Orbán: Foreign attempts at influence are “real and constant” and come from multiple directions

March 21, 2017

MTI Photo: Koszticsák Szilárd

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán paid a visit to the northern Hungarian city of Salgótarján on Tuesday as part of the Modern Cities program, where in a press conference he responded to journalists’ questions regarding national security, foreign influence and the independence of his Fidesz party.

An interview appeared on news site index.hu Tuesday morning which detailed a former Hungarian secret agent’s assessments of the threats Russian covert activity poses to Hungary and Europe at large (you can read the interview here in English.) Orbán was asked to react to the interview, and said that while Hungary is not the largest country in the world, it sits in an important place geographically, and “there are states to the east and to the west whose interests are tied up with the country.”

Orbán acknowledged that Hungary “does not live in isolation,” and that it would be impossible to isolate the country, but added that “Hungary can be defended” from foreign attempts at influence. According to the prime minister, his government has constructed a well-functioning defense system since it took power in 2010, and he emphasized that “I care about this question too, it takes a lot of time from my work.”

The prime minister did not specify which foreign threats occupy his time, but his own statements and those of other senior Fidesz officials indicate that his government is most concerned by possible machinations coming from the United States and organizations connected to billionaire Hungarian-American financier George Soros. Both Orbán and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó have accused the United States of attempting to meddle in Hungary’s domestic affairs, and Hungary’s central bank governor György Matolcsy stated in a February parliamentary committee meeting that a “large NATO ally” (it was clear he was referring to the US) had tried to topple Hungary’s government and central bank. Additionally, the government has begun drawing up plans for countering what it considers to be hostile attempts at influence by NGOs connected to Soros, and Fidesz deputy chairman Szilárd Németh has called for such civil organizations to be “swept out” of the country.

But little scrutiny has been paid by the government, or by pro-government media, to attempts for influence perpetrated by Hungary’s far more proximate neighbor, Russia. Orbán’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised eyebrows around Europe as the prime minister routinely wages battles with Brussels while clearing the way for Russian interests in the country, while the conclusions of experts that Russian secret services have already infiltrated Hungary’s far-right groups and parties elicit little response from the government.

When asked at the Salgótarján press conference about Matolcsy’s unsubstantiated claims of a US-directed coup attempt, Orbán confirmed that “these attempts at influence are real and constant, they come from multiple directions and protecting against them is a serious expertise.”

Orbán also deflected questions about his recent repeated statements that the radical-right Jobbik party had been given over to media oligarch and Orbán’s former friend Lajos Simicska. The two men had a public falling out in 2015, after which Simicka’s numerous media interests, which had previously been perceived as distinctly pro-government, took an oppositional turn.

When asked if Jobbik was a “Simicska party” now, then what had Fidesz been before Orbán’s falling out with the media oligarch, Orbán responded only that “Fidesz is a sovereign party and always has been.”

Standing alongside Salgótarján’s socialist mayor Zsolt Fekete, Orbán announced a package of development projects for the city that would be provided using funds from the national budget via the Modern Cities program. Salgótarján, as a city led by a socialist mayor, is the 21st of 23 cities involved in the program to be visited by Orbán. Such “opposition cities” have consistently been pushed toward the end of Orbán’s Modern Cities tour of the country since the program’s inception in early 2015, including Szeged, one of Hungary’s largest cities, which Orbán visited only in January. Szeged’s mayor is socialist László Botka, who will run against Orbán as his party’s candidate for prime minister in 2018 elections.