” the public learned quite a few details. By 7:00 p.m. Világgazdaság reported that Viktor Orbán had announced that the next governor of the Hungarian National Bank will be György Matolcsy after all. That piece of news sent the forint tumbling. The press department of Fidesz promptly issued a denial, claiming that Matolcsy’s name wasn’t even mentioned at the Gyula meeting. So, the forint stabilized. Hungarian analysts are still convinced that the next bank chairman will be Matolcsy, but they believe the bitter pill will be administered slowly over time to avoid a collapse of the Hungarian currency.

gas

By early morning today newspapers reported that there was “sharp disagreement” at the meeting over the lowering of utility rates. We’ve heard for some time that the state is planning to fix the price of natural gas. First they talked about a 10% reduction in the price across the board, but lately Fidesz politicians raised the stakes. János Lázár talked about a 30% reduction sometime in the future. And more and more promises were made: they will lower the price of water, fees for sewage, garbage collection, even the price of the compulsory cleaning of chimneys. Clearly, these ideas are preliminaries to the 2014 election campaign. It seems that Fidesz has decided to follow the bad old habit of paying off the electorate before the election and imposing austerity packages afterwards. In this same vein Fidesz politicians began talking about reintroducing a thirteenth-month payment for pensioners. Mind you, perhaps only once at the end of 2013. Perfect timing.

There are about 60 Fidesz-KDNP MPs who are also mayors, and in most of their cities the water companies are owned by the local government. The water companies at the moment are barely making it, and if the government forces them to lower prices they will go bankrupt. These politicians therefore argued for some kind of compensation from the central government. But, as we know, the government has no money. What new trick will they come up with to cover the cost of this generosity? One can only guess, but the Orbán government is exceptionally inventive when it comes to taxes.

Today the arguments continued. This time József Ángyán, former undersecretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, was on the offensive. He has been a severe critic of the Orbán government’s handling of the long-term leases of thousands and thousands of acres of government land; the leases were given to friends and relatives of Fidesz politicians. You can read more about Ángyán in a post entitled “Agricultural subsidies and the Fidesz oligarchs.” Orbán is really fed up with Ángyán. The only reason he hasn’t asked for his resignation from the party and from the Fidesz parliamentary delegation is because he is convinced that sooner or later Ángyán will resign on his own volition. Orbán stated, however, that he considers Ángyán “not worthy of the caucus of which he is a member.”

And finally, it seems that Viktor Orbán has given up his pet project: voter registration. After the Constitutional Court annulled the proposed law, Fidesz politicians for a while indicated that, although they would obey the ruling for the coming elections because of time constraints, they have every intention of changing the law after the 2014 elections. It seems that they have changed their minds. Why? I think because studies and polls indicated that registration might hurt Fidesz more than it helps.

Some people are convinced that Orbán might take advantage of this apparent defeat. After all, if registration had been deemed legal, no elections could have been held before 2014. Without that time constraint Orbán could call for early elections when the opposition is in total disarray. Knowing him, this scenario is a real possibility.