Months before the 2018 April parliamentary elections, in the final stretch of his war against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, businessman Lajos Simicska acquired an instrument rarely used by ordinary people.
He was meeting with the executives of his business empire in the suburbs of Budapest when one of his aides entered the room and handed him a yellow device. Simicska took it into his hand and, as he placed it into his briefcase, explained to his executives what the device does: it detects harmful levels of radiation.
”Can you believe it? This is where we are,” Simicska said with a uneasy chuckle, making it clear that this was a serious issue. He told those present that he had received a warning that someone might try to eliminate him with harmful radiation. He did not say who would want to do this to him and he didn’t reveal where the warning came from.
Simicska said he was initially dismissive of the notion that someone would try to assassinate him, but he decided to take the threat seriously because his source was credible. He would eventually purchase two radiation detectors, placing one in his home and keeping the other on his person.
Whatever was behind the assassination alert, Simicska’s reaction showed how tense his years-long conflict with Viktor Orbán had become. He and Orbán were friends and allies for decades. Together they turned Fidesz, now the governing party, into Hungary’s dominant political force. Orbán led the charge on the frontline of politics, while Simicska worked behind the scenes to provide a solid financial background for the party. Their alliance ended in 2014 over apparent power struggles, turning Simicska into one of Orbán’s most formidable enemies.
In the end, Simicska survived the conflict without any physical harm, but he was forced to accept defeat. Days after the 2018 April parliamentary elections, which resulted in yet another landslide victory for Orbán’s party, Simicska shut down two of its news outlets. Not much later, he sold all his business interests. Ownership of his vast business empire was transferred to individuals close to Orbán.
Simicska’s capitulation surprised many, but details uncovered by Direkt36 suggest that his decision was rooted in events that took place long before the elections.
Even when their alliance broke apart in 2014, Simicska went to great lengths to avoid the showdown with the prime minister. He tried to sell his business empire to Orbán, saying that he wanted to quit the business, but Orbán turned down his offer.
Simicska then went on the offensive against his former friend, but now it is clear now that his campaign lacked a deliberate strategy. According to people close to him, he gradually lost faith in defeating Orbán.
At least six months before the parliamentary elections, Simicska realized that Jobbik, the opposition right-wing party he threw his support behind, had no chance of winning the elections. Meanwhile, he had also come under intense personal pressure. In addition to the radiation warning, he told aides that he had also received threats that his children would be implicated in criminal activities.
In the final weeks of the election campaign, Simicska became unusually passive. He did not give interviews and did not spread information that could have hurt the government, even though he apparently had information that could have been damaging to Orbán. As early as 2014, he told some of his confidants that he had recorded a video in which he spoke about his mutual secrets with Orbán. He thought this tape would guarantee his personal safety. Still, he did not release any sensitive information, even when it became clear that the opposition’s efforts alone would not be enough to stop Orbán.
This article, which tells the story of the fall of Simicska’s empire, is based on interviews with nearly thirty people who had insight into the oligarch’s activities over 4 years. Some of them have known Simicska for decades, others held senior positions in his business empire. Most of them spoke on the condition that we do not reveal their identity. The details described in the article come directly from the participants of these events or from sources who have close knowledge about them. Simicska, who spends most of his time in a remote village, declined to be interviewed. Orbán did not respond to our questions.
I. THE OFFER
Simicska was preparing to take some radical steps regarding his business empire in the days following the 2014 parliamentary elections. He decided to sell all his assets and asked his team to assess the value of his companies. His plan was to offer everything to Viktor Orbán, effectively ending the decades-long partnership that defined Hungary’s recent political history.
Orbán and Simicska had known each other since high school, and for a long time, they appeared to be inseparable. However, after 2010, when Fidesz came back to power with a landslide victory, their partnership became strained.
With Orbán installed as prime minister, Simicska not only directed his vast business empire — which kept growing, thanks to state-financed contracts — but also held enormous influence over the Hungarian political process. Through surrogates in high positions in ministries and state-owned companies, Simicska had a direct impact on government policies.
“It looked as though Orbán was the political prime minister and [that] there was also an operational prime minister, Simicska,” a former senior government official explained, adding that Orbán had already decided in 2011 that he needed to end this situation.
Orbán also knew, however, that he had to wait. Starting an intra-party fight during his first term could jeopardize his bid for re-election.
On April 7, 2014, one day after the parliamentary elections, which Fidesz again won comfortably, Orbán and Simicska sat down for a meeting to discuss the future. The oligarch later recounted this conversation in several interviews, but Direkt36 also spoke with another source with information about the meeting. Based on these accounts, Orbán used this 2014 April meeting to outline his plans and the role he envisioned for Simicska. This meeting accelerated the conflict between the two.
The prime minister told Simicska that he would like him to close Index, one of Hungary’s largest news portals. At the time, it was not widely known that few months earlier, in February 2014, Simicska had acquired an option to buy Index, making him the news outlet’s effective owner.
Orbán also raised the possibility of buying RTL Klub, Hungary’s biggest commercial television broadcaster. When Simicska said it would be far too expensive to purchase, the prime minister responded that Rosatom could buy it for him. Rosatom, a Russian state-owned nuclear company,had been hired by the Orbán’s government earlier that year, without any public tender, to build Hungary’s new nuclear plant.
With Orbán’s comment about Rosatom, the already tense conversation ended abruptly. Later, Simicska said that Orbán realized that he should not have told him about the Russians’ role. In his interviews in recent years, Simicska often emphasized that it was Orbán’s increasingly strong relationship with Russia, and his attacks on the democratic institutions that bothered him. According to those close to him, Simicska indeed has strong anti-Russia feelings, rooted in his anti-communism. Still, according to one of his longtime confidants, it was not only Russia’s role that he disliked in Orbán’s plans. He also had problems with the prime minister’s ideas because Orbán was clearly trying to diminish Simicska’s power.
If Simicska had closed Index, he would have given up some of his influence, because – as one confidant put it – for him, “his companies meant the power.” He protested against the Russians’ involvement in Orbán’s plans for similar reasons, according to the source.
“Lajos wasn’t hurt by the fact that the Russians were coming but because he would have been left out of those businesses,” the source explained, adding that, as a precursor, Simicska had already been marginalized in the negotiations over the new nuclear plant (details about this in this story).
As heated as their conversation was on the day after the elections, it still did not mark the end of their alliance. Orbán and Simicska agreed to meet a week later to continue their discussion. In a 2017 interview with RTL Klub, Simicska said that it was at this meeting that he told Orbán that as far as he was concerned, the partnership was over. According to information from Simicska’s inner circle, however, he told Orbán something else as well.
At the meeting, the oligarch said he would be ready to sell his whole business empire to Orbán. Simicska later told his associates that Orbán rejected the idea.
“Viktor told him, ‘Lajos, there is no way that you can get out of this’,” recalled a source, relating what he heard from the oligarch.
It is not known how much Simicska wanted for his empire, but the episode highlights an important aspect of the conflict between the oligarch and Orbán. Together they built the political and economic conglomerate known as Fidesz, and after decades of partnership, it was simply impossible to calculate how much their individual contributions were worth. Simicska, according to his confidants, felt that he invested so much work into it that he deserved a substantial payment for it. Orbán and his inner circle saw things differently.
As a former member of Orbán’s team explained, “there was an agreement in Fidesz that what was created may have had Simicska’s name on it, but it actually belonged to the community.”
Alas, a new phase began in the relationship of Orbán and Simicska after that second meeting. The oligarch told several of his aides that the prime minister kept calling him during the summer, but he never picked up the phone. The two men communicated through intermediaries, but the tension kept growing.
One of the most important issues for Orbán concerned the fate of media companies owned by Simicska. These outlets – newspapers, radios and a television channel – had been supporting Fidesz in the past and were considered essential parts of the governing party’s political arsenal. Orbán suggested that Simicska could keep some of the ownership while the control would be taken over by the prime minister’s team.
Simicska rejected this offer, which further deepened the conflict. By then, the oligarch’s influence had already weakened, and his people had been purged from influential state positions following the April elections. He expected further offensives, especially against his construction companies which had been awarded numerous lucrative state contracts between 2010 and 2014. Simicska figured that the prosperous times were over for his firms, so he started to prepare his lieutenants for a new era.
In August 2014, he summoned Gábor Borókai, the editor-in-chief of his news magazine Heti Válasz to his office. Simicska told Borókai that a new period was coming, and they could not expect any more funding from government sources. He ordered the editor-in-chief to cut back the magazine’s budget for that year and to plan 2015 with similarly limited resources. Simicska made it clear that this was needed because his relationship with the government had deteriorated to such a level that they would try to push him out from every industry he was involved in.
Simicska held similar meetings with other executives as well, and he took other steps to get ready for the worsening conflict. It was around this time that he told a few of his confidants about his alleged video confession.
He sat down with them in an office on the second floor of his headquarters, a modest-looking house in a street in the Buda hills, and said that he made a recording in which he spoke about his mutual secrets with Orbán. “I took a deep breath, sat down before the camera,” Simicska said, according to a participant of the meeting.
Direkt36 spoke with four sources who claimed that Simicska told them about the video, but none of them actually saw the tape. They had limited knowledge of its content as well. One source said Simicska recalled an old story that had already been partly revealed, but its full details had not been uncovered yet. (It is not clear about what Simicska talked in the alleged video, but the oligarch had many controversial business dealings, especially in the 90s, and some of them involved private businesses owned by members of Orbán’s family.) Another source added that Simicska claimed to have placed copies of the recording in three different places and sent a message to Orbán that these recordings would be made public if something happened to him. “He felt that this was a guarantee for his personal safety,” the source said.
While Simicska was taking these steps, there was growing speculation about the dramatic change in his relationship with Orbán. During this time, neither men publicly commented on the feud. The first shots in this impending war followed not much later.
II. DECLARATION OF WAR
In January 2015, Viktor Orbán held a meeting with executives of news outlets that had been longtime supporters of his party. Editors from Simicska’s media empire were also present at the discussion which was held in one of parliament’s conference rooms. While Orbán did not specifically address his conflict with the Simicska, he did allude to it.
The meeting took place at a time when Fidesz was going through a crisis. Due to the mass protests against an unpopular tax proposal and a series of corruptions scandals, the government’s public support had visibly dropped and critical voices in the party began to speak up. Simultaneously, Simicska’s media, which had provided steady support for Orbán in the past, had started to reposition, giving more room for voices critical of the government.
The January 2015 meeting at the Parliament was Orbán’s reaction to this situation. According to several sources with knowledge about the details of the event, the prime minister warned the media executives that their news outlets should not count on state advertisement revenues anymore because their owners were in a strong financial situation. This was obviously a reference to Simicska’s media holdings, which in the past had received substantial state support through advertising.
Orbán also had a more profound message, one that reflected his long-term plans with the media industry. According to one of the people present, referring to the appearance of government-critical voices, the prime minister said that “he sees that the media changed its position and he understands that it is more natural for journalists to take a more critical stance.” Orbán added, however, that “he will do everything to create a media which supports him unconditionally.”
An event that took place a few weeks later played a key role in Orbán’s plans and also turned the hitherto largely hidden conflict between him and Simicska into open warfare.
On a Friday, February 6, 2015, Simicska’s media conglomerate was dealt a stunning blow. Almost every leader in his media empire announced their resignation.
According to the press release published around noon, the heads of Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV and Lánchíd Rádió stepped down, citing “reasons of conscience.” They did not give details in the press release, but internally they claimed the decision was due to Simicska’s fallout with Orbán.
The executives’ departure took Simicska – who was on his way to a foreign trip – clearly by surprise. The departure of his executives was “fucking surprising,” he explained to Index.hu.
The obscene statements continued as the oligarch, who previously stayed away from public appearances, gave interview after interview, calling Orbán “scum,” referring to the former executives as “traitors,” and threatening to “fuckin fire those that I still have to.”
On that February day, it was not only the profanity-laced statements that displayed the chaos unfolding in Simicska’s empire. At noon, the oligarch wanted to appoint Gábor Borókai as the head of Hír TV, but he declined. So, Simicska appointed himself. He named Csaba Schlecht, who had no experience in radio broadcasting, as the head of Lánchíd Rádió..
However, with time, Simicska managed to get things under control. While business opportunities significantly decreased for his construction and advertisement companies due to his conflict with the government, he invested heavily in his media companies. Hír TV launched new programs, Magyar Nemzet hired new journalists, and later they even developed the long-neglected online news platforms.
It seemed as though Simicska was serious about ousting Orbán. Based on what he told his own people, he was partly guided by a guilty conscience. He once said that he was remorseful about “letting Orbán screw this country up.” Referring to how he and Orbán took on the Socialist Party in the 1990s and the early 2000s, then the dominant political force, he said “it was necessary to learn the methods of the commies because they were strangling us.” He also said that he had to do it to compete with them, “but I thought we would earn an advantage and would make a new, normal country and not a dictatorship.” On other occasions, he claimed his goal was to make amends for his previous deeds.
The conflict also had a personal dimension that went beyond politics, which is reflected in how Simicska and Orbán explained their dispute to a person they both spoke with after the February 2015.
“I talked to both of them and asked what really happened, and they both said that the other went crazy,” the source recalled.
“Viktor said Lajos entered areas which were out of his reach. Viktor was unable to appoint and dismiss ministers or state secretaries without him,” the source said. Simicska told the source the problem was that “Viktor wanted everything for himself.”
According to people in contact with Simicska in the past years, it was obvious the oligarch had a hard time processing these changes. “He was very offended,” one of his company executives said, adding that this was understandable after how Orbán tried to sideline him.
“There were two people working shoulder by shoulder to achieve something, and suddenly one of them tells the other that he needs less of him,” the source explained. According to another source who had a longer discussion with Simicska in 2016, the oligarch looked like “a cheated lover who finds out the other was unworthy of his love.” The source said that at this discussion Simicska’s insult and resentment “were very strongly palpable” and the oligarch vowed to “fix the mistake.”
To accomplish this, he started looking for political allies.
III. THE SHARPEST KNIFE
In the evening hours of September 30, 2016, a small group gathered on the deck of A38, a boat venue. Just before the meeting, Magyar Nemzet hosted an event where two leading economists, Andrea Hossó and Péter Róna, analyzed the current domestic and international affairs. Lajos Simicska, the owner of the newspaper, was also sitting in the audience. When the event officially ended, Simicska and some of the newspapers’ staff members and invited guests stepped outside. The chain-smoking oligarch could finally light a cigarette. As they stood on the deck, Simicska shared some of his thoughts with the group.
The government’s anti-migration campaign was already in full swing. Much to the suprise of those in attendance, Simicska said that it bothered him that no one except the Liberals dared to openly say that the only normal approach to refugees was to treat them as people and help them. When one of the people present objected that this was impossible in the current political climate, Simicska responded that he understood this, but it was still wrong. “I am a Christian, and mercy and Christian values are important to me,” Simicska said.
It was less surprising to the group what Simicska said about Orbán. He again mentioned that he felt guilty about helping Fidesz rise to power and announced that it was impossible to negotiate with the prime minister. He had to be defeated, he said. “And who could do it?” asked someone in the group. Simicska pointed to one of those present, Jobbik leader Gábor Vona, who took the comment with a smile.
This was one of the few occasions when Simicska personally met with Vona. While the oligarch openly expressed his support for Jobbik several times in the past, he never formed close personal relations with the party president. According to people close to Simicska, the oligarch’s support for Jobbik was not motivated by personal sympathies, but practical considerations.
After his fallout with Orbán, Simicska started looking for political allies. At that time, Jobbik seemed the most natural choice. The oligarch maintained his negative feelings about the political left, especially the Democratic Coalition party led by former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, but he was impressed by Jobbik’s conservatism and strength.
In April 2015, shortly after the open confrontation between Orbán and Simicska, Vona’s party won in the parliamentary by-election in Tapolca, a small Hungarian town in western Hungary., This made Jobbik look like the best possible challenger of Fidesz. “Jobbik was the sharpest knife in the drawer,” a longtime confidante of Simicska said.
One way the oligarch could support Jobbik was by opening his media outlets to the party. However, according to the people working in Simicska’s media empire, this did not mean that they had to serve Jobbik’s interests. They also provided media space for new political forces such as LMP, but some Socialist party politicians were also given air time in programs.
“We did not help them, we just treated them like other parties,” an executive from Lanchid Radio said. According to this person, the media outlet gave equal coverage to both Jobbik and LMP, another opposition party. One of Hír TV’s senior editors commented that he asked for “neutral-supporting approach” from his staff not only towards Jobbik but also towards LMP. “Do not attack them immediately. Of course, if there is something controversial, then yes, but let’s not be the first ones,” the source said.
Simicska’s advertising companies also provided a platform for collaboration with Jobbik by running the party’s billboard campaigns. The negotiations over these campaigns were mostly held between executives of Simicska’ companies and Gábor Szabó, Jobbik’s party director and some of his colleagues. According to a person present at the negotiations, Simicska participated in some meetings, but the oligarch did not seem active in the negotiation process and did not participate in the campaign preparations.
“Simicska’s people did not have a say in our politics,” a former member of Jobbik leadership said, according to whom the party would not have taken it well if Simicska wanted to have a deeper role in Jobbik’s life. “The big majority, 98 percent detested Simicska. He would not have been acceptable in the party,” the source said, adding that “despite the shift to become a people’s party, the membership did not change.” The source described Jobbik as a sort of old socialist party considering its social base and its followers as those who “do not like businessmen.”
The formation of closer relations was also hindered by governmental attempts to cast Jobbik as a subordinate to Simicska. Fidesz’s politicians called Simicska the “master” of Jobbik, and tried to label the party as his “lackeys.” Vona knew that overly close relations with Simicska would be risky for him. To avoid any such negative fallout, Vona did not press for personal contacts with the oligarch. According to a former Jobbik leader, Vona was also aware that his movements were followed by government-linked paparazzi and considered any meetings with Simicska too dangerous.
At the same time, unable to form closer relations with Simicska, Vona was troubled by the fact thathe could not see the oligarch’s intentions. According to a source who had been in touch with Jobbik’s president, “Vona complained that he did not know what Simicska wanted.”
In fact, the oligarch had no apparent political plans. “Lajos had no strategy,” explained a Jobbik politician with close personal contacts to Simicska. All the oligarch had in mind was “to give an opportunity to the opposition to show itself,” the source explained.
Simicska’s own political performance also seemed off the cuff, without any discernable strategy.
A political communication expert once suggested to Simicska that instead of calling Orbán a “scum,” he should have shifted his position with gradual brand development. But he had always been outspoken, the oligarch responded. Simicska never did fine-tune his message, and when in the fall of 2017 he started spraying the same text (“Orbán is a scum”) on his billboards, his closest aides struggled to grapple with his actions.
“The first performance was a success, the next ones not really,” one of his former colleagues said, according to whom the spraying of billboards also showed that Simicska was “frustrated that he could not do more.”
The election battle was already in the home stretch by that point and the oligarch had no choice but to acknowledge that it was becoming increasingly difficult to reach his goals.
IV. IN PASSIVE RESISTANCE
The elections were only six months away and Simicska was unhappy. On October 23, when the country remembered the 1956 revolution, Hír TV broadcasted live from Jobbik’s event. This was a chance for the party to show strength in the campaign, but the event only showed signs of weakness. According to reports, only a few hundred people showed up. This not only caught the attention of a gloating pro-government media, but the attention of the oligarch as well. Simicska did not even try to hide his disappointment when he met one of Hír TV’s senior managers after the broadcast. “He said that if they are not able to attract a crowd at the Corvin cinema, a crowd big enough to stretch to the boulevard, then it is fucked,” the source recalled.
One and a half months later, Jobbik had another opportunity to prove itself, but that event did not turn out to be too promising either. In mid-December, Vona called the opposition camp for a torchlight march after the State Audit Office – an institution which is nominally independent but led by a former Fidesz politician – imposed a huge fine on Jobbik, jeopardizing the party’s chances in the election. According to one of Hír TV’s senior managers, Simicska said in advance this time that if they can’t draw a crowd of a hundred thousand, “then it is an election loss.” In the end, only a few thousand showed up at Heroes’ Square.
There is no information of Simicska directly signaling his dissatisfaction to Jobbik, but the message surely reached them. According to one of the party’s former leading politicians, longtime Simicska confidant and business associate Károly Fonyó erupted in anger at the party’s mediocre showing at a Magyar Nemzet Salon event. “Jobbik is unable to mobilize, to set the agenda. Jobbik doesn’t do anything. Jobbik lacks buoyancy,” the source recalled Fonyó’s criticism.
Of course, that the government tried everything to hinder Simicska’s partnership with the party also played a role in Jobbik’s poor performance. The most spectacular example of this was the billboard law.
In the spring of 2017, Jobbik launched an extensive billboard campaign in which they called Orbán and his associates thieves. These advertisements appeared on billboards owned by Simicska’s companies. The government, however, seemed determined to put a stop to it.
In June, Fidesz’s parliamentary majority adopted a law that made such billboard campaigns impossible. Legal experts even considered the adoption of the law to be illegal, since Fidesz made the decision with a simple majority vote instead of the required two-thirds majority (which Fidesz did not have at the time). Despite the attempts of Jobbik and Simicska to get around the law, they eventually had to pull the billboards due to the state’s strict action.
When authorities began tearing down the billboards with the help of police officers in September, Simicska issued a statement announcing that he would no longer give space for political advertisements. “The regime has entered into the path of open, manifest violence,” Simicska said. “I consider it impossible both for myself and for leaders of my companies to take any further material and personal risks”.
One of Simicska’s close associates at the time said the announcement was surprising because word inside the company was that “we will put those ads back up.” The associate noted, however, that for Simicska, the billboard law saga showed that Orbán could actually mobilize the whole state machinery in order to stop him. “During the conflict, Orbán and Simicska were constantly keeping an eye on who takes what step, and how far the other is willing to go,” the source said, adding that in the case of the billboard law it was Simicska who stopped, and caved in to Orbán’s actions.
After that, the oligarch did not really take any further steps that would have sharpened the conflict. He made some headlines for spraying his opinion on his billboards, but he also made it clear he would not disclose any details of his shared past with Orbán that could be destructive to the prime minister. At the end of November 2017, after one of his billboard-tagging actions, an RTL reporter asked if any information could be expected that could explode as a political “atomic bomb.” Simicska replied by asking “do you think I’m suicidal?”
This was not the first time Simicska suggested that the escalation of the conflict could pose a physical threat to him. Those close to him say he had shown signs of paranoia for years. In private conversations during his conflict with Orban, he repeatedly discussed the possibility of an accident happening to him at any time, such as getting hit by a car.
The oligarch’s attitude towards this perceived or real risk was inconsistent. On one hand, he tried to keep up the appearance of a man unafraid of perceived threats. In the summer of 2017, for instance, while talking to a former opposition MP in his countryside estate, he said: “look around, there are no guards!” According to this MP, Simicska added that “if they want to shoot me down, they can.” But Simicska said he wasn’t afraid, he didn’t “give a fuck about threats.”
On the other hand, however, there were signs that Simicska was seriously concerned not only of his own safety, but that of his family’s as well. This much was evident when he acquired the radiation detectors in the months leading up to the election. He also told multiple confidants he received threats that his family could be used to put pressure on him. One such threat was that one of his younger children could be framed for crime. Simicska mentioned this particular threat on several occasions, but he did not say where the information came from.
He had taken this threat seriously and, according to his staff, in 2017 he wanted to send his two younger children and wife abroad until after the election. According to a former colleague, the plan was to send family members to the United States. Simicska even entrusted one of his colleagues to enquire about the necessary procedure. The plan ultimately failed because of the oligarch’s wife. “Zsuzsa didn’t want to leave, and that’s why nothing came of it,” said one of Simicska’s longtime confidants. Others noted that the wife might have been even angrier with Orban than Simicska, and she tried to fuel her husband’s fury throughout the course of the conflict.
In the final months of the war, it seemed as though Simicska’s energy was running out. Though Simicska continued to claim inside his company that he thought Jobbik would win (at the end of 2017, he explained to one of his senior managers that polls are unreliable, and he is betting on Jobbik), in more private settings he shared his doubts. He suggested, for example, that if Jobbik would not have delegates in the ballot counting committees of all polling stations, it would be a bad sign. (In the end, Jobbik had delegates in only three-quarters of the polling stations around the country, compared to Fidesz, which had multiple delegates in a number of polling stations.)
Inside the business empire, some noticed how passive Simicska had become on the information front. Previously, Simicska would leak sensitive information to the public using his own media or other channels, but in last year’s election campaign, he did not. While many people believed that Simicska was behind those sensitive, sometimes incriminating stories of the government which were reported by Magyar Nemzet in the weeks before the election, in reality, he had little to do with them.
The only case in which Simicska played at least partial role in the distribution of such a material was the bizarre story of prominent Fidesz politician Lajos Kósa and his dealings with a controversial businesswoman. The first article on the case was published by Magyar Nemzet on 13 March.
The day before that story was published, Péter Tarr, deputy CEO of Hír TV, and Zsombor György, deputy editor in chief of Magyar Nemzet, were summoned to the company’s headquarters in Radóc street. There, Simicska’s staff revealed documents pertaining to the Kósa story. Journalists then went through the documents with the oligarch’s lawyers. The lawyers assured the journalists that the documents were authentic. According to a participant at the meeting, Simicska joined the conversation at one point, but did not say anything substantial. It was later revealed that, Simicska only played an intermediary role in this case. According to sources from Jobbik, the documents were actually acquired by a local party organization, and they were the ones who forwarded it to Simicska.
“So, this wasn’t a case prepared by Simicska either,” one of his former colleagues explained, claiming the documents only fell into the oligarch’s lap.
This story, and others published by his papers at the time, seemed to excite Simicska. A couple of weeks before the election, he called the editors to have one of next day’s cover stories read to him on the phone before it was sent to the press. (Since he did not use a smartphone and was unable to access the Internet on his mobile, he regularly had his colleagues to read the news on the phone.) In the final days before the election, despite the chaos surrounding the opposition’s side and the polls predicting a Fidesz victory, he kept telling his subordinates that the government was going to fall.
But the duality that was characteristic of his behavior in previous months was still present. In addition to his occasional enthusiasm, some of his steps suggested that he was aware of the expected outcome.
It was already after the elections that he told one of his longtime confidantes that, after it turned out that Jobbik would not have delegates in all polling stations, he started to put away copies of Magyar Nemzet. “He knew the paper will not exist for long,” the source close to Simicska explained how the oligarch was preparing for the foreseeable fall.
After the election, it did not take long for him to start tying up loose ends.
V. THE END GAME
On 9 April, Monday morning, executives of Simicska’s business empire gathered in the Radóc Street headquarters. Meetings were held most frequently on Mondays, but this was a special occasion. Hungary’s parliamentary elections were held the previous day, and Fidesz won another landslide victory.
As usual, Simicska sat behind his desk, while the others took seats on a leather sofa and two armchairs placed around a smoking table. According to one of the attendees, Simicska reacted calmly, without sadness to the developments of the previous day. He said he would activate the “bad scenario,” which meant Magyar Nemzet and Lánchíd Radio would be closed down with immediate effect. The brief meeting ended with an agreement that the decision would be announced in the two outlets the following day.
At another meeting with one of his subordinates on Monday, Simicska also said “it is clear that they cannot be defeated through democratic elections.”
It was not yet clear though to what extent he planned to withdraw from the fight against Orbán.
He told his people he would keep Hír TV, but there also were more and more signs that he was preparing for a full capitulation. For instance, he didn’t seem to make meaningful efforts to sell Magyar Nemzet (the broadcasting license of Lánchíd Radio was going to expire anyway in October). This was in spite of the fact that in the last weeks before the elections, Péter Ungár, a politician of LMP, had expressed interest in buying the newspaper.
The oligarch’s representatives negotiated with the LMP politician on April 9th, the same day Simicska announced the newspaper’s closure to his own people. They wanted a price of 1.35 billion forints (4.2 million euros) for a package that not only included Magyar Nemzet, but also the soon to be closed down Lánchíd Radio and Heti Válasz, a loss-making weekly paper.
Ungár thought the price and other conditions – that he would not have been allowed to shut down the print version of Magyar Nemzet – were too much. Negotiations soon became pointless. Ungár learned about the closure from one of the newspaper’s journalists. Upon hearing this, Ungár thought that the whole negotiation was “a joke”.
Simicska did not try to help those who wanted to carry on the legacy of Magyar Nemzet. Several of the paper’s journalists put together a “samizdat Magyar Nemzet” later that week, and in May they founded a weekly called Magyar Hang. The new editorial staff sought help from Simicska and his companies to no avail.
Magyar Hang told the publisher of Magyar Nemzet that they would like to purchase some of the paper’s assets. The publisher sold some computers, but then they refued to sell more. Simicska’s company also declined to hand over the Magyar Nemzet’s subscriber database, thereby blocking the new team from building something on Magyar Nemzet’s ruins.
At the time, negotiations about Simicska’s full withdrawal from Hungarian economic life had already started. By the end of April, according to a source familiar with the details of this process, the oligarch sent a message through an intermediary to Orbán, saying that “if he can go freely, he will sell everything.”
By early May, negotiations were already in motion.
In the meantime, at Hír TV, the last remaining piece of Simicska’s media empire, employees still believed that their future was secure. Despite ordering budget cutbacks in the weeks following the elections, Simicska told the management that he would keep the television broadcaster until at least the end of 2019 (this is when the television broadcaster’s contracts with cable TV providers, that guaranteed stable income and audience, were set to expire). In the meantime, with Simicska’s approval, Hír Tv executives also tried to bring in foreign investors. They negotiated about some type of cooperation with Euronews (which also broadcasts in Hungarian and has an international ownership structure), in the off chance that an international collaboration would protect them from the government.
Károly Fonyó contacted the international channel after the elections, saying that they “would like to secure” Hír TV, and considered Euronews a guarantee for this. A representative of Euronews said that, for them, the only acceptable solution is if they can become the sole owner Hír TV. Fonyó – who emphasized during the meeting that he was acting on behalf of Simicska – was open to this solution, and said it was important for them that Hír TV survives, that it not end up in the government’s hands.
Discussions were still ongoing in June, parallel to negotiations concerning Simicska’s capitulation. In June, Simicska told an old confidant that he felt that he did not have a choice: if he chose to keep his business interests, he would have to keep paying his people, but he would have less and less revenue. The oligarch also mentioned that Zsolt Nyerges would likely be the one to take over his companies.
Nyerges for years was Simicska’s right hand man, managing the daily operations of the vast business empire. But Nyerges took a step back when Simicska’s conflict with Orbán escalated.
Nyerges, who originally came this business circle as a friend of the Orbán family, tried to maintain good ties with both parties during the Simicska–Orbán feud. Thus, he seemed the best intermediary to handle the deal: he knew the business empire well, and he was on good terms with both parties.
Finally, on a Wednesday, July 4, it was announced that Nyerges would take over the Simicska family businesses. This came as a surprise for many, even in the circles close to the oligarch. Some were disappointed, as they felt that Simicska turned his back on what he had represented in the previous years. At a meeting held soon after the announcement, one of Simicska’s longtime aides remarked that “Lajos chose money over honor.”
The oligarch appeared to have difficulties accepting the new situation. In the days and weeks after the announcement, Simicska phoned various people saying that he wanted to undo the deal. According to those close to him, Simicska made these calls when he was drunk. As a longtime colleague of his put it, on such occasions, “alcohol does not make him numb, but sharp, it makes him more active.”
These flare-ups did not result in anything, and, according to a source familiar with the details of the deal, Simicska had no choice but to step back. “Everything was on paper, it was already submitted to GVH [the Hungarian Competition Authority, which had to approve the transfer of business interests], it could not have been undone,” a source explained.
Simicska only kept one of his business interests, Hárskúti Agricultural Zrt., a family enterprise under his wife’s name. The company, which only made some ten million forints of profit (10 million HUF is about 31 thouand EUR) in previous years, has a farm in Hárskút, next to Veszprém, a major city in Western Hungary, with horses and other animals. The Simicska family owns a guesthouse on the main road of the silent village. They also have a private house, which resembles a modern farmhouse, a couple of kilometers from the village, far away from everything.
This is what remains of the former oligarch’s massive business empire. We have no credible information about the amount of money Simicska received for his businesses. It is likely though that he will not face financial troubles, as he already withdrew tens of billions of forints (10 billion HUF I about 31 million EUR) in dividends in recent years.
He did, however, lose his political and economic influence, a massive personal change when compared to his previous status as one of the most powerful men in the country.
Even those close to him wonder how he will be able to deal with this. “The sense of power was an important part of his personality for thirty years,” one of his ex-colleagues said. “The big question now is what he will do next.”
Benjamin Novak contributed edits to this article.