Becoming Russia

“Cast your wary eyes on Paris” – thus warned the Hungarian poet Janos Batsanyi his noble compatriots in 1789, and this weekend, once again, many wary eyes will be cast on the French capital. Today, however, it is French citizens who should cast their eyes on Budapest to see where a Le Pen presidency will lead them and what it means when a political leader is indebted to Russia.  

National insecurity

On 19 April Magomed Dasayev, a Chechen man living in Hungary uploaded a video to YouTube. In the clip, the burly man is sitting in a café with a young Hungarian political activist, Gergo Komaromy who had thrown orange paint at a Soviet war memorial a couple of days before, in protest against Hungary’s government, aiming to highlight the government’s cosiness with Russia. Dasayev gives a short summary of what happened, in Russian. “We set out and found this individual,” he concludes, and then turns to Komaromy who apologises, first in English and then in Hungarian, to those offended by his actions.

Both men are smiling. And yet, there is something chillingly eerie about the scene. And the more the Hungarian press found out about the background of the video, the more alarming it seemed. Dasayev first raised the possibility of finding the activist in a closed Facebook group. And there the tone was markedly different: “You have to cripple people like this and then publish the video for others to think twice,” Dasayev wrote in a conversation where others suggested that Komaromy should be ambushed on the street and those retaliating should be careful not to have any eyewitnesses. “No one will be able to prove anything. I have a good lawyer,” answered Dasayev who then did not cripple Komaromy but did tell him that he and his family were in danger. Later, in an interview he talked about his relations with Hungarian deputies, Russian diplomats and even offered Komaromy and his band to arrange an opportunity for them to perform in the Russian Cultural Institute of Budapest. In fact, an employee of Russia’s Embassy in Budapest witnessed the exchange in the Facebook group but apparently stopped short of alerting the Hungarian authorities; he only called on participants to calm down.

To anyone following Russian politics the video must have rang a bell. In the past years, forced apologies have become increasingly common in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In January 2016, an independent lawmaker, Konstantin Senchenko called Chechnya’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov “a disgrace”. Just a day later, Senchenko publicly apologised to Kadyrov, following a visit by a representative of the Chechen community whom he refused to name. “I accept,” Kadyrov commented on Instagram. At least two further critics of the republic’s infamously aggressive and totalitarian leader were forced to go through the same public humiliation last year.

However, the similarity did not alarm Hungary’s government, not even after it emerged that Dasayev is stateless and therefore his presence and his business in Hungary are questionable at best. The spokesman of Hungary’s governing party, Fidesz, called it “a personal problem” and advised the activist to press charges in case he feels threatened. Neither did the government let the Hungarian parliament’s committee on national security open an investigation into an earlier case, in which the online interface of a government survey was found to be running a code by the Russian IT firm Yandex. The code sent users’ personal data to a server in Moscow.  Instead of voting to open an investigation, Fidesz deputies left the session, thereby preventing quorum.

Meanwhile, as Mark Galeotti warns in his recent report for ECFR, Russian-based organised crime, might also return with stronger economic ties between the two countries. Alas, Orban’s interior minister, a police chief of the 1990s who led the Interior Ministry in all of Orban’s governments was recently accused by a German criminal as well as Jürgen Roth, a German journalist, of having been in touch with Semen Mogilevich whom Galeotti calls “a powerful financier” of Russia-based organised crime.

Bad influence

Not that secret services do not find Russia’s growing influence in Hungary worrisome. When asked in an interview to assess the “Russian threat” in Europe on a scale of one to ten, a former Hungarian secret agent answered: “Nine or ten, the highest level,” adding that Hungarian authorities had not interfered with a far-right paramilitary organisation whose leader ended up killing a policeman because GRU, the Russian foreign intelligence had connections to the man and therefore confrontation would have been politically problematic.

What the government does, on the other hand, identify as a national security threat, are NGOs. Fidesz’s leaders, most prominently Viktor Orban have been railing against “fake civilians funded by George Soros” for years. Presently, the Hungarian government is preparing a law that would force civil organisations receiving donations of more than €23,000 a year from abroad, to register as “foreign-funded organisation”. The bill, including even the preamble, is a close copy of Russia’s law from 2012, labelling foreign-funded organisations “foreign agents”. There are also striking similarities between the press releases of the Hungarian and the Russian Foreign Ministry on the recent Macedonian political crisis: both blame the crisis on the interference of foreign NGOs.

The NGO bill follows amendments to Hungary’s law on higher education, which forces the Central European University, a renowned institution that has produced countless pro-democracy activists in Eastern Europe, to close its operations in Hungary. The law resembles Russia’s attempts to close down the European University of St. Petersburg and a Hungarian news site reported, quoting unnamed Fidesz deputies, that Putin himself gave Orban the idea during his visit to Budapest in February. It should not come as a surprise that the attempts to clamp down on “Soros’s organisations” was prominently featured in the political talk show of Dmitry Kiselyov, the Russian state television’s chief propagandist, just as the war propaganda of the Russian government often finds its way to the news programme of Hungary’s state-controlled television.

The pressure on NGOs – doing mostly doing charitable work, providing legal aid or fighting corruption – did intensify after the 2015 migration crisis, but it had started long before that. It was Orban himself who, in 2014, ordered an investigation into the finances of five NGOs funded by the Norwegian Fund (which found no serious irregularities). At the beginning of the same year, something curious happened. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister travelled to Moscow and, in total secrecy and without any previous consultation, signed an agreement on a €10 billion loan. The money will be used to finance the Paks II nuclear power plant project that Russia will build. Since the Paks nuclear power plant was not in urgent need of expansion, we can assume that the loan did not have to do much with energy security, but the exact terms of the agreement are classified until 2024.

2014 also started a series of increasingly cosy, yearly one-to-one meetings between Putin and Orban. No other EU head of government deserved such attention from Putin. In 2016, the two leaders complimented each other on their Syria and refugee-related policies. This year, Putin offered Orban an extension of the Paks II loan, hinting that Russia would finance the project fully. Two months later, the Hungarian government had started a manipulative and aggressive anti-EU publicity campaign, a crackdown on NGOs and the Central European University, and Yandex’s code was funnelling Hungarians’ personal data to Moscow.

And Magomed Dasayev forced a Hungarian citizen to issue a public apology. He trusted the Hungarian state not to go after him and he was right. If Gergo Komaromy trusted the Hungarian state to protect him, he was wrong.

There is, of course, no proof that Orban’s chumminess with Vladimir Putin is related to the Hungarian government’s crackdown on NGOs. There is no proof that it is due to the Paks II loan that Hungarian authorities are disregarding Russia’s clandestine activities. Or that the Hungarian interior minister or even Dasayev is connected to any of these clandestine networks.

But these would be a curious and marvellous set of coincidences: and with this, a growing number of Hungarians agree. Protests against the “Lex CEU” and the crackdown on NGOs included a loud and clear condemnation of Viktor Orban’s pro-Russia course. A survey in April found that the proportion of Hungarians who believe that their government’s foreign policy is serving Russia’s interests had grown almost threefold (from 9 to 26 percent) in just five months.

And this is unlikely to change in the near future. The Paks II loan agreement is secret; but is known that the deal puts Hungary in a very precarious position. In case the HBlungarian government stops performing on the loan for more than six month, Russia can demand the whole outstanding amount at once. Replacing Western aid with less transparent funds or winning an election – whatever Orban’s original purpose with the loan was, this is a loan that will haunt future Hungarian governments, not only Orban’s; not to mention the harmful effects of the present leniency on Russian intrusion.

France’s Orban

In France’s presidential election, Marine Le Pen is the Russian candidate.

Some may point out that Francois Fillon, the candidate of The Republicans had an amicable relationship with Vladimir Putin or that the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon supported a closer relationship with Russia. This is true – and the reasons why Russia is still regarded as a perfectly normal state to be allied with by a large number of European decision makers and voters, need to be addressed. However, her party’s financial ties to Russia make Le Pen unique.

In 2014, it emerged that the National Front borrowed 9 million euros from a Russian lender with links to the Kremlin. In the same year, Le Pen said that Crimea, freshly annexed by Russia, had “always been Russian”. In 2016, Le Pen allegedly asked another, even bigger loan from Russian banks. She denied that she had Russian backing, but she did say that she would recognise Russia’s authority over the annexed Crimea if elected president. In March 2017, she met Vladimir Putin in Moscow – officially for the first time, but not according to his father – and besides the open support that she received from Moscow along with countless hacking attacks on the campaign of his rival, Emmanuel Macron, it surfaced that last year the National Front did, after all, request a €3 million loan from a Russian bank. The project, so the party’s treasurer claimed, “did not have any follow-up”.

Hungary’s example, however, shows that there is always a follow-up. Call it a bribe, a loan or a clandestine support, once the beneficiaries are in power, their whole country may easily become liable. In a certain way, a Russian loan to a politician becomes the debt of the state and of each of its citizens who then pay the usury on the loan in different ways. Some by being exposed to Russian propaganda through state channels. Some by having their personal data funneled to Moscow. Some by suffering the label of being “foreign agents”. Some by being forced to apologise on camera for exercising their democratic rights.

Before stepping into the polling booths on Sunday, every French citizen should cast their wary eyes on Hungary to see where a Le Pen presidency will lead.

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