We are not paid agents of Russia, we do it out of conviction
Koba lives in an Eastern Hungarian city and as a civilian he works at the local government, but in the online world he is the “editor in chief” of one the most important Hungarian pro-Kremlin online initiatives, the We stand with Russia (Kiállunk Oroszország Mellett) Facebook page. Although this was also Stalin’s pseudonym in the Communist Party, the Hungarian Koba is a radical nationalist, a Jobbik activist and a committed monarchist, the proponent of the restoration of the Hungarian monarchy. The Facebook page has 24 thousand followers today. Just like the majority of the site’s former and current admins (administrators, handlers), Koba edits the page without revealing his real name.
A study found in last April that over ninety websites and blogs fitting into the concept of Russian information war were operating in Hungary at the time. In the majority of cases it is hard to decide whether they do it on their own or they are part of a larger disinformation network. No similar summary and investigation of Hungarian-language Facebook sites has been produced so far. Therefore, discussions on the operation of the site, the views of the editors and their motivation with current or former editors of We stand with Russia in the past few months was very enlightening to us. Naturally, we also inquired about their contacts with the representatives of Russia or – if they do not have any – about critical points through which Russians are able to influence “useful idiots”.
From the far-right to the far-left: the team is ready
Koba founded We stand with Russia a few years ago together with an unknown figure with ties to Serbia, introducing himself with a Serbian name – although some editors of the site believe this name is only an alias. He later left the editorial team because of a conflict and then disappeared. Since then the admins have come and gone frequently, they quarreled and made peace with each other. The site currently defines itself as “the Eurorealist circle of Hungarian friends of Russia” and recently it changed its name to I stand by my opinion (Kiállok a véleményem mellett) and then to We stand by the multipolar world order – We object to democracy export (Kiállunk a többpólusú világrend mellett – Elutasítjuk a demokráciaexportot).
Soon after the page was founded the self-defined Jobbik supporter recruited Máté Kovács, the deputy chief secretary of the anti-fascist, far-left Hungarian Youth Community Organization (Magyar Ifjúsági Közösség Szervezete) to be an editor of the site. Thus, from the very beginning it was obvious that the ideological roots of pro-Russian individuals supporting the occupation of Crimea and then the Russian intervention in Syria reach both the far-right to the far-left, the common point being their anti-West views.
But the team of We stand with Russia is not restricted to extremists. One former editor of the site – let’s call him Ernő –, who joined the team in early 2014, was firmly considered to be a Fidesz supporter by other admins, although he says he is not a member of the party. “For a short time, I was an intern at a state institution, but that had nothing to do with the site” – he added.
Ernő told Index the site’s admins hide their real names partly because they feel they might be threatened. “Many could find such a politically committed site displeasing; thus, the editors would potentially endanger themselves. The topic and “mission” of our site was and still is highly divisive in Hungary. Even among my own friends’ opinions on the topic are extremely diverse” – he said and firmly asked us not to publish his real name.
In addition, we sat down to talk with an editor who works under his real name despite the fact that he worked for the Foreign Ministry for decades, up until 2013.
The propagandist who became disillusioned
The words of Ernő revealed he now regrets ever having been an admin of the page. “There is a reason why I am not proud of this nowadays. Since then the international environment has changed or at least we know more. What we saw in early 2014 was that a group came to power in Ukraine that viewed the rights and autonomy of ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia with suspicion. As Western powers stood behind the new government in Kiev and were hostile towards Hungary as well, e.g. because of the media law, Moscow seemed to be the only counterweight” – this is how he explains joining the site.
Later, Ernő broke up with the site, which he says is because he realized the Kremlin itself wants to gain influence in Europe.
Russia supports meaningless fake sites, encourages populist and anti-Europe/EU parties, its hackers influence elections. Thus, today it is obvious that being Russia’s friend is problematic.
– explains Ernő how he sees things today. His experience shows that those spreading Russian propaganda consisting of fake news often – probably in most cases – support the Kremlin’s geopolitical goals willingly without any compensation.
What Ernő realized after some time has also been discussed in numerous articles and analyses. After the crisis erupted in Ukraine Russian propaganda became more prevalent, fake and forged news constitute a part of active measures used by Russian secret services. Today, several countries try to defend themselves against these practices. The Czech Republic established a new unit with 20 members who started working in January as a division within the Ministry of Interior to counter Russian propaganda. Hungary is not planning to do such a thing – which is understandable in light of the fact that the government is rather supportive of and not averse to spreading Russian propaganda. Magyar Idők (Hungarian Times) and other pro-government news sites readily use fake Russian news, but elements of Russian propaganda – including views similar to that of Alexandr Dugin – find their way into Viktor Orbán’s speeches, either willingly or unwillingly.
The Russian connection
Writing and dispensing Russian propaganda is coordinated through a centralized system, every element of it connects to the Kremlin’s policies and rhetoric consistently. The phenomenon is not new, they widely used similar tools in the Soviet Union as well. The fake news stories are usually generated by unrecognizable fake websites using anonymous sources with the hope that they make their way into mainstream media. To Moscow it does not matter whether the sites serving their interests are operated by their own men or “useful idiots” – actually it is exactly anonymity that allows them to infiltrate web pages edited by “useful idiots” at some point.
There are Hungarian propaganda sites that are undoubtedly controlled by Moscow, including the portal Hidfő, which now runs under a Russian domain, established by Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal (Hungarian National Front, MNA), the organization of the murderer of a policeman, István Győrkös. Győrkös had an active relationship with the undercover agents of Russian military intelligence. After it was founded, the MNA-run Hidfő posted extremist content. Then, Győrkös handed the site over to the Russians, who changed the website’s profile and today it explicitly focuses on disseminating Russian propaganda. Later it was revealed that a “journalist” of the site with deep knowledge of military affairs met Jobbik’s Márton Gyöngyösi twice.
Former editors of We stand with Russia say they had no connections to Hidfő and Győrkös, but one former administrator claimed once an individual joined the team of editors who was openly a Hungarist (Hungarian neo-Nazi) and claimed he was in contact with MNA. However, it was unclear which branch of the MNA the Hungarist belonged to, as the organization split up in 2012. Moreover, a Russian man living in Hungary, K.S. also appeared among the site’s admins. When we investigated K.S.'s background we found that the person is described even by his friends as having a fierce temper and he was previously convicted of vandalism by a Hungarian court.
Ernő told Index they themselves never tried to establish contacts with Russian diplomats. “One leftist editor wanted to coordinate with the Russians in one concrete case, but the majority voted against it, thus no Russian connection was established. We were really cautious not to turn the site into someone’s playground” – he claimed. Contrary to this, another former editor who holds far-left views recalls the events completely differently. His story is that the editors wanted to establish a news site, but the plan did not come to fruition.
Ernő admits that “the establishment of a news site came up several times” among the editors, but “this did not have anything to do with the Russians either”. According to a former admin, Russian diplomats did not take the Facebook page seriously. He recalled an occasion when he spoke to Russians during a wreath laying ceremony. He mentioned to Russian diplomats that they could give the Facebook page an interview, but he was politely rejected because they would only give an interview to a news site, not to a Facebook page.
Although the majority of the page’s editors, writers are in their 20s, there is an older ex-diplomat in their ranks as well: Sándor Csikós, who translated most of the Russian-language content of the We stand with Russia site. Csikós was bought into the team by the anti-fascist, leftist Máté Kocsis. Later the ex-diplomat was inactive for a short period, then he returned only to leave the team once more a few weeks ago.
A old-school communist from the Foreign Ministry
Csikós earned his degree from MGIMO in Moscow and found work in the Foreign Ministry, where he served between 1974 and 2013, the year he retired. He was sent abroad four times: twice before the democratic transition in the ‘80s to Ulaanbaatar and Kiev, and twice after 2000 to Almaty and Chisinau. At his last posting in Moldova he worked as a deputy head of mission between 2010 and 2013. In the ministry, he worked as a rapporteur in various departments. “Based on his education, language knowledge and work experience he could have an insight into topics connected to Russia” – wrote the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (KKM) when we inquired about Csikós.
The retired diplomat immediately emphasized that no one is paying him:
If some believed that, I must state well in advance that we are not the paid agents of Russia, they do not pay us anything. What we do we do out of conviction. If someone from the Russian side wanted to pay for my ‘services’ I would not accept it, as my honor is not for sale.
Csikós considers himself to be an old-school communist who interprets 1989 and the “betrayal” committed by those around him as a tragedy. In the ‘90s he took part in the campaign against NATO membership, since the accession of Hungary to the military alliance he considers the country to be beyond repair. He says that since ’89 Hungarian foreign ministers have all been Altanticists alike and while the current Orbán government is pragmatic in its relations with Russia, he considers Viktor Orbán generally “anti-Russian and anti-Soviet” to this day. He says one must not think too much into Vladimir Putin’s visit in February, the Russians know very well that Orbán’s policy is essentially to try to find and maintain the right balance between the two sides.
Csikós has been a pensioner since 2013 and besides writing publications for far-left websites and taking part in events with a similar profile he dedicates his days to translating reports on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine that match the narrative of the separatists from Russian to Hungarian and posting them on Facebook. Due to a quarrel he left the We stand with Russia page and he now operates his own group. “We will not change the world at all” – says Csikós about his 300-400 member strong Facebook Group Je suis Donbass! Je suis Odessa! For a while he was not interested in the events in the Donbass, but after the attack on Charlie Hebdo he started this group “so we do not only offer solidarity to the French paper, but to the hundreds of thousands of dead people there as well”. Csikós states around half the members are Hungarians and the other half are Russians. “I consider it a success to see new and new people turn up, but I would write these even if nobody reacted because for me this is a question of justice. Sometimes I get letters thanking me for my translations, because people say they are finally able to learn the truth” – he adds.
If someone concludes that Csikós agrees with Putin’s policies to the fullest, they would be wrong. Csikós admits he has become disillusioned with Putin “three times” since the end of 2014 for he believes they are not supporting the separatists of Eastern Ukraine enough. He considers Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a friend of the West and a traitor, even. Because of this his opinion on Lavrov is especially negative, which he even tried to explain in an interview to a Russian TV station operating in Crimea in 2015 – however, the host quickly changed the topic to something else.
Csikós was later not granted a visa by Russia when he wanted to travel to Luhansk, he has not been able to comprehend why ever since and he resents it. Our discussion also revealed that the ex-diplomat really believes the separatist states of Eastern Ukraine are autonomous from Russia and the Russian Army does not take part in the fight with soldiers and weapons on the separatists’ side. Therefore, he is unable to understand why Russian authorities did not allow him to travel from Russia to the “independent” Luhansk, as they do not have authority over Eastern Ukrainian territory.
The news translator and ex-diplomat generally uses Easter Ukrainian separatist sources, and he has connections there through the internet. At the same time, he admits that fake news are being spread: “60-70% of what the Russians claim is true and sometimes even I fell for it. However, there is absolutely zero truth to what the Ukrainian side says, because they accuse others of doing what they are actually doing.” Csikós told us he is sure his group had already been infiltrated by “Western agents” and he holds reservations against the American-owned Facebook anyways, thus he had not even been on Facebook before 2013.
They quarelled a lot
Csikós left the We stand with Russia group after a quarrel, he had a conflict with the team’s far-right elements. According to reports, these conflicts were relatively frequent. Former admins told us that not even all editors knew or know each other personally. “There are editors who have never met each other. The majority of the earlier members of team are familiar with each other, but not all of them. The editor in chief was responsible for selecting editors, but he discussed it with all admins. We can say that the editor in chief was the ‘boss’ ” – said Ernő. This is important for us to find out to what extent outsiders – in this case the Russians – could influence the contents of such a page. It is certain that the admins quarreled a lot about the content, partly this is why many left the site, including Ernő, for example.
“There were mainly ideological debates between the editors. The radical leftists wanted to emphasize content mirroring their views constantly. In addition, they did not try to be unbiased, they only wanted to write about the Russian viewpoint. Part of the team of editors was right-wing, including me, the other half was rather extreme left-wingers” – remembered Ernő. He claims that every editor had the authority to post content on their own initiative and if someone had a problem with certain pieces the editor in chief and other editors could correct it.
After a while Ernő felt that Russian pressure on them was too high. He said the “realization that we cannot lopsidedly stand up for the Russians” was needed for his departure. “There were too many quarrels. Besides the editor in chief I was the most supportive of efforts not to allow extremist content subservient to the Kremlin’s interest on the site. In addition, I was afraid of internal attacks and intrigue” – he told us.
However, another editor remembered Ernő as someone emphasizing the viewpoint of Fidesz. This admin is firm in his belief that Ernő had connections to the leadership of Fidesz and he received orders from there, but Ernő refuses the allegations. He says he is not a member of any party, including Fidesz.
Actually, the fact that ideological conflicts stir up confusion in the system is not averse to the desires of the Kremlin. Contemporary Russian propaganda has no ideology and neither does Russia. “The Kremlin borrows a little from everything. In this way, the system produces a large number of “small propagandas”, each of them targeting a specific audience. The more messages the better; this multiplies the confusion. Unlike in the Cold War, when Soviets largely supported leftist groups, a fluid approach to ideology now allows the Kremlin to simultaneously back far-left and far-right movements, greens, anti-globalists and financial elites” – writes Yehven Fedchenko in one of his analyses, who is the leader of StopFake.org, a website created to debunk Russian propaganda.
Ernő has left the Facebook page, his words suggest he would avoid being involved if he could revert time. “It was an interesting lesson. Ten years ago I considered the USA to be the point of reference, because they are ‘the leaders of the free world' ”, Reagan deconstructed the Berlin wall and stupid stuff like that. Then I was disappointed in them and I believed we have to stand behind everything that weakens them, but most importantly behind Putin. Since my views became much clearer on Russia as well there is no new idol. I realized that great powers must not be seen through the lens of extreme obsequiousness, the right behavior is limitless doubt and criticism in any direction and at any time. Hungary is a member of EU and NATO, this is a given situation, but I believe this is all right. But because of this we should not forgive the USA for the spying scandal or Iraq, but the Russians should not be viewed as wild animals either.”
This article was originally published in Hungarian. Translated by Patrik Szicherle.
(Illustration by szarvas / Index)