Earlier this week, as Europe was preparing for continent-wide parliamentary elections that delivered 25 percent of the seats to the anti–European Union populist right and left, Hungary was busy asking the EU Parliament to revoke diplomatic immunity for Béla Kovács, a prominent representative of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, in order to charge him with spying on the EU for Russia. Kovács is also accused of channeling Russian funds to support the establishment of Jobbik, which burst on the Hungarian political scene in 2009 with a suspiciously well-financed campaign for the EU Parliament. 

The charges were inflammatory, although perhaps not surprising. In the run-up to this month’s election, Russia is known to have supported anti-EU parties on the far right and far left in an attempt to influence and even undermine the union. One of those parties is Jobbik, which is Hungary’s second-largest party, and whose supporters dress in Nazi-type uniforms, spout anti-Semitic rhetoric, and express concern about Israeli “colonization” of Hungary. And Jobbik’s pro-Russia stance has never been hidden. Its 2010 election program described the establishment and maintenance of good relations with “an increasingly influential Russia” as vitally important. In May 2013, in a lecture at Moscow’s Lomonosov University, Jobbik party leader Gábor Vona characterized Russia, as opposed to the “treacherous” European Union, as the guardian of European heritage. 

It has also long been known that Kovács, now known as KGBéla in the Hungarian press, has close ties to Russia. For one, he went to university in Moscow and apparently made a fortune working for a Russian foreign trade company in the mid-1980s and after, returning to Hungary in 2003. Since his election to the European Parliament in 2009, he has often lobbied on behalf of Russian interests in Brussels, where he served on the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee and as treasurer of the Alliance of European National Movements, a European collection of pro-Russia far-right parties and parliamentarians. Kovács was a vocal supporter of Russia during the Crimea crisis and served as an international observer of its farcical referendum on joining Russia.

The timing of the request to charge Kovács with spying for Russia is a product of Hungary’s rough-and-tumble domestic politics, in particular the competition between the extreme right Jobbik and the populist right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The allegations came at exactly the right moment to hurt Jobbik in the May 25 EU election. On May 15, Magyar Nemzet, a newspaper with close ties to the government, first broke the story that the Hungarian prosecutor’s office had asked the European Parliament to lift Kovács’ immunity. Four days later, Hungary’s parliament convened a meeting of its national security committee, a necessary step in charging a public official with espionage. The deliberations were closed to the public, but some members of parliament leaked that the committee found “solid” evidence that Kovács had spied for Russia, meeting in secret with known members of the Russian security services, traveling monthly to Moscow, and living together with another alleged agent of Russia, his Austrian-Russian wife. 

The story took some of the pressure off the Orbán administration, which is under scrutiny in the EU for its antidemocratic behavior, including passing strict media regulations, curbing the country’s constitutional court, trying to institutionalize political influence in the judiciary, and creating new oversight bodies packed with Orbán loyalists. In the wake of the allegations against Kovács, the ruling Fidesz party quickly charged Jobbik, a rival for Hungary’s large nationalist vote, with treason. The deputy head of the national security committee called on Vona to reveal whether “there are other persons like Bela Kovács in Jobbik” and whether Jobbik had accepted money from Kovács.

The insinuations achieved their goal. In the EU Parliamentary election, Jobbik fared rather poorly. As other far right parties across Europe advanced, Jobbik managed only to maintain its previous share of the European Parliament vote at close to 15 percent of the Hungarian vote.  This was a real setback for the party, which had won nearly 21 percent of the vote in Hungarian parliamentary elections in April.

For its part, Jobbik claims that the spy allegations are part of a far-reaching Western and Jewish conspiracy to colonize Hungary. Kovács claims that, in a May telephone call, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden asked Orbán to charge Kovács in order to nip the rise of Hungarian nationalists in the bud and ensure that the socialists remained the main opposition party in the country, claims that have been repeated in the Hungarian media. Kovács has denied all charges, said that he has never been a member of either Hungarian or foreign secret services, and threatened to sue the government for libel.

In Kovács’ defense, Orbán’s government has been known to use the prosecutors’ office to its own advantage during electoral campaigns. It has a habit of bringing corruption charges against socialist politicians prior to voting -- sometimes, as it turns out, based on insufficient evidence. This time, since the evidence concerning Kovács’ alleged spying is classified for the next 30 years, the public may do not know until 2044 whether KGBéla actually stepped over the line.

Although this latest scandal is seen as a domestic Hungarian affair, its implications go far beyond Hungary’s borders, raising questions about how deeply the Russian Federal Security Service has penetrated European institutions and influenced politics within the European Union as a whole. Since the arrest of Anna Chapman and nine other Russian spies in New York in 2010, it has been clear that Russia has extensive surveillance operations in the West. It is even more active in its former satellites, seeking information about Western security interests, government policy, and businesses, and trying to influence public opinion. Lidové Noviny, a leading Czech newspaper, recently published a story claiming that Russian intelligence had paid Czech civic groups to oppose U.S. plans to station an antimissile radar in the Czech Republic, before the Obama administration cancelled the project itself.

Indeed, it is surprising that the Orbán government is willing to take on Russia in such a public way in the Kovács case. In recent years, the Orbán government has become remarkably pro-Russian. In 2013, the government signed a controversial agreement with Russia to finance and build two nuclear reactors in central Hungary. And, at the start of the conflict in Ukraine, Hungary’s government-aligned media served up hours of propaganda for Russia. Orbán was slow in condemning Russia for the annexation of Crimea, a marked contrast to his attitude in 2008, when he harshly criticized the Russian occupation of Georgia as “imperial crude power politics.” Yet now Orbán has sought to paint himself as a defender of EU interests as he highlights Russia’s connection to Europe’s far right. 

Orbán can be seen as a classic balancer, willing to bow neither to the West nor to Russia but seeking to create room to maneuver around both. Hungary is important to Russia, because it is a key stop on the South Stream pipeline project that Russia is constructing to bypass Ukraine and bring Russian gas under the Black Sea to Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, and Serbia. 

Hungary is also vitally important for the EU. It  is one of the newest member states (it joined in 2004), and its lean toward Russia is demoralizing for the union. Brussels has proved unable to control the Orbán government’s often antidemocratic behavior. And now the EU is facing the prospect of a like-minded EU Parliament with close ties to Russia. That is not the Europe that the union’s framers hoped to achieve when they let Hungary and other Central European states in.

In the wake of the KGBéla scandal, Brussels might be wondering just how much influence Russia has in the halls of its member states. The fact that the EU does not have its own intelligence services leaves such investigations to the member states, some of them in close economic cooperation with Russia. As Europe faces off against a country with massive natural resource wealth and an extensive tradition of state espionage that sees itself as locked in conflict with Europe, that can't be comforting.

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  • MITCHELL A. ORENSTEIN is professor and chair of the department of political science at Northeastern University and an affiliate of both the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. 
  • PÉTER KREKÓ is the director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute, assistant professor of psychology at the Eötvös Loránd University of Sciences, and a co-chair of the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network PREVENT Working Group. 
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