Zurich

Another look at the Hungarian-Swiss connection

Ever since yesterday I have been mulling over the mysterious Swiss visits of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and János Lázár, his chief of staff. As I mentioned yesterday, Demokratikus Koalíció suspects that Viktor Orbán’s recent trip to Switzerland and his stopover in Zurich between Lausanne and Budapest had something to do with banking, perhaps of a private nature. However, we know for sure, thanks to the information released by the prime minister’s office, that János Lázár’s trip to Switzerland at the end of March 2013 was undertaken in order “to have talks with a German citizen” and that the topic of the conversation was “Hungarian-German and Hungarian-Russian relations.” This led me to another angle: the large presence of Gazprom in Switzerland.

Just in Zug, a tax haven south of Zurich, three Gazprom companies have their headquarters, or to be more precise it is in Zug that they are incorporated: Gazprom Marketing & Trading AG at 19 Dammstrasse, the Nord Stream AG at 18 Industriestrasse, and the joint Russian-Ukrainian RosUkrEnergo AG at 7 Bahnhofstrasse. There are hundreds of Gazprom subsidiaries, and it is instructive to take a look at them collected in one place. I went to a few of their official websites. Gazprom Marketing & Trading AG opened for business in February 2012 “aiming to support Gazprom’s international development strategy.” They “trade natural gas, power, liquefied natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, clean energy and carbon, and oil.” The Gazprom subsidiary Nord Stream AG is an international consortium of five major companies.

And let’s not forget about the Zurich based Gazprom Group, which has several subsidiaries, of which “the most spectacular company is Gazprom Switzerland AG.” The company is situated in the heart of Zurich’s financial district and deals in natural gas from Central Asia. Gazprom Switzerland is a wholly owned subsidiary of Gazprom Germany (Gazprom Germania), which is itself a wholly owned subsidiary of Gazprom Export, Russia. According to TagesAnzeiger of Zurich, this company has about two dozen employees yet in 2012 it generated sales of CHF 7.3 billion and a profit of 76.1 million.

Here we arrive at an intriguing piece of information. The chairman of Gazprom Switzerland is Matthias Warnig, formerly head of the Russian division of Germany’s Dresdner Bank AG, who in his earlier life in the German Democratic Republic worked for the Stasi. Back in 2005 The Wall Street Journal found documents that proved that as a major in the East German intelligence service he developed a close friendship with Vladimir Putin during the time that he worked in East Germany as a KGB agent. Apparently Warnig helped him recruit spies in the West. Warnig is not just the chairman of Gazprom Switzerland but also a director of Nord Stream with headquarters in Zug.

Old friends from Stasi and KGB days: Vladimir Putin and Matthias Wawnig Source www.powerpolitics.ro

Old friends from Stasi and KGB days: Vladimir Putin and Matthias Warnig
Source http://www.powerpolitics.ro

Warnig is a very powerful man indeed, but the Ukrainian crisis is having a negative effect on his network. He is a member of the board of directors of several Russian banks, including the Bank of Rossiya and VTB Bank, whose assets have been frozen by the United States. Warnig is also a board member of the energy company Rosneft and of Rusal, an aluminium producer. Both are the largest companies in their field in the world. An excellent summary of the history of Warnig’s friendship with Putin can be found in The Guardian (August 13, 2014).

Is it possible that János Lázár talked with Warnig, the “German citizen”? Warnig would have had the clout to deal not only with energy supplies but also with inter-country friendship. It’s possible that Lázár solicited Warnig’s assistance in reaching out to Putin about the future of Russian-Hungarian relations and Paks. The reference to “Hungarian-Russian relations” points in this direction.

The August 2014 trip of Orbán and Lázár in the company of their wives might have had something to do with Gazprom affairs. Someone spotted them on a flight to Zurich on Thursday, August 21. According to Orbán, they spent Thursday night with friends in Germany, but even if this was the case, there was a whole Friday during which the two men could have conducted business with Gazprom officials. Zurich, as we have learned, is the perfect place for such transactions.

Viktor Orbán’s most recent trip to Switzerland followed a different pattern. No serious business can be conducted in a train station during a quick stopover, especially not on such serious matters as Russian-Hungarian relations or energy supplies by Gazprom. Demokratikus Koalíció might be on the right track: it’s possible that Orbán was conducting a different kind of business, very possibly of a private nature.

All this is thoroughly speculative. Perhaps someone with better access to Hungarian and Russian energy providers or government “travel planners” will ferret out the truth.

Mysterious trips of Viktor Orbán and János Lázár to Switzerland

Today I will have to pull up my socks if I want to give even a semi-coherent summary of the growing scandal surrounding a company called MET Holding A.G. with headquarters in Switzerland. The holding company, established only a couple of years ago, is partially owned by MOL (40%) and partially by Hungarian individuals–people formerly employed by MOL and businessmen with close ties to Viktor Orbán.

First of all, it’s hard to decipher the company’s structure which is, as is often the case with enterprises like MET Holding, extremely complicated. Second, since it is likely that MET Holding, in addition to its regular activities, also serves as a money laundering operation for Fidesz as well as Viktor Orbán and his friends, those involved do everything in their power to conceal the company’s business activities, ownership, financials, and so on.

I should go back a few years to February 2010, only a month before the national election and the birth of the two-thirds majority, when the U.S. Embassy in Budapest compiled a report entitled “Allegations of political corruption surround unbundling law.” From the lengthy report we learn that “it is an open secret in Hungary that MVM and MOL provide significant funding to the two main political parties, with MVM rumored to favor the Socialists and MOL favoring Fidesz.”

MET Group predated this U.S. report. According to its promotional material, it began operating in 2007 “in the natural gas retail and wholesale sector benefiting from the market liberalization starting in 2004.” Currently it is active in wholesale gas trading in the European market as well as in the retail sale of natural gas to industrial customers in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Croatia. Five years later, in 2012 MET Holding was established with the objective of being “a central holding organization to manage and support all the subsidiaries of MET Group.” (If you want to know why MET Holding might have been layered on top of MET Group, I suggest you take a look at “How a Holding Company Works.”)

Shortly after the election in 2010 Orbán promised cheaper energy to consumers. In order to lower prices the state-owned MVM (Magyar Villamossági Művek) was allowed to dip into its gas reserves which it could then replenish with cheaper gas from the open market. MVM could have bought the necessary gas directly from Austria, but instead it purchased gas through MET. According to the figures that are available about the transaction, MVM gained little while MET made about 50 billion forints on the deal.

The owners of MET, in addition to MOL, are István Garancsi, a personal friend of Viktor Orbán and owner of Orbán’s favorite football team, Videoton, and György Nagy, one of the founders of Wallis Asset Management Co., a private equity/venture capital firm. Both men have close ties to Zsolt Hernádi, the beleagured CEO of MOL who is accused of bribery in Croatia, and to Sándor Csányi, his deputy and the CEO of OTP, Hungary’s largest bank. Heading MET Holding is Benjamin Lakatos. He expects sales this year to total some 3.8 billion euros.

Most likely nobody would have cared about this Hungarian company with headquarters in Zug, Switzerland, if Hungary’s prime minister hadn’t been so involved in negotiations with Putin as well as with Russian energy companies, in particular Gazprom and Rossatom, the Russian company that specializes in building nuclear power plants. Rossatom was chosen to construct two extra reactors at the Paks power plant. Given the widespread concern over Viktor Orbán’s dealings with the Russian autocrat, Swiss journalists started probing into this mysterious MET. A  well researched article appeared on November 3 in TagesAnzeiger, which was later reprinted in Basler Zeitung. According to the Swiss paper, MET Power, MET Marketing, MET International, and MET Holding all share the same Zug address. Benjamin Lakatos is the CEO of all of them. Zug, by the way, is about 20 km south of Zurich.

I understand that the company’s management is made up of former MOL employees who know the energy business inside out but who found greater opportunities outside of MOL. Lakatos is very proud of his achievement of building MET Holding in two years from practically nothing to a sizable player in the energy business, though one cannot help but be suspicious of a such a sudden rise in fortune. Moreover, given the cozy relationship in the past between MOL and Fidesz, one wonders what role MET may play in the possibly continued reliance of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán on MOL as a source of illicit money. With István Garancsi’s name in the cast of characters, one becomes doubly suspicious since he is often portrayed in the Hungarian press as Orbán’s front man.

And now let’s move to more recent events that might have something to do with MET Holding. I’m patching the story together from several sources. You may recall that the editor-in-chief of Origo, an online news portal, was dismissed because one of the reporters of the internet site was too curious about a couple of very expensive trips János Lázár, the most important member of the Orbán government after the prime minister, made to Great Britain and Switzerland. Lázár for a long time resisted revealing any details of these trips but eventually after a court order the prime minister’s office released some information. Among the bits and pieces of information that Origo received, there was one item that might be relevant. Origo was informed that János Lázár during his Swiss trip “held conversations with a German citizen about German-Hungarian and Russian-Hungarian relations.”

More than a year later there was another trip to Switzerland. This time it was a private affair. Viktor Orbán and his wife and János Lázár and his wife spent a weekend in Zurich. First they stopped in Germany to visit a “family friend” and then off they went to Zurich, allegedly to attend a concert given by a children’s choir from the Szekler areas of Romania. Quite a lame excuse for traveling to Zurich because earlier this same group gave three concerts in the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest. There was also a side trip to visit a friend in Germany. Is he perhaps the same man Lázár held talks with in March 2012?

About a week ago Viktor Orbán made another trip to Switzerland. This time the occasion was a family visit (including his wife and their two youngest daughters) with Rachel, who is enrolled in a fancy, expensive hotel management course in Lausanne. Since, again, this was a private visit, the prime minister’s office refused to release any information about the trip. However, thanks to an eagle-eyed person, Orbán was spotted at the  Zurich railroad station having a beer with an unidentified man. Since the Orbáns decided to travel back to Hungary by train, a stopover in Zurich was unavoidable since there is no direct train from Geneva, a forty-minute train ride from Lausanne. But why did he choose to go by train from Lausanne all the way to Budapest, a trip that takes altogether 16 hours and 22 minutes? He said that wanted to spend more time with his children. Well, I could imagine many more pleasant ways of spending time with my family than sitting in a second-class train compartment. Suspicious Hungarians already have their own theory: for one reason or other, Orbán chose to travel by train because there is no inspection of either persons or luggage on trains. I find that difficult to believe. I hope that we are not at a point that the country’s prime minister is carrying millions of euros in his suitcase.

Although one can probably discard such speculation, one should take more seriously the information received by the Demokratikus Koalíció that while in Zurich Orbán met representatives of Credit Suisse and Pictet Bank. Pictet is a private bank which in 2012 was the target of a U.S. probe into the use of foreign banks by wealthy Americans seeking to avoid paying taxes. Pictet specializes in “wealth management.” As for Credit Suisse, which is one of the most powerful banks in the world, it also had its problems with the law. In July 2014 Credit Suisse reported a loss of $779 million because of the settlement of a tax evasion case in the United States. Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for DK, emphasized that they are not accusing Orbán of anything; they simply want to know whether he met with representatives of these two banks as the prime minister of Hungary or as a private individual.

All in all, the picture that emerges from the few pieces of information we have is not pretty. Orbán has enough trouble as it is. Tonight another 10,000 people demanded Ildikó Vida’s resignation–and his as well.