Goulash: Orbán courting Trump; Budapest’s Olympics bid revived; RFE plans for Slovakia

Szabolcs Panyi 2024-06-27
Szabolcs Panyi 2024-06-27

Greetings from Budapest! I am here stirring the pot of Central European politics to bring you the latest hot takes and scoops in this edition of Goulash. With a Trump presidency potentially on the menu, leaders in the Visegrád region are bracing for a recipe of change, sprinkled with uncertainty and a dash of surprise. Digesting the new political landscape after the European Parliament elections, I’m also serving you the troubling news that the Orbán government’s Russia-inspired Sovereignty Protection Office, in its hunt for “foreign agents”, started investigating one of VSquare’s Hungarian partner centers, Atlatszo, as well as anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International’s local branch. We stand in full solidarity with them and will keep you updated on any developments.

Just a heads-up: we’re taking a little summer break to let our goulash simmer! Instead of our usual bi-weekly servings, Goulash will be coming to you monthly in late July and late August. Consider it a slow-cooked treat that’ll be even richer in taste and depth. Dig in and enjoy!

 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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The slogan of Hungary’s upcoming EU presidency, “Make Europe Great Again,” is not merely a case of intentional trolling or questionable judgment but part of a bigger strategy to court Donald Trump. According to multiple Hungarian government sources and a diplomat from an EU country, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán actually aims to get Trump to appear at the most significant event during Hungary’s EU presidency: a European Political Community and an informal EU Summit currently scheduled for November 7-8 in Budapest. The diplomat of an EU country further suggested that Orbán might have already extended an invitation to Trump during their meeting in Florida in March. However, Trump’s well-documented aversion to long-haul travel, combined with the tight timing between the November 5 U.S. presidential election and the Budapest event, makes an in-person appearance almost impossible. As with previous CPAC Hungary events, it is more plausible that Trump would opt to send a short video message – or appear virtually – rather than attend the summit in person. Of course, even that may not work out in the end. Orbán often has ambitious international plans that then very frequently fail – remember his slogan of “conquering Brussels” in the European Parliament elections?

Well, in any case, by November 7-8, Trump will either be a defeated presidential candidate or the president-elect, with the current Biden administration still in power (at least) until January 2025. This period of political transition in the U.S. could heighten the sensitivity surrounding any engagement with European leaders. Still, a video message or online participation would allow Trump to convey his support for Orbán and his policies without the complications and diplomatic fallout that might arise from an in-person visit. It would also enable Trump to maintain a presence on the international stage while navigating the aftermath of the U.S. election, whatever the outcome. However, Donald Trump’s virtual participation in even an informal gathering of EU leaders would be unprecedented and extremely disruptive, challenge established diplomatic norms and create tension both within the EU and with the Biden administration. Yes, the entire idea sounds absurd, but, then, it also perfectly aligns with Orbán’s usual behavior. (Hungary’s government didn’t respond to my request for comment.)


Other Visegrád countries are also scrambling to prepare for a potential Trump administration. Polish President Andrzej Duda appears to have a strong personal relationship with Donald Trump, bolstered by Poland’s significant defense spending – a topic of crucial importance to the former U.S. president, who often opined on how little European countries spend relative to the United States. Slovakia, meanwhile, is not only emulating the pro-Kremlin and Trump-aligned stance of Orbán but is also in the process of purchasing U.S. weapons (that’s also usually a key to Trump’s heart). The situation is more complex for the Czech Republic, where leaders, unlike Duda and Orbán, are hesitant to directly engage with Trump before the U.S. elections. However, according to a well-connected Czech foreign policy expert, President Petr Pavel plans to navigate this diplomatic tightrope by giving a lecture or making a speech at the Heritage Foundation in July, during the NATO Summit in Washington, D.C. 

This strategy aims to build connections and influence within the influential pro-Trump think tank, which is currently drafting the policy agenda and vetting future members of a potential Trump administration through its Project 2025 presidential transition agenda. By addressing the Heritage Foundation, President Pavel hopes to moderate Heritage’s largely anti-Ukrainian stance and foster a more balanced approach while positioning the Czech Republic favorably regardless of the U.S. election outcome. This certainly appears to be shrewd realpolitik on the one hand. On the other hand, however, Heritage already plays a dubious role in funding ultraconservative and religious groups that aim to export battles in the American culture war and polarize Czech society (for more on this, read my great Czech colleague Mahulena Kopecká’s recent article.) A senior aide to President Pavel declined to comment on my information and the Czech presidential office didn’t respond to our request for comment.


A few days ago, Slovakia’s parliament passed a law disbanding the country’s independent public broadcaster, RTVS, and establishing in its stead a politically-controlled successor, STVR. This move, combined with political and ownership pressure on the newsroom of TV Markíza, arguably the most influential channel in the Slovak TV market, puts media freedom and mainstream independent news service at serious risk. Partly in response to this alarming situation, Radio Free Europe (RFE), funded by the U.S. government but independently operated, is seriously considering launching a Slovak service, both Slovak and Czech civil society and media sources told me. This new initiative would likely build on the experiences of the recent Bulgarian and Hungarian RFE operations, which were relaunched in 2019 and 2020, respectively, in response to the two countries’ declining media freedoms. The Bulgarian and Hungarian local services essentially function as online news sites featuring substantial video content and investigative journalism – a model now under consideration for implementation in Slovakia. However, in order to make this project as Trump-proof as possible, decisions need to be made relatively fast. (RFE didn’t respond to my request for comment.)


According to Czech government officials and foreign policy experts I’ve recently spoken with in Prague, there is a general expectation that a second Trump term would significantly reduce US funding in Central Europe for human rights, media freedom, independent journalism, combating disinformation, and countering Russian influence. “US support for independent media or the presence of Radio Free Europe will surely be one of the issues Orbán and Fico will more successfully push against,” a Czech expert told me. “Meanwhile, if you listen to or read what Republican think-tankers close to Trump are saying, their plan is not to defund USAID and other similar institutions but to use them to push their own ultra-conservative and Christian agenda worldwide and in Central Europe,” the source added. The same is true of the potential agenda of the Republican party-linked International Republican Institute (IRI), should Trump win. At the same time, experts I’ve talked to highlighted as a potential positive that a Trump administration would likely push NATO members to increase their defense spending. “Expect Trump to request allies to spend 3 percent instead of 2 percent on defense next year. How formal that demand will be… we’ll see,” a Czech source said. (Of course, the US elections are still months away, but the first presidential TV debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is happening tonight. In just a few hours, we might know a little bit more about their prospects – and ours. Prepare your covfefe!)


Now, let’s turn our attention to Budapest: Hungary’s original Olympic bid – canceled in 2017 due to the success of the so-called “NOlimpia” campaign of the liberal Momentum opposition movement – may soon be revived. According to a source connected to the Orbán government, backchannel communication has already begun with the opposition-led Budapest over a new bid for a summer Olympic Games. The source indicated that a deal could be made wherein the opposition leadership of Budapest would support a new Olympic bid in exchange for certain development funds for the city’s infrastructure projects. On the other hand, an official working for Gergely Karácsony, the recently re-elected mayor of Budapest, claimed that there is no direct communication yet on this issue – at least on the level of the mayor and the government. “We expect that the topic will soon be discussed [officially]. Everything that is a prerequisite for hosting an Olympic Games is also in the interest of the capital – infrastructure development such as roads, overpasses, public transportation, etc.,” the Budapest municipality official told me.

This turnaround comes after the 2024 European Parliament and Hungarian local elections saw the unprecedented rise of the newly launched right-wing TISZA (Respect and Freedom) opposition party, led by former Orbán ally Péter Magyar. TISZA, which supports the Olympic bid, has gained ground at the expense of liberal and left-wing opposition parties that previously considered hosting the Games as a waste of money. The fact that Budapest’s liberal-green leadership is now also open to supporting a bid demonstrates their effort to secure financial support for the cash-strapped capital in an increasingly right-wing political climate: hosting the Olympic Games is associated with national pride, and large sporting events in general are important to Viktor Orbán (not to mention that those construction companies which are usually building stadiums are owned by Orbán’s entourage). The backchannel communication has started at a critical juncture: a decision on a serious Olympic bid needs to be made soon, with a follow-up confirmation vote by the Budapest city assembly expected within about a year. Hungary would aim to host either the 2036 or the 2040 Olympics, although the earlier date is likely to be awarded to an Asian country.

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



Filip Turek collects cars, weapons and Nazi memorabilia, and sometimes even does a Nazi salute – and, out of the blue, his Czech political party won two seats in the European Parliament with 10.26 percent of the vote. Much of Turek’s success is thanks to his presence on social media, and in particular on TikTok. But the supporters of the 38-years old former racing driver-turned-influencer don’t seem to be neo-Nazis or Putinists at all – read this great piece based on analysis of social media accounts by investigace.cz’s Josef Šlerka to find out who they are, and why Turek unexpectedly became the new rising star in the constellation that is Czech politics.


It’s happening. The Hungarian government, including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has consistently denied that the Act on the Protection of National Sovereignty, adopted in December 2023, would be a threat to press freedom and independent media. Yet, a few days ago, the so-called Sovereignty Protection Office, established in the classic style of Russia’s “foreign agents law,” informed VSquare’s Hungarian partner Atlatszo that they are now under investigation. The explanation? The office “investigates organizations that use foreign funding to influence the will of voters or support such activities.” That same day, the same thing happened to Transparency International Hungary, an anti-corruption watchdog organization that strongly supports investigative journalism by training young journalists and filing public information request lawsuits, which they do pro bono for Hungarian media. We don’t know what comes next, but another red line has been crossed by the Orbán government – just days before it assumes the presidency of the Council of the EU. Read more about the law and what happened, here.

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IT IS RARE TO SEE IN SUCH DETAIL THE ASTONISHING DISAPPEARANCE OF TAXPAYER BILLIONS. Direkt36 uncovered another story about the operations of a state company that secretly financed several important projects of the Orbán government – and how it lost more than €17 million in a shady but politically well-connected bank. (Text in Hungarian and English.)

TEACHERS AT HUNGARIAN UNIVERSITIES OFTEN WORK FOR FREE OR REMAIN IN POSITIONS BELOW THEIR QUALIFICATIONS. Atlatszo’s article shows the sad state of Hungarian higher education, where the average gross salary of university and college lecturers was €2080 in 2023. (Text in Hungarian and English.)

SIS CHIEF GAŠPAR REFURBISHED A HOUSE WITHOUT A BUILDING PERMIT. IT WAS ONLY REVEALED AFTER ICJK’S QUESTIONS. Slovak intelligence chief Pavol Gašpar – who is also the son of Smer MP and former police president Tibor Gašpar – violated the law while renovating his luxury house in Nitra, the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak (ICJK) reveals (actually, it was only after they asked local authorities that they paid attention to the violation). (Text in Slovak.)

WAITING FOR “JUDGMENT DAY.” THE RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT FATHER’S HOUSE DISAPPEARS FROM THE CZECH REPUBLIC TO SOUTH AFRICA. The Danish religious movement Faderhuset (Father’s House), which relocated to the Czech Republic almost eight years ago, has now gone to South Africa, investigace.cz writes. Former members talked about physical and psychological abuse, while Danish authorities are scrutinizing the movement. (Text in Czech.)

This was VSquare’s 23rd 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.