Author: Natalie Gryvnyak, Journalist, producer of multimedia projects, communication and media expert, InFeatures Story Production founder
With the upcoming elections happening in Hungary in the Spring of 2022, the country is being torn by the ruling party and the opposition that have dimensionally different views on information policy and key development strategies for the country. The Orbán-government is favoring the Russian agenda, partly by the construction of a nuclear power station backed by RosAtom, (National Russian Nuclear Organization), while the opposition is trying to distance itself from the Russian sphere of interest. In addition, opposition leaders are trying to improve relations with Ukraine, amidst Russian aggression towards the country. (not really by the way)
As to the information policies, since 2010 the Orbán government has created through a series of laws similar to the Russian model of media-centralization, having a massive amount of both traditional and digital media outlets under its direct or indirect control while those who are critical to the government have access only to few digital media outlets. As a result, current narratives in the country are being largely affected by the propaganda of the ruling power. Largely, the way information is being spread and formed is similar to the Russian propaganda-machine and carries the same messages. Which in a way is interesting to look into, since the initial situation wasn’t favorable towards Russian narratives. Hungary doesn’t have a big Russian population, it is not a neighboring country and it doesn’t have a strong common history between the two countries (except 40 years of Russian occupation). Yet, the ruling party adopts Russian narratives, and has ties to the Russian political and business elite. As Hungarian researcher Andras Racz states, it’s mostly because of the mindset of the pro-government conglomerate: “They adopt Russian narratives to please the Kremlin. As far as we know there is no direct chain of command. It is done voluntarily, in exchange for corruption details that have been going on for a decade.”
Hungary is one of those countries through which Russia is trying to influence the politics of the European Union. Key motives for that are predominantly to destabilize it’s situation within The EU.
President Orban was even called “Hungarian Putin” by the “Foreign affairs” magazine. He has a difficult relationship with both Brussels and Washington, and he declares that “the interests of his country do not coincide with the interests of the United States”. Basically, he likes the Russian model of illiberal democracy more than the European or American.
The Hungarian prime-minister also supports the construction of “Nordstream” even though officially the country is declaring sanctions against Russia as the rest of the European Union. Russian propaganda is implicating existing tensions and exaggerating tensions within EU and NATO through negative sentiments, such as Anti — American, Anti-EU policy and migration. Since Hungary is the member of the EU and NATO, Russia is using it to spread such messages. For instance, in 2015, Russian channels massively started to distribute messages about migration risks in Europe and EU policies as to this.
Yet all of this lands on a fertile soil. Viktor Orban is sharing similar sentiments as the Russian narrative, thus many messages are being distributed from the ruling party are by choice and Russia is just favoring it. From a Kremlin perspective they are trying to influence the elite with traditional channels of soft power.
Historically, there is not much support from the Hungarian population for Russian perspectives. There is a small fraction of pro-Russian population yet the majority still think of Russia as the descendent of the USSR, the period that is usually perceived as “Soviet occupation”. “Those who prefer eastern orientation are about 3 percent. It is very low. So for Kremlin there is no sense of trying to win hearts and minds”, says Andras Racz.
Most of the Hungarians are not Russian supporters, yet since the Orban ruled Fidest party favors close ties with Russia, the spread agenda does affect the current population in terms of the current global outlook. People are manipulated into subjects favorable to Russian motives: need for the Nordstream and Russian constructed nuclear power station; anti- NATO sentiments, migration collapse, sanctions against Russian, Sputnik vaccines advantages etc. And to speak about the Ukrainian narratives: the tension between the two countries are being heated up by repeated Russian narratives of fascists and nationalists that endanger Madyar (historical name for Hungarians) population in the West of Ukraine, “Russia being a supporter of peace and Russian speaking population in the occupied territories, validation of Crimean annexation (ultra right politicians were present at the Crimean referendum in 2014).
Monopoly of Government media and current realities
In 2010, President Orban’s party approved several media laws that set up the National Media and Info communications Authority and the Media Council, that basically are responsible for overseeing the Hungarian media market, including media acquisitions. Since than oligarchs and government friendly companies were expanding pro-governmental media and its work resulted in the creation of the Central European Press and Media Foundation, that unites around 500 government-influenced media outlets (Ukrainian prism)
Adam Bihari, Hungarian journalist thinks that Hungary’s media environment is very centralized and pro-government. “Foreign media owners sold their outlets to government-friendly companies, or oligarchs. Nowadays it’s mostly the KESMA (the foundation with almost 500 outlets, but it includes a lot of small ones also with all the county newspapers that spread in the countryside. Yet, he thinks that there are still some glimpses of hope as to trustworth independent media, in particular HVG, according to Reuters Institution. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/hungary
Media conglomerates operate not only in the traditional realm but also digital. The most popular social network is Facebook. It became a monopolist of public attention. Other social media are not that popular such as Tik tok or Twitter. So predominantly narratives are being distributed from traditional media to the Facebook platform.
Among the common narratives that are being discussed nowadays are: vaccination done by Sputnik vaccine and its advantages alongside anti vaccination platforms in general or done by Western vaccines, importance of the nuclear power plant that is being constructed by the Russians, Russian state bank moving to Budapest, or that Russian population is under the radar.
Ukrainian narratives include such recent examples as Roman Protasovich linkage to “Azov ‘’ regiment. In general the topic of nationalism and radicalism is one of the most spread one in relations to Ukraine alongside the language issues of those living in the Western Ukraine (that speak Hungarian).
Every time an incident that could be ties to radicalism happens, Russian channels are talking about it, exaggerating or sometimes even faking, accusing nationalist to attacking the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. For instance the recent example of that is the accident in Beringove. Leaflets were distributed as a probation about cleansing the territory from non-Ukrainian speakers. When the Secret Service of Ukraine captured those involved it became clear that people were paid to do so. Yet Russian channels and then Hungarian ones started spreading information about that without the clarifications. Another issue is the language one. It is being heated up by Russian narratives as to the similarities with Russian language that through Ukrainian language law that was ratified in 2017, people are forbidden to speak other languages than Ukrainian one. Which is a false claim. (Describe true intention) Yet because of this narrative Hungary is blocking meetings of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, based on violations of the rights of Hungarians living in Ukraine due to a provision of the law stipulating that the language of instruction in educational institutions is the state language. In reality, Ukraine is not opposed for other languages to being spoken or learnt. I’m not sure about the details now, but when I was there 4 years ago, the law said that you can’t learn other courses in Hungarian in the Hungarian school, except Hungarian Literature, Grammar and History. They had to learn Ukranian in Ukranian which might be a little difficult.
Andrac Racz claims, that through “injecting poison into the minds of people like this, you can destroy trust”. He thinks that in reality Hungarians have little knowledge over the matter and generally about Ukraine. “Hungary was never oriented towards the East. They never had any ambition over the Carpathians. They don’t know much about Ukraine in general.” And even though he applauds the previous ambassador of Ukraine Nepop who learned Hungarian from scratch, he thinks it’s hard for Ukraine to compete with Russian disinformation narratives in Hungary. “Ukraine doesn’t have money for such extensive work”.
Yet statements from the Ukraine side are being made as to Russian influence and concern over the narratives being spread in Hungary. For instance, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian foreign affairs minister, states that the Russian Federation is trying to create additional tensions in Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. (TSN link) “We see that Russia does not want Ukraine and Hungary to normalize their relations,” Kuleba said. Russia “uses every opportunity to create additional tension in Ukrainian-Hungarian relations and prevent a reset.”
Why is Russia influencing Hungarian elite into the pro-Russian narratives? The reason for this would be to influence the situation with NATO both in the EU and Ukrainian perspectives in it.
Overall, we can conclude that the Hungarian government’s disinformation campaigns show remarkable similarities with how foreign authoritarian actors, such as the Kremlin, conduct them in terms of media takeover, methods of operation and manipulative techniques used. The key step for success concerning home-grown disinformation is, in fact, the creation of a vast enough local media empire serving a political force to ensure these manipulative campaigns achieve considerable outreach.