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Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó was photographed Sunday on the deck of a luxury yacht owned by a major beneficiary of government contracts. Evidence suggests the foreign minister spent several days on the €20 million yacht off the coast of Croatia in the middle of the political crisis unfolding in Belarus.
published by investigative journalism center Átlátszó,
raised corruption concerns and appeared to indicate the foreign minister had made dishonest announcements over his location.
On Sunday, Szijjártó posted a photograph of himself to Facebook with the caption, "Political public opinion in Europe remains concerned with the situation in Minsk...Hopefully, reassuring solutions will be found as soon as possible, based on dialogue and reflecting the European Union's common position." In the photograph, Szijjártó sat on his mobile phone in a conference room, dressed in a suit and tie.
But according to Átlátszó's photographs, on Sunday Szijjártó had likely already been aboard the yacht Lady MRD for four days after flying to Split, Croatia on a private luxury jet last Thursday.
On Monday, Szijjártó posted another photograph of himself in business attire holding a telephone. The caption read, “With no exaggeration, the phone lines are burning at both the prime minister and foreign minister level in connection with developments in Minsk."
While the social media posts depicted Szijjártó in his office in Budapest, diligently working to develop a response to the crisis in Belarus, he was in fact 15 km off the Croatian mainland on a yacht owned by an offshore shell company held by Hungarian construction magnate László Szíjj.
Believed to be the fourth richest Hungarian and a government-tied oligarch, Szíjj has been the beneficiary of many lucrative public procurements, and maintains a close relationship with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
According to economy website G7, the rental fee for similar Italian-made Benetti yachts amounts to some €180,000 per week. If Szijjártó paid to rent the yacht himself, the fee would total four years of his salary, based on his public asset declaration.
As Dániel Pál Rényi writes in an opinion piece for 444.hu, if Szijjártó was given use of the yacht as a gift by Szíjj, who has benefitted from billions of euros in public contracts, it would qualify as a textbook example of corruption for which any government official would be expected to resign.
Additionally, the timing of the foreign minister's vacation has been called into question. The photographs came as a mass uprising spread across Belarus in the wake of contested elections there last week. The Hungarian government was criticized for remaining silent for days on the crisis and brutal police violence in the nearby country.
Szijjártó's presence on the Adriatic over the weekend suggests he either decided not to cut his vacation short when the Belarus uprising deepened, or decided to fly to Croatia in the middle of a major diplomatic crisis. National security concerns have also been raised over the foreign minister conducting sensitive diplomatic business from the deck of a private yacht.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs told 444 that it could not comment on Szijjártó's "private programs", but insisted that while the foreign minister was indeed on holiday, he was also "constantly working".
The Átlátszó article can be read in English here.
Hungary "supports the Polish position" on Belarus
After more than a week of silence over the crisis in Belarus, the Hungarian government made vague indications that it would defer to Poland's point of view on how to handle the country's historic uprising.
Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó wrote on Facebook Monday that he had spoken by phone with the foreign ministers of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and conferred with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who had spoken to his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki.
"The strength and importance of Visegrád unity is still evident, and we too support the Polish position, especially with regard to the significant national Polish community living in Belarus," Szijjártó wrote.
While the foreign minister did not give details on which elements of the Polish position the Hungarian government supports, Poland has been among the most prominent voices urging strong action against Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
Morawiecki was one of the first to call for an extraordinary summit of the European Council to address the matter, and has said he believes new elections should take place in Belarus with international observers. Orbán allies Janez Janša of Slovenia and Andrej Babiš of Czechia also called for new elections.
Last Thursday, Szijjártó avoided condemning the election, denounced by the opposition as fraudulent, or the violent police repression of protesters. He called on the EU "to pursue dialogue with Belarus and avoid ostracising it", and emphasized “the need for dialogue-based EU decisions that do not make it impossible to build future relations between Belarus and the European Union".
Hungary's conspicuous caution on taking a strong position on Belarus led to worry within the EU that any common action could be held up by Budapest. Citing diplomatic sources, Reuters reported last Thursday that Hungary was the "main sceptic" in opposing targeted sanctions against Belarus ahead of a virtual emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers.
A later report on the Friday meeting indicated that the EU does not accept the results of the August 9 election, and would "initiate a process of sanctions against those responsible for the violence, arrests and [election] fraud", suggesting Hungary had consented to the measures.
In June, Hungary began deepening bilateral relations with Belarus when Prime Minister Orbán became the first Hungarian prime minister to make an official visit to Minsk. While in the Belarusian capital, Orbán said that “the two peoples and the two countries are much closer than one might think”.
Homophobic attacks mark opening of Budapest Pride
Several attacks occurred this week on events related to the 25th Budapest Pride festival, a celebration of the LGBTQ community and a platform for its issues. The week-long festival, held this year in an abridged format and without its annual march due to the coronavirus pandemic, opened on Friday.
- Late Friday night, a local football hooligan group called the "Aryan Greens" tore a rainbow flag from the headquarters of Budapest's 9th district council. The group posted photographs to social media of its members stomping on the flag and setting it on fire. The photographs were published by pro-government tabloid site 888.hu with the caption "That's how it's done!" (888.hu is part of the Central European Media and Press Foundation, or KESMA, a massive pro-government media conglomerate designated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2018 to be "of strategic national importance".)
- On Sunday, Előd Novák, co-chair of the neo-Fascist party Mi Hazánk Mozgalom (Our Homeland Movement), climbed a ladder onto Budapest city hall and removed a rainbow flag placed there by opposition mayor Gergely Karácsony, calling it a "homosexual provocation". During questioning by police, Novák ran away with the flag and threw it in a nearby garbage can. He was later issued a citation by police, and pro-government media figures applauded his action, offering to pay for his fine. (The rainbow flag was the first ever placed on Budapest City Hall.)
- On Monday, a small group of far-right activists attempted to disrupt a Pride event at the Auróra community center in the 8th district. Police arrived on the scene and the event resumed without further incident.
- On Tuesday, Előd Novák removed another rainbow flag, this time from the 11th district council headquarters.
- Also on Tuesday, a group of around 20 black-clad far-right activists attempted to disrupt a Pride event in the 8th district. Wearing t-shirts reading "Hungarian Resistance", the activists first mistakenly entered a separate event in the same building, and were later removed by police. Charges have been filed against unknown perpetrators.
On Monday, the United States Embassy in Budapest released a statement expressing its concern over the attacks, writing that the rights of all people, including the LGBTQI community, must be protected.
"Freedom of expression is a fundamental right that should be able to be exercised without intimidation. Neo-Nazi or other hate groups should not be tolerated in any society," the statement reads.