Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban with Russian President Vladimir Putin
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban with Russian President Vladimir Putin

Leaning on proxies: Hungary turning into Russia’s spy hub in EU

The flash drive contained stolen personal information about senior figures and staff at the Ukrainian domestic secret service SBU and the Ukrainian military intelligence service GUR, as well as sensitive data on Ukrainian army bases, weapons and logistics.

in late November 2022, Ukrainian special forces arrested a suspected Russian agent at the Ukraine–Hungary border. The man had been attempting to smuggle secret information into EU member state Hungary on a flash drive that he had allegedly concealed in his anus.

The flash drive contained stolen personal information about senior figures and staff at the Ukrainian domestic secret service SBU and the Ukrainian military intelligence service GUR, as well as sensitive data on Ukrainian army bases, weapons and logistics. As it turned out, the spy had intended to hand over the drive to the Russian Embassy in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

Investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi recently wrote about the case for the website Balkan Insight. He has been researching Russian espionage activity in Hungary for quite some time now. Panyi fears that Budapest could become a centre of Russian espionage within the EU. Over 50 accredited diplomats are currently working at the Russian Embassy in Budapest, while just over 20 are working in Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava put together.

“It is well known that many agents pose as diplomats because it gives them immunity; in other words, it means they cannot be prosecuted by the authorities of the host country,” Panyi told DW. But staff at the Russian Embassy are not the only ones to enjoy immunity; staff at the International Investment Bank (IIB), which was founded during the Soviet era, do, too. Three years ago, the bank moved its headquarters from Moscow to Budapest. This means that it has nothing to fear from Hungary’s financial regulation authority and judiciary and doesn’t need to worry about criminal investigations. When the move was announced, Hungary’s opposition voiced its suspicions that the government in Budapest was supporting the development of a KGB network.

The reason for this was that the head of the IIB, Nikolay Kosov, hails from a family of spies: His father had been a KGB resident in Budapest and his mother was once described by the Russian state-run news agency TASS as “one of the most remarkable spies of the 20th century.” 

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, EU and NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia all announced they would be ending their involvement in the IIB. Hungary did not follow suit. Moreover, since the invasion, all EU member states — with the exception of Hungary — have been willing to expel Russian spies posing as diplomats. Szabolcs Panyi told DW that there are many cases that confirm that the Russian intelligence services are active in Hungary and that the Hungarian authorities have noted this without protest.

One example he gave was the case of Bela Kovacs (nicknamed “KGBela”), a former MEP for the right-wing Jobbik party. Kovacs was reported by the Hungarian domestic intelligence service in April 2014 but was only charged with spying for Russia in April 2017. It took eight years for a final judgment to be passed, by which time Kovacs had moved to Moscow. 

Research conducted by Panyi and his associates also reveals that Russian hackers have repeatedly penetrated the IT networks and internal communications of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry since at least 2012 and again after the invasion of Ukraine.

Panyi said that although the government in Budapest has never actually confirmed these attacks, Hungary’s Western allies are well aware that the ministry’s IT systems have been compromised, which is why they are cautious about sharing secret information with Hungary.

Visit news.dtnext.in to explore our interactive epaper!

Download the DT Next app for more exciting features!

Click here for iOS

Click here for Android

Related Stories

No stories found.
logo
DT next
www.dtnext.in