A Bridge to Nowhere Signals Hungary’s Patronage Politics

A Bridge to Nowhere Signals Hungarys Patronage Politics
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Eager to get a small piece of the billions of euros provided to his country by the European Union, a mayor in eastern Hungary applied for money to build a “treetop canopy walkway” that would provide panoramic views of the forest outside his village.

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Hungarian officials responsible for distributing European money liked the idea and in 2021 approved a grant worth about $175,000. The elevated walkway, in the village of Nyirmartonfalva, near the border with Romania, now stretches for nearly 100 yards, next to a wooden observation tower.

There’s just one problem: The mayor, a supporter of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party who owns the land where the treetop walkway was built last year, cut down all the trees and sold them for wood before construction started. So the treetop walkway looks out on an expanse of empty dirt.

The project is one of tens of thousands undertaken in Hungary under programs funded by the European Union to help narrow the economic gap between the bloc’s richer, original members in the west and newer entrants, particularly those in the east.

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But even as he has railed against Brussels over what he sees as its meddling in Hungary’s internal affairs, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made lavish use of such E.U. funds to direct cash and other benefits to his political allies.

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Tipped off by a hiker who last year stumbled on the looming wooden structure marooned on a patch of empty land, Akos Hadhazy, an opposition legislator, aided by news outlets critical of the government, has turned the walkway into a cause célèbre.

“The whole system here is built on Fidesz giving financial favors to its supporters,” Mr. Hadhazy said in Budapest, citing the Nyirmartonfalva walkway as a prime example.

Alerted by the ruckus, the European Union’s executive arm asked for an explanation from the Hungarian government. In response, Zsolt Papp, a Hungarian official responsible for disbursing European money for rural development, sent a letter in August saying that the government had looked into the treetop walkway, found it “did not fully comply” with the terms of the grant application (given that there were no trees left) and canceled funding.

“The goal of the project would not be realized in the foreseeable future,” the letter explained.

The E.U. anti-fraud office in Brussels said it has an “ongoing investigation” into the project. It is unclear who ended up paying for the walkway.

On a recent trip to Nyirmartonfalva, there were few visitors, just some village children on a school outing.

“We call it our Bridge of Sighs,” said Attila Rozsa, a Fidesz voter and Nyirmartonfalva resident. “Every time you see it, you sigh at how much it cost.”

A journalist from Atlatszo, an investigative news site, made a tongue-in-cheek video analyzing the walkway as an avant-garde artwork. Its title: “Corrupt mayor or misunderstood genius?”

Abroad, Mr. Orban is revered by many right-wing Europeans and former U.S. president Donald J. Trump for thundering against “the woke movement and gender ideology” and vowing to defend national sovereignty against the dictates of the European Union.

At home, however, the glue that cements his support, according to independent political analysts and his foes, is money, which underpins a network of entwined state institutions and private businesses mostly run by Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party allies.

Transparency International, an anti-graft watchdog, in January ranked Hungary as the most corrupt E.U. country.

In a speech Thursday, the U.S. ambassador, David Pressman, said of Hungary, “All aspects of government power — from procurement, to licensing, to tourism subsidies, to concessions, to tax and audit actions, to regulatory policy — provide favorable treatment for companies owned by party leaders or their families, in-laws or old friends.”

Spurred by investigative journalist reports, many people in Hungary have for years grumbled about the wealth of people like Lorinc Meszaros, once a penniless pipe fitter from Mr. Orban’s home village who is now one of the country’s richest men.

Last month, however, what Fidesz has long dismissed as politically motivated rumor mongering was given credence by someone from deep inside the system — Peter Magyar, once a senior executive in state companies and the former husband of a close ally of Mr. Orban.

Mr. Magyar told Partizan, an independent news outlet that “a few families own half the country.”

In a Facebook post, Mr. Magyar turned his fire on Mr. Orban’s businessman son-in-law, Istvan Tiborcz. “What is your secret?” Mr. Magyar asked. “At the age of 37, you have 100 billion, loads of hotels, banks, fund managers, a lot of former valuable state-owned properties.” (The number he referred to appeared to be forint, the Hungarian currency, which would amount to about $280 million).

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Then, Mr. Magyar asked, “How much in total have you received in government loans or grants to build your portfolio?”

Mr. Tiborcz could not be reached for comment. In response to questions from Magyar Hang, an independent conservative weekly, about the role of his father-in-law in his success and whether he had received government grants or loans, Mr. Tiborcz said he did “not want to participate in political battles.”

On Friday, Mr. Magyar drew thousands of people to an anti-Fidesz rally in Budapest and announced he was forming a movement, Stand Up, Hungarians!, to resist the “corruption and nepotism” of Mr. Orban’s party.

The vast wealth of a few Fidesz-connected tycoons in Budapest is just the most visible aspect of a rewards-for-loyalty program that stretches beyond the capital to towns and remote villages, such as Nyirmartonfalva.

The approved grant application for the “treetop canopy walkway” was submitted by the mayor, Filemon Maholy, a businessman who ran as the Fidesz candidate in the last local elections in 2019, defeating the incumbent socialist.

Mr. Maholy has managed to land E.U. funding for a range of projects in addition to the walkway. Curiously, considering how he cut down the trees near that structure, he also secured a $126,000 grant for a tree-planting program.

Before that, he received $130,000 for what he pitched as a project to bolster tourism through construction of a guesthouse that was built next to his sprawling home on the edge of the village. On a recent day, the guesthouse had no guests and no staff.

The flow of European money to Hungary has slowed in recent years because of Mr. Orban’s disputes with Brussels over the rule of law, minority rights and other issues. Before the feuding, Hungary was the third-largest net recipient of money from Brussels, according to the Center for European Policy, a German research group.

The money helped transform previously neglected areas like Nyirmartonfalva, which, residents say, is now a better place to live than before Mr. Orban came to power.

The outside wall of the village hall is plastered with plaques recording how funds from Brussels paid for solar paneling, sewage pipes, road works and other improvements. The local kindergarten also received money.

Nobody, though, is celebrating the treeless treetop walkway.

Zoltan Palfi, a Swedish Hungarian who lives in the village, said he was aghast when he first saw it. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “I thought it was perhaps a landing spot for Elon Musk’s spaceship.”

The mayor, Mr. Maholy, is not amused by such mockery.

Petra Magyar, another local resident, said Mr. Maholy had threatened to take away her job as a social worker on the village payroll after she put a smiley face under a Facebook post that gently made fun of his walkway.

Ms. Magyar kept her job but found another one in a nearby village anyway.

“It was a beautiful spot before he cut down all the trees,” she said. “Now we have a long bridge in the middle of nothing.”

When Mr. Hadhazy, the legislator, first raised the issue of misused E.U. money last year, Mr. Maholy initially fought back, saying in an interview with a Hungarian television station that there was “never a requirement” to have trees for the treetop walkway.

Lately, though, Mr. Maholy has been lying low. When a Times reporter visited the village hall, the mayor’s assistant said an interview would not be possible because the mayor was far away on business. Mr. Maholy arrived in his car a few moments later and rushed into his office.

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Later that day, spotting reporters at the deserted guesthouse, the mayor stormed from his house next door, shaking with rage and shouting about the Chain Bridge in Budapest, an iconic structure whose costly recent renovation by the capital’s opposition-controlled government has stirred accusations from Fidesz of corruption.

“Search for the money there, not here,” the mayor screamed.



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