Greetings from Warsaw, where VSquare’s team worked on a small upgrade to – or face-lift for – this newsletter, so as to keep Goulash fresh and trendy! Our menu for today includes a deep dive into Hungarian-EU affairs with the help of my favorite Hungarian journalist (you have to scroll down to find out who she is); scary stories about corruption in Slovakia and the next enemy of the culture war in the Czech Republic; and an extra serving of Visegrád diplomacy scoops (no analysis this time, sorry). First, a public service announcement: Starting with the next issue, Goulash will be sent out at 10 in the morning instead of 7 in the evening CET on every second Thursday.
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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 new issue, we’re bringing more scoops from Central Europe and Brussels. But first, let’s begin with a Balkan connection!
CORRUPT, PRO-RUSSIAN PM WHO SPIED ON HIS CRITICS HAS PLANS TO LEAVE HUNGARY
Don’t get too excited. This scoop is about – who else? – Nikola Gruevski. In 2018, North Macedonia’s fugitive former prime minister was evacuated to Budapest with the help of Hungary’s foreign intelligence. Viktor Orbán’s government instantly granted him asylum (Gruevski has been occasionally spotted in Budapest’s upscale second district neighborhood, or meeting with Hungarian businessmen and MFA officials.) Recently, however, the convicted ex-PM has been busy readying his return to North Macedonian politics, according to multiple Balkan experts and a Central European political consultant working in the country I’ve talked to. Formally, Gruevski has asylum in Hungary because he fears for his life. In reality, however, he’s been traveling back and forth to the Balkans in secret. One source claimed that he has definitely held meetings in Serbia.
According to my sources, there’s also a plot twist here: The formerly pro-Russian (and pro-Orbán) Gruevski’s ambitions are supported by the United States. Moreover, he also seems to be coordinating with the current pro-Western SDSM ruling party that once dethroned him. Gruevski’s estranged former party, the still quite pro-Russian VMRO-DPMNE, is flying high in the polls and is set to win the May 2024 parliamentary elections. A VMRO-DPMNE win could derail the country’s EU ambitions as they are opposing a key constitutional change and reforms that are needed for accession talks to continue. And this is where Gruevski comes in. If he could successfully return to politics by, for example, setting up a new party, he could split the VMRO-DPMNE vote and help secure a majority to back the constitutional change. There are still many ifs and hows about Gruevski’s return to his home country, but, given the new friends and allies he’s made, it’s clear that he’s already on his way out of Hungary
CZECHS FED UP WITH RUSSIAN “ESPIOMATS” BUT SOME OF THEIR NEIGHBORS HESITATE
A new-old initiative by Czech diplomats would restrict the movement of Russian diplomats and their family members within the Schengen Zone such that they could only go to the countries where they are accredited (individuals otherwise have free movement within the Schengen zone). The Czechs wanted this to be included in the EU’s twelfth sanctions package, and are now aiming for the thirteenth package, hoping it would be accepted by February 24, 2024, the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine. “There are countries that did literally nothing to decrease Russian diplomatic presence after February 24, and we know many of the Russian diplomats are undercover spies and can still move freely in Schengen,” a senior Czech diplomat told me, adding that “we are glad that we kicked them out, and we do not need more coming over from Austria, Hungary, and other countries.” I’ve already reported in a previous Goulash newsletter that, for example, Slovakia is also aware that Russian spies are commuting to Bratislava from Vienna nowadays. The Czech diplomat could not share similar details, but said that “I can imagine that our proposal is also based on our intelligence reports.” While Austria expelled only a few Russian diplomats, Hungary did not even bother to send home a single one, solidifying Vienna and Budapest’s status as Russian spy nests.
While Poland and the Baltic states enthusiastically back the Czech initiative, the rest are “rather lukewarm,” with three key countries – Germany, Austria and Italy – opposing the restriction. Hungary, of course, is also expected to be a “troublemaker.” However, “the presumption is that if Germany says yes, Hungary will follow suit,” the Czech diplomat said. On the other hand, a senior diplomat from one of the Central European countries opposing the initiative listed their reservations, starting with the fact that they are skeptical that the thirteenth sanctions package could pass by February 24. But the biggest problem is both legal and practical. For example, diplomats posted at permanent representations to international institutions are also supposed to participate in events (summits, conferences, etc.) organized in other countries. “But we are also afraid of retaliation, for example, that Russia would hit back in a similar manner, and our diplomats would be confined to Moscow only, for example,” the Central European diplomat added
VISEGRÁD GROUP DISINTEGRATION CONTINUES, NO V4 PM MEETING IN SIGHT
There’s the extraordinary EU Summit coming up on February 1 – don’t forget to read this new explainer interview on Hungary vs the EU – but there’s still no news about the once compulsory Visegrád Group prime ministerial meeting happening before that. The current Czech V4 presidency is keeping a very low profile, but Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who has probably been the most frustrated with having to deal with V4 issues, has previously cited the formation of the new Slovak and then new Polish government as an excuse for not holding a get-together. More recently, according to some subtle Fiala comments (as well as Central European foreign policy experts interpreting them to me), the condition for a meeting became Hungary’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership and the European Peace Facility for Ukraine. Meanwhile, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk just said something in Kyiv that suggests he’s not enthusiastic about meeting Orbán, either: “Those who silently support Putin are betraying Europe in every way and will be remembered and not forgiven.”
IN PRAGUE, HUNGARY’S PRESIDENT SURPRISED V4 COLLEAGUES WITH ANTI-UKRAINE REMARKS
According to well-connected Polish and Czech foreign policy experts, the last high-level V4 meeting in Prague on November 22, 2023, was a problematic one due to Hungarian President Katalin Novák’s remarks. Novák is an important asset for Hungarian diplomacy. By portraying herself as a more mainstream, pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian face of the Orbán regime, she receives invitations to places where Orbán government officials have been long unwelcome. At the Prague meeting, however, Novák surprised her Czech host, President Petr Pavel, as well as her Polish and Slovak counterparts, with unexpected hostility towards Ukraine – which came only a few months after her official visit to Kyiv and a generally positive meeting with President Volodymir Zelenskyy. “Behind closed doors in Prague, Novák was full of Russian narratives, talking about how corrupt Ukraine is, that they are stealing Western aid, and such stuff,” one of the sources with knowledge of the discussion claimed.
HUNGARY BETS ON ANDRZEJ DUDA TO SAVE POLISH-HUNGARIAN FRIENDSHIP
March 23 is the official Day of Polish-Hungarian Friendship, a relatively new and symbolic celebration of the two nations’ brotherhood – which has been canceled by the Polish side in recent years due to Hungary’s ever-tighter brotherly bond with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In the 2010s, however, it had been a great occasion for Poland’s Law and Justice and Hungary’s Fidesz parties to show off their like-mindedness, as represented by both countries’ presidents. But as we revealed in this long read on how Orbán angered his closest Polish allies (that’s actually the article’s title), Hungary’s Katalin Novák made some desperate attempts in 2023 to resume the official celebrations – but Polish president Andrzej Duda gave her the cold shoulder.
This year, the Hungarians are even more desperate. Law and Justice is out of power in Warsaw, and Duda is the closest they can find to a friend in Poland. A few days ago, Poland’s Law and Justice appointed ambassador to Budapest – who may get fired soon, as I wrote in a previous Goulash – and a Fidesz deputy chairman discussed organizing this year’s event, to be held in Stary Sącz (Duda’s hometown), where, “according to the plans,” Novák and Duda “will meet.” At least this is what Fidesz deputy chairman Szilárd Németh posted about the meeting. However, a Polish government official following Hungarian affairs told me that there’s actually no decision yet, adding that “what Szilárd Németh doesn’t understand, he invents.” Meanwhile, and at least in part as a snub to the Hungarians, the first Romanian-Polish Solidarity Day will be held on March 3. As a Polish foreign policy expert told me, the Romanians have long pushed for this initiative, but it was only last year that Poland finally agreed to it. Felicitări!
NEXT TIME, NO NEIGHBORHOOD PORTFOLIO IN BRUSSELS FOR ORBÁN
Hungary is not making many friends in Brussels either – again, do read this interview on what’s going on between Hungary and the EU – ,on the contrary. For example, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming European Parliamentary elections, major EU political groups and a handful of member states will certainly make sure that Hungary won’t get near the European Commission’s Neighborhood and Enlargement portfolio ever again, multiple diplomats from EU countries, as well as MEPs, firmly told me. In 2019, Viktor Orbán pulled every string to ensure that his appointee was in charge of the EU enlargement portfolio – a great tool for extending the Hungarian government’s influence over the Balkans. However, Hungarian Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi’s controversial moves; Hungary’s one-sided support of Serbia and Republika Srpska; and ties to some of the region’s most pro-Russian politicians have outraged many in Brussels. While it’s uncommon that a country or a commissioner gets the same portfolio twice, in this case, according to my sources, there is consensus that Hungary be pushed out of the EU’s foreign policy making as much as possible. And that Olivér Várhelyi should be pushed out along with it.
ORBÁN’S NEW AMBITION: GET THE EU’S COMPETITION PORTFOLIO!
Of course, the Hungarian prime minister knows all of this all too well, and has his eye on a different prize. As a best-case scenario, he wants his nominee to get his – or (more likely) her – hands on the next EU Commission’s competition portfolio, multiple experts on EU affairs and sources close to the Hungarian government told me. As Chinese EV factories and battery plants are popping up all over Hungary, and as these companies receive enormous amounts of Chinese state support – and quite a lot of Hungarian state support as well – it will be crucial for Orbán to mend EU competition rules and regulations in such a way that he can protect investments. However, most of the experts I’ve asked flat out told me that, as it currently stands, handing over such an important portfolio to Orbán looks politically impossible. It also doesn’t help that all former Commissioners for Competition have been political and professional heavyweights, while Orbán’s rumored candidates, with the relatively unknown MEP Enikő Győri as the current frontrunner, seem less convincing. While most of the European media considers former Minister of Justice and future MEP Judit Varga to be Orbán’s possible pick for commissioner, MEPs with whom I’ve talked agree that her tarnished reputation (between the Pegasus spyware surveillances and her aggressive anti-EU rhetoric, it has lost its sheen) make her rather unelectable
Got a nice scoop to include in our Goulash newsletter? Can’t wait to hear it! Send it to me at [email protected]
NEW ON VSQUARE
In less than a week, another showdown will take center stage in Brussels. At the next EU Summit, the leaders of 26 member states will try to convince Viktor Orbán not to block the EU’s financial aid for Ukraine—or at least to go out of the room while they approve it, as he did in December when Ukraine’s EU accession came up for discussion. Nobody really knows what’s going on with Hungary, a country that has two-thirds of its EU funds frozen due to corruption, but still manages to blackmail the other 26, mostly thanks to the complacency and ignorance of many European leaders. To make sense of this mess, I interviewed one of the best-sourced Brussels correspondents, Katalin Halmai (who also happens to be my favorite Hungarian journalist). She has more scoops in any given day than I can gather for this newsletter every two weeks, and her journalism is a real public service for Hungary. Read this interview and lose your faith in EU institutions!
Those who saw “The Killing of a Journalist,” the documentary on the murder of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, surely remember the parts about disgraced Slovak police chief Tibor Gašpar. Well, he’s back. He’s so back, in fact, that Prime Minister Robert Fico labeled him the top candidate to lead Slovakia’s intelligence agency, SIS. The problem is that he’s not only accused of being a senior member of an organized criminal group, but that earlier testimonies from the Kuciak investigation also named him as the person who requested illegal police database searches on journalists, which were subsequently passed on to oligarchs and criminals, including the future killers of Kuciak. ICJK.sk’s Tomáš Madleňák not only explains the detailed history of the accusations against Gašpar, but found that some of Slovakia’s NATO allies have already restricted intelligence sharing with Slovakia. Read the English version of this stunning article here.
It would appear that the culture warriors need to update their boogeymen from time to time. Investigace.cz’s Mahulena Kopecká explains ultra-conservative groups’ new enemy: surrogacy, the process by which a person capable of being pregnant carries a child and gives birth on behalf of another person. The anti-surrogacy campaign mainly exists because many same-sex couples use surrogates. However, the article also tells the story of Czech couple Anna and Petr, who cannot otherwise have a child to whom they are biologically related. The anti-surrogacy movement is spreading all over the world, and the relevant organizations are gathering at international summits and lobbying national parliaments. Read how Central Europe has become one of their prime targets.
If you like our scoops and stories, here are some more articles from our partners!
MORE TO READ FROM OUR PARTNERS
POLAND IS LYING ON A BOMB. Frontstory.pl’s fascinating new multimedia feature maps Poland’s hazardous waste dumps and explains the danger they pose to both the environment and human populations. (Read it in Polish.)
WE ARE SUING FOR THE PAKS II LICENSING DOCUMENTS, STILL NO CONSENSUS ON THE RISKS OF THE TECTONIC FAULT LINE. Nuclear power plants and tectonic fault lines are not the ideal combination in the best of circumstances, but in Hungary, government secrecy can make it even worse, as this Atlatszo.hu article explains. (Read it in English or Hungarian.)
RUSSIAN SPY IN SLOVAKIA USED DIPLOMATIC COVER, WANTED TO INFLUENCE THE ELECTION. ICJK.sk has identified the Russian diplomat expelled from Slovakia in September 2023 as Kirill Lomov, a figure likely working for the SVR – and who tried to meddle in the country’s parliamentary elections through influence operations. (Read it in Slovak.)
CONSERVATIVE NETWORKS IN EUROPE: THE POLISH EXAMPLE. In a new series, Investigace.cz uncovers how ultra-conservative groups trying to influence legislation and politics are building international ties – like Poland’s Ordo Iuris. (Read it in Czech.)
This was VSquare’s 13th Goulash newsletter. I hope you gobbled it up. Come back soon for another serving.
Still hungry? Check the previous newsletter issues here!
SZABOLCS PANYI & THE VSQUARE TEAM
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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.