Bige, who competes with Csanyi in the fertiliser distribution business, painted a picture of consorted attacks aimed at forcing him into selling his larger factory, which he recently rebuilt for more than 450 million euros ($730 million).
Csanyi has no interest in buying the plant, according to OTP Bank, where he is chief executive and chairman. In an emailed response to Bloomberg, OTP’s communications department wouldn’t comment on any dispute between the two men. A lawyer for Csanyi’s fertiliser distribution company, meanwhile, described Bige as an entrepreneur trying to stay afloat after a series of bad investment decisions.
Whatever the case, Bige’s travails show how a country whose economy once was the darling of post-communist development is now rife with allegations of cronyism and intimidation.
Orban has clashed with the EU over rule of law in what he calls “illiberal democracy” while also proving to be a popular leader, winning three straight election victories, and helping swell corporate profits with one of the EU’s fastest economic growth rates.
There’s no doubt he rewards his favourites. Lorinc Meszaros, a childhood friend of Orban, has become Hungary’s richest man in a few years, helped by lucrative state contracts. His rise coincided with the fall from grace of Lajos Simicska, who lost a construction firm and a media empire after an unusually public fallout with the government in 2015. Meszaros has credited Orban with contributing to his success.
During Orban’s premiership, Hungary has tumbled down the rankings in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, to 64th from 50th in 2010. Only Bulgaria and Greece are now worse in the EU.
“A lot of businesses think their significance and value is incomparable to what they could achieve via good connections,” said Attila Chikan, a former economy minister in Orban’s first government in 1998 and a professor of business at the Corvinus University of Budapest.
Bige declined to spell out the exact origin of his dispute with Csanyi, whose almost three decades at the helm of OTP Bank have made him one of the most influential people in Hungary. Csanyi endorsed Orban in the 2018 election, while Bige said he stays away from politics.
Likewise, OTP said the bank and its executives keep their distance, striving for a balanced and professional relationship with all governments, regardless of who is in power.
Born in Romania, Bige moved to Hungary in the 1980s where he started bartering goods toward the end of the communist regime. He entered the fertiliser market in 1997 with the privatisation of Tiszamenti Vegyimuvek in the town of Szolnok, southeast of Budapest. In 2002, he bought the larger Nitrogenmuvek plant in western Hungary from oil company Mol. The two facilities are the only substantial producers of fertiliser in the country.
The conflict with Csanyi dates back to at least 2008, when OTP withdrew 9.2 billion forint ($46 million) in loans to Bige’s companies. Nitrogenmuvek then lost a legal claim for compensation.
In 2013, they locked horns over the purchase of KITE, one of the largest providers of agricultural services to farmers in Hungary. Outbidding Bige, Csanyi bought the firm from its management as a personal investment. OTP Bank funded part of the transaction.
Speaking at the 2014 inauguration of a KITE facility, Csanyi joked of the “particular joy” at how the company avoided going into the ownership of a businessman who “uses his monopoly in a certain area for banditry.” Orban also spoke at the event.
Bige, whose business has higher debt compared with the industry average, has been forced to look abroad for funding a multi-year investment plan to renew his Nitrogenmuvek fertiliser plant. That, too, has had its difficulties.
Last year, a former associate of Csanyi wrote a letter to banks and law firms organizing Nitrogenmuvek’s 200 million-euro bond sale, alleging fraud and a competition probe into Bige’s fertiliser production and distribution network. Bige said it was a ploy to derail funding and force him to sell with other debt approaching maturity. The attempt ultimately proved unsuccessful, with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development purchasing 25 million euros of the bonds.
The letter’s author, Laszlo Csizma, previously an executive at one of Csanyi’s holding firms in 2016, confirmed to Bloomberg that it was aimed at raising awareness that Nitrogenmuvek had withheld important information. Through OTP, Csanyi said he had no knowledge of any letter. Csizma said he’s not a friend of Csanyi and never advised him.
The allegations include a competition probe by Hungarian authorities, which was mentioned in the bond’s offer documents, and fraudulent activity in the distribution of fertilisers. A police inquiry has so far led to charges against one manager on suspected misappropriation, Bige said.
An initial antitrust investigation, which closed in 2017, found that Nitrogenmuvek didn’t have an abusive position in the Hungarian market. Another was launched within weeks and will close in August 2020, according to the regulator.
Meanwhile, Bige has moved away from day-to-day operations at his firms, despite retaining a 95 per cent stake in Nitrogenmuvek. The business is run by his sons and keeps at least 50 million euros on its bank account at all times, he said. “We are in a constant state of defending ourselves,” Bige said. “I don’t think this will last forever. We have seen large empires fall.”