In what has become an almost annual summer affair, another of Hungary’s elite is caught vacationing on a luxury yacht. But while titillating, there seem few real consequences for getting caught.
Lorinc Meszaros, Hungary’s richest man, is a real family guy. This summer, he took his wife, children and grandchildren on an exclusive cruise along the French and the Italian Rivieras aboard the Rose d’Or, a brand spanking new 62-metre-long superyacht.
Meszaros was snapped by Hungarian photojournalist Daniel Nemeth from 444.hu emerging from the boat’s swimming pool while his wife, Andrea Varkonyi, a former TV anchor, sipped ice coffee. She was later spotted wearing a Dior T-shirt and shorts worth over 4,000 euros during a pitstop in Monaco.
The Rose d’Or, which can host up to 12 guests and 13 crew, is valued at 70 million euros. It is a gas-guzzling monster that holds a full tank of 220,000 euros worth of diesel. This is by far the biggest yacht anyone from the Hungarian government-connected elite has so far been caught holidaying on.
Unsurprisingly, the yacht has a murky financial background. It is leased by Euroleasing, a loss-making company owned by MBH, a new Hungarian banking conglomerate belonging to Meszaros and the Hungarian state. On paper, Euroleasing could not even afford the operating costs of the Rose d’Or let alone a lease. There has been speculation that the yacht actually belongs to Russian mining mogul Konstantin Strukov, a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
The pictures of Meszaros enjoying his holiday were published in August, when many Hungarians were struggling to afford a proper vacation due to rampant inflation and a crippling economic crisis. Sensing a certain uneasiness inside the Fidesz camp at the flaunting of such wealth, Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, after initially dismissing the story as a private affair, offered some cautious criticism.
“Smaller ship, more modesty,” he remarked to RTL.hu, adding the warning to Hungary’s “businessmen” that they are also part of a national community facing “unprecedented economic difficulties due to the war and the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.”
His words came as a surprise to a country unused to hearing any criticism between those close to Viktor Orban.
One of the closest is certainly Lorinc Meszaros, who started off as a humble gas fitter but enjoyed a meteoric rise that saw him amass an estimated fortune of 1.7 billion euros during the time since his childhood friend became the prime minister in 2010.
He is the incarnation of the Viktor Orban-type crony capitalism, where loyal businessmen build business empires – in Meszaros’s case comprising financial, media and energy companies – almost exclusively on the back of public procurement.
Yet the richer Meszaros gets, the more irritating he becomes for many core Fidesz voters, who have belatedly started to complain that the middle class Orban promised to construct has little to do with hard work, competition, talent and the free market, but rather more to do with ready access to unlimited amounts of taxpayer money. Fidesz-loyal documentary filmmaker Laszlo Pesty openly criticised the Meszaros-like businessmen as “jerks who don’t even know how to use a fork and knife” and whose attitude is detrimental to conservative ideals.
But Zoltan Kiszelly, director of the government-close Szazadveg Foundation, plays down such criticism. “It is only the left which tries to frame the narrative with these yachting stories, it happens every summer,” he tells BIRN.
“Meszaros is a rich guy, so he evidently spends his holidays differently than the average citizen,” he says, dismissing the public condemnation that most of Meszaros’ fortune has come via public procurement, meaning EU or Hungarian taxpayers’ money.
“Luckily, these stories die off in weeks, if not in days, and have little effect on any upcoming elections,” Kiszelly says confidently, referring to the 2024 European and 2026 parliamentary elections.
The independent political scientist Zoltan Lakner agrees. “Although Fidesz voters are usually aware of corruption stories, these are not among the top priorities when they decide [whom to vote for],” he tells BIRN. “Would there be viable alternatives from the opposition this could be an issue, but currently it is not.”
Vacationing on luxury yachts has indeed been a recurring story over the past few years in Hungary, a landlocked country where its rich, famous and powerful display a certain obsession with large boats.
It has been well documented that former local mayor-turned-businessman Laszlo Szijj, an associate of Meszaros in many public tenders and the fourth richest man in the country, regularly hosted fellow entrepreneurs and occasionally also politicians on his two luxury yachts, Lady MDR and Seagull. Lady MDR was sold for 14 million euros, while Seagull was recently put up for sale for 33 million euros.
The closest it got to a major political scandal was when Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was photographed on board the Lady MRD in 2020, even as he posted on Facebook that he was working hard on a solution to the Belarusian crisis, busily making calls to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and Germany’s then-foreign minister Heiko Maas.
The photos proving otherwise, that he was in fact on a yacht cruising the Adriatic with his wife, elicited a hasty response that the minister often works during his vacations. Yet being spotted on a luxury yacht owned by an oligarch was a blow to Szijjarto’s image as an austere and hardworking politician.
However, the only real consequence was that the boat’s Automatic Identification System was immediately switched off and it disappeared from radars. The government’s official reaction was that vacations are private and everybody should mind their own business. Yet it is notable that since then, government members have been careful not to repeat Szijjarto’s mistake.
Prime Minister Orban has famously never set foot on a yacht – or at least not been spotted on one – and had to be rescued by a Croatian journalist when his small motorboat broke down during last year’s vacation in Brac, Croatia. A textbook example of how to present oneself as a modest statesman.
The only occasion when a yachting excursion had real political consequences was in the runup to municipal elections in October 2019. Zsolt Borkai, then mayor of Gyor, a city which hosts one of Hungary’s major investors, the German carmaker Audi, was sailing off the Croatian coast on a relatively modest yacht, but on which the former Olympic champion gymnast and father of two hosted a wild sex and drugs party with a group of prostitutes. A secret video of the party, showing him in full swing, was subsequently leaked online.
Despite the scandal, which shocked many Fidesz voters and led to questions about how seriously the party took its conservative values, Borkai was re-elected mayor, though was forced to step down a few weeks later.
“The Borkai case showed some vulnerability in the system, but it had less to do with trampling on family values, much more with the concern of the government being humiliated, as the whole country was laughing at the vulgar partying of a Fidesz politician,” the political scientist Lakner explains.