Evidence is presented in the Jobbik espionage case

Shortly after the news broke on May 14 that Péter Polt, the Hungarian chief prosecutor, had asked Martin Schulz, president of the European Union, to suspend the parliamentary immunity of Béla Kovács (Jobbik), Fidesz moved to convene the Hungarian parliamentary committee on national security. The committee is chaired by Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), whose plate is full of his own problems. Two weeks ago a picture from 1992 of the 18-year-old hooded Molnár was made public. Magyar Nemzet accused the socialist politician of being a skinhead in his youth. I guess it was just tit for tat: the opposition was outraged over Fidesz’s support of a Jobbik candidate for the post of deputy president of the House.

A couple of days ago I expressed doubts about the charge of espionage in the case of the Jobbik MEP. First of all, we know only too well the Fidesz practice of accusing their political opponents of some serious crime that years later turns out to be bogus. The acquittal comes far too late; the political damage is instantaneous. After the 2010 election wholesale accusations were launched against socialist politicians and now, four years later, most of the accused have been acquitted. Among those court cases one dealt with espionage, but because the case was considered to belong to the rather large realm of state secrets we still have no idea about the charges or the evidence. Early reactions from Ágnes Vadai (DK), who at that point was a member of the parliamentary committee, indicated that both bordered on the ludicrous.

Since I consider the national security office an arm of the Orbán government that is often used for political purposes, my first reaction was to be very skeptical of the charges leveled against Kovács. Until now, Viktor Orbán concentrated on the left (MSZP, DK, E14-PM) and ignored Jobbik. Now that everybody predicts a resounding success for the extremist Jobbik party at the polls on Sunday, it seems that Orbán decided to turn his attention to his adversaries on the right. After all, he has the magic two-thirds majority in parliament and doesn’t need Jobbik.

There is no question of Kovács’s pro-Russian sentiments. He spent the larger part of his life in that country, and he is an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin and his vision of Russia and the world. In Brussels he is considered to be a “Russian lobbyist,” and I’m sure that he represented Russia more than Hungary in the EP. At least some of his speeches indicate that much. But espionage is something different from making propaganda at the behest of a country.

Viktor Orbán, never known to worry about linguistic niceties, is capitalizing on the situation. On Friday night on MTV he equated espionage against the European Union with treason. He claimed that “the Hungarian public is familiar with the treasonous activities of internationalists who don’t consider the nation important, but that a party that considers itself national (nemzeti) would want to send such people to Brussels where they are supposed to represent Hungarian interests is really unprecedented.”

Let’s analyze this sentence. First of all, he is accusing some (actually, probably most) left-wing politicians of being traitors, while suggesting that there might be more spies among the proposed representatives of Jobbik to the European Parliament. I’m sure that Viktor Orbán means every word he says in this sentence. He is convinced that everyone who disagrees with him and criticizes him is not only unpatriotic but also a traitor; if it depended on him, he would gladly jail all of them. Also, there are signs that Béla Kovács might be only the first target. Perhaps the grand prize would be Gábor Vona himself.  As it is, Lajos Pősze, a disillusioned former Jobbik member, claimed on HírTV that Vona is Moscow’s agent.

In any case, the parliamentary committee on national security was called together this morning. Both Béla Kovács and Gábor Vona were obliged to appear before the committee. It seems that everyone who was present, with the exception of Jobbik member Ádám Mirkóczki, is convinced on the basis of the evidence presented by the national security office that Béla Kovács committed espionage.

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczy, and Béla Kovács Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

Gábor Vona, Ádám Mirkóczki, and Béla Kovács after the hearing
Source: Index / Photo; Szabolcs Barakonyi

What did we learn about the proceedings? Not much, because the information will be classified for a number of years. We do know that the Hungarian national security office has been investigating Kovács ever since 2009 and that they have pictures and recordings of conversations. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) found the evidence convincing but added, “there is espionage but no James Bond.” Apparently, what he means is that the case is not like espionage concerning military secrets but “an activity that can be more widely defined.” Bernadett Szél (LMP) was also impressed, but she added that “a person can commit espionage even if he is not a professional spy.” These two comments lead me to believe that we are faced here not so much with espionage as with “influence peddling.” On the other hand, Szilárd Németh (Fidesz), deputy chairman of the committee, was more explicit and more damaging. He indicated that “Kovács had connections to the Russian secret service and these connections were organized and conspiratorial.” Attila Mesterházy, who was not present, also seems to accept the story at face value. The liberal-socialist politicians all appear to have lined up. Interestingly enough, not one of them seems to remember similar Fidesz attacks on people on their side that turned out to be bogus. Yes, I understand that Jobbik is a despicable party, but that’s not a sufficient reason to call Kovács a spy if he is no more than a zealous promoter of Putin’s cause.

Ágnes Vadai (DK) used to be the chair of the committee when she was still a member of MSZP and thus has the necessary clearance to attend the sessions. Since she had to retire from the chairmanship due to her change of political allegiance, she asked admission to some of the more important meetings of the committee. Normally, she receives permission. But not this time. Her reaction was:  “We always suspected that Jobbik has reasons to be secretive but it seems that Fidesz does also.” She promised to ask the Ministry of Interior to supply her with documents connected to the case. I doubt that she will receive anything.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the political philosopher whose views I normally don’t share, wrote an opinion piece that pretty well echoes what I had to say about the case three days ago. He calls attention to a double standard. The liberal journalists view Fidesz’s attack on the left-liberal political side with healthy skepticism, but this time they seemed to have swallowed the espionage story hook, line, and sinker. Kovács is most likely an agent d’influence but no more than that. TGM–as everybody calls him–considers the “criminalization of political opponents the overture to dictatorship,” which should be rejected regardless of whether it is directed against the right or the left.

Interestingly, Jobbik’s pro-Russian bias finds many adherents in Hungary. Apparently, whereas in most of the Eastern European countries the public is anti-Russian, especially after the Ukrainian crisis, Hungarian public opinion is divided. And the right-wingers, including some of the Fidesz voters, consider Putin’s intervention in Ukraine at the behest of the ethnic Russians justified. This sympathy most likely has a lot to do with the existence of Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.

How will Orbán achieve both of his goals–to ruin Jobbik with a Russian espionage case and at the same time defend Russia’s support of autonomy in Ukraine? He may well succeed. His track record when it comes to threading the needle is very good.

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18 comments

  1. The creation of the Molnar’s story, about his allegedly skinhead youth, was according to TGM a classic secret service action (aka kompromat). It sounds plausible.

    444.hu wrote about the interesting tidbit that Gabor Stier who is the editor for the international section at Magyar Nemzet (Fidesz’ mouthpiece daily paper) was a classmate of Kovacs in Moscow at IMO. The class probably included only 3-4 Hungarians in any given year, so they must have been rather close, 444.hu says they attended courses together. Stier is, unsurprisingly, also a hard-line Russia supporter and practical West-hater, by the way.

    Also by the way, Ferenc Szaniszló (the weirdo extreme-right wing anchor at Echo-TV), was also born in the same year as Kovacs and also went to IMO and graduated in the same year (1986 or around that, so they also must have known each other).

    I don’t know about the admission process at IMO, but it seems the students were well-selected.

  2. Stefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy since February 2010 also graduated from IMO in 1986. I wonder if there is an IMO yearbook or something like that.

  3. Is anyone else surprised that this blogpost is different from the usual tone of this blog? This post seems pro-Jobbik, and pro-Putin. Very unusual for the blog. And B. Kovacs is just a simple lobbyist / influence peddler?

    That may be so but then why did Bernadett Szel (LMP) say that the case is very convincing, and she is surprised that Jobbik did not yet withdraw Kovacs’s candidacy. MSZP also said that there is a case to be made here. Why, why why do these opposition parties say this if the case is nothing but hot air? What are they gaining by defending the authorities?

  4. why why why
    Explanation is very simple. The methods used by Orbán and his ilk are those of an authoritarian state and not those used by a democracy. If the case of Kovács Béla is one of espionage, why did Magyar Nemzet and Szilárd Németh talk about it? Why did they not start procedure? Why does the mafia always come out with such accusations against political competition short time before election?
    Democrats do not advocate authoritarian measures against anybody.
    Why why why is Fidesz not fighting against the ideology of Nazi Jobbik?

  5. The use of the term espionage-spying has only one reason in this case.

    That is because it is much easier to imagine the “spy lurking in the shadows” than a person who is ‘only’ a traitor (hazaáruló), which is a separate offense. Legally from what we know from the news, hazaárulás would be a much more fitting criminal act (even though some of the legal conditions may be difficult to fulfill if his target was the EU and not Hungary directly) and it is punishable by many more years so it would be a more potent tool for the prosecution.

    However, the term traitor has been overused (mostly by Fidesz and Jobbik) and is overly legalistic. So it does not create a big enough bang. There are 100 more spy movies than movies about simple betrayal (without spying, obtaining information). It is much more imaginative. These cases are mush more about the media than about the real substance (i.e. what information Kovács may have allegedly obtained).

    Kovacs was keeping business-like contacts with a foreign government (Russia) in order to advance Russia’s interests — though not necessarily against the interests of Hungary (as set by Fidesz, hich became very anti-Western and Russia-friendly). This is not nice.

    From what Heti Válasz and other sources wrote it is reasonable to assume that Kovács was recruited by the Hungarian intelligence at one point in his career. Then at one point he chose to work for another government (Russia). There might not have been a big conflict of interest because he thought he was working on the EU level, on the EU-Russia relations, but still it seems that he switched allegiance at one point. This might have been one of the (many) reasons for the actions taken against him.

    I guess Kovacs is now in a bind. If he flees to Russia, he admits that he was a “spy”, if he stays the legal procedures lasting for many years and in camera will be rather risky. He may eventually be acquitted, but since the judges are Fidesz-loyal and in national security cases the judges anyway lean towards the government, his chances are bad.

    Anyway, this is a fascinating story and this is what Fidesz wanted, people to be fascinated. Fideszniks played the spying card many times and it always worked before. It just does. So I guess it will this time again.

  6. The next turn of event will be when Jobbik will suddenly find out that Kovacs is not that Kovacs and is really jewish, i.e. he was a spy within Jobbik on behalf of you know who and intent to destroy Jobbik from within.

  7. BearTram, such a luck Jobbik had only once when it became known that Csanád Szegedi qualifies to emigrate as a Jew to Israel.
    By the way Lovas István qualified too, but his request to emigrate to Israel was rejected by the state of Israel if the article of ES about subject matter was correct.

  8. @Karl: Lovas did receive his passport, but he did not eventually go to pick it up. At least that is how I remember the ES story.

  9. Eva, it seems to me that there is a big difference between the spying accusations leveled against leftists and these , against Kovács. The ones against the leftists seem to be manufactured out of whole cloth, i.e.there was no prior indication that those accused were acting against either Hungary or the EU. Anti-Semites and Euro-skeptics might disagree, but the accused were not displaying beliefs that were strongly supportive of another country. With Kovács, everyone can easily believe that he would be willing to work with Russian intelligence services, since he has the connections and readily admits support for the Russian government. He and others would argue that such support is better for Hungary, so he is not a traitor, but recent events have amply shown that EU interests rarely coincide with Russian interests, so it’s very believable that he would cross a line here or there (or everywhere).

    Since Orbán wants to do what he can to make himself seem that he is pro-EU (at least outside of Hungary), he is willing to damage his reputation in Russia and among Jobbik voters, in order to bolster his EU credentials during a time of anti-Russian sentiment in the EU, while also hurting Jobbik’s chances in the EU elections. He probably already cleared this with his Russian contacts, who are happy that he is an otherwise pro-Russian voice in the EU at this crucial time.

    When Molnár says that Kovács was no James Bond, and Szél said that he wasn’t a professional spy, that probably means that he passed on sensitive information that was available to MEPs, and/or conspired with Russian intelligence to do something more than just legally promote Russian interests. Remember, all this has to pass muster with the European Parliament, otherwise Orbán just makes himself look foolish and damages what’s left of his pretense to democratic principles, while not actually being able to prosecute Kovács (who will retain his immunity).

    While I applaud you for defending the rule of law and assailing double standards, no matter how odious the person being attacked, in this case it seems pretty clear that Kovács is actually doing something illegal, unlike most of those accused of spying by this government.

  10. Django: Lovas did not deny that he received an Israeli immigration permit, and that this permit was withdrawn because of his anti-Semitic writings.

    Source:
    “Lovas sérelmezi továbbá, hogy az adásban azt állították, “palesztin állampolgárságért folyamodott”. Nem cáfolja viszont, hogy már megkapott izraeli bevándorlási engedélyét Izrael Állam az újságíró antiszemita írásai miatt viszszavonta, mint ahogy Tasnádi azon állítását is szó nélkül hagyta, miszerint A Viktor cím? könyv vitáját azért kellett módosítani, mert a tervezett időpontban – tizenkilenc másik jobboldali újságíróval együtt – Bali szigetén tartózkodott kormánypénzen.”
    http://hetek.hu/belfold/200208/ki_kicsoda

  11. Kerényi
    May 19, 2014 at 9:43 pm Edit
    “The creation of the Molnar’s story, about his allegedly skinhead youth, was according to TGM a classic secret service action (aka kompromat). It sounds plausible.
    444.hu wrote about the interesting tidbit that Gabor Stier who is the editor for the international section at Magyar Nemzet (Fidesz’ mouthpiece daily paper) was a classmate of Kovacs in Moscow at IMO.”

    Interesting. I knew about Szaniszló but Stier is new to me. I checked Füle. He also graduated in 1986. By the way, Füle’s name. Is it originally Hungarian?

  12. Googly wrote: “While I applaud you for defending the rule of law and assailing double standards, no matter how odious the person being attacked, in this case it seems pretty clear that Kovács is actually doing something illegal, unlike most of those accused of spying by this government.”

    But the problem is that we will never know whether Kovács is really guilty or not since it was classified as state secret. I think until 2042.

  13. I hope some day all this classifications as state secret will be controlled by judges. I am afraid this will take some time. But one day Hungary will be again a democratic state.

  14. Eva wrote: “But the problem is that we will never know whether Kovács is really guilty or not since it was classified as state secret.”

    True, but the thrust of your post seemed to be that you were disappointed in the opposition politicians from MSZP and LMP, who went along with Fidesz’s accusations after seeing the evidence. I would say that the public rarely actually sees evidence presented in open court, and so has to rely on those who are there in the court to determine if the evidence is authentic and compelling. In this case, it’s not just members of MSZP or LMP who have seen (or will see) the evidence, but also the European Parliament. I doubt that all of those people would go along with Fidesz just to damage one MEP from Jobbik, especially since most of Jobbik’s voters will probably feel that since the evidence was kept secret, it is most likely fabricated to attack Jobbik.

    Besides, Vona will now be able to say that the law was only technically broken, and Kovács did what he did as a way of making Hungary stronger. We all know how Jobbik supporters think, and Kovács will now become a martyr who, like Yulia Tymoshenko, will be released from prison once the corrupt Fidesz oligarchy is overthrown. Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, ad nauseam.

  15. To googly, Yes, I was disappointed that they complain about the Fidesz methods only when the objects are they themselves. You cannot say that criminalization of political opponents are wrong but only in certain circumstances. I expected some healthy skepticism from these politicians as some of the left-liberal newspapermen decided that the timing is more than suspicious.

    Yes, he maybe guilty, but I’m certain that whatever he did was not espionage in the ordinary meaning of the word.

  16. Eva: Yes the timing is very convenient, but it just tells me that Fidesz have been sitting on this information for a while waiting for the right time. It doesn’t make the accusations themselves any more or less plausible.

  17. Another interesting detail in the story that only a recent change in the criminal code (on espionage against the EU institutions) makes it possible to charge Kovacs. Until this January there was no law based on which they could have prosecuted him, according to HVG.

    http://hvg.hu/itthon/20140516_kemkedes_eu_ellen_btk_kovacs_bela

    This is again typical Fidesz tactic… a quick change in the law used against a political opponent. Such practice should worry ALL opposition parties, regardless whether the charges stand or not.

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