Levers of Political Influence

Russia has long taken advantage of corrupt networks across Europe and Eurasia to reward businesses close to the Kremlin and build leverage with local political leaders. Moscow routinely promotes the interests of Russia-friendly politicians, bureaucrats, and business figures in neighboring states and uses Soviet-era ties with intelligence and military officials to further Russian political goals.

The Case of Hungary

Hungary’s slide into illiberalism under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stoked tensions between Budapest and the European Union (EU). Hungary’s estrangement from the European mainstream has created opportunities for Russia to expand its economic and political influence in the country.

Orbán’s ruling Fidesz Party has done a 180-degree turn and become increasingly friendly toward Russia. Meanwhile, the far right Jobbik Party has allegedly received Russian financing.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin (right)
Both Fidesz and Jobbik have expressed strong opposition to EU sanctions against Russia.
The parliament building in Budapest
“Non-economic problems cannot be solved with economic means . . . Everyone stands to lose from such solutions.” .attribution. —Prime Minister Orbán on Western sanctions against Russia
Warming relations between Hungary and Russia are reinforced by cozy energy and economic dealings. Well-connected Russian firms like Gazprom have amassed considerable influence in Budapest over the past two decades. Hungary relies on Russian state-owned companies to fuel its nuclear power plants, which generate almost half of the country’s electricity.
In 2014, Hungary awarded Rosatom a $14 billion project to upgrade and modernize the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant, without opening the project for competitive bidding.
Greenpeace protests Paks II on the Hungarian Parliament’s office building in Budapest
Russian intelligence and security service operations reportedly have also increased in Hungary in recent years. In December 2017, Hungarian prosecutors charged Jobbik Party politician and Hungarian member of the European Parliament Bela Kovacs with spying on the EU for Russia.
Russian military intelligence reportedly cultivated the Hungarian National Front (MNA), a far-right militant group that actively sought to secure funding from Moscow. According to Hungary’s National Security Committee, MNA members conducted military-style training with Russian Foreign Military Intelligence (GRU) officers working in Hungary under diplomatic cover.
Hungarian National Front members march with the MNA flag in Budapest in February 2014

The Orbán government’s business dealings with Moscow have exacerbated frictions with the EU and key European countries such as Germany and France. Russian intelligence and security service operations in Hungary have also caused concern among its EU and NATO partners. Orbán is an important standard-bearer for anti-EU populist sentiment in Europe. His pro-Russian, anti-EU stance does face some resistance at home, however, as most Hungarians hold a positive view of the EU.

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