A Hungarian oligarch who used to be close friends with prime minister Viktor Orban is selling all his businesses. Oligarchs have been rising into and falling out of favor in Hungary for years, but this story is different. Simicska and Orban’s friendship reportedly dates back to their high school years and the businessman has supported Fidesz and Orban for more than two decades. This signals the end of an era.
Lajos Simicska is selling all his business interests to his former business partner, Zsolt Nyerges – news site 24.hu reported last week. Nyerges confirmed the deal in an announcement sent to the website.
Simicska had a diverse portfolio, including construction, agriculture, media, advertising and property management businesses. Nyerges was already a co-owner of some of these companies and held top management roles in others.
How much the deal is worth is not known at this time and it will take months to finalize the deal because it will need a nod from the competition authorities.
According to estimates published in the Hungarian media, the portfolio includes about 60 companies and is worth approximately 50 billion Hungarian forints (about 155 million Euros).
Nyerges might be only an intermediary holding on to the Simicska portfolio for a short time, according to reporting by 444.hu and Népszava. Both sources claim that the final destination is Lőrinc Mészáros. He is the former mayor of Orbán’s home village and a former gas pipe fitter who is currently estimated to be the richest man in Hungary, worth about one billion U.S. dollars.
However, according to reporting by my colleague Antónia Rádi at Átlátszó, Nyerges might be the actual and final buyer. In the end, one thing is clear: Nyerges is representing Viktor Orbán in this deal. Átlátszó’s sources also confirmed one more important detail: this does not mean that Simicska and Orban struck a deal and are now friends again.
It means one thing: complete and unconditional surrender by Simicska.
A conflict between Simicska and Orban was first reported in 2014, but the press only had guesses about what had happened between the two men. Maybe Simicska became too powerful or wanted too much? Or Fidesz members who were unhappy with Simicska’s position of power in the economy finally managed to convince Orban to push back against his friend? Nothing was confirmed, but there were more and more public signs of the conflict.
One thing we know for sure is what happened on February 6, 2015 when the leadership of Simicska’s media portfolio (daily Magyar Nemzet, Lánchíd Rádió and tv channel Hír TV) resigned, citing a case for conscience. This was the day when the generally enigmatic Simicska who usually avoids the media decided to answer his phone when journalists started to call. He told all of them what he thinks of Orban, using very explicit language. That day has been called G-day in Hungarian political folklore ever since then, in reference to the word Simicska used to describe Orban.
From that day it was all-out war. Simicska’s media outlets became critical of the government while Orban was pushing Simicska out from his positions in government and economy. Simicska started supporting far-right opposition party Jobbik and opposition forces started talking about a ’nuclear bomb’ that Simicska might drop before the 2018 election. They meant that Simicska might have damaging information on Orban that he would reveal to hurt him politically.
That did not happen. There was no nuclear bomb or, if there was, it was not dropped. Now, Simicska is giving up his last tools of political power as well. Days after the latest election victory for Orban it was announced that Simicska’s daily Magyar Nemzet would be closed, along with Lánchíd Rádió. At HírTV significant layoffs were announced.
A few weeks later it was announced that the weekly owned by Simicska, Heti Válasz, filed for bankruptcy and would no longer be printed, leaving only the online version. The future of significant news portal index.hu is also in question, though it is not directly owned by Simicska and the foundation that owns the portal says that the Simicska-Nyerges deal does not affect them.
The war seems to have ended. However, as it was fought behind the scenes we still do not know what led to this outcome. We can only hope that Simicska decides to tell the story one day.
Editing by Clare Humphreys