Hungary Insight

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

Budapest, Hungary – Eight months into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Hungary continues to lead a separate way from V4 partners and EU allies, trying to maintain close diplomatic relations with Russia despite the brutal war waging just across its border.

While the EU explicitly aims for Russia’s diplomatic isolation, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó boasted about meeting with Sergei Lavrov at the UN General Assembly, and paid a visit to Moscow in July to negotiate a new gas supply deal for Hungary.

Gas has been a central factor of relations between Russia and Hungary, a country heavily dependent on Russian fossil fuels, and the issue of energy has also played a significant role during the Hungarian election campaign. After looking at the general trends and sources of Russian disinformation in Hungary, this second part of the article explores narratives prevalent during the 2022 Hungarian election campaign, Hungarian rhetoric regarding sanctions imposed on Russia, as well as the Hungarian public perception of the war in Ukraine.

Cheap peace vs expensive war: Fidesz’s winning narrative

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Hungarian electoral campaign was mainly focused on economic issues, such as the utility costs, 13th-month pension, and tax exemptions, as well as social issues, including the state of education and healthcare, corruption, and LGBT rights.

But the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war on February 24 changed the focus of the electoral campaign entirely and gave rise to specific disinformation narratives related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which soon became the central theme.

Sensing the public’s fear of war and its consequences, Fidesz quickly positioned itself as a guarantor, moreover, the only guarantor of peace and security in Hungary, as well as the protector of Hungarian national and economic interests. At the same time, the ruling party did everything to discredit the United Opposition, who took a firm stance against Russia.

Fidesz’ main campaign narrative was a reaction to a statement from Péter Márki-Zay, in which the opposition leader stated that Hungary will implement the joint decision of NATO, and if the North Atlantic Alliance decides to support Ukraine with military means, then Hungary will support this.

Taken out of context by Fidesz and the party-close media outlets and online opinion-leaders, this statement was translated into the simple yet highly effective message: if the United Opposition wins, they will send weapons and Hungarian soldiers to the war, while Fidesz guarantees that Hungary stays out of the conflict. Hungarian government-linked media posted the following headline on the day before the elections: “The Left prepares for tomorrow’s election with a pro-war demonstration” reporting about a pro-Ukrainian protest of the Opposition.

While no party wanted Hungary’s involvement in the war, Fidesz and government outlets repeated daily that “Hungary must do everything to stay out of the war”, this conflict is “not our war”, and what Hungary needs is “strategic calmness” in decision-making during these critical times. This narrative often co-occurred with the general Russian disinformation narratives as well as anti-Ukrainian messages present throughout the Hungarian state-media and Fidesz-close online platforms.

During the campaign Fidesz took a pro-EU and pro-NATO position, advocating for common security measures, but strongly objected to sending arms to Ukraine through Hungary’s territory, as in their view this will endanger the inhabitants of Transcarpathia or risk Hungary’s involvement in the war.

The campaign narratives of Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland), Normális Élet Pártja (Normal Life Party), and Magyar Munkáspárt (Hungarian Worker’s Party) presented a similar stance, picturing the United Opposition as warmongers and NATO as expansionist, and by holding NATO and the United States directly responsible for the escalation of the war, ignoring Ukraine’s sovereignty.

While support for Ukraine was framed by the Opposition as a moral obligation, Fidesz, on the other hand, concentrated on the economic impact of the conflict. The key message of the Fidesz campaign was that by dragging Hungary into the war the Opposition would destroy the government’s long-standing achievement of keeping utility costs low. The main campaign message of Fidesz in this regard has been to ensure that “Hungarian families won’t pay the price of the war”.

At the same time, the United Opposition struggled to find a coherent narrative on the war, eventually suffering a historic defeat in the April 2022 elections.

Sanctions: a dishonest blame game

The question of sanctions against Russia has been central for the Hungarian government, heavily depending on Russian energy. Ironically, after the elections the Fidesz-led government itself declared that the reduced utility costs were unsustainable and had to be modified.

While prior to the elections Fidesz mocked the opposition’s energy-saving tips, the ruling party now urged Hungarians to be mindful of their energy consumption. Government-close media harshly criticized Germany for cutting gas usage in public institutions, but reported without criticism when the Hungarian government introduced the same measures.

The announcement on rising utility cost prices was immediately slammed by opposition figures, but Fidesz shielded itself from criticism by claiming utility costs had to be increased as a result of the war and because, not of Russia, but of the European Union: “For the drastic increase in energy prices not the economy, but politics, more precisely the political decisions in Brussels, are responsible”, said Viktor Orbán.

According to the Fidesz narrative, there are no alternatives in Hungary to Russian gas and oil, and economic sanctions are ineffective and self-harming. Zoltán Kovács, state secretary for international communication stated that “the sanctions imposed on Russia have no effect on the war in Ukraine, they are already harming us.”

Looking at the government’s communication, the fact that EU sanctions could not have been adopted without Hungary’s support is conveniently brushed under the carpet. Additionally, nothing is said about other global factors contributing to the rise in energy prices, with trends observable already before the start of the war.

Government-close Origo reported the following: “Brussels is enforcing newer sanctions even though the previous ones haven’t fulfilled hopes. Due to the sanctions, European inflation is sky-high, utility costs, natural gas prices and food prices have increased, and the continent is threatened by a recession.

Meanwhile, Russia’s economy strengthened due to the EU sanctions policy, for example, Moscow earned 158 billion euros from energy exports, but inflation and unemployment are at depths not seen for a long time, and the rouble has strengthened.”

Experts, however, have shown that sanctions have a significant effect on both the Russian economy and Russia’s capacity to wage war. András Rácz (German Foreign Policy Association) said to Válasz online that “the sanctions imposed so far have a decisive impact on the sustainability of Russian military capabilities. Most of their modern weapon systems – drones, helicopters – simply cannot be produced without importing Western technology. […] It would be very strange if the expected recession of around 10% did not affect the political system in any way.”

Doubling down on this line of argumentation, András Deák (NKE Strategic Defense Research Institute) also pointed out to Válasz online that sanctions are effective but their impact will be felt on the long-term, and therefore not designed to achieve peace overnight.

While voting for all seven sanction-packages with fellow EU leaders (Hungary is exempt from the oil-embargo), in September 2022 Orbán stated that the “EU sanctions were not imposed democratically, they were decided by the Brussels elite and the European people were not consulted”. Same goes for Péter Szijjártó: while stating that “we should forget the 8th sanction package” in Hungary, he did not raise objections against it to EU colleagues.

Regarding the economic sanctions, most Hungarians seem to agree with the government’s stance. According to the Eurobarometer survey conducted in April and May 2022, after the fifth rounds of economic sanctions, support for additional sanctions was lowest in Hungary (32%).

In relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 67% of Hungarians responded that price stability should be a priority over the defense of European values such as freedom and democracy. And according to a study by Nézőpont published in September 2022, 66% of Hungarians agreed with the statement that “sanctions hurt Europe more than Russia.”

To “ask Hungarians’ opinion” about the sanctions, the government launched a national consultation about the “failed Brussels sanctions” with openly suggestive questions in line with the Fidesz narrative.

Due to Hungary’s high dependence on Russian gas and oil, the Hungarian economy is indeed very vulnerable to the impact of sanctions. But to claim that sanctions do not have an effect on Russia has been proven false.

Additionally, claiming that the war and the sanctions are the only factor behind Hungary’s inflation and rising energy prices, or as Viktor Orbán claimed, that “if the sanctions were lifted, prices would immediately fall by half, and inflation would at least be halved”, is at best misleading.

How do Hungarians perceive the war in Ukraine?

Before the elections, Hungarian political analyst Gábor Török noted that the Russian-Ukrainian war could be a divisive issue even among Fidesz voters, part of them possibly holding strong anti-Russian sentiments.

He nevertheless noted that Fidesz found the suitable central narratives to avoid dividing their electorate – insisting on Hungary’s peace, security, and economic stability as the most important goals, highlighting the government’s willingness to provide humanitarian aid to refugees, and refusing military engagement.

On the other hand, strong anti-Russian sentiments do not seem to be characteristic for the majority of Fidesz voters, at least not in the current conflict. According to an opinion poll from March 2022 by Medián, 43% of Fidesz voters thought that “Russia acted legitimately to protect its interests and security” when it attacked Ukraine the previous month, while only 37% considered that “Russia has committed serious and unjustified aggression against Ukraine”.

On the side of the opposition voters, only 9% thought that “Russia acted legitimately to protect its interests and security”, while 84% viewed that “Russia has committed serious and unjustified aggression against Ukraine”.

Another study conducted by Medián in April 2022 showed a significant drop of sympathy towards Russia among Hungarians opposition voters from 2018 to 2022 (from 40 to 15 points, where 0 = very unfavourable, 100 = very favourable).

Fidesz voters’ opinion of Russia was already significantly higher in 2018 at 59 points, and dropped to 43 in 2022, still almost three times as high as opposition supporters. When asked about Hungary’s foreign orientation preference, 65% of Fidesz respondents aged 18 to 39 said it would be better for Hungary to orientate towards Moscow instead of Washington.

Regardless of their political affiliation, and notwithstanding vastly different levels of support for Ukraine, the desire not to be dragged in the war appears to dominate. According to study by Ipsos from April 2022, the statement “Ukraine’s problems do not concern us and we should not interfere” had an approval rate of 67% among Hungarian respondents, compared to 27% among Poles.

As this two-part article has illustrated, Russian disinformation and corresponding Hungary-specific narratives are widely present in Hungary and remain not only unaddressed, but further spread by the government and government-linked outlets.

Several individuals and independent organisations are actively fighting back against this disinformation and debunking misleading Russian narratives – we can mention Political Capital, a Budapest-based independent think-tank, Lakmusz, a new fact-checking site on Hungarian affairs, as well as opposition politician Márton Tompos – but filling the vacuum and competing with the vast propaganda network as well as the misinformation of government-aligned media outlets remain an uphill task.

The last months show that even a brutal war in neighbouring Ukraine could not break Hungary’s close ties with Moscow. Nor could it break the government’s narrative that the main culprits, and the main threat, lie not Eastwards, but in the West.

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.