The great escape of ‘KGBéla’, Hungarian MEP accused of spying for Russia
The story of Béla Kovács is the most accurate depiction of the complicated nature of Russian influence in Hungary.
Stunned and shocked would be an understatement if we wanted to describe how quite a few seasoned counter-intelligence officers at Hungary’s Constitutional Protection Office (AH) could have felt in April 2014. Going against their professional convictions, AH terminated an ongoing investigation and subsequently initiated a criminal case against a lesser-known far-right politician. The accusation was severe: spying against institutions of the European Union on behalf of a third country. Security officers of AH were embarrassed, not because they weren’t fully convinced that Béla Kovács, a notoriously russophile Hungarian member of the European Parliament – dubbed as KGBéla even by his own far-right comrades – broke the law and made illegal contacts with Russian intelligence officers, but because they wanted to make sure he could not escape justice and his web of contacts would be fully discovered.
As politics interfered with the investigation, the security officers of AH knew their work was still incomplete.
The story of Béla Kovács is the most accurate depiction of the complicated nature of Russian influence in Hungary. In order to understand what happened to him, and why, we need to take a brief look at today’s political landscape of Hungary first.
“The biggest corruption scandal of all time”
Unlike any other countries in the European Union, in Hungary, the two leading parties competing for power – the governing right-wing populist Fidesz-KDNP led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, and far-right Jobbik, the strongest party of the fragmented opposition – are both pro-Russian, but in very different ways. It is important to note that while Orbán’s government developed a close relationship with Moscow mainly because of economic and geopolitical reasons, a decision made by Orbán himself, Jobbik is accused of being infiltrated and partly hijacked by Russian intelligence services. Fidesz tried to push the boundaries, however, as a loyal member of the European People’s Party, they did not break with the European mainstream on critical issues regarding the EU’s policy towards Moscow. Meanwhile, several representatives of Jobbik have acknowledged the illegal annexation of Crimea, something that would be unimaginable from Orbán.
It is also important to add that Russia’s political and economic influence over Hungary’s ruling political elites is about to be a permanent condition that overrides party lines. The previous Hungarian Socialist-Liberal government (2002-2009) was a reliable ally of the Russian energy imperialism in the region, staunchly supporting Gazprom’s expansion. Ten years ago both Fidesz and Jobbik were fiercely anti-Communist and unambiguously anti-Russian parties, partly in order to defy everything the ex-Communist Hungarian Socialist Party stood for.
We will elaborate on how Orbán switched sides – for which his reasons are partly still unclear – another time. In the case of Jobbik, we know for sure it was Béla Kovács who played a key role in flipping the party to Moscow’s side. As a man without a past – more accurately, a man with too many different pasts -, the totally unknown Kovács appeared out of nowhere in the mid-2000s to help the then-struggling party with offering them at least tens of thousands of euros as an individual donor, and his regional network of likeminded far-right politicians.
How did he earn his fortune? Béla Kovács claimed several times earlier he spent the previous decade in Russia working in the leadership of various trading companies between 1988 and 2003. VSquare tried to verify his claim and searched local Russian company registries. During our investigation, we also used one of the most comprehensive systems, the complex database of Spark-Interfax. We searched for the name of Béla Kovács in all possible forms, in case it has been mistyped or translated to Cyrillic letters in a different way. We even searched for the name of Kovács’s wife.
It turned out, however, there is no trace in company records in Russia that either Béla Kovács or his wife would have owned Russian companies, or that there are companies for which the politician would have worked in a senior position.
“Since Jobbik did not have any information about this issue, as we do not collect such information from our members, we turned to Béla Kovács to answer the questions. Mr. Kovács stated that he did not have ownership in Russia-based companies, he worked as a finance manager there. The companies concerned have long since shut down” – answered Gábor Pál, the press secretary of Jobbik to our inquiry. The Jobbik spokesman did not tell the names of those companies.
With the Spark-Interfax system, we also searched the archives of Russian newspapers back to decades, and we did not find a single article that would suggest Béla Kovács was a financial or other executive of any company. Similarly, we did not find any documents in the archives of Russian courts and the various Russian authorities (like the tax authority or the statistics office), which would link Béla Kovács with Russian companies.
This means that the origin of Kovács’s money donated throughout the years to Jobbik remains a mystery, however, politicians from Fidesz allege that Jobbik’s rise in the polls – from 3 percent back in 2006 to 20 percent at the 2014 elections – was boosted by illegal party financing linked to Russian actors. István Hollik, a Fidesz-KDNP MP said at a recent press conference that “authorities of the EU, Hungary and the US all suspect [Kovács] could have spied for the Russians and carried money to Jobbik”. Hollik referred to Kovács’s case as “the biggest corruption scandal of all time”. But Viktor Orbán was even more specific. In early 2016, the prime minister had a remark in the Hungarian parliament, advising Jobbik that they “should look into the fake bank accounts of Béla Kovács [to determine] whether the money found on it belongs to the party [treasury]”. Although both parties seek to nurture ties with Vladimir Putin’s regime, Fidesz’s attacks on Jobbik show that it doesn’t put them on the same page in domestic politics at all.
When he first knocked on Jobbik’s door in 2005, Kovács wasn’t totally honest about his so-called influential friends in the neighboring countries either. Kovács knew that Hungarian nationalists have a long history of hostility, if not hatred towards Russia – both the 1848 and 1956 Hungarian revolutions were crushed by Russian troops -, so he wisely misled Jobbik by bragging about his contacts in Polish politics instead. The Hungarian far-right admired Poland in the past for its strong nationalist scene. Kovács, who delivered what he promised, soon became influential in setting Jobbik’s foreign policy agenda. The only problem with Kovács’s main Polish ally is that Mateusz Piskorski – because it was only the marginal, pro-Kremlin Polish politician with whom Kovacs had close relationship – was arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia ten years later. He remained in prison ever since.
“I also have some questions for my wife”
Unlike Piskorski, and despite being officially accused, Kovács was never arrested and didn’t spend a single day in jail, and there is a reason for that. VSquare learned from sources with knowledge of his case – who spoke on condition of anonymity – that in the spring of 2014, Hungarian spycatchers were still investigating and wanted to carry on with their collection of evidence. If the spycatchers had been allowed to finish their job, Kovács could have been caught red-handed during a conspired meeting, and perhaps arrested on the spot. The arrest may have had led to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Hungary, as it happened in similar cases in surrounding countries. This procedure would have been business as usual.
VSquare’s sources claim that AH was far from finishing their investigation when high-level politics ordered it to end and to transfer the case to the Prosecutor’s Office.
Heads just kept spinning when a few weeks later several findings of AH’s former secret operations were published in a Hungarian government-friendly newspaper, Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation). Like in most other countries, official details of ongoing counter-intelligence investigations never leak to the press in Hungary, since they are classified. But if a counter-intelligence investigation by AH is closed and the Prosecutor’s Office takes on the duty, in certain cases it gets declassified. And documents from the Prosecutor’s Office frequently appear in the media, however only when the leaks can hurt an opposition party or politician.
It is no surprise this particular leak was published just a week before the European Parliamentary elections of 2014. During the election campaign the main contender of Fidesz-KDNP, Viktor Orbán’s ruling center-right platform was Jobbik, the party of Béla Kovács. A deputy CEO in the media group where the newspaper that published the leak, Magyar Nemzet is a member, later publicly confirmed that during those years the Fidesz party operatives were the ones setting the outlets’ agenda, and gave orders to the editors and journalists on what stories to cover, and when.
The details leaked in May 2014 with the apparent approval of the Hungarian government were: Kovács carried out conspired meetings with Russian diplomats, travelled to Moscow almost every month, and his Russian wife, Svetlana Istoshina worked as a KGB agent. The worst part of the leaks is that they were all true. A few months later András Dezső, a journalist at Index.hu published a stunning piece on the Russian connections of Kovács with some new key revelations. All of these matters supported the conviction that AH should have been allowed to catch Kovács, and that the allegations against him were more than well-founded.
Although he was raised by Hungarian foster parents, Kovács is in fact the son of a Soviet Russian military officer, an information that was kept secret for decades, the article reveales. After his ancestry was revealed to the young Kovács while spending time in the Soviet Union, his personality changed, according to his foster father. It also turned out that Kovács’s wife, Svetlana, was married to at least two other men in the 1980s, a Japanese nuclear scientist and an Austrian mobster. The latter marriage made it possible for the woman to travel around the world with a non-Soviet, Austrian passport, and work as a messenger for the KGB. The fact that she worked for the secret service of the Soviet Union was also confirmed by the foster father of Kovács. It was also socially acceptable to divorce and remarry during the 1980s, but Svetlana was living in multiple marriages, having three husbands at the same time. When Kovács was confronted with this information, he reacted by saying “by now I also have some questions for my wife”.
“It is natural that he might has a strong Russian identity with a family background like this”, argued Ferenc Katrein, a high-ranking former counter-intelligence officer of AH when speaking to VSquare. Katrein served as a security officer in Hungary between 2000 and 2013, and left the service well before Kovács’s scandal erupted. His name became well-known in early 2017, when he decided to go on-record in an interview, in which he went into details about Russia’s intelligence activity in Hungary. “Although I’m not familiar with the in-depth details of Kovács’s case, but just given his location in Brussels as well as his important position and international connections, this isn’t how a simple, low-level secret agent looks like”, told Katrein.
Katrein alleged that Kovács’s credentials could qualify him for a much higher position in the hierarchy of espionage.
And VSquare has some unreported information to underpin that.
“I never met Béla Kovács”
Kovács is a founding president of AENM, standing for Alliance of European National Movements, an umbrella organization of European far-right and ultranationalist parties. AENM was launched in 2009. The original founding members were Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s National Front, Italy’s Tricolour Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats, and Belgium’s National Front, with the French National Front quitting after Marine Le Pen took over the leadership in 2011. After the previous European Parliamentary elections in 2014, AENM had eight MEPs in Brussels. Anton Shekhovtsov, researcher of far-right movements cites a 2012 blogpost by then-president Bruno Gollnish which also lists individual associate members, among others Marine Le Pen from France and Bartosz Jozef Kownacki from Poland, who right now under the Law and Justice administration serves as secretary of state in the ministry of national defence.
Throughout the years Kovács was either the president or treasurer of the organization, which welcomed new member parties like Nick Griffin’s British National party. On a secretly recorded conversation acquired by Index.hu back in 2014, László Sípos, a candidate MEP of Jobbik can be heard saying “I think Griffin wants me to help him steal money” then complain angrily about the poor accounting practices of AENM. It was Kovács, who as treasurer asked Sípos to help him. “If it were audited at a company in real life, they would have said ‘finito’ long ago”, Sipos continues in the conversation. During the years the organization had a yearly budget of 200,000-450,000 euros, mostly spent on research, campaigning and expensive conferences, according to information filed with the European Parliament which granted the money.
The initial image of Kovács’s activities suggested that he is a moderate bureaucrat with an interest in organizing international far-right networks on a more intellectual level. It appeared that the suit-wearing Kovács had no ties to members of violent extremist and paramilitary groups, but our investigation came to a very different conclusion in the end.
In October 2016, Hungarian detectives were supposed to search for illegal weapons at the house of István Győrkös. Győrkös, at the time, was the the leader of a far-right paramilitary group, the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal, MNA). When the officers showed up at his home, a shootout occured and the 76-years-old man opened fire with a rifle. In the shootout, a senior police officer died, although it’s still unclear if he was killed by Győrkös’ bullet or by friendly fire. It is important to note that no DNA traces were found on the bullets, which is entirely unusual. The lawyer of István Győrkös says there is no clear evidence that his client is a murderer.
As we revealed in our article with András Dezső, members of the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence service) were in contact with Győrkös and his group, and provided military training to them. The GRU officers, who had diplomatic cover and worked at the Russian embassy in Budapest, participated in MNA’s military drills with airsoft or mock weapons. The war games peaked between 2010 and 2012, according to the New York Times which later also covered the story. Russian intelligence officers were frequent visitors of Győrkös as they travelled five times a year from the Hungarian capital to meet his gang at the village of Bőny in Western Hungary. Additionally, the GRU took control of the Hungarian neo-Nazi website Bridgehead (Hídfő), which was originally launched by Győrkös. The webpage was redesigned with the far-right content removed and a great deal of pro-Kremlin propaganda added. All this was well-known to the Hungarian counter-intelligence services, confirming our information at a closed hearing of the parliament’s national security committee.
Now VSquare has managed to confirm from two independent security sources that István Győrkös was in contact with not just the GRU, but also Béla Kovács. According to our knowledge, their families once had a close relationship in the early 2010’s, but later the relationship came to an end for unknown reasons. Kovács and his wife, Svetlana knew the Győrkös family so well that the wife of the Hungarian neo-Nazi leader was hired to do household work for a period of time.
This way, Kovács and Istoshina gave financial support to the struggling old couple.
What this also tells is that Kovács and KGB agent Istoshina considered Győrkös and his spouse so reliable that they let the lady in their own house to do a job which usually requires a large amount of trust.
After VSquare was unable to reach Béla Kovács for a comment, we turned to his lawyer and asked him about his client’s relationship to Győrkös. We got the following reply: “I don’t know Béla Kovács’s life and relationships either. I’m only dealing with the (criminal) case”. The lawyer told us that the criminal case didn’t involve anything like this, meaning that Kovács’s connection with Győrkös didn’t come up. “That’s for sure”, he said.
Since István Győrkös is still under arrest, we also reached out to him through his lawyer to ask about the alleged connection. The lawyer sent a reply e-mail, writing that he spoke to Győrkös, who had totally no clue what we are talking about. Győrkös claimed that he doesn’t know who Mr. Kovács is and that they have never met. Also, Győrkös said that her wife never cleaned Kovács’s house nor did any other type of service for the couple.
Contradicting Győrkös’ denial, VSquare received confirmation of his relationship with Béla Kovács from two different and well-informed sources, one with expertise in counter-intelligence and one in anti-extremism.
Although this is the first reported direct link between the Jobbik politician and the neo-Nazi leader, both having their own ties with Russian secret services, it doesn’t seem likely that Győrkös, an old man was fully aware of Kovács’s and Istoshina’s background. Also, we have no information on the involvement of Kovács in organizing the military drills with the GRU, or that he had anything to do with the violent activities of MNA. The connection between the two individuals, however, was still there.
It is also important not to overemphasize the politician’s relationship with the GRU-linked MNA, or his real father’s military background when trying to identify which Russian secret service Kovács might be working for, if the allegations are true. Kovács’s activities in the capital of the European Union strongly suggest that it is not the GRU or the FSB, but Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR that he might be working for.
“This is not a spy affair anymore”
Former counter-intelligence officer Katrein thinks Béla Kovács can still get away with it. “In my opinion this is no longer a spy affair since the secret operations were turned into an open proceeding. And there were no arrests and immediate actions, such as searches and seizures of documents, which is required in these situations. No-one was caught by surprise in the act. As far as I followed the news, everyone who might have been involved – suspected agents, intelligence officers etc. – are still at large, and had plenty of time to cover their tracks. For this reason, I just can’t see Kovács being sentenced to prison for espionage”, Katrein told VSquare.
It would be misleading to assume that in 2014, the secret service investigation against Kovács was cut short only because of the government’s intention to gain momentum before a moderately important election. Allowing Kovács to run was also a friendly gesture to Moscow. This strategy offered an escape route to Orbán’s increasingly Russian-friendly government to avoid a potentially damaging conflict with the Kremlin. Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs since late 2014 said in an interview that he never discussed the KGBéla case with any of the two Russian envoys who served in Budapest during his tenure. The minister also claimed that no Russian spies under diplomatic cover were officially expelled from Hungary since he took office, and added that he has no knowledge of such measures from the previous few years either.
The situation is much more complex if we go below the diplomatic level. What Szijjártó didn’t tell us – since he’s not overseeing Hungarian secret services and might have limited information – is that so-called silent expulsions (informally asking an embassy to withdraw one of its officers caught on spying) did occur. VSquare has confirmed this information by both a well-informed security expert and a member of the Hungarian Parliament’s national security committee – the only civilian body with restricted power to hold the secret services accountable. The member of the committee also added that closed door presentations by the Hungarian Military National Security Service (KNBSZ) were “very impressive”, and showed that the military counter-intelligence is “properly doing its job”. For example, investigating and documenting the GRU’s cooperation with the far-right paramilitary group of Győrkös was also the job of the military secret service, which they executed properly.
VSquare was told that silent expulsions of Russian diplomats happened between 2013 and 2015. These were likely connected to GRU activities in Hungary.
The Hungarian government’s two-faced attitude towards Russian intelligence activity suggests incoherence and uncertainty, if not internal fights between different levels of government and branches tasked with counter-espionage. VSquare also learned from a source with knowledge of the Kovács investigation, who asked to remain anonymous, that the senior counter-intelligence officer who oversaw the investigation against Kovács until 2014, was later removed from his position. The officer was relocated to a totally different field and department, one that has nothing to do with countering Russian intelligence.
Though our source commented by saying it was a “waste of expertise”, the reason for this move remains unexplained and we couldn’t confirm if it was related to the senior officer’s work on the Kovács investigation.
The story of KGBéla is still not over
Today, the case of Béla Kovács is still unsolved, not even his trial has started yet. Moreover, he is still a member of the European Parliament with access to all of its facilities, enabling him to continue whatever mission he has. In the summer of 2017, Kovács was accused by Magyar Idők (‘Hungarian Times’, the Hungarian government’s propaganda newspaper) of attempting to escape from justice by hiding in Russian-controlled Abkhazia.
Kovács confuted these allegations on Facebook by posting photos of himself standing in front of the European Parliament, reading the latest edition of a German tabloid. The only reason the Hungarian pro-government media is picking up Kovács’s story again is that Hungary has a parliamentary election next spring, in which Fidesz’s greatest contender will be the far-right Jobbik party, to which Kovács belongs. Because Gábor Vona, the party leader of Jobbik still refuses to strip Kovács of his party membership.
András Dezső, journalist at Index.hu contributed to this article with researching Kovács’s activities related to Russian companies.