Goulash: Orbán’s weeks of crisis; Ján Kuciak remembered

Szabolcs Panyi 2024-02-22
Szabolcs Panyi 2024-02-22

Greetings from Berlin, where I’m trying to explain to a German audience what’s happening in my home country, Hungary – which I will also explain to you, our readers, in this latest edition of Goulash. In addition to a scandal involving pedophilia and the resignation of Hungary’s president, we’ll also go over how Visegrád leaders will be reuniting now that Hungary is finally about to greenlight Sweden’s NATO accession and the latest stories of Russian and Chinese influence over Budapest – plus some other scoops and stories involving the rest of Central Europe. But first and foremost: my Slovak colleagues collected memories from friends and colleagues of Ján Kuciak, who was murdered six years ago this week. 

Some housekeeping: Due to popular demand, we switched back to sending the newsletter in the evening for our European subscribers, which means our US audience is also already awake when it hits their inboxes. We are also introducing a new feature: From now on, we will publish the newsletter and the online article version simultaneously, so you can instantly share the link with your friends. However, I’d be even happier if you also convinced them to subscribe – for that, we have this other link.

 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 focus on Hungary, but also pay plenty of attention to the rest of the Visegrád region.


After a long hiatus, prime ministers of the rather disintegrated Visegrád Group will finally meet in Prague on February 27 (this doesn’t count as a newsletter scoop, because, knowing that the official announcement was imminent, I already broke this news on X/Twitter on Monday). When I first heard about this last week from government officials from the V4 countries, I knew immediately that the Hungarian ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession would happen at least a day before, on February 26, at the start of the Hungarian parliament’s spring session (this was indeed also officially announced since). Why? Because Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala made it clear in January that a V4 prime ministerial meeting could only happen if Hungary both supported the EU’s financial aid for Ukraine, which it did on February 1 at the EU Council meeting, and ratified Sweden’s NATO accession.

However, the Prague get-together is not exactly going to be a lovefest. “There is lots of criticism towards Orbán in Prague, and the Czechs are not enthusiastic about this meeting at all. But it’s a tradition to have such meetings, and I can’t remember a single year where a meeting of PMs didn’t happen,” a diplomat from one Visegrád country told me, adding that the summit will be “much more formal than the previous ones” due to all the internal tension. If Orbán didn’t cave in and support the EU financial aid for Ukraine on February 1, there would certainly be no meeting at all, the diplomat said, adding that the scheduling of the V4 meeting for February 27 was also meant to put pressure on Orbán to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership the day before. Another reason for this meeting finally happening is that Polish prime minister “Donald Tusk could send a strong message to Orbán” while standing next to him at the joint press conference, the diplomat said. Prime Minister Fiala is also expected to directly address his criticism, albeit in his more academic, reserved style. 


On Monday at the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers once again fumed over Hungary’s threat to derail EU sanctions if three Russian oligarchs – Viatcheslav Kantor, Alisher Usmanov and Dmitry Mazepin – were not removed from the asset-freeze and visa-ban sanctions, a European diplomat with detailed knowledge of the discussion told me. Orbán’s government has been making attempts to de-list Russian oligarchs for more than a year now. Originally, however, they tried to save nine of them. Now they’re focused on just three. This suggests that these three individuals – including the father of former F1 driver Nikita “Mazespin” Mazepin, whom foreign minister Péter Szijjártó met last October – are the most important to the Hungarian government, for whatever reason.

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic at this FAC meeting was working on the opposite: pushing for sanctions that would limit the free Schengen movement of Russian diplomats, the European diplomat told me. This was confirmed to me by a Czech government official who added that opposition to their initiative by Germany, Austria and Italy, among others, hasn’t softened. “We are now working on this to be included in the fourteenth sanctions package if we don’t succeed now,” the official said. The Czechs are concerned that, after they expelled dozens of Russian spies disguised as diplomats at the Prague embassy, Russian intelligence keeps operating on Czech soil from neighboring countries. “Germany, Vienna, Budapest — we’re certain that Russian intelligence is still active from those places,” the Czech official said. In the end, neither the Hungarian nor the Czech initiative received enough support. (If you want to read more on how Russian spies work while under diplomatic cover, read this recent story from Slovakia, or this other one about a spy who operated both in Slovakia and Hungary, or my in-depth interview with a former high-ranking Hungarian counterintelligence officer.)


Officially, Slovak think-tank GLOBSEC cited a “lack of capacity” as the reason for moving its flagship event, GLOBSEC Forum, from Bratislava either to Prague or Warsaw, and from the spring to the autumn. This major security forum is regarded by many as the second most important in Central Europe after the Munich Security Conference, and it has brought top foreign government officials from EU/NATO countries to Slovakia every year since 2005. However, many in Robert Fico’s new Slovak government, especially junior coalition partner SNS, have been rather hostile toward GLOBSEC. The government not only cut funding for the event but also made it practically impossible for them to welcome high-level international guests, multiple foreign policy experts and Central European diplomats told me. “The Slovak foreign ministry has always been providing the GLOBSEC Forum with diplomatic protocol service and support. But it was told they won’t help anymore,” a security expert said. “The MFA’s passive-aggressive attitude regarding the protocol service is making the event impossible in Slovakia,” a Czech government official told me, adding that Prague would be happy to host the conference. 


Viktor Orbán and his supporters are still mourning the political career of Katalin Novák, the country’s president who was forced to resign after her presidential pardon for a convicted pedophile’s accomplice – a man who helped cover up years of sexual abuse at a orphanage – came to light. (Don’t forget to read my investigation into how and why Novák decided on the pardon!) Novák was instrumental to Orbán’s foreign policy ambitions as her image was carefully built-up to present a friendlier, more pro-Western, and generally more acceptable face of the regime to the world. However, the trick of trotting Novák around as some kind of an independent actor who truly represented something different from Orbán had already been debunked in many European capitals. On a recent visit to Tallinn, sources familiar with the Hungarian effort to set up a meeting for Katalin Novák with Estonian President Alar Karis told me that the request was quickly refused. “Even just to schedule a meeting with the presidential office to discuss an invitation was challenging to the Hungarian embassy,” a diplomatic source told me. Czech President Petr Pavel also received and refused an invitation from Novák to visit Budapest, according to multiple Czech government officials with whom I spoke. And, as I reported in a previous Goulash newsletter, there was so much desperation on the part of the Hungarians to get Polish president Andrzej Duda to meet Novák that they posted details about the meeting before the Poles agreed to it. After all that effort, Novák’s out, and whether and where she’s welcome doesn’t really matter anymore.


In his recent state of the nation speech (excerpts available in English here), Viktor Orbán not only dwelled on President Novák’s resignation and the crisis it created but also outlined plans for, for example, how Hungary would overcome its looming energy shortage. He tried to convince his audience that there will be no shortage at all, partly because the Paks II nuclear power plant – under construction by Russia’s Rosatom – will be up and operational. However, multiple Western government officials following the Russian project in Hungary shared a different view of the matter with me: One of them recalled a conversation with a high-ranking Hungarian government official who admitted that the Paks II project’s official 2030 (or early 2030s) deadline is “just a political slogan,” and that it’s unrealistic that even that already heavily postponed deadline could be met. Another Western government official added that, according to their experts’ estimate, 2035 is the earliest possible date for Paks II to be finished.

However, Orbán also announced another solution in his speech: “We will build our solar power plants of all sizes at top speed,” he claimed. Orbán didn’t offer any details, and made no mention of the cost, financing, or exact technology involved. But many weeks before Orbán’s speech, a well-connected business source told me that a huge solar power rush is coming — just with a few key details that Orbán neglected to mention. “Chinese companies who are building battery and EV factories in Hungary realized that the Orbán government is unable to provide them with solutions for their energy needs, so they took the matter into their own hands and will build their own solar power plants,” the business source said. The size of Chinese solar power investments is said to be at least $2.5 billion (HUF 900 billion), and it would also benefit the government-connected Hungarian companies working as subcontractors who currently dominate certain segments of the solar industry.

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



On February 21, 2018, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, were killed in Veľká Mača. The Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak (ICJK.sk) interviewed the murdered journalist’s colleagues and friends who shared memories, both professional and personal, of Jano – and also recalled how they felt on learning about the assassination. It’s a very emotional read, and one I strongly recommend.


Who masterminded and lobbied for a controversial presidential pardon that destroyed the political careers of Hungarian President Katalin Novák and former Minister of Justice Judit Varga and led to the biggest political scandal of Viktor Orbán’s government? Hungarian readers of this newsletter already know very well who that person was – because after we uncovered his role with Hungarian outlets Direkt36 and Telex, bishop Zoltán Balog was also forced to resign – but those of you who are not entirely familiar with the story can read everything here.


Predator is like the budget version of Pegasus, the quite formidable spyware that can hack mobile phones. Predator can, too, but in a less sophisticated way: The person being targeted needs to interact with it in some way, like by clicking a stupid link. Investigace.cz uncovered that the North Macedonia-registered company behind the spyware, Cytrox, opted for yet another budget option when it tapped its director, the person legally responsible for the company — and went with  a 70-year-old Czech granny who claims she has never even heard about Cytrox. Remember: don’t listen to people who tell you to click on random links – unless it’s this one, where you can read the whole story!


In recent months, Investigace.cz’s Mahulena Kopecká single-handedly uncovered first how wealthy, US-backed, ultra-conservative groups are scheming in the Czech Republic, then how they found a new boogeyman (or boogeywoman) in parents seeking surrogates. In her latest article, which we’re proudly presenting in English, she explains how Poland’s Ordo Iuris movement influenced the Polish government and legislation when Law and Justice was in power. Read the story on Ordo Iuris and their impact on the Polish abortion law here.


“Officially unemployed, unofficially Davy de Valk had a lucrative side-hustle. With little training, he made hundreds of thousands as a blackhat hacker for organized crime – in one very peculiar niche.” Paul May and Pavla Holcová’s story for Investigace.cz – part of the international NarcoFiles investigation which is shortlisted for the Sigma 2024 award  – is an extremely detailed account of the career of a Dutch hacker who penetrated major European seaports’ IT systems on behalf of cocaine smugglers. Until de Valk’s story is turned into a movie (as it should be), you can read it in article form here.


Of course we’re not. We have enough problems already. And why would we be preparing for a mega-fire, right? Well, read our new environmental story – which was written as part of a larger cooperative international effort – on how the risk of fire is growing throughout the continent, including in Central Europe; what preventative measures can be taken; and how we’re lagging behind in taking the necessary steps to avoid natural disasters. Read the story here.

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


SAFE.JOURNALISM.SK PLATFORM REGISTERED 48 ATTACKS AGAINST JOURNALISTS IN 2023. ICJK.sk’s journalism protection project has been running for a year, and here is the summary of their first findings: Among 48 registered incidents, there were three physical attacks and two death threats against Slovak journalists, plus eight cases of stalking. As we have stressed multiple times in this newsletter, and as we will continue to make as clear as we can: Press freedom in Slovakia is rapidly deteriorating, and we should pay attention to these worrying developments. (Text in Slovak.) 

HOW VIKTOR ORBÁN TRIED TO EXTINGUISH THE PEDOPHILE PARDON SCANDAL THAT SHOOK HIS GOVERNMENT. After uncovering the secret role of Reformed Church head Zoltán Balog in Hungary’s gigantic political scandal, Direkt36.hu also found out how Orbán and his inner circle reacted to the events behind the scenes – and how they made the decision to get rid of the country’s president. (Text in Hungarian and English.)

INTEGRITY AUTHORITY FILED A CRIMINAL COMPLAINT ABOUT THE EU-FUNDED CANOPY WALKWAYS. Hungary’s treeless treetop-walkway became a new symbol of EU fraud, thanks to Atlatszo.hu’s reporting, and now it seems that the country’s new anti-corruption body is taking legal action. (Text in Hungarian and English.)

HOW TO PLAY THE EU LIKE A FIDDLE. Frontstory.pl tells the story of an EU funded concert hall construction in Warsaw which was finished from the outside – but not from the inside, and it all looks like a scam. (Text in Polish.)

MORE “BLOOD GAS”: THE CZECH REPUBLIC WANTS TO REPLACE RUSSIAN GAS WITH AZERBAIJANI GAS WHILE THE ALIYEV REGIME IMPRISONS HUNDREDS OF ITS OPPONENTS. Substituting Russian imports with something else – the plan was good, its execution, not so much. (Text in Czech.)

This was VSquare’s 15th Goulash newsletter. I hope you gobbled it up. Come back soon for another serving. 

Still hungry? Check the previous newsletter issues here!


Subscribe to Goulash, our original VSquare newsletter that delivers the best investigative journalism from Central Europe straight to your inbox!

By filling in the data and subscribing to the Newsletter, you consent to the sending of the “Goulash Newsletter” to the e-mail address provided. The data provided in the form will not be used for any other purpose.

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.