Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén defended the Hungarian citizenship process yesterday after Index published a two-part exposé of Hungary’s “passport mafia” that appeared in the wake of Fidesz’s fast-tracked dual-citizenship law of 2010.
“The procedure of granting Hungarian citizenship is strictly controlled by the Hungarian state administration and, if need be, police and the secret services are also involved,” Semjén said. “In cases when the system had been abused or attempts had been made, perpetrators had been arrested,” the minister without portfolio added.
However, according to the long-term investigative report by Index, the selling of Hungarian citizenship has become an industry, as a Hungarian passport is by far the cheapest, fastest and easiest route to EU citizenship. Hungary’s passport mafia consists of corrupt officials and lawyers, to whom mainly Russian and Ukrainian citizens pay up to EUR 10,000 (USD 13,000) for a Hungarian passport.
Index journalist Bálint Szalai describes an encounter with a Moscow family waiting for a “citizenship dealer” at Budapest’s Deák Ferenc tér. The family tells the reporter that their father has already obtained a Hungarian passport and is living in Germany after “having troubles” with the Russian state administration, where he was a low-ranking official.
Szalai spent months familiarising himself with the inner workings of the system of obtaining Hungarian citizenship for Russians and Ukrainians, bribing local councillors and state officials along the way.
A former “citizenship dealer” speaking anonymously to Index said he had submitted as many as 200 citizenship applications to a village mayor near Kisvárda, east Hungary, who demanded EUR 1,000 (USD 1,296) for signing off each, without asking for the proof of Hungarian language proficiency required by law. The mayor had made HUF 60 million (USD 248,450) in half an hour. In the average application costing EUR 7,000 (USD 9,076) some EUR 2,000 (USD 2,593) goes to the Hungarian officials and on dealer commission payments, leaving the lion’s share in the hands of the “passport agencies”.
The flourishing citizenship business is an unforeseen consequence of the dual citizenship law that the Orbán government rushed through on regaining power in 2010. No modifications were considered before the law was sent directly to Hungary’s then-president László Sólyom for authorisation. Party members complained that the two stipulations – demonstrating Hungarian ancestry and Hungarian language skills – were simplistic. The fact that proof of ancestry and language skills could be handed in at any local government office or registrar left the process open to abuse, Fidesz dissenters argued.
The Hungarian passport industry began with Ukrainians sending official papers over to fixers in Hungary, who then bribed officials. The Ukrainian would then merely have to show up and take an oath 4-6 months later. Soon criminal groups were formed, who successfully convinced Ukrainians that this was a complex service, charging them EUR 5-30,000 (HUF 1.5-9.4 million), despite their only expense being bribes to officials.
In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis and domestic tensions in Russia, co-operation with the passport mafia has allegedly become a major source of income for local councillors in Hungary. Soon people with no Hungarian ancestry or language knowledge began to apply, having found out they did not even have to hand over the request in person. The fixers consequently upped their fees to create false Hungarian ancestry. According to those involved about 80% of those with falsified ancestry received Hungarian citizenship without any problems. Then Russians began to apply in huge numbers, most of them with false Ukrainian documents.
According to the second part of Index’s report, after two years the Hungarian government and the Constitution Protection Office realised that lax criteria for Hungarian citizenship was having catastrophic consequences and decided to amend the law.
The amendment restricted citizenship requests to regional offices and government kiosks, reducing the number of authorised units from several thousand to around 300. This discouraged forgery but did not eliminate corrupt officialdom.
Meanwhile the situation in Budapest is out of control, Index writes. There are two rival gangs involved in the passport business, led by Igor K. and Szása (Sándor) M. These two gangs are terrorising Hungarian and Ukrainian officials and scamming their clients.
The Ukrainian police are investigating the gangs, which might explain the disappearance of Szása’s girlfriend after she called the police from hospital to report that she had been assaulted by her partner’s angry clients.
The business is now expanding, as Serbians and Romanians are also increasingly interested in obtaining a Hungarian passport. Many people in these countries can demonstrate Hungarian ancestry, so it is a lot cheaper to offer the service, even if they don’t speak any Hungarian. The citizenship mafia, however, has made it harder for legitimate applicants with Hungarian roots and language proficiency due to sceptical officials.
The Constitution Protection Office refused to answer Index on how many fraudulent passport applications they have heard about and for their opinion on the industry’s Hungarian side.
Last year Népszabadság wrote a report on a successful Hungarian passport fixing company in Ukraine, which still advertises its services on a website, complete with official phone numbers and business addresses in Kyiv. The 2013 price for Ukrainians was EUR 5,000 (USD 6,471), while Russians were charged EUR 9,000-10,000 (USD 11,662-12,958).
The Democratic Coalition party proposed a joint session of parliament’s law enforcement and national security committees to review the procedure of granting Hungarian citizenship, while Socialist MPs called for Semjén’s dismissal.