“Russian influence in the CEE region” was the focus of discussion at a conference organised by the Budapest-based think-tank Political Capital on November 17.
Botond Feledy of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, said Russia’s attempts to influence opinion in Central and Eastern Europe are best defined as “strategic deception” when he opened the first of three roundtable discussions on the “Russian information war”.
“This war has gone on for about ten years,” Feledy said. He noted that Nato had acknowledged four kinds of warfare at its most recent conference: land, air, water and cyber. “We are about to leave a normative era; after [Francis] Fukuyama there was no thought of defending the information space,” he said.
Cyberwar is a much greater threat to the West than the migrant crisis and “could lead to cataclysm”, he added.
According to Andras Racz of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Russia’s aim has not been the dissemination of counter propaganda, “but the creation of chaos to disorientate the people. They want to exclude the possibility of other colourful revolutions,” he said.
Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative journalist for Hungary’s leading news website Index, referred to data sets that show huge spikes in the number of pro-Russian online comments during politically expedient periods. “How Facebook will deal with fake websites is also a big question,” he added.
Racz said the West’s response to Russia’s information war should be to “emphasise truth” rather than engage in counter propaganda. “Our journalists are taught to provide balance – the Russians are turned against the West,” he said, calling Russia’s blocking of the business networking website Linkedin last week a “very bad direction”.
“Russia [is waging this war] in a very apparent way, China in a more subtle way,” Feledy said. He noted that the cybersecurity and anti-virus provider Kaspersky Lab is Russian.
“How interesting that is,” Racz replied, though added that: “Look at China and you will see Russia as a very friendly ally.”
The second roundtable discussed “Russian influence in the CEE region and radicalisation”. Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Slovakia, said: “Russia sees liberal democracy as the main enemy – those who are against it are seen as tools for certain penetration.”
Meseznikov listed four Russian information war successes: mainstream discourse becoming more radical on issues such as the refugee crisis and homosexuality, the strengthening of radical extremism, the activation of paramilitary groups, and the growth of the ‘alt-right’ media that has exploded into the headlines following Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election.
Yevhen Fedchenko, an investigative journalist for the Ukrainian website Stopfake.org, said Russia has been waging a cultural propaganda war in Ukraine for 20 years. “Without this, there could not have been the real war,” he claimed.
Kremlin propaganda has been present at every level. “Even puppet shows on children’s TV have characters saying, ‘I won’t be here tomorrow because I will go to fight in Crimea’,” Fedchenko claimed.
The final roundtable discussion on “Russian influence in Hungary” comprised only opposition politicians, after the last-minute withdrawal of ruling Fidesz party MP Zsolt Nemeth – an Atlanticist who has reportedly been unenthused by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s pro-Russian illiberal direction of recent years.
Peter Ungar of the green party LMP decried the Orban government’s decision to unilaterally assign the expansion of the country’s only nuclear facility in Paks to the Russian state-owned company Rosatom. “Paks is not profitable – electricity will be 3.5 times more expensive [after the expansion] while green energy projects will be three times more expensive,” Ungar claimed.
Democratic Coalition foreign relations head Attila Ara-Kovacs sought to explain the backdrop to the Paks expansion deal by claiming that more and more Russian agents are active in Budapest. Citing information from “two special operatives”, he said: “they are here not permanently and not of the diplomatic kind, but are rather from companies Rosatom and Gazprom, they have money and tools to influence.”
Ara-Kovacs later told bne on the sidelines of the conference that there is data that the number of Russian agents operating in Budapest has doubled to 600-800 under Orban. He also claimed that France and Germany are now wary of liaising on defence matters with Hungary. “We got information from Berlin and Paris that they would not share information about Nato,” he said. “Basically, the Russians never left. We have always had a lot of intelligence agents here, but these days it is even more important to be cautious.”
Zsuzsanna Szelenyi of the centrist Egyutt party bemoaned the Orban government’s lack of transparency. “Hungary lacks information on threats from Russia: the government does not allow it. [Under Fidesz] Hungary’s parliamentary defence committee meetings are completely closed, which is unprecedented,” Szelenyi noted.
Organiser of the conference Political Capital has reported on the Russian state’s attempts to re-establish its former Eastern European sphere of influence for around a decade, notably with its “Putin’s Trojan Horses” report in 2009 and last year’s “I am Eurasian – The Kremlin connections of the Hungarian far right”.