How a CIA report fuels state-sponsored conspiracy theories in Hungary

December 13, 2016

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (left) shows Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the way at a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on January 14, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Kochetkov/Pool

Both Hungary’s state-run and pro-government media are covering the emerging story of Russian influence over the US presidential election, albeit from one particular angle.

A report published by Hungary’s state news service, MTI, was picked up by both pro-government print dailies Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap. The report focuses almost exclusively on former ambassador to the UN John Bolton’s dismissal and downplaying of a secret CIA report which reportedly found that Russia intervened to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election.

According to pro-government publicist István Lovas, attempts to undermine president-elect Trump’s ascension to the White House are tantamount to “a real Night of the Long Knives” (referring to Adolf Hitler’s violent purge of the ranks of the SA, the Brownshirts), and the CIA is simply making up all kinds of baseless lies.

Russian meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries is a sensitive topic for Hungary’s ruling party and its media hinterland. Publicly, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán remains unabashedly pro-Russian — despite Russian-backed turmoil in the region.

Anti-Western conspiracies play an important role in Hungary’s pro-government media

In 2014, the Hungarian prime minister praised Russia as a “star of international analyses.” Evidence of Russian interference in the Euromaidan uprising, its illegal annexation of Crimea, and its direct involvement in the War in Donbass did not seem to phase Orbán’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This, in turn, has had a trickle-down effect on Hungary’s state-run and pro-government media outlets.

According to Edit Zgut, an analyst with Political Capital, a think-tank and consultancy, Hungary’s pro-government mainstream media has a track record of showing favoritism to Russia.

“We saw this when pro-government media discredited the democratic Maidan uprising and subsequently legitimized the Russian military’s involvement as an attempt to protect territory formerly under the Soviet sphere of influence as a response to a CIA-backed ‘Nazi putsch’,” Zgut said.

“In the early days of the Maidan uprising, Hungarian state media simply referred to anti-Yanukovich protesters as ‘terrorists’,” she said. “Pro-government dailies, including Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap, reported that Yanukovich had been ousted with the help of ‘the West – and especially the United States – as though it were a fact. Hungary’s pro-government media also enthusiastically gave room to conspiracy theories claiming that the CIA – not Russia – was responsible for the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17.”

According to Zgut, there are a number of reasons why pro-government media outlets tend to assume such an anti-Western angle, including “a general anti-Western and anti-liberal perspective, and the desire to satisfy Moscow and conform to the Hungarian government’s own foreign policy.”

The Hungarian government thinks it has everything to gain with Trump and Putin

The Orbán government’s relationship with Russia is one apparently built on mutual interests. Prime Minister Orbán is dead set on having the Russian Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) build two new reactors at the Paks Atomic Energy Plant with a EUR 12 billion loan from Russia. Orbán has also been a vocal critic of EU sanctions against Russia following its illegal annexation of the Crimea. The Hungarian prime minister’s dream of creating an illiberal democracy inside the EU lends legitimacy to Putin’s authoritarian rule of Russia, especially compared to what Orbán refers to as the “liberal nihilists” of the European Union.

The Orbán government’s attacks on civil society, rule of law, and media plurality appear to be taken right out of Putin’s playbook, earning both leaders rebukes from the United States government and Western civil and human rights organizations.

Both leaders have tried to discredit Western criticisms of their autocratic governments as being politically and/or ideologically motivated, and both have much to gain with a Donald Trump presidency.  Speaking at a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting in Budapest the day after the US election, the Hungarian prime minister lauded Trump’s victory as the dawning of a new era, one that casts aside “liberal non-democracy” in favor of “a return to reality.”

While Orbán desperately wants to be perceived in the West as the leader of a politically stable democratic country, acknowledging Russia’s interference in the US presidential elections might undermine relations with Russia.

Peter Krekó, a visiting professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and senior affiliate to Political Capital, says there is a correlation – across Europe – between those with a vested interest in seeing a Trump presidency and those downplaying Russian interference in the US elections.

“Firstly, these groups are afraid that [acknowledging Russian influence in the election] could lead others to question the legitimacy of Donald Trump as president-elect of the United States,” Krekó said. “Secondly, these groups, which are comprised of the populist left and right, are the same groups calling for stronger ties with Russia. They want to see Russia as a friend, not a rival, and they are blind to even more obvious cases of malevolent Russian influence.”

Krekó also refers to GRU (Russia’s military intelligence) involvement with militant extremist groups in Hungary and the Hungarian government’s inadequate response to this phenomenon.

“The Hungarian government has been reluctant to use diplomacy to raise the issue of Russian connections to the Bőny cop-killer,” he said. “Why would they believe in claims then that their preferred presidential candidate was helped by the Kremlin?”

Russian influence over Hungarian politics and media is abundantly clear. Earlier this year, journalists Attila Bátorfy and Zsuzsa Szánthó found that scores of Hungarian-language blogs and news sites are connected to the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in one way or another.

Botond Feledy, a senior fellow with the Budapest-based Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, says Russia’s “communication campaign” and other forms of influence are certainly present in Hungary.

Whereas signs of alignment with Russia previously served as “pokes at the West”, Feledy said, “this has become an increasingly dangerous play” on the part of the Hungarian government.

“Whether the Hungarian government is simply trying to maintain diplomatic relations with Moscow is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that even Hungary’s own national sovereignty is at stake when the GRU engages in military exercises with Hungarian extremist groups,” he said.

“The current level of uncritical Russian narrative reports in pro-government media is very strongly rooted in the will of local actors, editors, and other anti-Western local figures. This has always been present, but lately this feeling got channeled through the Russian narratives.”

State and pro-government media in Hungary aping that of Russia on controversial issues

In a 2016 study performed by the Finnish Institute for International Affairs titled “Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine”, researchers Katri Pynnöniemi and András Rácz analyzed Russian propaganda and disinformation, referred to as strategic deception, in the case of the conflict in Ukraine.

In the case of Hungary, the researchers found that Russian “metanarratives”, that is, fake narratives, made their way into Hungarian public life primarily through Hungary’s own public media.

The authors of the study cited numerous cases of Hungary’s state-run media engaging in manipulation, using “distorted wording in politically-sensitive ways”, and even publishing pieces directly reflecting Russian metanarratives and using the distinctive vocabulary of the Russian strategic communication.”

One international relations expert in Budapest tells the Beacon that regardless of what the outcome will be with respect to allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential election, Hungary’s state-run and pro-government commercial media will continue to promulgate conspiracy theories in this manner.