Tag Archives: Russian-Hungarian relations

Hungary has no secrets from Russia? The strange story of the Yandex capture code

On April 8, 444.hu’s curious and internet savvy journalists, while looking at the government’s website where citizens can fill out the infamous “Stop Brussels” questionnaire, discovered that “personally identifiable information” (PII) is being passed on to Yandex’s Russian servers.

First, a few words about Yandex, a Russian multinational company specializing in internet-related services. It is the largest search engine company in Russia. It also performs services similar to those of Google Analytics, but it can perform certain additional tasks that Google doesn’t (and won’t): with a special setting it can collect “personally identifiable information,” a feature that is described by experts as marking the difference between capture and spying.

Citizens who choose to answer the Orbán government’s moronic questions online must give their full names, e-mail addresses, and age. Although the website assures respondents that their personal information is safe, that it is not given out to a third party, it is clear from the source code that this is not the case. Thus, what Antal Rogán’s propaganda ministry, which runs the website, did was against the law. But that’s only one of the many problems connected to using Yandex.

It is well known in internet technology circles that Yandex passed information to Russia’s state security service, FSB, back in 2011. Yandex also has a service similar to PayPal, which the Russian blogger Alexey Navalny used for donations he collected for an anti-corruption website. Yandex passed the names of the donors on to the FSB. It is also well established that in Russia there is no such thing as data protection. Any information Yandex and other Russian internet service providers collect is readily accessible by the security services. Therefore, Yandex is almost never used in western democratic countries. That the Hungarian government opted for Yandex lends additional credence to the hypothesis that Viktor Orbán, for one reason or another, is beholden to Vladimir Putin. He never misses an opportunity to give preferential treatment to Russian companies.

It didn’t take long after 444.hu made its finding public for the capture code to disappear from the site’s page source code. The discovery of the Yandex connection had to be embarrassing to the Hungarian government. Moreover, the removal of the capture code signaled that this was not just an innocent mistake or an oversight. It took the government a whole day to try to explain away Yandex’s capture code. They didn’t succeed. The statement concentrated on questions that had nothing to do with the problem at hand. For example, it claimed that “personal data and the opinions expressed are stored in a closed and unconnected manner.” In taking the capture code down, the government only wanted to avoid “malicious misinterpretations” in the future.

Source: Index.hu

The conservative mandiner.hu rushed straight to Yandex. Its president, Victor Tarnavski, argued that Yandex is really not a Russian company, a dubious claim considering that the company’s headquarters are in Moscow. He said that the data most likely ended up in Yandex’s data center in Finland. He added that it is “the duty of our clients to check the mode of capture.” The special function that allows the capture of personal data must be set by the user of the code–in this case, the Hungarian government.

Not surprisingly, the opposition parties were up in arms and demanded to know more. Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, indicated on Sunday, April 9 that he would ask questions about the case from the military and national security experts present at the regular Monday meeting the following day. Bernadett Szél (LMP), a member of the committee, asked the head of the Military National Security Service about the Russian code. He informed her that this is a domestic matter and he has nothing to do with it. Then Szél turned to the head of the Office for the Defense of the Constitution. Before he could answer, the deputy chairman of the committee, Szilárd Németh, abruptly got up and left the room, to be followed by all the Fidesz members of the committee. Thus, the committee no longer had a quorum, and the questioning had to be stopped. Szél was especially outraged. She said “apparently the prime minister of this country is no longer called Viktor, but Vladimir.”

In the wake of the scandal over the Russian code and the subsequent fiasco in the committee, leading Fidesz politicians treated the public to a series of ridiculous pseudo-explanations. Lajos Kósa said that “we don’t want to make a secret of how many people responded. This is not a secret even if Vladimir Putin himself counts them in the loneliness of the Kremlin.” He also expressed his surprise at the outrage of the opposition members of the parliamentary committee, saying that “when we say that the meeting ends we leave, but otherwise the opposition can shoot the breeze as much as they wish.”

As far as the government and Fidesz are concerned, we’ve reached the end of the story. However, Attila Péterfalvi, head of the Authority of National Data Protection and Information, is investigating the case.

Magyar Idők must have thought they were very clever when they ran a short article with the title “444 is spying.” They discovered that 444.hu, the internet news site, uses Google Analytics (just as Hungarian Spectrum does). The government mouthpiece wanted to know why 444.hu can follow its readers with “an American spy program.” This description of Google Analytics came from a right-wing blogger who claimed that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, “and practically all American internet providers report to the CIA, the NSA, etc.” So, what’s the problem?

I have no idea, of course, whether any personal information reached a data collection center in Russia. If it did, what could the Russian government do with such information? One thing that comes to mind is that they could construct a database (or add to a database they already have) that would allow the Russian propaganda machine to target Orbán voters, who are most likely susceptible to pro-Russian disinformation and propaganda. Given Russia’s passion for cyber warfare, disinformation, and propaganda, this hypothesis is within the realm of possibility.

April 14, 2017

Hungarian secret agent on the Russian threat

A real bombshell exploded yesterday when Index published both in English and in Hungarian a lengthy interview with Ferenc Katrein, who worked in the civilian counter-intelligence agency for 13 years. His highest position at the agency was “executive head of operations.” He dealt with such sensitive issues as the country’s defense against the Russian secret service. In 2013 he left the agency because he “no longer could identify with the leadership,” which was following the decidedly pro-Russian policies of the Orbán government.

Katrein considers the Russian threat in Europe very serious, “the highest level” in recent years. The Russians are putting a great deal of work into “aggravating the migration crisis and especially in using it for propaganda and gaining influence.” A few months ago Ferenc Gyurcsány estimated the number of Russian agents in Hungary to be somewhere between 600 and 800, which, according to Katrein, might not be an exaggeration. If one includes “the complete web of connections employed by Russian intelligence to serve Russian interests, including dark intelligence, this number looks … realistic.”

In general, Katrein complains about the passivity of the agency. He realized at the time of the 2006 disturbances that “we are a sleeping agency,” that the agency was overlooking threats from extremist elements. It took some time to become more or less proactive.

We know that Fidesz, while in opposition, had close relations with former agents who had been booted out of the service but who still had friends in the agency who were passing information about government members and others to Fidesz. It is quite possible that some of these agents were sympathetic to extremist groups that could serve the interests of Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Katrein / Index / Photo: István Huszti

After the 2010 change of government, when the agency became subordinated to the ministry of interior headed by Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, “the philosophy of the police” triumphed over “the philosophy of the secret service. …Something has to happen, a crime, a murder for the mechanism to start.” A good example of this mindset was the agency’s unwillingness to interfere in the activities of the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzet Arcvonal/MNA) and GRU, the Russian military secret service. You may recall that István Győrkös’s group was playing war games with officers attached to the Russian Embassy in Budapest. By the time officers of the agency were sent out to confront the head of MNA, it was too late. One of them was killed by Győrkös.

In Katrein’s opinion, cooperation between an extremist group and the Russian military secret service is something that must be reported to the government by the head of the agency. Moreover, such a piece of vital information must be sent to partner agencies in NATO because “everybody’s fighting its own far-right organizations in Europe.” Katrein expressed his hope that the information was sent to Hungary’s partners. I wouldn’t be at all certain about that.

In the interview Katrein said that Russia placed a large number of agents in the former Soviet satellites in the late 1980s because it was becoming clear that the socialist order’s days were numbered. But this generation of “deep cover agents is close to retirement, which means that the Russians are looking for opportunities to refresh the personnel.” Apparently the Hungarian residency bond program is such an opportunity. Thousands of Russians can be placed in Hungary this way.

Moreover, if one looks at the media or among the so-called advisers and national security experts, it is apparent that the Russians have already deeply penetrated that vital sector for propaganda purposes. The personnel of the Hungarian state television and radio wittingly or unwittingly work as Russian agents. The same is true of government mouthpieces like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, and 888.hu. National security experts talk about the failure of the West, the uselessness of the European Union, and the sins of the United States. They portray the refugees marching toward Europe as a controlled invasion. Lately, these “experts” have begun attacking NATO while remaining silent about Russia. In fact, some of them even deny Russian interference in the U.S. election on the side of Donald Trump. These “experts” surely couldn’t spread their falsified information without the authorization and support of the Hungarian government. Katrein’s opinion of these people “who consider themselves experts while they panic and talk about war and invasion are not experts but something else.” He didn’t spell it out, but I will. They are likely Russian agents.

When the conversation turned to the relations of NATO’s partner agencies with their Hungarian counterparts, Katrein described the situation this way: “You are in the international bloodstream if you have joint issues with other agencies, not only in counter-espionage but in counter-terrorism as well. If these are there, you are in the club. If these are not there, you are on the periphery.”

Although Magyar Idők, at least in one of the editorials published after the interview, tried to portray the conversation with the former counter-intelligence officer as a condemnation of the national security services before 2010, Katrein’s main critique was reserved for the situation created as a result of the Orbán government’s so-called “Eastern Opening” and the pro-Russian course that followed. Prior to the merging of the military intelligence services into the Military National Security Service, Hungarian military intelligence was completely pro-NATO. Now, it is very heavily pro-Russian. This was the reason for Katrein’s resignation.

It seems that the Orbán government was unprepared for Katrein’s revelations. Although Viktor Orbán felt he had to say something, his comments were inadequate given the harsh criticism of his pro-Russian policies. The only thing he managed to mutter was that although Hungary is not the largest country on earth, it is situated in an important part of it. Both to the East and to the West there are countries for which Hungary is important. Hungary cannot be isolated. It can only be defended. And, Orbán continued, the country has been well defended ever since 2010.

Orbán left the job of discrediting Katrein to the hacks of his media empire, but the result was confusion. Since the appearance of the interview Magyar Idők has published four articles on the subject, the first of which, as I said, tried to portray the interview as a condemnation of the agency during the socialist-liberal governments before 2010. This feat was accomplished by leaving out all references to the current government’s pro-Russian policies, which agents slavishly follow. In this first article Katrein was portrayed as a hero. But then Magyar Idők realized that the damning interview can’t be handled this way, so it moved into attack mode. It claimed that Katrein didn’t leave the agency on his own volition but was fired. Moreover, “secret service experts” now claim that “well-known foreign groups want to influence the foreign policy of the government, its consistent policy toward migration, and its cooperation with the president of the United States.” Yes, those foreigners are trying to ruin the Hungarian government.

International relations, due mostly to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, are in flux. We have no idea about the nature of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia in the coming months and years. As things stand now, it would be exceedingly risky for Trump to conduct the kind of pro-Russian policy he most likely originally envisaged. In any case, the Hungarian government is trying to get close to the top echelon of the Trump administration. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó already got as far as Sebastian Gorka, the pride of the Hungarian right.

March 22, 2017

Russian-Hungarian exchange of top security information

After a lot of suspense, the fate of Paks II, to be built by Rosatom and financed by the Russian government, has been settled. The European Commission threw in the towel. Admittedly, there is still a possibility that the Austrian government will take the case to the European Court of Justice as it did with Great Britain’s Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Plant. The British case is still pending, and a verdict against Hinkley Point might have some bearing on Paks II. But that is a long shot.

Although the specific points of the final agreement on Paks II are of great interest, here I would rather look at another, possibly nefarious instance of Russian-Hungarian relations: an agreement between Russia and Hungary “on the mutual protection of classified information.” News that this agreement would come into force on April 1 was announced on March 3, 2017 on the last pages of the Official Gazette. It was discovered by the staff of Magyar Nemzet. Interestingly, with the exception of very few media outlets, this agreement has been ignored.

What is even more surprising is that the agreement itself was signed in September 2016 without anyone noticing it. Bernadett Szél (LMP), for example, who is a member of the parliamentary committee on national security, had no inkling of the document’s existence. This is what happens when the opposition parties lack the resources to hire a research staff.

Of course, the agreement is not especially significant by itself because it only defines rules and regulations governing the transfer of secret information between the two countries. What is of considerable interest, however, is the extent of the working relationship between the Russian and Hungarian national security forces or, as the agreement states, “the competent authorities responsible for the implementation of [the] Agreement.” These “competent authorities” are the National Security Authority in Hungary and, in Russia, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the successor to the KGB of Soviet times.

The agreement reveals that top secret documents change hands between Hungary and Russia which cannot be shared by a third party. How many such documents are we talking about? The agreement at one point states that “for the transfer of classified information carriers of considerable volumes of classified information, the authorized bodies shall, in accordance with the laws and other regulatory legal acts of their States, agree on the modalities of their transportation, itinerary and escorting method.” There are also detailed instructions about the destruction of certain secret documents, including the proviso that “classified information carriers marked Szigorúan titkos!/Совершенно секретно (Top secret) shall not be destroyed and shall be returned to the authorized body of the originating Party, when they are no longer deemed necessary.” All this indicates to me a close working relationship between the Russian FSB and the Hungarian NSA.

We don’t know, of course, what kinds of top secret documents are being exchanged by the Russian and Hungarian national security agencies. It is certainly not immaterial what kind of information the Hungarian partner passes on to the Russians, especially in view of Hungary’s membership in NATO and the European Union. In fact, Magyar Nemzet specifically asked the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Trade whether the Hungarian authorities gave information about the details of cooperation between Russian and Hungarian national security forces to the European Union and NATO. No answer has yet been received. Bernadett Szél told the paper that she was certain the Hungarians don’t pass any sensitive information on to the Russians and that the European Union and NATO are fully aware of all such exchanges between the two countries. I wish I were that confident that the Orbán government is playing by the book.

Tamás Szele in Huppa.hu is convinced that such an exchange of secret documents greatly favors Russia “because considering the weight and strength of the two organizations, it is hard to imagine the arrangement as one of cooperation between equal partners.” For Szele this means that “we have become unreliable diplomatic partners, surrogates of Russia with whom one cannot candidly negotiate or conclude secret agreements because everything that has been said or written will be in the Kremlin within an hour.” Let’s hope that Szele exaggerates, but as far as I know western diplomats are already worried about the trustworthiness of the Hungarian diplomatic corps. And as Attila Juhász of Political Capital, a political science think tank, said the other day, “the government seemed to have forgotten that Hungary is a member of the European Union and NATO. It replaced a friend with a foe, contemplating idly the growing use of Russian propaganda.”

Hungarian state media spread fake Russian news / Source: Budapest Beacon

There is another danger in this cozy Russian-Hungarian exchange of top secret information, which is the possibility that the Russians disseminate disinformation that may lead the Hungarian agents astray. Given our knowledge of Russian disinformation efforts in the United States and the European Union, I don’t think it is too far-fetched to assume such a possibility. The use of disinformation via the internet is one of Russia’s weapons in the destabilization of Europe.

The far-right Hungarian-language internet sites under Russian tutelage work hard to turn Hungarians against Western Europe and the United States in favor of Russia. This is bad enough. But the real problem is that the Hungarian government media outlets consistently join the chorus of pro-Russian far-right groups, which only reinforces the worst instincts of a large segment of the population. According to a recent study on the attitude of the Visegrád 4 countries toward Russia, “the Hungarian government disguises its pro-Russian stance behind a mask of pragmatism,” but there is reason to believe that the government media’s love affair with Russia is not against the wishes of the Orbán government. The Orbán government’s long-range economic and financial dependence on Russia in connection with the Paks II project further ties Hungary to Putin’s Russia, whose plans for Europe don’t bode well for Hungary either.

March 6, 2017

Orbán: “one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is”

Anyone who has the patience to sit through 40 minutes of a bad English translation of the joint press conference given by Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán can’t help noticing that the two politicians were not in the best of moods. Two years ago, during Putin’s last visit, Orbán was glowing. This time he was somber and so was Putin. Commentators who claim that the whole trip was nothing more than an opportunity for Putin to show that he is welcome in a country belonging to the European Union and for Orbán to demonstrate that he has an important ally were most likely wrong. Something happened during the negotiations between the two leaders that was disturbing, especially for Viktor Orbán.

But first, let’s see what issues the Russian partner wanted to discuss during Putin’s visit to Budapest. According to a summary issued by the Russian foreign ministry, from the Russian point of view the financing and construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant extension had absolute priority. Rebuilding the old Soviet-made metro trains on the M3 line came next in importance, a project that is already underway. In addition, it looks as if Russia is eyeing the project of reconstructing the M3 line in lieu of the €120 million Hungary owes Russia as a result of the bankruptcy of the jointly owned MALÉV. Moscow also wants Hungary to show more interest in cultural matters pertaining to Russia. The ministry’s communiqué noted with satisfaction that there is a revival of interest in the Russian language. As for bilateral economic cooperation between the two countries, the document was vague.

Péter Szijjártó while in Moscow assured Sergey Lavrov of Hungary’s plans to promote Russian culture in Hungary. He announced that Leo Tolstoy will soon have a statue and a street named after him in Budapest. He revealed that the Hungarian government will spend a considerable amount of money on the restoration of three Orthodox churches in the country. As for Hungarian investments, Szijjártó specifically mentioned Hungarian technological investments in the field of agriculture and construction. In addition, he brought up a few projects allegedly under construction and financed by the Hungarian Eximbank.

Not mentioned among the items Hungary is offering to Russia was a memorial that was just unveiled in Esztergom. Even though if Orbán had a free hand he would gladly remove the Soviet memorial on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square), his government accepted a statue, “The Angel of Peace,” done by a Russia sculptor, Vladimir Surovtsev. The statue was erected in Esztergom because it was in the outskirts of that city that, during World War I, a huge camp for prisoners of war was set up. More than 60,000 soldiers–Russians, Serbs, and Italians–spent years there, at first in miserable conditions. Cholera took many lives. To erect a memorial to commemorate the dead and the sufferers is certainly appropriate. What is less logical is that the Russian NGO responsible for the project insisted on including a reference to the soldiers of the Red Army who died in and around Esztergom during 1944-1945. In any event, Vladimir N. Sergeev, Russia’s ambassador in Budapest, said at the ceremony: “It is symbolic that the unveiling of the statue takes place at the time of the Russian president’s visit to Hungary. This shows how important and how strong our cooperation is.”

Perhaps, but it may not have been on display during the meeting between Putin and Orbán, especially when they were discussing Paks II. That the financing of the nuclear power plant was on the agenda was most likely a fact that Viktor Orbán was not eager to share with the public. But his Russian friend practically forced him to reveal it. It was not a friendly gesture.

Let me describe the circumstances in which the incident took place. A journalist from the by-now completely servile Origo asked Viktor Orbán whether the question of financing Paks II was discussed during the conversation. The reason for his question was the Hungarian government’s repeated assertion that by now Hungary could, unlike back in 2014, finance the project on the open market at a lower interest rate than Hungary is currently paying on the Russian loan. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, in fact indicated that the government was ready to renegotiate the deal. As it stands now, in the first seven years the interest rate on the loan is 4.50%, for the second seven years it is 4.80%, and in the last seven years it is 4.95%. According to Népszava’s calculation, the interest on the loan is approximately 300 billion forints a year, or one percent of Hungary’s GDP.

Orbán flatly denied that the question of financing (or refinancing) had come up. However, about one minute later when Putin took over from Orbán, he announced that he had “informed the prime minister that Russia is ready to finance not only 80% but even 100% of the project.” So, he contradicted Orbán, practically calling his host a liar. It seems that the Hungarian request or demand to renegotiate the loan was discussed and rejected. Instead, Putin offered him an even larger loan by way of compensation.

Perhaps here I should bring up a baffling statement that Orbán made. When he was asked by the reporter from MTV’s M1 about the two countries’ cooperation in the international arena, Orbán’s answer was: “Russia and Hungary move in different dimensions when it comes to geopolitical, military, and diplomatic questions. To my mind, one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is.” Is it possible that this rather bitter observation had something to do with Orbán’s less than pleasant conversation with Putin? Did he realize that there is no way out of Putin’s deadly embrace? Perhaps.

Of course, it is possible that Orbán, who is not the kind of man who readily admits that he made a mistake, will just go on merrily forging even closer relations with Russia. On the other hand, he may realize that he is not in a position to be a successful mediator between Russia and the rest of the western world.

As usual, it is hard to tell where Orbán stands only a day or two after his meeting with Putin. He was one of those EU leaders who “pledged the need for unity and for Europe to stand on its own two feet” at the European Council summit in Valletta, Malta yesterday even though before his arrival he announced that the U.S. has the right to decide its own border control policy and that “he is puzzled at the ‘neurotic European reactions’ over the travel ban.” Nonetheless, behind closed doors he joined the others who were united in their condemnation of Donald Trumps’ comments and attitudes toward the European Union. François Hollande was one of the most vocal critics of Trump at the meeting and, when asked what he thought of EU leaders who are leaning toward Trump, he said that “those who want to forge bilateral ties with the U.S. … must understand that there is no future with Trump if it is not a common position.” Orbán should understand that, having lost his battle with Putin over the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. We will see how he decides.

February 4, 2017

Donald Trump’s Russia policy must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Viktor Orbán, who tries so hard to make the right diplomatic move at the right time but, despite his best efforts, finds himself making missteps. He can expect even more such aborted diplomatic moves now that the United States has a totally unpredictable president. Orbán’s latest effort was an obvious attempt to further strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations in the conviction that this move would have President Trump’s blessing and backing. It looks as if Viktor Orbán didn’t factor in the total unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policies.

Viktor Orbán expected that his favorite candidate, Donald Trump, would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy and would keep his nose out of the affairs of other countries. Also, he would no longer demand adherence to democratic norms. Consequently, Orbán renewed his attack on non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary, especially those that receive money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. After all, Orbán figured, Trump dislikes the billionaire financier because he generously supported Hillary Clinton. As for diplomatic matters, Orbán was certain that he would receive Trump’s support for an even closer relationship with Putin’s Russia.

So, how did Orbán prepare for this new era of international relations? He decided to have a trial run ahead of the scheduled visit of Vladimir Putin, sending Péter Szijjártó to Moscow with a message that indicated a more openly supportive Hungarian policy toward Russia.

The many reports that appeared in both Hungarian and foreign papers on the meeting in Budapest between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán all agree that the much touted “summit” ended with a fairly meaningless press conference dealing mostly with trade relations and including a few announcements about the Russian gas supply and the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant’s extension. To learn more about what most likely transpired between Putin and Orbán behind closed doors, we should focus on the Moscow trip of the much more talkative Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on January 23 and 24. He was equally chatty after his negotiations with members of the Russian delegation in Budapest.

First of all, Szijjártó’s servility was, even by his own standards, extreme. He oozed praise and talked at length about the personal pleasure he felt at being able to meet Sergei Lavrov again. The normally dour Russian foreign minister seems to have such a close relationship with Szijjártó that in Budapest, the night before the “summit,” Lavrov was a guest at Szijjártó’s private residence.

A bit over the top

After the Lavrov-Szijjártó meeting in Moscow, Szijjártó expressed the views of the Hungarian government: “If the EU and Russia cannot agree on the conditions of a pragmatic and close cooperation, then the Union will seriously lag behind in the international economic and political competition.” He called attention to the fact that historically Central Europe has always been the victim of conflicts between East and West and therefore “it is in Hungary’s interest that the new U.S. administration and Russia establish as soon as possible a pragmatic and close cooperation based on mutual trust.” Politicians in the European Union label everybody whose ideas aren’t mainstream a “Putinist” or a “Trumpist.” But Hungary “wants to break away from such insultingly simplistic and harmful approaches and to realize that it is in Europe’s interest to normalize its relationship with Russia.” This must have been music to Sergei Lavrov’s ears.

A few days later, this time in Budapest, Szijjártó continued his efforts with members of the Putin delegation and announced Hungary’s eagerness for a close relationship between the European Union and Russia. He falsely claimed that by now “the western world” also wants to have a rapprochement with Russia. He exaggerated Hungary’s financial loss as a result of the sanctions and announced that “our position on this matter” will be guided by Hungarian interests. Both Szijjártó and Orbán, as we will soon see, act as if Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its active participation in the disturbances in Eastern Ukraine simply didn’t exist. It looks as if, in the view of the Orbán government, the “western world” should just forget about Putin’s transgression of Russia’s treaty obligations and its settling of territorial disputes by force.

In comparison to Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán was outright reticent. What was most telling was not what he said but what he didn’t. After thanking Putin “for visiting us,” he immediately moved to the “center of the talks,” which were economic issues, specifically the absolutely perfect economic relations between the two countries in recent years. It was only at this point that he gingerly moved to politics. “One of the reasons we should especially value the results of economic cooperation is that we have achieved them in a difficult international environment. We have all seen the development of strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the western half of the continent, and anti-Russian politics has become the fashion.” Fashion? Anti-Russian sentiment out of the blue? Clearly, the Orbán government would love to forget about the whole Ukrainian issue, which seems to me a highly irresponsible position considering that Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbor.

Then he moved on, somewhat obliquely, to the question of sanctions. “Hungary maintains its position that problems of a non-economic nature cannot be addressed with economic measures,” an opinion that is clearly wrong. For example, sanctions against Iran were instrumental in getting Iran to the negotiating table. Or, if these sanctions are as ineffectual as Orbán has often claimed, why is Putin so eager to have them lifted? Orbán added that “it is difficult to imagine Hungary being successful if we do not develop open, strong, and fruitful economic and trade cooperation with the major players in the global economy.”

Putin’s introductory words were equally bland, dealing mostly with economic and cultural relations between the two countries. He spent only one sentence on territories in which Russia has a military presence. He ended his short address with these words: “We discussed the Eastern-Ukrainian and Syrian situations, and we determined that we must unite our forces against terrorism.”

From Putin’s answer to a Russian journalist’s question, however, one has some idea of what Putin must have said to Orbán on the Ukrainian situation. In Putin’s opinion, the Ukrainians provoked the latest military action in the eastern provinces of the country because the Ukrainian government badly needs money, which it hopes to get from the European Union and the United States. Thus, the Ukrainians try to picture themselves as the victims of Russian aggression. Orbán’s response to this fabrication was not exactly courageous. He muttered something about fulfilling the Minsk II Agreement, which will provide peace in Europe. At the same time he felt it necessary to mention that the Minsk Agreement has a clause guaranteeing minority rights, which also affects the Hungarian minority. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Hungarian minority’s current situation in Ukraine.

The Hungarian assumption underlying Viktor Orbán’s hopes for closer Russian-Hungarian relations was that Donald Trump would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy, which he has long advocated. But after the chaotic first two weeks of the new administration, there has been an unexpected turn. The Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a tough speech yesterday in which she condemned Russia’s unacceptable behavior. She said that the United States would like to have better relations with Russia, but “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” Moreover, in the speech she also said that “the United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. The United States considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.” She added that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

Although Haley’s remarks were not all that different from speeches delivered by Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, felt that “there is a change in tone” with the arrival of the new administration. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly surprised by Haley’s speech, something I find difficult to believe, even though in the last couple of weeks the Russians have also come to the conclusion that one never knows what to expect from this new White House.

What an irony of fate. On the very same day that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister are laying out their great plans for an entirely different international climate as far as Russia and Europe is concerned, the U.S. ambassador to the UN reinforces the United States’ resolve to keep the sanctions in place as long as it takes. This should put an end to the daydreams of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó.

February 3, 2017

Russian disinformation in the pro-government Hungarian media

About two months ago I read a fascinating article published by Political Capital, a political science think tank, on Russian conspiracy theories and disinformation that circulate worldwide. On the whole the Russian effort is not very successful because few reputable conservative or liberal newspapers are willing to spread its propaganda. Not so the Hungarian pro-government newspapers, which often take Russian “news stories” at face value.

I have written several times about the Hungarian public’s gullibility when it comes to these theories. But it is one thing for an uneducated Aunt Mary or Uncle Joe to believe fanciful fabrications and quite another for pro-government newspapers to help spread the disinformation originating in Russia. In May of this year an English-language study titled Fog of Falsehood: Russian Strategy of Deception and the Conflict in Ukraine, edited by Katri Pynnöniemi and András Rácz, was published. One chapter, written by András Rácz, was devoted to Hungary. Naturally, the author concentrates on Hungarian reporting on Ukraine, but it is also a good source on the overall reporting practices of the official news agency, MTI, as well as publications like Index, Origo, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Idők. Since the study is in English and available online, there is no need to say much about it here, except that because MTI often relies on Russian sources, the news Hungarians receive on Ukraine goes through a kind of Russian filter. Since the Hungarian media is centralized and the Orbán government usually takes a pro-Russian position when it comes to foreign affairs, it should come as no surprise that papers that are in essence mouthpieces of the government will often regurgitate the pro-Russian attitudes of the politicians.

disinformation

Political Capital studied five pieces of disinformation circulated by the Kremlin. The first was in connection with the Maidan revolution of 2013-2014, which Vladimir Putin described as a far-right provocation. It was spread far and wide that the CIA organized the “Ukrainian putsch” in order to remove Putin from his position. The pro-government Hungarian media followed suit. From the very beginning Kossuth Rádió called the revolutionaries “terrorists.” One political scientist in the pay of the Hungarian government claimed that it was Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, who dictated the names of the new Ukrainian cabinet to the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev. In Magyar Hírlap a right-wing economist took it for granted that the United States was behind the revolt.

The situation was the same when it came to the death of 298 people on the Malaysian Airline plane that was shot down, as it turned out later, by Russian or Russian-supported forces in July 2014. The Russians came up with all sorts of conspiracy theories to divert attention away from their own responsibility for the disaster. At that time Zsolt Bayer claimed that “even a child of average intelligence can figure out in three minutes that Putin is the one in this equation who had the least interest in the downing of the Malaysian plane.” One of the Orbán government’s so-called security experts, Georg Spöttle, claimed that “there was something on the plane” before it crashed. He based this supposition on a theory put forth by a pro-Russian internet site: that Dutch security forces had planted a bomb on the aircraft.

The pro-government Hungarian media also accepted Russian disinformation in connection with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, circulated to deflect any suspicion of Putin’s complicity in the murder. The Russians offered several theories. One claimed that radical Islamists were behind the murder. The head of the Russian investigation committee was looking for extreme right-wing elements. Interfax talked about opposition business circles being behind Nemtsov’s death. The Hungarian right-wing media got the message. Gyula T. Máté, son of Gyula Thürmer, chairman of the Hungarian Communist Party, explained why Putin couldn’t possibly be involved in the murder and pointed instead to Ukraine. Zsolt Bayer embellished this story by adding that Nemtsov’s Ukrainian girlfriend had had an abortion and introducing a jealous lover.

The Hungarian pro-government media also picked up a story from the Kremlin-funded Sputnik, according to which two of the suspects of the terrorist attacks in Brussels were actually Belarussian citizens. Behind this bit of disinformation was a Russian-Belarusian spat over Belarus’s too friendly attitude toward the West at the time. Nonetheless, the official MTVA hirado.hu decided to run this bogus story, which was picked up from a historian who read about the brothers in Syrian and Tunisian internet sources. Magyar Idők also devoted a short article to the story, which in this case came straight from Pravda.ru.

Finally, there was the Russian attempt to blame the United States and George Soros for WikiLeaks’ release of the Panama Papers, which was considered to be a personal attack on Vladimir Putin. The Russian president himself in a question/answer marathon blamed the United States for the release of the Panama Papers, saying that “they will keep doing this anyway, and the nearer the elections, the more such stories will be planted.” The pro-government Hungarian media jumped on the bandwagon. Quoting Dmitriy Peskov, the spokesman for the Kremlin, Magyar Idők reported that American officials had apologized to Vladimir Putin for the release of the papers even before they were actually made available online.

These are just a few examples of Russian disinformation being spread by the Hungarian pro-government media. I’m sure that I could come up with many more if I spent a few days combing through the appropriate sources. The lesson? The Hungarian government has closely allied itself to Putin’s Russia. Orbán and his friends use a number of formerly pro-Soviet/pro-Russian journalists who studied in the Soviet Union or whose fathers spent years in Russia. They are fluent in the language and follow the Russian media closely. People of pro-Russian sentiment can be found on the left too, but after Orbán changed from being an avid Russian antagonist to an enthusiastic pro-Russian these left-wingers moved over to the Orbán camp. Thus, Gyula Thürmer, the arch-communist, by 2014 was supporting Fidesz, and his son, Gyula T. Máté, has a regular column in Magyar Hírlap. Strange things can happen in Orbán’s Hungary.

August 27, 2016

The Lakitelek foundation and Russian cultural penetration in Hungary

In early May I wrote a piece titled “Sándor Lezsák’s fiefdom in Lakitelek came to an abrupt end.” The occasion was a by-election held in this large village where the Fidesz leadership suffered a severe blow. The solid Fidesz majority on the Lakitelek town council simply evaporated. The event received national attention because Lakitelek is Sándor Lezsák’s Felcsút.

Sándor Lezsák is best known as the man in whose backyard the Magyar Demokrata Fórum, a right-of-center political party that won the first democratic election after the fall of communism, was born. Lezsák was a teacher at the time in the Lakitelek elementary school. Although he is often described as a minor poet on the basis of two slim volumes of poetry published in 1983 and 1988, he seems to have given up his literary ambitions. On the other hand, ever since 1987 he has been active in politics, first as a member of MDF and later, after his expulsion from the party, in Fidesz. Today Lezsák is one of the deputy speakers of the Hungarian parliament.

While Viktor Orbán’s Felcsút has become the football capital of Hungary, Lakitelek is best known for the Lakitelek Népfőiskola Alapítvány, a private foundation established by Lezsák and his wife for the edification of those who would like to immerse themselves in the eastern traditions of the Hungarian past. This “people’s college” has adopted a decidedly right-wing ideology and a pro-eastern cultural and political orientation. Lezsák’s foundation receives a great deal less public money than does Orbán’s Puskás Academy. Still, according to some estimates, Lakitelek Népfőiskola will have received about 12 billion forints in public funds by 2020. Year after year buildings are added to the complex, which by now looks more like a wellness center than a college for poor country folks, as the founders of such institutions originally imagined them.

Lakitelek is in the news again. It looks as if the Nemzeti Művelődési Intézet (NMI), a public institution with a yearly budget of 1.3 billion forints, will be “inherited” by Sándor Lezsák’s foundation. Thus, a publicly funded institution will be moving to the grounds of a private foundation. NMI’s headquarters are currently in Budapest, but a new building will be erected in Lakitelek. The staff will have to relocate. If, that is, they want to move to a village on the Great Plains about 100 km from Budapest.

In January János Lázár announced, in the name of reducing the size of the bureaucracy and cost cutting, the closing or merger of 73 so-called background institutions attached to ministries. NMI, which was established only in 2013, was destined to be eliminated. But then, as usual, all sorts of interest groups tried to save the institution, which has a nationwide network and whose main function is cultural and educational improvements, especially in smaller, disadvantaged communities.

In Hungarian universities a student can choose a major that trains people to become professional educators outside of the formal educational network. Perhaps one could call them adult educators. The subject is also described as andragogy, which, according to dictionary.com means “the methods or techniques used to teach adults.” Ever since the 1950s almost all villages have had “a house of culture” (kultúrház) where movies, theatrical performances, and other cultural activities could be held. Now it seems that the government wants to replace this network with 500 “people’s colleges” following the Lakitelek model. Accordingly, a June 13 government decree abolished NMI and declared that its functions will be taken over by the Lakitelek Népfőiskola Alapítvány.

This change is another decision that will fundamentally change cultural and education activities outside of schools. Until now NMI’s cultural activities were on a professional footing, but in the hands of the far-right Sándor Lezsák, who is a devotee of Turanism (which is described as a “pseudoscientific, nationalist political and cultural movement which proclaims an ethnic cultural unity for disparate people who are supposed to have a common ancestral origin in Central Asia”), they will be vehicles of state ideology.

And that’s not all. Péter Pető of Népszabadság called attention today to the fact that Lezsák is also honorary president of the Tolsztoj Társaság (Tolstoy Association), which was established on May 12, 2011. Those of you who know either Hungarian or Russian should take a look at their website. MVM, the state-owned Hungarian Power Company, is the supporter of the organization. That support must be quite substantial judging from the number of trips members or students of Slovak-Hungarian or Hungarian high schools make to Russia. The board includes such men as T. Gyula Máté, the son of Gyula Thürmer, chairman of Munkáspárt, the minuscule communist party of Hungary. He is best known for his viciously anti-American opinion pieces in Magyar Hírlap. Gábor Stier, a pro-Russian foreign affairs editor of Magyar Nemzet, is also a board member. Pető correctly points out that Lezsák is not only infatuated with Hungarians’ Turanian origin but is also an advocate of closer relations between Hungary and Russia. Over the years he has invited to Lakitelek such government officials as Ernő Keskeny, today Hungarian ambassador in Kiev and the alleged architect of Viktor Orbán’s Russia policy, Aleksandr Tolkach, former Russian ambassador to Hungary, and the infamous Szilárd Kiss, the Hungarian wheeler and dealer in Moscow.

Unveiling Lev Tolstoy's bust in Városliget, October 16, 2013 / MTI / Photo Zoltán Máthé

Unveiling Lev Tolstoy’s bust in Városliget, October 16, 2013. Lezsák is on the right. MTI / Photo by Zoltán Máthé

According to Lóránt Győri, an analyst at Political Capital, “what we see in Lakitelek and in the Tolsztoj Társaság is the result of Russia’s attempt with the means of ‘soft power’ to gain influence in Central and Western Europe.” As is well known, Russia generously supports far-right political organizations, but “there is another form of influence gathering, the ‘Lakitelek model,’ which is trying to influence people indirectly through pro-Russian socialization in the fields of culture and education.” Such influence, especially now that Lezsák will have MNI’s cultural network at his disposal, “might create a pro-Russian young intellectual elite who later in key positions can be useful in the ideological war of the Kremlin.” It sounds pretty scary.

August 8, 2016