Over the past few weeks, a series of noteworthy developments have transpired in Hungary’s public sphere, which was crucial not only for the disinformators themselves but also for the narratives they spread. This report will offer an in-depth exploration of the following key happenings:
- The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and its illustration of the burgeoning “alliance” between foreign populist figures and Prime Minister Orbán;
- The increasing influence of nationalist rhetoric by the Fidesz government in Hungarian domestic politics, exemplified by the Hunnia case;
- Recent narratives and declarations in relation to Ukraine and the ongoing Russian invasion.
CPAC Budapest: The Fidesz Government’s Narrative Parade
The event. On May 4-5, Budapest hosted the second annual Conservative Political Action Conference in the imposing Bálna Hall on the Danube. As the CPAC became a showcase of disinformation narratives, an analysis of the speeches and the overall course of the conference can easily provide insight into the current trends in the narratives of the pro-government Fidesz supporters and their populist or nationalist allies.
The significance. According to his own words, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seeks to establish Hungary as a “right-wing incubator where we experiment with the future of conservative politics.” Given the ideological alignment with Pro-Trump factions in the U.S. and elsewhere, Orbán has crafted a political agenda that attracts ultra-nationalists. His opportunistic rhetoric and engagement with like-minded international individuals helped alleviate Hungary’s continued detachment from transatlantic democracies. This strategy was nowhere more evident than at CPAC Hungary, where the recruitment of right-wing radicals bolstered the Fidesz faction. With their allegiance, Orbán is broadening Hungary’s soft power into niche areas of European politics where the mediocrity of ultranationalist conservatism dwells.
The guest list. This year, CPAC has shown its ability to convene a more extensive and diverse assortment of self-proclaimed conservatives from around the world. Speakers at CPAC Hungary 2023 were prominent far-right figures, Trump supporters, along with defeated nationalist-populists and radicals whose political careers are in decline. The profile of Orbán’s allies calls for attention, given the potential for a political resurgence among the seemingly defeated. In plain terms, the last month has highlighted Hungary’s role as a platform for populists disseminating pro-Russian disinformation. The roster of speakers included Andrej Babiš, the recently defeated Czech presidential candidate, and Slovenia’s Janez Janša. They shared the stage with Kari Lake from Arizona, known for his unsubstantiated claims of a stolen gubernatorial election resounding among former President Donald Trump’s loyalists. The guest list also included Mark Meadows, Trump’s former Chief of Staff, a figure remembered for his failures during the January 6 insurrection. Furthermore, “Pizzagate” conspiracist Jack Posobiec was among the Trumpian propagandists given VIP treatment in Budapest.
The narratives. Orbán launched a broadside against Western democracies from the outset. He compared liberalism to a “biological weapon” attacking the West as a “nation-destroying virus” developed in “progressive liberal laboratories” offering an antidote by rejecting “migration, self-assigned gender, and war” (Russia’s against the Ukrainian people). This proposed ‘remedy’ he says, “You can take freely, it just needs a little local adaptation, and it will work anywhere.” The Prime Minister then concluded with a challenge: “The two main shrines of modern democracy, Washington and Brussels, are still in liberal hands, let’s make sure that changes,” concluding with his plea that Donald Trump returns to the White House.
Speeches delivered by the delegation of Trump supporters were also well-represented. As indicated, Tucker Carlson appeared via video, praising American attendees in Budapest for their bravery in light of his claimed surveillance by the U.S. State Department.
In addition to the international supporters of Viktor Orbán’s ideologies, other leaders of the Fidesz party were not far behind in echoing their leader’s perspectives. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó held that “In Brussels, they don’t think like normal people.” Hungary’s Minister of Construction and Investment, János Lázár called the liberal opposition “impotent”, while Defense Minister Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky named the enemy as „atheistic Soviet Bolshevism and its mutations“. In concluding the series of statements, Minister of Justice Judit Varga did not miss the opportunity to present Hungary’s controversial anti-LGBTI law as an example to follow.
The selection. Entering the “NO WOKE ZONE” in Budapest was not easy.
A decisive measure was implemented to prohibit journalists, including those from center-right publications such as The National Interest (U.S.), from personally interacting with event speakers and attendees. Journalists were barred or booted from an international gathering where state leaders actively participate.
Hunnia. The rise of the Hungarian far right?
The CPAC event underscored the alignment between Orbán’s rhetoric and the international demographic that skews toward the radical right. Nevertheless, it is crucial to also examine the domestic political context within Hungary. The convicted in the Hunnia case – one of the most infamous criminal trials in Hungary’s recent history, were pardoned by President Katalin Novák as a purported gesture of benevolence on the eve of Pope Francis’s visit to Budapest. Among both open society and disinformators, Hunnia was certainly one of the most frequently discussed events during April and even May.
After Orbán’s discriminatory anti-LGBT laws, nationalist ‘Greater Hungary’ narratives and the campaign against “foreign influence”, Hunnia is another drop in the sea. The trial focused on György Budaházy, who was re-sentenced to up to 17 years for the terrorist activity of the ultranationalist type. He and his accomplices were found guilty of systematic, organized acts of political violence targeting members of the then-socialist government and Hungary’s Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities. Their orchestrated acts of violence, including planned bombings and shootings, were subsequent to the 2006 violent protests that culminated in the downfall of the Gyurcsány government. These riots were primarily fueled by ultranationalists with whom Orbán sympathized. The decision to pardon these convicted individuals sends a clear message, offering reassurance to Hungary’s radical right.
Moreover, other figures within Fidesz’s leadership have engaged in the propagation of anti-Left slanders, branding critics as Orbán has strategically leveraged this climate of discontent and animosity to solidify his power base. Therefore, narratives very similar to the moods of 2006, about the ‘betrayal’ by the ‘sold-out left’, have been quite frequent in the last month.
Statements from among the radicals highlight the alarming situation. László Toroczkai, the leader of the Our Homeland Movement, followed the released Budaházy with a champagne toast, “If we come to power, we will imprison the real terrorists: Gyurcsány‘s Left and their ANTIFA friends! And there will be no Ukrainians threatening Hungarians on our soil!“ Budaházy himself expressed his gratitude to the Fidesz-supported president, affirming that now liberated, “He will be able to thank them in the service of the country.“
The ‘immediate peace’ narrative
The recent development of the “Peace Narrative” cannot be missed in any overview mapping the last month’s events. Undoubtedly, the war in Ukraine and the narratives surrounding the Russian invasion continue to be highly prevalent topics of disinformation within Hungary. Among the various long-term tactics employed by Orbán in the conflict, aimed at bolstering his opportunistic behavior, the prevalent emphasis on peace talks and an immediate ceasefire stands out prominently. Nevertheless, the alleged protection of lives, health and resources has a deeper meaning when considering the broader context.
Orbán’s recent speeches, in which he stated that “Ukraine cannot win the war”, were widely discussed. Some sources even suggest that Orbán’s intentions may involve preventing Ukrainian victory. While these statements require careful translation and interpretation, it is worth noting that such defeatist rhetoric towards a fellow EU ally, questioning or discouraging support, is unique among European leaders.
The controversial statement by Orbán can be interpreted rather as suggesting that “there is no chance of a military victory in the war against Russia”. The Fidesz narrative argues that it is better to start peace talks immediately, as the war is deemed to ultimately end in a Russian victory. With such rhetoric justifying the rejection of EU support packages, Orbán is indirectly discouraging Ukraine’s efforts to liberate its territories occupied by Russia. It is reasonable to assume that the Hungarian government is aware that peace negotiations under current conditions could easily legitimize the results of the invasion.
Such an intention is also confirmed by the “peace video” showing the horrors of the war. The video employs strong emotions to exert pressure, possibly urging Kyiv to pursue immediate diplomatic action and – conclude a truce. However, no mention of the possible withdrawal of Russian troops from the occupied territories is made. On the contrary, Ukraine is depicted without Crimea, indicating its exclusion as a part of the country on the map presented.
The narrative presented, as well as the video, suggests that only negotiations involving the United States will be effective. The “talks” have to be done immediately as the Ukrainian army would allegedly face significant losses if they were to initiate a counterattack. Even though all these statements are used quite often by Fidesz supporters they seem to be looking for new frontiers lately.
In the face of Hungary’s continued isolation, Viktor Orbán is finding new allies among conservative radicals and defeated populists. The CPAC conference showed that European and American nationalists can find common ground in Budapest, a capital becoming a showcase of the aforementioned policies disseminating disinformation of any kind. With support from abroad, Orbán is extending his vision when taking advantage of the current crisis. The democratic, pro-European governments of Central Europe as well as our Transatlantic allies should thus bear in mind who occupied the front row in Budapest when Orbán gave his speech.
Secondly, Orbán’s latest proceedings have certainly received considerable applause among the ranks of the far-right radicals as words spoken in the company of like-minded foreign allies quickly turn into action. The political decision to granting a pardon in the analyzed Hunnia trial is just one example of serious cases worthy of condemnation. Limited to the recent past, the report could continue with the eternal symbolism of ‘Greater Hungary’, the legislation discriminating against the LGBTIQ+ community or the dismissal of opposition left-wing journalists.
Besides further radicalizing Hungarian society, The Fidesz government contributes to the disruption of stability in the region or in the alliances of which Hungary is a member. Orbán’s “peace-making” approach towards Ukraine, which ultimately serve Russian interests, has the exact same effect. Moreover, Orbán could benefit from the negotiations proposed by him as a mediator, thus gaining additional room to promote his interests on the European stage. One way or another, the recently seen escalation in speeches suggests that with the approaching Ukrainian counter-offensive, Orbán seems to be hardening his rhetoric. So, should there be the same response?
To conclude, the last weeks have shown us that even in countries most critical of Orbán, his ideas can find fertile ground. Therefore, it is appropriate to ask: What if his audience manages to gain power in other states? The events in Hungary covered by this report serve as an important memento.