The government is planning to sell off close to 1 million acres of state agricultural land over a period of six weeks. Some 350-380,000 hectares (875,000-940,000 acres) will be formally offered for sale on October 15 and are set to be auctioned off from mid-November through the end of the year.
State to reap between USD 1-2 billion
Estimates of potential revenues resulting from the sale of the lands are between HUF 300 (USD 1.1 billion) and HUF 500 billion (USD 1.8 billion), according to Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár and the Hungarian Chamber of Agriculture.
While the government has not kept the sale of state lands under wraps, it hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to inform the public that the enormous sale is about to take place and that state loans are available to help those seeking to purchase.
With the exception of a few brief statements by government officials and related ministries, knowledge of the pending sell-off has been limited to those “in the know”.
Feeding at the public trough
In Hungary as in other EU countries, owning arable land entitles farmers to agricultural subsidies. Until now, state-owned agricultural lands were let to individuals or companies following a distinctly non-transparent tendering process.
József Ángyán, a former Fidesz MP and undersecretary for sustainable farming, resigned in protest after he uncovered that eight agricultural companies with strong links to ruling party Fidesz had received the lion’s share of land and agricultural subsidies during the second Orbán government (2010-2014).
A professor of agriculture, Ángyán undertook a feverish campaign to publicize his findings which showed that numerous Hungarian oligarchs with strong ties to Fidesz, including Lajos Simicska, Zsolt Nyerges and Sándor Csányi, were benefitting from a rigged tendering process.
Ploughing the fields under with salt
The government fired back at Ángyán, claiming that most of the grounds were awarded to locals. Eventually his very public break with Fidesz cost Ángyán his teaching job at the university in Gödöllő and led to the destruction of the ecological farm at Kishantos in what can only be described as an act of political retribution.
As facts began to emerge regarding the government’s unscrupulous method for deciding who gets how much land, so too emerged news that individuals close to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán were also the beneficiaries of these land deals, including Felcsút building contractor and mayor Lőrinc Mészáros.
Furthermore, the largest beneficiaries of these land deals also received the lion’s share of agricultural subsidies.
Green barons to benefit
As it became increasingly clear that the government’s system for distributing lands was hardly transparent and prone to skullduggery, the government began shifting its message on how lands would be awarded in the future — only this time the lands are up for sale. Fidesz politicians stress the benefits to local, small-time farmers of the sale. However, opposition MPs say the sale will greatly serve the interests of Hungary’s “green barons”.
Opposition MPs and NGOs argue that limitations placed on the sale of the lands are easily circumvented through “strawman” arrangements between large landowners, their family members and employees.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Orbán government used its influence to help private interests secure long-lasting revenue streams from formerly state-owned assets.
Hungary is to receive EU agricultural subsidies in the many billions of euros during the 2014-2020 period.
According to Balázs Győrffy, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Agriculture (who will be assisting the state in liquidating the land), the sooner the land is sold off, the less people will suspect there is something scandalous taking place…