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BUDAPEST — Welcome to the EU capital of Russian disinformation.
To read and watch state-linked news in Hungary these days is to catch a steady stream of Kremlin-friendly framings, arguments and outright conspiracies about the war in Ukraine.
The CIA helped install the current Ukrainian government in power. The U.S. prodded Russia into attacking Ukraine.
Ukrainian arms may be sold to “terrorists” in France. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is behaving like Adolf Hitler during the waning days of World War II.
There’s no evidence for any of this, of course. But what’s remarkable is that these arguments are coming from pundits, TV stations and print outlets linked to Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, whose leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has publicly joined with Western allies in condemning Russia over its invasion. He has supported massive EU sanctions crippling Russia’s economy and even said NATO troops would be allowed to deploy to western Hungary.
Within Hungary, though, his party is often sending a much different message. From state-owned media to pro-government outlets that are propped up with taxpayer-funded advertising, pundits linked to Fidesz are promoting conspiracy theories about the conflict and relativizing Russia’s aggression.
At the same time, refugees are appearing at Hungarian train stations and local media outlets are reporting on the war, generating an outpouring of sympathy for Ukrainians fleeing for their lives. On a recent afternoon, a makeshift humanitarian center at a Budapest train station was crowded with church groups and volunteers handing out food, medicine and supplies to refugees.
The blend has created a somewhat bewildering atmosphere in a country where some citizens still remember firsthand how the Soviet Union brutally crushed the 1956 Hungarian revolution. And it has all emerged less than a month before Orbán faces a general election, making it an unexpected flashpoint in the campaign.
On Sunday evening, hundreds of opposition supporters gathered in front of the state media headquarters in Budapest, protesting in the biting cold against what they describe as a flurry of Russian propaganda on state TV.
“Broadcasting Russian propaganda,” one homemade poster said, “makes you complicit in war crimes.”
Budapest’s Kremlin narratives
In the first days of the war, state-owned channel M1 repeatedly invited on Georg Spöttle — a conspiracy theorist known for researching UFOs — to provide expert analysis of the war.
Russian forces took over Chernobyl, Spöttle said, so that “it won’t be attacked,” he said once.
Zelenskyy’s call for Ukrainians to volunteer to bear arms is “very dangerous,” he said, claiming Ukrainian weapons could be sold to “terrorists” in France. He even compared the Ukrainian leader’s decision-making to Hitler’s move in the last months of World War II to conscript men not already serving in the military.
Media analysts said this presence of Russian narratives is widespread in Hungarian state media.
“I think the Hungarian public media is the No. 1 broadcaster of the Kremlin propaganda in Europe right now, since RT and Sputnik are shut down,” said Ágnes Urbán, an analyst at Mérték Media Monitor.
Hungary’s state media has rejected this criticism.
“The left is attacking the independent Hungarian public media again,” the state media’s leadership wrote in a recent statement. “Now they want to prescribe what is in the news in connection with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.”
Beyond state media, Fidesz-affiliated outlets and pro-government social media groups have also promoted a conspiratorial and at times derogatory narrative about Ukraine’s democratically elected government.
Flagship pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet was the one promoting the CIA conspiracy in its pages this past weekend.
And other Fidesz-linked figures have been blaming Washington, not Moscow, for the war.
“The United States — for military, political, economic and security reasons — arranged a challenge against Russia through Ukraine,” said Gábor Bencsik, a pundit with close Fidesz ties.
“Russia, in my opinion, gave a tragically bad response to this challenge — but the challenge began from there,” he said on a talk show over the weekend on Fidesz-linked channel HírTV.
“I am not anti-American,” Bencsik insisted. Under former U.S. President Donald Trump, he said, “the world went toward peace … unfortunately, now America once again has leadership that goes toward confrontation.”
Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute think tank, said the invasion of Ukraine has led Hungary’s leadership to reassess its foreign policy.
“I think Hungary realized this is something totally new — and NATO and EU unity is key,” he said.
Nevertheless, “the pro-Kremlin disinfo and government information ecosystem cannot really be separated,” Krekó noted, adding that “there is a huge wave of relativization” and some Fidesz figures “hate the West more than they hate Russia.”
But the pro-government media narrative has gone beyond merely criticizing American foreign policy.
An article originating in a pro-government website and republished in multiple Fidesz-affiliated outlets accused, by name, an American diplomat in the region of working to “destabilize” Ukraine. More broadly, the piece said the U.S. had “provoked the Russians.”
Asked about anti-American content and whether the personal attacks have been brought up with Hungarian authorities, the U.S. embassy in Budapest declined to comment on the specifics.
But in a statement, the embassy did stress the importance “in a democratic society for members of the media to uphold high standards of journalism,” adding that the principle “is even more important in the present moment.”
The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.
While Hungary’s election is merely weeks away, it remains unclear how much Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and accompanying wave of disinformation — will impact the vote.
The ruling party is competing against an opposition alliance that brings together parties ranging from liberals and greens to conservatives and former far-right politicians.
While Orbán had originally intended to build his campaign around a “child protection” law — a set of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative changes — the public’s attention is now on the war next door.
Even before war broke out, Orbán saw a possible conflict as a challenge for his reelection campaign.
One politician from the ruling Fidesz party, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the issue came up during a party meeting in mid-February.
When Orbán spoke of “possible risks” for the upcoming election, the politician said, “he mentioned war as one of the most unpredictable elements.”
After Russia’s invasion, the prime minister pivoted to a strategy of emphasizing that Hungary should stay out of the war. Orbán and his allies have repeatedly said that the opposition wants to send troops to Ukraine — a claim that is not factually correct.
Unlike many other EU countries, Budapest has declined to provide Kyiv with bilateral military assistance. And despite Hungary’s support for punitive measures targeting Russia, a government minister this week blamed a historic fall in the Hungarian currency on “Brussels sanctions.”
The quick changes in government communication, combined with a stream of war images from Ukraine, Kremlin media narratives and refugees appearing in Hungary have simply left many befuddled.
“Hungarian public opinion is confused,” said Krekó. “But the majority blames the war on Russia.”
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