An article accusing Jobbik member of the European Parliament Bela Kovacs of being a Russian spy appeared in the pro-government Magyar Nemzet on May 15, 2014. The article appeared just 10 days before Hungarians are scheduled to go to the polls for the second time in two months, this time to select 21 national representatives to the European Parliament in Brussels. Kovacs is third on the Jobbik list of candidates for the European Parliament and, barring unforseen circumstances, is likely to be elected according to public pollsters Median and Ipsos.
The same newspaper broke the story earlier this year about MSZP politician Gabor Simon keeping over EUR 800,000 in an Austrian bank account that led to his resignation from parliament. A subsequent article accusing Simon of having used a forged passport to open a bank account appeared in the same newspaper shortly before his arrest one month before the general election of April 6.
The rise of Jobbik
In the 2009 EP election Jobbik emerged from relative obscurity to receive 14.6 percent of the vote, enough to send three MEPs to Brussels, thanks in large part to low voter turnout. Since then Jobbik has gone from being a regional fringe party to becoming a national mainstream party, winning 17% of the vote in the general election of 2010 and 20% of the vote in the general election of 2014. Jobbik, which wants Hungary to leave the European Union, is expected to receive 17-18 percent of the vote in next Sunday’s European Parliamentary election, well behind Fidesz (56%) but ahead of the Hungarian Socialist Party (14%).
Bela Kovacs’ murky past
Bela Kovacs was born in Budapest on 25 February 1960 where he attended the technical high school for economics. He lived in Japan where his father worked for the Hungarian foreign service as the charge d’affaires for Hungary’s Tokyo embassy. In 1986 he graduated from Moscow State Institute of International Relations with a degree in economics.
In 1987 he was inducted into the Hungarian military on his 27th birthday. The previous day he married a woman who, according to his 1999 resumé, was Austrian, but according to Magyar Nemzet was actually born in Russia and continues to hold a Russian passport.
According to Magyar Nemzet, Kovács’s wife, Szvetlana Isztohin, worked as a counterintelligence agent for the KGB. Kovacs denies this and has threatened to sue the newspaper. He says his wife defected from Russia and lost her Russian citizenship as a result.
Upon finishing his mandatory three-year service in the Hungarian military, Kovacs reportedly moved to the Soviet Union for well over a decade.
According to his EP resumé, Kovács worked as an “international trade broker” in 1986-1988, an “international trade and finance manager in 1990-2003”, and as a “director” in 2003-2005. Between 1998 and 2003 he “worked in various executive capacities in commercial businesses in Japan and Russia” (the Magyar Nemzet article points out that this was later amended to say that Kovacs “was an executive for a commercial business in Japan and Russia”). He reportedly also undertook investments, including a grocery store in Budapest’s 13th district. The business failed after failing to pay HUF 1 million in back taxes.
Returning to Hungary in 2003, Kovacs was reportedly introduced to Jobbik by a friend with whom he served in the Hungarian military, Jozsef Biber.
444.hu writes that Kovacs was the “businessman” of the party and that he had provided Jobbik with financial support. He is reported to have provided millions of forint for Jobbik’s 2006 joint campaign with the Hungarian Justice and Life party (MIÉP). Origo.hu writes that Kovacs paid the travel expenses of Jobbik party leaders when they travelled abroad to take part in events that he had organized. Kovacs claims the money he provided to Jobbik during this period came from funds that he had saved while in Russia.
Kovacs, who reportedly speaks six languages, also claimed to have used his international connections to provide funding for Jobbik. 444.hu writes that Kovacs established Jobbik’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and served as its chairman (and sole member) for many years. It also writes that Kovacs organized a trip to Russia for Jobbik party chairman Gabor Vona in 2008.
From Hungary to Brussels
The following year Jobbik won 14.6 percent of the national vote in European Parliamentary elections held in 2009–enough to send three delegates to Brussels–after conducting a country-wide campaign costing hundreds of millions of forints. As a party outside of parliament, it did so without receiving any public campaign funds.
Bela Kovacs went to Brussels as a member of Jobbik MEP Csanad Szegedi’s staff. Later that year, on 24 October 2009, a number of ultranationalist and far-right parties from around Europe held a conference in Budapest. Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s National Front, Italy’s Tricolour Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats and Belgium’s National Front used the occasion to join forces and form the Alliance of European National Movements. Initially elected to the position of party treasurer in 2011, Kovacs was reportedly elected chairman in 2013.
In 2010 Jobbik MEP Zoltan Balczo resigned from the European Parliament to serve full time as a member of parliament in Hungary. Kovacs was appointed by Jobbik to take his place.
After taking over Balczo’s seat, Kovacs served as substitute delegate on various EP committees, including the Delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee (May 2010 to present day). Within a short period of time he managed to become a full member of other committees, including the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (June 2010 to January 2012) and the EU-Kyrgyzstan and EU-Uzbekistan Parliamentary Cooperation Committees, as well as the standing delegation to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia (November 2010 to present day). He also served on the Committee for Relations with the Arab Peninsula (June 2010 to November 2010). In January 2012 Kovacs returned to the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry Research and Energy on which he sits to this day.
According to Jozsef Gulyas, who was a member of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security during the 2006-2010 parliamentary cycle, Kovacs has developed a reputation in Brussels for being the lobbyist of Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom. Gulyas believes that Kovacs works exceptionally hard to represent a country which is outside the European Union but whose economic interests heavily depend on EU Member States.
The Russian connection
In 2013 Kovacs and Jobbik chairman Gabor Vona took another trip to Moscow. The two reportedly met with the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Leonid Ivanovich Kalashnikov.
Earlier this year Kovacs reportedly travelled to Crimea on his own to observe for himself the controversial referendum on union with Russia whose results (which turned out to have been falsified) were then used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify Russia’s annexation of that part of Ukraine. Kovacs said the referendum went smoothly and that everything was in order. He was quoted as saying he hadn’t seen any armed members of the Russian military or tanks despite “getting around on foot”.
Kremlin quietly supports EU far-right extremist groups
The government has allegedly known that Jobbik had been receiving funding from Russian sources for quite some time.
Jobbik has formed strong alliances with Iran and Russia since its formation. The two countries have a lot to gain by secretly supporting extremist parties like Jobbik. It is in the interest of such countries to weaken international institutions like the European Union from the inside and steer the underlying interests away from western values towards the east.
Parliamentary Committee on National Security covened
On Friday MSZP MP Zsolt Molnar announced that an extraordinary meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security would be held on Monday. The committee has reportedly summoned Bela Kovacs to answer allegations of spying. Representatives of Hungary’s counter-espionage authority, the so-called Constitution Protection Authority, have also been invited to attend committee procedings even though, according to various experts, they are prohibited by law from disclosing anything about an ongoing investigation.
Jobbik accuses the government of launching a smear campaign only ten days before next Sunday’s European Parliamentary election. In an interview given to hirTV on Friday Balczo stated there were no grounds whatsoever to allegations that Kovacs was a spy and pointed out that it was Jobbik chairman Gabor Vona who insisted the Parliamentary Committee on National Security be convened so that the “baseless allegations” could be put to rest.
In a separate interview given to HirTV, prime minister Viktor Orban said that spying for a foreign power was tantamount to treason. “That internationalists, who do not consider nations important, have quite often committee treason in Hungary’s history, is something about which public opinion is aware”, said the Prime Minsiter. “But that a party that considers itself nationalist wants to send individuals that have committed treason to Brussels to represent the interests of Hungarians is unprecedented”.
(Editor: Viktor Orban evidentally couldn’t resist the opportunity to accuse all of his political opponents, including “internationalists” (i.e. left-wing politicians), of treason. Either Orban is unaware that such blanket accusations places him in the same camp as Jobbik politicians Gabor Vona, Krisztina Morvai, or Tamas Gaudi-Nagy, or he simply doesn’t care).
Hungary’s chief prosecutor reportedly sent a letter to EP President Martin Schultz on Thursday asking that Kovacs’ immunity from prosecution. Schultz’s office has reportedly responded that the European Parliament, which is not currently in session, can only take up the matter of after the EP election, and only then if Kovacs is elected to the European Parliament.
Critics accuse the chief prosecutor’s office of acting in a manner highly prejudicial to opposition party candidates shortly before an election. They ask why it waited until the EP was no longer in session to request the lifting of Kovacs’ immunity from prosecution. They also point to the fact that Gabor Simon, the former MSZP politician arrested one month before the general election but released earlier this week, was never formally charged will using a fake passport to open a bank account, only with incorrectly authorizing the payment of some HUF 250,000 (USD 1,100) worth of invoices while a state secretary back in 2008-2009.
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