Pieter Stockmans volgt het mondiale optreden van de Europese Unie, het Europese vluchtelingenbeleid, de evoluties in Midden-Europa en de regio ten oosten van de EU.
How Viktor Orbán is reprogramming Hungarians’ brains
Hungary is not blocking the European Union’s anti-Russian sanctions, but it is opening its media landscape wide to the Russian war narrative. What is behind this apparent paradox? “A few years ago, we could not imagine that Hungarian society could be transformed into a pro-Russian society.”
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“With us in government, Hungary will support the gas pipeline that does not go through Russia.” In 2008, this was the position of Fidesz, the party of current prime minister Viktor Orbán, at the time an anti-Russian party in opposition. In the same year, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Orbán to a party congress in Moscow. Two years later, Orbán became prime minister of Hungary and announced the Keleti Nyitás: the “opening to the East.”
Contrary to what had been stated, the Hungarian government intended to attract investment from Russia.
“When Russia invaded Ukraine years later, Hungarian foreign policy seemed to be under Moscow’s control,” says András Németh, who was Moscow-correspondent for Hungarian political weekly HVG in 2008. “The government and its media simply continue their apologetic communication about Russia. This is because Hungary also continues to follow its chosen economic path: enjoying the benefits of EU and NATO membership while developing lucrative relations with Moscow.”
In a society that has been oppressed repeatedly by Russia, it takes some “persuasion” to get the electorate to accept yet another far-reaching dependency after such a shocking violation of a neighbouring country’s sovereignty.
From fringe to mainstream
In 2014, the Orbán government struck a deal with Russia to expand the Pak nuclear power plant: two more reactors were to be added on top of the four Russian-made ones.
“Orbán is seeking support for this strategic rapprochement with Russia,” says Zalán Zubor of the research journalism outlet Altatszo. This initially manifested itself in a lax attitude towards Russian disinformation on ultra-nationalist websites. Hídfő.ru, a “news site” of the neo-Nazi Hungarian National Front, got its information from the Russian Foreign Ministry. When their chairman shot a policeman five years later, the police only investigated the extremist milieu — not its links to the Russian government.
Over the years, a media empire emerged under the control of the ruling Fidesz party. In July 2014, for example, a few months after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, a Fidesz businessman bought Origo.hu from Deutsche Telekom and turned the independent news site into a tabloid with aggressive government propaganda.
Nowhere else in the EU can pro-Russian disinformation reach the general public on such a large scale.
Fidesz businessmen took over one independent media outlet after the other. Eventually, they all merged into KESMA, a giant public media holding company with more than 500 titles. Nowhere else in the EU could pro-Russian disinformation reach the general public on such a large scale. The Hungarian government considered it necessary: the Fidesz electorate was still largely anti-Russian.
In the second half of 2021, Russian hackers acquired access to the Hungarian foreign ministry’s encrypted diplomatic information network. Hungarian investigative journalists at Direkt36 revealed it. Until after the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government knew in advance what positions Hungarians would defend at EU and NATO crisis summits and how they would formulate them.
The same is true when Viktor Orbán visited Moscow on 1 February 2022. He returned with a so-called peace message: Putin does not want war, US reports of an imminent invasion are “disinformation.” Hungarian military intelligence confirmed this in parliament. This narrative was directed from the prime minister’s office, led by Antal Rogán, to all pro-government media.
“Facebook is complicit”
Remarkably, the weeks before and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine coincided with a historic election campaign in Hungary. For the first time, a united opposition was taking on Fidesz, which had been in power for 12 years. Fidesz feared that many young people would vote for the opposition. The group aged between 18 and 35 included almost two million voters.
Megafon, a new company that trains pro-government social media influencers, was supposed to get young people excited about Orbán’s party. Its central messages were: “There is a dictatorship of liberal opinions,” “To be conservative is to be rebellious.” After many years of conservative Fidesz rule, this sounded strange.
“Government propaganda disguised as civic activism,” read a headline in the political weekly HVG. In turn, investigative journalists from Átlatszó revealed that the foundation behind Megafon, led by the chairman of media holding company KESMA, was founded with public funds. This was not the first time Fidesz had used taxpayers’ money for private campaign purposes.
Unknown “news sites” regularly popped up promoting — for astronomical amounts of money — defamatory videos on Facebook. The ad library of this social platform reveals that Aktuális, for example, was active from autumn 2021 to the end of 2022, paying 750,000 euros during that period to spread messages that portray the opposition in a false light. Aktuális’ very first post immediately garnered 10,000 likes.
Unknown “news sites” regularly appear that promote defamatory videos on Facebook with astronomical amounts of money.
Meanwhile, Fidesz was looking for a campaign message that was not overtly pro-Russian.
A day before the invasion, it got that message as a gift from the opposition. Prime Minister-designate Peter Márki-Zay said in an interview that, if NATO asked Hungary to send soldiers to Ukraine, he — as head of government — would comply with that request.
February 24, 2022. The day of the Russian invasion. While the media in the rest of Europe were full of news about this historic event, the pro-government media in Hungary initially remained silent — until “propaganda minister” Antal Rogán called the chief editors together.
The next day, the communication steamroller got under way. Posts about “military operations in Ukraine” appeared on Prime Minister Orbán’s Facebook page — with more than 1 million followers.
Megafon and pro-government media came out in unison with a message that was being posted all over Facebook: Hungary is for peace, the country will deny arms supplies and will help refugees. And, referring to Márki-Zay’s quote regarding NATO: the opposition wants to drag the country into war. In their statements, Prime Minister Orbán and Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó did not even mention the name of the Russian president.
Aktuális paid nearly 15,000 euros to Facebook to promote a few sensationalist video montages. Márki-Zay’s words were repeated ad nauseam. Again, there was not a word about Russia. “US tech companies are making big money from war propaganda,” says Dávid Sajó of news site Telex. “And where can we go if we want to ask questions about this? Six million Hungarians have a Facebook account, but the company does not even have an office in Hungary.”
During one of the most watched political talk shows on public television, conspiracy thinker Georg Spöttle compared Ukraine’s general military mobilisation to Hitler’s actions.
“That’s the tactic,” says Zalán Zubor. “The newscaster delivers the news quite dryly and then so-called security experts slide in, all speaking from the Russian perspective. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov regularly appears as a legitimate point of view in the conflict. That has a profound impact on how Hungarians view the war.”
In the first months of 2022, Megafon influencers were spending tens of thousands of euros of public funds to promote Facebook posts with the same election message over and over again. For example, “We face one of the most important choices of our lives — peace or war.” Support for Ukraine was presented as pro-war.
“That word fits the anti-American message that Ukraine, the Hungarian opposition and independent media are American puppets.”
They constantly talked about the “dollar left,” the new buzzword to discredit the political opposition. Pro-government media and even public broadcasting started using the expression.
Later, the expression “dollar media” would be added. “These words are well chosen,” notes Dávid Sajó. “They fit the anti-American message that Ukraine, the Hungarian opposition and independent media like us are American puppets. You hear that even from Prime Minister Orbán.”
In his weekly radio interviews and in many speeches, Orbán invariably presented the Russian invasion as a conflict between equal parties, with the United States violating Ukrainian sovereignty by using Ukrainian territory for a proxy war against Russia. The reality — that the Ukrainian army is defending the country, on Ukrainian territory, against a foreign invasion and occupation — is not heard from any pro-government source.
Hatred of Zelensky
“Previous opinion polls had shown that Hungarian voters often have a negative image of Ukrainians,” says Sajó. “This is due to stereotypes about corruption and discrimination against the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. Fidesz just uses the message that seems most popular. That’s how Fidesz works. And so big tabloid sites like Origo feed indignation about Ukrainians for months.”
On its front page, a red bar appeared every day with an anti-Ukrainian or anti-American message. The rest of the site was filled with flat-out clickbait about naked breasts and buttocks.
Posts from Russian state-owned media like RT and Sputnik, which are on the European sanctions list and which were banned from YouTube by Google, even ended up on public broadcasting. For example, Szamok, a propaganda site, shared images of RT in which they removed RT’s logo. State television then broadcast Szamok’s message. Hungarian think tank Political Capital filed a complaint with the European Commission.
Only 37 percent of the Fidesz electorate believe that “Russia committed an unauthorized act of aggression against Ukraine.”
As this continued, the Orbán government showed itself to be a constructive partner within the EU in the first weeks of the invasion. It declared its support for anti-Russian sanctions and responded positively to the request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s — who was reviled in the media of the same Hungarian government — for accelerated EU membership.
With this benevolent attitude, the Orbán government wanted to unblock €5.8 billion from the COVID-19 recovery fund and €7.5 billion in ordinary EU grants. The European Commission had blocked those funds for Hungary for its violation of EU rules on democracy and the rule of law.
As the Commission continued to demand respect for those rules, the Hungarian propaganda machine started up again. On 9 March, three weeks before the elections, large portrait images of Orbán appeared on ad panels all over Hungary with the message: “Let’s celebrate Hungary’s peace and security.”
But the message that “the opposition is pro-war” had been repeated so many times that there was a need for something new. When, in a video address to EU leaders, Zelensky listed the countries from which Ukraine has received aid, Orbán was the only head of government he addressed by name: “Dear Viktor, do you hesitate to trade with Russia or not?” These images were new ammunition for Fidesz’s election campaign, and hatred of Zelensky was stoked.
In late March, market research firm Medián gauged Hungarians’ opinions on the war: only 37 per cent of the Fidesz electorate thought that “Russia committed an unauthorised act of aggression against Ukraine” (among opposition voters, the figure was 84 per cent). Among younger Fidesz voters, who did not experience the Soviet Union, 65 per cent wanted Hungary to have “closer relations with Moscow than with Washington.”
For and against sanctions
3 April, 2022. Fidesz won the election by overwhelming numbers. This time Orbán called the Ukrainian president by name and placed him on the side of his opponents, along with the “Soros empire” and the “international mainstream media.” But five days later, once again Hungary voted in favour of an anti-Russia sanctions package. It was the fifth package in which the Orbán government did not express too many reservations.
Negotiations on the sixth sanctions package also proceeded without too many incidents. But at the end, Hungarian diplomats suddenly demanded that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, spiritual leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, be removed from the sanctions list.
The secretary of the diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church in Hungary confirmed to Direkt36 that the Russian government had asked the Hungarian government to do so. “How is this in Hungary’s national interest?” wondered journalist András Németh.
Another compromising “incident” followed not much later: on 21 July, Hungarian foreign minister Szijjártó traveled to Moscow to discuss new gas deliveries. At the press conference, he did not say a word when his Russian counterpart Lavrov talked about “people dying in Ukraine because they are shot at by Ukrainian authorities.”
In autumn, the government decided to organise a “national consultation” against “Brussels.” All major media outlets and advertising panels bombarded Hungarians with the image of a bomb saying “Brussels sanctions are destroying us.”
All major media outlets are bombarding Hungarians with the image of a bomb saying: “Brussels sanctions are destroying us”.
The image of a bomb in connection with the EU — the West as the aggressor — while Russia was reducing entire cities in neighbouring Ukraine to rubble was very controversial. “The owners of the ad panels, including the French company JCDecaux, have no problem with it,” Dávid Sajó notes.
The main questions of the “national consultation” stated that the sanctions were “imposed by bureaucrats in Brussels.” Nowhere, including in the major media outlets, did it say that the sanctions against Russia had been approved by all EU member states, including Hungary. But the sustained propaganda would erase that information from collective consciousness. According to an opinion poll by Political Capital, the majority of Fidesz voters thought that the government had not approved the sanctions.
“We were never an enthusiastic supporter of those sanctions, which are more damaging to the EU than to Russia,” State Secretary Máriusz Révész says, “but we have no other choice, because we also need the blocked European funds.”
The Hungarian government therefore agreed to the ninth sanctions package, approved on 16 December, while propaganda against the sanctions was running at full speed. The results of the “national consultation” would be announced in January: 1.5 million of the 8 million registered voters participated and 97 per cent of them were against the sanctions.
“For the Hungarian government it is important to have a base of 1.5 million people in future EU debates on sanctions,” says Révész.
The talks on the 10th sanctions package, which the EU planned to declare on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, would be difficult. “There was a risk that the Hungarian government would use its veto to block important European foreign policy decisions, at a time when unity is so crucial,” says Rudolf Berkes of Political Capital.
Every year on 23 October, Hungary commemorates the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union. Mária Schmidt, the government’s commissioner for commemorations, stated on Twitter that it was Ukrainian Soviet soldiers who suppressed the 1956 uprising. “You hear that false narrative now from so-called experts on public service talk shows,” says András Németh. “It is supposed to legitimise today, especially among the older population, the negative attitude towards Ukraine.”
But the misinformation goes further than this. Orbán said in a speech that the Hungarian youth of 1956 fought for a “peace negotiation with the Soviet Union.” This was supposed to substantiate his narrative of “peace.”
Ágnes Urbán of Corvinus University in Budapest is outraged by this rewriting of history: “Stories of Russian crimes in Hungary still circulate in every Hungarian family. Bringing such a society to the point of condoning Russian aggression against a neighbouring country is shocking.”
Meanwhile, the European Commission is still blocking the €13.3 billion in funds for Hungary. Initially Hungary tried to get hold of this money with a benevolent stance regarding sanctions against Russia, and now through extortion regarding support for Ukraine. In November and December, the Orbán government blocked a joint €18bn loan from EU member states to Ukraine for infrastructure reconstruction.
Hungary would give up its veto if the Commission releases the blocked billions for Hungary. “In the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Hungary is driven by Hungary First, like Trump’s America First,” says State Secretary Révész.
A government commissioner stated that it was Ukrainian Soviet soldiers who suppressed the 1956 Hungarian uprising.
“This has little to do with anti-Ukraine or pro-Russia, nor with Hungary’s national interest,” says András Németh. “This cynical attitude is rather motivated by the self-interest of the ruling party, at the expense of rebuilding a neighbouring country that was attacked. Diplomats from other member states increasingly see their Hungarian colleagues as ‘toxic.’ That is very dangerous for our national interest.”
During an informal meeting with foreign media figures who admire him, Orbán even alluded to a “Hunxit.” American writer Rod Dreher wrote a report of the meeting: “Someone asked the prime minister if he wanted Hungary to stay in the EU. ‘Absolutely not!’ he said, adding that Hungary has no choice because the country’s economic prosperity depends on it.” In the same interview, Orbán said, “All the worst of the last 30 years of European history is anchored in Brussels.”
Finally, Hungary supported the EU increasing the European Peace Facility, a fund from which member states are reimbursed for the price of arms supplied to Ukraine, to €2 billion. Hungary thus supported arms deliveries to Ukraine, despite propaganda against it on the home front.
This propaganda is beginning to get on the Ukrainian government’s nerves. In late January, it summoned the Hungarian ambassador. “The anti-Ukrainian rhetoric has been causing serious and irreparable damage to Ukrainian-Hungarian relations for a long time,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry website reads.
“Fidesz is not necessarily pro-Russian,” says Dávid Sajó. “The party is driven by nothing but the will to stay in power. And once such a political system becomes linked to Russia, maintaining it becomes a strategic goal. If you have a whole media empire, you obviously use it to further that goal.”