"Birds of a feather flock together" – Hungary's irrational friendship with Russia

April 17, 2017

The fact that the Russian government is not the target of a strong Russian disinformation campaign can also mean that it is achieving its goals in other ways. Orbán’s strong anti-migration and anti-EU rhetoric is good for destabilizing the EU.  And since eroding the EU is one of the Russian’s main goals, they are pleased to see the Hungarian government is a partner in this. This is compounded by the dependency arising from the financial construction of the planned expansion of the Paks power plant, which threatens to limit Hungarian sovereignty, and to make Hungarian politics once again dependent on Russia for generations.

Translation of István Riba’s article “Russians come home” appearing in the April 13, 2017, edition of Hungarian print weekly hvg (pp. 6-8).

Hungary’s national sovereignty may be limited by the Orbán government’s policy towards Russia.  By actively and provocatively supporting Moscow’s anti-EU disinformation activity, Fidesz itself may become an international threat.

Is the government’s friendship with Russia really such that Viktor Orbán could have picked up money from Rosatom (Russian State Nuclear Energy Corporation-tran.) with which to buy RTL Klub (Hungary’s largest independent broadcaster-tran.)?  And what new information will come to light in the future?  Lajos Simicska’s allegations of last week may offer new grounds for suspicion that Hungary’s national interests are not at all at the center of the prime minister’s policies. Helping Orbán-related capital accumulation also appears to be behind the construction of the new reactors at the Paks atomic power plant being built with Russian loans.  This is so important to the government that in recent days a minister without portfolio was appointed to the project.  There continues to be no answer from the government as to how it is possible that a Russian company gained access to national consultation data via the internet, or why it is following the Russia example when it comes to the planned closure of CEU and the regulation of civil organizations.  However much its close connection with Putin’s Russia weakens Hungary’s position in the EU and NATO, the government makes no effort to distance itself from that extraordinarily uncomfortable image for Hungarian society.

“We can receive Rosszija 24 but frankly I like RT,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó in praise of Russia Today in January to Kommersant, completely ignoring the fact that RT simply broadcasts Russian propaganda and is not far removed from the Russian secret services.  The foreign minister also follows Hungarian media for which one of the main sources  is the Russian broadcaster, as is the Sputnik News website. With this Hungary has moved to an extreme position within Central Europe in that in other countries in the region only marginal websites take internet websites speaking to extreme right-wing groups seriously.  The Hungarian government media, on the other hand, is the ”main customer” for Russian disinformation, and the content of the Russian websites conspicuously coincides with opposition to the West the Hungarian government wishes to project.  The “Let’s stop Brussels!” slogan sounds very good to Russian ears in that it manifests the attack that the Russians are undertaking against the EU.  At the same time this is important to Russian politics as a way of instilling uncertainty in the citizens of EU member states in democracy, western values and faith in the American alliance. Every means of broadcasting this message is good for Moscow.

Likewise the Hungarian government’s attack on George Soros can be linked to Putin’s interests. Russia long ago rid itself of Soros-supported organizations by using administrative means to drive them out of the country.  On the other hand, for the past several years CEU has produced a number of politicians who have come to play an increasingly serious role in countries falling under Russian influence.  Obviously, Moscow is not happy about this and, for this reason, is pleased with the steps Hungary is taking.  However, Fidesz will act contrary to national interests if it destroy’s one of the country’s most successful universities.

For a while Jobbik appeared to be the servant of Russian interests in Hungary, but the Russians prefer for the Hungarian government to work directly under them.  Precisely for this reason direct Russian disinformation efforts are not really taking place in Hungary. Rather, it takes advantage of the Hungarian government’s attack on the values of the EU and the west in a cooperative manner.  It is not incidental that defense against Russian disinformation will soon be a theme throughout Europe, as Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia establish separate internal security agencies to counter it.  The Hungarian government, however, has not taken a single step.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was visibly disinterested in the decision adopted by the European Peoples Party at its conference in Malta under the title “Russian disinformation is undermining western democracy.”  In this it calls on EU and NATO member countries to uniformly stand up for liberal and democratic values, fundamental human rights, and personal freedom, the rule of law, independent justice system, and transparency in government in an effort to weaken Russian attempts at interference.  There is no news whether Orbán opposed this resolution in Malta.  LMP (liberal/green party Politics Can Be Different-tran.) is calling Fidesz’s bluff.  It translated the Malta resolution and last week issued a call for the Hungarian national assembly to adopt it.  So the governing party must unequivocally decide whether to support the common European steps in the face of Russian aggression, or continue its Russian policy.

At the same time the green party is attempting to create a parliamentary committee to investigate the national security implications of Russian influence.  However, its initiative has twice been rejected by the parliamentary majority. Last week János Lázár, the minister responsible for the Office of the Prime Minister, responded to allegations that Russians are using Hungary as a means within the European Union by saying “we would be a rather weak means looking at the events of the past few days.”  He believes the Constitutional Protection Authority takes attempts at influence seriously, while the government protects national sovereignty.  “We are not beholden either to George Soros nor to the Russians.”  Lázár was of the opinion that the Russians “do not need Hungary.”

The opposition initiative, however, is also supported by Ferenc Katrein, the high-ranking national security officer who left in 2013 who agrees with (former Hungarian prime minister-tran.) Ferenc Gyursány’s earlier estimate that between 600 and 800 Russian agents may be in Hungary.  Katrein says that if Gyurcsány was referring to active intelligence gathering, then the number is greatly overstated, “but if we count the entire system of connections serving the Russian interest of intelligence gathering, including dark intelligence, then that figure seems more realistic.”  He says presently a serious Russian secret service offensive is taking place against the EU, which includes influence on operations in which the Russians have serious knowledge and experience.  This tradition, by the way, can be seen from a broadcast from the 1980s which continues to draw a lot of viewers on YouTube, in which a former KGB officer, Jurij Bezmenov, explains that only 15 percent of the activity of the Russian secret service is devoted to “true espionage,” and that their main task is agitation, influence and confusion.

According to Katrein’s statements, Hungary’s national security is “careless” in the face of Russian attempts to intrude, and this can be attributed to its politics.  The former member of the secret service said this could be felt before 2010 as well, but that it was characteristic of the period through 2013 too, during which time he worked for the service.  Katrein’s works echo the opinion of Árpád Székely, former ambassador to Moscow, that Hungary’s efforts to counter Russian activities leave much to be desired.  Responding to our questions, LMP co-chair Bernadette Szél, who is a member of the parliamentary national security committee, said that it was clear from the materials she reviewed that the Hungarian services are aware of the Russian efforts.

In this regard there are two matters which, at first glance, the presence of Russian secret service interests seems obvious.  In the case of Jobbik European parliamentary representative Béla Kovács, the Hungarian agencies launched an action with great zest, but he is still there.  According to foreign ministry 2013 inspection documents, Szilard Kiss himself was a walking national security threat (just during the first half of 2013, 4000 Hungarian visas were issued to such Russians about whom the consular services know practically nothing), still he was allowed to continue his activity until he was caught abusing finances.  According to some reports, even today he is free to conduct business with the Russians.

Also especially telling is that the newest national consultation website is connected to a Russian analytical company, and in this way Hungarian data was remitted to Yandex, which earlier cooperated with the Russian secret services.  It would have been possible to use numerous similar companies, and the system was also connected to Google Analytics. For this reason it is incomprehensible why it was necessary for these to be sent to a Russian company as well.  In any event, if this did not happen deliberately, then it can be assumed that the national security organizations did not exactly excel at fulfilling their duties, to put it lightly. Of course, it cannot be ruled out that this was not a technical error, but rather about political control.  The latter is suggested by the fact that governing party MPs obstructed an investigation in the parliamentary national security committee.

The fact that the Russian government is not the target of a strong Russian disinformation campaign can also mean that it is achieving its goals in other ways.  Orbán’s strong anti-migration and anti-EU rhetoric is good for destabilizing the EU.  And since eroding the EU is one of the Russian’s main goals, they are pleased to see the Hungarian government a partner in this. This is compounded by the dependency arising from the financial construction of the planned expansion of the Paks power plant, which threatens to limit Hungarian sovereignty, and to make Hungarian politics once again dependent on Russia for generations.

The Russian perspective (by András Németh)

Putin’s Russia has never been interested in a strong European Union. Moscow has always been of the opinion that it could extract far more compromises if it could negotiate individually with much weaker member states than with Brussels representing the EU.

As Russian president Vladimir Putin’s best central-European ally, Hungary has become an important card in his game since Fidesz ended in 2010 its adamant opposition to Moscow. Isolated since its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, it is with the Orbán government that Russia demonstrates that it has not been left without European allies.  It also comes in handy that the Hungarian politician greatly exaggerates actual losses when arguing for an end to international sanctions against Russia.

Former Hungarian ambassador to Russia, Árpád Székely, believes Russian’s work is made easy by the fact that, while the Hungarian government’s policies lack consistency and the majority of experts were forced out of the foreign ministry over the course of numerous leadership changes, the Russian secret services have become deeply built into the Hungarian-Russian civil and military institutions.  “A large number of Russian businessmen are active in Hungary who do not undertake real business activities, have no revenues, and still drive the best cars and lunch at the most expensive restaurants. They also get a salary from somewhere,” he says.

According to official statistics, less than ten thousand Russians live in Hungary.  However, the real number is much larger.  Nina Popova, the editor of Rossijski Kurir Centralnoj Evropi, a Russian-language newspaper published in Hungary, calculates the Russian diaspora at over 20,000 and the number of people living in Hungary speaking Russian as a mother tongue at 50,000.  Russian opposition politician Aleksij Torubarov, who escaped to Hungary, believes a large number of his countrymen living here do not sympathize with Putin.

While the deepening of Russian-Hungarian friendship is clear from Moscow’s point of view, not clear is the benefit to Hungary, says Russian expert Zoltán Sz. Biró. “Economic reasons cannot explain the conspicuous cordiality with which the Hungarian government behaves towards Russia.  There is no area of the economy the Russians have come to dominate. From an economic point of view, Hungary does not depend on Russia.  It’s not even true in the often mentioned field of energy that maintaining a good relationship is a condition for receiving energy,” Sz. Biró says.

The expert believes that since Hungary derives no benefit from the friendship, Russia does not appear to be a country for which it is important to maintain a close connection in the interest of a spectacular rebound in the future.  The irrational maintenance of friendship serves the interests of a narrow group.

Sz. Biró says it is not certain that Russia seeks to significantly influence Orbán politics.  He thinks it is also conceivable that, since Russia and Hungary are becoming more and more autocratic, it follows from the logic of the system that they should come to resemble each another:  “Although the general opinion is that Orbán is singing Putin’s tune, it is also true that in all autocracies similar power mechanisms operate: their goals and means are the same, and it is not surprising that, after Putin, Orbán is also moving against civil organizations obstructing the operations of the system.”