HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT’S MILLIONS FOR FOOTBALL, LAND AND A TRACTOR
HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT’S MILLIONS FOR FOOTBALL, LAND AND A TRACTOR
In ten years, the BGA fund approved proposals of minority organizations in Slovenia amounted to around 17,4 million euros.
In ten years, the BGA fund approved proposals of minority organizations in Slovenia amounted to around 17,4 million euros.
Janez Janša and Viktor Orbán. Photo: Government of Hungary
In the last five years the neighboring government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has significantly increased funding for activities of the Hungarian national minority abroad. BGA’s financing data and reports, analyzed by a regional group of journalists, also reveal that the grant procedures lack transparency.
In 2015, the Hungarian Self-Governing National Community in Pomurje (Muravidéki Magyar Önkormányzati Nemzeti Közösség, MMÖNK), a key body of the Hungarian national minority in Slovenia, applied to a call by the Bethlen Gábor fund to obtain 17,5 million Hungarian forints (then around 50 thousand euros).
MMÖNK planned to buy a smaller property where it would establish a model farm, managed in close contact with nature. Its proposal was approved.
In a 2016 report on this spending the MMÖNK council president Ferenc Horváth explained that they were unable to find a suitable property for the agreed amount, so they changed the project.
Instead, MMÖNK bought a tractor for 48.999,99 euros to be used on the future farm, and commissioned an economic development strategy for the minority area. This was prepared by the Hungarian research institute HÉTFA for just under 6,700 euros.
The report is full of hand-written notes of the BGA reviewer, many parts are underlined, and in some places ambiguities are accompanied by exclamation marks.
A cluster of three exclamation marks adorns a MMÖNK explanation about the tractor: it had been paid for but not yet been delivered. Horváth noted that it will be presented to the public after delivery.
The whereabouts of the tractor have been unconfirmed until July 2020 when MMÖNK, with consent of the BGA, leased it free of charge to a horse association in Lendava.
MMÖNK told us in an email that the farm they intended to buy was no longer available for sale. They explained that the tractor was purchased »as a part of a model farm project which is in the implementation phase«. The tractor was on the premises of the supplier from February 2016 to July last year, they said – and Oštro independently confirmed.
The tractor was last summer leased free of charge to a horse association in Lendava. Photo: mmonkpmsns/facebook
In 2018, MMÖNK obtained 150 million forints (then around 460 thousand euros) from the fund to establish a bio-friendly bilingual kindergarten for children in Radmožanci (Radamos) in the municipality of Lendava (Lendva).
Most of the money under the 2018 call was earmarked for the exterior and interior renovation of the facility and child-friendly landscaping. The applicant stated that it would also need 40 million forints (just under 125 thousand euros) to arrange a small outdoor petting zoo, and an indoor zoo-café with »gentle mammals and birds«.
Initially, the daycare center was intended to be finished by the end of 2019 but in that year the Bethlen Gábor Fund approved a change to the project and increased the amount to 216 million forints (around 654 thousand euros).
The center was far from completed and construction works didn’t begin until November 2020 when an old family house that stood on the site was demolished. This January fieldworks continued, and the project is expected to be completed by September 2021.
These reports and many others, together with BGA’s data from decisions to allocate grants between 2011 and 2020 and contracts paid out between 2011 and 2019, were analyzed by journalists of a regional investigative journalism project Hungarian Money, Orbán’s Control. Reporters also requested copies of dozens of final project reports via a freedom of information request but the fund only provided approved documentation.
BGA finances activities of the Hungarian national minority abroad through public calls that demand proposals, supporting documents, clear financial plans and expenditure reporting. But once the projects have run their course, they don’t appear to be vigorously audited.
It is also not clear to what extent the tender procedures include safeguards against the potential for misuse of Hungarian public funds, conflicts of interest or corruption.
Finally, the financing data published by the fund on its website is nearly impossible to reconcile between awarded grants and reports on actual contract payments. There is no central and user-friendly data repository. Instead, the public has to review pdf pages upon pdf pages which are often not computer-readable, endless data tables and menus from two sites and their subsites.
BGA did not answer questions by the regional group of journalists, which also concerned the spending safeguards and reporting issues.
PIVOTAL FIVE YEARS
From 2011 to 2020, the volume of BGA grant allocations for the purposes of its national minority had risen substantially, from a total of at least € 13,6 million in 2011 to more than € 368 million in 2019. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic did not cut this budget by a lot. Last year the fund approved at least € 316,6 million worth of projects.
These totals concern only decisions approved by BGA to allocate funding. But if we compare the grand total arising from those with data on actually paid contracts in this period (and not counting 2020 for lack of accounting data in early 2021) the total of payments is almost 38 percent lower. Reporters were unable to find a verifiable explanation for this.
The increase in funding was also reflected in the data on minority financing in Slovenia: in 2011 the BGA approved at least 62 thousand euros for this community, and in 2019 more than € 4,1 million. In addition to this money, the fund also approved donations of small value to organizations and individuals in Slovenia for a total of at least 720 thousand euros.
In the entire period the money intended for beneficiaries in Slovenia amounted to 1,2 percent of all BGA funding but the grants were nevertheless far from meager.
In 2020 alone, the fund accepted grant proposals with a record annual value of nearly € 8 million. Most decisions were signed in just two days in the span of a week in late December – the BGA agreed to finance five projects for a total of € 7,7 million.
Throughout the years the fund financed thousands of cross-border activities and programs as well as cultural and educational programs implemented by Hungarian secondary and primary schools in countries of interest. For programs by those schools in or concerning Slovenia, BGA rubber-stamped grant awards for a total of at least 570 thousand euros.
In ten years, the fund approved proposals of minority organizations in Slovenia at a total of 5,9 billion forints which – per calculation based on European Central Bank’s referential exchange rate on the last day of each year – amounted to around € 17,4 million. Of this, 97 percent of the grants were allocated between 2016 and 2020.
BGA’s overall minority financing data shows that its scope had increased markedly in 2016 and then fluctuated until last year, but at high amounts.
It appears to have increased in parallel with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán‘s rise to the position of the leader of illiberal Europe and his strive to assure Hungary’s transition to an undemocratic democratic state based on national values.
Meanwhile the financing of Hungarian national minority activities abroad became a somewhat expandable concept.
In Slovenia, 60 percent of all funds were awarded to a football club in Lendava. (It should be noted that the data and documents were not complete enough to determine with certainty, if and how many other funds were indirectly earmarked for football).
As Oštro reported in 2018, FC Nafta 1903 will be getting a football academy and necessary infrastructure on a large land plot near Terme Lendava, a thermal hotel complex. The project was expected to be completed by the end of 2019 but by October 2020 only one playing field with artificial grass next to a bilingual high school in Lendava was finished and functional.
The land next to the thermal complex is still waiting for construction workers and machinery. After the building permit was issued in October 2020, project manager Mária Močnek postponed the deadline to 2021, if all goes according to plan, she said for the minority’s weekly Népújság.
Oštro asked MMÖNK about the reasons behind the increase in funding since 2015 and whether there was a need in one of Slovenia’s most impoverished regions for such a proportion of funds to be invested in football rather than in other educational and cultural activities, preservation of customs and cultural traditions, promotion of entrepreneurship, for social welfare and similar.
MMÖNK said the increase was due to active »planning of various projects, some of which were also approved,« in recent years. They initiated the establishment of a football academy but were not implementing the project, they said. »Football is definitely one of the most popular sports in Prekmurje, as well as in the Hungarian national community.«
The land next to the thermal complex is still waiting for construction of a football academy. Photo: Matej Povše
All of Hungary’s neighboring countries, except Austria, will get at least a football academy, some also a stadium. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is an ardent football supporter, and a former semi-professional player for FC Felcsút.
He also signs football scarfs.
MMÖNK council president Ferenc Horváth has one, framed, in his office. The scarf of the Ferenc Puskás football academy in Felcsút was featured in a 2016 TV Slovenia news segment where Horváth spoke about the millions that the Hungarian government has given for football in Lendava.
Horváth was previously a member of the management of FC 1903 Nafta, the former director of Minta, a company established by MMÖNK with BGA funds, a former representative of the Hungarian national community in Lendava’s municipal council and the current Hungarian minority representative in the national parliament.
After an inquiry by Oštro in 2018 about his simultaneous roles as member of parliament and the head of MMÖNK’s council, the Slovenian Commission for the Prevention of Corruption began looking into the alleged incompatibility of Horváth’s roles under the anti-corruption law. It concluded that they were incompatible and told Horváth to decide which official role he will terminate.
But Horváth did not relent. He still performs both functions. The Commission eventually decided to fine him, but he filed a request for judicial protection and sued the Commission. Both cases are pending at Ljubljana’s district and administrative courts.
FINANCIAL PLANNING AS »ETERNAL DILEMMA«
MMÖNK, led by Horváth during the recent and most fruitful years, was awarded at least a third of all Slovenian-bound funds. The majority came to MMÖNK in the last five years which is also reflected in the organization’s annual budgets. The one in 2019 was almost 155 percent higher than the one in 2011.
But the totals of project funds approved by BGA do not match the data on this funding in MMÖNK’s annual reports, or contracts. The reporting of BGA funds is also often not clear enough for a reader to deduce their origin from the wording.
In its 2015 report, MMÖNK explained that the money coming from the Slovenian state’s budget covers only running costs. All other programs and investments, they wrote, depended on their success in »various tenders, especially in Hungary«.
MMÖNK’s annual reports for the last five years also reveal considerable difficulties in financial planning due to revenues from the Hungarian government. For example, the 2019 report explained that total revenues were 36 percent higher than planned due to »Hungarian government grants we received.«
The background to this accounting conundrum was described as follows: »Foreign donations, earmarked and predominantly intended for investments, represent a bigger share of the budget each year. Such donations are very difficult to predict and represent an eternal dilemma during the preparation of MMÖNK’s annual budgets.«
They had a similar problem in 2017. In the corresponding annual report they illustrated the situation with the events of 2016, when they received a total of almost 2.2 million euros at the end of the year for three current or future projects that were to begin in 2017.
When in 2018 MMÖNK had to cut 580 thousand euros from the planned budget due to a planning and accounting mistake it again »received donations from abroad«. Luckily, they were more than 475 thousand euros higher than expected.
In response to Oštro’s questions regarding their »semi-transparent« reporting and the observation that the amounts of BGA’s funding in MMÖNK’s annual reports did not match the amounts reported by BGA, the organization stated it »operates transparently and all financial transactions are reported in annual accounts that are submitted to the national business register within the legal deadline.«
Oštro also asked for annual data on BGA funding, but they didn’t respond. They only stated that the funding of operating costs fluctuates annually but stood at 55 million forints (around 151 thousand euros) last year. From 2015 to 2020 they received a total of 5,9 million euros from BGA and »other institutions« for various projects and investments.
CARE FOR A NATION’S CULTURE
BGA has allocated money to MMÖNK and others for a number of projects, programs and other activities, from financing the acquisition or renovation of real estate to cultural and educational programs and the establishment of organizations.
One of the most modest recipients in 2011 was the local communal organization of Kapca in Lendava where BGA co-financed the publication of a collection of poems and the writing of a development strategy for minority libraries with just 200 thousand forints (around 635 euros at the time). Judit Zágorec-Csuka, a renowned member of the Hungarian national minority and a poet with a PhD in librarianship, was elected to the leadership of the communal organisation in the year prior.
She told Oštro that the Hungarian government’s support is essentially the only source for financing of minority’s activities. The money received from the state budget is insufficient, she said, and there were almost no other sources of funding or public calls, except in Hungary.
As noticed by Zágorec-Csuka, the number of applicants has increased over the years as did the quality of the proposed projects. This has created competition among those interested to access the funds to develop activities that are beneficial to the community.
She stressed that Kapca was a small community whose members are there for each other. They were proud of the support they received from BGA.
According to the Slovenian Anti-Corruption Commission, presidents of local communities, unless they have another public function (for example in the municipality council), are not subjected to the law on integrity and prevention of corruption where avoidance of conflicts of interest is stipulated.
In the field of culture and media, BGA also regularly finances activities of institutions established by MMÖNK, for example the institutes for Hungarian culture and for informational activity of the Hungarian minority which is the publisher of the weekly Népújság.
The Institute for informational activity was granted a total of at least 47,5 million forints from this fund between 2011 and 2020, or 150 thousand euros. As the director of the institute Tibor Tomka told Oštro that this money has been used to cover the costs of a correspondent from Goričko and the annual issue of KerekPerec magazine.
The BGA Fund also co-finances content of the Slovenian Public Broadcaster’s studio in Lendava, the heart of Hungarian minority’s community.
According to data provided to Oštro by the broadcaster, the studio has received a total of 117 thousand euros since 2011 for various projects. They filmed a documentary about the 820th anniversary of the city of Lendava, TV programs about the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, purchased Hungarian cartoons and recorded episodes of a children’s radio play High-school for dwarfs.
But Hungarian influence in Slovenian media extends much further than minority programs, into media which are in close proximity to the ruling party SDS in terms of ownership and worldview.
Péter Schatz, the majority owner of Nova obzorja, the publisher of the weekly Demokracija and the tabloid Škandal 24, is one of the key players in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s media projects in the Balkans.
Through his Slovenian company R-POST-R, Schatz financed media in Northern Macedonia that supported Orbán’s ally Nikola Gruevski, the former Prime Minister who received political asylum in Hungary.
The companies NovaTV24.si and Nova hiša, which publish Nova24 television, the web portals Nova24TV.si and ZAupokojence.si and the news aggregate vsenovice.info, are also controlled by Hungarian capital. Ownership of these companies leads to individuals connected to Orbán’s unofficial adviser Árpád Habony, and to one of the richest Hungarians, prime minister’s ally Lőrinc Mészáros.
At the end of September 2020, the portfolio of Hungarian media owners in Slovenia expanded with the purchase of Planet TV, a semi-popular broadcaster, from majority-state-owned Telekom Slovenija for a reported five million euro. The buyer was TV2 Media, a Hungarian media publisher owned by József Vida, the head of Takarekbank and a longtime friend of Mészáros.
Planet TV’s editor in chief Mirko Mayer refused to comment on alleged connections of the new owner of the station he editorially oversees with the Hungarian ruling party. Based on contacts with the management he assessed that the owner had only a business interest in the company.
Editors of other media controlled by Hungarian capital did not respond to Oštro’s questions.
BREAKING THE LANDLOCK
Hungary has also been striving to strike a deal with Slovenia to co-finance the building of a second railway track between the Slovenian port of Koper and the town of Divača, about 20 kilometers inland.
This railway section currently represents a bottleneck on the port’s connections to the markets of Central Europe. It has been planned for more than 20 years, but due to difficult terrain and high cost, preparatory works have only begun in 2018. If everything goes according to plans of the current Slovenian government, led by Orbán’s emerging copy Janez Janša, Hungarian forints will support the project.
Last November Janša’s government sent a proposal to the National Assembly to strike an agreement with Hungary on cooperation in construction and management of the second railway track. A similar agreement was already proposed in 2017 by the government, led by centrist Miro Cerar, but the proposal was scrapped a year later, after the Marjan Šarec government was sworn in.
Janša’s government is now hoping to revive the idea of sharing the cost of upgrading Koper port’s link to the hinterland with Slovenia’s landlocked eastern neighbour. However, details of this government’s plan are unclear because the document is marked as classified.
Oštro filed a freedom of information request which the government denied stating that negotiations are underway and »public discussion and questioning of potential issues could significantly hinder talks and decisions«. An appeal is pending.
Hungary is also investing in spa tourism. Terme Lendava are bottom right on the photo. Photo: Matej Povše
THERMAL BATHS AS CULTURAL HERITAGE
Hungary is also strengthening its presence in Slovenia by investing in spa tourism. In the summer of 2018 the state-owned company Comitatus-Energia Zrt. purchased Terme Lendava, the local thermal resort and future neighbor of the FC Nafta 1903 football academy, from partly state-owned Sava Turizem.
Comitatus formally became the owner of the thermal resort in December 2019 after it obtained the consent of the Slovenian market competition protection agency and the government has approved a transfer of the right to use thermal water.
At the end of last year Comitatus injected 2 million euros of additional capital into the company. These company documents were signed by Comitatus’ director, Dénes Kővári.
Kővári is also the executive director of Manevi Zrt., a real estate company owned by the Hungarian state. Last September, the assets of both Manevi and Comitatus were transferred to a new state foundation for preservation of cross-border cultural heritage in Central Europe, following a law approved by Hungarian lawmakers in July.
The law stipulates that the foundation is responsible for the protection of monuments of special cultural, historical and artistic significance to the Hungarian state. With its establishment, the Hungarian government wishes to preserve the cultural and historical heritage and tradition while offering support for related educational and scientific programs.
For example, the foundation manages Pannónia Hotel in Satu Mare, Romania. It occupies a building which is considered one of the most beautiful examples of the Hungarian variation of Art Nouveau.
Now it also manages Terme Lendava, a thermal resort built in the 1980s. It is not clear which cultural, historical or artistic features are to be preserved there.
Anuška is a founder and an editor-in-chief of Oštro, a unique center for investigative journalism in the Adriatic region. She is a regional editor with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and a a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). For her work on The MEPs Project the European online media outlet Politico Europe ranked her 6th among 28 most influential Europeans in 2018.
Matej is a qualified engineer who strayed into the domain of journalism. He was the editor of the news desk on current politics for two years at Radio Student, now he works at Oštro as an investigative journalst. In 2018, he was conferred the Debutant Watchdog Award by the Slovene Association of Journalists.
Maja studied comparative literature and literary theory but pursue a career in the field of journalism, mostly at newspaper Delo, where she was an editor of its website. Now she is a journalist and editor at Oštro and a host and editor of Absolutely Awesome podcast.