Autocratizing regimes mutually exploit each other’s propaganda to strengthen their legitimacy at home. The Putin and Orbán regimes work with largely overlapping enemy pictures and in hyper-centralized media environments. This allows their propaganda machines to pick up stories and narratives from each other and use them for their domestic audiences, even in the absence of known institutional relations between them.
May 4, 2023
In Hungary, the Fidesz regime uses pro-Russia narratives and spreads disinformation to keep together its voter base by continuously reinforcing the enemy picture and presenting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as the defender of Hungarians at home and abroad. This is also how Russia’s President Vladimir Putin likes to portray himself at home. The two regimes occasionally use the products of each other’s propaganda apparatus to bolster their security, reinforce common enemy pictures, and highlight that they are not isolated internationally. In doing so, they claim that they are “mistreated” for ideological reasons: they are not punished by the West for their mistakes but for who they are. One example is the Russian government’s communication constantly pointing at the West’s alleged Russophobia as a reason for sanctions. Another is when Hungary’s government refers to the suspension of EU funding for the country’s universities as an “anti-Hungarian, racially motivated revenge”.
According to the most common model in Central and Eastern Europe, disinformation from Russia penetrates a target country’s information space and is then spread via various proxies and structures there. Hungary’s case differs. Russian disinformation reaches it as well but in predominantly low-reach, fringe media outlets and sites, and it therefore has little measurable impact. Incomparably more impactful is homegrown disinformation spread by the regime’s vast propaganda machine and government officials. One cannot underestimate the effectiveness of the regime’s propaganda empire, which encompasses over 470 outlets under the umbrella of the pro-government Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) holding as well as public broadcasters and radio channels, pro-government influencers, and exclusive access to billboards countrywide. All these tools have enabled the government to conduct a permanent anti-EU campaign since 2015.
The narratives of Hungarian domestic disinformation are often almost identical to Russian ones—for example, scapegoating the EU, the United States, “gender”, and Ukraine, and presenting Hungary or Russia as the defenders of traditional and Christian values. Russian domestic propaganda started using these narratives earlier and Hungary could thus pick up tried and tested universal enemy pictures and tailor them to Hungarian voters. After focus-group research into people’s fears and unconscious associations, the Hungarian narratives are produced by the government by testing buzzwords and slogans that the propaganda machine can then push. In a country where there is permanent political campaigning, this continuous mapping of public sentiment is of vital importance for the regime’s security. The common enemy pictures, the hyper-centralized media environments, and the similar regime security considerations, such as a constant need for legitimization, result in largely overlapping content and narratives, which the two propaganda empires feed to domestic audiences.
While Russia and especially Hungary’s relationship with it, have been topics at the forefront of Hungarian public discourse in recent years, this has not been reciprocal. Hungary traditionally did not receive much attention in the Russian media space. Being a small, rather marginal country without a significant Russian minority, it was rarely ever mentioned. But the Russian propaganda machine has increasingly paid attention to Hungary in recent years, as it discovered that the content and narratives used by its government-friendly media could be used in Russia too. The state-controlled Rossiya Segodnya media group, even intended to hire a Hungarian-speaking editor in October 2022 to increase its coverage of stories from the Hungarian media—though it is unknown if the position was filled.
Hungary’s new presence in Russian media shows its government’s conflicts with the EU and the Western world, depicting a weak and divided Europe—a picture the Kremlin loves to paint to Russian audiences. The EU’s criticism of Orbán’s government and vice versa provides an opportunity for the Russian media to undercut the bloc’s credibility. The goal of this narrative is to demonstrate that the EU is working to destroy traditional values, which the Russian state seeks to defend, and thus that the EU’s stance is no viable alternative to the Russian one. It also aims to portray an EU in which some member states lean more toward Russian than Western values. At the same time, Hungary is more frequently portrayed as a tool (for example, as a “battering ram” to veto the EU’s sanctions packages) rather than an equal partner. Highlighting the visits of Hungarian politicians to Russia, such as Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s in February, even after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, serves the purpose of demonstrating that Russia is not isolated. Hungary’s strained relations with Ukraine and its government’s aggressive rhetoric toward Kyiv support Russia’s propaganda to depict Ukraine as a repressive, aggressive state.
Hungarian pro-government media push pro-Russian narratives regularly, with experts voicing opinions that mirror pro-Kremlin tropes. Their portrayal of Russia as the victim and Ukraine as the aggressor has been notable. Furthermore, disinformation campaigns based on these narratives have been used to advance Fidesz’s agenda. For example, in February 2022 before the invasion, the pro-government media aired a segment claiming falsely that Ukraine’s government used chemical weapons against its population. On the day of the invasion, a talking head blamed Ukraine for the outbreak of the war in a state television interview, claiming that it had crossed Russia’s red line—“blowing Putin’s fuse”—by announcing that it was preparing to develop nuclear weapons. Putin had made this false accusation two days earlier when announcing Russia’s recognition of the breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Even though Hungarian domestic propaganda uses almost identical narratives to Russian ones in many cases, it is only recently that Russian propaganda started to tap stories from Hungarian sources. This is easier if there is a common enemy picture and a common narrative. For example, in one popular Hungarian disinformation narrative that is cyclically presented by pro-government propaganda since last spring, Ukraine mobilizes troops in Transcarpathia disproportionately on an ethnic basis, conducting “forceful conscription”. This is not only manipulative but also inaccurate. It attributes a forced nature to something that is a duty and falsely refers to “conscription” when what the Ukrainian state conducts is mobilization in the context of the war. The fringe radical pro-government site Pesti Srácok even came up with a fictitious story according to which the Ukrainian army was in such dire need of people that it was surrounding markets, almost “kidnapping” dozens of ethnic Hungarians in a “brutal forceful conscription campaign”. This fabricated story, in particular, was picked up by the Russian news agency, TASS, and republished by the most-read Russian news sites. Presenting it to Russian readers served the goal of picturing Ukraine as an aggressor that repressed not only ethnic Russians but ethnic Hungarians as well.
There is no known institutional relationship between the propaganda machines of the Russian and Hungarian regimes. They nonetheless use each other’s materials as needed.
There is no known institutional relationship between the propaganda machines of the Russian and Hungarian regimes. They nonetheless use each other’s materials as needed. This shows that illiberal disinformation ecosystems cater to, support, and legitimize each other. Governments use this to demonstrate their international embeddedness to their domestic audience and to justify their existence. It is thus of crucial importance to look at how these complex ecosystems are mutually reinforcing across borders.
Dorka Takácsy is a research fellow at Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID) and a Marcin Król Fellow at Visegrad Insight.
The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.
Photo credit: Joshua Miranda, Pexels