Greetings to our subscribers. Just as we were finishing this last Goulash newsletter of 2023, came the horrible news about the Prague university shooting. There was supposed to be a ‘merry Christmas and happy holidays’ message here – which I still wish you, goes without saying. However, on behalf of VSquare’s team, I’d also like to express our deep shock and sympathy with our Czech friends, colleagues and subscribers. Many details are still unknown, but what I can already tell you is that investigating hateful ideologies, extremist groups and radicalization in Central Europe and beyond will remain a core focus of our journalistic work.
If you like our newsletter, please share this subscription link with your friends and colleagues. I’d also love to have your feedback (write me at [email protected]) on how we can improve in 2024! – Szabolcs Panyi, VSquare’s lead Central Europe investigator
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 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. In our Christmas edition, we uncover the secretive Hungarian advisors who worked in Slovakia and Poland—but first, let’s start with Russia.
EUROPEAN INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES WARY OF RUSSIA-LINKED HOLIDAY SEASON INCIDENTS
Since Hamas’s deadly terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, national security services in the European Union have been picking up some worrying intel and sharing information with each other on possible violent activities masterminded by Russia, according to three Central Eastern European sources with ties to intelligence services. The fear is that Russia would try to take advantage of the Middle Eastern conflict and the turmoil it has caused within the EU by making attempts to sow even further division in European societies through so-called false flag operations. What security agencies are assessing—and have been trying to prevent—is a scenario in which Russia’s FSB would use people from the Caucasus to carry out violent activities in the European Union during the holiday season, or in early 2024. These possible violent activities would primarily target Germany.
According to one source, Russia would likely involve Chechen or Dagestani individuals—meaning Russian citizens with Muslim backgrounds. “I’m afraid that something very bad could happen,” another source remarked, adding that German authorities are aware of the threat and allied agencies are working together on prevention. Russia’s goal would be, of course, to create a distraction so that EU governments focus less on the war in Ukraine. Note: Russia has a long history of carrying out false flag attacks in Central Eastern Europe. It’s worth reading our previous stories on how pro-Russian Polish far-right activists, disguised as Ukrainian nationalists, firebombed a Hungarian minority center in Uzhgorod—and how it later turned out that it was orchestrated by a Kremlin-linked German far-right politician.
POLISH ENVOY TO HUNGARY MAY GET DISMISSED BY NEW LEADERSHIP SOON
“He could be in the top 10 of those Polish ambassadors who may start packing soon,” a Polish government source closely following relations with Hungary told me about Polish ambassador to Hungary Sebastian Kęciek, a young political appointee and former aide to ex-Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The new Polish government, which includes Radek Sikorski returning as foreign minister, has already started to get rid of ambassadors seen as loyal to the previous Law and Justice government, making instant changes in key postings such as ambassador to the European Union and to Ukraine. According to Polish foreign policy experts I’ve talked to, the problem for Donald Tusk’s new government is not how to fire ambassadors but how to appoint new ones—as they’d need the confirmation of Polish President Andrzej Duda. The Polish MFA and the Polish Embassy in Budapest didn’t respond to my request for comment.
ORBÁN’S CAMPAIGN OPERATIVES WORK WITH MULTIPLE PARTIES IN SLOVAKIA
Viktor Orbán’s government regularly accuses Western countries of meddling in Hungarian internal affairs—as well as its domestic critics of being “foreign agents.” Recently, it even created a so-called “Sovereignty Protection Authority,” tasked with investigating “foreign influence’ in Hungary,” a move that resulted in some international uproar (read this joint statement by ten Hungarian independent media outlets condemning this move). But at the same time, Orbán’s key campaign operatives—political strategists and pollsters—have been secretly helping the Hungarian prime minister’s foreign allies in a number of recent European election campaigns, multiple sources close to the Hungarian government told me. The most important among them is Orbán’s long-time adviser, Árpád Habony, a furniture restorer–turned–spin doctor. He is also a close political ally of Antal Rogán, Orbán’s minister in charge of propaganda and intelligence services, as well as a close associate of Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, Hungary’s minister of defense. Habony is working in tandem with Századvég (“End of Century”), Orbán’s main policy think-tank and advisory firm, which just signed a new contract worth €62.5 million (HUF 24 billion) with the Hungarian government.
Habony and his Századvég colleagues—for example, foreign affairs director Csaba Faragó—were directly involved in the recent Slovak election, multiple sources close to the government confirmed. Last year, they first showed up around Peter Pellegrini’s HLAS party, as I already mentioned in a previous newsletter. According to one of the sources, Habony’s point man in HLAS was Matúš Šutaj Eštok, who has since become Slovakia’s interior minister. However, as Robert Fico’s SMER-SD started to rise in the polls, Orbán’s campaign operatives also flocked around them, the source said, adding that “cooperation between SMER and the Hungarian operatives has remained strong even after Fico’s election win.” For example, Századvég has provided Fico’s party with a string of opinion polls and detailed surveys to help determine which political messages work best. (Later, Századvég was also active in Serbia’s election: Faragó helped the pro-Vučić Alliance of Hungarians in Vojvodina party achieve a good result.) We sent requests for comment to SMER, HLAS, and Századvég, but they didn’t respond.
HUNGARIAN ADVISORS HELP LAW AND JUSTICE—WHO THEN LOSE THE ELECTION
After the ruling Law and Justice Party lost the Polish elections, some disgruntled politicians anonymously blamed their election defeat on unnamed Hungarian campaign advisors (if you read Polish, check out Polityka’s earlier story on the topic). These campaign operatives advised the ruling Law and Justice Party to pursue aggressive and divisive messages and wage a brutal negative campaign against Donald Tusk. It didn’t turn out well. A former senior Hungarian government official and another source close to the government both confirmed to me that these unnamed advisors were also Habony and his Századvég lieutenants. Habony’s role in the Law and Justice campaign is unexpected for multiple reasons. For example, people very close to Habony had previously been involved in Hungary’s controversial golden visa scheme, as Direkt36 reported—and these people directly helped, among others, Russian spy chief Sergey Naryshkin’s son and family to acquire Hungarian residency permits and Schengen visas. What’s more, together with current Minister of Defense Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, Habony founded the London-registered V4NA News Agency, a disinformation outlet that has been known to peddle Kremlin narratives to the Visegrád region. All in all, it’s not exactly the kind of resumé you’d expect from advisors of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party. (Law and Justice, Századvég and Habony, whom I also contacted through V4NA, didn’t respond to our requests for comment.)
ORBÁN’S SPIN DOCTOR NETWORKS WITH TRUMP’S CAMPAIGN TEAM IN FLORIDA
And that’s still not everything. According to a source close to the Hungarian government, Árpád Habony has recently been bragging in private about his trips to Florida, and alleged meetings with the Trump campaign team. “Habony had been visiting them, that is a fact, and Századvég political director Gergely Losonci is working closely with him on this,” confirmed a second source, who heard about the Habony-Trump campaign meetings from Antal Rogán’s circles. “Foreign politicians are extremely interested in the recipe of how to consolidate power as Orbán had, hence the big interest in Habony and his people. And these politicians are willing to pay a lot of money for such knowledge,” the source added. (In May, Axios and Telex reported that Trump’s former ambassador to Hungary urged the Trump campaign to hire Habony, but back then it looked like it wasn’t going to happen.)Got a nice scoop to include in our Goulash newsletter? Contact me at [email protected]
NEW ON VSQUARE
The Office of the Special Prosecutor has overseen the most serious cases of organized crime and corruption in Slovakia for almost 20 years. Some of their most high-profile cases involved corruption linked to Robert Fico and his SMER comrades – and so it’s little wonder that, now that he’s back in power, Fico immediately started the process of abolishing the office. However, this would also mean that ongoing cases would be redistributed among regional prosecutors. That includes the case that led to the fall of Fico’s previous government, involving the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. In an exclusive interview, the supervising prosecutor of the murder case, Matúš Harkabus, answers VSquare partner ICJK.sk’s questions on what’s next.
Now let’s dig even deeper into Slovak political corruption! This joint investigation by ICJK.sk—yes, our Slovak colleagues have a lot on their plate these days—and BIRN reveals how two convicted Slovak police officers fled to Bosnia, where they still live in exile. The story is just amazing: Corrupt policemen Jan Kalavsky and Marian Kucerka created manipulated recordings, which were used by Robert Fico to undermine other policemen—Jan Curilla and his team—who were investigating Fico’s corruption. And then there’s the latest twist: Now that Fico is back in power, and his government has already suspended and sidelined Curilla and the other investigators (read our previous Goulash on this), Kalavsky and Marian Kucerka’s chances of returning home and avoiding jail are improving, too.
Slovak oligarch Norbert Bödör and his family, who have close ties to Fico’s SMER-SD party, found themselves in a difficult situation. They were suing the Netherlands for millions of euros—money that got forfeited after Dutch authorities shut down a fraudulent bank. Bödör’s problem was that they had previously done everything—including using shady intermediary shell companies—to make sure the money they put in the bank could not be traced back to them. This backfired, as prosecutors questioned the legality of the funds in question, since, if the money were legitimate, the Bödörs would probably not have used the services of a financial institution that promised to break international and European banking laws to hide the source of the money. This juicy and complicated story was also uncovered by ICJK.sk’s Tomáš Madleňák, and we’re proud to present its English version (and if you read the article, you’ll also find out whether the Bödörs won the court case).
Slovakia is like the Wild West—at least compared to the Czech Republic, where local oligarchs do care a lot about their image. Brno-based Deník Referendum’s investigation into the country’s largest corporation, coal baron Daniel Křetínský’s energy giant EPH, reveals how the company tries to portray itself as a European leader in decarbonisation when, in reality, EPH uses “creative” accounting of its greenhouse gas emissions to sweeten the picture of its real impact on the climate. EPH is among the top three CO2 emitters in the European Union, and some of the pollution is actually generated in their German power plants.
The Orbán government is exporting pro-Kremlin and “illiberal” disinformation content abroad through local Hungarian-language media it controls and finances in minority communities in neighboring countries. The Budapest-based Political Capital Institute’s new study by Lóránt Győri and Bulcsú Hunyadi found that they were most successful in infiltrating—surprise, surprise—Slovakia’s Hungarian language media.
In our last issue, I recommended some of our authors’ most recent books as potential gift ideas, including editor Emily Tamkin’s “Bad Jews.” I know it may be too late to get it as a Christmas present, however, Emily’s book will be published next month in Polish – so our Polish subscribers should really take a look at “ŹLI ŻYDZI”.
BREWING IN THE BOTTOM
GOULASH VICTORY LAP. This newsletter is barely six months old, but the impact we have with “Goulash” is already making us proud. To get into festive spirit and to wrap up this year, here’s a recollection of some of our best scoops and the reactions that followed.
Let’s start with the “mini-Dubai” scoop from early December, where we revealed Hungarian government plans to build a new neighborhood—plus a skyscraper—in Budapest with Emirati money. It was instantly covered by Hungarian national media and a scandal ensued. A recent poll commissioned by the municipality of Budapest shows that a staggering 72 percent in Budapest have already heard about the plans, with 61 percent opposing and 33 supporting the project.
It was in early November that I wrote about the relatively large number of Hungarian undercover intelligence officers stationed in Slovakia. Slovak media and politicians reacted to it quickly, and the issue was instantly put on the agenda of the Slovak parliamentary committee charged with overseeing national security agencies. In the same newsletter, another Slovak scoop dealt with how the incoming Fico government may dismiss officials working on countering disinformation and propaganda. Unfortunately, it turned out that the threat was so imminent that the strategic communications department within the Slovak Government Office was actually abolished just as the newsletter was sent out.
Orbán runs Hungary from his Habsburg estate-turned-dacha, another “Goulash” issue, this time from October, revealed. The scoop not only brought many new subscribers to the newsletter, but also had some political consequences, limited though they were by the current state of rule of law in Hungarian. The scoop was essentially about how Viktor Orbán, despite only having a modest income, holds official meetings at a €30 million estate and treats it as his own, although it is formally owned by his father (who got rich while his son has been prime minister). Hungary’s main opposition party, the Democratic Coalition, initiated a so-called “declaration of assets procedure” in the Hungarian parliament, arguing that Orbán should have reported the estate as his own. However, Orbán’s MPs have blocked the parliament’s investigation.
Now let’s finish with one from September, when we reported that Hungary’s government was teaming up with French airport operator Vinci to buy Budapest Airport. We reported on the French company’s involvement in this gigantic deal—estimated at €4 billion—at a time when most were guessing that Chinese or Middle Eastern investors would help out Orbán. Two months later, Bloomberg confirmed our report; then, in December, the European Commission received and approved the government and Vinci’s joint official request on the acquisition.
If you like our scoops, stories and exclusive analysis, here are some more articles from our partners!
MORE TO READ FROM OUR PARTNERS
SANCTIONED BELARUSIAN STEEL CONTINUES TO ARRIVE TO THE CZECH REPUBLIC. AGAIN, THROUGH KAZAKHSTAN. Another classic sanctions evasion scheme, uncovered by our Czech partner investigace.cz together with independent Belarusian journalism outlet Flagštok. It’s astonishing that even the most basic sanctions evasion tricks still work. (Text in Czech.)
FOOTBALL DOESN’T CARE ABOUT SANCTIONS. EUROPEAN CLUBS ACTIVELY TRADE WITH RUSSIA. From PSV Eindhoven to a small second league Slovak football club, 38 clubs from the European Union have been concluding multi-million euro player transfer agreements with Russian clubs, this international investigation, of which ICJK.sk was part, reveals. (Text in Slovak and English.)
MORE JOURNALISTS HAVE BEEN KILLED IN ISRAEL’S WAR WITH HAMAS THAN IN THE WAR IN UKRAINE. Atlatszo.hu’s analysis of a fresh Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) report shows that “no other war has taken so many journalists’ lives in such a short time span” since CPJ started gathering data on the number of killed journalists in 1992. (Text in Hungarian and English.)
BREEDING SOMEONE ELSE’S PIGS. Frontstory.pl’s new investigation reveals how large foreign corporations and middlemen dominate the Polish pork industry, where local Polish farmers are just subcontractors who are barely able to survive. (Text in Polish.)
This was VSquare’s 11th Goulash newsletter.
I hope you gobbled it up. Come back soon for another serving, and check previous newsletter issues uploaded online here!
SZABOLCS PANYI & THE VSQUARE TEAM
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.