transparency

Greed might be the undoing of Viktor Orbán and his regime

Today I’m going to look at two corruption cases that might have serious consequences for the Fidesz empire in Hungary. The first is the “seizure” of the profitable retail tobacco market and its redistribution among friends and families of Fidesz politicians. It seems that the government may have gone too far here; there are signs of internal party opposition. We know only about small fry at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that dissatisfaction isn’t present in the highest circles of the Fidesz leadership.

The other scandal is not new at all. For years Közgép, a company owned by Lajos Simicska, a childhood friend of Viktor Orbán, has won practically all government projects financed by European Union subsidies. But it came to light only now that Brussels suspended payments on two very important “operative programs,” one dealing with the environment and energy and the other with transportation.

First, the response of  two party faithfuls to the tobacco shop scandal. On April 26 HVG received a letter from a Fidesz city council member in which he said that in his town the Fidesz members of the council decided who would get the tobacco concessions. At that point the informer didn’t want to reveal his identity, but two days later he was ready to give an interview, name and all. It is a long interview from which I will quote the key sentences.

Ákos Hadházy is a veterinarian in Szekszárd, the county seat of Tolna. He considers himself to be a conservative, but “this tobacconist shop-affair broke something in [him].” The Fidesz members of the council looked at all the applicants and suggested who should get favorable treatment.” Mostly friends and relatives. Hadházy struggled with his conscience. He felt that the way the selection was made was wrong, but at the same time he realized that “many would consider revealing his doubts a betrayal” of his party. Finally he decided that although “perhaps in the short run the party might lose a few percentage points, in the long run these revelations might actually be good for this party.”

In his opinion “the 2010 landslide victory was a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time such a large victory is harmful for a party.” A well functioning opposition is “a basic necessity…. If there is no opposition, sooner or later [the party leadership] will be unable to control [its] own decisions. There will be no reaction when [they] make wrong decisions.” Unfortunately this is what happened in Fidesz’s case.

Hadházy even went further and announced that the problem is that there is no opposition within the party either. The members of parliament are no more than voting machines because after 2014 there will be fewer seats available and naturally everybody would like to keep his job. “One can’t expect negative opinions from them…. If there are no debates within a party … then there are only two possibilities: either [the party] does something fantastically well or something is not right.” Most often decisions are unanimous. Ordinary party members are not consulted. Maybe once a year there is a meeting of the local party members, but that’s all.

corruption2Fidesz is indeed a very disciplined party, but he thinks they “went too far.” Such discipline was fine when Fidesz was in opposition. Then “the para-military structure was acceptable, but when in power the party should have moved in a more democratic direction.” Hadházy believes–I think wrongly–that Fidesz has fantastic “intellectual capital” but doesn’t try to use this capacity and doesn’t listen to them. “This in the long run is a suicidal strategy because the members of the intelligentsia  are the ones who can influence public opinion.”

As far as he is concerned there are two possibilities: the party will not take kindly to his going public and then his political career will be over. If, on the other hand, he is spared he “will be very glad to know that Fidesz is full of real democrats, even if this is not always evident given how decisions are made now.”

The other rebel is András Stumpf of the pro-government Heti Válasz.  Don’t think that András Stumpf is a “soft” Fidesz supporter. He is no Bálint Ablonczy, another reporter for the same weekly, who is a moderate right-winger. Stumpf is pretty hard-core. He aggressively defends the government at every opportunity–for instance, when he appears on ATV’s Start. Even in this critical article he expresses his belief that Sándor Laborc of the Office of National Security hired Tamás Portik to spy on the opposition, meaning Fidesz. Yet it seems that the tobacconist concessions and the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act were too much for him. Not even he believes that the quickly amended piece of legislation has nothing to do with the concessions and the government’s attempt to hide the truth from the public. In Stumpf’s opinion, the amendment is most likely unconstitutional and what the government is doing is “frightening.” If they have nothing to hide, make the documents public.

Moving on to the withheld EU payments, a new internet website, 444.hu, published an article entitled “Secret war between Budapest and Brussels” on April 30. According to the article, last summer the European Union suspended payment for cohesion fund projects. The apparent reason was that Brussels discovered that there is discrimination against foreign engineers. Only engineers who belong to the Hungarian Society of Engineers can be hired.

With due respect to the journalist of 444.hu, I can’t believe that this is the real reason for the suspension of billions of euros. Instead, I recall that about a year ago Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció turned to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) to call attention to the fact that Közgép, Simicska’s company, had received an incredible number of government contracts, all financed by the European Union. The suspicion is that Közgép through Lajos Simicska is actually owned by Fidesz. Or at least a substantial percentage of  its profits ends up in party coffers. I remember that sometime during the summer of 2012 OLAF’s investigators took possession of Közgép’s computers. I suspect that the suspension of funds has more to do with Fidesz government corruption than with discrimination against foreign engineers.

By now opposition politicians are openly accusing Közgép of being a front for Fidesz. Gábor Scheiring (PM) said that “the essence of Lajos Simicska’s firm … is financing Fidesz from its profits.” Gyurcsány considers “Lajos Simicska  the most notorious and most influential person in Fidesz and the business establishment built around it.” László Varju, the party director of DK, in one of his press conferences talked about the need to investigate the possible “role of [Közgép] in the financing of the government party.” If it could be proven that Közgép and Simicska are just a front for Fidesz, Orbán might find himself and his party a lot poorer.

My visit to the Center for European Studies, University of Florida, Gainesville

You may have noticed that I wasn’t around in the last couple of days. Alice Freifeld, director of  the University of Florida’s Center for European Studies, invited me to deliver the keynote address at a conference on “The Right to Know: Privacy vs. Transparency in the U.S. and the EU” yesterday.

bread and breakfast

The hallway of Magnolia Plantation where some of us were put up while staying at the University of Florida in Gainesville

Professors of law, political science, history, and journalism collaborated in a crowded but thoroughly enjoyable program. We started at 8:30 in the morning and didn’t finish until about 5 p.m., with a short break for lunch. I learned a lot from the panelists.

My hour-long talk was scheduled for 11:45, and I was pleased to see that a rather sizable crowd had gathered to hear what I had to say. It turned out that some of them are regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum.

The University of Florida has an international student body and faculty. I was picked up at the airport by a recent Ph.D. originally from Romania, Magda Giurcanu. Edit Nagy, a lecturer in the Hungarian language program, is also a recent Ph.D. from the University of Florida. She drove me to Alice Freifeld’s house for dinner. One of her students is a young American who took me to the airport this morning. She has been studying Hungarian for the last three years. She plans to write her Ph.D. dissertation on the status of sports stars during the Rákosi and Kádár regimes. A good topic. After all, these people had all sorts of  benefits (material and otherwise) as opposed to ordinary Hungarians.

Alice Freifeld’s major academic interest is Hungarian history. I must say she speaks Hungarian very well. In fact, she spent a semester at the Eötvös Lóránd University (ELTE) in 1972. Her book on Nationalism and the Crowd in Liberal Hungary, 1848-1914 (2000) received the Barbara Jelavich and the Hungarian Studies Association and Hungarian Chair of Indiana University book awards. But Professor Freifeld was not the only one who knew Hungarian among the panelists. In fact, we were somewhat overrepresented. Jason Wittenberg, associate professor of political science at Berkeley, also knows Hungarian. One of the panelists was Gábor Halmai, professor of law at ELTE’s Law School who at the moment is a visiting research scholar at Princeton University. Gábor and I knew about each other but had never met in person.

Our hosts were really fantastic. We were put up in beautifully refurbished Victorian houses that now serve as bed and breakfasts. Breakfast was fine, but even better was the unadvertised “cocktail hour” wine and hors d’oeuvres. Yesterday three of us who stayed at the Magnolia Plantation had a hilariously good time exchanging notes about each other’s experiences in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Including the usual question to me about “and how did you escape?”

Now, I just have to catch up with news on Hungary.