Former intelligence officials promoting Russian disinformation to Hungarian public

December 28, 2016

Independent online daily 444.hu reported last week that Hungarian state media has been uncritically reporting Russian state propaganda, particularly events in Syria. In addition to Hungarian state media, former high-ranking Hungarian intelligence officials also appear to be directly promoting Russian disinformation to the Hungarian public.

These former officials served in Hungary’s secret services apparatus both during the communist era and following the transition to democracy from 1989. They also have ties to the ruling Fidesz party.

One former intelligence official who is spreading Russian propaganda is József Horváth. In the 1980s, Horváth served in the Communist Interior Ministry’s III/III department. He later continued working in the security apparatus until 2002, and under the new Fidesz government elected in 2010 returned to public service as a deputy director of the Hungarian military security services (KNBSZ) between 2010 and 2015, with the rank of brigadier general. He is known to the Hungarian public in part for his role as director of UD Zrt., a company that was embroiled in a political spying scandal.

In early December, Horváth told state-run television station M1 that it is unlikely the Russian state intervened in the US election in November, and that such concern has to do with the Democrats struggling with their political loss—an explanation that closely echoes the Kremlin’s position. Horváth’s dismissal of Russia’s role in the US election was picked up by state news agency MTI and transmitted to other Hungarian news sources.

His comments were not, however, simply an isolated incident: a few days earlier, he told Kossuth Rádió 180 perc that sanctions on Russia should be lifted. He emphasized that the European Union is suffering due to the sanctions, while the US benefits. This narrative closely matches rhetoric emanating from Moscow, which often aims to create divisions within the Western alliance.

Another former intelligence official promoting Russian narratives in the Hungarian media is László Földi. Like Horváth, he held positions in the security apparatus both before and after Hungary’s regime change. He worked for the communist-era Hungarian intelligence service (department III/I), and retained a position with the intelligence apparatus until the mid-1990s.

Appearing on state television channel M1 on December 27, Földi declared that NATO is irrelevant. He blamed the alliance for Europe’s migration crisis, arguing that NATO has put the continent’s security at risk.

The interview was widely quoted, including Magyar Idők and other pro-government publications and online portal Pesti Srácok.

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party is known to be friendly with the Kremlin, while Moscow has also cultivated close ties both to the opposition Jobbik party and Hungarian fringe far-right groups in order to boost its influence within the country. And as in other countries in the region, Russia has worked to influence the news and information available to the Hungarian public.

The motivation for some former Hungarian intelligence officials to help further Russia’s efforts remains murky: whether they are acting on their own accord, as part of a coordinated campaign, or on the advice of Hungarian or Russian actors, is unclear.

Nevertheless, the significant spike in Russian disinformation and Russia-friendly views in state and pro-government  media is raising concerns that there may be a coordinated effort to shift public opinion against NATO and the West—and that state-run media outlets, former intelligence officials, and media close to the ruling party could all be involved.