Presenting in one concise package the week’s most important and fascinating national stories, whether they be economic, political, cultural, sporting or among the hundreds of other happenings that go on daily.
The opposition LMP party has initiated a Constitutional Court scrutiny of the government changes to the road toll system, while Együtt (Together) demanded a partial withdrawal. Under changes from January 1, a fee applies to use of the M0 ring around Budapest and links to motorways. E-stickers for individual counties costing HUF 5,000, or EUR 16, a year can also be purchased. Socialist leader József Tóbiás criticised the government for “turning a deaf ear” to opponents, including professional groups and local government leaders, whom he would support. LMP turned to deputy ombudsman Marcel Szabó to initiate a top court scrutiny of the government resolution, citing procedural concerns. Együtt called for withdrawing the toll for currently toll-free motorway sections. Independent MP Szabolcs Szabó stated concern over the lack of public impact studies plus damaging consequences of the changes to lower grade roads and those living by them.
Kövér warns on party division
Communication within the ruling Fidesz party should again be free of unjustified mistrust and unfounded accusations, Parliamentary Speaker László Kövér has told commercial HirTV. He said a recent dispute between Zoltán Pokorni, a founding member of Fidesz, and cabinet chief János Lázár was pointless and caused division. Pokorni had criticised “ostentatious” lifestyles of some senior Fidesz officials, to which Lázár responded that “veterans should think twice before weakening us, or they could end up being weakened themselves in the end”. Kövér agreed though with Pokorni and said so did some Fidesz supporters. The Speaker asserted that new road toll changes would benefit most drivers, and supported the mayor of Budapest’s proposal to test the system for a full year to see how introducing a toll for the M0 ring road and links to motorways would change traffic in the city. Kövér said a proposal for mandatory drug tests for school children, politicians and journalists was “neither attractive nor useful”. He supported new rules restricting labour on Sundays.
A memorial plaque has been inaugurated in tribute to Auschwitz deportee Jenő Vida, a former Hungarian industrialist and owner of the villa that houses the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Tom Lantos Institute. Director-general of the institute Márton Schőberl said the plaque would remind visitors of the horrors of the Holocaust. It was from here that Vida (1872-1945) was deported. Schőberl also noted that Hungary would fulfil the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2015. A message by Israel Ambassador Ilan Mor was read out at the inauguration: “Beyond remembering the Holocaust victims at every possible occasion, it is also important not to forget about the friendship between Jews and non-Jews in Hungary.” Vida as managing director of the Hungarian coal mines MAK was among the wealthiest Hungarians of the time and was voted life member of the upper house in 1928.
The State Opera closed 2014 with record visitors, performances and ticket revenue for the past 25 years. Director-general Szilveszter Ókovács (pictured) said: “The number of visitors paying for a ticket was over 550,000, and through public media broadcasts of opera-related content the Budapest Opera has reached at least one million people.” The number of programmes was around 2,000 including guided tours, and this altogether marks a two-fold increase over the past three years, Ókovács added. He said programmes at the Opera House-managed Erkel Theatre, which reopened after refurbishment at the end of 2013, contributed to 2014’s success. The Opera’s outstanding event of the year had been the Richard Strauss Festival in May-June, for the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. By staging six Strauss operas “we embarked on a mission that even German theatres that are instrumental in performing Strauss works had not considered on the anniversary”. Oher highlights had been guest performances in the theatres of major Hungarian cities, and performances by the Hungarian National Ballet that attracted 110,000 visitors. Ókovács said that besides their own revenues, the Opera received HUF 7.6 billion and the Erkel Theatre HUF 1.1 billion in state support in 2014.
Former Hungarian constitutional judge Péter Kovács has been selected to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Kovács, a professor and international lawyer, was nominated by the Hungarian government to serve as the first Hungarian judge in the ICC. He will have a nine-year term and takes one of the two places allotted to the central European group. Since 1997 he has been a faculty head at Pázmány Péter Catholic University. The Foreign Ministry said Hungary had actively contributed to the formation of the ICC and has been involved in its affairs since its beginning in 2002. Hungary’s nomination had faced stiff competition from other countries in the region and the ministry mounted an intensive campaign for Kovács’s appointment, it noted. .
The Russians aren’t coming
The outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict last year has seen fewer Russian tourists visit Hungary, business daily Napi Gazdaság has reported. The slump in the rouble has also discouraged Russians, István Kovács, head of the Hungarian Hotel and Restaurant Association, told the paper. In late October, 10% fewer Russians arrived than a year before. Kovács said it is all the more a major blow because Russians used to outnumber Austrian and British tourists here. In 2013, Russians accounted for 5-6% of the HUF 1,263 billion spent by foreign tourists in Hungary. They spent 768,000 guest nights, almost exclusively in hotels.
Swiss-Hungarian deal frees up funding
Civil organisations that won bids for Swiss-Hungarian funding will soon receive their money thanks to a transitional agreement between the two countries’ governments to ensure the amounts are not distributed by Ökotárs Foundation but by the Széchenyi Programme Office, a cabinet background institution. Nándor Csepreghy, deputy state secretary for development policy communications, said: “While there is an investigation against Ökotárs the support will be paid via the Hungarian government … in this way the investigation will not put civil organisations to a disadvantage.” Business daily Napi Gazdaság said on December 16 that the investigation was expected to last a maximum of 45 days. The Government Control Office started investigations last year into fund management at several NGOs and civil organisations, against their protests. The investigation into Ökotárs Foundation, which was coordinating the distribution of funds from the European Economic Area/Norway Grants in Hungary, was extended to include support received from the Swiss-Hungarian Cooperation Programme.
World and Olympic champion gymnast Krisztián Berki and world champion swimmer Katinka Hosszú have been elected Hungary’s Athletes of the Year by sports journalists. Berki won his third world champion’s title on the pommel horse. Hosszú scored three gold medals in the European championships and collected 69 medals, including 51 golds in the World Cup series. Hosszú’s coach and husband Shane Tusup, from the US, was elected top coach of the year for the second time in a row. Győr’s women’s handball team, which defended its Champions League title, triumphed in the team category. Canoe-kayak trainer Botond Storcz was voted the best national coach. Hungary’s canoeists and kayakers, managed by Storcz, have notched up a long list of honours in the world and European championships. The awards have been made since 1958.
Banks confirm government talks
Austria’s Erste Group and Raiffeisen Bank International have confirmed the lenders are in talks with the Hungarian government, though Raiffeisen stressed that establishing contact was far from negotiations or taking decisions. The spokesman for Erste said talks were under way, just as there was an ongoing dialogue with the other governments in the region. He said it was a first sign of the government acknowledging banks’ positive role in Hungary’s economic development, and hopefully would lead to a sustainable and stable financial environment, which is a pre-condition for national growth. The officials did not reveal the topic or the frequency of the talks. János Lázár, the cabinet chief, said the government was in talks with Erste and Raiffeisen on a strategic partnership and on expanding the state’s portfolio of credit institutions. “Erste has strategic goals in Hungary,” Lázár said. “It is a strong financial institution in the country, which deserves special attention. Raiffeisen may be in a different situation; we would like to agree with them as well on their future.”
More mateship with Moscow
The municipalities of Budapest and Moscow will prepare a cooperation agreement to be signed this year. Budapest Mayor István Tarlós attended an international Urbanism Forum in the Russian capital at Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s invitation in December, and they discussed progress on the plan. A minister of the Moscow municipal government has been invited for talks in Budapest this month to coordinate on the agreement, which is expected to be signed later in 2015. Tarlós said the aim is to revive relations that had existed between the two capitals under their previous mayors, Budapest’s Gábor Demszky and Moscow’s Yuri Luzhkov, but that had “flattened a bit”. He said Budapest seeks cooperation with Moscow on urban policy issues, but in his view the cities’ politicians can do a lot to improve country-to-country relations as well. He and Sobyanin had shared experiences on their public transport systems, the maintenance and development of public spaces and homelessness. They had also discussed tourism development projects and culture. Tarlós told Sobyanin that Budapest would live up to its promise of designating a worthy place for a new Moscow Square.
Jobbik home rental plan for young
Radical nationalist party Jobbik has called for a home rental scheme for young families based partly on Austrian and former Hungarian examples. Deputy group leader Dániel Z. Kárpát said most young people have no chance to buy a home and the government could build homes for rental for HUF 50-60 billion from allocations for integration programmes. After a few years, the rent could be converted to a monthly instalment that would enable the tenant to eventually become owner, Kárpát said. The scheme would reduce emigration and boost childbirth. Jobbik proposed that only Hungarian construction companies be used, relying mostly on Hungarian suppliers.
Ludwig unveils 2015 highlights
Highlights of Budapest’s Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art for 2015 will be major exhibitions on cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Soviet-Russian art and pop-art. Hungarian-born Oscar-winning Zsigmond will be the subject of an exhibition from April 10 as part of Budapest Spring Festival. It will show for the first time 150 photos by him from the 1940s to today. Zsigmond worked on Hollywood films such as “The Deer Hunter”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Black Dahlia”. A large-scale exhibition on post-Stalinist Soviet-Russian art from May to September will display several pieces collected by Peter and Irene Ludwig, the museum’s founders. The third major exhibition will feature pop-art by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Mimmo Rotella, and Hungary’s Ilona Keserű, Gyula Konkoly and László Lakner.
A painting by Hungarian Róbert Berény (1887-1953), recently found after 90 years of being thought missing, has been sold at auction for HUF 70 million. Art historian Gergely Barki spotted the “Sleeping Lady with Black Vase” while watching television with his daughter at Christmas 2009. The painting was used on the set of the US comedy “Stuart Little”. Barki later learnt that it had also been used on the set of soap operas. It took him five years to bring the painting back to Hungary. “Sleeping Lady” was the avant-garde artist’s principle work from 1928 and portrays his second wife, Eta Breuer. The Virág Judit gallery offered nearly 220 items at its recent auction in Budapest, including the Berény.