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Exclusive Interview: Budapest Mayor István Tarlós on the Olympic Bid, CEU, and the City’s Future

Last month, Hungary Today and its German-language sister-site Ungarn Heute had the opportunity to interview István Tarlós, Mayor of Budapest. Tarlós, who has been mayor since 2010, spoke at length about the development of Budapest into a world tourism destination, the referendum bid that led to the withdrawal of the Hungarian capital’s bid to host the Olympics in 2020, the ongoing “Lex CEU” controversy, and a host of other issues facing the city.

This interview has been translated and edited for clarity.

tarlosistvan interju-benkoviviencher

American actor Matt Damon was in Hungary a year and a half ago shooting a film. During an interview after his departure, he reflected on his time spent here, saying that if Budapest “had been in America, I would have definitely moved there.” Is there any world city that serves as an example for you in your work to develop capital city?

There is no one city that I can think of, about which I would say “let’s make Budapest like that.” Further, it’s hard to compare cities, since there are many incredible ones, and each has its own unique charm. For me, Rome is the center of the world (naturally after Budapest), it for me is “numero uno.” On the other hand, New York was a very pleasant surprise for me, but naturally the two cities [Rome and New York] are incomparable. In terms of the latter, I had some negative preconceptions about the city, until I actually visited there. I have great respect for Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York, who I had the opportunity to talk with for two hours when I visited the city.

The world’s cities are generally organized into various categories; I don’t even need to tell you, that Budapest will never be the same type of world city as Mexico City, Tokyo, or London. In our own category, however, we can easily see that the Hungarian capital is endowed with excellent features.

According to an April survey by Závecz Research, you are the most popular politician in the capital; on a 1-to-10 scale, respondents evaluated your work as 5.6, an indication that they are satisfied. Is this result enough for you to win reelection in 2019?

I’m not sure how they came to this average. You always have to evaluate public opinion surveys for what they are; I have enough experience to know not to wait for baited breath for a poll such as this one. As far as average results are concerned, political affiliations are also important here. Those who support the political group that I belong to naturally evaluate me significantly more positively than those who favor the opposition; the combination of the two is how you get an average.

If this is what you’re asking, naturally it’s not a bad feeling to be the most popular politician in the capital for years according to opinion polls. However, I wouldn’t draw any long-term conclusions from these [polls and surveys], they won’t decide another potential term.

At the present, I don’t have as much room to maneuver as, say, Rudy Guiliani had in New York, so certain conditions would have to soften for me to even begin to think about a possible third term.

The view of Budapest among foreigners has improved significantly, and every week articles seem to appear in the international press that recommend the Hungarian capital as a tourist destination. Are you satisfied?

I am prouder of this than I am of any public opinion poll data of me. Budapest has excellent geographical features, architectural stock, traditions, and gastronomy. In addition, further developing tourism, in cooperation with the national government, is one of our main goals. The number of overnight stays by foreigners has grown radically. This is partially the result of a change in attitude on the part of city leadership, while in addition public safety in Budapest has greatly improved.

In contrast to all this, the route from the airport to the city is a pretty disappointing experience for those arriving in Hungary.

True, unfortunately this is the case. The development of this route will require state investment, this isn’t a district-level project. To the best of my knowledge, the project is high on the preference list, but I can’t speak as to when they will take the initiative to make it a reality.

Last summer, the closure of the Szabadság (Liberty) Bridge to traffic due to tram line renovations, and its subsequent pedestrian use, added a new dash of color to the city. Considering the popularity of the bridge’s closure, are you planning on diverting traffic this summer as well?

Well, you can’t say that this is an example of intended use, since, at the most basic level, bridges weren’t invented for people to sunbathe on them, since that would make them rather expensive investments if that were the case.

However, if young people truly desire this so much, then I’m not opposed to closing the bridge on weekends this summer, up until August 20th, not including the time of the FINA World Swimming Championship.

There is one thing I do have to add though: if there is even one attempt to climb the Turul bird statues on top of the bridge again, that’s enough for me to cancel the whole program!

Could a new, pedestrian-only bridge grow out of this in the future?

Theoretically we are planning something similar, but currently we don’t have the resources, due to numerous necessary renovations as well as projects that are already underway. Our hope is that the construction of such a bridge will fit into the next cycle.

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In 2014, Hungary’s Supreme Court (the Kúria) struck down a city ordinance that banned homeless people from sleeping on the street. Since then, and this is a bit of an exaggeration, that the capital is in the same spot as it was before 2010, when [former mayor] Gábor Demszky was running the city.

The situation is perhaps not that serious, but it is one of the causes of frustration that I have spoken about in the past, and that reflect about whether or not to run again.

We have a working, humane, and constantly-improving system to take care of the homeless, which we are developing in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior. Since we have this system, it is my personal belief that the Kúria’s decision, made a few years ago following efforts of the former ombudsman, was a deep mistake. It is equally damaging for both city residents and visitors alike; at the same time, from the point of view of unlucky, needy people it is quite derogatory. The only thing it is good for is to create a state of chaos. Simply put, I don’t know where to begin with these faux-humanitarian, faux-democratic decisions.

Budapest’s Olympic bid was withdrawn due to a call for a referendum. Is this a chance to breathe freely, or a broken dream?

This is a complex story. Some basic information is that, in the modern era, that is since 1896, in those cities where they have organized Olympic Games, there has never been a referendum. Wherever and whenever there has been a referendum, the Olympics have never been held.

The referendum system is a serious institution, but they are starting to discredit it. I find it strange, that people who have supported the idea of an Olympics for a long time, who in fact would have liked to organize one here in Hungary in 2020—who in fact voted in favor of organizing the Olympics here even before the bid was submitted—began to demand a referendum after the fact. They began to protest in favor of a referendum half a year after we had submitted the bid with their support.

If I’m going to be fair, then I should say that we didn’t have a particularly good chance to win the Olympic bid in the first place. Two rich and strong cities—Los Angeles and Paris—were our competition.

It’s definitely true, though, that Budapest would have benefited even from just preparations to host the Games. As for the extent to which the country as a whole would or would not have benefited, it’s not my place to judge. In the capital, though, countless facilities and projects would have been built, that either wouldn’t have been built otherwise, or would have been built much later.

The saddest part is that the push for a referendum really had nothing to do with sports. The decisive factor in this campaign was the emergence of political ambitions on the part of a number of young people returning from abroad. Political ambition isn’t a sin, but I’m not sure that they should have tied their attempt to this sort of event. The Olympic bid was much more a pretense than it was a real cause.

What do you think of the events of the last few months surrounding CEU? Do you agree with the [Orbán government’s] higher education law amendments [commonly referred to as “Lex CEU”-eds.]?

I make absolutely no secret of the fact that I am not in the least bit enthusiastic about [Hungarian-American billionaire and CEU founder] George Soros and his ethos. More precisely, I am not at all enthusiastic about what he represents. That’s one side of the coin.

The flip side, that of course bothers me as well, is that people have spoken out in favor of CEU, who are held in unquestionable respect worldwide. One of these would be László Lovász, President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who would be happily welcomed at any university in the world. It would be very difficult to claim that he is a huge fan of the Soros-style and ethos, and yet he still expressed a mild criticism [of the “Lex CEU” amendments].

But I believe that perhaps the third side of the coin is the most important, and it relates to the protests and to the higher education law amendments, in that most people don’t even know that Central European University (CEU) and the Közép-Európai Egyetem [the university’s name in Hungarian] are two separate institutions. Those who are concerned about academic and instructional freedom are expressing an understandable point of view. It may be that the university’s teaching staff is outstanding. However, I don’t know the full goals of CEU’s founders. For this reason, I wouldn’t go out to protest on their behalf. And it is my suspicion that the vast majority of Hungarians are not particularly interested in the issue.

Reporting by Balázs Horváth

Photos by Vivien Cher Benkő

Translated by Tom Szigeti