Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 18
25 October 1999

Hungarian News Round-up C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
Hungarian News Round-up
News from Hungary since 18 October 1999

Paul Nemes

At a meeting in Slovakia, the Visegrad Four countries, named after the Hungarian village near the Danube Bend, vowed to begin working closer together. The four - Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - pointed especially to organised crime as an area that requires more effort and co-operation. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told reporters that "the most important decision from this informal meeting is to establish a commission of experts to look at organised crime in the Visegrad Four". The Visegrad Four visa restrictions on Ukraine were also discussed as a measure to combat organised crime. Especially Slovakia, now back in the fold after the election of Mikulas Dzurinda as prime minister, recommended that such measures should be taken while Hungary, joined by Poland, stressed the effect this would have on Hungarians living in Subcarpathia. Orban did, however, say that the Visegrad Four would have to help each other on the road to EU membership. He said, "there has been a rivalry amongst us, but now we can see that our respective positions will not improve just because things in the other countries may not go well".

The Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) countries did not succeed in resolving their trade disputes during last weekís Budapest summit. Concerning the disagreement over agricultural trade, Prime Minister Orban said, "The root of the problem is that we donít have a common agricultural policy," and added that, as all CEFTA countries hope to join the European Union, he did not think it was reasonable to set up separate CEFTA rules instead of adopting the EUís common agricultural policy. A small proportion of Hungaryís trade is done with CEFTA countries, while most of Hungarian trade is with EU countries. Orban did, however, say that, although countries joining the EU would leave CEFTA, the organisation would still be a convenient trade dispute "testing ground" for countries aspiring to join the EU. A resolution supporting the restoration of shipping on the Danube was also passed at the summit, but no solution to the Hungarian-Polish trade dispute could be found. Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek said, "it is difficult to talk about a complete opening [of markets] when the subsidy systems are different."

Gunter Verheugen, the European Commissioner for enlargement, said on 19 October that there is still a possibility that Hungary will join the European Union at the beginning of 2003. Economic analysts had earlier said that it was unlikely that Hungary, or any other candidate country, would join the EU before 2004, despite the fact that Hungaryís functioning market economy, its ability to endure the EUís internal pressures, its legal reforms and its administrative and judicial reforms make it the leader among countries hoping to join the Union. Verheugenís statement came following a visit by Prime Minister Orban, who declared that Hungary would be ready to join the Union on 1 January 2003. Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said after during a meeting with Romano Prodi, Chairman of the European Commission, that, "Hungary could live with an accession date of 1 January 2003", but would prefer 1 January 2002. In its latest report, the European Commission recommended EU leaders not to set a date for expansion at the upcoming Helsinki summit. The report did, however, say that the EUís own preparations for expansion should be completed by the end of 2002.

Last week, Prime Minister Orban also answered the EU Commission's criticism of Hungary in the report. Responding to the comments about corruption, Orban said that since FIDESZís election victory in 1998, "many things have happened but even more has yet to be done." Regarding the treatment of the Roma in Hungary, Orban said that the governmentís goal is to assist the Roma in creating their own middle class and adapt to society.

Keith Vaz, British Secretary of State for European Affairs, has said that Britain is fully behind Hungaryís accession to the EU. Newly appointed Vaz, who stressed the progress Hungary has made in preparing for EU membership, said he chose Budapest as his first visit abroad to show the significance Britain ascribes to Hungarian EU membership. On 19 October, British Trade Minister Richard Caborn made public a plan to boost UK trade with Hungary, and help Hungary join the EU. Caborn, who said that the Hungarian market is stable and attractive to businesses, stated, "The UK wants to see Hungary join the European Union as soon as it is able."

As Hungary prepared to commemorate the 1956 Uprising on 23 and 24 October, the trial of Istvan Dudas and three of his subordinates continued in Budapest. Dudas, who is charged with ordering the massacre at Mosonmagyarovar, stated in court, "I do not have the strength to answer any questions." On Thursday, Viktor Orban unveiled a memorial in Budapestís Kerepesi Cemetery to the martyrs and victims of the 1956 crack down on the Uprising made by sculptor Laszlo Gombos. Orban said that, "The transformation which took place in 1990 could only be peaceful and bloodless because so much blood had been shed for it in 1956."

Hungarian state railways MAV are likely to privatise a number of rail lines as a result of reforms of the company. It is primarily regional lines that are under consideration for privatisation. MAV President Gyula Takacsy stated that mainly tourism companies would be interested in purchasing smaller lines. Takacsy added that MAVís goods transport division might be privatised in 2002 or 2003, with foreign investors likely to play a part. Imre Szekeres, member of the Socialist Party, firmly opposed the plan put forward by the government to offload MAV's responsibility to operate around 1,000 km of rail track.

Hungary has resumed the transfer of natural gas from Russia to Yugoslavia, but only for humanitarian purposes. In accordance with the EUís embargo against Yugoslavia, Hungary had been blocking gas coming from Russia. The embargo against Yugoslavia excludes the transfer of gas for humanitarian purposes. Shortly after a statement by the Hungarian Government that humanitarian supplies to Yugoslavia could resume on a case-by-case basis, Hungarian oil and gas company MOL issued a statement saying that natural gas transit supplies had started in accordance with an investigation by the United Nations Gas Committee.

The Hungarian-Russian Economic Cooperation Committee reached an agreement to try and revive trade between the two countries at their first meeting in two years. Since last year, Hungaryís exports to Russia have dropped by 70 percent. Attila Chikan, Hungarian Economics Minister, stated that, "commercial ties must be based on market demands and not on intergovernmental barter deals." Russian Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov also met with Hungarian interior minister Sandor Pinter to talk about money laundering and organised crime.

On Tuesday of last week, illegal immigrants held at the Nyirbator shelter in Szombathely went on a hunger strike demanding to be moved to civilian facilities. According to Colonel Attila Krisan, 272 out of the 347 immigrants are taking part in the protest. The protesters say that they will continue the hunger strike until they are moved to a civilian camp. Krisan also said, "The only thing the border guards can do is provide information to camp-dwellers. [The border guards] do not have the power to speed up the work of another authority." Istvan Dobo, Director of the Refugee and Migration Office, said the identity of many of the persons on hunger strike made things more difficult, but added that everything was going according to regulations, and that there was no way to speed things up.

The Hungarian Embassy in Moscow gave a list of Hungarian art treasures taken by the Soviet Union during and after the Second World War to the Russian Foreign Ministry on 21 October. Several hundred thousand art treasures and millions of books were taken to the Soviet Union during and after the War. The 1998 Russian artefact law only allows for talks on Church property and private collections on which a property claim has been made, but the list is thought as being enough to start negotiations.

At a meeting with US officials in Budapest last week, Hungarian Jewish leaders called for the return of possessions taken by the Americans during the last weeks of the Second World War. In Austria, US Army personnel helped themselves to treasures such as diamonds, paintings, gold and furs loaded on to a "gold train" in May 1945. The trainload, confiscated by Germans from Hungarian Jews, was worth more than USD 200 million in 1945. The train was never properly documented however, and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary are not under any illusions as to how difficult it will be to find the rightful owners to the treasures.

According to the State Auditing Office (ASZ), the former Postabank leader broke the law by trying to cover up losses. The ASZ report says that, without any real guarantees, the bank gave loans to businesses with bad credit as well as to high-risk enterprises. During the last three years of the previous management, the bank accumulated losses of HUF (Hungarian Forinths) 1 billion (USD 4.2 million) per month. The bank tried to cover up these losses.

A one-million-dollar public-relations campaign prevented what had been predicted as a disaster year for Hungarian tourism. Mainly due to the Kosovo crisis, experts had forecasted that tourists would stay away from Hungary. Hungary, however, started an "anti-Kosovo offensive". The Economics Ministry spent one million USD in Western Europe to counter claims that the Kosovo crisis made Hungary unsafe for tourists. After the National Bank of Hungary reported a current account surplus of USD 154 million the campaign can be said to have been nothing else than successful.

Beer production at Dreherís factory in Nagykanizsa will come to an end in January 2000. After more than 100 years of beer production - although at only 50 percent during the last few years - it has been decided that the brands now produced at Nagykanizsa will be switched to Kobanya, Dreherís other factory. Although Hungary is one of the worldís top 20 beer consumers, the Hungarian beer market has dropped by 34 percent since 1989, with the average Hungarian now drinking only half as much beer as a German. Dreher, who have no definite plans for their property in Nagykanizsa, said the buildings would be either sold or leased.

After the so-called Whiskey Robberís 29th hold-up last week, Police increased the reward for information on the bandit to a record-breaking HUF 5 million (USD 21,000). DNA samples from the latest robbery showed it was Attila Ambrus, the real name of the Whiskey Robber, who was also behind this hold-up. Ambrus, born in Transylvania, was arrested on the Hungarian-Romanian border in January but subsequently escaped to continue his activities.

Paul Nemes, 23 October 1999

 

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