- 3 Apr 2015 9:00 AM
Photo: Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó (left) pictured with Yelena Tsvetkova (middle) and Quaestor owner Csaba Tarsoly (right) on the inauguration of the Hungarian visa center in Moscow, 2014 / Photo: MTI – Hungarian Embassy, Moscow
* The Hungarian secret service classified Szilárd Kiss, a key figure in the Eastern Opening foreign policy, as a risk factor due to his connections to the Russian underworld
* Even though Kiss failed the security vetting procedure, Sándor Fazekas, the Hungarian minister of agriculture, made sure that he retained his position as a ministerial advisor
* Fazekas is not willing to explain why he made this decision
* A series of Russian prostitutes and criminals were caught in Western Europe holding visas issued at the Hungarian Consulate in Moscow
* Kiss issued visas in large quantities, once pocketing EUR 80,000 for a single issuance. Whoever raised the issue of his shady transactions was disciplined
* Moscow Embassy was overwhelmed with processing visa applications, so it started to outsource it to a private contractor. Hardly by coincidence this contractor was led by Kiss’ Russian girlfriend
The story of Szilárd Kiss, who has been held in preliminary custody since the beginning of January, has been investigated by Index for weeks.
In Part 1 of our series we described how he was exposed. Part 2. was about his joint ventures with Csaba Tarsoly, one of the main figures involved in the recent brokerage scandal. He also did business with Lőrinc Mészáros, the mayor of Felcsút–they own a Russian company together.
“He did everything he promised, man! Here, for the bank, everything, man! So I do not question the seriousness of his intentions now.”
- Gyula Sziky, an entrepreneur from Nyíregyháza explained enthusiastically to one of his friends, about Szilárd Kiss, back in September 2013. This was not long after the agricultural attaché had helped him get rid of a debt of HUF 700 million for only HUF 140 million, of which HUF 40 million was paid as a bribe to the representative of the debtor, a savings association executive in Orgovány. This was the topic of Part 1 of our story.
“Well look, he arranged hundred and fifty [million] forints exactly the way he explained it to me and as promised! This stuff, everything happened just the way it was supposed to happen. He arranged the stamp [meaning the bribe money] and all. Exactly, right on time. There were cases when he was a bit late, and then he sent his mother, fuck it, his own mother, so it wouldn’t be late!”
- Sziky further detailed the story, not suspecting that his phone was being wiretapped by the police.
If Sziky had remained silent, not telling the whole story over the phone, he and Kiss never would have been exposed. Csaba Tersely, the owner of recently bankrupted Quaestor would have avoided an awkward situation, too. He was also on good terms with Sziky and was doing business with Szilárd Kiss. Just as Lőrinc Mészáros, a close friend to Viktor Orbán, who we revealed to be the co-owner of a Russian company of the ex-diplomat who was arrested in January. The fact that Sziky detailed his story over the phone suggests that he was feeling safe. The same could not be said about Kiss.
“In Russia, anything could happen.”
This is what Lőrinc Mészáros said when we confronted him with a Russian company he owns together with the arrested Szilárd Kiss, the shrewd lobbyist of the Eastern opening. The company could not be found in his asset declaration. Allegedly, the company was to export bacon, and the bankrupted Quaestor could also be found among its partners.
A telltale underworld
In September 2013, Kiss, then agricultural attaché, was complaining to Sziky about being targeted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the time lead by János Martonyi. His dubious affairs by then reached the ambassador in Moscow as well as the leadership of the ministry. Martonyi and his colleagues had every reason to try and get rid of the lobbyist of the Eastern opening but they were not able to act on their suspicions for a long time. Kiss was legally under the auspices of the agricultural ministry, where he developed excellent connections.
In September, however, the results of the national security vetting procedures of Kiss has been prepared. The examinations were conducted by the civil secret services (Office for the Protection of the Constitution – AH) belonging to the Ministry of Interior. As we have published in January they identified a number of risk factors. A few days later, the case was discussed in the parliamentary national security committee where it was revealed that Kiss failed the screening twice.
The national security screenings are conducted for every person appointed to a confidential position. Its aim is to answer the simple question: can it be substantially established whether there is a condition endangering or violating national security interests?
During our investigation, we found out what has been found at Kiss. Multiple, independent sources claimed to Index that during the screening it was undoubtedly established that Kiss had connections with the Russian organized crime scene.
The results of the AH vetting were filed by the ministry of interior led by Sándor Pintér to all ministries involved. This means that the expert opinion was on the desks of János Martonyi and Sándor Fazekas as well. A source with an insight into conventional screening procedures said that in the event ministers have further questions or are unsure about anything they can call the Minister of Interior any time, who offers them a more detailed information about the risks revealed.
As you can read in our mini-interview: the ministry of interior was not approached by any ministers concerning Szilárd Kiss, consequently he did not offer any further guidance. At the same time, Sándor Pintér alleged that appointing Kiss was a bad decision.
As the relevant legislation was amended by the Fidesz government in a way that the employer has the right to decide whether to keep someone in a position despite security risks, it was the ministers’ responsibility to decide Kiss’s fate.
Upon receiving the screening expert opinion, Martony took immediate steps. He removed Kiss, and, what is more, banned him from the Moscow Embassy and the diplomatic corps (by then the ambassador, István Íjgyártó had also isolated Kiss within the embassy). But appointing or calling back an agricultural attaché eventually rests with the Ministry of Agriculture.
This is why the Foreign Ministry has to notify Fazekas’s ministry that for them the attaché is unacceptable, and that he should be immediately removed. Despite all this, the Ministry of Agriculture did not even aim the create the bare impression of having any problem with Szilárd Kiss. This is why in the official documents it can be read that Kiss was initiating his own (!) recall by 23 September 2013.
With this, the legal status of Kiss at the ministry was discontinued, but he did not really have to worry. Despite an examination revealing the national security risk and the warning from the Foreign Ministry, Fazekas immediately named the returning Kiss ministerial appointee responsible for eastern economic relations. Even though Kiss was calling himself a commissioner, in reality he was an appointee, which is very different. The Agriculture Ministry did not make him an official member of the ministry staff, but employed him on an agency contract.
Why is this important? Because in this manner Szilárd Kiss was able to avoid another national security screening.
It is highly insensible why Fazekas was willing to take this risk. We tried to get him to explain his actions, but the minister is avoiding opposition MPs and the public, not saying anything or avoiding the question. He was unavailable for comments to Index.
Too many 19-year-old executive ladies
Although we were not able to reveal anything directly from the screening details, it is probable that AH did not have a hard time encountering the suspicious activities of Szilárd Kiss, as we managed to find a couple of them as well. His name surfaced in a number of shady Moscow affairs. The most shocking of these is a case that has been confirmed to Index by many Hungarians frequently attending Moscow embassy:
Kiss was known at the consulate for arranging large numbers of Hungarian EU visas for Russian prostitutes.
From the early 1990’s Russia was one of the principal source countries of international women trafficking. Organized crime groups lure young women to Western countries with promises of foreign employment as waitresses, dancers, or au-pairs. Sometimes, they transfer women already working as prostitutes in Russia to better paying Western markets.
Even though prostitution in Russia is illegal, regulations are fittingly loose. Prostitutes need to pay 1500-2000 rubles (USD 25-33) in fines, but organizing prostitution can be punished by prison sentence. But usually only on paper. International organizations routinely criticize Moscow for doing barely nothing to curb human trafficking and prostitution.
“You should understand that in Russia, women are handled as commodities too”
A former Hungarian diplomat stationed in Russia for a long time explained. According to him, in the backward and poor rural Russia many mothers are sending their daughters to Moscow with the articulated intention to “try her luck and find a sponsor.” The image of prostitution as a career track is entirely different due to the crisis of values present in Russia since the the predatory capitalism, creating a huge gap between the country and the West.
Szilárd Kiss often invited his friends and business partners to Moscow promising them a “land of milk and honey” and the reference was hard to misunderstand. Kiss, who graduated in Moscow, had been doing business in Russia since the 1990’s sometimes trading meat, sometimes vegetable, wine or champagne. During the first Orbán government he worked his way up to the Moscow Hungarian elite with favors. This is when he established a close relationship with the serving ambassador at the time, Ernő Keskeny.
This was when he probably infiltrated the Consulate department as well. A source living in Moscow in the mid-2000’s says that at the time an employee at the consulate department was complaining to him about Kiss, as he “was busy acquiring visas for his whores.” According to him, this illegal business was going on and prospered for a long time, at best since the millennium.
Right before Hungary’s admittance to the Schengen area, at around 2006, the amount of “whore visas” became suspicious for a growing number of people. At the embassy, a widespread rumor of this being Kiss’s private business was circulating. According to an anecdote, this was the period when after issuing one of such visas a consul had enough and issued an order, that “Kiss’s women could not be granted visas any more.” Less than two days after that, the same consul had to back off and intervene so that the Natasha or Olga at the time could access her papers.
Another source, formerly in a professional relationship with Szilárd Kiss told us that once in Madrid three Russian prostitutes were busted during a police action and it was revealed that all three of them held Hungarian Schengen visas issued at the Hungarian embassy in Moscow. Spanish authorities then contacted the Hungarians telling them to pay more attention to the visas, another source with an insight of embassy affairs confirmed to us.
“When too many 19-year lady executives request one visa one after another, it should be suspicious!” he said adding that there were similar cases of police actions in German. Another informant told us that according to his knowledge, even wanted criminals holding Hungarian visas were busted in France.
Authorized to sell visas
Diplomats formerly serving at multiple stations told Index that this is not a specific Hungarian issue. Countries in which social and economic conditions are similar to that in Russia all have a very embedded visa mafia, and their foreign consulates can easily be corrupted. According to another popular story, in an Eastern bloc capital carabinieris protecting an Italian embassy were constantly replaced as all of them were easily bribed.
A 2012-13 inner probe at the foreign ministry (first reported by Népszabadság) also pointed out that Kiss had a possible role in the surge in the number of visas issued. According to the paper, “Kiss was dealing with securing visas as a diplomat bringing in a considerable number of Russian passports, that should be much more than his friendly or business connections combined.” According to our information the above mentioned probe found that Kiss assisted in issuing cca. 2500 visas in a manner that compulsory letters of invitation were taken care of by one of Kiss’ Hungarian companies or a company belong to one of his business associates.
The visa business conducted by the lobbyist of the Eastern opening can be confirmed by a publicly accessible document of January 2011, and it cannot be understood why this had not occurred to the Ministry of Agriculture or to the Foreign Ministry at the time. Szilárd Kiss was sued by Russian businessman Evgeny Dubrovnik who demanded EUR 1,148,500 plus EUR 97,303 in interests due to the deficit of his companies. In the 2011 court verdict there are some passages (also mentioned by Népszabadság in its article) according to which Dubrovin gave Kiss EUR 80,000 especially to arrange visas to Hungary for his “friends.”
In 2008, when this transaction probably took place, the HUF/EUR rate was moving at around 229.11 and 275.79. Average daily rate established by the Hungarian National Bank was HUF 225, meaning that Szilárd Kiss could have pocketed as much as HUF 20.4 million in euros for his promises of arranging visas.
Anonymous sources at the Foreign Ministry cited numerous examples of the kind of influence Szilárd Kiss exercised over consulate services after 2010, already with the backing of the ministry. Kiss was reported by multiple employees during these years for his suspicious visa transactions, but the people reporting were always the losers of such battles. We know about two specific cases when reporters disclosing information were disciplined instead of the reported. Their fate was demotion and replacement within a short period of time, the official reason was always “employment reorganization.”
It should be noted that the Consulate is functioning as an institution largely autonomous from the embassy. Consuls are being directed and advised directly from the department of consulates of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Budapest, that is under the auspices of the under-secretary of public administration.
The girlfriend to counter corruption
One of our sources, an enthusiastic supporter of this reform, explained he outsourcing of visa arrangements in the autumn of 2014 among other things exactly with the high level of corruption at the Consulate department of the Hungarian embassy at Moscow.
“Beforehand, illegally produced visas were being extracted form the embassy in bags. In the new visa center, the good thing is that you cannot ask for a favor any more.”
The center put things in order, there is a fixed price of EUR 35 per visa, to be transferred directly to the Embassy’s bank account. In this way, tricksters disappear” so the defense of the VisaWorld-Center company of our source goes. The center was inaugurated on November 19 by Péter Szijjártó, minister of foreign affairs and Csaba Tarsoly, owner of recently bankrupted Quaestor brokerage company as well as by Yelena Tsvetkova, co-owner and manager of the visa center. They had grandiose plans for expansions, with the next center planned to open in Kazan, accompanying a new Hungarian consulate general there.
Outsourcing visa services was on the table since 2012, after criticism towards the Moscow consulate for filling up all the slots too early due to a vast amount of incoming applications. István Íjgyártó, former Hungarian ambassador to Moscow confirmed this to Index. As he put it, the overwhelmed consulate was under a huge pressure that could not be physically expanded as “people could not stand in lines on the street in -30 degrees Celsius.
” Over the past years, many Western countries outsourced their visa services to contractors, while Southern countries hunting for Russian tourists, like Greece, Italy, Portugal issued hundreds of thousands of visas, while Finland signed off one and a half million of such papers, Hungary was quite late to liberalize its services.
Setting up the Hungarian visa center however was not following international trends. The rest of the countries, from the British to the Germans to the French, were typically commissioning an Indian company, VFS Global that was holding excellent credentials in operating visa centers without involving any mediating companies. VFS started to offer visa outsourcing services in 2001, well before everybody else. Presently it has 45 governments as its customers, operating 1546 visa centers in 120 countries.
At first, it seemed as though they would secure the Hungarian contract in Moscow as well. Eventually the winner was a new company without any credentials set up by Csaba Tarsoly, who, by then, had excellent connections at Fidesz. The owner of Quaestor had an associate as well–none other than Yelene Tsvetkova, and the center moved into the offices of Tarsoly’s trading company. The fallacy of the whole setup was that, while outsourced visa centers were aimed especially at countering corruption at the consulate, it came under the direction of Tsvetkova, the business associate and girlfriend of Szilárd Kiss.
Tsvetkova, who is only referred to as Lena by many has numerous joint enterprises with Kiss, whohas been in a relationship with her since the end of the 2000’s.
After Kiss’ arrest, Péter Szijjártó said in an interview that he was requesting Tarsoly to acquire any assets held by Tsvetkova in the visa center. Not long after that, however, the brokerage scandal erupted, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade quickly scratched Quaestor off the list as well, terminating all existing contracts with Tarsoly. Tsvetkova, however, wrote to Index that she did not receive any official notification about the termination of her contract with the consulate, and that the visa center temporarily suspended the accepting of visa applications until a decision by the foreign ministry is made.
The eligibility of Tsvetkova for running the visa center could not only be questioned because of her relationship with Szilárd Kiss. Researching the Russian company register we found the other firm owned by the businesswoman, Eurokeg, dealing with plastic production. According to the papers Lena’s business associate here, holding 33% of the shares is no other than Yevgeniy Dubrovin who earlier wanted to buy Hungarian Schengen visas from Kiss for EUR 80,000.
And there is something else as well.
Hole in the Schengen shield
One government source claimed to Index that:
“There is a strong suspicion that Szilárd Kiss is in connection with the Russian secret services.”
This is what an opposition MP already claimed. According to him the real risk is Kiss’s girlfriend. It is already known about Yelena Tsvetkova that she is well acquainted with the inner circles of Russian political and economic elite, as earlier she was working at the Russian Ministry of Agriculture. Sources who were able to take a closer look at the report following the security vetting of the former agricultural attaché could only confirm that AH established Kiss’s organized crime connections.
When we approached a Hungarian diplomat formerly serving in Moscow and knowing Kiss personally with this question he replied that: “Approach to the armed services in Russia is quite different from that in Hungary. There cooperation with the hereditary organizations of the KGB for promotion or for a foreign posting is considered to be a patriotic duty.” This source recalled a bon mot that he thinks is relevant to certain post-Communist states according to which the question is not who is cooperating with resident secret services, but more like who is not.
Another source embedded with foreign affairs told us that he considers Moscow visa center in its present form a “hole in the Schengen shield” and said that it is unimaginable that the Russian secret services does not have a clear view on its everyday operations, probably through the Russian girlfriend of Szilárd Kiss. One of the greatest risk factors concerning a visa center in the middle is that the already sporadic personal relationship between the applicant and the console entirely ceases to exist. Citing the title of a well known Hungarian punk song, our source recalled who could get to the West from the East using this system: “Whores and gangsters, forward!” In addition people, who would have been weeded out during a routine face-control could slip through the barriers in this way, meaning not only criminals, but suspected terrorists as well.
According to our source, the Russians could ask the Hungarians to get this or that person through as a favor. As part of their hybrid warfare is that they are throwing their domestic terrorists on Europe instead of dealing with them at home. One of our informants with a knowledge of Russian secret services told us that there are many ways the Russians could exploit a visa acquired using a fake passport. Even if they do not want to get terrorists into Western Europe, they still need to stack up Schengen visas for routine foreign secret service operations.
Long-term visas that can be used to enter the country on multiple occasions are especially vulnerable. In such cases, the consul has to summon the applicant. But in practice such procedures are often circumvented or sabotaged. And as Western authorities look at Hungarian visas with much less suspicion, one could easily dodge any control with it. However scary this may sound but with a good forged passport even a terrorist is able to secure a Hungarian visa. As our source puts it:
“If a Chechen detonated a bomb in Paris, it would be of little consolation that we are terribly sorry, but our consulate was extremely overwhelmed in Moscow!”
The numbers, however, are brutal. In a written question, Socialist parliamentary caucus leader Attila Mesterházy enquired after the total number of visas issued at Hungarian consulates, as well as the number issued in Moscow from minister Szijjártó. The answer clarified that since joining the Schengen area in January 2008, more than two million such visas were issued out of which 400 thousand were provided at Moscow. This means that every fifth Hungarian Schengen visa was coming out of the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow, not exactly an institution of flawless reputation.
Source: Budapest Sentinel
Republished with permission