Hungary toes Russian line on ‘Western meddling’ in the Balkans

May 2, 2017

Photo: EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI

The Hungarian public is generally unfamiliar with Balkan politics. Beyond occasional coverage about European Union enlargement plans or the Balkan migration route, Hungarians hear little in the media about their southern neighbors.

But over the past weeks Hungarians have begun hearing much more about the Balkans — and alleged nefarious Western meddling in the region. While Hungary formally supports European Union integration for the Western Balkans, top Hungarian officials and Fidesz-aligned media are now going out of their way to promote Russian propaganda on the region.

On April 28, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, while at an EU ministers’ meeting in Malta, took the time to give an extensive statement on the phone to Hungarian state news agency MTI — on Macedonia.

“What we are seeing in Macedonia is the result of a series of external interventions and clearly indicates the dangers involved if the life of a country is influenced from outside,” Szijjártó said.

While noting that Macedonia used to have a stable government that was capable of winning five consecutive elections, the minister said that “during the past three years there have been a series of major interventions in Macedonia’s internal affairs. The embassies of countries thousands of miles away dictated the date of elections, organizations linked to [the Open Society Foundation’s] George Soros financed anti-government drives and minority parties were given orders by a neighboring country.”

But news portal Index quickly pointed out that the Hungarian foreign ministry’s position was nearly identical to that of the Russian Foreign Ministry, challenging its readers to “find the ten tiny differences” between the two ministries’ statements.

“The current domestic political crisis in the Republic of Macedonia has been mostly caused by blatant interference in the domestic affairs of this country,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The Szijjártó statement was prominently publicized on the Hungarian government’s official website, and government-controlled media and newspapers close to the ruling Fidesz party ran a flurry of articles and editorials on the dangers of outside intervention in Macedonia. Fidesz-allied tabloid 888.hu wrote about George Soros and the US government creating a crisis in Macedonia and empowering the Albanian minority, while pro-government daily Magyar Idők featured an article about Macedonia as a “perfect target.”

The Hungarian government’s statements, which in effect accuse the US and EU—“embassies of countries thousands of miles away”— of interfering in Macedonia’s internal affairs and undermining the country’s stability, are highly inconsistent with the Orbán government’s own official Western Balkans strategy, which focuses on helping countries such as Serbia and Macedonia integrate with the West.

As a result, observers see the Hungarian government’s position on Macedonia as yet another signal that Russia is playing an increasingly prominent role in influencing Hungarian foreign policy.

The Kremlin has long worked to cultivate a narrative of Western foreign interference in the Balkans as a tool for promoting its own interests in the region, most importantly attempting to undermine movement toward EU or NATO membership for the region’s countries. One element of this strategy is playing on the fears of ethnic Macedonians and Serbs in their respective regions.

“While Macedonia has been independent for 26 years now, it is a very fragile country, and this is due in large part to its restless Albanian community, which makes up a quarter of Macedonia’s population. Enter the US,” Kremlin-controlled Russia Today wrote in March. “Under American patronage, the foundations for a Greater Albania have begun to take shape. And the areas which fall under a Greater Albania include Kosovo, parts of Macedonia, such as Tetovo, the Presevo Valley in Serbia, and parts of Montenegro, such as Malesia.”

By manipulating existing ethnic tensions and border disputes, the Kremlin is trying to pull Serbia and Macedonia closer into its orbit.

It remains unclear whether the Kremlin has explicitly asked the Hungarian government to support its narrative on Western interference in the Balkans, or whether the Orbán government is opting to do so on its own accord in order to please Moscow. But coming merely days after Foreign Minister Szijjártó told a Polish newspaper that Hungary has nothing to fear from Russia, the latest step in Hungary’s evolving foreign policy is ringing alarm bells.