Tag Archives: Péter Krekó

Russian influence on the Hungarian “government-organized media”

In the last few months I have noticed a growing interest in the spread of “fake news” in the government-sponsored media, which Péter Krekó of Political Capital calls “government-organized media.” This is an important topic, given the government’s power over these media outlets and the amount of money it spends to keep them alive. It is a well-known fact that all regional papers are in the hands of pro-Fidesz oligarchs and that their content is provided from the center. Excellent graphs in an article published by Átlátszó at the end of November show the preponderance of government media. Through its daily and weekly papers, internet sites, and radio and television networks, Fidesz-government propaganda reaches 8.7 million people, whereas critical voices get to only 3.1 million. The only media surface where there is more or less parity is the internet, where 50% of the sites are government critical as opposed to 37% pro-Fidesz sites.

It would take a great deal more study of the “government-organized media” before one could give a full picture of how it is structured and what its end-goal is in spreading fake news. An incredible number of news items and opinion pieces appear in solidly Fidesz publications, such as Magyar Idők, Magyar Hírlap, and Demokrata, in which real and fake news are intertwined. The fake news items originate mainly in Russia and the United States.

Russian news and propaganda comes via English-language channels like Russia Today and Sputnik. The former is already available in Hungary for subscribers to a UPC package that includes CNN, BBC, and now RT. But since few people in Hungary speak English and, as László Seres claims, the “Eastern Opening” is not popular, most Hungarians are not being subjected to Russian propaganda directly. Instead, it is right-wing Hungarian journalists who rely on the news provided by these Russian propaganda sources and spread it, primarily through Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap.

A few months ago the rumor circulated that RT will start a Hungarian-language TV network, but this was just talk. Péter Krekó is right: to establish such a network would be a total waste of money since the Hungarian government is serving up Russian propaganda quite willingly. As for Seres’s claim that the majority of Hungarians are against the “Eastern Opening,” this might be true, but there is a large minority that is passionately pro-Russian and admires Vladimir Putin to no end. The other day both Magyar Hírlap and Mandiner, an online news site, published opinion pieces expressing their disgust at the European Union’s criticism of the Russian authorities’ decision to bar opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running in next year’s presidential election. The comments that followed these articles showed a great deal of sympathy for Putin and the Russia he has built. This pro-Russian crowd is still a minority, but, with the help of the Hungarian government-sponsored media, pro-Russian sentiment is growing.

Pro-government Hungarian media outlets also rely on internet news sites that practically specialize in fake news and conspiracy theories. Infowars is one of these, which is quoted often enough in Magyar Hírlap and Magyar Idők. Media Bias/Fact Check, which styles itself as “the most comprehensive media bias resource,” describes Infowars as “extreme right.” It is considered to be “a questionable source [that] exhibits one or more of the following: extreme bias, overt propaganda, poor or no sourcing to credible information and/or is fake news.” Infowars uses material from Russian propaganda news sites and from conspiracy websites such as Zero Hedge.

One can also find references in the Fidesz media to Your News Wire, which is described by Media Bias/Fact Check as belonging to the “conspiracy-pseudoscience category,” which may publish unverifiable information that is not always supported by evidence. Another source that crops up in Magyar Hírlap and Magyar Idők is Daily Caller, which is “moderately to strongly biased toward conservative causes through story selection and/or political affiliation.” Daily Caller uses strongly loaded words in an attempt to influence, and they publish misleading reports or omit reporting of information that may damage conservative causes. All in all, the foreign news that reaches the readers of government papers, whether it comes from Russia or the United States, is strongly biased at best and fabricated at worst.

Let me give an illustration from an opinion piece written by István Lovas, in which I read the incredible news that “American military forces that are staying illegally in Syria enable ISIS terrorists to participate in military exercises at their military base near Al-Tanf.” The news reached Hungary thanks to the good offices of Russia Today. This astonishing news was reported by Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the armed forces of Russia and first deputy defense minister. The Russians have proof: satellite sighting and intelligence reports. I found only one article, on a right-wing internet site called Strategic Culture Foundation, that carried the news today. The problem is that their source was the same Russia Today that was also the source for Lovas. Strategic Culture took the alleged news seriously and created quite a story around it, accusing Donald Trump of a dirty double game.

Finally, there are some western journalists who spread pro-Russian propaganda. Botond Bőtös of Átlátszó wrote an article recently about F. William Engdahl, an American writer based in Germany. As Wikipedia puts it, “he identifies himself as an economic researcher, historian and freelance journalist.” Engdahl’s propaganda, via Hungarian intermediaries, reached Hungary as well. There might be a connection between his old preoccupation with “George Soros and his financial network” and Viktor Orbán’s propaganda campaign against Soros.

All in all, the Hungarian government media serves Russian propaganda well, thanks to a number of domestic and foreign pro-Russian propagandists busily spreading the word.

December 30, 2017

Russia, Hungary, and the Hungarian minority in Ukraine

A few days ago an article appeared in Foreign Affairs with the somewhat sensational title “The Hungarian Putin? Viktor Orban and the Kremlin’s Playbook,” written by Mitchell A. Orenstein, Péter Krekó, and Attila Juhász. Orenstein is a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Krekó and Juhász are associates of the Hungarian think tank Political Capital. The question the article poses is whether Hungary entertains any irredentist plans as far as her neighbors are concerned, similar to the way in which Russia behaved earlier in Abkhazia and now in Ukraine. After all, the Russian attacks on those territories were preceded by a grant of Russian citizenship to Ukrainians and Abkhazians. To this question the answer is negative. Viktor Orbán may sound bellicose at times, but he is interested in the Hungarians living in the neighboring countries only as a source of extra votes and perhaps a reservoir of immigrants to a country with dismal demographic figures.

The authors claim, however, that there is “a delicate balance [which] could easily topple.” What created this delicate balance? Although “Hungary’s radical right-wing, fascist, and irredentist party, Jobbik, has virtually no support among Hungarians abroad,” it is still possible that “aggressive separatist political movements, especially those with external political support, could … act as though they have a majority beyond them, as in eastern Ukraine.”  I must say that the exact meaning of this claim is unclear to me, but the authors’ argument is that the “nationalist political use of Hungarians abroad in Hungary could set the stage for such extremism and instability in neighboring countries.” In Ukraine such a danger is real “where Orban has taken advantage of political chaos to press Hungarian minority issues … in the sub-Carpathian region of western Ukraine, adjacent to Hungary.” There are far too many “ifs” here, but it is true that Orbán did announce his claim to autonomy for the Hungarian minority at the most inappropriate moment, during the first Russian attacks on eastern Ukraine.

It is unlikely that Hungary could convince Ukraine’s western friends to force Kiev to grant autonomy to the Hungarians of Sub-Carpathian Ukraine (Zakarpattia Oblast) who constitute 12.1% of the total population of the province. In 2001 they numbered 151,500, but since then it is possible that many of them either left for Hungary or with the help of a Hungarian passport migrated farther west. On the other hand, one occasionally hears Russian voices outlining ambitious plans for Ukraine and its minorities. For example, in March 2014 Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party that backs Vladimir Putin, suggested that Poland, Hungary, and Romania might wish to take back regions which were their territories in the past. Romania might want Chrnivtsi; Hungary, the Zaparpattia region; and Poland, the Volyn, Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Rovensky regions. Thus Ukraine would be free of “unnecesssary tensions” and “bring prosperity and tranquility to the Ukrainian native land.”

Or, there is the Russian nationalist ideologue, Aleksandr Dugin, the promoter of a Russian-led “Eurasian Empire” that would incorporate Austria as well as Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. Although Dugin’s specific recommendations were first reported on a far-right Hungarian site called Alfahir.hu, the news spread rapidly beyond the borders of Hungary. Dugin is an enemy of nation states and would like to see the return of empires. “If, let’s say, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, or perhaps even Volhynia and Austria would unite, all Hungarians would be within one country. Everything would return to the state that existed before Trianon.” Of course, Dugin’s argument is specious. Surely, a United Europe offers exactly the same advantages to the Hungarian minorities that Dugin recommends, but without the overlordship of Putin’s Russia.

One could discount these suggestions as fantasies, but something is in the air in Russia. The country’s foreign minister considers the fate of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine to be of such importance that at the Munich Security Conference a couple of days ago he spent a considerable amount of time on the minority’s grievances.

Mind you, Sergei Lavrov’s speech was met with derision by those present. As the reporter of Bloomberg described the scene, the “crowd laughed at and booed him.” Apparently, during his 45-minute speech he “rewrote the history of the Cold War, accused the West of fomenting a coup in Ukraine, and declared himself to be a champion of the United Nations Charter.” From our point of view, the most interesting part of the speech was the time he spent on the Hungarian minority in the Zakarpattia Oblast.

I think it is worth quoting Lavrov’s answer to a question that addresses this issue:

[The Ukrainians] are probably embarrassed to say it here, but now Ukraine is undergoing mobilization, which is running into serious difficulties. Representatives of the Hungarian, Romanian minorities feel “positive” discrimination, because they are called up in much larger proportions than ethnic Ukrainians. Why not talk about it? Or that in Ukraine reside not only Ukrainians and Russians, but there are other nationalities which by fate ended up in this country and want to live in it. Why not provide them with equal rights and take into account their interests? During the elections to the Verkhovnaya Rada the Hungarian minority asked to organize constituencies in such a way that at least one ethnic Hungarian would make it to the Rada. The constituencies were “sliced” so that none of the Hungarians made it. All this suggests that there is something to discuss.

Perhaps the most “amusing” part of the paragraph Lavrov devoted to the Hungarian and Romanian minorities in Ukraine is his claim that fate was responsible for these ethnic groups’ incorporation into the Soviet Union. I remember otherwise. The Soviet government kept the old Trianon borders without any adjustments based on ethnic considerations. The ethnic map of Zakarpattia Oblast shows that such an adjustment shouldn’t have been too difficult a task.

Ethnic map of Zakarpattia Obast  / Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakarpattia_Oblast

Ethnic map of Zakarpattia Obast / Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakarpattia_Oblast

The small Hungarian minority is obviously being used by the Russians to further their own claims, which in turn might encourage Viktor Orbán to pursue his quest for autonomous status for the largely Hungarian-inhabited regions of the oblast. The Orbán government supports autonomy for the Szeklers of central Transylvania despite the Romanian-Hungarian basic treaty of September 1996 that set aside the issue of territorial autonomy, to which Romania strenuously objected. The treaty had to be signed because NATO and EU membership depended on it. The Ukrainian situation is different because Ukraine is not part of the EU. Whether Orbán will accept the tacit or even open assistance of Russia for the sake of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine remains to be seen. In any case, to everybody’s surprise Viktor Orbán will pay a visit to Kiev where he will meet with President Petro Poroshenko.