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Ukrainian mafia distributes Hungarian citizenship by the thousands

Simplified nationalisation was not thought through properly.

From now on, Index in English will regularly feature articles from the archives of Index.hu that still bear relevance to this day. This award-winning two-part investigative piece uncovering the details of how dual citizenship and simplified nationalisation was abused by a ring of criminals  was originally published by Index.hu on 19 September 2014. Here is the first part:

Sadly, the fact that many are using an opportunity provided by a regulation does not alone mean that the regulation is a success. In recent years, a large number of Russian and Ukranian fraudsters acquired Hungarian citizenships to be able to travel the world freely, and a complete industry had emerged to supply that demand. Corrupt officials, attorneys assisting fraud, body doubles and a bunch of Russians: Here's how Hungary's citizenship business operates.

If one were to spend some time at the cheap watering holes near Budapest's Deák Ferenc Square in the past couple of years, it would have been impossible not to notice the increase in the number of conversations conducted in Russian. With a little more attention, one could notice that these people hardly spoke any other language than Russian, as ordering anything different from the big four of cola, vodka, beer and coffee seemed to be a near impossible task.

At the same time, these people did not seem to be tourists either, as they were not excited by the nearby club Gödör, or the Synagogue, they were not taking Instagram pictures of the coasters and weren't messing around on their tourism apps, and did not seem to correspond to any high seasons. They were just there at all times. In numbers. Most typically, one could see families of three or four sitting around, visibly tired, waiting for an hour or so for a Russian-speaking bloke. After he arrived, the families usually quickly finished their drinks up and left with him.

Last year I asked one of them why they weren't out, enjoying the sights of the city. To my surprise, they told me that Daddy is already a Hungarian citizen, he used to work mid-management in Moscow but left for Germany after the noose started to tighten around his neck. He purchased Hungarian citizenship for €10.000 and was on his way, and now his family was here in Budapest, waiting to take their citizenship oaths in order to be able to follow him.

"If you're interested, you should talk to our citizenship-brokers, they'll be here soon and they will be happy to let you know how it goes" - they told me. 

That, of course, turned out to be less than true, as their eagerness to talk to me took a sharp decline after a couple of questions. But they gave me a valuable starting point making it possible to piece together this puzzle, as talking to errand boys, organisers, and many people who make a living in this industry revealed the inner workings of the citizenship business before my eyes. Many must have believed me to be another Serbian client, a paid-off policeman, or a new colleague, but let that be their problem.

Oversimplification

Tactical battle

The first referendum about dual citizenship was initiated by the World Federation of Hungarians, which Fidesz ended up supporting for tactical reasons - there was a chance to force then-PM Ferenc Gyurcsány into a corner. He did walk into that trap, but thanks to a heavy government counter-campaign, the referendum was invalid. Still, the government had to assume a defensive stance as the question remained open and constituted a large target to attack. The government made the nationalisation of those with Hungarian ancestors easier, but by that point, nobody cared.

By 2009, a large portion of Hungarians was supportive of some kind of dual citizenship. The Socialists, fearing consequences, changed their position without giving a reason, and sided with dual citizenship, whatever that may be. After the battle ended with the landslide victory of Fidesz in 2010, the Parliament established dual citizenship right away. Jobbik-president Gábor Vona provided the comic relief in this story, as he swore that he would "even go to Mars to vote for this," however, he did not even go to his voting button - he forgot about the vote.

It's better to start from where it all began: The introduction of the dual citizenship in Hungary in 2010 could hardly have gone any worse than it did. Even during the campaign for the first (failed) referendum on the topic in 2004, the public discourse was dragged down to the level of emotions by all participating parties instead of strategizing to appeal to reason.

That may be one of the reasons why introducing this concept was amongst the first things Fidesz did after their landslide election victory in 2010. The decision was carried out in the most public way possible, as it was probably intended to be symbolic in more ways than one - the Versailles treaty ending World War One reduced Hungary's territory to its current size and resulted in a significant portion of the country's ethnic Hungarian population getting cut off from their homeland, and the almost hundred-year-old decision is still a sore wound in the psyche of many Hungarians. The symbolic importance is further underlined by the urgency in the legislative process: all amendment proposals were swept off the table in Parliament without a question and then-President László Sólyom signed the law into effect with extreme haste. They were in such a hurry that not even Fidesz's leadership was in complete accord about what they are voting on. The end result was less than stellar.

The urge to simplify the nationalisation process for reduced the conditions of citizenship to two elements: Hungarian lineage had to be presented along with minimal knowledge of the language. A statement attesting to both had to be handed to any Hungarian register offices or municipalities to start the procedure.

The measures passed in 2010

Hungarian citizenship could be requested by those former citizens of Hungary or their descendants who held Hungarian citizenship between 1920 and 1945, speak Hungarian, and there are no reasons of national security to deny the request.

 Hungarian citizenship could be requested by those former citizens of Hungary or their descendants who held Hungarian citizenship between 1920 and 1945, speak Hungarian, and there are no reasons of national security to deny the request.

Those in the Subcarpathians were in a tough spot, as Ukraine basically banned, later sanctioned dual citizenship. They had a good reason to worry, as the country could hardly be regarded as a European democracy. Power could do whatever to wanted to anyone, so it was wise to be cautious. Many tried to apply for Hungarian citizenship without asking for a visa and entering Hungary, instead, they paid good money to people to get their request to a municipality.

Organisers bribed municipality leaders, who then certified the Hungarian knowledge of the requisitioners without them being present in person. All requisitioners had to do then was to show up to the citizenship oath in 4-6 months. 

The organisers asked for a hefty price, clients were forking over as much as €5-30.000 per request. This pricing included only one fixed cost element, the bribes for officials. Soon, whole gangs sprang up to spread this service, and due to the information inequality, the fraudsters could make their Ukrainian clients believe that this is a complicated matter but they are in good hands.

Big business

A former citizenship dealer said he once took 200 requests to the mayor of a small village near Kisvárda. The mayor counted them to see if he received the €1000 for each one, then proceeded to sign them all in 20 minutes. He made €200.000 in less than half an hour. Prices were pretty much the same all over the area, and the number of fraudulent citizenship papers shows that many officials in villages and small towns in Eastern Hungary made really good money on the whole ordeal. But they didn't make the most: the average price for handling a request was around €7000, bribes and accomplices cost around €2000 altogether, it's easy to see that the deal described above could have made around €1.000.000 for the ringleader.

 Of course, this resulted in Ukrainian believing that personal presence is not required for the procedure and that there is indeed a network of intermediaries - who pays them receives Hungarian citizenship within months. As a direct result, people with some Hungarian ancestry but no familiarity with the language started lining up for the simplified nationalisation.

The aim of the organisers was to serve as many people as fast as possible. It did not cost them anything, and the capacity of the system's Hungarian end seemed boundless - signing things is easy, and according to reports, nobody ever checked the veracity of the requests. Those quick to get into this business early formed many groups to exploit simplified nationalisation, as it was possible to make hundreds of millions of euros in a couple of months by doing a service that is laughably easy.

Russians, Ukrainians, anyone

The third floodgate opened when these groups started selling citizenship to people with no Hungarian lineage whatsoever. If the client had the money, some ancestors were forged and evidence of their existence was handed in with the application. Of course this cost extra, but as the demand grew, so did professionalism: the smarter groups started involving Hungarian attorney's offices to make themselves seem more credible, and hitmen too, as the competition started to appear.

It was, of course, useful to have a wide array of forged Ukranian documents, Hungarian municipality stamps in order to make sure that the Hungarian roots are available for anyone. Those in the business told me that around

80% of applicants with forged ancestry end up receiving citizenship.

It is next to impossible to investigate a grandmother born in 1915, and the assistance of the Ukranian authorities would be needed to establish her existence, and especially her relation to the applicant. 

The citizenship oath can be memorized as a poem, and can be avoided with a body double - looks do not matter at all if the double is somewhere around the same age as the applicant, nobody notices.

The really expensive luxury package includes Subcarpathian Hungarians who go through the nationalisation process themselves only to sell the documents to someone else after they switched the photo. Yevgeny on the buying end will have to eventually come to terms with the fact that from that point forward his official name is Csaba, but that will not matter in Australia or Florida.

Who were coming with simplified nationalisation?

Typically Ukrainians, but Russians even more so, especially with forged Ukrainian documents. A Russian-turned-Hungarian even showed me that his Ukrainian passport contains data different from his Russian one, but it did not matter. They told me about Belorussians, Kazakhs, and others who succeeded even with their old Soviet passports. These are not the poorest people of course, as only a handful can afford to spend €40.000 to get their families out of a country. As Hungarian, therefore EU citizens, they can travel freely, access offshore funds, or get away from some embarrassing situation back in their home countries. Hungarian citizenship just happened to be the most convenient, fastest and cheapest option. Many Ukrainians were working in energetics, but there are rumours of former confidants of Janukovich, former Russian bank officials, and even about the son of a famous Russian actor - though he was amongst the few who were denied citizenship.

 According to the dealers, each one of them worked on thousands of applications, and a ring could consist of 4-5 dealers. Just the people we spoke to knew about four Subcarpathian groups, so tens of thousands of new Hungarian citizens from Ukraine could be involved in the forgeries. These are just the small organisations assembled along personal acquaintances, and does not include the citizenships aided by agencies in Russia and Ukraine.

A company selling Hungarian citizenships. They promise that it is not a problem if we do not have Hungarian ancestry or can not speak Hungarian, because they can help with everything and it is 100 percent that we will get the papers.
A company selling Hungarian citizenships. They promise that it is not a problem if we do not have Hungarian ancestry or can not speak Hungarian, because they can help with everything and it is 100 percent that we will get the papers.

In Russia, this business bloomed so much that legally operated companies and legal firms started to focus on getting people Ukrainian, then Hungarian citizenships. It is difficult to estimate the number of clients, but there must have been a lot, as these service offers multiplied at an alarming rate. A significant part of them was set up just to rip off ignorant clients.

Fraudsters of fraudsters

In the meantime a new group of fraudsters appeared, offering the same services but never delivering. They took hundreds or thousands of applications that never even got to a municipality. They typically acquired forged municipality documents and stamps, but they did not want to bribe mayors, they were either just small-time gangsters or they were afraid of the slightest chance of getting busted. 

Zsolti from Újpest, a small fry

"For months we've been bringing Zsolti the thousands of euros from the clients. He always met us in Pólus Center (a mall in Budapest), where he took the money, filled some document receipt form with the client's data, then I gave this form to the client later. Russians, ethnic Hungarians, it did not matter who was after the citizenship. After nothing happened for quite some time, the clients wanted their money back from me, and Zsolti became more and more demanding, so I had to bolt" - explained the former dealer who is a dog trainer in his day job. "I think Zsolti just got a scoop about how many people are preparing to come, they got a couple of thousand of these forms from somewhere, and that was pretty much it."

They simply pocketed the money and gave some sort of a fake document to lull the clients into waiting for a few months. A few months later, when the client started complaining, the dealer asked for some more money to grease the machinery. When the client's patience ran out a few months after that, they threatened the client to stop snooping around or they will be reported to the police for trying to bribe officials for Hungarian citizenship. Of course, a lot of actual Hungarian descendants fell victim to these groups, as they had no idea how the system worked and they wanted to make sure their request gets a positive answer. 

Inside sources tell us there are five to ten thousand such clients who were ripped off without their applications ever being delivered.

Гражданство Венгрии

Video offer. "The papers will work, and our partners will provide you with all necessary information to help you take your citizenship oath." The person in the video does not speak Hungarian either, as he calls the address card only "address", and their amateurism is further evidenced by the fact that there are different names on the passport and the nationalisation papers. 

I have sent my questions (under my own name) to the competent Constitution Protection Authority about how many forgeries they know about, how are Hungarian authorities treating the Hungarian side of this business, are there any checks or controls, but they have declined comment.

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