How to waste public funds

Hungarian Tourism Agency secretive about the price tag of the August 20 fireworks

Hungarian Tourism Agency (MTÜ) tried to hide how much public money it plans to spend on the programmes for the 20th August celebrations and the fireworks display in Hungary in 2022. The reason given was that this “data will be used to make decisions”, so it cannot be made public for 10 years. However, a fey days later they stated that „misleading articles” have been published, as the price of the fireworks is already known: the rockets cost HUF 1.3 billion net. However, this amount is hardly the total cost. Last year alone, the fireworks and the insurance for the fireworks and other state programmes cost HUF 3.1 billion, and the entire programme cost HUF 12 billion. And this year, they are promising „Europe’s biggest fireworks display”. At the same time, a petition against the waste of public money has been launched.

On 16 July, we wrote that the opposition party Párbeszéd Magyarország had sent a FOI request to the Hungarian Tourism Agency (MTÜ) in which they asked for the preliminary cost estimate for the 2022 state foundation day fireworks and for the four-day programme at the end of June.

20th of August has multiple names in Hungary, it is generally considered to be the State Foundation Day of Hungary. Its origin roots back to the first king and state founder of Hungary, St. Stephens. This is an official state holiday, one of the oldest national holidays of the country. The best-known event of the day is the spectacular fireworks after sunset.

The Hungarian Tourism Agency (MTÜ) refused to send the data requested, claiming that “data prepared or recorded in the course of a procedure for the adoption of a decision falling within the remit of a public authority and serving as a basis for the decision shall not be made public for ten years from the date on which it was generated”.

In other words, the public body is keeping secret for the time being how much money it has earmarked for this year’s public holiday on 20 August, when the government has announced that it will hold Europe’s biggest fireworks display.

A few days after the publication of our article, the Hungarian Tourism Agency (MTÜ) issued a press release: “Yesterday, misleading articles appeared about the fireworks planned for 20 August, as the Hungarian Tourism Agency received a FOI request for a preliminary estimate of the cost of the fireworks. The preliminary cost estimate is a preparatory document, which is not relevant in this case, as the price of this year’s fireworks is known exactly, as the Hungarian Tourism Agency has already obtained it in the first half of the year”, reads the MTÜ’s statement of 18 July.

As they write,

“the purchase price of the rockets is HUF 1.3 billion net, i.e. HUF 1 650 000 000 gross, which is the same as last year’s fireworks.”

However, this is obviously not the full cost, as fireworks are not just about buying rockets, there are other costs as well, and the amount clearly does not include the cost of the other 20 August events.

Last year HUF 12 billion was spent on the event

Iin the public procurement procedure of the National Communications Office, which K-Monitor has noticed, the amount of money for the communication tasks of the fireworks is higher than the price of the rockets: ‘Provision of event management tasks for Visit Hungary National Tourist Organization Nonprofit Zrt. in connection with the fireworks to be held on the occasion of the Saint Stephen’s Day celebrations. Amount: to carry out the communication tasks specified in detail in the technical specifications up to a maximum of HUF 1 400 000 000,- net + VAT (…) until the budget is exhausted.” According to K-Monitor, however, this is probably only a preparation for the event, with the major expenditure in Q3.

This, including the 1.3 billion for the rockets, is already a net amount of HUF 2.7 billion. Add to this the launching of the rockets, technical and security tasks for the fireworks, plus other 20 August programmes.

Last year, we managed to find out through a FOi request that a total of HUF 12 billion was spent on the 20 August celebrations. We submitted the data request on 23 August 2021 and received a response three and a half months later. The only thing we could find out from the spreadsheet we received from the Agency was what public money had been spent on in connection with the celebrations, which included a rolling turkey bird, a gilded statue of St Stephen, fireworks and an air parade. The state fireworks and event insurance for fireworks and state events cost a total of HUF 3.1 billion, according to the list.

The government had already promised bigger and more expensive fireworks on 20 August in 2020 than ever before, but the coronavirus pandemic intervened and the celebrations were cancelled. A net total of HUF 1.3 billion was earmarked for the fireworks alone.

In any case, costs will not be low this year either. Now, the government is promising Europe’s biggest fireworks display, „which will showcase significant moments in the history of the thousand-year-old Hungarian state and the most important elements of national identity. During the fireworks, some 40,000 pyrotechnic devices will be fired from barges and pontoons along a 4.3-kilometre stretch between the Margaret Bridge and Petőfi Bridge. The number of drones will also be doubled compared to last year, with 600 drones contributing to the spectacle,” said Zoltán Kovács, State Secretary and head of the operational team responsible for the safe organisation of the 20 August event.

The four-day event will include an air parade, a flag-raising ceremony, a visit to the Holy Crown, a festive mass, a procession held in honour of the Holy Right hand, concerts, a Street of Hungarian Flavours and a festival called Csárdafesztivál. The event, which will take place from 18 to 21 August, promises to offer even more venues and an „unadulterated festival atmosphere” than last year.

Economic stability instead of fireworks

While the organisation is underway, a petition against the fireworks has been launched. The initiators write, among other things, that „Instead of spending taxpayers’ money on a very polluting and expensive entertainment, the government should spend it on stabilising the economy. (…) In a country where money is weakening day by day while prices are rising, there is no place for such a luxury spectacle. The founding of Hungary can be celebrated with pride and dignity without fireworks”

So far, almost 130,000 people have signed the petition, which also has a Facebook event entitled “I’m not going to fireworks” and 80,000 interested people.

Translated by Zita Szopkó. The original, more detailed Hungarian version of this story was written by Eszter Katus and can be found here and here. 

Cover photo: Fireworks over the Danube in Budapest on St. Stephen’s Day, the feast of the founding of the state, 20 August 2021. MTI/Peter Lakatos