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Treetop walkway without trees highlights corruption in Hungary

It should have been a treetop walkway – instead it is a bridge over an area of ​​young trees and open fields.

The project in the Hungarian village of Nyirmartonfalva – built as part of an EU-funded programme now accused of corruption – highlights the deep-rooted problem of corruption and waste just before the country takes over the rotating presidency of the Union from Monday.

“It is a frightening visual representation of the process that has been going on for more than a decade of Hungary stealing and wasting EU funds,” Akos Hadhazy, an independent lawmaker known for his work against corruption, told AFP.

Since nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban returned to power in 2010, Hungary has fallen from 50th to 76th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and is set to rank last among EU members in 2023.

During the same period, Orban’s inner circle has amassed spectacular wealth through public tenders – from his confidant Lorinc Meszaros to his son-in-law Istvan Tiborcz, who now control large parts of the economy.

And Brussels has frozen about 19 billion euros (20 billion dollars) in EU funds earmarked for Hungary, partly because of alleged corruption in public procurement.

The Central European country claims that Brussels is withholding the funds to put pressure on it over its self-proclaimed “illiberal” transformation process and denies allegations of corruption.

– “No need” for a forest –

The 80-metre-long Nyirmartonfalva walkway rose to overnight fame last year after a report by investigative website Atlatszo went viral.

The report sparked corruption investigations and prompted journalists, opposition politicians and even US Ambassador David Pressman to descend on the remote village of 2,000 people near the Romanian border.

“What a prospect!” Pressman – who has warned of the “corrosive effect of corruption on democracy” and called on Hungary to address it – wrote on X in January, posting photos of himself on the site.

One of the informants, pensioner Zoltan Palfy, told AFP that some villagers still do not greet him on the street because they are angry about their village’s sudden notoriety.

The story of this structure began when entrepreneur Mihaly Filemon applied for an EU grant under a Hungarian rural development program to build a treetop walkway on his property.

After receiving a promise of 64 million forints (160,000 euros or 170,000 dollars) in 2021, Filemon began construction. The mayor, then elected with the support of Orban’s Fidesz party, had already started construction work ahead of time.

But when inflation drove up prices, Filemon decided to cut down the forest and sell the wood to finance the work – the result was the treeless walkway.

“There was no need to have a forest here. The forest will grow. As you can see, it has already grown,” he told AFP last week when met on the sidewalk. He pointed to the tree saplings now planted around the site and accused the tender of not setting a minimum height for the surrounding trees.

Meanwhile, a 10-month corruption investigation uncovered serious irregularities – including signs of collusion, inflated prices and nepotism – in the EU-funded, Hungarian-managed development program under which the walkway and other projects were solicited for funds.

The investigation was led by the country’s anti-corruption agency, the Integrity Authority, which was set up in late 2022 under pressure from the EU to prevent misuse of the bloc’s funds.

The organization has filed a criminal complaint because it does not have the authority to close the case itself. So far, Filemon has not been paid any money.

In addition to the financial losses, Filemon attributed his defeat in the local elections in June to the scandal.

– “Dummy institution” –

Anti-corruption campaigner Hadhazy accuses the authorities of having “covered up” cases of “systematic” corruption at the highest level under Orban.

“In practice, corruption cases are very rarely prosecuted in Hungary,” the opposition politician noted, adding that Fidesz’s dominance of the media limits the possible consequences for the elections at the national level.

“The propaganda machine can hide or divert attention from ‘inconvenient facts’ from millions of people,” he said.

Hadhazy also described the Integrity Authority as a “sham institution” because it does not have the power to initiate law enforcement actions.

Its president, Ferenc Biro, recently called for an expansion of the agency’s legal powers.

“I consider it imperative that the authority can independently investigate corruption cases and impose sanctions,” Biro told AFP.

However, critics consider this unlikely.

Instead, both the investigative website Atlatszo and the Hungarian branch of Transparency International became the target of a controversial new agency created to curb foreign influence.

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FOX28 Spokane©