Krisztina Ferenczi

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.

Orbán’s clan is plundering the state coffers: The world is taking notice

The talk in Hungary is about corruption. Corruption that seems to consume every nook and cranny of political life. It is an open secret that one of the main aims of Viktor Orbán, in addition to making sure that he will be the prime minister of Hungary for a very long time, is the enrichment of his friends and family. Thanks to the work of some investigative journalists, like Krisztina Ferenczi and Attila Mong, more and more evidence is surfacing that Viktor Orbán is feathering his and his friends’ nests.

Orbán is not like Viktor Yanukovycz, who lived lavishly in tasteless gilded palaces. Considering his estimated wealth, Orbán and his family live modestly. They have a comfortable but unpretentious house in one of the more elegant parts of Buda and an outright humble-looking house, designed in the style of the adobe peasant houses of yore, in Felcsút. The family’s landholdings are something else. Year after year Orbán’s wife, Anikó Lévai, added cheaply acquired lands in and around Felcsút where Viktor’s family spent some time when he was a young child. Moreover, almost everybody is convinced that the Orbán family’s landholdings are much more extensive than official documents attest to. The rest, perhaps thousands of acres, is held under the names of front men.

Viktor Orbán's country home in style of old adobe peasant houses

Viktor Orbán’s country house

For some time Hungary has been brimming with anecdotes and speculation about the Orbáns and their friends, but the charge of wholesale stealing from the national wealth could not be contained within the borders for long. Only two days ago an article appeared in one of the most influential German papers, Der Spiegel, with the title: “Orbán’s clan plunders the state coffers.” As Krisztina Ferenczi told the author of the article, Keno Verseck, “Hungary has become in recent years a kind of large estate” and the lord of the  manor is Viktor Orbán himself.

One reason for the disguised land ownership, assuming the charge is true, besides the obvious one of undeclared wealth without any legitimate means of accumulating it, is that the landholdings are heavily subsidized by the European Union even if they are left fallow. Surely, it would look bad if the European Union were paying millions for the lands of the Hungarian prime minister. There are several indications that Orbán has two front men in Felcsút, Lőrinc Mészáros and János Flier. Both by now have thousands of acres they received fraudulently from the state on twenty-year leases. Neither has any experience in agriculture. Flier used to be an electrician and Mészáros had a small business bringing gas pipes to the inhabitants of the village a few years back. Now they are in charge of large farms.

Viktor Orbán is as upstanding in politics as he is in his financial dealings. The electoral law and its execution are based on fraud. Since he has a pathological need for power, he will never allow a reprise of 2002 and 2006 when he lost the elections. This time he is covering all his bases. We talked a lot about the coming elections and concluded that the final results would be questionable, but I still suggest taking a look at some of the comments on the topic by readers of Hungarian Spectrum. Unfortunately, since the Orbán government is in charge of the mechanics of the election we will never be able to prove fraud, however obvious it might be in places.

Orbán is a role model for Fidesz officials, and part and parcel of that model is his outsize accumulation of wealth. The latest official to come under scrutiny for unexplained affluence is Antal Rogán.

Rogán belongs to the younger generation of Fidesz officials. He had just finished high school at the time of the regime change. In college he majored in economics and soon after graduation was heavily involved in Fidesz politics. By the age of 26 he became a member of parliament and three years later one of the deputies of Viktor Orbán. Currently, he is the leader of the large Fidesz parliamentary caucus.

It seems that Antal Rogán was equally successful when it came to enriching himself. We don’t know how, but Rogán, his wife, and two young children live like nabobs in “Pasa Park.” This gated community is in a part of Buda called Pasarét (Meadow of Pasha), hence the name of the building in which many top Fidesz officials live, including Mihály Varga, minister of national economy. The Rogáns have two and a half apartments worth about 300 million forints. People who are investigating the case claim that Rogán’s total career earnings so far amount to no more than 16 million forints. His wife doesn’t work. His current salary is 1.3 million forints a month, but his expenses far exceed his income. He is still paying about half a million forints a month on his 60 million forint mortgage, he has to pay 300,000 a  month for maintenance, he pays 250,000 to lease an Audi 6, and the two small boys go to a private kindergarten for 300,000 a month. And presumably the family doesn’t starve.

Rogán got into trouble because he did exactly the same thing as  Gábor Simon (MSZP): he didn’t tell the whole truth about his wealth on the financial statement he has to provide to parliament. But while Simon is in jail, Rogán only had to “correct” his financial statement. He may have to keep making corrections as new pieces of information surface. It seems he owns property that he inherited from his grandmother and father in his hometown as well as a country house in Balatonlelle.

Given the way Orbán’s “justice” works, we can be assured that nothing will happen even if the accusations turn out to be correct in every detail. Nothing will happen not only because investigation and punishment depend on the ruling Fidesz party but also because all Hungarian politicians made sure that these financial statements are not worth the paper they’re written on. If, for example in this case, Rogán says that the money for the real estate and the lavish lifestyle comes from loans extended by family and friends, the authorities will be satisfied. He will not have to give any proof of actual transactions. Knowing the high moral fiber of Hungarians, I’m sure there would be plenty of people who would gladly swear that they were the ones who extended the money to Rogán.

That’s how things are in Hungary. It’s no wonder that people are not outraged about the rumors of electoral fraud or the plundering of the state coffers. They are accustomed to corruption and think it best to remain silent. They cannot do anything about it in any case.