Hungarian government has financed several foreign politicians, but they consider the same a violation of sovereignty at home
December 11. 2023. – 04:00 PM
Defending the country’s sovereignty has been one of the most divisive topics in Hungarian public life for the past several months. The Hungarian Prime Minister and the governing parties have often talked about their worry over foreign interference in the country's internal affairs and the possibility of outside influence on elections. All the while, in an attempt to secure them positions of power in their own countries, Viktor Orbán and the economic and political circle around him have been funneling funds to foreign politicians for years.
This is how money from the NER and even public funds have ended up in France, Poland, Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
NER is short for Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere, meaning ’System of National Cooperation.’ The term was coined by the Orbán government after their election victory in 2010 to refer to the changes in government that they were about to introduce. By now, NER has become a word in its own right, and is used in colloquial Hungarian to refer to Fidesz' governing elite, complete with the politicians and the oligarchs profiting from the system.
Government politicians have been known to be incensed even when a foreign political actor expresses sympathy for members of the Hungarian opposition or expresses their views on the policies of the Hungarian government. They consider this to be an interference in Hungary's internal affairs. Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán and his Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, have openly sided with political actors in a number of countries. Other than in the countries listed above, this has also been the case, for example, in the United States, Spain, Italy, Brazil, the Netherlands and Serbia.
In September, government politicians announced that they wanted to "make things hard" for Hungarian politicians, NGOs and journalists who, in addition to domestic funding, also receive money from abroad by introducing a bill intended to protect Hungary’s sovereignty. Once the bill was tabled in November, it turned out that it does not mention the terms media, press, newspaper or journalist even once, and that only politicians and organisations standing for election would be subject to stricter rules.
Receiving funds from abroad has already been forbidden for political parties. During the 2022 elections, it wasn't through parties, but through associations that the Hungarian opposition's campaign received foreign funding (Péter Márki-Zay claims these were funds sent for their campaign by Hungarians living abroad). This is the loophole the ruling parties are now closing with the new bill. From now on not only parties, but any other legally operating organizations running in elections will also be prohibited from receiving foreign funds.
However, the Sovereignty Protection Authority, the body set up by the legislation, will have broad investigative powers and will be able to issue reports. While these reports will have no direct legal consequences, they are likely to be ideal for the purposes of propaganda and the discrediting of critical media outlets which are not to the liking of government politicians, and which they claim are not serving Hungarian interests – even if the same outlets were critical of the government before receiving foreign funding as well.
When they were in opposition, Fidesz accepted money from abroad for years
Viktor Orbán's party has been trying to build the narrative that organizations which accept money from abroad are then inevitably receiving directives from the foreign entity that has provided the funds. "He who foots the bill, gets to pick the song", has been a recurring phrase of theirs. In light of this, it is particularly contradictory that while Fidesz was in opposition prior to 2010 – before it had access to the abundant contents of the public purse, and was therefore desperate for every penny – it did, in fact, receive money from abroad for years, from political entities allied with the party. That was how they survived the hard times.
As Népszava reported, between 2004 and 2010, the foundation of the CDU (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung), one of the most influential political forces in German politics, gave a total of around 180,000 euros (nearly HUF 70 million at today's exchange rate) to Fidesz' foundation, the Foundation for a Civic Hungary (Polgári Magyarországért Alapítvány). Moreover, they also donated HUF 4 million to support the realisation of Fidesz' meetings in Kötcse in 2008 and 2010.
But the Fidesz and KDNP foundation also used to receive regular funding from the foundation of the other influential German conservative party, the Bavarian CSU (Hanns Seidel Stiftung).
It is also worth recalling that during the times of the regime change, the top leaders of Fidesz and today’s government circles received education and training thanks to funding from George Soros. At the time, the philanthropist now seen by Hungarian government figures as Beelzebub himself financed the studies of Viktor Orbán, József Szájer, Zsolt Németh, Mária Schmidt, László Kövér, Tamás Deutsch and Zoltán Kovács.
But more controversial than all of the above is the fact that while the Orbán government has been actively criticizing the arrival of foreign funds into Hungary, it has been using similar methods in its foreign policy for years.
A ten-million euro loan to a French presidential candidate
When the asset declarations of French presidential candidates were published last year, it was revealed that Marine Le Pen, the Putin-friendly, EU-skeptic far-right candidate was financing her presidential campaign with a loan from a Hungarian source. Le Pen had received a four-billion-forint (about 10,5 million euros) loan from MKB Bank, which has close ties to Hungarian right-wing politics and is partly owned by Lőrinc Mészáros (the PM's childhood friend who has become the wealthiest Hungarian since 2010). By comparison, the Hungarian opposition likely received roughly the same amount of foreign funding for its campaign in 2022.
Le Pen lost to Emmanuel Macron last year, and the French parliament held a hearing this year on her ties to Russia, as – in addition to Orbán's circle –, the far-right politician's campaign is suspected to have been backed by several Russian oligarchs close to Putin.
They commissioned anti-migrant videos for the Polish election campaign
Although Law and Justice (PiS), one of Fidesz's closest allies in Europe did win the most votes in Poland's October elections, it did not get enough votes to form a government. According to the Polish press, PiS used Orbán's advisers in its campaign against the pro-EU forces led by Donald Tusk.
Since losing to a united opposition, the Polish ruling party has been seeking to find those responsible for the failure, and has been undergoing a process of deep reflection and reckoning. Polish newspaper Polityka reported that after the resignation of Tomasz Poreba, the campaign was taken over by Joachim Brudzinski in mid-June, months before the autumn elections.
This was the move that opened the way for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's campaign advisers to come in.
PiS President Jarosław Kaczyński, 74, firmly believed that an enlarged staff and the ideas from Hungary would lead them to success. Poreba dropped out when the Hungarian advisers tried to boost the campaign with a referendum on the forced resettlement of refugees. If the idea sounds familiar, it is because it was inspired by the so-called child protection referendum held at the same time as Hungary's parliamentary elections last year. "We didn't win new voters, we only managed to create hysteria among anti-PiS voters," an insider told the paper.
They also followed the Hungarian recipe when they began to ramp up attacks on their rival party leader, Donald Tusk. This backfired, as discrediting Tusk infuriated and mobilised opposition voters even more. The PiS-influenced Polish public media also played an active part in the negative campaign, so much so that a presenter said that the propaganda they pushed during the campaign was worse than what was done under communism.
According to a report from Tygodnik Powszechny, it had an even greater impact on Polish domestic affairs when, in the run-up to the election campaign, between 28 September and 11 October, and again between 10 and 24 October, the Hungarian government started financing anti-immigration advertisements. According to the Polish newspaper
the client commissioning the videos can be tied to the Prime Minister's Office headed by Antal Rogán,
but it's almost impossible to say how much money the Hungarian side spent on this. We wrote to the Prime Minister's Cabinet Office a few weeks ago asking, among other things, how much their office, funded by Hungarian public money, had spent on this, and also asked whether this could be seen as an attempt to interfere in Polish domestic politics. We received no reply.
But Polish voters did not react to the videos the same way as Hungarians. Poles were mainly interested in the state of the economy, with 27% of them citing this as the most important issue. Following PiS's introduction of a very strict abortion law, abortion came second. The migrant issue was central for only 7% of Polish voters.
Hundreds of millions of euros of Hungarian public funds given to the Bosnian Serb subverter
In recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been cultivating increasingly close ties with the Bosnian Serb leader
Milorad Dodik, who is working to break up Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Through the state-owned Eximbank, the Hungarian government has given the Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Republika Srpska) a 45 billion forint (118 million euros) loan at exceptionally low interest rates to help Milorad Dodik's government pay off its debts, which are due to mature in 2023. Without the Hungarian public funds, the Serbian-majority region, which is fighting for an army of its own and secession from the federation, which would severely destabilize the region, would probably go bankrupt.
Dodik's overt objective is to overturn the 1995 Dayton Accords mediated by the United States, which ended a war fraught with genocide and mass rape. Bosnia and Herzegovina, created after the Dayton Agreement that ended the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, consists of two regions: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, populated mainly by Bosniaks and Croats, and the Republika Srpska, the Serb majority entity. Another part of the country is the mixed-population autonomous region called the Brčko district, which connects the two bigger parts.
In October 2021, Dodik, a known Putin ally who decorated the Russian president in the midst of the war in Ukraine, threatened the Serbs' withdrawal from Bosnia and Herzegovina's federal institutions, the country's army, the supreme judiciary and the tax authorities. The United States has imposed financial sanctions on Milorad Dodik's family and their business circle.
Speaking about the Hungarian government's support for Republika Srpska at a government briefing in August, Minister of the Prime Minister's Office Gergely Gulyás said that he did not believe this can be seen as Hungary's interference in the internal affairs of another state, adding that he considers Hungarian investment in Bosnia a good thing and that he did not believe Dodik's policies would lead to war. The EU has repeatedly accused Viktor Orbán of working against the EU's interests by backing the dismemberment of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been officially granted EU candidate status. Speaking a few weeks ago, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he had concerns about Russian influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serbs' secessionist aspirations.
Media acquisition in the Balkans for millions of euros
In the spring of 2022, based on documents in their possession, the Slovenian newspaper Mladina and Szabad Európa both reported that Kristóf Kosik, the lawyer who has worked for both Antal Rogán (Minister of the Prime Minister's Cabinet Office) and Árpád Habony,(Orbán’s longtime unofficial spin-doctor) as well as the companies involved in the sale of the Hungarian residency bonds, transferred a total of €1 million in 2018 to Hungarian investors Péter Schatz and Ágnes Adamik (listed in the company register as Ágnes Kovács since early 2020) who own a TV station and newspapers closely affiliated with the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). This is significant because Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar resigned in March 2018 and early elections were held in Slovenia in June 2018.
This was a great opportunity for Orbán's Slovenian ally and SDS leader Janez Janša to return to power.
According to Szabad Európa, because of the campaign, Janša had to urgently inject money into his party's media machine, whose publishers were near bankruptcy by then, and even struggled to pay salaries on time. By then, SDS' press was in Hungarian hands, and help did indeed arrive from Hungary.
According to Szabad Európa, the transfer of the one million euros sent by Kristóf Kosik had to wait for the Hungarian elections at the time. They reported that Peter Schatz personally visited a notary in April and made a payment of €380,000 to raise capital in his company Ripost Založništvo. Twenty minutes later, Schatz's business partner, Ágnes Adamik, also appeared before the same notary and paid €403 000 towards her Slovenian advertising company Crecol Media. A few days earlier, Adamik had also increased the capital of her Macedonian media company by €175,000. Thanks to the fresh capital, the SDS-affiliated media were saved from bankruptcy and were able to help Janša's campaign, who won the election.
The Slovenian Ministry of Finance later launched an investigation into the media companies surrounding SDS. They were mainly interested in the finances of the Slovenian Ripost (now called R-Post-R), as well as Péter Schatz and Ágnes Adamik. The investigation revealed that the Slovenian and Macedonian party media were mainly financed from Hungary and that R-Post-R was the one distributing the money. The Slovenian investigative portal Necenzurirano had earlier reported that companies and businessmen close to the Hungarian government had injected at least €12 million (around HUF 4.5 billion) into Slovenian media companies that broadcast SDS party propaganda. According to them, the Slovenian media company R-Post-R was the main driver of the party's propaganda. This company was founded by Péter Schatz, the former Director of Business and Product Development at the Hungarian Public Broadcaster (MTVA), who also used to own the Hungarian tabloid Ripost. Adamik and Schatz had previously worked together at the Hungarian Public Television.
Schatz has been a key figure of the Fidesz circles’ takeover of Balkan media. Along with a company with close ties to Habony, he had previously bought into Nova24TV, which is also part of the Slovenian SDS party's media empire. According to Necenzurirano, Nova24TV received a total of €3.5 million from Hungary between July 2017 and March 2020.
Janša was defeated in 2022. After his election loss, the big question in Slovenia became what would happen to the media apparatus built with capital affiliated with the Hungarian government, aiming to support Janša's policies. According to Slovenian press reports from last year, after opting out of the newspaper Demokracija, Schatz and Adamik also left the company which runs NovaTV24. At the time, Prime Minister Robert Golob and his allies demanded that the Slovenian parliament investigate the financing of Janša's media by companies with close links to the Hungarian government.
Orbán and Szijjártó regularly take sides on other countries' domestic policy battles
Fidesz politicians and the pro-government media often object to what they see as interference in Hungarian domestic politics by the United States, "Brussels", or even the Ukrainian President. What they often mean by "interference" or "meddling" is a foreign politician expressing his or her opinion on the Hungarian political situation. So they not only object to a foreign actor sending money to the country, but also to a foreign actor talking to domestic non-government political actors or simply expressing their opinion about Hungarian public life.
An excellent example of this is the interview Péter Szijjártó gave to Magyar Nemzet in October this year, in which he said: 'this is precisely why I sat down with the ambassadors of EU member states last year before the parliamentary elections and told them clearly so that everyone would have a clear understanding:
do not interfere in the Hungarian electoral process, do not act like a magistrate, do not organise events, do not give an opinion. Quite simply, do not interfere."
Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó have for years been constantly taking a stand and expressing their opinions on internal political disputes in other countries, and it is not uncommon for them to specifically back a candidate in a foreign parliamentary election.
In the last Czech elections, Orbán supported Andrej Babiš. In 2021, for example, he attended an election rally of the ANO movement, which was in government with Babiš as prime minister at the time, at the municipal theatre in Ústí nad Labem, in the district where Babiš stood as a candidate for the Czech Parliament. In his speech there, Orbán revealingly said: 'You are going to have elections soon, and although we do not wish to interfere in the elections of any country, I have no regrets at all about coming here (...) I am glad to have had Andrej Babiš as a colleague in recent years, a man who belongs with the great Czech politicians I have just mentioned.' He then proceeded to discuss Babiš's successful economic policy at length.
He later went on to say that he "and Prime Minister Babiš had become brothers in arms". In the end, Babiš was defeated in the election. Shortly afterwards, he ran in (and lost) the presidential election in the Czech Republic, where his opponents often brought up his friendship with Orbán and even told their voters that it would not be good if the Czech Republic followed Orbán's path.
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić is favoured over other political actors. Most recently, while visiting northern Serbia's Palić, Construction Minister János Lázár appealed to Serbian voters to cast their ballots in the upcoming elections in a way which will allow the governing coalition in Belgrade to continue its work.
In Brazil, Orbán clearly backed the right-wing, populist, anti-vaxxer Jair Bolsonaro, who is facing a series of police and court cases, over the left-wing candidate. In fact, he went further than just simple cheering, Orbán also sent a video message to Brazilian voters, saying he had met many leaders over the years, but few as outstanding as Bolsonaro.
The Hungarian Prime Minister and the pro-government media under his influence really dislike US President Joe Biden – and that's putting it mildly. On the other hand, his Republican opponent Donald Trump is downright seen as the savior of all humanity. Orbán himself said so in front of the cameras of one of the most famous American television personalities, knowing that millions of Americans would be watching. "Get Trump back!" – the Hungarian Prime Minister, who dislikes foreign interference in domestic affairs, added.
The Hungarian government actually assisted former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in fleeing to Hungary after he was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption in his home country. He was later sentenced to seven years in prison in another case. The Hungarian government did not let this case unfold in Macedonia the way the people there wanted, but provided an escape route for the former head of government, who had previously had tens of thousands of his citizens wiretapped. In 2018, Orbán justified the assistance provided to Gruevski by saying that "one treats one's allies fairly".
Orbán has backed Santiago Abascal, leader of the Spanish far-right Vox party, calling the politician a friend and talking of their common struggle. "I wish Vox good luck," he said in a video message sent to a campaign event of the far-right party. In the end, Spain re-elected the socialist Pedro Sánchez to government.
In Italian politics, the Orbán government has clearly sided with Giorgia Meloni. The Hungarian Prime Minister attended a campaign event for Meloni's Italian Fratelli d'Italia party in Rome in 2019, and a year before the last Italian elections, in 2021 he even skipped a football match to meet Meloni, with whom they "expressed their commitment to the unification of the European right".
In the Netherlands, they were rooting for the victory of the far-right's Geert Wilders. Wilders, who until now has held no government or official state office, has met with Viktor Orbán several times in recent years. In September last year, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó awarded the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic to the Dutch politician, who had achieved an outstanding result in this year's elections and whom he called a friend of Hungary. On the other hand, Orbán has had serious conflicts with one of Wilders' big opponents, Mark Rutte, who headed the Dutch government for 13 years and whom Szijjártó even described as a “hungarophobe” in 2021.
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