Goulash: Orbán vs USA & NATO, Russian spies expelled

Szabolcs Panyi 2024-02-08
Szabolcs Panyi 2024-02-08

Greetings from Budapest! Our Central European team has kicked off 2024 with a handful of cool new investigations and explanatory articles, meaning that this newsletter is now full of thrilling content – Russia, spiesViktor Orbán and Ukraine… you name it, we’re covering it. And, after criss-crossing the region from Warsaw to Bratislava, I’ve also gained insight into what’s going on in Visegrád politics, meaning this serving of Goulash is filled with scoops from each of the four countries. Finally, in the analysis section, I tried to make sense of why Hungary is still blocking Sweden’s NATO membership. 

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 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 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 this issue, we’re focusing on the big picture, revealing what’s going on behind the scenes in regional politics and alliance-building.


In recent weeks, there have been two key issues dividing the unpopular Czech government’s five-party coalition. One is the introduction of the euro, which re-emerged as a political debate after President Petr Pavel surprisingly mentioned it in his New Year’s speech. The second is the so-called marriage for all bill, which was debated in the Czech Parliament this week. In both cases, breaking with their allies, Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s conservative ODS party has been taking rather skeptical, reluctant positions, which are very close to those of former prime minister Andrej Babiš’s liberal-turned-populist ANO party. When it comes to the introduction of the euro, “it seems to be a four against one” within the coalition, a senior Czech MP from the coalition told me. In the case of marriage equality, it’s more of a three against two, as ODS is also joined by the Christian Democrats (KDU) in opposing gay marriage and opting for a more neutral “partnership” phrasing. “For ODS it’s actually a rather long-term ideological line. Babiš does whatever the polls and focus groups tell them to do,” a Czech MP’s aide told me, adding that ODS is more united against the euro than marriage for all (some in their ranks actually support the latter). And while PM Fiala is opposed to cooperating with Babiš and ANO, his party’s right-wing does not necessarily feel the same, and they are increasingly emboldened by ANO’s rise in opinion polls. Both Czech politicians and political analysts I’ve talked to say that regional elections in the autumn will be decisive for how intra-party tensions within ODS will play out – and for determining whether there will be a coup against Fiala, and if ODS’s right flank will go as far as pulling out of the five-party coalition to switch sides and help Babiš’s early return to power.


But first, we have the European Parliament elections coming up in June. These elections could also reshape regional political alliances. After the recent EU summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party took important steps toward joining the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in the EP, thanks to endorsements from ECR’s two main parties: Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice. However, Fidesz’s entrance into ECR would mean that they’d also become allies with ECR’s Czech member – Petr Fiala’s ODS. This would create a strange situation where Fidesz is officially allied with the main Czech governing party while de facto rooting for the Czech government to fall and Babiš to return. Officially, ODS is against Fidesz’s membership in the ECR group as Orbán’s position on Ukraine and his friendliness toward the Kremlin are no-gos for them. However, as a senior Czech MP explained it to me, “part of ODS is still a fan of Orbán, and it is unknown which part of ODS prevails.”

For example, ODS’s EP leader and party vice-chairman, Alexandr Vondra ”used to be a drinking buddy of Orbán in the early 1990s, so I expect no big worries there,” the MP explained. While Vondra seemed to be genuinely disillusioned with Orbán because he maintained his pro-Kremlin views after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it seems that he has since forgiven Orbán. As a Czech foreign policy expert highlighted for me, in a recent Czech TV interview, Vondra confirmed that he and the right-wing of ODS sympathizes with Orbán – and even some of his anti-LGBT policies – and that, while he doesn’t support his position on Ukraine, he sees Orbán’s troublemaking at EU summits as revenge for the EU’s illegitimate sanctioning of Hungary. But there’s another twist: many expect that Orbán’s long-term plan is to try to bring his populist Visegrád buddies, Babiš’s ANO (whose membership in the Renew/ALDE family is suspended) and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer (whose membership in S&D also suspended) under the same party family. “I don’t see ODS being OK with that,” the Czech foreign policy expert told me. Although Slovakia’s Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party – who are both against Orbán and Fico – are also sitting in the ECR, their lone MEP doesn’t really matter much.


Speaking of Slovakia: While many saw it as symbolic—and a sign of his close relationship to Viktor Orbán—that Fico’s compulsory first visit as Slovak prime minister to Prague was followed by a trip to Budapest. In truth, though, this was only because German Chancellor Olaf Scholz got Covid and Fico had to reschedule his travels. This was the real reason why Fico only got to Berlin on January 24, where, according to a well-connected Central European foreign policy expert, the Slovak prime minister was extremely pragmatic and friendly with Scholz during their talks. “Fico even offered Scholz to mediate between him and Orbán, and that he can help keep the Hungarian prime minister in line with the EU’s mainstream” on supporting Ukraine, the source added. This is quite interesting given that, in his public comments, Fico claimed that he would essentially serve as a side-kick to Orbán in his anti-Ukrainian battle with Brussels at the EU summit on February 1—which he didn’t, obviously. “Fico is smart. He knows that as soon as Ukraine’s reconstruction starts, there will be potentially a lot of money, say, to building roads, schools, hospitals in Transcarpathia,” a Western diplomat posted in Bratislava told me.

Robert Fico seems to be playing the same game when it comes to the United States. His pro-Russian and sometimes anti-American rhetoric is one thing— his actions are another. For example, according to a US government official with whom I spoke it doesn’t look like Fico will actually contest the US-Slovak Defense Cooperation Agreement, which he vehemently attacked while in the opposition. Moreover, Fico has been meeting with the US Ambassador to Bratislava since before he took office; met with a recent congressional delegation; and even with Assistant State Secretary for Europe Jim O’Brien – a stark contrast to Viktor Orbán’s lack of direct communication with US counterparts. While Hungary is proceeding with the Rosatom-built Paks2 nuclear power plant project, Slovakia continues to participate in Project Phoenix with Westinghouse building small modular nuclear reactors. The US official also added that Fico confidant Robert Kalinak, currently Minister of Defense, will soon visit an arms factory in the US as he’s bargaining to try to buy a Patriot air defense system with a discount. (You can find VSquare/ICJK.sk’s Slovak stories here, including juicy investigations into high-level corruption.)


Orbán is going the opposite direction. According to sources close to the Hungarian government, the Hungarian prime minister’s strategy for transatlantic relations is quite simple: ignore US criticism over its pro-Kremlin policies and wait until Donald Trump is hopefully elected president (to be clear, Orbán’s the one doing the hoping). Orbán’s foreign influence machinery—which includes Hungarian political consultants and spin doctors eager to help out the Trump campaign—are even trying to contribute in a small way, as I previously reported. At the same time, many within the Hungarian government see the Biden administration as “dragged down by multiple domestic and foreign conflicts,” and believe that the “current US administration has no real leverage” over the Hungarian government, my sources said. The latter is also a reaction to US Ambassador to Budapest David Pressman’s recent Financial Times interview, in which he said that “we absolutely have leverage (…) and we’re prepared to use our leverage.” Sources close to the Hungarian government also told me that, through his frequent public comments and appearances, the US ambassador inadvertently plays into the Orbán government’s hands. “He makes it easy for the Hungarian right-wing media to personalize anti-US sentiments and create a boogeyman out of him,” a source said of the ambassador. The US Embassy in Budapest declined to comment, and instead referred to Pressman’s FT interview, in which he said that the US cared about Hungary and regarded it as an ally but it was highly unusual that it refused to engage with US security concerns. Orbán’s government “would prefer to wait out the current administration”, according to the ambassador.


In our previous issue, we reported on how Viktor Orbán is eying the next EU Commission’s competition portfolio for Hungary, and that his current frontrunner for the job is MEP Enikő Győri. In this issue, VSquare editor-in-chief Anna Gielewska has some updates on the Polish government’s plans, too. A prominent source from the governing Civic Coalition told her that one of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s top picks as EU commissioner is former MEP Bartosz Arłukowicz. Before the Polish parliamentary election in October, Arlukowicz gave up his seat in Brussels and returned to the Polish Sejm, where he is currently chairing the Health Committee. (In the European Parliament, Arlukowicz was chairman of the Special Committee on Beating Cancer and the Subcommittee on Public Health.)

However, according to another source closely following Polish-EU affairs, the actual Polish candidate will mainly depend on the EU Commission’s portfolio puzzle. “Potentially, Radek Sikorski could be a strong candidate for High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, though for now, it seems this position will be appointed by the liberals (ALDE/Renew). According to the current Brussels state of play, the European People’s Party (where Tusk’s Civic Coalition belongs) is still to lead the Commission with Ursula von der Leyen,” the source added. In such a scenario, it is not clear what portfolio would most interest Poland. According to a source closely following Polish-EU affairs, this could perhaps be the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, who would be focusing on Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldavia’s accession. “Tusk might think of various candidates; I would say for now, the only quite predictable thing is that Arlukowicz is expected to go back to the EP after the upcoming elections,” the source said. (Arlukowicz himself was unreachable for comment).


While tensions between the Polish government and President Andrzej Duda’s office are increasing on a daily basis, the Polish MFA is trying to figure out how to replace Law and Justice-appointed ambassadors. A source close to the Polish MFA told VSquare’s Anna Gielewska that the most crucial posts to replace are Washington DC, London, Paris, and Berlin, where pro-Law and Justice ambassadors are still very active. An initial “offer” for Duda’s office, according to the source, is to leave in place Duda’s closest allies and his former lieutenants in the Presidential Office: that is, Permanent Representative of Poland to the United Nations Krzysztof Szczerski and Polish Ambassador to China Jakub Kumoch. If the “offer” is not welcome, the Polish MFA might try a different approach. “Worst-case scenario is that we might call the ambassadors back for consultation and appoint a handful ​​of chargé d’affaires (interim ambassadors) instead,” the source said. This approach might result in calling home current Polish Ambassador to the US Marek Magierowski and replacing him with Ryszard Shnepf, a former ambassador who would be temporarily back in DC in a chargé d’affaires role. At the same time, the Tusk government is still looking for a strong candidate for Ukraine to replace Ambassador Jarosław Guzy, who was appointed by Law and Justice in October. Jerzy Marek Nowakowski, a former Polish ambassador to Latvia and Armenia, is expected to be a top candidate for the role of ambassador to Georgia, according to the source.

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



Former director of operations at Hungary’s counterintelligence Ferenc Katrein goes into detail about how allied security agencies identify which Russian diplomats are working for the SVR, the FSB, or the GRU; how counterintelligence tries to recruit them as double agents; and what happens when they eventually decide to expel them. I did this interview with Katrein many months ago while working on our ESPIOMATS’ investigations (in case you missed it, check out our Europe-wide story on spy antennas at Russian embassy rooftops) but we decided to wait to publish it until we had a fresh story about expelled Russian spies… Anyway, I really enjoyed doing this interview and recommend reading it!


And here is that fresh story about expelled Russian spies. My colleagues at the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak (ICJK) in Slovakia managed to identify the Russian diplomat who was kicked out of the country last September for trying to meddle in the Slovak parliamentary election. His name is Kirill Lomov, and he is a young SVR spy who posed as an economic diplomat in Bratislava while, in reality, “he had a well-developed network of collaborators and tried to influence public opinion” before the election, as then-foreign minister Miroslav Wlachovský said. Read ICJK’s investigation here.


This is an amazingly detailed account of why coastal fishers on the Baltic sea are on the verge of extinction, illustrated with beautiful photos. Frontstory.pl’s Tadeusz Michrowski spent quite some time trying to find out how EU regulations, industrial trawlers (the environmentally most unfriendly way of fishing), gray seals, and even parasitic roundworms are driving Polish fishermen out of business. Read this great environmental story here.


Direkt36’s András Szabó offers an exclusive peek into Viktor Orbán’s strange yet fascinating worldview. Orbán, behind closed doors at a meeting last year, revealed to his audience what he really thinks of Ukraine’s EU membership, and why he opposes it. In brief: the Hungarian prime minister thinks that Poland and the Baltic states have essentially become puppets of the United States and that, were Ukraine to join the EU, the zone of US-influence would grow so big that it would even eclipse France’s influence. Orbán also said that he warned Emmanuel Macron about this. However, the French president didn’t really get what Orbán was trying to say. Neither do I, to be honest, apart from the fact that Orbán’s thinking bears an uncanny resemblance to the Kremlin’s—but read the piece yourself, it’s worth it!


Here’s another extremely weird Orbán story by yours truly. This time, it’s about the prime minister’s only son, Gáspár Orbán, and how he tried to conceal his involvement in a planned military mission to Chad (where Hungary is to send 200 troops without anyone really understanding why.) However, Hungary’s own Prince Harry didn’t disguise himself in camouflage uniform during some dangerous military mission. Instead, dressed in fashionable Italian blazers, pocket handkerchiefs ,and sporting a well-groomed mustache, he put on a green fedora as well as surgical masks while meeting with presidents and ministers in marble halls of African palaces. Together with Le Monde, Direkt36 managed to identify him and his role in numerous diplomatic meetings, despite the masks and disguises. Read the rest here, and watch it on video.

Press freedom in Slovakia is deteriorating at a fast pace, and we stand in full solidarity with our ICJK.sk colleagues who are among the first ones to come into the Fico government’s crosshairs. A high-ranking Slovak Ministry of Culture official’s recent threat against the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak— “you are a PLAGUE and plague needs to be treated by antibiotics – sorry, anti-Sorosiotics”—is also a good example of how the George Soros conspiracy theory was successfully exported from Hungary to Slovakia.

BREWING IN THE BOTTOM – exclusive analysis

ONLY ONE COUNTRY BENEFITS FROM HUNGARY’S BLOCKING OF SWEDEN’S NATO MEMBERSHIP. It was almost a year ago that I tried to analyze the reasons behind Hungary’s stalling of Sweden’s NATO membership. At the time, I came up with four theories: Hungary was comfortable playing second fiddle to Turkey; Orbán was trying to extort Sweden, perhaps over something linked to arms deals (for example, Gripen fighter jets); Sweden was being taken hostage as Orbán tried to blackmail the EU into releasing EU funds blocked due to Hungary’s corruption and violation of rule of law; and last but not least, that Orbán was doing a favor to the Kremlin. Now, a year later, three of my theories can clearly be thrown out.

It was widely believed—including by Swedish and US government officials—that Turkey was the key holdout and Hungary was just coordinating with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, helping him to pressure both Sweden and the US. A year later, Erdogan approved Sweden’s NATO bid after getting what he wanted—which included F-16 fighter jets from the US. However, Hungary still hasn’t inched closer to a ratification vote. My second theory about Orbán’s transactionalism and the involvement of arms deals was refuted by Swedish officials with whom I’ve spoken—they claimed that, unlike Erdogan, who clearly wanted fighter jets, Hungary didn’t come up with a similar demand. Likewise, Sweden’s NATO membership was never part of EU negotiations over Hungary’s blocked funds—which have been partly released, regardless of the Sweden-NATO issue. The only theory that still stands is that Hungary’s move is somehow connected to its Russia policy.

After Turkey’s parliament ratified the Swedish accession, on January 23, I spent half an hour on the phone with New York Times East and Central Europe bureau chief Andrew Higgins as we tried to make sense of Orbán’s behavior (here’s what he wrote). I told him that it’s the “Russia theory” that still stands, adding that, of course, there are no hard facts to substantiate the suspicions that there’s some sinister deal between Orbán and Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, the unsubstantiated Russia theory not only still holds, but, when I try to approach this mystery from a different angle, focusing on who benefits from Hungary’s behavior instead of trying to figure out Orbán’s motivation, the answer is, again: only Russia. Only Russia benefits from Orbán’s behavior. Or at least I’m unable to come up with any justification for how this behavior advances Hungarian interests.

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


HUNGARIAN MEPS FEATURE IN EUROPE-WIDE MISCONDUCT INVESTIGATION BEFORE ELECTIONS.  Atlatszo.hu found that Hungarian members of the European Parliament feature prominently in the MEP Misconduct Project database, an international investigation that collected controversial cases involving MEPs. (Text in English and Hungarian.)

AN INTERNATIONAL ARMS DEALER MANUFACTURES GUNS IN A FACTORY IN KARLOVY VARY. WHO IS DIMITRY STRESHINSKY?  Investigace.cz’s article on the colorful personality of a Ukrainian-born arms dealer who holds at least six nationalities really deserves to be turned into a movie in the style of Nicolas Cage’s Lord of War. (Text in Czech.)

PRIEST DOWNLOADS CHILD PORNOGRAPHY, CHURCH TRANSFERS HIM TO POLAND. A joint investigation of Frontstory.pl and Lithuania’s Redakcija reveals how the Catholic church evacuated a priest convicted in Lithuania of possessing child pornography to the Polish city of Olsztyn—where he works quietly as a chaplain these days. (Text in Polish and video in Lithuanian.)

This was VSquare’s 14th 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.