The once fiercely anti-Russian Hungarian right and far-right have changed their tune in the last six years, encouraged by Viktor Orbán’s Eastern opening and his openly pro-Russian foreign policy. It was about two years ago that the Hungarian media began to look into some of the far-right internet sites which, as it turned out, used servers located in Russia. Some of these have since disappeared, but more than 90 such sites are still in existence.
Of course, Hungary is not the only target of Russian penetration within the European Union. In fact, I suspect that Moscow expends relatively little money and effort on Hungarian pro-Russian, anti-European Union, anti-American propaganda. After all, the Orbán government itself is doing its best to aid Russian subversive activities in Europe.
The European Union was slow to recognize and combat the ever-growing presence of Russian propaganda, which is tailor-made to influence public opinion country by country. This propaganda aims at turning EU member states against one another, a task made easier by the refugee crisis.
Last August the European External Action Service, which is the European Union’s diplomatic service, decided to set up a small task force, eight men and women, “to respond to massive Russian propaganda directed both at the home and at international audiences.” Although the group was supposed to start work on September 1, 2015, the EU allocated no funds for the project. Several members of the task force “are detached national experts, paid by their countries.” I hope that the EU is not pinning its hopes for combating Russian propaganda on eight people.
Meanwhile it was becoming increasingly evident that, just as in the case of the American presidential campaign, Russia is also directly meddling in European elections. The best documented instance of such interference occurred in Germany, where a Russian propagandist came up with a phony story about the gang rape of a German-Russian girl by Muslim refugees. The story ran just ahead of the German regional elections, and it may have contributed to electoral losses for Angela Merkel’s party. The “Lisa Affair” was a real eye-opener. Political analysts feared at the time that Moscow was planning something similar for the British referendum as well. Some also suspected that Russia was involved in the Dutch referendum vote, which rejected an EU treaty with Ukraine. Sputnik apparently hailed the result as “a step toward ‘Nexit.’” Speaking about Russia’s anti-German propaganda campaign, Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman in the Bundestag for the CDU/CSU alliance, said, “the underlying logic is that when you discredit Chancellor Merkel and Germany, you also weaken Europe.”
The Hungarian foreign policy analyst Botond Feledy, in an article written for Index, summed up the current goals of Russian propaganda. The aim is no longer persuasion, as in Soviet times, but to “pound it into the heads of Europeans” that (1) the West is weak, (2) democracy is useless and bad, (3) the United States is not an ally but only exploits Europe, (4) the West is decadent and has lost its values, and (5) the world order originally created by the United States is close to collapse. I don’t think I have to point out that Viktor Orbán is the perfect messenger of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda.
Disinformation coming from Moscow via Russian-financed sites occasionally gets reported as fact by Hungarian pro-government newspapers and the state television and radio stations. An excellent article on vs.hu lists current Hungarian sites that are most likely in the service of the Russian propaganda machine. Moreover, Russia is notorious for its thousands of trolls in the employ of the state who write comments on English- and German-language sites.
The European Commission is slowly waking up to the danger. EU officials now say that “Russian propaganda is powerful in all EU member states, [although] in some of them Moscow barely needed to make the effort, as local politicians are delivering its messages.” I assume Viktor Orbán is one of the highest-ranking members of that group.
The latest contribution to the analysis of Russian propaganda in the European Union is a study published by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, titled “The Bear in Sheep’s Clothing: Russia’s Government-Funded Organisations in the EU.” The Wilfried Martens Centre is the official think tank of the European People’s Party. This particular study focuses on Russian-established foundations, whose sources of financing are carefully hidden. The authors of the study describe them as “government-organized-nongovernmental-organizations” or GONGOs. They are based in Russia but can have numerous branches in EU countries. Money is also channeled to established European think tanks to influence political and intellectual elites. A prominent example of this kind of think tank is the French Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques, but there are several others.
All in all, the Russian threat comes in many shapes and sizes–from ordinary trolls to sophisticated think tanks. The authors offer a number of recommendations to combat Russian propaganda and disinformation. Mainly they suggest ways to strengthen the EU’s positive messages. But negative messages are incredibly powerful. Just think about those politicians who try to run a positive campaign. They quickly run into the buzz saw of negative advertising.