Tag Archives: Russian propaganda

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 propaganda aimed at weakening the European Union

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.

Source: Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies

Source: Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies

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.

August 1, 2016