Viktor Orbán and Transformation of Hungary

Political Landscape of Hungary

First of all, it should be noted that in contrast to other members of the Visegrad Group, Hungarian foreign policy is less Eastern Europe-oriented. Historically, the main sphere of Hungary’s foreign policy interest has always been the Balkans, Western Europe, and Austria. In Eastern Europe, a principal foreign policy concern of Budapest was the ethnic Hungarian minority living in the Carpathian basin in Ukraine. But since 2010 another significant political orientation has emerged in the “Eastern Opening” – Russia.

The Russian Federation, as the main actor of the Soviet Union and now as an independent state has never had intensive/direct political ties with Hungary because of their geographical, cultural, linguistic, or ideological differences/distance (Rácz, 2019). Nevertheless, there were several historical events when the roads of Russia and Hungary crossed each other:

  • In 1849 when the Russian Empire overthrew with terrible cruelty the rebellion of Hungarians for independence;
  • In 1956 when the Soviet armed forces brutally suppressed Hungary’s protest demonstrations in Budapest.

These historical facts still have a significant impact on the collective memory of Hungarians which has been confirmed by the survey conducted by Median and International Visegrad Fund (Gyárfášová and Mesežnikov, 2016).

Table 1: “With which country should Hungary maintain better relations? (By party preference)”.
Source: “Median” Survey from January 2015.

Despite the high index of EU popularity Hungary is the most vulnerable country in the V4 in terms of hostile foreign influence (Milo and Klingová, 2017).

Table 2: Vulnerability Index.
Source: Research of GLOBSEC Policy Institute.

Of course, Hungarian collective memory is still characterized by those negative historical events, but it is noteworthy that in Hungary there has never been such an antagonistic attitude towards Russia as in Poland or the Czech Republic. This circumstance and “integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures had a significant impact on Hungarians in not defining Russia as an external threat“, – says András Rácz – a Professor of Pázmány Peter Catholic University (Rácz, 2019). According to Daniel Hegedűs, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is the main factor why Hungary became one of the most unpredictable states in the EU (Hegedűs, 2016).

The Role of Orbán and “Fidesz

From this point of view, everything started in 2010 when once the leader of the anti-communist movement Viktor Orbán came to power. Before him the political elite of Hungary had pragmatically positive relations with Russia – for example, the former head of government Ferenc Gyurcsány claimed that Russia was only a good business partner (Pynnoniemi and Rácz, 2016). Since Orbán’s “Fidesz” had come to power ties with Moscow have been strengthened and an ideal soil for the Kremlin influence diffusion has been created (Hockenos, 2016).   

The above-mentioned fact was followed by other important events: In 2010-2014 “Fidesz” (as a ruling party presented by 2/3 mandates in the country’s Parliament) made five fundamental amendments to the Hungarian Constitution which resulted in direct control of media, judiciary system and National Bank (Conley, 2016). According to Heather Conley, owing to Orbán’s “reforms” Hungary made a serious step back in terms of democracy, freedom of speech, and corruption – in terms of media freedom Hungary is the only “partially free” state in the V4 (Freedom House, 2017). 

Similarly to Russia, almost all the anti-government media outlets were banned or closed in Hungary (Schleifer, 2014). There are frequent cases when the businessmen are encouraged or supported by the criteria of loyalty to Orbán. Pro-government TV, radio, and internet media are permanently discrediting political opponents of “Fidesz” and trying to create a positive image of the ruling party. It is noteworthy that the judiciary system significantly simplifies the cases for government associated oligarchs and vice versa – create obstacles for the opponents. Another component of “Fidesz” hegemony is the National Bank of Hungary which is an active supporter of Orbán’s close allies financial organizations – giving loans with profitable terms and setting up favorable regulations (Pynnoniemi and Rácz, 2016).   

According to Transparency International’s report, there is a “centralized form of corruption that has been built up and made systematic“ in Hungary (Transparancy International, 2017). “Because corruption is a key amplifier of Russian influence and a lubricant to the unvirtuous cycle, this is a worrying trend that also appears to be a Russian model of development,“ (Conley, 2016, 40). 

The links of corruption go to Orbán’s closest allies as well. The story of Orbán’s classmate and close friend Lőrinc Mészáros is a perfect illustration of it. Lőrinc Mészáros was a factory worker in 2010 and by 2017 he became one of the richest persons in Hungary. Of course, nothing is surprising if a man accumulates fortune but there are a lot of vague tenders behind Mészáros’s financial progress. (Puhl, 2017). 

The same story with the Prime Minister’s son-in-law István Tiborcz. Tiborcz founded the company in 2010 whose annual earnings amounted to €10 000. However, after his father-in-law came to power Tiborcz’s capital has begun to grow and by 2014-2015 his annual income reached €65 million. According to the Hungarian Forbes 2015 report, Orbán’s asset is estimated by €22 million (6.9 billion Hungarian Forints). Nevertheless, Orbán has no problem in this regard since the Hungarian Audit Office is entirely composed of former members of “Fidesz” and the Prime Minister’s close entourage (Puhl, 2017). 

Thanks to corruption the Hungarian Prime Minister established an oligarchic regime which on the one hand enriches supporting businessmen, on the other hand, fortifies his power. The close friends and political supporters are appointed on the strategically important administrative and judicial positions. The state tenders are won without any problem by Orbán’s loyal businessmen and in the case of financial troubles – receive favorable loans from the state. According to studies, 67% of Hungarians consider that the government is corrupt but “Fidesz” continues to triumph in every election (Puhl, 2017).

Economic and Political Elements of Russian Influence in Hungary

The Russian economic trace in Hungary has emerged after the Hungarian Parliament adopted very unclear and controversial laws according to which non-certified non-EU companies are allowed to participate in state tenders (Faiola, 2015). This law was followed by the government’s decision to permit Russian State-owned ROSATOM the restoration of PAKS nuclear power plant. The total value of the investment amounted to €12.2 billion – almost 12% of the Gross Domestic Product (Conley, 2016). 

“The step was still surprising, however. Rather than place the issue on the agenda in a timely way for public discussion, the govern­ment took its decision without any announcement and signed the agreement. The most controversial point of the investment – apart from the political debate surrounding the future of nuclear energy – was the fundamental lack of public information. Important technical details, price schemes, and calculations of profitability were not made available, as nearly all important points of the agreement were strictly classified. According to the international agreement ratified by the Hungarian parliament, 80 per­cent of the investment will be financed by a Russian state loan of 10 billion euros over thirty years. Furthermore, the agreement creates a seri­ous financial burden for future governments, as the credit rates are set to increase during the term of the contract (from 3.95 percent in 2025 to 4.95 percent in the last phase of repayment). In short, the PAKS nuclear deal estab­lishes both a strong financial obligation for Hungary and prolongs the country’s complete dependency on nuclear technology from Russia by approximately fifty years – un­til the new blocks are decommissioned around 2080,” (Hegedűs, 2016, 4).

It is worth mentioning also the MET gas supply scheme, which leads to “Gazprom”. With this scheme Hungarian government practically outsourced monopolistic access to the Hungarian-Aus­trian gas pipeline to an offshore company.

Another business deal that leads to the high-level Russia-related corruption in Hungary. “In July 2015 the Budapest Public Transport Company excluded the Estonian company, Skinest Rail, from the bidding process. This left as the only bidder the Russian company Metrovagonmash, which soon won the 69-billion-forint deal (ca. 222.5 million euros). The decision was heavily criticized both by the Hungarian public and by professional NGOs, as the Estonian company had offered a more technologically advanced modernization package for a lower price (60 billion forints, or 193.5 million euros). It also offered a longer maintenance guarantee cycle – 30 years, compared to the Russian offer of 25,“ (Hegedűs, 2016, 6). 

As for the pro-Russian political parties, the main and the most powerful openly declared pro-Kremlin political group is “Jobbik”. The main foreign policy narrative of this political party is anti-Americanism (Orenstein, 2014). 

“Jobbik” began as an anti-Russian party but made a decidedly pro-Russian turn following the ascendancy of a party member and financier Béla Kovács in 2005. By the way, Mr. Kovács is under investigation by European authorities on charges of Russian espionage (Conley, 2016).

Russian Narratives in Hungary

Since the Kremlin holds very important political and economic leverage in Hungary and the attitude of Hungarian society is not antagonistic towards Russia, there is no need for active propaganda. This argument is supported by the position of government elite – Prime Minister Orban and Foreign Minister Péter Szijjartó declared that “Russia represents no threat to Hungary“. That’s why neither a word was mentioned about Russia in the National Security Agency 2012-2016 reports (Pynnoniemi and Rácz, 2016).  

The main goal of the Kremlin is not the damage of Hungarian democracy or the collapse of state institutions but the dissemination of “conspiracy theories” and demonization of the West. The most significant narrative is “a threat to Hungary’s sovereignty.” „The Western powers (especially the United States and Germany) want to undermine Hungarian traditions, culture, and identity by Roma people and migrants”. Because “soon, there will be more immigrants in Hungary than local population”. Besides, the anti-Merkel campaign is being actively promoted which is often associated with anti-EU (and vice versa). Angela Merkel became particularly unpopular during the immigration crisis in Hungary when she was steadily requiring the increase of immigration quotas for the Visegrad 4 countries (Pynnoniemi and Rácz, 2016). 

Another propaganda direction is Eastern Ukraine where “the Donbas people fight for independence against “Nazi” Ukrainian authorities,” (Juhász, 2016). For the fabrication of reality, the Russian propaganda is spreading the news that represents Ukraine as an aggressor. 

Generally, the Kremlin propaganda has the following goals in Hungary: 

– Undermine the trust towards the EU; 

– Discredit the NATO; 

– Discredit the United States of America; 

– Represent Ukraine as a fascist, corrupt, and failed state; 

– Demonize Non-Governmental Organizations and liberal values (Bartha, Feledy, and Rácz, 2017).

Actors of Russian Propaganda in Hungary

Local Community:

First of all the Kremlin’s main bastion in Hungary is the so-called “Socialist Generation” – 300 000 Hungarians who lost their job and social status soon after the collapse of the socialist regime. Accordingly, the older generation is much more anti-European and anti-American than the junior. (Pynnoniemi and Rácz, 2016). The main narrative of this segment is anti-Americanism and the focus on the “US aggressive imperialism”. 

Civil Organizations and Semi-Military Groups:

According to the survey conducted by Endowment for Democracy the following ultra-right and ultra-left politically motivated public movements disseminate pro-Russian narrative in Hungary: The Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, The Army of Outlaws, The Wolves, The New Hungarian Guard Movement (Juhász, 2016). 

Volunteer Centers and Non-Governmental Organizations: 

During Orbán’s governance, several research centers have been established in Hungary. They mainly criticize Brussels, advocate for the Hungarian government, and boost the Kremlin foreign policy: Center for Fundamental Rights, Civil Alliance Forum, Honfoglálas 2000, and Tolstoy Society. 

Media:

 In contrast to other states of the V4 in Hungary, the government is spreading pro-Russian narratives, since the Kremlin interpretations are often directly compatible with Viktor Orbán’s and „Fidesz” positions (Milo and Klingová, 2017). 

According to the research of GLOBSEC Policy Institute in terms of media resistance, Hungary is one of the most vulnerable and easily manipulable states in the Visegrad Group. First of all, the reason is the total governmental control over the Public Broadcaster which directly relies on leading the Russian news agencies (especially when covering foreign policy news and events in Ukraine). As for the private and regional televisions, their owners are Orbán’s friends or “Fidesz” supporter businessmen. That’s why almost everything in Hungarian TV space is thoroughly filtered and interpreted upon the ruling party’s interests which in most cases are directly compatible with the Kremlin. 

The following media outlets can be regarded as anti-western and pro-Russian actors: Hungary’s Public Broadcaster, TASS, RT; MTI, M1, TV2, Russlandversteher. Besides, there are up to 100 web pages in modern Hungary that share and disseminate the narrative of Russian propaganda (Bartha, Feledy and Rácz, 2017). The most distinguished ones are www.kuruc.infowww.oroszhirek.huwww.alfahirwww.hidfo.ruwww.hidfo.netwww.otmundhirek.blogspot.huwww.888.huwww.mno.huwww.alfahir.hu 

Facebook groups: “Kiállunk Oro­szország mellett!” („we support Russia from Hungary“) (Pynnoniemi and Rácz, 2016).

Hungary still keeps its “alternative”, “non-liberal” way chosen by Orban’s “Fidesz” and this Central European country remains the pro-European state with a eurosceptic government (Boros, 2016).

References:

  1. Bartha, Daniel, Botond Feledy and András Rácz. Information Warfare on the Internet – Countering pro-Kremlin Disinformation in the CEEC – Project Summary in Hungary. Warsaw: Centre for International Relations.
  2. Beswick. Emma. 2017. Who is Béla Kovács—the Hungarian MEP charged with spying on the EU?. EuroNews. http://www.euronews.com/2017/12/07/who-is-bela-kovacs-the-hungarian-mep-charged-with-spying-for-the-kgb-; accessed 21 March 2018.
  3. Boros, Támas. 2016. Hungary: The Country of the Pro-European People and a Eurosceptic Government. Countering Populism and Political Disaffection. http://countering-populism.eu/boros-hungary-the-country-of-the-pro-european-people-and-a-eurosceptic-government; accessed 10 May 2018.
  4. Conley, Heather and Ruslan Stefanov. 2016. Kremlin Playbook.New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
  5. Faiola, Anthony. 2015. From Russia with love: An energy deal for Hungary. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/from-russia-with-love-an-energy-deal-for-hungary/2015/02/16/05216670-b134-11e4-bf39-5560f3918d4b_story.html?noredirect=on&tm_term=.339876165bbf; accessed 18 March 2018. 
  6. Freedom House. 2017. Freedom of the Press 2017. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/hungary; accessed 18 March 2018.  
  7. Gyárfášová, Olga and Grigorij Mesežnikov. 2016. 25 Years of the V4 as Seen by the Public. Bratislava: Institute for Public Affairs.
  8. Hegedűs, Dániel. 2016. The Kremlin’s Influence in Hungary. Berlin: DGAP e.v..,.
  9. Hockenos, Paul. 2016. Vladimir Putin’s Little Helper. The New Republic Magazine. https://newrepublic.com/article/132778/vladimir-putins-little-helper; accessed 18 March 2018.
  10. Juhász, Attila, Lóránt Győri, Edit Zgut and András Dezső. 2016. The Truth today is What Putin Says It is. Budapest: Political Capital.   
  11. Kalan, Dariusz. 2016. Hungary in the Grip of a Bear Hug. European Council on Foreign Relations. http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_hungary_in_the_grip_of_a_bear_hug_7019; accessed 05 May 2016. 
  12. Milo, Daniel and Katarína Klingová. 2017. Vulnerability Index – Subversive Russian Influence in Central Europe. Bratislava: GLOBSEC Policy Institute.
  13. Orenstein, Mitchell. 2015. Putin’s Western Allies. Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-03-25/putins-western-allies; accessed 19 March 2018.          
  14. Pynnoniemi, Katri, and András Rácz. 2016. Fog of Falsehood.Helsinki: Grano Oy.
  15. Paul, Christopher and Miriam Matthews. 2016. The Russian “Firehouse of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It. Santa Monica: RAND. 
  16. Schleifer, Yigal. 2014. Hungary at the Turning Point. Moment Magazine. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/moment/2014/10/viktor_orban_s_authoritarian_rule_the_hungarian_prime_minister_is_destroying.html; accessed 18 March 2018.  

Grigol Julukhidze, PhD

FPC Director

Publication is made thanks to financial support of International Visegrad Fund within the framework of individual posd-doc research grant. The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Visegrad Fund.

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