Goulash: Orbán’s son on a new mission; Budapest shuts down for Xi visit

Szabolcs Panyi 2024-04-18
Szabolcs Panyi 2024-04-18

Ciao from the annual International Journalism Festival in Perugia! Many of our Visegrád region colleagues are here in Italy to learn about the latest trends in journalism and to discuss future projects over Campari and Limoncello spritzes – but don’t worry, this newsletter was prepared back home, filled with Central European flavors like scoops on the Orbán government’s latest international affairs, the casting of EU commissioners, and an update on the main Russian SIGINT facility in Warsaw. Speaking of Poland – our sister site Frontstory.pl just launched its own Polish-language newsletter, Śledź, to which you can subscribe here.

So enjoy your latest Goulash, which you can also read online at this link. Please share our newsletter on social media and with your friends and colleagues. This is the link where they can subscribe themselves. And some housekeeping: the next Goulash will be published in three weeks on May 9, due to the May 1 long weekend.

 Szabolcs Panyi, VSquare’s Central Europe investigative editor

Back in 2016, when the soon-to-be founders of VSquare gathered in Warsaw to discuss our cross-border initiative, we worked to come up with a name. Although we eventually settled for VSquare (standing for V4, the Visegrád Four countries), the runner-up name for our site—proposed by Investigace’s  editor-in-chief Pavla Holcová—was goulash. But no brainstorming session is ever really wasted, and the name will be served as our new newsletter.


There is always a lot of information that we hear and find interesting and newsworthy but don’t publish as part of our investigative reporting — and share instead in this newsletter. 


The European Parliament election is drawing near and there’s growing speculation in all Visegrád countries about the identity of their next EU commissioners. Here’s the current state of play: In the Czech Republic, according to a coalition agreement, the Pirates/STAN sub-coalition has the right to nominate someone. However, the relationship between the Pirates and STAN (the Mayors’ and Independents’ Party, a liberal party) has soured, and many in Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s conservative ODS party would also like to flex their muscles by putting forward their own candidate. Currently, STAN’s Danuše Nerudová looks like the frontrunner, and Deputy Minister of Finance Marek Mora is among the names some in ODS are floating. “If there is a fight and the coalition can’t agree, they could settle with a compromise candidate such as Edita Hrdá, the Czech permanent EU representative,” a Central European foreign policy expert told me. In neighboring Slovakia, the frontrunner, an obvious pick for Prime Minister Robert Fico, is perennial EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, nicknamed Mr. Fix it because he tends to be handed tough jobs nobody else wants to do. However, it’s unclear if Šefčovič will be able to secure a decent portfolio, or if he will want to associate himself with Fico’s increasingly pro-Russian government at all. An alternative candidate could be another former Fico foreign minister, Miroslav Lajčák, the current EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues. According to Swiss press reports, Lajčák already secured himself an EU ambassadorship to Switzerland, but my well-connected Central European foreign policy expert source tells me that Lajčák is actually lobbying for the EU commissioner job.

In Hungary, my government-connected sources still mention MEP Enikő Győri as a likely pick (as I reported back in February), while current Minister of Justice János Bóka – who is in charge of EU negotiations and would be the most obvious pick – is also in the mix. Hungary will take over the rotating EU presidency for the second half of 2024 and Bóka is tasked with handling all related issues, which could be either an obstacle for his candidacy or an opportunity to elevate his profile. Still, I hear rumors that Bóka is considered a “temporary” figure in the Orbán government, whatever that means. Meanwhile, according to multiple Central European experts and diplomats with whom I’ve spoken, Poland’s rumored frontrunner for an EU top job is still Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski — but it’s unclear for what exact job he’s being considered. Were Ursula von der Leyen to continue as the European People’s Party (EPP) nominee for President of the EU Commission, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy position could be filled by the liberal Renew Europe/ALDE group’s candidate – likely meaning Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. This would leave the EPP-affiliated Sikorski, if he’s interested in such a gig, with the EU’s defense commissioner portfolio, which would be created for the very first time. Alternatively, as we previously reported, Donald Tusk is also considering health expert MEP Bartosz Arłukowicz.


In the spring sunshine, the roof of a block of flats in Warsaw’s Mokotow district shines with a tangle of antennas and strange boxes. A year ago, as part of VSquare’s #ESPIOMATS investigation, we revealed how, under the sun on Beethoven Street, in the middle of the Polish capital, Russian intelligence operates specialized signals intelligence (SIGINT) equipment. From there, the Russians can – and probably do – conduct technical espionage. (By the way, we found similar antennas and containers hiding the equipment in a handful of European cities, from Warsaw through Budapest to Brussels.) Russian diplomats and their families have occupied the building on Beethoven Street in Warsaw for many years. In a neighborhood of bland office and residential buildings, the Russian apartment island is distinguished by a barbed wire fence. Following up on our reporting from a year ago, we asked the Polish Foreign Ministry on how many tenants the Russian spy apartment houses today, two years after the war broke out. According to the ministry’s latest figures from last year, the building is inhabited by “7 members of the diplomatic staff of the embassy of the Russian Federation together with 10 family members. In addition, 33 members of the administrative and technical staff along with 48 family members.” (This scoop was borrowed from Frontstory.pl’s new “Śledź” newsletter.)


A few months ago, we worked with Direkt36 and Le Monde to reveal how Viktor Orbán’s only son, Gáspár Orbán, is secretly involved in organizing a Hungarian military mission to Chad – but now it turns out that the story is even more mind-boggling. According to a government-connected source with direct knowledge of the matter, in recent months, Orbán Jr. has been heavily involved in setting up, organizing, and staffing a new national security body that is intended to become the Hungarian equivalent of the US president’s National Security Council (NSC) – despite him having no official position in the administration, previous experience, or qualifications to do so. “Gáspár Orbán has his own big room on the first floor of the Karmelita Monastery (father Viktor Orbán’s prime ministerial office) where at least half a dozen young professionals from lawyers to secretaries work under him,” the government-connected source told me, adding that “his father wants to keep him close and keep one eye on him.” This is also the office from which Orbán Jr. organized his first pet project, the upcoming Hungarian military mission to Chad, to which Orbán Jr. regularly refers in conversations as a “startup.” Orbán’s son believes that such projects – he’s allegedly planning even more! – will help Hungary discover and capitalize on “opportunities” in far-away countries, bringing more influence, respect, and also financial gains to his country. Orbán Jr. was described as idealistically and enthusiastically believing that he’s serving Hungary’s interest by bringing in bold and unconventional ideas – such as sending 200 troops to African countries on the verge of a civil war.

Currently, and in complete secrecy, Orbán Jr. is busy setting up the office of the Prime Minister’s chief national security adviser. This is a recently created position filled by Marcell Bíró, a quiet and efficient bureaucrat who is said to lack political ambition and is fully trusted by Viktor Orbán. Bíró’s institution will basically oversee three branches, two of which – one dealing with intelligence and the other on military matters – already exist. Orbán Jr. is currently establishing the third one: a branch dealing with foreign policy and sensitive diplomatic matters. This will be a department with a diplomatic team monitoring crisis situations 24/7 – plus, Orbán Jr. has further ideas to also set up a trade section to keep a lookout for business opportunities in far-away countries. Moreover, this new national security apparatus will also have a US-style situation room. While this all sounds pretty cool and cinematic, all is not the stuff of pictures for our young protagonist. According to the government-connected source, Orbán Jr. is frustrated that he himself is not allowed to officially be part of this new organization – due to fears of public backlash over accusations of nepotism. Instead, Orbán Jr. was informally granted powers by his father to oversee the planning and establishment of this new national security body, including interviewing and hiring whoever he wants. “If the Prime Minister tasks his own son with certain sensitive tasks in extraordinary situations, I could accept that. But letting him build an institution and giving orders to people, without any formal position or authorization, it’s just completely abnormal,” the government-connected source told me. Previously, when I reached out for comment, Hungarian ministries and the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office all denied to me that they employ Gáspár Orbán and claimed that he only has access to his father’s office because he is a family member. Officially, Orbán Jr. is just a captain of the Hungarian Defense Forces and it’s unclear what clearance he has.


The Orbán government’s recent security agreement with China – which allows Chinese policemen to patrol in the country – already triggered a backlash in Hungary. However, those who are most at risk are Chinese dissidents living in the European Union. Now, a group of “freedom-loving EU citizens and Hong Kongers” are calling for immediate action from NATO and EU leaders to “end transnational policing operated by China in every country where EU citizens can move freely and in the Schengen area.” Organizers of the online petition are aiming to gather 2,000 signatures and already have 1,770. The main concern, according to the Freedom HK blog, is that Chinese policemen “can freely enter and leave Hungary, they can even go to European countries to perform secret missions and arbitrarily arrest dissidents.” The petition is specifically addressed to NATO and EU officials because the petition writers believe that Chinese policing is not only a “blatant threat not only to the freedoms of Hungarian people and visitors to Hungary, but also to the sovereignty and security of all countries of the EU and NATO.” Exact details of the Hungarian-Chinese agreement, including the future rights of Chinese policemen on EU soil, are unclear, and it’s hard to tell if this is because the Orbán government tries to hide these details – or if the agreement they signed is so vague that even they don’t know how it will be implemented.


But there’s more currently going on between Hungary and China when it comes to matters of security. Although it’s still not publicly confirmed, it increasingly looks like Chinese President Xi Jinping will indeed not only visit Paris but also Budapest in early May, as RFE/RL previously reported. Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Center (TEK), the security agency in charge of protecting Hungarian and foreign dignitaries, is already preparing for a visit from a high-level delegation of around 400 Chinese in Budapest between May 8 and May 10, a Hungarian source familiar with the security preparations revealed to me. The Hungarian agency is invoking the highest security protocol, the same level as was put into use during Pope Francis’s visit to Hungary last year. “This will be painful for the city,” the source added, meaning that such strict security measures will result in the Hungarian capital shutting down. Moreover, the restrictions on traffic will be actually more severe than during the pope’s visit. For example, the counter terrorism agency even wants to shut down the Budapest Castle Hill funicular – popular among tourists – which runs just next to the offices of the Hungarian president and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Since the funicular’s shutdown is planned to happen on May 9, there’s speculation that this could be the day Xi Jinping will meet with Orbán and the Hungarian president in their respective offices. Given all this is set to happen a month before Hungary’s local and municipal elections, as well as the European Parliament elections, it’s not hard to imagine that the visit – and the annoyance of shutting down Budapest’s traffic – will feature in political debates this campaign season.

Got a nice scoop to include in our Goulash newsletter? Can’t wait to hear it! Send it to me at [email protected]


Back in 2022, when an Orbán-linked Portuguese businessman bought Euronews TV, red lights started flashing straight away. But then everyone forgot about it, mostly because the tone of the channel didn’t change and the journalists working there didn’t experience any political interference. However, theoretically, that could change any time, based on the revelations of Direkt36 with Le Monde and Expresso. They obtained secret documents proving that a large chunk of the price paid to acquire Euronews was actually provided by Viktor Orbán’s government along with the government-linked ads agency that handles Orbán’s propaganda advertising. When one recalls how the buy-up of Hungarian media was conducted back in the 2010s, when “independent businessmen” purchased media outlets and then donated them to a foundation run by Orbán’s media lieutenants, one can sadly assume that what happens to Euronews is now up to Orbán. And one more disturbing fact about Orbán’s intentions: among the secret documents presented in the article was one that proves that the Hungarian state was interested in financing the Euronews acquisition to tackle left-wing media bias in European media. Read the whole story here — it’s well worth it.


As the Czech Republic debates same-sex marriage, ultraconservative groups, comprised of  politicians and activists, are throwing whatever arguments they can into the debate – including bogus studies presented as science. Investigace.cz’s Mahulena Kopecká reveals how one of the most cited studies, by American sociologist Mark Regnerus, is used by Czech opponents of the so-called “marriage for all” initiative. Regnerus essentially tried to prove that children raised in same-sex families suffer all kinds of negative consequences – while in reality, as explained in the article, the American sociologist’s data and surveys have been largely debunked as completely unreliable and biased. My favorite part: “Some of the responses in the Regnerus study were likely to have come from people who had joked about the research or spent a suspiciously short time completing the questionnaire.” Read the story here.

If you like our scoops and stories, here are some more articles from our partners!

”CHANGES IN THE JÁN KUCIAK MURDER CASE ARE CONCERNING TO US.” This is a joint statement by the editors-in-chief of four Slovak media outlets (SME, Aktuality.sk, Denník N and the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak) in reaction to the Fico government’s crackdown on the Special Prosecutor’s Office, which has also resulted in the resignations of Matúš Harkabus and Daniel Mikuláš, the prosecutors of the Kuciak case. “Their departure fills us with concern as to whether justice will be done in a case that has traumatized society for six years,” they write. (Text in Slovak.)

LITTLE MISS HUNGARY CHILD BEAUTY PAGEANT ORGANIZER WORKED WITH CHILD PORNOGRAPHER. After a scandal involving a presidential pardon in a pedophilia case shook Hungarian politics in February, more and more unbelievable stories are coming to light, like this one by Atlatszo.hu. (Text in Hungarian and English.)

THE GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL ASKED FOR TWO MILLION FORINTS INSTEAD OF SAUSAGES. Based on indictment documents, Direkt36 reveals how Hungarian government officials at the Ministry of Finance built up a corrupt network related to EU funds and tenders. (Text in Hungarian and English.)

NERUDOVÁ, BABIS AND OKAMURA DOMINATE CZECH TIKTOK BEFORE THE EU ELECTIONS. TikTok is becoming increasingly attractive to Czech politicians, regardless of the fact that the National Institute for Cyber and Information Security (NUKIB) has repeatedly warned against its use, saying that users’ data could be misused, for example, by Chinese intelligence services. (Text in Czech.)

HOW POLISH STATE FORESTRIES SUPPORTED CHURCHES AND UNKNOWN ORGANIZATIONS PROMOTING “NATIONAL VALUES”. In this environmental investigation, Frontstory.pl and Polish partners reveal how, under the Law and Justice government, Polish forest districts spent money designated for “socially useful purposes” on useless, if not outright harmful, activities. (Text in Polish.)

This was VSquare’s 19th Goulash newsletter. I hope you gobbled it up. Come back soon for another serving. 

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Szabolcs Panyi

VSquare’s Budapest-based lead investigative editor in charge of Central European investigations, Szabolcs Panyi is also a Hungarian investigative journalist at Direkt36. He covers national security, foreign policy, and Russian and Chinese influence. He was a European Press Prize finalist in 2018 and 2021.