Budapest hosts conference on Russian autocracy

May 14, 2017

“Who would have thought half a year ago that once again they would shout ‘Russians go home’ in the streets of Budapest?” – József Kajdi, Trustee, Freedom and Reform Institute

“The Kremlin’s goal is to create chaos and destabilize.” – Edit Zgut, analyst, Political Capital

This was the name of the conference held in Budapest on Saturday by the Freedom and Reform Institute led by former finance minister and chairman of the Movement for a Modern Hungary party, Lájos Bokros.  Political Capital’s foreign policy expert warned about information wars waged by Moscow through various propaganda outlets in an attempt to prove its superiority to the decadent West.  The conference moderator said that if the Hungarian government models the country on Russia, then future election results can be manipulated as they were in the case of the 2012 presidential election in Russia.

Saturday’s Budapest conference on Russian autocracy hosted by the Freedom and Reform Institute opened with a statement familiar to generations of Hungarians forced to study Russian under communism:

“Товарищ учительница, я докладываю вам, никто не отсутствует”

“(Comrade teacher, I report to you that no one is missing)”

According to the organizers’ Facebook page:

Russia is an economically and demographically deficient empire.  The past few years have witnessed an unwell in aggressive behavior in violation of the ban on violent change since WWII, in which the means of the secret police interfere in the state elections of other countries. 

At the same time, a social model is being realized and spread that may be attractive to nationalist, populist tyrants, but which is nightmarish for democrats.

What is Russia like seen close up, how does it behavior with its neighbors and others, and what can we expect from its leader, Vladimir Putin?

Conference moderator József Kajdi opened the conference, saying: “I would like if my grandchildren were not required to learn Russian at school. Who would have thought half a year ago that once again they would shout ‘Russians go home’ in the streets of Budapest?”

Institute managing director János Boris said the purpose of the conference was to identify where the Russians were economically, military, intellectually, and politically.

Historian Zoltán Sz. Biró explained that between 2000 and 2009 Russia experienced robust average annual economic growth of 8 percent.  However, in 2008 the global economic crisis had reached Russia.  Furthermore, in summer 2008 Russia had fought a five-day war with Georgia. The crisis had wiped out 10 percent of the Russian economy.  Around 2010-2011 it seemed that the Russian economy had recovered, but in 2012-2013 the rate of economic growth slowed, even well before the Ukrainian crisis.

Sz. Bíró, who is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said Russia is at the same place today economically as it was in 2007, and “if Russia cannot resolve its western connections, it will remain there for the next ten years.”

He said the parliamentary elections of December 2011 and the presidential election of March 2012 involved “unprecedented fraud.”  If there had been a free and fair election, President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party would not have won a majority in parliament, let alone a supermajority, with sixteen percent of the vote having been discounted. Sz. Bíró said that in the first round of the presidential election, Putin officially received 64 percent of the vote, whereas in the case of a fair election he would have received 54-55 percent.

Meanwhile a middle-class movement made up mainly of urban youth had won 15-20 percent of the vote after launching a serious wave of demonstrations in 2011-2012.  It was then that Putin had become a traditionalist and started talking about shared national memory, homeland, and the nation, whereas previously he had not done so, said Sz. Biró, adding that the traditionalist turn was accompanied with a populist one as well.

“A harsh, repressive regime”

After the 2012 presidential election “a harsh, repressive regime began in Russian politics.” According to Sz. Bíró, they started monitoring the internet and punishing those participating in demonstrations. During the time of Putin’s predecessor, Dimitri Medvedev, defamation was reclassified a misdemeanor rather than a crime.  However, under Putin it was once again made a crime.  Also, a law banning so-called homosexual propaganda was adopted.

In 2012 a law on treason was passed.  On November 21, 2o13, one week before the draft was signed, Mikola Azarov, the Ukrainian prime minister, announced the postponement of the agreement to join the European Union, even though the majority of Ukrainian society was in favor.  Demonstrations ensued, and after authorities beat up young demonstrators, 700,000 people took to the streets of Kiev, braving minus 20 degree weather.

In connection with the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the historian emphasized that the December 1991 agreement dissolving the Soviet Union guaranteed the national borders of the member countries.

As a result of its intervention in Ukraine “Russia became dramatically isolated”,said Sz. Biró, pointing out that in March 2014 the United Nations General Assembly condemned Russia, with only ten UN member states voting in its favor, and even strongly pro-Moscow countries as Kyrgyzstan and Armenia refused to recognize the annexation of Crimea.

Russia’s economic influence had clearly decreased in comparison to other countries, and its rate of population growth, which increased through 2016, decreased.  On the other hand, the number of emigrants had increased.  In 2010, 40,000 people emigrated from Russia. By 2014 and 2015 this number had increased to 300,000, and 350,000, respectively, said Sz. Biró.

Moldova

Kálmán Mizsei, former deputy UN general secretary and the special EU commissioner for Moldova, said the country’s ethnic majority could not decide whether it was Moldovian or Romanian. Mizsei said that even during the time of the Soviet Union, the possibility of Moldova being united with Romania was raised.  Following this, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (or Transnistria) was formed between the banks of the Dniester and the Ukrainian border. A three-month civil war had been fought in 1992 which reinforced the separatists.  He said that over the past quarter of a century the population of Transnistria had decreased from 750,000 to 500,000.

Changing the topic to Ukraine, the former diplomat called attention  to the fact that in 1994 the challenger, Leonid Kucsma, defeated Leonid Kravchuk in the presidential election.  Kucsma’s base of support was primarily in the east.  Mizsei showed on a map how support for Kravcsuk increased the farther east one travelled.

The expert said 80 percent of Ukrainians consider themselves Ukrainian, but part of them identify themselves as Russian-speaking Ukrainians.  Ukraine is completely bilingual.  For example, it is commonplace in the media for people to be interviewed in Russian.  He said a state mafia as described by Bálint Magyar eventually emerged in both Moldova and the Ukraine, and that it survived both the 2004 and 2013 revolutions.

Information warfare

Political Capital analyst Edit Zgut said that throughout the European Union the left wing and the radical right wing were pro-Russia.  She said this applied to certain blocks within the European Parliament as well, including the Europe of Nationalities and Freedom led by Marine Le Pen, and Nigel Farage’s European Freedom and Direct Democracy, as well as the extreme right-wing.  Zgut called attention to the information warfare being waged by Moscow, saying that for years various Russian propaganda websites have sought to demonstrate that the Kremlin was superior to the decadent West.

She warned that the Russian government systematically sought to establish and maintain relations with paramilitary, anti-EU radical right-wing organizations.  Zgut pointed out that the tank scandal of three years ago, in which it was claimed that Hungary was supplying tanks to Ukraine, was promulgated by hidfo.ru. She said Russian military spies and GRU agents had infiltrated the Hungarian National Front Line, a radical right-wing organization whose leader was arrested after shooting a policeman during a raid of his house.  She said their objective was to persuade the West to accept the annexation of Crimea by fanning the flames of territorial disputes and chauvinistic ideology through propaganda.

Openly pro-Russia political parties

Citing her study of the Visegrád Four countries (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) and Austria, Zgut explained how Moscow was attempting to gain political influence in the five countries, and how this was being resisted.  She said the Hungarian government’s pro-Russia policy made it difficult to neutralize extreme right-wing organizations.  “As a member of the Transatlantic Alliance the government has practically switched a friend for an enemy”. Zgut said the government was doing practically nothing on the matter of Jobbik MEP Béla Kovács whom the government accused of being a Russian spy in the run-up to the 2014 municipal elections. She believes that the government intends to use this in the future and it will be part of its 2018 election campaign.

Included in her study is how the Ukrainian Russian puppet state, the so-called Donetsk Republic, supported protests held by the Hungarian radical right-wing Sixty-four County Youth Movement (MVIM).  It also addresses the pro-Russian sentiments of far-right Slovakian party Our Slovakia (Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko or Kotleba for short), which recently managed to enter parliament having won eight percent of the vote.

Strongly pro-Russian Czech president Miloš Zeman’s campaign was probably sponsored by Lukoil, says Zgut.  Despite this, the Czech Republic constantly acts to counter Russian threats.  Furthermore, the question is part of political communication.  “Slovakia is also starting to close the gap in this regard,” added Zgut.

Calling Poland the “cuckoo’s egg” of the five countries, she said organizations funded by the Kremlin could also be found there, but they were largely marginal.  She said the youth chapter of Austria’s Freedom party was openly pro-Russian.

Of the five countries, Zgut said Hungary and Austria were the black sheep in that neither had taken serious steps to counter Russian influence.

The Political Capital study concludes it is necessary to investigate the financial connections with the Kremlin and calls for an end to anti-Western government rhetoric.

“Useful idiots”

In a presentation titled “Agents versus useful idiots” publicist and Life and Literature (ÉS) contributor János Széky outlined two concepts on how to identify agents.  Former US senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) believed every communist was a Soviet agent. Counter-espionage specialist James Jesus Angleton (1917-1987) was more focused in his approach, and said it wasn’t necessary to suspect those with known Soviet connections, but rather everyone else “because nothing is ever as it appears.”

Széky believes it is in Russia’s interests to have as few agents and as many useful idiots as possible “because who isn’t an agent cannot be exposed.”

Why aren’t Russian spies exposed in Hungary as they are for example in Estonia or the Czech Republic, asked Széky.  He called attention to the fact that Hungary was the only country in the region where no purge of former communist officials or informers took place.  In fact, the fact that someone worked for state security organs before 1990 was an advantage rather than a liability.  The person in question could not be blackmailed but could possess enormous information.  Széky believes it is difficult to separate economic connections from national security agencies.

If someone is exposed “they are quickly removed from the board”, said Széky, citing the recent example of the director of the Ecumenical Assistance Organization, László Lehel, who resigned upon being outed as a former informer.  Lehel was one of the organizers of the 1984 World Church Council meeting of Lutherans in Budapest.  Széky claims the KGB had a large presence in the World Church Council.  Together with Russian mafia boss Semjon Mogilevic, Lehel played a role in the 1997 freeing in Chechnya of two Hungarian Ecumenical Charity Service colleagues, indicating a strange relationship.

The publicist pointed out that element of the Russian security strategy which involves “accusing the enemy of the very thing they are doing.”

Another part of the Russian military doctrine is that it ranks information warfare on par with military warfare.  Not everyone is recruited, continued Széky.  There are those who cooperate out of personal conviction or a sense of esprit de corps, including those who systematically share on Facebook Hungarian language websites published by the Kremlin.

Movement for a Modern Hungary (MoMa) president Lajos Bokros spent twenty minutes summarizing the six-hundred-year history of Russia, explaining that it was thanks to the Napoleonic wars that Russia became a world power.  In 1814 Russian troops occupied Paris.  Between 1861 and 1914 the country underwent a forced modernization.

“The Bolshevik Soviet attempt to conquer the world was an experiment in building an alternative civilization,” said Bokros.  With regard to the present, he said there was no reason for Russian interference in Syria other than its desire to be a super power, and towards that end Moscow had elevated lies to the level of official state politics, and the Russian mafia operated unmolested in Hungary.  He said it was necessary to expand sanctions against Russia while at the same time supporting Russian reforms and the country’s democratic opposition.

In response to a question, the former MEP said that every European party represented in the European Parliament had pro-Russian members, including the Liberals.  As to whether he believed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán could be being blackmailed by Moscow, Bokros said:

“I don’t know whether Viktor Orbán can be blackmailed.  I have enough lawsuits for me to go deeper into this question.”

In his closing remarks, Sz. Bíró said that if the Hungarian government believes Russia to be a leading example, then it can be expected that in the future fraudulent elections will take place in Hungary similar to those described earlier.

Redentism

The Budapest Beacon asked Edit Zgut whether she saw any real possibility of the Carpathian Basin or part of it being returned to Hungary in the next decade or two with the help of the Kremlin.

“This is difficult to answer because Hungary getting back territory would require a drastic geopolitical restructuring accompanied by an equally drastic erosion of the Western political system,” Zgut replied.

The foreign affairs expert pointed out that as a member of NATO “there are certain rules we need to keep.”  She said irredentist attempts “were credible in the case of a extreme right-wing party”, and that the Orbán government may entertain such secret desires (to which Putin previously referred), but she really sees little chance of there being any changes to borders.  Zgut emphasized that both Jobbik and HVIM are seriously threatened by a nationalist Ukrainian paramilitary organization. “The Kremlin’s goal is to create chaos and destabilize,” she warned.