Imam, Soldier, Diplomat, Interpreter: Meet the Hungarian NewsFront’s Propagandists

Karin Kőváry Sólymos (ICJK), (Szabolcs Panyi (VSquare) 2023-08-28
Karin Kőváry Sólymos (ICJK), (Szabolcs Panyi (VSquare) 2023-08-28

Hungarian NewsFront is active again. But under the management of the Russian government media’s favorite Hungarian pseudo-expert, Miklós Keveházy, the website has been unable to achieve great reach. There might be no need, as Hungarian state propaganda willingly serves as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

The disinformation scene in Hungary is very different from that in neighboring countries. In Hungary, Russian disinformation websites and the spread of suspicious propaganda news by Russian actors are not typical. They have little room for influence because Hungarian government media/propaganda outlets themselves spread Kremlin narratives and conspiracies. 

Nevertheless, the NewsFront disinformation platform has been present in Hungary since 2018. It launched shortly before the shutdown of the Hidfo.ru (Hídfő means bridgehead) website, which had a proven Russian background with ties to the GRU. After a long period of inactivity (October 2021 to August 2022), Hungarian NewsFront is back to full operation again. The fact that the Hungarian language version is one of the least successful of the agency’s 11 language versions does not seem to matter. 

NewsFront is believed to be controlled by Russian intelligence services, specifically the FSB. On the NewsFront website, we can only find the name of the head of the “NewsFront Agency,” Konstantin Knyrik. A pro-Russian activist, Knyrik runs MediaGroup News Front Ltd, registered in the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula, and faces sanctions in the EU, Canada, and the USA for actively undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence, and stability. 

Source: NewsFront

Back in 2015, NewsFront mainly consisted of people who originated from Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia after 2014, namely Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. According to the data in possession of an international team of journalists, apart from Knyrik, NewsFront is also managed by at least 70 other people, who are journalists, freelancers, regional and local editors based in Russia and Europe. Some of them confirmed their ties to NewsFront when talking to our reporters. 

Journalists from six newsrooms spent months analyzing more than 100 email accounts associated with NewsFront and managed to connect some of them to real people who spread Kremlin propaganda in Europe and beyond. Three of them have edited or still edit the Hungarian version of NewsFront. 

Investigative center of Ján Kuciak – ICJK.sk (Slovakia)
Frontstory.pl (Poland)
Investigace.cz (Czech Republic)
KRIK (Serbia)
WDR (Germany)

Dossier Center contributed to the research
Debunk.org contributed to the data analysis

According to Dorka Takácsy, an expert on Russia and external research fellow of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID), the Hungarian NewsFront spreads dumbed-down, straightforward Russian propaganda narratives. “It works with endlessly sensationalist headlines and very short, few-sentence news flashes, but even these are not without spelling mistakes.”

Media researcher and Hungarian fact-checking site Lakmusz.hu journalist Szilvi Német adds that the site promotes narratives capable of deepening the Ukrainian-Hungarian ethnic conflict as well. “A natural target for such disinformation efforts is Transcarpathia, where around 120.000 Hungarians lived before the Russian invasion. The portal has frequently published news reports about anti-Hungarian demonstrations by Ukrainian nationalists or violent so-called “Ukrainianisation” efforts by the Kyiv “regime”,” explains Német. 

The members of the Hungarian editorial board are not listed on the site. However, according to the Polish version of the site, NewsFront even has an editorial office in Hungary. Thanks to a thorough analysis of NewsFront articles and other materials by Investigative Center of Jan Kuciak, VSquare found clues on who was and is still involved in running the website. Among those identified were an ex-diplomat, a Hungarian pseudo-expert, and an imam who fought in eastern Ukraine.

Foreigners behind the site?

Initially, Hungarian NewsFront articles focused almost exclusively on Ukraine, but soon other topics closer to Hungarian readers’ interest, such as migration, appeared. In addition, the several  texts republished by the platform were propaganda pieces expressing the position of Viktor Orbán’s government.

“Viktor Orbán: The war will not have a winner” article by Magyar Hírlap, re-shared on NewsFront. Source: NewsFront (HU)

As we have already reported, shortly after the Hungarian version of NewsFront was launched, there were indications that the people behind the project might not be only Hungarians. Pieces published on the site, which did not quote Hungarian press, were often written in bad or sloppy Hungarian. Moreover, the time of publication displayed was an hour later than the actual time, which suggested that the articles were published in Moscow time. According to Átlátszó, it was also noticeable that the NewsFront site used the “PT Sans” font, which was introduced in 2009 and commissioned by the Russian Ministry of Communications to mark the 300th anniversary of Tsar Peter the Great’s font reform.

Hungarian experts on disinformation also noticed the editors’ poor language skills. They pointed out that “the occasional poor quality of grammar and spelling in some Hungarian articles suggests that it is run by foreigners.” Based on an advertisement, which appeared on the site back around 2018, this is not unimaginable. The site, per the ad, sought to recruit “translators, authors, and loud trumpets,” but what was very telling is that the text of the call itself was grammatically misspelled.

An advert published by the Hungarian NewsFront sought “translators, authors, and loud trumpets.” Source: NewsFront/HU

Our current investigation has uncovered further evidence that supports these suspicions. The Hungarian project was launched with the help of a Russian man who claims to have fought on the Russian side in the conflict in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014. 

A voluntary project

In the spring of 2018, a 40-minute interview with a Russian man named Tanay Cholkhanov was published on YouTube. The interview was moderated by Tamás Krausz, a well-known far-left historian and lecturer at Eötvös Loránd University, and Sándor Csikós, a former diplomat of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Russian, introduced as a fighter for the separatist armed forces in eastern Ukraine, talked about “the pro-Nazi Ukrainian regime’s genocidal war.”  

According to a source with close knowledge of the Hungarian NewsFront’s beginnings, this interview was the initial step leading up to the Hungarian version’s launch. Two key players in the initiative were Cholkhanov, presented in the video as a “people’s uprising fighter,” and Csikós, introduced as an expert on Ukraine.

The exact circumstances under which an alleged separatist soldier arrived in Hungary, or how he made contact with a Hungarian university professor and former diplomat, is not known. However, our source noted that he was surprised by the fact that Cholkhanov was able to travel freely into the country. 

In any event, a few months later, NewsFront’s Hungarian version came to life. According to our source, Cholkhanov was involved in its editing, although he had no knowledge of Hungarian and spoke no languages other than Russian and Tatar. 

We also asked the source familiar with the circumstances of the launch of the Hungarian NewsFront about the financial backing for the project. Our source said the project was run voluntarily. As far as he knew, no one had benefited financially from NewsFront’s central editorial office. The question remains whether this is still the case. 

NewsFront’s first Hungarian article was published on July 2, 2018. The text called for a revolution against Kyiv, the EU, and the US, and it was authored by an alleged freedom fighter in eastern Ukraine. This was none other than Cholkhanov himself. Although he did put his byline on the text, he did not reveal that he himself was also managing NewsFront’s Hungarian platform.  

The fighting imam

To look into the past of Cholkhanov, a middleman between NewsFront’s central editorial office and the Hungarian editors, is to find several interesting details. A fighting imam; a Crimean Tatar public and religious figure; a journalist sympathetic to the rebels; or most recently, a military engineer and a defender of Novorossiya. There is a long list of roles the currently 46-year-old man has held so far. 

Source: Source: VK/Tanay Cholkhanov

Although he is often reported in the press as representing Crimean Tatars, Tanay Cholkhanov is a Volga Tatar from Voronezh, Russia. According to the Myrotvorets Center, “from birth until 2010, he lived in Voronezh under the name of Yuri Sapozhnikov.” 

A few years after the name change, Cholkhanov popped up during the outbreak of the war in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula (referred to by separatists as the Crimean Spring). The Atlantic Council’s DRFLab also noticed him. According to them, this “independent expert” has regularly given dispatches and interviews related to the war to separatist and pro-Russian websites since 2014. 

Before 2014, little was known about his personal history. Before coming to Crimea, he served as an imam in St Petersburg. From there, he was eventually transferred to the later fully occupied peninsula. According to press reports, his mission there was nothing less than waging a campaign against local Crimean Tatar religious leaders who did not support the Russian occupation of Crimea.

“Cholkhanov was ‘deployable’ in Crimea primarily because of his religion and ethnicity, as the peninsula is still home to the largest Tatar minority, who have put up significant resistance to the Russian occupation on the side of the Ukrainians,” explains Szilvi Német, a journalist at Lakmusz.hu. Cholkhanov smeared and attacked the Crimean Tatars with Moscow’s support. He accused their leader of Islamic fundamentalism for trying to block the illegitimate referendum on the breakaway.

In the opinion of Péter Buda, a former senior Hungarian national security officer, Cholkanov’s activities were clearly part of a Russian influence and active measures operation. The fact that he was taking part in such an operation as a Muslim Tatar is not unusual at all, Buda said. “After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow took a number of steps—in full accordance with the usual and well-established Soviet modus operandi—to divide the Tatar community, which was otherwise largely opposed to the Russian invasion,” he explained. 

To achieve this, Russia initiated the creation of bodies claiming to be Tatar advocacy groups, and accused official Tatar organizations of following extremist Muslim ideology, according to Buda. They were all to serve Russian foreign policy goals. “Both bribed Tatars as well as simple Russian agents played a role in this operation, partly with the help of Crimean intelligence officers—who knew local circumstances and recruited agents—who had defected from the Ukrainian services to the Russians,” the former Hungarian national security officer added.

Weapons instead of prayers

Then, after a religious detour, Cholkhanov appeared in the occupied areas of eastern Ukraine. In his own words, he first just reported on the events there, then took up arms and actively fought on the Russian separatist side. He has been involved in several groups, including a supposedly Hungarian one. 

Cholkhanov in the uniform of the Russian Navy. Source: VK/Tanay Cholkhanov

Although he is referred to as a “people’s uprising fighter” in the Hungarian interview mentioned above, his military experience is much deeper than that. “Cholkhanov received his military training in the special units of the Russian Navy. Before visiting Hungary, between 2014 and 2017, he served in the Ghost Brigade in the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Vostok Brigade in Donetsk People’s Republic,” says Német. While the first is a separatist group, the second is a Russian militant group operating in the Donbas region. 

Cholkhanov’s Hungarian connection runs beyond the Hungarian NewsFront and has another allegedly military dimension. “In 2014, a short-lived armed militia called the Saint István Legion was formed to support Russian separatists during the conflict in eastern Ukraine but, as it faded out, it was transformed into a media platform and continues to operate as such” explained the Lakmusz.hu journalist, who herself has researched the group’s background. “The group appeared in the news at first as a ‘Hungarian detachment formed to defend New Russia,; but several experts from the very beginning doubted the participation of Hungarian fighters,” she added.

According to Lakmusz.hu’s research, it was a Russian man with Hungarian roots who founded the Saint István Legion: Alexander Kiselyov. He is referred to in several VK posts as Sándor Szeles. Cholkhanov joined this exact “Hungarian legion” at the end of 2014. In the winter of that year, he also took over the recruitment of volunteers. Moreover, the “Crimean Tatar” is referred to as one of the ideologists of the Legion. As its delegate, he also met with representatives of the Hungarian far-right party Jobbik in November 2014. 

Source: VK/ Szent István Légiója / Легион Святого Иштвана

The article Cholkanov published on July 2, 2018 launched the Hungarian NewsFront—and can be seen as an important part of Russia’s influence operation to artificially foment ethnic divisions in eastern Ukraine, said former senior Hungarian national security officer Péter Buda: “Knowing the long history of such operations going back decades, Cholkanov was clearly attempting to ‘light the fuse’ of ethnic tensions at the eastern end of Ukraine after Crimea by encouraging the Crimean separatist ethnic forces, who were in open armed conflict with Ukraine, to join forces with the Transcarpathian Hungarians.” 

In his opinion, it is quite clear that Cholkanov wanted to escalate the situation in Transcarpathia to a level similar to that in Crimea by strengthening a common narrative in Crimea and Transcarpathia. “The extent to which this was a violent, ultimately separatist operation and not some individual action by Cholkanov is illustrated by the fact that it was precisely during this period (February 2018) that an arson attack against the headquarters of the Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association took place in Uzhhorod, which has since been revealed to have been carried out by pro-Russian individuals as part of a Russian intelligence operation to escalate ethnic tensions,” the former national security officer recalled. During the investigation, Ukrainian authorities revealed that the attack on the headquarters was only the beginning, and would have been followed by bombings of strategic installations. (VSquare has investigated this episode in multiple articles, here and here.)

We asked Cholkhanov about his past, especially his connections to Hungary, but he did not answer our questions. 

Ex-diplomat on the board

A Hungarian ex-diplomat also helped the launch of the Hungarian NewsFront. Sándor Csikós, who has actively spread Russian propaganda in the past, used the Hungarian platform to share anti-Ukrainian narratives and fake news. He himself announced the start of the Hungarian NewsFront on Russian social network VK in July 2018. 

According to media researcher and Lakmusz.hu journalist Szilvi Német, the Hungarian version has  mainly been active as a page on the Russian social media VKontakte, which has been under the name of  as NewsFront Hungary since December 2020. The small, low-reach profile with only 63 followers is managed by Sándor Csikós. However, the VK page became inactive at the beginning of November 2021, and no new content was uploaded there ever since. 

Sándor Csikós announcement in mid-2018. Source: VKontakte/Csikós Sándor

Although this is not typical for NewsFront, where most articles are anonymous, Csikós’s name has appeared several times on the Hungarian version of the Crimean disinformation site. Moreover, he has openly claimed to be its reporter. (This information was not included in the site’s imprint.)

Csikós worked for the Hungarian NewsFront. Source: Facebook (archived version)

Csikós, a diplomat at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry until 2013, was already connected toRussian propaganda around 2017, even before the launch of the Hungarian NewsFront. He also appeared in NewsFront’s Russian version, where he was referred to as a political expert, anti-fascist and public activist. 

Now 72 years old, Csikós studied in Moscow at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) university. He went on to work for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry for almost 40 years. He served abroad four times: he was sent to Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Ukraine (to Kyiv). In his last posting in Chișinău as deputy chief of mission, as there was no ambassador at the time, he was essentially head of the local Hungarian Embassy for a period of time until 2013. “He was completely crazy [in his views], but still a reliable workforce, and a decent man,” one of Csikós’s former bosses, a high-ranking foreign ministry official of Viktor Orbán’s government, told VSquare.

Csikós, the former diplomat, an old-school communist, openly talked about his ideology-driven activities to Index.hu reporters six years ago. According to what he said at the time, he dedicated his days in retirement “to translating reports to Hungarian on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine that match the narrative of the separatists from Russian and posting them on Facebook.” 

But he didn’t just stay behind the computer screen. Shortly after the interview with Cholkhanov, Csikós traveled to Donbas. He was accompanied on the trip by the multifaceted imam himself. The Hungarian NewsFront also published an extensive report on the trip. In it, among other things, Csikós mentions “the lies of the Western media,” Soros, and the “Nazi junta in Kyiv.” 

Sándor Csikós (centre) in the company of Tanay Cholkhanov (on the right) and Darya Morozova, “Ombudsman of the Donetsk People’s Republic.”(on the left). Source: Facebook/Csikós Sándor

Incidentally, Csikós is also listed in the Myrotvorets Center’s database. Here he is accused of, among other things “cooperation with terrorist organizations of the DNR/LNR” or “participation in anti-Ukrainian propaganda events.” 

We also contacted Csikós via his social media accounts. However, he did not respond to our questions. 

The Hungarian version of NewsFront was active until the very end of October 2021 and shared content quite systematically. Then it went inactive; this timing also coincides with the silence on the VK profile managed by Csikós. When VSquare’s first piece on the disinformation platform was published, the site was still inactive. The reason for this was unknown at that time. 

A source familiar with the Hungarian NewsFront’s launch now revealed that Csikós’s illness was behind the almost year-long absence. Eventually, in September of last year, the site came back to life. A new editor currently manages its content. 

New breath?

After a long break, the Hungarian version of NewsFront is back online with a familiar face from Russian propaganda circles managing its content. Although this Hungarian pseudo-expert is not very well known in Hungary, he has had quite a career in Russia. 

From 2014 (that is, until the outbreak of full-scale Russian aggression), the eastern Ukrainian conflict became a central theme for Kremlin propaganda. As part of this information warfare, pro-Kremlin media sought to discredit Ukraine on the international stage; deny Russia’s active role in the conflict; and portray Kyiv as the aggressor. They also used a Hungarian-Ukrainian dispute over minority rights in Transcarpathia, which intensified around 2017, to drive a wedge between the two countries.

It was during this period that a Hungarian “expert,” completely unknown in Hungary, Miklós Keveházy, appeared on screen on Rossiya-1 TV. He has claimed nothing less than that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is being encouraged by his advisers to “just try” to occupy Transcarpathia. Keveházy has appeared in Russian propaganda as a “Hungarian political consultant” since October 2017. This coincides with the tensions over Ukraine’s education and language laws.

“In this program, he railed against Ukraine and the Ukrainians, making statements that might have given the average Russian TV viewer the impression that the Hungarian government was considering some kind of military attack on Ukraine,” explained Dorka Takácsy, a Russia expert who first noticed and analyzed the “Keveházy phenomenon.” Of course, the news also reached Ukraine, where it was a topic of discussion for the Ukrainian far-right.

Keveházy’s appearance in Russian state propaganda in 2017 roughly coincides with him losing a previous gig. Between 2013 and 2017, Keveházy worked as a Russian interpreter and Russian media observer and analyst for the Hungarian far-right Jobbik party, according to sources close to Jobbik’s leadership as well as internal emails seen by VSquare. For example, in an email exchange from November 17, 2014, Jobbik foreign policy advisor Adrienn Szaniszló reported to the party’s leadership that she had discussed with Keveházy how he could “help our work.” She wrote that their cooperation had already been great, but “we are trying to establish an even better working relationship with Miklós.” Another email states that “Miklós accepted that Adrienn will be his immediate superior” and “we have attached [Keveházy’s] job description draft.”

According to a source close to Jobbik’s leadership, Keveházy originally started working for them for free, as a volunteer who simply supported the party. “He was a kind hearted, cheerful, nice guy,” the source recalled, adding that Keveházy quickly earned Jobbik’s trust. During many of the party leadership’s official visits and meetings in Moscow in the mid-2010s, Keveházy acted as one of their interpreters despite having no official training and background as such. 

Jobbik’s Márton Gyöngyösi, Adrienn Szaniszló, chairman Gábor Vona and Miklós Keveházy at a meeting with the Russian Rodina party’s leadership in Moscow on June 17, 2014. Source: rodina.ru

The source added that Keveházy was living in Moscow at the time and mainly worked as a small-scale business-owner. Later, he became a paid contractor and local party operative helping Jobbik with Russia-related issues. However, after some infighting, Jobbik’s foreign policy chief (and current party chairman) Márton Gyöngyösi managed to get rid of the rabidly pro-Russian Adrienn Szaniszló in 2017, and Keveházy was gone soon thereafter, according to the source close to the party’s leadership (in the following years, Jobbik embarked on a different path, trying to leave both its far-right and pro-Russian past behind). 

As Keveházy switched from helping out the Hungarian pro-Russian party to working for Russian state propaganda, he did not only appear on the Russian state TV channel Rossiya-1. “He has been a regular commentator on NewsFront for years. At first, he was mainly a video contributor, but now he is more often quoted in written articles,” Takácsy added. 

The Hungarian pseudo-expert gives an interview to the Russian NewsFront. Source: NewsFront (RU)

According to Takácsy, Keveházy only spreads narratives that align with Russian propaganda messages. He attacks the usual scapegoats, claiming that the United States, George Soros, Brussels, and the Ukrainians are to blame for all the world’s ills, while portraying Russia as the defender of normality and traditional values, with a great future ahead of it—in contrast to the decadent, declining West.

However, it is necessary to note that he has not once appeared on NewsFront’s Hungarian language platform. “It is as if they are trying to hide him from the Hungarian audience while he is regularly featured on the Russian and English platforms,” Hungarian Russia expert Takácsy offered.  

Keveházy’s name is not mentioned in any Hungarian NewsFront article. Source: NewsFront (HU)

This secrecy may be the reason that NewsFront does not admit that Keveházy, the pseudo-expert, is not only a contributor but has also served as editor of the Hungarian version since its relaunch last year. We discovered Keveházy’s NewsFront activity using the same method as we did for the identification of the Slovak site’s regional editor. We found an account named “miklos_kevehazy” in the Hungarian site’s source code. The account was specified as that of the author of an article  and the identification code associated with it. In addition, Keveházy’s email address was also on the list of email addresses associated with the NewsFront system, which was provided to us by a source. Other sources close to Jobbik party leadership confirmed that it was indeed Keveházy’s email address. 

We were curious about the exact circumstances under which he took over the management of the Hungarian NewsFront, and whether he received any financial reward for this activity. Keveházy did not respond to our questions.

Miklós Keveházy’s name in the source code of NewsFront’s Hungarian page. Source: NewsFront

Even though the Hungarian NewsFront is still up and running, it has not been a big success in the country, attracting low readership, interest, and social media traction. Moreover, it is one of the least successful versions of the multilingual disinformation outlet. 

Dorka Takácsy also shares this opinion. “There could be several reasons for this lack of success. On the one hand, the straightforward Russian propaganda they shared is also disseminated by several other platforms with much better graphics and language. These are simply more enjoyable for the Hungarian audience to consume,” explained the expert. 

She added that, on the other hand, it seems as if the aim is no longer to make the Hungarian version successful. “Original articles are sporadic, and the material is typically limited to quoting a few sentences of [Hungarian pro-Orbán daily] Magyar Nemzet articles accompanied by a link to them.”

Karin Kőváry Sólymos

Karin Kőváry Sólymos is a Slovak journalist at the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak. Previously, she was an editor and presenter at the Hungarian channel of the Slovak public service media. During her university years, she was an analyst for the only fact-checking portal in Slovakia. She was a recipient of the Novinarska Cena 2022.

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.