Hungary Insight

War and disinformation: pro-Russian narratives thrive in Hungary as Ukraine fights off aggression (1/2)

News kiosk in Budapest

Budapest, Hungary – On February 24, 2022, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine shook the entire world, especially Europe. The vast majority of European and world leaders immediately expressed support for Ukraine and condemned the unjustified Russian aggression.

One of the few exceptions, however, was Hungary, an immediate neighbour of Ukraine with close political and economic ties to Russia, where both Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó have been slow and careful to condemn the Russian aggression and Vladimir Putin.

The beginning of the 2022 Russian war on Ukraine saw Hungary at a specific political moment. It happened less than one and a half months before the Hungarian parliamentary elections scheduled for April 3, 2022, and during the time of the formal electoral campaign.

The war immediately became the central issue of the political and public discourse in Hungary, as well as one of the main topics of the electoral campaign itself, partly due to the intense Hungary-Russia ties established by the Fidesz government, and advocated for even in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This 2-part article focuses on the disinformation narratives in Hungary concerning the Russian-Ukrainian war of 2022, including during the Hungarian electoral campaign (February – April 2022).

It aims to map the main sources of disinformation, its central messages and themes, as well as the public perception of these narratives, and attempts at countering Russian disinformation in Hungary. The article draws on the research reports of Political Capital (a Budapest-based independent policy research institute) on the Russian disinformation in Hungary.

General narratives of Russian disinformation about the 2022 war in Ukraine

The main source of disinformation narratives regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war of 2022 is naturally the Russian disinformation, which has been regarded as a key part of Russia’s information and political warfare.

Russian disinformation may be defined as malign influence, produced to manipulate public sentiment by positively shaping the perception of Russia and its leadership, discrediting Western liberal values, and/or undermining the appeal of democratic establishment both within and outside Russia.

Russian disinformation operates by inciting public mistrust in political actors, international organisations, democratic institutions, and the media, by using the well-known 4D approach: dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay. This tactic is intended to make readers doubt the credibility and truthfulness of any information, which may likewise also result in disengagement from the subject.

In the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war (both in 2014 and 2022), the aim of Russian disinformation present throughout Europe has been to distort the Western perception of the war by presenting the aggression as a justified defensive response to protect Russian security and national interests, as well as the “Russian minorities threatened of elimination” on the territory of Ukraine.

Another aim of the Russian disinformation campaign was to discredit Ukraine (going as far as questioning the country’s right to exist), and present its leadership as illegitimate or incompetent.

Both prior and throughout the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the following Russian strategic disinformation narratives have been spread all over Europe, including Hungary:

  1. Russia’s “special military operation” was a necessary action to prevent the genocide of ethnic Russians or Russian speakers in the Donbas region, its sole aim is to “denazify” Ukraine,
    and to ensure peace and the protection of minority rights
  2. The potential admission of Ukraine to NATO is a serious security threat to Russia,
    eastward NATO expansion violates previous agreements and “crosses a red line” for Moscow, of which the West has been previously “warned”
  3. The war is in the United States’ interest to weaken Russia and Europe as its competitors,
    the US is responsible for the war’s escalation by aiming to expand NATO and by arming Ukraine
  4. Ukraine as a state does/should not exist, is not legitimate, or is an artificial entity,
    Ukraine belongs/has historically belonged under the Russian sphere of influence
  5. Zelenskyy is not a legitimate leader, but a puppet of the US / “Background Powers”,
    and other narratives aimed to discredit the Ukrainian President (e.g. he is just acting,
    he is a drug addict, etc.)
  6. Atrocities and war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine are part of the Ukrainian disinformation campaign to gain sympathy and military support from the West

As several studies haveanalysed in detail and debunked these disinformation narratives (see Nimmo and Lucas, 2015; Galeotti, 2019, Shekhovtsov, 2020; various reports by Political Capital) this article will not elaborate on them, and focus instead on the Hungary-specific disinformation narratives.

What are the sources of Russian disinformation narratives in Hungary?

In the Hungarian context, we find several actors and groups (predominantly online media outlets and social network pages) that are spreading either direct Russian disinformation or sharing narratives supporting the main claims of Russian disinformation narratives.

While many European governments adopted measures aimed at combatting Russian disinformation, Péter Krekkó, Director of Political Capital states that in Hungary, Kremlin narratives and the Hungarian government-controlled information ecosystem cannot be separated: state-linked news, pro-government journalists, and Fidesz-close social media influencers have often cited Russian sources (such as RT and Sputnik) even prior to the war to support the Fidesz government’s anti-liberal, anti-migration, or anti-LGBTQ narratives.

However, in the months preceding the 2022 invasion, and especially since February 2022, the spread of pro-Kremlin narratives and conspiracies clearly intensified, with several government-linked outlets echoing the Russian general narratives on the war in Ukraine. Lili Bayer, Hungarian correspondent for Politico goes as far as calling Budapest the “EU capital of Russian disinformation”.

Although Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has publicly joined EU leaders in condemning Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, state-controlled media for the Hungarian domestic audience show quite a different picture.

At the very beginning of the war, state-media in Hungary called the Russian invasion a “military operation” or “military conflict”, in line with the Kremlin narrative. Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó simply avoided mentioning Putin’s name and responsibility in their statements, Szijjártó even refusing to give back its Order of Friendship awarded to him by Vladimir Putin in 2021.

While the state-media also provided objective reports about the war, pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukraine narratives have been “outsourced” to analysts and opinion-leaders close to the Fidesz administration. These commentaries were then regularly cited in the government-linked press.

Furthermore, state-media channels invited government-linked experts to discuss the war, who have repeated the Kremlin narratives without critical evaluation, and pondered the extent to which Ukraine and NATO are responsible for the outbreak of the war.

Kremlin narratives appeared even more frequently on (mostly anonymous) social media sites, especially Facebook pages and groups, such as Orosz Hírek (Russian News) and Számok, adatok… A baloldali álhírek ellenszere (Numbers, data… The Antidote to Left-Wing Fake News), which have been spreading pro-Kremlin narratives, fake news, and even extreme conspiracies theories about the war.

Among political actors, the most active disseminators of Russian disinformation have been politicians of the far-right party Mi Hazánk Mozgalom (Our Homeland Movement), as well as popular anti-vaccination personality György Gődény, leader of the new anti-establishment party, Normális Élet Pártja (Normal Life Party, non-parliamentary). These two parties emphasized the “aggression against the Russian minority committed by Ukraine” as the reason for the war in their communication.

On the left-wing, strong anti-NATO sentiments and Russian disinformation has been echoed by the marginal post-communist party Magyar Munkáspárt (Hungarian Worker’s Party) and its leader Gyula Thürmer.

Pro-Kremlin, anti-Ukrainian narratives have also spread in various other smaller groupings, mainly on the far-right, for example the Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (a Hungarian revisionist youth movement), as well as among the anti-vaccination community. Political Capital has compiled a list of sources of the main disinformation narratives on the Russian-Ukrainian war in Hungary, available for download from their website.

Hungary-specific narratives and the autonomy of Transcarpathia

Apart from the general strategic narratives promoted by the Kremlin and other Russian sources, scholars have diagnosed the spread of country-specific disinformation narratives, which are utilized in various states or regions building on the local context and country-specific grievances.

In Hungary’s case, an example of such a country-specific narrative is the issue of ethnic minority rights and the question of autonomy of the partially Hungarian inhabited Transcarpathian region (Zakarpatska Oblast / Kárpátalja).

The Transcarpathia region has been home to about 150,000 people who identified as Hungarian prior the war (2001 Census), which constitutes around 12% of the region’s population.

The Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia has recently been a subject of conflicts between the Hungarian and Ukrainian governments: relations between Ukraine and Hungary grew sour after the proposal of a new education law in Ukraine in 2017, which would limit full minority-language schooling to 1st– 4th grades, and gradually switch to Ukrainian language education as the primary language of instruction in order to increase state-language fluency among minority groups.

The Hungarian government saw the new education law as a serious breach of minority rights that is aimed at the Hungarian community’s assimilation. As a result, the Fidesz government has blocked the NATO negotiation talks of Ukraine, which further escalated the tensions.

Ukraine, on the other hand, saw the Hungarian position as interference into Ukraine’s internal affairs, serving Russian interests, or even a threat of revisionism (Ukraine’s concerns include that Hungary grants citizenship for the Hungarian inhabitants of Transcarpathia, despite Ukraine not permitting dual citizenship).

Over the past few years, several anti-Hungarian (as well as anti-Ukrainian) atrocities took place in the Transcarpathia region. One such case was the burning of the headquarters of the Cultural Alliance of Hungarians in Transcarpathia in Uzhhorod in 2018, which has since been regarded as a provocation leading to Russia-close extremist sources.

Nevertheless, far-right and nationalist groups in Hungary, among others the party Mi Hazánk and its leader László Toroczkai, are still blaming Ukraine and its government for the event, and regularly use the rhetoric of severe minority rights violations as an argument for a Hungarian autonomy. This narrative is tied with and amplified by the Russian disinformation narratives about the constant threat of systematic elimination of ethnic minorities in Ukraine by the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian far-right (Nazi) groups.

This rhetoric finds ground with individuals and groups in Hungary with anti-Ukrainian sentiments, and/or revisionist views, and is present as well in the government-linked press and online platforms.

Prior to the war, Kristóf Trombitás, journalist from the pro-government online news-site Pesti Srácok (with 119,000 followers on Facebook), wrote an editorial titled “Standing by Ukraine is treason”. In it, he explains how the Hungarian liberal-left opposition parties’ support of Ukraine is anti-national, moreover, a treason, as they are standing up for the oppressor of the Hungarian minorities “as usual”. On the same day, after media criticism, the title of the article was modified to “Standing by Ukraine?”.

In another article published by Pesti Srácok, Trombitás repeated the narrative according to which Ukraine deserves no sympathy, being itself the oppressor of ethnic minorities:

“But here’s the hit topic, the situation of Russia and Ukraine. I will tell you frankly, I am totally unconcerned about what will happen to the Ukrainians. One important thing about [Ukraine] is that they are a large country that is widely spread between Russia and Hungary. What I see, and what is interesting, how systematically, and for a long time in the Carpathian Basin, the Hungarian minorities, as well as the Russian minorities, are being repressed.”

[…]

“And no, I’m not at the least moved by the situation in Crimea, for example. Crimea never belonged to the Ukrainians, Khrushchev simply – being a Ukrainian himself – attached it to one of the Soviet republics. Does it matter who it belongs to by name? Would that have made it Ukrainian? Who has more rights to Transylvania, us or the Romanians? And yet Transylvania has been under Romanian rule for twice as long as Crimea has been under Ukrainian rule.” (Pesti Srácok, 24 Feb 2022)

Such lines of argumentation are even more apparent on the far-right: Gyula Popély, Mi Hazánk’s candidate for president, stated that the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state is not in Hungary’s national interest. According to the party, the only interest of Hungary is that the Hungarian government provides the UN with documentation of the unrecognized “1991 Transcarpathian referendum on self-determination”, so that if the Russians and Ukrainians want to settle Ukraine’s future status under UN supervision, the Transcarpathian region will gain autonomy.

Perceived revisionist claims by Hungary sparked diplomatic rows with Ukraine, after a statement by Irina Vereshchuk, deputy-Prime Minister of Ukraine, criticizing the pro-Russian Hungarian stance and referring to the potential aim of annexation of Transcarpathia by Hungary.

The Hungarian Embassy in Kyiv and government officials strongly rejected that Hungary would hold any revisionist claims towards its neighbours (yet at the same time, Hungary entered into conflict with Romania and Croatia over ambiguous statements made by the Hungarian President and the Prime Minister).

Nevertheless, the Hungarian government focused on emphasizing the financial and material aid the Hungarian government provides to refugees from Ukraine (although continuously inflating their number and understating the role of civic organisations in helping refugees).

The Hungarian government furthermore ensured Ukraine about its support for Ukraine’s EU candidate status. On the other hand, any criticism from Ukraine towards the Hungarian government (e.g. statements from President Zelenskyy or Ljubov Nepop, Ukrainian Ambassador to Hungary) has been reported by the Fidesz-linked outlets as outrageous, ungrateful, or even anti-Hungarian.

Voices from the Hungarians in Transcarpathia and their standing on the war in Ukraine rarely make way to the Hungarian mainstream media.

The various disinformation narratives spread in nationalist circles about Hungarian revisionism or separatism and the prosecution of Hungarians in Ukraine remain unaddressed by the Hungarian government, and continue to harm the perception of Ukraine in Hungary, damaging the relations between Ukraine and Hungary, as well as the relations between Ukraine and the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia, who are themselves targeted and instrumentalized by Russian disinformation.

In the meantime, Hungary’s reputation remains as a channel of classic Russian propaganda.

By Rita Hornok

Rita Hornok is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, and a research assistant in the POPREBEL project. Her research interests include national identity and nationalism, ethnic minorities and kin-state engagement, politics of the Visegrad region, as well as memory politics in Central and Eastern Europe.

The POPREBEL project investigates the rise of populism in Central and Eastern Europe, more information on the project can be found there: https://populism-europe.com/poprebel/

 This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 822682.

The article represents the private views of the author, it has been edited and published by Kafkadesk with permission.