A lengthy article by Andrew Higgins appeared in The New York Times a few days ago under the headline “Intent on Unsettling E.U., Russia Taps Foot Soldiers from the Fringe.” As the accompanying photo, showing supporters of Jobbik demonstrating in Budapest in 2014, indicates, the larger part of the piece is devoted to Russian support of the Hungarian far-right. It pays special attention to Jobbik and the Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal (Hungarian National Front), which got a lot of negative press recently as a result of the murder of a police officer by the group’s leader, István Győrkös.
Most of the information in the article comes from a March 2015 study by Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank that has published a number of pamphlets on Hungarian extreme right-wing organizations and their relations with Russia. Political Capital’s English-language study “’I am Eurasian’: The Kremlin connections of the Hungarian far-right” is the joint effort of Attila Juhász, Lóránt Győri, Péter Krekó, and András Dezső. The first three authors are political scientists working for Political Capital. András Dezső is an investigative journalist for Index. He did most of the work unearthing Béla Kovács’s Russian ties.
The study on which The New York Times article is based is 53 pages long. It is useful because it covers topics not normally reported on anywhere else. For example, the Russian media’s views of Jobbik and Béla Kovács’s role as a possible Russian agent. For me, at least, this was new information. The copious footnotes, which include a fair amount of English-language material, are also helpful.
The major problem with the study is that it is already out of date. Over the past two years much of the Hungarian political scene has turned upside down. Jobbik is no longer the Jobbik it was in February-March 2015. Its emphasis on friendship with Iran and Russia has shifted somewhat, in line with the thinking of Jobbik supporters who still prefer the West to the East. Moreover, Gábor Vona, the party’s chairman, has opted to move away from extremism in the hope of being accepted as a moderate right-of-center party. Magyar Nemzet, often quoted in the study as a pro-Russian government mouthpiece, is now, as a result of the falling out between its owner and Viktor Orbán, independent and frequently critical of the government. In early 2015 Béla Kovács’s immunity case was still pending, but since then the European Parliament decided to lift his immunity. And, finally, even as Jobbik began drifting away from Russia, Fidesz more than filled the void. Although Fidesz has had close ties to Russia ever since 2011, it was somewhat constrained by the European Union. With the election of Donald Trump, however, it is now confident that it is on the winning side.
According to the Political Capital study, “Russian military intelligence officers, masquerading as diplomats, staged regular mock combat exercises using plastic guns with neo-Nazi activists.” They carried out these exercises even though Hungarian intelligence was ostensibly keeping an eye on Győrkös’s “network of extremists linked to and encouraged by Russia.”
The analysts of Political Capital admit that support for these fringe groups rarely pans out, but “reaching out to those on the margins costs little and sometimes hits pay dirt. That happened with Jobbik,” claims András Rácz, a Russian expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. I heartily disagree with Rácz. Jobbik didn’t become an important party because of Russian financial support. They “hit pay dirt” with their anti-Gypsy rhetoric in a country where over 80% of the population is strongly anti-Roma. Their anti-Semitism also added to their popularity in certain circles.
The other topic The New York Times article treats at some length is the case of Béla Kovács, who is “widely mocked as KGBela.” I have written many times about the Russian financing of Jobbik and the role Béla Kovács played in the relationship between Jobbik and the Kremlin. But I don’t think I reported that in June 2015 the European Parliament lifted his immunity, thereby allowing a Hungarian investigation of his case. As The New York Times article admits, “authorities in Hungary have so far shown little real interest in pursuing the matter.” Just as “the government has shown similar reluctance to probe too deeply into Russia’s links” to István Győrkös’s neo-Nazi activities. This reluctance is worrisome. But even more worrisome is that when Bernadett Szél of LMP proposed a parliamentary investigation into Russian interference in Hungarian affairs, the move was blocked by Fidesz.
The official Jobbik news site alfarhir.hu is no more pro-Russian than Magyar Idők or Magyar Hírlap. Any Russian “financial aid” given to Hungarian fringe groups or to Jobbik is by now a complete waste of money since the ruling party and the Hungarian government are fully committed to a pro-Russian foreign policy. Why throw away good money on fringe groups, especially on Jobbik, which at the moment is considered to be the chief enemy of the Orbán government? Russian money to “unsettle the E.U.” is going straight to the Hungarian government in the form of billions of euros for the Paks Nuclear Power Plant enlargement. The real threat is not Jobbik or the neo-Nazi fringe groups financed by Russia but Viktor Orbán, who is doing Vladimir Putin’s bidding.