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BUDAPEST — Welcome to the European capital of Russian disinformation.
To read and watch state-related news in Hungary these days is to catch a steady stream of outright pro-Kremlin framings, arguments and conspiracies about the war in Ukraine.
The CIA helped install the current Ukrainian government in power. The United States pushed Russia to attack Ukraine.
Ukrainian weapons could be sold to “terrorists” in France. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy behaves like Adolf Hitler during the last days of World War II.
There is no proof of any of this, of course. But what is remarkable is that these arguments come from experts, television stations and newspapers linked to Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, whose leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has publicly joined to Western allies to condemn Russia for its invasion. He backed massive EU sanctions crippling the Russian economy and even said NATO troops would be allowed to deploy to western Hungary.
In Hungary, however, his party often sends a very different message. From state media to pro-government outlets backed by taxpayer-funded ads, Fidesz-linked pundits are promoting conspiracy theories about the conflict and relativizing Russia’s aggression.
At the same time, refugees are showing up at Hungarian train stations and local media are reporting on the war, generating an outpouring of sympathy for Ukrainians fleeing for their lives. On a recent afternoon, a makeshift humanitarian center at a Budapest train station was packed with church groups and volunteers distributing food, medicine and supplies to refugees.
The mix has created a somewhat confusing atmosphere in a country where some citizens still remember first hand how the Soviet Union brutally crushed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. And it all emerged less than a month before ‘Orbán faces a general election, making it an unexpected flashpoint in the campaign.
On Sunday evening, hundreds of opposition supporters gathered outside the state media headquarters in Budapest, protesting in the bitter cold against what they describe as a flurry of Russian propaganda on state television.
“Spreading Russian propaganda,” read one homemade poster, “makes you complicit in war crimes.”
Stories from the Budapest Kremlin
In the early days of the war, public broadcaster M1 repeatedly invited Georg Spöttle – a conspiracy theorist known for his UFO research – to provide expert analysis of the war.
Russian forces took control of Chernobyl, Spöttle said, so that “it wouldn’t be attacked,” he once said.
Zelenskyy’s call for Ukrainians to volunteer to bear arms is “very dangerous”, he said, saying Ukrainian weapons could be sold to “terrorists” in France. He even compared the Ukrainian leader’s decision-making to Hitler’s decision in the final months of World War II to recruit men not yet serving in the military.
Media analysts said this presence of Russian narratives is widespread in Hungarian state media.
“I think Hungarian state media is currently the biggest outlet of Kremlin propaganda in Europe, since RT and Sputnik have been shut down,” said Ágnes Urbán, an analyst at Mérték Media Monitor.
Hungarian state media rejected this criticism.
“The left is attacking independent Hungarian public media again,” the state media directorate wrote in a recent statement. “Now they want to prescribe what is in the news related to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.”
Beyond state media, Fidesz-affiliated media and pro-government social media groups have also promoted a conspiratorial and sometimes disparaging narrative about Ukraine’s democratically elected government.
The flagship pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet was the one that promoted the CIA conspiracy in its pages last weekend.
And other Fidesz-linked figures blamed Washington, not Moscow, for the war.
“The United States – for military, political, economic and security reasons – staged a challenge against Russia via Ukraine,” said Gábor Bencsik, an expert with close ties to Fidesz.
“Russia, in my opinion, gave a tragically bad response to this challenge – but the challenge started from there,” he said during a talk show this weekend on the linked channel. to Fidesz, HírTV.
“I’m not anti-American,” Bencsik insisted. Under former US President Donald Trump, he said, “the world moved toward peace…unfortunately, now America has leadership again that is moving toward confrontation.”
Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Institute of Political Capital think tank, said the invasion of Ukraine had led Hungarian leaders to reassess their foreign policy.
“I think Hungary has realized this is something totally new – and NATO and EU unity is key,” he said.
Nevertheless, “the ecosystem of pro-Kremlin disinformation and government information cannot really be separated”, noted Krekó, adding that “there is a huge wave of relativization” and that some Fidesz figures ” hate the West more than they hate Russia”.
But the pro-government media narrative went beyond simple criticism of US foreign policy.
An article from a pro-government website and republished in several media affiliated with Fidesz accuses, by name, an American diplomat in the region of working to “destabilize” Ukraine. More broadly, the article stated that the United States had “provoked the Russians”.
Asked about the anti-American content and whether the personal attacks were reported to Hungarian authorities, the US Embassy in Budapest declined to comment on specifics.
But in a statement, the embassy stressed the importance “in a democratic society for members of the media to uphold high standards of journalism”, adding that the principle “is even more important in the present moment”.
The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.
With elections in Hungary just weeks away, it’s still unclear how much of an impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and the accompanying wave of disinformation – will impact the vote.
The ruling party competes with an opposition alliance that brings together parties ranging from Liberals and Greens to Conservatives and former far-right politicians.
While Orbán had originally planned to build his campaign around a “child protection” law — a set of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative changes — public attention has now turned to the war. side.
Even before war broke out, Orbán viewed a possible conflict as a challenge to his re-election campaign.
A politician from the ruling Fidesz party, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the issue was raised at a party meeting in mid-February.
When Orbán spoke of “possible risks” for the upcoming elections, the politician said: “he mentioned the war as one of the most unpredictable elements”.
After the Russian invasion, the prime minister turned to a strategy of emphasizing that Hungary should stay out of the war. Orbán and his allies have repeatedly said that the opposition wants to send troops to Ukraine, a claim that is not factually accurate.
Unlike many other EU countries, Budapest has refused to provide Kyiv with bilateral military assistance. And despite Hungary’s support for punitive measures targeting Russia, a government minister this week blamed a historic fall in the Hungarian currency on “Brussels sanctions”.
The rapid changes in government communication, combined with a stream of war images from Ukraine, media stories from the Kremlin and refugees appearing in Hungary, have simply left many perplexed.
“Hungarian public opinion is confused,” Krekó said. “But the majority blames the war on Russia.”
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