Direkt36: Members of Viktor Orbán’s inner circle met with FSB official in run-up to 2010 election

March 12, 2018

Direkt36: Members of Viktor Orbán's inner circle met with FSB official in run up to 2010 election.
Lajos Simicska (left) and Zsolt Nyerges

Published in Hungarian this morning, the English version of the story has yet to be published.  We received the following English-language extract yesterday:

“Two influential Hungarian businessmen boarded a plane bound for Moscow weeks before Hungary’s April 2010 parliamentary election. Both men belonged to the inner circle of Viktor Orbán, head of the Fidesz party, which was predicted to win comfortably at the polls. One of them was Lajos Simicska, a longtime friend of Orbán and his ally in making Fidesz the dominant political force in Hungary. The other person was Zsolt Nyerges, one of Simicska’s associates and an old friend of the Orbán family.

Upon their arrival in Moscow, the two businessmen headed to Lubyanka Square, one of the most notorious locations in the Russian capital. The large yellowish building towering over the square used to be the headquarters of the KGB, the feared Soviet secret police. Now it is the home of its successor, the FSB. Simicska and Nyerges had a meeting with a senior official of this organization.

The visit followed an important meeting that had taken place a few months earlier. In November 2009, Orbán, already a favorite for the upcoming elections, met Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg. The purpose of that meeting was for the two politicians, who had never met before, to get to know each other. The goal of Simicska and Nyerges’ trip was to establish new business relations between the leaderships of the two countries.

Years later, Orbán and Simicska would turn against each other, but around the time of their respective visits, they seemed to be inseparable allies. While Orbán was fighting on the frontline of Hungarian politics, Simicska was working behind the scenes to provide solid financial support for Fidesz. They discussed the most important political and financial decisions, including the ones concerning Hungary’s relationship with Russia.

Simicska’s and Nyerges’ trip has never been reported in the press, but it was known in Fidesz circles, and some officials in the previous government have also been aware of it. Direkt36 has learned of the visit from three sources independent from each other. Simicska did not respond to our questions while Nyerges said that he never talks to the press. Orbán’s office did not answer the question of how much the Prime Minister knew about the two businessmen’s trip.

Orbán’s allies went to meet an FSB official because the Russian secret service is often involved in state-related businesses. Sources familiar with the meeting said that no concrete deals came out of it. One source described it as an “introductory visit.” Another said the FSB official told Simicska and Nyerges that, if they need help in business, they “can rely on Russia.”

The 2010 meeting shows how Orbán and his inner circle made efforts to forge a close bond with Putin’s Russia even before they won the 2010 election by a landslide. Since then, this connection has attracted worldwide attention. Putin, who is considered a dangerous opponent by most Western leaders, has become a frequent visitor to Budapest. Hungary and Russia have also struck several major business deals. Most notably, Orbán’s government decided to contract Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, to expand Hungary’s Paks Nuclear Power Plant – a choice made without a public tender.

Orbán had been a staunch critic of Russia for most of his career, so exactly what led him to seek ties with Putin has been the subject of widespread speculation in recent years. Direkt36 spent months interviewing more than thirty sources with knowledge of Orbán’s moves. Because of the sensitivity of the issue, all of them asked for anonymity.

According to these sources, Orbán has been telling his own people that he’s building a closer relationship with Russia to strengthen Hungary’s standing internationally. He thinks that Hungary’s economy can profit from this connection, and he believes it also gives the country a better bargaining position vis-à-vis Western powers. Orbán, according to those who know him, enjoys maneuvering among powerful leaders. He finds Hungarian politics boring and is convinced of his own extraordinary political abilities (of which he even brags about in private).

Given that Hungary’s rapprochement with Russia is an ongoing process, it is difficult to predict where Orbán’s steps will take the country. The events of the past few years suggest, however, that Orbán views better relations with Russia as a remedy for almost all of his bigger woes, including his conflict with the Western world and his power struggles with Simicska and other influential figures in Hungary. “He thought that a proper relationship with Russia can be the answer to a set of economic and political problems he had,” said a source close to the Hungarian prime minister.