tobacconist shop

The troubled tobacco shop concessions

We haven’t talked about the tobacconist shops lately, although there is quite a bit to be said about them. First and foremost, that as the result of the newly restricted availability and the price hikes black market sales of cigarettes have soared in the last couple of months. Fewer and fewer people are buying cigarettes at the designated stores. The fallout? The loss of 23 billion forints in excise taxes for the treasury. Also, the new owners of these shops, although they turn a 10 percent profit on every pack of cigarettes, are not doing well. One needs to sell an awful lot of cigarettes to make a really good living.  And “only an idiot would buy cigarettes in the tobacconist shop,” reads a headline in today’s Origo

The troubles started early, with a spate of tobacconist shop robberies. Petty criminals all over the country, hearing about the fabulous profits that could be made by the owners of these shops, found them irresistible. And since the store fronts must be darkened and the doors kept closed at all times, the robbers could be assured of an easy target.

After a few weeks the black marketeers were in full swing, divvying up territories among themselves. They sell inexpensive cigarettes from Ukraine and Serbia for 500 forints a pack, as opposed to 900 forints in the stores, as well as western brands such as Kent, Marlboro, and Lucky Strike. The supply is plentiful. And it’s a terrific deal for both seller and buyer. The Ukrainian seller turns a 100% profit on each pack of cigarettes and the Hungarian buyer gets the pack for almost half the official price.

A man on Kálmán Széll tér (formerly Moszkva tér) explained how the distribution system works. A “very reliable man” brings him the merchandise from Ukraine. This reliable guy has his “reliable customers,” among them the fellow the Origo reporter talked with. The man admitted that what he does is illegal but, as he said, “the laws are wrong.” The black marketeers divide up the square among themselves, and they “defend their turf as jealously as the prostitutes.” Tobacconist shops nearby are hard hit. There are days when for hours they don’t have a single customer. A fair number of shops have already closed.

Making tobacco a state monopoly was most likely the brainchild of the Hungarian-owned Continental Tobacco Company. The owner of the company is a good friend of János Lázár, who was heavily involved in drafting the law. The Continental Tobacco Company also made sure that its employees and board members received a fair number of concessions through front men (Strohmann/stróman). Of the 4,300 tobacconist shops they got about 500 concessions.

One of the main beneficiaries was András Kulcsár, a top manager at Continental. He got 84 concessions. Now, after a few months, he has already had to close 25. The reason? Most likely a lack of business expertise, bad location, and low sales. The law, by the way, states that stores that close must be reopened within 60 days.

The cronies have all the dough / Photo Index

The cronies have all the dough / Photo Index

Today we learned that one of the tobacconist shops that belonged to Tomi Palcsó, a singer discovered on “Megasztár,” has been closed for days. The singer, who is a Fidesz favorite and who often performs at Fidesz events, received five concessions, officially the maximum number. It looks as if business in Csepel didn’t exactly thrive. Mind you, DK demonstrations in front of the Csepel stores over the last couple of weeks probably didn’t help. (László Varju, one of the top DK leaders, has been called into the police station for organizing demonstrations.) Although Palcsó’s store was already defunct, about a dozen DK activists protested in front of it today with signs like “The cronies have all the dough.”

Meanwhile, on popular initiative the National Election Committee gave its blessing to holding a referendum on two questions concerning the tobacconist shops, and the Kúria (formerly the Supreme Court) approved it. If the activists manage to get 200,000 signatures within 45 days the referendum can be held. There will be two questions on the ballot: Do you agree that instead of a 10 percent guaranteed profit, it should be rolled back to the original profit margin of 3.33%? And do you agree that only tobacco products should be sold in the tobacconist shops?

Apparently the Fidesz leadership is furious. As one Fidesz politician told the reporter for Index“that will not happen again.” At this moment it is not clear whether the government/Fidesz (it really no longer matters what we call it) intends to block such a referendum altogether or whether they only want to prevent its being held before the elections. In either case, I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of one of the members of the Committee who in the last minute changed his mind on the question of the profit margin and thus made passage of the motion possible.

A day in Hungary: From a small village to the meeting of ambassadors

Today I would like to cover three topics. First, it is D-Day for smokers since as of today only tobacconist shops can sell cigarettes. Second, we have the results of the latest opinion poll on the standing of the parties and politicians. And third, Viktor Orbán gave a speech to Hungary’s ambassadors this morning.

Why do I start with the tobacconist shops? Because I have been convinced for some time that the government’s decision to restrict the number of outlets where tobacco products can be purchased will turn a sizable portion of the population against the government. The adverse effects of the decision will be especially pronounced in those rural areas where Fidesz has traditionally been strong.

Until now one could buy cigarettes in 40,000 shops, from department stores to corner groceries. As of today there are a mere 5,000 outlets. This “downsizing” will create dislocations and inconvenience for smokers. Then, just think of the 4,000 small boroughs where no cigarettes at all will be available.

Until today Hungary’s smokers didn’t feel the brunt of the new system of tobacco distribution because the old outlets were given a two-week grace period during which they could sell down their inventory. But all this ended at midnight. From here on there is no mercy. And for many no cigarettes either.

The first report on the mood of the villagers who have to go as far as twelve kilometers for cigarettes came from Zsolt Kácsor, the Debrecen stringer for Népszabadság. He visited three villages in the County of Bihar where passions are running high against the government. In one of these places the owner of the pub (kocsma) described her customers’s reaction as one of “rage.” The mayor of another village (population 600) delivered the following little speech: “No one ever f..cked the poor people over as much as Orbán and his friends are doing. Write it down word for word. I don’t even care if they hang me. Write it down that I haven’t witnessed such f…ing screwing of the people in 78 years. He even prescribes from which angle I should watch the stork’s nest.” And the public workers around him were nodding in agreement. So, it is not only the lack of cigarettes that bothers the old gentleman but also, or perhaps even more, the government regulations that intrude into his personal sphere. He feels that his personal freedom is being violated.

The mayor doesn't want to watch the stork's nest from the same angle with Viktor  Orbán

The mayor doesn’t want to watch the stork’s nest from the same angle as Viktor Orbán

The reporter visited two other villages in the area that have no cigarette shop. In one of them he talked to guests at the local pub. They are all outraged. It turns out that the closest shop is only three kilometers away, but there the local Fidesz mayor got the concession to run the tobacconist shop. One of the customers swears that he will not buy cigarettes from him. He may not need to since he easily manages to find smuggled Ukrainian cigarettes, which are cheap. He pays 450 forints for a pack; the Hungarian price is about double that.

I think that the Orbán government’s decision to make 5,000 party faithful rich will cost a lot in votes next year. And that takes me to the latest poll by Ipsos, although the numbers are not at all interesting. They are practically the same as last month and the month before. There is, however, a handy Ipsos graph that gives figures for both party preferences and politicians for the past few years that readers of Hungarian Spectrum might find informative.

These latest results certainly don’t deserve the ovation with which Magyar Nemzet greeted them. Their headline reads: “Fidesz devastates its opponents, Bajnai is nowhere.” There is no reason for such exuberance, especially since still only 28% of the adult population want this government to continue in office. But the opposition cannot rejoice either since 62% are dissatisfied with the opposition. So, unless there is some dramatic change in the strategy of Együtt 2014 and MSZP it could easily happen that although the majority of the people wish Viktor Orbán and his government straight to hell, Fidesz-KDNP will still win the elections. Although the Bajnai and Mesterházy teams met today, they seem to be in no hurry to create a viable opposition.

And finally, I would like to focus on a couple of sentences that Viktor Orbán uttered today. He gave a speech to the Hungarian ambassadors who once a year gather in Budapest to hear the prime minister’s words of wisdom on foreign policy. I assume that the complete text of the speech will be available on the prime minister’s website soon enough; a shorter version is already available on The sentences I’m interested in were not part of the speech itself, which Orbán always reads word for word. Instead, they came as an answer to a question from the audience.

According to Orbán, for the European Union to remain competitive it must find an accommodation with Russia. This is a difficult proposition because Russia is not a democratic country. “However, we must understand that for Russia it is not democracy that is the most important consideration but rather how the country can be kept intact.” Moreover, an alliance between the European Union and Russia is not an easy proposition for the countries of Central Europe because “if one reads about a rapprochement between the European Union led by Germany and Russia then one will go to the window to see whether the children are still playing in the backyard.”  I don’t think I need to add anything here, except to ask why this constant needling of Germany is necessary. Sooner or later German patience will run out.

Odds and ends from Hungary: A court case, a new poll, and a successful country

Again, there are too many interesting topics and I don’t know which one to pick. So I decided to cover as many as I have space for without making the post too long.

First, I received a short note from András Arató, CEO of Klubrádió, announcing the Kúria’s landmark decision with regard to one of the controversial writings of Zsolt Bayer. The decision was rendered in a case that involved Klubrádió.

I wrote about the article,”The Same Stench,” which was the subject of the case, at the time of its publication. In it Bayer called Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Parliament, and András Schiff, the internationally acclaimed Hungarian pianist, “stinking excrement” and lamented the incompleteness of the massacre in the forest of Orgovány where many Hungarian Jews were murdered in 1920.

In “Let’s Talk It Over,” the most popular program on Klubrádió, its host György Bolgár talked to Péter Feldmájer,  the chairman of MAZSIHISZ. In the course of their conversation they labeled the Bayer article anti-Semitic. Bayer sued for infringement of his personality rights and also for damages, claiming that because of the interview he ceased to receive commissions for articles from the French daily, Le Monde. The case eventually ended up in the Kúria, which is the highest court of the land. No further appeal is possible.

In its  June 26 ruling, the Kúria found that a reading of Bayer’s article could logically and lawfully lead to the finding that the contents of the article were anti-Semitic. Bayer’s attempts to frame the reference to Orgovány as a mere metaphor failed. According to the ruling, he must endure the criticism that his article deserves and must allow others to form an honest opinion of the article without using the legal institution of personality rights to shield himself from public criticism.

This ruling of the Kúria is of landmark importance, as it finally shows that neo-Nazi, racist, and hate speech cannot be published with impunity in Hungary. Freedom of expression and its manifestation in the form of criticism stand as potential means for anyone seeking to take action against extremist statements.

All in all, Klubrádió is proud that it had a role to play in this very important decision.

I might add that it would be nice if the Media Authority actually allowed Klubrádió to broadcast on a frequency which can be used free of charge and which the station is entitled to use. Although at least a month has gone by since the court decision in Klubrádió’s favor, nothing has happened yet although the Media Authority has no right to appeal.

* * *

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I spent a whole post on an interview with the CEO of Medián about the intricacies of poll taking in Hungary.  Medián just came out with a poll that probed public reaction to the tobacconist shop affair. Their first attempt at gauging public reaction was three weeks ago when 56% were against making tobacco products a monopoly and disapproved of the way it was done. By now that number is 73%. Moreover, the percentage of those who heard about the affair is exceptionally high: 94%.

What is especially interesting is the breakdown by voting groups.  There were basically three main questions asked. The first was whether it is appropriate for a government to decide who can and who cannot sell tobacco products. The second concerned the appropriateness of a government party favoring its own adherents in allotting the concessions. And finally the respondents were asked what would they do now if they were in the position to do something about the situation that was created by the government.

To the question about the appropriateness of the government deciding who can and who cannot sell tobacco products, the overwhelming majority (73%) were against it and only 19% were for it. Not even Fidesz voters are crazy about the idea. As for the idea of a tobacco monopoly, 43% disapprove while 10% have no opinion; 47% support the government on this issue. Supporters of MSZP, E14 and other smaller parties on the left overwhelmingly, and predictably, oppose the nationalization of tobacconist shops (85-90%). What is much more interesting is the reaction of those people who are undecided. Among them 76% are against the government scheme. Medián differentiated another category whom they call “active undecided” voters. Those are the ones who say that they definitely will vote but that they still don’t know for whom. Among them 74% opposed the monopolization of tobacco products.

To the question of whether it is appropriate for a party in power to favor its own, half of the Fidesz voters answered in the negative. All others, including the undecided and the actively undecided, were overwhelmingly (80-93%) opposed. Let’s not forget that Viktor Orbán announced that he saw nothing wrong with favoring Fidesz supporters over others.

Finally there was the question of what to do with the state of affairs that was created as a result of the tobacco monopoly and the way the concessions were granted. 51% of those asked would undo everything and would allow anyone who wants to sell cigarettes to be able to do so. 26% would start anew by scrapping the results and announcing a new competition for the available stores. Only 14% wouldn’t change anything.

What do these figures tell us, especially in light of other polls on party preferences? All three of the most recent polls show Fidesz leading by a large margin over MSZP and by 6-8% over a united democratic opposition. But the percentage of undecided voters is still very large. According to Tárki, it is 49%. If the population’s dislike of the monopolization of tobacco products and their disgust with the concessions is any indication, the undecided and especially the actively undecided voters may offer up some surprises.

* * *

And, finally, here is a priceless Orbán quotation. He was in Brussels today at a meeting of the prime ministers of the member states. He told reporters afterwards that he looked around the table and there was not one prime minister whose country was successful. It was a strange feeling to represent the only economically successful country in this company. And here are these unsuccessful losers who give advice to him, the only successful one. But he took no offense!

Success by Kevin Houle / flkckr

Success by Kevin Houle / flkckr

In line with his allegedly conciliatory attitude to the West European losers, Orbán decided to give in on the issue of political advertisement. As things stand now, no party can advertise on any  commercial television or radio station during the campaign season. He announced that this restrictive law will be changed to allow parties to advertise on commercial stations. But the stations must provide the service free of charge. I’ll bet they will be thrilled. On the other hand, given the financial state of the opposition parties, getting some free advertising might help restore the balance between Fidesz with its practically unlimited resources and opportunities and the poverty-stricken opposition parties. Of course, in the “devil in the details” department, we don’t know how much time the commercial stations will set aside for “upaid” political advertisements and whether these ads will be permitted during prime time or only when the vast majority of people are either at work or asleep.

Bálint Magyar: Viktor Orbán’s post-communist mafia state, Part II

We left off yesterday at the point that the concentration of political power and organized corruption cannot be divided because they are both part of the very essence of the system. The mafia state has a distinct advantage over traditional mafias. Whereas the latter must reach their goals either by blackmail or by intimidation, a mafia state by definition has the power of the state behind it. Therefore it can “adjust” laws according to its needs. In brief, the “organized upperworld” makes its own illegal activities quasi-legal. Acquiring ill-gotten riches no longer must be hidden.

The new mafia state is different in this respect from both the Horthy regime and the Soviet system. The Hungarian ruling elite between the two world wars didn’t want to change the “economic elite”–with the notable exception of the expropriation of Jewish property in its last phase; it only wanted to enrich the already existing Christian middle class. In the Soviet Union the communists nationalized all private property. Both decisions were merely political decisions fairly uniformly applied. The situation is different in a mafia state. Instead of a uniform political will, decisions are individual and random. “What they like they take.”

An old picture of the Fidesz family, 1999 / cover page of HVG

An old picture of the Fidesz family, 1999 / cover of HVG

As for the comparisons between Hungary’s mafia state and that of the former Soviet Union and its successor states, although the final result is the same, the road to it is different. In Russia and elsewhere east of Hungary the members of the former party elite managed to “privatize” state property. In Hungary economic power ended up for the most part in the hands of technocrats. In Russia the few non-apparatchiks who managed to get into the select circle of economic moguls were eventually sent packing or ended up in jail.

In Hungary, when Fidesz appeared, “the field” was already taken. In order to change the current state of affairs Fidesz either has to get rid of members of the economic elite or make them part of the “family”  or “service nobility”.  Fidesz’s misfortune is that in Hungary, as opposed to Russia and its satellites, a true democratic process had already begun. In order for Viktor Orbán to reach his final goal, the very institutions of Hungary’s fragile democracy must be eliminated. We are not at this point yet and it depends on the Hungarian voters whether Orbán can succeed or not. In Poland there was a similar attempt by the Kaczynski brothers but their attempt failed.

How is Hungary’s current political elite handling this takeover of economic power? The ideology behind the process is a “national war of independence.”  The first step is trying to achieve a certain percentage of Hungarian ownership in the various business sectors. Next, the government begins to force out legitimate owners of enterprises by levying extra taxes, forbidding the construction of new malls, imposing impossible requirements to obtain a building permit, or as in the case of the French firm Suez in Pécs, by simply taking over the company by force. Often the state itself buys the foreign-owned company and after a short while the company is sold to a friend of “the family.” There have been cases (notably MOL and E.ON) where the elite at public expense purchased large blocks of stock  or buy entire companies at prices way above their market value.

One of the most brazen takeovers of a business sector is the tobacconist shop tenders. This time the mafia elite decided to change the law in order to create a state monopoly by which it impoverished forty or fifty thousand small businessmen. Why did they have to deprive relatively poor mom and pop store owners of their livelihood? Because the “the family” must be continually extended outward, giving gifts to the small fry in the organized “upperworld.” By making tobacco products a monopoly, additional revenues will reach the treasury while those relatively few shops that can sell cigarettes will be owned by “clients” who will have a guaranteed income. Killing two birds with one stone.

Although it is becoming crystal clear that the selection of the future tobacconists was fraudulent, there will be no legal consequences. By now both the police and the prosecutor’s office are part of the organized “upperworld.” We already know that these cases will never reach the courts because the prosecutors announced that there is nothing to investigate.

Analysts often talk about certain Fidesz moves as irrational and self-defeating. The tobacconist shop scandal is one of the examples. Magyar thinks that, according to Fidesz logic, the creation of a monopoly and its distribution to clients is a perfectly rational move. “I can do what I want and therefore I go ahead.” Of course, not all Fidesz moves work out, and we will see whether the tobacco affair does or doesn’t hurt the party and Viktor Orbán personally. For the time being it has not. According to the latest polls Fidesz’s lead is assured. What helps the Orbán government survive these scandals are the limits the central power puts on information flow through its stranglehold on public television and radio and other media outlets.

According to Magyar, the mafia state is waging a national war of independence against its own citizens by taking away their wealth and freedom. It is eliminating the sanctity of private property. It is introducing the right to collect taxes before anyone else. It talks about Christianity but takes care of only its “adopted family”; it is cruel to those outside the charmed circle. It preaches about family but what it actually means is the family adopted by the organized “upperworld.” It heralds a society based on work when it receives its income from “protection money” taken from others. “The mafia state is a privatized form of a parasite polity which preaches work but ‘drinks’ dues. But it is no speculator. It goes for the sure thing.”

To be continued

Hungarian physicians will also own tobacconist shops

Can you imagine C. Everett Koop, surgeon general of the United States between 1982 and 1989, refusing to take a stand on the question of smoking? Something like that happened in Hungary the other day when István Éger, president of the Hungarian Medical Association, refused to take sides on the question of whether it is ethical for a physician to own a tobacconist shop or shops. He claimed that “the question is too controversial.” He explained that, after all, owning a tobacconist shop “doesn’t mean that the physician will be sitting at the cash register.”  So, according to the author of the article that appeared in Index, “the Hungarian Medical Association doesn’t consider it inappropriate for a physician to profit from selling a product that can have devastating effects on his patients’ health.” By way of explanation Éger said the following, which the reporter found incomprehensible. “A healthy lifestyle is an important part of everybody’s life and Hungary is a pioneer in limiting tobacco use. It would be best for everybody if there were no tobacconist shops at all, but since that is not the case, we don’t want to take sides.”

I will try to shed some light on what might be behind the very cautious, perhaps even cowardly stance of the Hungarian Medical Association. First of all, quite a few physicians and their relatives won twenty-year concessions for tobacconist shops. By now it is an open secret that local Fidesz politicians decided who would have the opportunity  to operate a National Tobacconist Shop. The decision was based primarily on whether the applicant was a Fidesz supporter. And the percentage of Fidesz supporters within the medical community is extraordinary high. I might point out that traditionally the medical profession has been attracted to the political right. One mustn’t forget that the idea of the notorious numerus clausus was hatched at the medical school of Budapest in 1920.

Some of the doctors who received permission to operate tobacconist shops are rather important political actors within the medical profession. Most likely they would have raised hell with Éger had he taken a stronger stand. As it is, Éger’s position at the moment is rather shaky.

And finally, my hunch is that far too many physicians still smoke. The huge debate about smoking that occurred in the U.S.  in the 1970s has not yet been settled in Hungary.

It is true that smoking has decreased somewhat among men in the last ten years or so, but the number of women smokers has risen by 1% every year. I might add here that getting reliable and detailed data on smoking in Hungary is rather difficult. One problem when it comes to comparing data, let’s say, between Hungary and the United States is that while the U.S. numbers refer to the population of 18 years and over, most Hungarian data I found talked about smokers age 15 and over! According to a fairly recent summary published by the National Public Health and Medical Officer Service (ÁNTSZ), since 2009 the number of male smokers under 65 decreased by 2% but among those over 65 it grew by 2%. In any case, the percentage of smokers in the 15+ population is very high. It is noteworthy that Hungary has the highest death rate due to lung cancer of any country in the world.

I tried to find data on the percentage of smokers among Hungarian physicians, to no avail. In fact, no such data exist according to The Tobacco Atlas. But here are a few European statistics that are available. In France 34.6% of physicians smoke,  in Poland 76.8%, in Ukraine 33.1%, in Germany 27.5%. The number in the United States is 3.3% and in Canada  6.0%. Let’s assume, extrapolating from these figures, that perhaps a third of all Hungarian doctors smoke. This figure would match the smoking habits of Americans who didn’t even finish high school. And we know that normally there is a high correlation between educational attainment and smoking.

Naturally I find it appalling that Hungarian doctors can have a handsome second income stream selling tobacco products. One might counter that Hungarian doctors are very poorly paid and therefore one mustn’t be very surprised that they grabbed at this business opportunity. But I found at least two obstetricians among the recipients. Obstetrics is the most lucrative medical specialty in Hungary. A childbirth, theoretically free, usually costs $400-500. This money goes straight into the doctor’s pocket, hidden from the prying eyes of the tax man. If estimates are correct, the tobacco shops (which seem to be expanding in the direction of convenience stores) will be equally profitable if not more so. And, after all, business is business.

The tobacco concessions and their aftermath: Further restrictions on transparency

The tobacco concessions scandal is growing. By now there is even a Google Earth map of the country with a guide to all those places where Fidesz politicians, their close relatives, or known sympathizers received permission to open tobacconist shops. That there were political grounds for these awards is not speculation. János Lázár and Antal Rogán explained to the local Fidesz politicians on what basis the concessions should be awarded. Apparently, anyone with either MSZP or Jobbik ties was out of luck.

When the government first announced the so-called competition for concessions, applicants had to draw up their business plans assuming a 4-5% profit margin. Not exactly a potential goldmine. Yet there were a great number of people who seemed to be interested in this business opportunity. Among them were several who applied for concessions for several stores. The suspicion is that the insiders most likely knew that the government would do something to sweeten the deal. And indeed, after the winners were announced an amendment was tacked on to the bill that suggests a profit margin of at least 10%. A day later Viktor Orbán talked about the desirability of a 12% profit margin. If the amendment is approved, the price of cigarettes will go up.

In one of my earlier posts I mentioned that between the two world wars these concessions were normally given to war widows. This was also the case after World War II. Naturally, even then one had to have “connections” in higher places. Endre Aczél, one of the best journalists of the older generation, recalls that his mother was lucky to be granted one of these concessions in 1948 but only because she was the childhood friend of Júlia Földi, better known as Mrs. László Rajk. As we know, Rajk, after being accused of all sorts of treasonous activities, was executed on October 15, 1949. In 1950 someone discovered that a Rajk-protege still had a tobacconist shop, and she was summarily booted out. But at least, as Aczél says in the article, his mother was a war widow. Fidesz rulers don’t even worry about the stated aims of the legislation. They feel they can do anything. And they are right. They can.

However, now that everybody is up in arms and the media will undoubtedly demand information on the details of the concessions, the government decided in a great hurry to amend a law on data privacy. Here is a quick report from Budapest:

The amendment prevents the FOA (Freedom of Information Act Provisions on Data Privacy) from applying to material that is reviewed by the state audit office and the government accountability office.  The reasoning behind the law is that government agencies are already overburdened and fulfilling data requests would be too strenuous. The amendment also states that if another law already regulates the right to information and to accessing, reviewing or copying the documents then the data privacy law does not apply. [The law seems to] exempt some requests from judicial review by the courts.  Furthermore, the law requests that entities that use public money to provide information to the public. However, the amendment now requires that people turn to the body with legal oversight over the entity with complaints if a data request is rejected. The problem here is that in some cases the legal oversight is practiced by courts specializing in business litigation, which are not equipped to judge matters pertaining to FOA.

For one reason or another this tobacco concession business must be very important to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán himself. But I wonder whether the party and the government might be paying too high a political price for material gain. The number of smokers in Hungary is among the highest in Europe. The statistics I checked mentioned 38% in the population as a whole. That is being translated by others as close to 50% of the adult population. The sharply reduced opportunities to buy cigarettes will inconvenience this large group of people who might not care much about democracy and the constitution but will be mighty upset when in the middle of the night they will not be able to buy a pack of cigarettes at the next gas station. And what about those 1,400 small hamlets where most likely there will be no permanent tobacconist shop? And let’s say that the price of cigarettes also goes up as a result of making the sale of tobacco products a state monopoly. All in all, I suspect that Fidesz will lose voters as a result of this move.

Although the Hungarian government inquired in Brussels about the reaction of the European Union to the concession scheme, I consider it possible that, after seeing that currently functioning tobacconists are being deprived of their livelihood, the lawyers of the Union might not find the concession scheme as innocent as it looked a couple of years ago.

It is also possible that the way Fidesz as a party got involved with awarding the concessions might be unconstitutional. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Máté Szabó, the ombudsman, turned to the Constitutional Court.

In addition, there are signs of possible cracks in Fidesz’s armor. At least one rebel raised his naive voice about the state of the party. He even went so far as to question the benefits of unlimited power. We will see what happens to the good veterinarian who is worried about his party. In the past he would have been dropped immediately, but today he may be left alone. Perhaps Viktor Orbán will decide that chastising him would only add oil to the fire.

Iván Bächer: “The educated tobacconist”

Ever since its appearance Saturday in Népszabadság Iván Bächer’s little piece entitled “The educated tobacconist” has been the talk of the country. Or at least of those who are critics of the Orbán government’s policies. Overnight it became the most read article on Népszabadság. Hundreds of people called attention to it on Facebook; they find haunting similarities between the events of 1938 and 2013. Sure, the victims then were citizens of Jewish extraction while today’s discrimination is based on whether one is a supporter of the present government or not. Fidesz is busily taking away the livelihood of the many in order to give it to the few. Just as it was unconstitutional then, it is unconstitutional now. But at least the Horthy regime didn’t claim that Hungary was a democracy.

The story the tobacconist reads to the new owner of his store was written by Ernő Szép (1884-1953), poet, novelist, playwright, and journalist. He survived the Holocaust, but in his remaining years lived in dire poverty. You can read more about him here.

Iván Bächer (1957-) is a prolific writer. He regularly publishes political commentaries in the weekend edition of Népszabadság

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-Are you the tobacconist here?

-Yes, I …. used to be.

-Well, yes. And I will be.

-What do you mean?

-I won the concession for this tobacconist shop.


-Thanks, but only from July ….

-I know.

-In connection with this I have a question.

-What can I do for you?

-How long have you been doing this?

-I have been here for twenty-four years. I took over the shop from my father. And he opened the shop after he returned from service in a labor battalion.

-Oh, so he was a soldier.

-Well, not quite. In any case I was born into this business.

-Excellent. I have a suggestion.

-I am listening.

-Could you teach me a little about this business? During May and June I would sit here and would observe. I would pay you for it. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would learn the trade and you could more easily start a new life.

-I understand.

-Is it okay?

-Yes, okay, but only on one condition.


-I would like to read you a short piece of writing and you would agree to listen to it.

-Writing? Everything has been decided already. Look ….

-No, no, not that kind of writing. Fiction. A little feuilleton.

-Feuilleton? What’s that?

-Well, it’s like a short story but simpler. This one was written by Ernő Szép. Fifty years ago.

-Such a long time ago?

-It wasn’t that long ago. So, sit down, in the back you can find a stool.

-A stool? Don’t you have something more comfortable?


-Well, there will be.

-Of course, there will be but until then sit down and listen. I was preparing for your visit because I was waiting for you. So, here it is.

“The wife of an officer of high rank is entitled to be called  ‘milady.’ She is good looking and dresses well. She purchases her hats from the store of Margit Roth that was the most elegant millinery shop on Váci Street in Pest. One nice day in 1938 she visited Margit Roth, who told me the story herself. First, she tried on a few hats just out of habit, but then she sat down and lit a cigarette and asked Margit Roth to join her at the small table covered with lace and decorated with a vase.

Please sit down for a while, my dear Margit. I would like to discuss something with you. Most likely you haven’t heard it yet because it is still not official that they will take stores away from the Jews. My dear Margit, believe me that I’m very sorry that I have to give you such bad news. When? It is a question of a month or two, my dear. They just began to prepare the bill in the Ministry of the Interior. It’s too bad that you are also Jewish or rather of Jewish origin but in this case being a convert means nothing. So, my dear, they will take away your beautiful shop too. And since this is the situation, which I truly regret because you know what a good friend I was to you, I immediately thought that I would put in a claim for your store. We have four children and my husband unfortunately gambled away his inheritance years ago when he was still a captain. So for me this millinery shop will be a gift from God.

And now I come to the point. My dear Margit, I came to you for a small favor. Please spend some time with me. Let’s say every morning from ten to eleven. That the millinery shop will be mine is certain. My husband already took the necessary steps. And it will be good for you too that you spend some time with me. You will be pleased that I will inherit your store and not some stranger. I will never forget my beloved Margit. My dearest, is it all settled? I think I will start learning the trade already tomorrow. At 9:30? Of course, I can come. How kind of you. Sorry, I have to run to the hairdresser, kisses my dear, and see you tomorrow. Bye.”

-Ahem. Interesting. I don’t know why you read that story to me. After all, you are not a milliner.  In any case, you are an educated person.

-I’m not educated, but I read now and then.

-No, you are an educated person. But you will not get far with that here. Well, it doesn’t matter. May I come tomorrow? Let’s say at 9:30 … Half past nine will be fine for me too.

-Don’t mention it. I will be expecting you.

-See you tomorrow.

-See you.