Hungarian Money for Slovak South
Millions in the name of possible future votes
Hungarian government invests billions of forints each year into Hungarian communities in neighbouring countries. ICJK has had access to the documents that shows the sole agency of Hungarian government Gabor Bethlen Fund apporved more than 144 millions of euros to entities in Slovakia since 2011. Money was sent to cultural organizations, Reformed Christian Church, for the reconstructions of schools and kindergartens, media, but Budapest supported also important symbols – Slovak Hungarian football club “Ferencváros of Felvidék” FC DAC Dunajská Streda and its football academy. And thousands of euros ended up on the accounts of organizations connected to the Slovak Hungarian politicians.
This photo from 2016 of the VIP sector of the newly opened DAC Football Arena, partially (less than 10%) financed by Hungarian oil refinery MOL, in Dunajska Streda, Slovakia, is one of the best captures of Slovak Hungarian community and its ties with Budapest. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, sitting next to his friend influential figure in Slovak Hungarian community, owner of DAC and director of Slovnaft/MOL refinery Oszkár Világi, and around them – Zsolt Hernádi tycoon connected to Fidesz, Gyula Bárdos (head of Csemadok, SMK politician), József Menyhárt (chairman of SMK party), Árpád Érsék, former Minister of transport (Most-Híd party), further away from Orbán and Világi is Béla Bugár, veteran Slovak Hungarian politician (former chairman of Most-Híd). Behind Orbán two important Slovak oligarchs connected to the Smer-SD party Ivan Kmotrík, owner of Slovan football club and Vladimír Poor, then owner of Trnava Football club.
But, the state of Slovak Hungarian community, its ties to Budapest and money flowing from Hungarian government to Slovak entities is much more complex.
In Slovakia, about 450,000 people belong to the Hungarian minority (Census 2011), which is more than 8 percent of the population. It is the second largest Hungarian community outside Hungary. Hungarians living in Slovakia live mainly in the south of the country in the regions along the border with Hungary.
After the split of Czechoslovakia and the establishment of an independent Slovak Republic, conflicts with Hungary often broke out in the domestic as well as in the international field. Governments have repeatedly drawn up the so-called “Hungarian-card”, mostly pursuing their political intentions. The last time in 2010, after the approval of the Act on Hungarian Citizenship. Slovak government responded with a ban on dual citizenship, which is still applicable today. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians living in Slovakia had to decide if they wanted to be cast the vote in the Hungarian elections, as the government of Viktor Orbán wanted, or they would drop the citizenship of the Slovak Republic.
Recently government of prime minister Igor Matovič proposed an ammendment to the law on dual citizenship, but it will not allow Slovak Hungarians to take part in Hungarian elections. New law would allow dual citizenship only for those who have been residing in the second country longer than five years.
Former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico (on the left) and Viktor Orbán. Source: SME/Somogyi
Relations between the two countries have calmed down recently. Paradoxically, in the recent period, during the governments of Robert Fico and Petr Pellegrini (Smer-SD), the chairman of the coalition nationalist Slovak National Party, Andrej Danko, was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest admirers. Despite the fact that the party, primarily focused on the Hungarian minority Most-Híd of Béla Bugár, also sat in the government with them.
Understanding between the countries and the money from foundations and organizations of the Hungarian government sending millions of euros to Hungarians living in neighboring countries every year helps Viktor Orbán implement his plan for a virtual great Hungary.
Hungarian public money in Slovakia is not only distributed by the Gábor Bethlen Foundation (BGA), but it is one of the largest supporters of Slovak Hungarians. Based on data which we have gained access to within the international project of investigative journalists, since 2011, when the fund has been established, a total of about 144 million euros have been destined to Slovakia. The record years were 2016, 2018 and 2020, when Slovak entities were granted more than 25 million euros. Subsidies are designated for many areas – culture, education, Hungarian minority media, football clubs, the church, but also to businesses and companies.
The criteria of the project evaluation is not clear, the amount of financial support is often adjusted retrospectively. However, based on publicly available documents, we do not know what was the reason for the approval or change in the amount. The Office of Prime Minister Orbán decides directly on the largest grants.
“We don’t see the path of the money, we don’t see how it was actually used. The whole system is so non-transparent that we can only assume how the subsidies were used, ”says Péter Hunčík, a psychiatrist and writer who collaborated in the Institute for Minority Research on analyzes of the development of southern Slovakia.
Politologist and former diplomat in Slovakia Kálmán Petőcz says that money flows from Budapest also thanks to the behavior of the Slovak governments: “The fact that Hungarian parties and organizations have been complaining about this for a long time, I have not yet seen a serious and comprehensive study on this issue, only a partial one. There are distortions in the distribution of national subsidies and discrimination,” he says, noting that in the case of governments in which the Slovak-Hungarian parties were represented, on the contrary, they sought positive discrimination, which may have caused Slovaks to feel neglected.
While Matica slovenská (Slovak national institution) is generously supported with public money, the Hungarian cultural organization Csemadok will not receive money, for example, for the operation of its premises such as heating, electricity, water, as former MEP and vice-president of the Hungarian Community Party Edit Bauer warns. According to her, the situation of the Reformed Christian Church in Slovakia is similar, although it owns a number of churches, it is not as rich as the Catholic Church and also needs help. “If someone offers you help in these conditions, there would probably be no one who would refuse it,” says Bauer about the subsidies from Budapest.
When the law on the support of the least developed districts was created in 2015, about half of the identified districts were in the south of Slovakia, points out the Mayor of Fiľakovo and the Deputy Chairman of Most-Híd Attila Agócs. “The locals are still asking why the investors go mainly to western Slovakia and not to our area,” says Agócs. Agócs sees support from Hungarian government as natural, but according to him, he must not politicize. “In recent years, we have seen that the government Fidesz declared the Party of Hungarian Community (SMK) as its strategic partner and distributed subsidies accordingly,” says Agócs.
“Our own mayors, criticized us for the fact that the mayors of the Party of Hungarian Community (SMK) receive both subsidies from the Slovak state and subsidies from the Orbán government, and our nominees did not receive anything from the Orbán government. And I could say, how many cultural houses have been restored, how many schools and so on. To sum up, in our four years we have given four times more money than the previous government of Robert Fico, ” says Béla Bugár, a Hungarian minority politician and former chairman of Most-Híd.
“The Hungarian government subsidizes practically the entire Carpathian Basin and this is not a new phenomenon. As early as the 1990s, we could read about cases where people carried money from Hungary across borders in plastic bags. The Hungarian constitution contains the sentence that the Hungarian state, as the mother country, is obliged to support the culture of Hungarians in the surrounding states. From this point of view, these subsidies are not a problem, specifically if it is really for the support of culture. The problem is that there has always been a very strict selection of who to send the money from Hungary to, ” adds Péter Hunčík.
However, it is not easy at all to compare the finances that come from the Slovak state and from Hungary, because it would be comparing the incomparable. If we do not take the ordinary services of the state and local governments into account, the Slovak equivalent of the Gábor Bethlen Fund can be considered Slovak Fund for the Support of the Culture of National Minorities. If we were to compare the amounts that these funds have distributed in recent years, we would not get any closer to which of the states “invests” more in the Hungarian community.
After the parliamentary elections in February 2020, for the first time in 25 years, the Hungarian minority in Slovakia was left without parliamentary representation.
Political parties and movements representing the Hungarian minority in Slovakia have been an integral part of Slovak politics for many years. If Slovakia had a right-wing government, the Hungarian parties were certainly part of it. During the Prime minister Mikuláš Dzurinda governments, it was the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (now the Party of the Hungarian Community – SMK) and in the government of Iveta Radičová the party MOST-HÍD.
A recurring motive for the public debate is that Hungarian politicians have always stood on the side of good – democracy, pro-European values - fought against the authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar in the past and later against the governments of the Smer. In 2016, however, the Most-Híd party, led by Béla Bugár, focused on both Hungarian and Slovak voters, joined the third government of Robert Fico under the leadership of Smer-SD. Despite the assassination of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and massive anti-government protests, it was part of it until the end of the four-year term. In the subsequent elections, the Hungarian minority was no longer represented in parliament.
Three coalition leaders signed the new coalition agreement in 2016.
Source: Facebook/ SMER-SD
The list of Most-Híd candidates included other small entities, and the Hungarian Community Co-operation (Magyar Közösségi Összefogás) also take part in the election, uniting three parties – the traditional partner of Fidesz in Slovakia – the Hungarian Community Party (SMK) and smaller entities the Hungarian Forum and party Cooperation. Hungarian politicians have always been able to count on having at least ten percent of the electorate, with five percent being enough to enter the parliament. However, in the 2020 elections, the Hungarian parties together had only about six percent of the vote.
By analyzing the documents of the BGA Foundation, we were able to find out that many Slovak-Hungarian politicians, or the organizations to which they are connected, are recipients of subsidies from the Hungarian government. Despite the fact that in 2016, it turned out that hundreds of thousands of euros thus obtained were used for a political campaign in violation of the Slovak law. The case is still being investigated by the police, and they did not reply to our questions on the situation in the investigation of the case.
The Slovak Hungarian daily, Új Szó, pointed out at the time that the inconspicuous civic association Főnix had received almost one million euros from Hungary. In the pre-election year 2015, it received 64,000 euros from the Gábor Bethlen Foundation (BGA), and in January 2016, two months before the Slovak parliamentary elections, the Hungarian government office sent another 645,000 euros to the association. It would not be strange if several employees of the Hungarian Community Party (SMK) did not confirm, under the guarantee of anonymity, that Főnix paid the party’s election activities and payments to some of its members. Former chairman of SMK and its current vice-chairman József Berényi also found himself on the payroll of Főnix. The Főnix association, with hundreds of thousands of subsidies, did not even have a website and did not inform about its activities.
József Berényi (on the left) with Viktor Orbán. Source: Facebook/ Berényi József
Slovak laws prohibit the financing of political parties from abroad, and several analysts have described the model as circumventing the law. However, it turns out that Budapest continues in indirect financing of politicians of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia.
On the List of institutions of national importance there are organizations, some of which are led by active Slovak-Hungarian politicians. Such as the civic association Pro Civis, whose chairman is a member of the SMK presidency, Péter Őry or the director of the Hungarian College in Bratislava, Szabolcs Mózes, chairman of the Cooperation party.
By studying the BGA documents, we were able to find out that generous subsidies are also used by organizations associated with the names of several other politicians. These are, for example:
Money from Hungary is used by organizations for their operations. At the same time, however, they are a background for representatives of the SMK and the Co-operation political parties. According to László Gubík, President of the Alliance for Common Goals (SZAKC), “the cultural and social life of Hungarians in Slovakia would be much poorer without Hungarian subsidies.” According to Gubík, the Hungarian government must be held accountable for Hungarians living in neighboring countries and around the world. “It’s in the Hungarian constitution and it’s right,” he added.
Csemadok is the largest cultural and educational organization of the Hungarians in Slovakia and according to its statute, it is not directly involved in politics. However, the association is headed by long-term SMK politician Gyula Bárdos and Csemadok also took part in political events: for example in the SMK campaign in 2016. In 2019, Csemadok again collected signatures for the establishment of the Co-operation movement. Gyula Bárdos did not answer our questions.
SZAKC Chairman László Gubík became a well-known face in politics after his Slovak citizenship was revoked after the ban on dual citizenship, as he accepted Hungarian citizenship. Gubík, who was also a candidate of Fidesz in the elections to the European Parliament in 2014, is the organizer of the camp in Martovce, in which politicians of the SMK and Fidesz regularly participated and discussed. “It is one of the most important social-entertainment and cultural events of Hungarians living in Slovakia, so it goes without saying that Hungarian politicians will also take part in it,” says Gubík.
He became the chairman of the SZAKC organization (Szövetség a Közös Célokért – Alliance for Common Goals,) in 2020. The organization unites educational, youth, and cultural organizations in Slovakia. SZAKC is the publisher of the news portal Felvidék.ma, also supported through money from the BGA.
Another politician, Péter Őry, a former chairman of the SMK party council, is the chairman of Pro Civis. This civic association acts as a think tank for local government policy. A total of almost 500 million HUF has been granted to the organization, which is also on the list of institutions of national importance, since 2012. However, Őry claims that the money from the Gábor Bethlen Foundation (BGA) for Pro Civis did not go to political activities, but to the functioning of the organization, publishing a magazine, analysis, and helping local governments. “Everything is in accordance with the law, our activity is open, based on data, anyone can see it on the Internet,” he says.
The company of the current chairman of the SMK, Krisztián Forró, also received money through the BGA. ABAmet s.r.o. received a grant of € 6,786. Forró claims that the amount represented less than 1% of the company’s turnover. “Our company asked for it in 2019, when the question that I would run for the position of chairman of the SMK party was not yet on the table at all.” Forró became party chairman in July 2020. “Since I was party chairman, our company has not applied for a grant,” he added.
Örs Orosz. Source: Facebook/ Orosz Örs
The camp in Gombasek is for Hungarians as the music festival Pohoda for Slovaks (or Sziget in Budapest). From a small and familiar event (then organized in Krásnohorské Podhradie), organized by a handful of students and activists, the festival has grown over the past decade to a huge, week long summer festival in Gombasek valley with the stars of the Hungarian music scene, with its own and more developed infrastructure. More than a hundred people and partner institutions are now involved in organizing the event. And what do the participants say about it?
Gombasek camp in 2019. Source: Facebook/ Gombaszög
“I heard a lot of stories from the camp, so I decided that I would like to be a part of it. It was worth coming, because a large community will always be created here. Everyone takes care of each other. It is very nice. The program is also very good. “
“Young Hungarians are coming here, and I think it’s very important that we stick together.”
“This place has a very good atmosphere and energy. Ever since we came, I’ve been looking for what makes it so magical. ”
However, the growth and development of the camp took its toll. The Gombasek camp has always been an intellectual forum for debates about the world or the state of the Hungarian community in Slovakia. Years ago, the organizers paid attention to neutrality, and were not afraid that one or the other political party of the Slovak Hungarians would call them biased because they did not give them above standard. But everything has changed.
The SINE METU association is behind the organization of the camp. Its chairman is Örs Orosz, vice-chairman of the minority political party Cooperation. At the turn of 2019 and 2020, he deposited in an account of another political party, for which he ran in the elections three installments of 25,000 euros marked as a loan. “We have agreed not to go in the form of a loan from a bank or by looking for sponsors, but we will transparently support the campaign with our own loans,” he says today.
The Hungarian government approved the support of more than 250 million forints for SINE METU for the organization of the camp and the purchase of land in the Gombasek Valley. And Hungarian government politicians and their partners from the SMK began to participate in the camp and discussions. They use it to present their agenda and the ideas of Viktor Orbán. However, according to the chairman of SINE METU, SMK politicians have always been invited to debate with politicians from Most-Híd – even in previous years and “even after the parliamentary elections in 2020, three Hungarian parties negotiated under our direction, ”he adds.
According to the decision of the BGA, SINE METU receives money from Budapest most often for the support, development and organization of the camp. However, there is no publicly available document on the exact use of money. Politician and chairman of the association in one person, Örs Orosz, claims that since 2019, they have been paying special attention to ensuring that the programs are 100% funded by the Slovak Kultminor grant in order to avoid politically motivated accusations. “We are investing subsidies from Hungary in the development of infrastructure, which cannot be financed from Slovak funds for minority culture. Without subsidies from Hungary, we would still not have toilets, infrastructure or excavated ruins of the monastery. ” adds.
The organizers of the camp estimate that in 2021 their budget will be financed from the following sources: EU sources: 63.1%, grants from Hungary: 18.2%, VÚC KE sources: 15.6%, Slovak sources Kultminor: 3.1% . “This means that the development of the Gombasec Valley will be equally supported by resources from Slovakia (Kultminor + VÚC) and Hungary (18.6% and 18.2%), but our main source of funding will be EU grants,” says Orosz.
Organizers and the participants of the camp take it for granted that at the beginning of the festival, Hungarian politicians such as Árpád János Potápi, the Hungarian State Secretary for National Policy or Péter Szilágyi, the Government Plenipotentiary for National Policy, will appear in the Gombasek Valley. Their opening speeches are usually not followed by many people. They always say roughly the same thing: they consider the camp to be a “national political festival” that is part of the Hungarian government’s national policy, the festival is a tool to strengthen the identity of Slovak Hungarians, and finally: Hungarian political institutions in Slovakia must be strengthened – and this can only be achieved so that the Hungarians have to vote for the SMK in the current election.
“I wish that the Hungarian community, through those organizations, either political or civilian, present here (in the camp, ed. note), find a way back to the Slovak parliament and that there is cooperation,” Péter Szilágyi said in the camp in the pre-election year 2019.
“The camp has become a place where Örs Orosz and his colleagues control who is allowed and who is not allowed to go there, what program will be there, what cultural and social events will take place there and who will be invited. The scandal was when they canceled the tent for the national broadcast of the public RTVS – Radio Pátria, which used to take part in the camp and organized discussions in it. They consider it a left-wing liberal radio. Aggressively, they are announcing that either people will be with them or they will not participate in the camp at all, ”describes the current situation in the camp psychiatrist and writer Péter Hunčík. However, Örs Orosz claims that Rádio Patria canceled its participation in 2019 itself.
The camp and its organizers are also supported by a prominent behind-the-scenes player of the Hungarian community, a friend of Viktor Orbán, the head of the Slovnaft refinery belonging to the Hungarian MOL, Oszkár Világi. He does not see a problem in the fact that the Gombasek camp is supported by the Hungarian government and organized by people from the Slovak Hungarian political party.
“I appreciate when young people want to take an interest in politics and at the same time know how to organize a camp like Gombasek, to which representatives of all Hungarian parties are invited. By the way, the fact that President Zuzana Čaputová visited it in person also speaks about the quality of the camp. I don’t see anything wrong with that, ” says Világi.
Who is Oszkár Világi?
Oszkár Világi is well-known on the Slovak and Hungarian political scene. He appeared in 1989 as a young lawyer at the Independent Hungarian Initiative (Független Magyar Kezdeményezés, FMK), and gradually developed into a member of the Czechoslovak Federal Parliament, and over the next decade became one of the most influential men in the business background of Hungarian politics in Slovakia. They have been friends with the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for decades, meeting regularly, for example in Dunajská Streda, the hometown of DAC or at the Tusványos festival in Transylvania, where Orbán usually presents his visions every year of how politics works. In the world of business and politics, Világi is considered a capable manager who has a huge capital of acquaintances and connections, and can handle anything.
Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico inaugurate reconstructed section of Friendship I oil pipeline in 2015 (also in the presence of Oszkár Világi). Source: Facebook/ Magyarország Kormánya
Money weas sent to cultural organizations, Reformed Christian Church, for the reconstructions of schools and kindergartens, Slovak Hungarian media, Budapest also supported important Slovak Hungarian symbol – football club “Ferencváros of Felvidék” DAC and its football academy, both connected to Oszkár Világi. You can read more in our other stories.
Money for the votes of foreign Hungarians?
According to analysts, the Orbán government is trying to “blandish” foreign Hungarians on behalf of national unification, who may feel neglected and unnoticed by their own state. The millions of euros from Hungarian state to the southern Slovakia communities every year can make them feel that someone is taking care of them and offer a real solution to the problems that affect their communities.
According to political scientist Kálmán Petőcz, one of the levels is ideological. “We are Hungarians, we are real Hungarians and we do support every Hungarian wherever he lives,” but there are certainly other political and economic reasons, he said.
Orbán’s government claims that this is only a sign of solidarity and national pride, and that the support of foreign Hungarians is actually the duty of the government. There are several other explanations for Orbán’s goal. One of the most likely explanations is that, through these financial injections, the Fidesz party is trying to secure the votes of the electorate from across the border. Following the amendment to the Hungarian Citizenship Act in 2010, Hungarians living in other countries can obtain Hungarian citizenship through a simplified procedure.
However, it is not just about symbolism. The Hungarian passport is associated with the right to vote in the Hungarian parliamentary elections. Pre-registration is the only condition to obtain it. According to current data from the Hungarian National Electoral Office, 403.593 foreign citizens are currently registered to vote.
Although foreign Hungarians do not have the right to vote in single-member constituencies, they can cast their vote for national party candidates lists. According to calculations, they can affect the fate of 2 to 3 parliamentary seats. It may seem small, but in the 199-member Hungarian parliament, in order to gain a constitutional majority, the weight of one seat is imminent. “Even 1 or 2 seats will come in handy, they have already helped twice” – recalls Petőcz. In terms of results, Fidesz’s superiority over foreign Hungarian voters is clear, as its track record has always exceeded 90 percent.
The problem in the case of Slovakia is that while in Transylvania there were more than 170,000 new voters after the change in the law, Slovakia banned the institute of dual citizenship in 2010. Therefore, Hungarians in Slovakia did not apply en masse for new citizenship, while it would mean the loss of the Slovak one. Like Slovakia, dual citizenship is also prohibited in Ukraine, which may be the reason why the statistics of the Hungarian National Electoral Office do not show the exact number of Slovak and Ukrainian citizens with Hungarian voting rights. Only the total number of applications for registration and registered voters from countries prohibiting dual citizenship is known – it exceeds 23,000.
“If we assume that out of the 2.2 million people (foreign Hungarians – ed. note), half will be able to participate in the elections in Hungary, thanks to dual citizenship, then this is also not a small thing. I think that the only idea for Orbán to build influence abroad is that he will have a homogeneous group of one million voters abroad who will vote for him faithfully, ”says writer and psychiatrist Péter Hunčík about the possible impact of subsidies on Hungarian domestic policy.
An important goal for the Hungarian government may also be to build a system of supporters on the side of conservative, Christian values. It is the foreign Hungarian communities or their political representation which could be counted on as valuable allies in the war for a Christian Europe that is spiced with an anti-migration and anti-Union agenda. These communities and their politicians may not even have a clear opinion, sometimes silent consent is enough.
“Every authoritative leader strives to homogenize a society to be easily manipulated. Of course, it would be very welcome of Orbán to unite and tilt the approximately 2.2 million Hungarians across the border and create its own pillars in these countries. If he then comes up with an idea at the European Union level, the Hungarians there will support him, ”thinks the writer and psychiatrist Péter Hunčík.
Recent example is the reluctant position of the Hungarian Community Party (SMK, a strategic partner of FIDESZ) in connection with the discussion on the rule of law mechanism adopted into the EU budget. At a time when there was a danger that the Hungarian-Polish veto could block the entire budget of the union, SMK chairman Krisztián Forró said that combining disbursement with the term “rule of law” was not a good step, as it was a difficult concept to define.
Targeted support of foreign Hungarian communities may not only be due to political balance, but also evolving demographics. The population of Hungary as well as other European countries is aging. In addition, the pace of aging is accelerating, resulting in a widening labor market deficit. Many Hungarians are leaving the country to the west and “they need to be replaced, so an ethnic Hungarian migrant will come handy,” Petőcz points out. However, it is necessary to “educate them about which subsidies are needed”, adds the political scientist. It is actually a preparation for the replacement of labor. The construction of new schools and the reconstruction of existing ones is required. This positive cross-border presence is therefore crucial in the context of brain drain.
Read our series on Hungarian government money flowing to Slovakia