Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Heineken Fights Hungarian Attack Over Communist Star Symbol

  • Ruling party submits bill to ban totalitarian symbols
  • Hungarian minister criticized Heineken over patent dispute

Who would have thought Heineken would be seen as a symbol of Communist oppression?

That’s what’s happening in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling party has filed a bill to ban the vintage red-star logo featured on products including the beermaker’s iconic green bottles.

Heineken bottle with the red-star logo.

Photographer: Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg

Accusing Amsterdam-based Heineken NV of bullying a small, partly ethnic-Hungarian owned brewer in neighboring Romania after the Dutch company won a patent dispute there, the government in Budapest is pushing for fines and even jail time for anyone selling products featuring totalitarian symbols. That includes the red star that’s also associated with the Communist regime that ruled Hungary for more than four decades last century.

“We believe we have to defend every Hungarian brand when someone wants to use its market dominance to squeeze out others,” parliamentary leader Lajos Kosa told reporters on Tuesday. The bill banning totalitarian symbols and the Heineken case is the “confluence of two issues,” he said.

The ruling Fidesz party is also trying to narrow the scope of the bill to ensure products including Converse shoes and San Pellegrino bottled water, which also feature the red star, aren’t affected, Kosa said. That’s rekindled questions about government interference in the private sphere via targeted legislation, a recurring complaint from investors that helped pushed Hungary down to 69th place in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index last year, from 52nd place in 2010, when Orban returned to power.

Brewing Magic

Heineken rejected the association that its star is a symbol of communism, saying brewers have used the logo since the Middle Ages. Its points represent beer’s ingredients: water, barley, hops, yeast, and a fifth that comprises the “magic of brewing.”

“Naturally, the red Heineken star has no political meaning whatsoever, and we use the same brand symbols across the world, in every market,” the company said in a statement. “We will closely monitor this local matter and hope and trust that this matter will be resolved soon.”

Kosa conceded that the bill had caveats and that the ruling party would modify it to make it conform to international law and also to protect retailers.

In a 2008 lawsuit, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a red star cannot be understood as exclusively representing communist totalitarian rule. In 2013, the Hungarian Constitutional Court struck down a law that sought to criminalize the use of symbols associated with totalitarian regimes, saying the law was too broad in scope and undermined freedom of speech. The same year, lawmakers revised the law, making the use of totalitarian symbols such as the red star a criminal offense only if used with the intent to undermine social peace and especially with the aim of hurting the victims of such regimes.

— With assistance by Thomas Buckley

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