Goulash: NATO doubts about Hungary, Orbán’s son hunts for uranium & oil

Szabolcs Panyi 2024-06-13
Szabolcs Panyi 2024-06-13

Greetings from Budapest! Over the past few weeks, Central Europe has experienced a wave of turbulence, culminating in surprising European Parliament elections’ results – and significant changes to the political landscape in countries such as Hungary. In the scoops section of this edition of our newsletter, we delve into Hungary’s ongoing struggles with NATO, fears about the growing influence of Russia, and the resulting isolation. I’m also serving you a full course of our latest investigations covering all Visegrád region countries. 

Last week, I sent you a special newsletter about our joint investigation with Frontstory.pl and Radio Zet into Orlen’s ex-CEO Daniel Obajtek who’s been secretly spending time in a penthouse apartment in Budapest as Polish authorities were trying to get him to testify in multiple corruption cases. I’m happy to tell you that our story – titled “Poland’s most wanted man enjoys secret luxury life in Budapest” – had quite a big impact in Poland. Even Prime Minister Donald Tusk reacted to it: 

“I am not surprised by these revelations. The address seems quite plausible to me. I will be seeing Viktor Orbán soon, then I will ask him directly on what basis he is organizing, if he is organizing, Mr Obajtek’s holiday stay in Budapest.”

And a special note to Polish readers: if you haven’t already, I really recommend you to sign up our Polish sister site Frontstory.pl’s weekly newsletter here.

 Szabolcs Panyi, VSquare’s Central Europe investigative editor

The name VSquare comes from V4, an abbreviation of the Visegrád countries group. Over the years, VSquare has become the leading regional voice of investigative journalism in Central Europe. We are non-profit, independent, and driven by a passion for journalism

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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. 


NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg traveled to Hungary this week amid rising concerns over the country’s increasingly pro-Kremlin stance and its potential impact on NATO unity. According to a Czech source familiar with Stoltenberg’s agenda, he aimed to negotiate with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on two key issues: 1. Lifting Hungary’s “hard veto” on Mark Rutte’s bid to succeed Stoltenberg as NATO Secretary General. 2. Ensuring Orbán won’t block NATO’s latest Ukraine aid package, set to be agreed upon at the NATO summit in Washington, DC, in July. This aid package includes funding for NATO’s liaison mission in Ukraine, coordination of military aid, and financial support. At their press conference, Orbán only promised that Hungary wouldn’t block decisions supported by all other member states but did not announce a change in position on Rutte’s candidacy. Stoltenberg’s visit followed a Financial Times report claiming that NATO’s eastern members have discussed banning Hungary from the security-focused B9 (Bucharest Nine) cooperation forum.

Behind the scenes, doubts about the Hungarian leadership’s allegiance have long led to restrictions in the sharing of information, especially intelligence, by other NATO members, according to a NATO official in Brussels. This means Hungary receives less information from its allies both bilaterally and through central NATO channels. “The problem is that the consequences are felt by everyone as members share less sensitive intelligence through central NATO channels, knowing that Hungary is also among the recipients,” the NATO official said. “Instead, this intelligence is shared in other groupings where Hungary is not included.” Most of the time, Hungarian officials are unaware of these groupings and the exclusion. And it’s not just about military-related information. “Even if we trust their senior intelligence officers, ultimately, if we share information with them, it may end up in reports that reach the desk of Orbán. Our problem is with the political leadership of the country,” a former deputy head of an EU country’s civilian intelligence agency told me. (As our Slovak partner, the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak reported, intelligence sharing by NATO allies with Slovakia has also been restricted since Robert Fico’s government came back to power last year.)


Viktor Orbán officially justified blocking NATO initiatives in Ukraine by asserting that NATO should remain a defense alliance and avoid military missions outside its own territory. Despite this stance, Orbán’s government is determined to send a 200-strong Hungarian military contingent to Chad, a country on the brink of civil war. This apparent inconsistency has been highlighted by Hungary’s opposition and independent media, who have received no explanation for why the government is willing to risk Hungarian soldiers’ lives in Africa. The question has also been raised internally. According to a government-connected source, Gáspár Orbán, the prime minister’s son and the main driving force behind the mission, provided a rather unusual justification. At closed door meetings, Orbán’s son allegedly claimed that Hungary’s military presence in Chad would lead to lucrative economic opportunities, such as the ability to acquire crude oil and uranium. However, it remains unclear how Hungary would benefit from these resources given the vast distance and the country’s lack of technology to refine them. Currently, Hungary’s oil refinery and nuclear power plant are compatible with only Russian crude oil and nuclear fuel, meaning this venture would likely require cooperation with Putin’s regime.

Earlier this year, working for Direkt36 and in collaboration with Le Monde, I uncovered that Gáspár Orbán has been trying to conceal his key role in organizing the Chad mission. I also reported in a previous newsletter that Orbán’s son was informally given even more power, including staffing his father’s new national security team. Moreover, some NATO allies suspect that Hungary aims to establish a military intelligence center in Chad, potentially serving Russian interests. While my government-connected source could not confirm any specific cooperation with Russia in this field, it was confirmed that Gáspár Orbán discussed creating both military and civilian intelligence gathering capabilities in Chad. (The Hungarian government didn’t reply to my request for comment.)


Hungary’s NATO allies aren’t the only ones grappling with the Orbán government’s pro-Kremlin stance. Hungary’s military, once the country’s least politicized and most staunchly pro-Western institution, is now struggling under a new Orbán-loyalist leadership – and with its attitude toward the war in Ukraine. The professional and moral reservations are particularly severe within Hungary’s military intelligence (KNBSZ). Multiple senior career military intelligence officers, including most department and section heads, are considering resigning due to what they see as politicized and unprofessional leadership, according to a source familiar with their thinking. This turmoil comes a year after Minister of Defense Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, a former businessman and business partner of Russian rail giant Transmashholding, conducted a purge of the army. At least 50 military intelligence officers were among the hundreds of senior officers dismissed last year by Szalay-Bobrovniczky’s new leadership. (The government didn’t respond to my request for comment.)


Hungary’s isolation within the EU and NATO is also keenly felt within its foreign ministry, led by Péter Szijjártó, raising similar professional and moral concerns among Hungarian diplomats and bureaucrats. After Szijjártó meets with his Western counterparts, his inner circle spreads rumors that things are not as bad as they seem and that, behind closed doors, the allies criticizing the Orbán government actually agree with their pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukrainian views. “It’s a very strange, hypocritical situation, because even before difficult debates, several colleagues come up to me and say, ‘Peter, hold on, be tough, veto it!’ There are many colleagues like that. Many more than you might think. And some of them you wouldn’t even think of,” Szijjártó said in a recent interview. “This is the usual argument told within the ministry too, and to me, it is obvious these are lies,” a seasoned Hungarian foreign ministry official bluntly told me.

Although Szijjártó always refuses to name the colleagues who are allegedly encouraging him in his pro-Kremlin policies, a government-connected source recalled one of the latest rumors within the foreign ministry: “When the Czech foreign minister visited him recently, he allegedly told Szijjártó in private that he actually supports the Orbán government’s Russia policy but can’t say this publicly. This rumor was spread by people directly connected to Szijjártó, so they either made it up or heard it from their boss,” the source told me. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský met with Szijjártó in Budapest on April 26, and according to a source familiar with the visit, they had very differing positions on Russia and Ukraine. A different source, close to Lipavský, simply told me that the claim about the Czech foreign minister’s private confession to Szijjártó is “complete bullshit.”

Another rumor, this time aimed at demonizing Poland’s “pro-war” government, was recently spread by the same officials directly connected to Szijjártó. “The Polish foreign ministry asked Hungary to provide a list of Ukrainians who fled to Hungary so that they could pass this list to Ukrainian authorities, who would then send intelligence officers to drag Ukrainian draft-dodger men back one by one and send them to the front lines immediately,” a government-connected source told me. Unsurprisingly, a Polish government official informed about Hungarian matters flat-out denied that such an approach was ever considered. “Ukraine and Hungary still have diplomatic relations, so it doesn’t make sense for us to mediate such a request. Besides, it would be political suicide – if this information got into the media, how much would it damage Poland’s image among Ukrainians? Why would we do it?” the Polish official told me. The Hungarian foreign ministry didn’t reply to my request for comment.

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



Yellow rapeseed fields may look scenic in the Central European countryside, but the EU directives and subsidy scheme that explains their existence are quite problematic for multiple reasons, as this great in-depth story by the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak’s (ICJK.sk) Karin Kőváry Sólymos – who is currently a Bertha Challenge fellow – explains. Biofuels made out of rapeseed not only do little to help tackle the climate crisis, but their environmental impact is also rather dubious, to say nothing of those businessmen – “biofuel barrons” or “yellow barrons” – who benefit from them. Like, for example, former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. Read the story with great visualizations here.


Daniel Obajtek, who is heavily criticized for using Polish oil company Orlen’s resources to help the Law and Justice party stay in power (to say nothing of the financial irregularities allegedly committed at the company during his tenure as Orlen CEO), was recently elected to the European Parliament. Much of his campaigning, however, was done by him from a penthouse on Andrássy avenue, Budapest… I’ve already advertised our latest big investigation to you many times, so make sure to read it here – worth it, I swear! – and check out this Twitter thread I posted explaining how we tracked him.


The latest in our “Kremlin Leaks” series, written by my Estonian friend Holger Roonemaa, is based on a 116-slide presentation analyzing the results of a secret sociological survey commissioned by the Kremlin. It was originally meant to be read by the Putin administration’s domestic policy bloc, but hey, we somehow got hold of it – and it offers amazing insight into what’s going on in Russia. This enormous survey is based on replies by 44,000 respondents, and was used to tap into Russians’ sentiments right before the rigged presidential election. It reveals what Russians really think about the war in Ukraine, the country’s leadership, and the candidates — and identifies the real center of opposition within the country. Read it here.


Published before the European Parliament elections, this Follow the Money-led international investigation analyzed the almost one billion euros that European parties received in donations between 2019 and 2022, and found that the origin of a large chunk of these donations is unknown to the public. Read the whole story here.


Polish-French businessman Andre Mankowski’s name disappeared from the website of the Russian companies he formerly owned, and, of course, he denies dealing with Putin’s regime. However, this joint investigation by Frontstory.pl’s Daniel Flis and iStories’ Roman Katin – in cooperation with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) – found that Mankowski has received nearly $3 million in payments over the past two years from those Moscow-based companies, AMT Group and AMT Group Telecom. The problem with this is that AMT’s clients are Russian banks and other entities under Western sanctions. Read the investigation here.

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


ORBÁN WANTS TO “REDEFINE” HUNGARY’S NATO MEMBERSHIP OVER A FAKE CONCERN. Atlatszo.hu debunks Viktor Orbán’s false claim that NATO could drag Hungary into a war against Russia, the basis of his argument that the country’s NATO membership must be “redefined.” (Text in English and Hungarian.)

THE HIDDEN €664 MILLION: THE VAST MAJORITY OF DONATIONS TO EUROPEAN POLITICAL PARTIES COME FROM UNKNOWN SOURCES. Direkt36’s version of the #TransparencyGap investigation into donations to major European political parties focuses on problems with party funding in Hungary. (Text in English and Hungarian.)

FORGOTTEN REGIONS: JOBS ARE SCARCE, POVERTY IS RISING AND PETTY CRIME IS ON THE RISE IN THE ROŽŇAVA DISTRICT. ICJK.sk/Korzár reports on the sad state of one of Slovakia’s poorest districts, let down by consecutive governments. (Text in Slovak.)

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE: HOW RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA DRIPS INTO CZECH TIKTOK. Investigace.cz analyzes how a TikTok account named after the famous James Bond movie is not only promoting the Russian world to the Czech Republic, but spreading disinformation and conspiracies, too. (Text in Czech.)

This was VSquare’s 22nd Goulash newsletter. I hope you gobbled it up. Come back soon for another serving.

Still hungry? Check the previous newsletter issues here! 


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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.