Foreign spies meddled in Hungary’s election to smear a non-candidate: George Soros.
Reporting from Budapest this week, it was impossible not to notice that, in the run-up to Sunday’s election, the streets of the Hungarian capital have come to resemble a far-right Facebook page, crammed full of posters and billboards that use the crude visual language of internet memes to attack the enemies, real and imagined, of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
The most obvious example is a fictional group portrait of four opposition leaders being embraced by George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist that Orbán’s government has accused, without evidence, of planning to destroy Hungary by flooding the country with Muslim migrants.
The Photoshopped image, paid for by Orbán’s ultranationalist ruling party, Fidesz, puts wire-cutters into the hands of the four politicians and accuses them of plotting to tear down the country’s border fence, erected during the 2015 migrant crisis.
In reality, the opposition has not suggested removing the fence, or opening the country’s borders to immigrants, and none of the parties are supported by Soros.
The obsessive focus on Soros, an 87-year-old Hungarian-American Jew described by Orbán’s government as a puppet master secretly plotting to seize control of the country, is bizarre given that the billionaire’s Open Society Foundations provide just $3.6 million a year to Hungarian rights groups and independent media. The prime minister’s office, by contrast, spent in excess of $50 million in public money last year on advertising that attacked the philanthropist, according to government data obtained by Atlatszo, a nonprofit investigative site. (Atlatszo relies mainly on crowdfunding from readers, but has also received a grant from the Open Society Foundations.)
The implicit threat invoked by the ruling party’s poster of the fence is what voters imagine lurking, unseen, behind it: the hordes of foreign Muslims who Soros is supposedly eager to settle in Hungary, creating what Orbán has described as an existential threat to the nation. “Our future will be decided in this election,” the prime minister warned in a television interview this week. “Either we will remain a Hungarian country, a country that we know and love and in which we feel at home; or others will come here, and a country with a mixed population will come into being — with different cultures, parallel societies, and all the related consequences that we can see in Western Europe.”
As the Hungarian journalist Anita Komuves explained this week, Orbán’s party, and its allies at pro-government news channels, have not shirked from inventing evidence to support their claims that Muslim immigrants have wrought havoc in western European nations.
One prominent example is a viral video of two young men attacking an elderly woman in a church, which has been viewed nearly 300,000 times in the past month on the Facebook page of a pro-government news site. The video, 12 seconds of surveillance camera footage on a loop, shows the woman being robbed and punched in the head as off-screen voices shout, “Allahu Akbar.” On-screen titles ask, in Hungarian, “Europe 2017: Is this what you want?”
In fact, as reporters at the Hungarian news site hvg.hu discovered, the video is a hoax. The footage was recorded not in Europe last year but in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2015; the attackers were not Muslim immigrants but local gang members, and the soundtrack is entirely fake.
Last month, one of Orbán’s ministers, János Lázár, traveled to Austria, to narrate a Facebook video report on a district of Vienna which, he claimed, had become “dirty” and crime-ridden in the past 20 years, since “white Austrian Christians moved out and immigrants took over.”
Unfortunately for Lázár, his claims about Favoriten, Vienna’s 10th district, were quickly debunked by an Austrian journalist, Bernhard Odehnal, who grew up in the area and explained to Hungarian reporters who dared to enter the supposed “no-go zone” that it had been populated by immigrants since the 19th century and had recently become attractive to young Austrian families too.
To make matters worse, Klemens Himpele, the head of Vienna’s municipal Department for Economic Affairs, Labor and Statistics, pointed out that the district is particularly popular with Hungarian immigrants, who first came to the city in large numbers as refugees in 1956, fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
What makes the intense fear-mongering about immigrants particularly strange is that the Hungarian government’s own statistics show that there are currently almost no migrants or refugees in the country.
Hungary currently restricts the entry of asylum-seekers at its borders to just two per day. In all of 2017, the police detained just 10,415 people for entering the country without permission, and only 1,300 were granted asylum.
Orbán’s “Hungary First” rhetoric, and the anti-migrant ad campaigns that support it, taps into a reservoir of fear instilled in conservative Christian voters by the memory of nearly 400,000 foreign Muslims who spilled across the country’s borders in 2015. Very few of those refugees and migrants, however, aimed to stay in Hungary; almost all of them made their way, on foot if necessary, to Austria and Germany.
Another poster found on billboards across Budapest this week, paid for by the government using public funds, promotes Orbán’s legislative proposal to crack down on Hungarian nonprofits that provide aid to asylum-seekers and refugees. The draft legislation, referred to as the “Stop Soros” bill by Orbán’s spokesperson Zoltán Kovács, would require non-governmental organizations that, in the government’s view, “support illegal immigration” to undergo national security screenings, pay a 25 percent tax on donations from abroad, and possibly be banned from coming within eight kilometers of the country’s borders with Serbia and Ukraine, which are not members of the European Union.
That poster also employs the language of memes, placing a large, red stop sign over a photograph of refugees, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, marching into Slovenia in October 2015, after Hungary closed its borders to them.
As Hungarians quickly realized, the image was familiar to anyone who has taken part in Europe’s charged debate over immigration, since it was previously used — to the distress of the photojournalist who took it — in a virulently xenophobic poster unveiled by the British politician Nigel Farage in the final week of the Brexit campaign in 2016.
Márta Pardavi, who leads the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, one of the human rights groups that Orbán’s government has threatened, noted last week that dissidents in Budapest have “corrected” some of the posters by adding the Hungarian word for hate, gyulölet, to transform them into pleas to “Stop Hate.”
Hungary’s Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the government was banned from putting up any more of the “Stop” posters before Sunday’s election because the campaign violated electoral laws in using public funds to support the ruling party’s political message and offered no vital public information.
Despite horrifying Budapest liberals, the poster campaigns and racist videos are clearly aimed at motivating Orbán’s base of conservative, nationalist voters to head to the polls on Sunday, when they are expected to deliver him a decisive victory against a divided opposition. However, the fact that many of the posters are paid for with public funds to educate the public to the supposed threat posed by Muslim migrants is a sign that the propaganda campaign is unlikely to subside after the election if Orbán is returned to power.
The wave of anti-migrant, anti-Soros advertising flooding the nation’s airwaves, websites, and streets has even become a campaign issue. Earlier this week, Gábor Vona, the leader of the far-right opposition party, Jobbik, said that he would maintain the crackdown on immigration, but put an immediate end to spending on anti-immigrant ads, should he be elected. Vona promised to shut down the prime minister’s cabinet office, called “the propaganda ministry” by the opposition, and use its budget to finance education instead.
Without an election to fight in 2017, Orbán’s government had staged two “national consultations,” in which citizens were urged to return questionnaires mailed to every eligible voter asking if they supported the prime minister’s anti-immigrant stance.
The first questionnaire, titled “Let’s Stop Brussels,” asked voters if they agreed with the government’s opposition to EU policies, including the resettlement of 1,300 refugees in Hungary, which Soros was supposedly backing. The philanthropist and financier was featured in extensive advertising to drum up support for the consultation.
The second questionnaire described in detail an entirely made-up “Soros Plan,” constructed by taking three sentences written by the billionaire philanthropist over the course of two years out of context and weaving them into a conspiracy theory worthy of Glenn Beck.
According to a translation of the second questionnaire published by the Budapest Beacon, citizens were asked to read seven false claims about Soros and then check one of two boxes, expressing their approval or disapproval of his “plan.”
1. George Soros wants Brussels to resettle at least one million immigrants per year onto European Union territory, including in Hungary.
2. Together with officials in Brussels, George Soros is planning to dismantle border fences in EU Member States, including in Hungary, to open the borders for immigrants.
3. One part of the Soros Plan is to use Brussels to force the EU-wide distribution of immigrants that have accumulated in Western Europe, with special focus on Eastern European countries. Hungary must also take part in this.
4. Based on the Soros Plan, Brussels should force all EU Member States, including Hungary, to pay immigrants 9 million Hungarian forints [about $35,000] in welfare.
5. Another goal of George Soros is to make sure that migrants receive milder criminal sentences for the crimes they commit.
6. The goal of the Soros Plan is to push the languages and cultures of Europe into the background so that integration of illegal immigrants happens much more quickly.
7. It is also part of the Soros Plan to initiate political attacks against those countries which oppose immigration, and to severely punish them.
Although more than 8 million questionnaires were mailed to every voting-age Hungarian citizen, just 2.3 million voters took part in the “Soros Plan” survey. Unsurprisingly, almost all of those who bothered to read and return the forms were government supporters who were horrified by the supposed scheme.
Public service announcements and posters urging voters to take part in the “Soros Plan” consultation featured photographs of the Jewish philanthropist smiling and the tag line, “Let’s not give Soros the last laugh.”
The ad campaign, targeting a Hungarian-born Jew who survived the rule of Hungary’s wartime leader, Miklós Horthy — an anti-Semite whose government aided in the deportation of 437,402 Hungarian Jews to Nazi death camps in just two months in 1944 — prompted a public rebuke from Israel’s ambassador in Budapest last July. Just one day later, however, Israel’s Foreign Ministry formally retracted the criticism at the urging of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been sharply critical of Soros and the government watchdog groups he funds in Israel.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu called for an investigation of the New Israel Fund, an American group that supports civil society projects in Israel, which he said, “receives funding from foreign governments and figures hostile to Israel, such as the funds of George Soros.” The New Israel Fund has opposed Netanyahu’s efforts to deport thousands of African asylum-seekers who had managed to make it past Israel’s own border fence.
Soros, as a supporter of Israeli and Palestinian rights groups, has also become a hate figure to ultranationalist Israelis, who have recently bonded with ultranationalist Europeans around a shared hatred of Muslims.
Last year, Netanyahu’s son even shared an anti-Semitic Facebook meme of Soros secretly controlling Israeli critics of his father that used imagery popular with neo-Nazis.
Support from Israel’s ultranationalist government has been an important shield for Orbán, who was criticized for praising Horthy in a speech last year, in which he called him one of the “exceptional statesmen” who had helped Hungary to survive the turbulent period between the wars.
Asked this week in an interview about the perception that the government’s campaign against the Jewish financier seemed to draw on racist tropes from the 1930s, Zoltán Kovács, Orbán’s spokesperson, replied that the attacks on Soros, “if he’s a Jew,” could not possibly be anti-Semitic, since they were echoed by Netanyahu.
Still, as Zselyke Csaky, a researcher who studies the state of democracy in Central Europe, noted, it is not hard to find clearly anti-Semitic depictions of Soros as a puppet master in the Hungarian media.
As the Politico correspondent Lili Bayer reported last month, the final weeks of the election campaign were also marked by a series of mysterious reports in newspapers in Budapest and Jerusalem based on secretly recorded conversations with Hungarian rights activists and people who have worked with or been supported by Soros.
Although Magyar Idok, a government-controlled newspaper, has described the recordings as the work of an undercover journalist and published excerpts from them under the label “Soros Leaks.” The audio appears to have been gathered by foreign intelligence operatives, from a private firm or state agency working in support of Orbán’s re-election campaign
Between December and March, The Intercept has learned, at least 10 people who either run Hungarian nongovernmental organizations or have worked with or been supported by Soros were approached by intelligence operatives posing as representatives of nonexistent businesses who requested meetings. Those who agreed to meet were then secretly recorded — in Vienna, Amsterdam, and New York — by intelligence operatives using fake names who probed their subjects for dirt on Soros or suggested unethical or illegal behavior.
As part of the operation, BuzzFeed News reported this week, the operatives created fake websites for the companies they said they represented, all of which were taken down after the meetings.
Judging by the evidence of the excerpts from the four recordings made public in recent weeks, the operation would appear to have been a failure. However, the way the secret recordings were presented to the Hungarian public — by government officials and pro-government journalists who referred to them as proof of a far-reaching Soros plot against Hungary — less discerning voters might well have gotten the impression that the targets of the stings had admitted to wrongdoing.
Curiously, the first outlet that the intelligence operatives chose to publish the results of their spying was an English-language Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post. That recording, which was described by the Israeli paper’s reporters in a March 15 article headlined, “How a Soros-Funded NGO Lobbied One EU Country Against Another,” was made in January, during a meeting in Amsterdam between Balázs Dénes, a Hungarian lawyer who is the executive director of the Soros-backed Civil Liberties Union for Europe, and a man posing as Ali Mahmoud Alrabie, a Middle Eastern representative of Orion Venture Capital, a company supposedly based in Bahrain.
According to the Israeli reporters, Dénes said that his group hoped to press the German government to lobby Hungary to repeal a 2017 law that requires nongovernmental organizations that receive more than 23,000 euros a year from outside the country to register with the government and add the label “organization receiving foreign funding” to their websites and publications.
The European Union would appear to need little prodding from Dénes on this matter, however. Six weeks before he met the operative posing as Orion Venture Capital representatives in Amsterdam, the European Commission had already asked the European Court of Justice to consider overturning Hungary’s NGO law.
Several leading Hungarian rights groups have also declared that they will refuse to register under the law, which they argue is unconstitutional and unnecessary, since their funding is already transparent.
Dénes also reportedly explained that his group was set up, with funds from Soros’s Open Society Foundations, to “control the EU.” While this was reported as an explosive admission by the Jerusalem Post, and seized upon by Orbán’s office, it appears to have been the result of some confusion between how that word is used in English and in languages like French, where it means something more akin to “monitor.” (After each stage of the Tour de France, for example, cyclists are obliged to undergo drug testing in a process known as “doping control.”)
Asked in an interview last year what the idea behind his organization was, Dénes described it as a watchdog monitoring the EU. “A few years ago we realized that there is a lack of one strong visible Europe-wide human rights watchdog,” Dénes explained. “Of course there are international global organizations covering the EU and some networks that are working at the EU level. And in most EU countries, especially in Central European countries, you find well budgeted organizations and well-staffed watchdogs. On a national level they do a good job, but if it’s about the EU and lobbying in Brussels they don’t really know how to do it.”
Still, Kovács, immediately claimed that the recording proved that Dénes had been hired “to lobby against the interests of his own country to advance the ‘open society’ agenda of a man who has no democratic mandate and no accountability to any citizen.”
Among the curious aspects of this secret recording being provided to the Jerusalem Post, rather than to a Hungarian publication, is that the reporters offered no explanation at all as to who had made the recording or why it was given to them. It is also odd that neither of the reporters who wrote the article appears to have any expertise in foreign affairs. One of them, Lahav Harkov, covers the Knesset, Israel’s parliament; the other, Jeremy Sharon, is a religious affairs correspondent who once served in the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Unit.
On March 20, excerpts from a second recording were published in Magyar Idok by Zsolt Bayer, a xenophobic television host who was a founding member of Orbán’s Fidesz party and had just organized a massive pro-government rally in Budapest to celebrate Hungary’s national holiday on March 15th. According to Bayer, the recording he obtained of András Siewert, director of Hungary’s Migration Aid, was made by an “undercover investigative reporter” he did not name and caught the aid worker discussing illegal activity.
Siewert, however, called a press conference at Migration Aid’s office the next day during which he said that the recording of his voice was edited in a misleading manner and had been made during a meeting in January with a mysterious man who called himself Grigori Alexsandrov and spoke English with what sounded like an Israeli accent.
Standing before a pile of stuffed animals for the children of migrants, Siewert also revealed that he had secretly recorded and photographed two meetings with Alexsandrov. He had done so, he said, on the advice of Hungarian state intelligence officials he had approached before the first meeting because he suspected that the man who invited him to Vienna might be a spy.
Siewert showed reporters photographs of Alexsandrov and an unidentified woman he met at the Intercontinental Hotel in Vienna, along with a series of emails from their correspondence bearing the logo of the operative’s phony firm, Smart Innotech.
Among other things, Siewart said, the man he met had asked him, “Are there any ties between your organization and George Soros?” (In fact, there are none.)
Siewert later published a document proving that he had reported the approach from Alexsandrov to the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal, Hungary’s secret service, on January 3, a week before the first meeting.
Migration Aid director András Siewert just published paper he signed at #Hungary intelligence headquarters on January 3 reporting on being approached by suspicious foreign individuals. Same people's recordings ended up in Orbán-controlled site. Background: https://t.co/gs2tuJNm4z pic.twitter.com/EJpvVTmVWn— Lili Bayer (@liliebayer) March 29, 2018
Earlier this week, Siewert posted nine audio clips from his own recordings of one of the meetings on YouTube. At one point, the man going by the name Alexsandrov could be heard trying, unsuccessfully, to bait the aid worker into agreeing that it might be necessary to “focus on political deeds” to “try to change” Hungary’s government. Siewart demurred, saying, “I think it’s not our job.”
“Maybe instead of providing blankets or tents” to the migrants, Alexsandrov then suggested to Siewart, it would be better if “you organize demonstrations.”
In an interview this week at his office in Budapest, Orbán’s spokesperson Zoltán Kovács said that the government’s threats to shut down NGOs was justified because the secret recordings showed that the rights groups and aid workers were covertly engaged in politics. He also expressed no concern about the fact that the identities of the undercover operatives who made the recordings had not been made public.
On Thursday, Hungarian investigative journalist András Dezso suggested that the operation was most likely carried out by an Israeli private intelligence firm. Without speculating on which firm might have been retained, or by whom, Dezso mentioned the work of Black Cube, the company that used former Mossad agents to spy on Harvey Weinstein’s accusers and journalists investigating his behavior.
On Sunday, Dezso removed all references to Black Cube from his article in response to a request from the firm’s lawyer. The journalist told The Intercept that he stands by his reporting that the operation to smear Soros and the Hungarian aid workers appears to have been carried out by “a company with close ties to Mossad and many ex-spies on its payroll.” Black Cube is not the only such firm.
In response to a request for comment, a representative of Black Cube denied that the firm had played any role in the Hungarian operation.
In an appearance before a British parliamentary committee last week, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie testified that the company had once hired Black Cube to hack the medical records and email of a Nigerian presidential candidate. Black Cube, which has offices in Tel Aviv, Paris, and London, adamantly denied that accusation.
The same day that Siewert was blowing the whistle on the attempt to entrap him, Magyar Idok published another report by the Fidesz member Zsolt Bayer, this time based on a secret recording of Tracie Ahern, a former executive with the Soros Fund Management, in which she is heard speculating that the philanthropist has about 2,000 people working for his charitable arm.
In a comment posted on Twitter, Jonathan Birchall, a former journalist who is now an Open Society spokesperson in New York, mocked the amateurish quality of the covert recording and pointed out that the audio of Ahern’s comments published Magyar Idok had quite clearly been heavily edited by splicing together fragments of her remarks.
How NOT to fabricate a covert recording. A textbook case from Hungary's Magyar Idok newspaper. Move bits around, ignore the muzak, don't worry about the cuts, and slap a transcript on it to fool your readers. Classy. #bogusleaks pic.twitter.com/2siK09hSWe— Jonathan Birchall (@Birchall_Jon) March 26, 2018
There was another curious aspect of the recording of Ahern’s conversation. After she heard the audio that was published, Ahern said that the other voice was not that of the man she had met at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York City on February 8. That man, who went by the name Pierre Remy, had a French accent. And yet, when the spliced excerpts from their conversation were published on the Hungarian newspaper website, his voice had been replaced by that of a man who sounds not French, but Israeli.
In fact, the Open Society Foundations employ about 1,700 people worldwide — but that failed to stop Bayer, and then Orbán’s spokesperson and the prime minister himself from falsely claiming that Ahern had revealed that there were 2,000 “mercenaries” working for Soros inside Hungary.
“According to a recently uncovered statement by Tracie Ahern,” Kovács wrote, “the billionaire financier commands a quasi-mercenary force of at least 2,000 people, tasked with achieving three goals: bringing down Prime Minister Orbán’s government, dismantling the border fence, and promoting immigration to Hungary.”
“We know exactly, by name, who these people are and how they operate in order to turn Hungary into an immigrant country,” Orbán said last week on a state-run radio channel.
Update: April 8, 2018, 5:44 p.m.
This article was revised after publication to report that the Israeli private intelligence firm Black Cube had denied playing any role in the spying on Hungarian aid workers, and that the investigative journalist Andras Dezso had removed all references to Black Cube from the article he published last week in Index.hu.