National Security Office

A Russian spy allegedly found in Jobbik’s European parliamentary delegation

It was about a month ago that I wrote a post on “Jobbik and the Russian connection: The role of Béla Kovács.” I suggest taking a look at that piece by way of background to today’s post. I ended it with the following sentence: “I assume that, given his background, the Hungarian national security office is keeping an eye on Kovács.” Well, as it turned out, only a few days before I wrote this sentence the office turned to Chief Prosecutor Peter Polt to instigate proceedings against Kovács on charges of espionage for Russia. But being an ardent supporter of Russia in the European parliament where he represented Jobbik does not necessarily mean that he was a spy. In fact, the more I read about the case the less I think that Kovács is guilty of the crime he is charged with.

As usual, Fidesz’s timing is impeccable. As we all know, the European parliamentary election will be held on May 25, and Jobbik is positioned to do extremely well at the polls. But Magyar Nemzet‘s revelation of the espionage charge may siphon off some Jobbik support.

It seems that the Fidesz top brass has known for months that the national security office was looking into Béla Kovács’s activities in Brussels. Several government actions support this hypothesis. For instance, last fall there was a belated addition to the new Criminal Code that extended the scope of espionage to include EU institutions. Prior to that, the charge of espionage could be leveled only against those who committed such a crime either against Hungary or NATO. As of January 1, if Kovács spied on the European Union he could be sentenced to a jail term of between two and eight years. One can’t help thinking that this change in the Criminal Code was not a coincidence.

More recently, on May 11, Peter Polt asked the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, to revoke Kovács’s parliamentary immunity. Péter Polt should have known that the current parliamentary session had already ended and that there will be no meeting of the European Parliament between now and May 25, the day of the election. Therefore, Kovács’s case couldn’t be investigated by the European Union’s legal affairs committee and voted on by the members of the parliament before the election.

Moreover, Fidesz was well apprised of what was going on in the prosecutor’s office. On May 11, the same day Polt wrote to Schulz, Antal Rogán referred to a Jobbik MEP “who spends more time in Russia than in Budapest or in Brussels.” As usual, Fidesz and the prosecutor’s office worked hand in hand.

Kovács himself made no secret of his Russian sympathies. In fact, he made several speeches in the parliament scolding the European Union for not wanting to have closer relations with Russia and for not embracing Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union. He repeatedly urged closer cooperation with Russia, which led his colleagues in Brussels to call him “the Russian lobbyist.” Such open crusading would be strange behavior from a cloak-and-dagger spy.

Béla Kovács who according to Jobbik is so important that Vice President Joe Biden himself asked Viktor Orbán to prevent his work in the European Parliament Source

Béla Kovács, who according to Jobbik is so important that Vice President Joe Biden himself asked Viktor Orbán to prevent his work in the European Parliament

It would also be utterly foolish of a Russian spy to use Russian citizens as parliamentary aides, but this is exactly what he did when he hired two Russian youngsters to work for him. Apparently, they were  rarely seen but received a monthly salary of 1,400 euros. One of them was a nephew of his wife who is a Russian-Austrian citizen.

The Orbán government has a penchant for using the national security office for political purposes. Let us not forget the charges of espionage leveled against Lajos Galambos, former head of the national security office, and György Szilvásy, minister in charge of the secret service. We know very little about the exact charges because the proceedings were held in camera and were declared to be a state secret. But what we learned about them unofficially indicates that the charges were trumped up. A Népszabadság editorial put it this way: “We will never learn the truth about Béla Kovács. But we know all about the methods of Fidesz.” They seize every opportunity without a moment’s hesitation and use the theoretically neutral police, secret service, and prosecutor’s office. The “cases” are lined up, waiting for an order from above: we now want a picture of the hooded Zsolt Molnár or some real estate fraudster. “Oh, espionage and not for the United States but Russia? Too bad, but it will do.” Of course, Kovács still might be a spy, but “it is more and more difficult to believe the national shepherd when he cries wolf.”

Béla Kovács naturally denies the charges: “I have never been a member of any secret service, Hungarian or foreign. I never cooperated with them, nor have there been attempts to recruit me on their part.” By now, all kinds of stories are circulating, including that his Russian-born wife, Svetlana Istoshin, worked for the KGB. Something he also denies.

Fidesz naturally cast a wide net. The parliamentary committee on national security will be convened and, according to the chairman, the socialist Zsolt Molnár, they want to question Gábor Vona as well.

How much this will hurt Jobbik’s chances at the polls no one knows. Index yesterday ran an article with the title “Kágébéla might be Jobbik’s undoing.” The “Kágébéla” of course refers to his alleged ties with the KGB. Or at least this is what some of his colleagues in the party called him. In Jobbik he was mostly valued for the amount of money he managed to get for the party. Whether this money came from Russia or not, we have no idea. Without a doubt, there are many questions concerning Kovács’s past, but I am not at all sure that spying is one of his sins.

Former Gyurcsány officials convicted of espionage

According to one of the definitions, a “show trial” is “a public trial of a political offender conducted chiefly for propagandistic purposes.” In Hungarian there is a similar word for a show trial, “kirakatper” (kirakat = shop window), but more often than not it is called “koncepciós per,” which in my opinion better describes the nature of such trials. The accusers strive during the investigation to achieve a certain end; they have a concept that guides their procedure and they force the facts to support the charge.

The show trial I’m going to talk about today isn’t a show trial in the literal sense of the word for the simple reason that the court proceedings were conducted in secret. We will not know any details for a very long time because the material gathered against the accused and the transcript of the trial will not be made public until 2041.  Moreover, a gag order was imposed on the accused. If they reveal anything whatsoever related to the case they will be charged with divulging “state secrets,” which may mean another trial and another sentence. It is a true Catch-22 situation.

In the summer of 2011 four people were accused of spying. These so-called spies were all in one way or the other involved with counterintelligence. So, the charge read, men who were supposed to defend the country against spies were actually spying themselves and passing on information to a foreign power. Four people were accused: Lajos Galambos, head of the National Security Office between 2004 and 2007; Sándor Laborc, his successor between 2007 and 2009; György Szilvásy, minister without portfolio in charge of national security; and someone who is known only as László P.

A right-wing Internet news site, Alfahír, was ecstatic at the possibility that “the shammeses of Gyurcsány might be going to jail after all.” In case you don’t know, a shammes is a sexton in the synagogue, but in Hungarian the word also signifies a lowly subordinate; it has a derogatory tinge. Magyar Hírlap, even before the verdict became known, imposed their own verdict: “Spies in the Debrecen Courthouse,” heralded the paper this morning.

Indeed, the case was sent to the Military Court in Debrecen although under normal circumstances it should have been tried in Budapest. Surely, Tünde Handó must have had good reason to send the case to Debrecen. And indeed, she should be satisfied with the results. Lajos Galambos and György Szilvásy each received jail sentences of two years and ten months, Sándor Laborc a suspended sentence of one year, and to everybody’s surprise László P. was found not guilty.

László P. was the head of a computer security firm that was hired to make the National Security Office’s computer system safe. There were too many leaks and Laborc suspected that the leaked information was ending up in the hands of the Fidesz leadership. It was Szilvásy who recommended László P. He didn’t know him personally but  heard that he was good at what he did.

espionageThose Fidesz apparatchiks who were entrusted with finding some kind of an excuse for getting even with Galambos-Laborc-Szilvásy, who were trying to put an end to Fidesz spying, must have been delighted when they discovered that László P.’s mother was a Russian whom his father married when he was a university student in the Soviet Union. Moreover, one of László P.’s  associates was “also Russian speaking,” as Magyar Nemzet discovered. Thus the plot, the concept, was hatched upon which a case could be built. Spying for Russia via László P’s firm. Yet László P. was found not guilty. I leave it to my readers’ imagination to hypothesize what might be behind this very surprising outcome.

So, let’s see what the charges were. Galambos was charged with and convicted of espionage, Szilvásy with abetment, and Laborc with complicity. Since everything surrounding the trial is secret, it is impossible to figure out what these people were really accused of.

Spying is certainly a very serious offense. According to ¶261§(1) of the Hungarian Criminal Code, someone who gathers intelligence for a foreign power will receive a sentence of from two to eight years. ¶261§(2) states that if the information passed to a foreign power happens to be top secret then the sentence will be harsher, between five and fifteen years. In this case Galambos couldn’t have revealed top secret information to anyone. As far as Szilvásy is concerned, the charge most likely was that he ordered Galambos to commit a crime. As for Laborc, we have not a clue what the charge of complicity actually means or in what way he was supposed to be complicit in this alleged affair.

The case has a long history. In the last two years hundreds of articles have been written and all sorts of conspiracy theories hatched. Many of them turned out to be sheer speculation. Unfortunately we are still speculating due to the secrecy that surrounds the case. I suspect that the decision was made early in the game to make the trial secret because the charges were bogus. I remember that sometime in late 2011 or early 2012 the parliamentary committee on national security matters convened to hear what the prosecutors had to say about this spy case. At that point Ágnes Vadai, still a member of MSZP, was a member of the committee. Of course, she couldn’t say much about it, but she indicated that the whole affair was unbelievable. Laughable, I think she called it.

One thing is sure. The National Security Office discovered that Fidesz had hired a company, UD Zrt., headed by former national security officers, to spy on the National Security Office. The telephone conversations that the National Security Office recorded proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Fidesz was setting up a kind of shadow national security office of its own. For a little while it looked as if the people involved on Fidesz’s side, László Kövér and Ervin Demeter, were in serious trouble. But if you have the prosecutor’s office in your pocket, a lot of problems can be solved.

Moreover, Viktor Orbán doesn’t forget. Once in power he decided to jail those people who tried to expose Fidesz’s illegal dirty tricks. I’m sure that originally they were hoping to implicate Ferenc Gyurcsány, but that proved to be impossible. His old friend György Szilvásy could, however, be dragged in because he recommended  László P.’s firm to the National Security Office. One could ask: why didn’t the Office itself take care of the problem? Because the top brass in the agency didn’t trust their subordinates. Some of them, they believed, were in the pay of Fidesz.

Perhaps a few years ago one could say that such speculations about Fidesz couldn’t possibly be true, but by now we’ve seen enough of the party’s mafia-like ways to understand that their earlier spying on the National Security Office was true to form. And what do you do with your political enemies? Just ask Putin.