Since the start of the full scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a lot of attention was put on Russian disinformation in the western world. Yet, Russia is not the only state which uses disinformation and propaganda as tools to manipulate the public opinion.
Under Victor Orbán's Fidesz party, the Hungarian government installed a controlled media complex spreading disinformation; targeting refugees, the US billionaire and philanthropist of Hungarian descent Soros and promoting ties with Russia.
But how could this happen? Keeping in mind that Hungary is since 2004 an EU Member State and since 1999 also part of NATO. One would argue, being an EU Member means holding a certain standard of democratic values, rule of law and media freedom. Yet the case of Hungary shows that authoritarianism finds its way even among European states.
A Short History of Hungary
However, to fully understand the case, one should look into the late history of Hungary. Located in Eastern Europe, Hungary was, as most other Eastern European states, a member of the Warsaw Pact and therefore a satellite state of the Soviet Union.
After an unsuccessful revolution in the 1950s which was suppressed by soviet troops along with political and economic reforms in the 1980s, Hungary opened its borders to the west in the late 1980s. It was in this time that the centre right Federation of Young Democrats “Fidesz” was formed. Back then, Victor Orbán was already the leader of this young party. Ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Orbán became prime minister of democratic Hungary. Under his rule, Hungary joined NATO in 1999 which built the hope for western conservative politicians to whom Victor Orbán would be a young reliable ally.
Orbán's second term, from 2010 to present days, may be characterised as a quite authoritarian rule. Reacting to this, the European Parliament declared in 2018 that Hungary was violating the values of the European Union and therefore lost rights of representation. The latter was reinforced in 2022, when Members of the European Parliament declared that Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy but rather an electoral autocracy lacking freedom of expression.
Victor Orbán and George W. Bush in 2001
Orbán's arch enemy Soros
Orbán was successful in shaping the Hungarian media landscape after his own interest. Nowadays, the media landscape is dominated by pro-government outlets, which have been accused by independent observers of using false information and propaganda. Furthermore, Orbán's media law makes independent journalism nearly impossible.
Every propaganda machinery needs a simple enemy. In the case of Hungary, the arch enemy of Orbán can be found in George Soros. The US-billionaire of Hungarian descent is famous for his philanthropist engagement. With his “Open Society Foundations” he was and is engaged in the liberal and democratic development of the states of the eastern block. This counteracts Orbán's interests in Hungary and is therefore a good reason to create an antisemitic conspiracy of Soros and the EU trying to undermine the will of the Hungarian people.
This election poster for the European Parliament elections in 2019 says “you too have the right to know what Brussels is up to”. It is showing the face of George Soros and the former president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. The message is referring to the conspiracy that Soros and the EU want to execute the great replacement by letting refugees enter the EU and replace “white Europeans”. This is a common narrative of modern right wing propaganda, creating a fear of infiltration.
The fact that Soros has a Jewish family gives this conspiracy and the hostilities by Orbán's party an antisemitic level.
Covid - A Chance to Manifest the Authoritarian Rule in Hungary
The outbreak of Covid-19 gave governments all over the world the necessity to regulate the activities of their citizens. While for democratic states these regulations were often controlled by an independent jurisprudence, authoritarian states often used the need to regulate contacts to manifest and increase their own power to the deepest private sphere of the people.
One tool for Orbán to gain more power was the emergency law in 2020. This law allows ruling by decree without the parliament.
These powers had a significance in the 2022 elections in Hungary. Orbán was able to launch a dirt campaign against opposition characters. During the campaigning, the opposition was accused to run a “death campaign” against the Hungarian people. In detail, Orbán said that the opposition was promoting non-vaccination and is therefore responsible for the death rates caused by covid.
The irony of these campaigns is that independent media could not freely report about the covid policies in Hungary. For example, the Hungarian government did not report transparently the death numbers of covid victims.
One reason for that might be the permit of the Chinese vaccine Sinovac and the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. Because these vaccines did not apply the standards of the EU, they were not permitted in the EU. This did not stop Orbán to open diplomatic channels to China and Russia and buy the vaccines for Hungarian people.
The Hungarian Role in the Ukraine War
As already mentioned, Hungary is an EU and NATO member. But different to his official allies, Orbán orients himself to rather authoritarian leaders. This became most obvious with the start of the full scale invasion of Ukraine. Different to the western partners, Hungary is not sending any weapons or military gear to support the Ukrainian resistance. Also, Hungary called his veto in the EU to the financial loan of 19 billion euros as a support for Ukraine. Furthermore, together with Turkey, Hungary opposed Sweden and Finland to join NATO.
Even though Hungary agreed to many sanctions of Russia, Orbán made clear that his ties to Russia are more valuable than his ties to Ukraine. The war is interpreted by Victor Orbán as a war between Russia and Ukraine, where other states should not interfere. Yet, Orbán is walking on a narrow line with his opposition to the western course. A too harsh opposition could harm Hungary, which is benefiting a lot from the EU and NATO memberships.
Orbán meeting Putin
Orbán is an authoritarian ruler who knows how to use disinformation and propaganda for his own benefits. His campaigns against minorities and the opposition does not fit the values of liberal democracies in Europe. Yet, he is not leading the only state in Europe which has similar positions. Together with Poland, Hungary is using his EU veto to boycott liberal policies of the EU.
Covid and the war in Ukraine showed how dangerous such authoritarian rule on EU territory can be. The EU does a good job sanctioning such behaviours.
About the author: Till Hartig, is a law and politics student from the European University Frankfurt Oder, Germany. He focuses on Human rights law and international law.