Konrad Szczygieł (Frontstory.pl)
Illustration: Aleksandra Ołdak 2024-01-11
Konrad Szczygieł (Frontstory.pl)
Illustration: Aleksandra Ołdak 2024-01-11
“I won’t give you money. Find a job,” says Viktor Orbán to Volodymyr Zelensky while standing next to each other in Buenos Aires at Argentinian president Javier Milei’s inauguration. Of course, the conversation is made up. It’s just a meme recently posted by Viktor Orbán PL, a Polish-language X (formerly Twitter) account with more than 16 thousand followers. This meme is a good example of the profile’s usual tone: mocking Ukraine while portraying the Hungarian prime minister as a strong and great leader.
For a decade or so, this has actually been Orbán’s reputation among Poland’s mainstream right-wing, as he was once a close ally to Jarosław Kaczyński and a role model for the Law and Justice government. However, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Orbán has lost most of his Polish admirers due to his pro-Kremlin policies. Platforms such as the Viktor Orbán PL profile became extremely rare. Its salience is also reflected by the fact that multiple well-known Polish political figures—albeit some rather controversial ones—are following it.
For example, there’s Krzysztof Bosak, head of the far-right Konfederacja (Confederation) party, and Gregorz Braun, a newly elected Konfederacja MP who was suspended after infamously putting out a Hanukkah menorah in the Polish Sejm with a fire extinguisher. Then there is Krystyna Pawłowicz, a close ally of Jarosław Kaczyński and one of the controversial party loyalists whom Law and Justice appointed to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal when it captured the institution. Other followers include senior Law and Justice politicians, such as MEP Beata Szydło (Poland’s prime minister between 2015-2017), Hungarian Ambassador to Warsaw Orsolya Kovács, as well as multiple Hungarian government officials and advisors.
But who is running this Polish account, which, since its launch in October 2019, has disseminated pro-Orbán propaganda regardless of the friction between the Polish and Hungarian governments?
VSquare and Frontstory started investigating the Viktor Orbán PL profile after multiple sources closely following Polish-Hungarian relations claimed that Andrzej Szczęśniak, a pundit or “expert” known for his Russia-friendly views, was behind it. Szczęśniak, once a senior manager of the state-owned Lotos Group, is known to the Polish public as a commentator on energy-related issues. While sometimes also quoted in mainstream media, he has mostly appeared in fringe outlets—some of which present pro-Kremlin views; have ties to Russian propaganda; and even have links to an accused Russian spy.
In a phone call, Szczęśniak confirmed to us that he is indeed running the social media account. However, he claimed that he is only doing so in his free time and as a “fan” of Orbán, without any compensation or links to the Hungarian government. Meanwhile, our analysis of the Viktor Orbán PL profile—which in its own description establishes a link to Viktor Orbán’s official X/Twitter account—shows that a large amount of its content are Polish translations and reposts of the Hungarian prime minister’s official social media posts. The frequency (approx. 1,5 per day on average) and format (1,156 out of 2,379 posts include photo or video) of the content shared by the Viktor Orbán PL profile suggest dedication and a rather professional approach on the part of the 65-years-old former energy company manager.
Hungary’s Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, in a reply to our public information request, said that Orbán’s official social media accounts are managed by four people working in the ministry’s online communications department, and that the Polish X/Twitter account is an “unofficial” one. There is no publicly available information regarding Orbán’s office directly cooperating with Szczęśniak.
A very public fan of all things Russia
When Andrzej Szczęśniak received a call from us, he sounded like a professional commentator whom journalists often call for an expert opinion or a quote. When he gets a question, he gets straight to the point and outlines his arguments. Who does he think has benefited the most from EU sanctions against Russia? “The United States,” he says without hesitation. “If you look at the GDP of the United States—it is wonderful, there is growth. In contrast, the European Union—a slowdown, economic recession on the brink and Germany is in a strong downturn.” Who, in his opinion, was right in their approach to sanctioning Russia, Hungary or the EU? “In my opinion, the Hungarians were right, but the Hungarians are tiny. Two percent of Europe’s population, one percent of Europe’s GDP, have no leverage on EU policy,” Szczęśniak said.
Szczęśniak is an ardent supporter of Russia’s economic cooperation with Europe and the use of Russian gas. His background is in managing energy companies. In 1999-2002, he took part in the privatization of the Gdansk Refinery and, in 2006-2007, he was a chairman of Lotos Partner, a fuel company within the now-defunct, once state-owned Lotos Group, according to his bio. However, for the past dozen years or so, Szczęśniak has functioned in the media space primarily as a fuel and energy market expert. In recent years, he has been known mainly for peddling ideas that very often coincide with Kremlin propaganda.
In 2018, in the niche publication “Right option” (Polish: “Opcja na Prawo”), he labeled Ukraine as a “puppet state” and “American colony,” alleging that Ukrainian politicians “understand that they are not in charge here.” In the same year, he praised the Nord Stream 2 project—which the Polish government opposed—to Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik: “The more connections are established between the structures of the EU and Gazprom—let’s keep in mind the Yamal and ‘Brotherhood’ gas pipelines—the more confident Europe will feel in terms of energy security,” Szczęśniak argued.
In 2021, talking to popular right-wing commentator Rafal Ziemkiewicz, Szczęśniak criticized the media for how it presented the reasons for high energy prices. “As the price goes up…the media plays the role of a drum…Poland: angry Gazprom, blocks supplies…The Anglo-Saxons are also hitting Russia, but not as hard, because they know it is a humbug.” Jakub Wiech, an energy expert, analyzed Szczęśniak’s arguments and pointed out their flaws: for example, that Szczęśniak advocated for a nuclear power plant in Poland, to be built with the help of Russia. “Nuclear power plants are energy outposts of major geopolitical importance. Moscow puts them in countries that it wants to bring closer to its own orbit of influence (Belarus, Hungary). Building such a plant with the Russians would undermine plans to make Poland independent of Russian influence,” Wiech wrote.
Szczęśniak also regularly appears on the pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian, and antisemitic online channel eMisja.tv. For example, shortly after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, it was there that he claimed in a video interview that Russia attacked Ukraine because Kiev was building nuclear weapons, and that high energy prices are the result of Western speculation and sanctions against Russia.
These days, Szczęśniak regularly publishes with Myśl Polska, a fringe website that has its content heavily recycled by NewsFront, the Crimea-based, Russian intelligence-linked disinformation network. As a previous VSquare investigation revealed, NewsFront’s Polish version has actually republished over 200 articles that originally appeared on Myśl Polska, while at least 10 articles from Myśl Polska have also been translated and published on the Russian version of NewsFront. Perhaps Myśl Polska’s most well-known columnist is Mateusz Piskorski, the former Polish MP who got arrested in 2016 on charges of espionage for Russia and China. This is the site and context in which Szczęśniak’s articles also appear. In a February 2023 article, for example, Szczęśniak argued on the site that Russia’s economy is doing well and the West’s attack in the form of sanctions is “robbery in broad daylight.”
A private, Polish fan of Viktor Orbán
If there is any government in the EU that more or less shares Szczęśniak’s views on Russia and the war in Ukraine, it is Hungary’s. ”Have the Hungarians benefited in any way from their stance toward sanctions against Russia?,” we asked Szczęśniak during our phone call. ”Of course. They are continuing a strategy that can balance the interests of the West and the East, China, Asia, Russia too. Hungary represents the views of a large part of public opinion in Europe, while this opinion is not represented politically by European governments. Hungarians have excellent relations with right-wing groups in Europe, and this is a political success. Not to mention simple successes like [securing Russian] gas supplies or oil supplies for themselves,” he said.
When we started asking about the Viktor Orban PL X/Twitter account, Szczęśniak interrupted, and started laughing. ”It’s me,” he said. ”It’s kind of an after-hours toy, I throw in quotes, report what happened, kind of chronicle a bit,” he explained. ”I am a fan of Viktor Orbán. A private, Polish fan. I have no ties to Hungary, privately I visited Hungary and I had the opportunity to shake Orbán’s hand. I like his politics and that’s why I set up such an account,” Szczęśniak said. When we later asked him about details of this meeting as well as if he received any kind of payment, compensation, or help from Hungarian government-linked actors, he replied in a written message: “I will only say that it is offensive to ask, to suspect that someone is paying me for this profile. The answer is no, no one is paying me. I do this as a person who admires the politician.”
Meanwhile, Szczęśniak himself seems to be having old ties to an important figure in Polish-Hungarian relations: Maciej Szymanowski, director of the Wacław Felczak Polish-Hungarian Cooperation Institute in Warsaw. Back in 1994, they co-published an article on Polish right-wing politics in Czech weekly Respekt. In 2018, according to a now unavailable event page on Facebook, the two were supposed to talk about the Visegrád cooperation and the role of Poland and Hungary in Warsaw, according to an old screenshot shared with us by a Polish foreign policy expert. However, both the event’s video recording and the event’s page are now missing from Facebook. We thus don’t know if the discussion actually happened.
Interestingly, while the Felczak Institute has been an important link between the Polish and Hungarian right-wing governments, there do not appear to be any posts in which the Viktor Orbán PL account refers to it. As a previous Frontstory.pl investigation has revealed, the Felczak Institute has spent a large amount of Polish public money— 6 million zlotys, or €1,3 million a year—in recent years on cultural programs, grants, book publishing etc. Participants in these events include Marek Kuchcinski, a prominent Law and Justice politician, but Felczak also financed the Hungarian translation of a book by Ryszard Terlecki, another important figure in Law and Justice. The book was published with an introduction by Viktor Orbán himself. Szczęśniak did not reply to our questions about his relationship with Szymanowski and the Felczak Institute. The Institute itself didn’t respond to our questions in four days between receiving them and the publication of this article.
The first post on the Szczęśniak-run Viktor Orbán PL account—a report on Orbán’s claim that Hungary would “use force” against refugees on its southern border—is from October 17, 2019, just a few days after Poland’s parliamentary elections. The second one is from the following day. Interestingly, the second post had nothing to do with Viktor Orbán, and was instead a short report on Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó’s meeting with Gazprom head Alexey Miller and “several ministers” in Russia. Throughout the years, the Viktor Orbán PL profile has also been acting as a “Péter Szijjártó PL” account, frequently sharing content about the Hungarian foreign minister’s trips and meetings, especially with Russian counterparts. However, the profile’s most typical posts are either direct quotes from Orbán, reported by various international media outlets, or reposts of Hungarian government or government-affiliated accounts’ content. A third regular type of content is praise for the Hungarian government by foreign pundits or politicians.
Szczęśniak’s Viktor Orbán PL profile closely resembles the social media propaganda of the Hungarian government and its proxies, and the few dozen accounts it follows include most of those linked to the Orbán government’s foreign influence operations. For example, the profile not only follows official Hungarian government accounts, but also accounts of the V4NA “news agency” and the Századvég Foundation—both of which are linked to Árpád Habony, Viktor Orbán’s campaign strategist, who recently also got involved in the Slovak and Polish election campaigns, as we reported in a recent edition of VSquare’s Goulash newsletter. In return, the more influential or high-profile followers of the Viktor Orbán PL profile are representatives of the Polish far-right and hard-right, both the above-mentioned politicians as well as right-wing propagandists. This includes lawyer Bartosz Lewandowski, a member of the ultra-catholic Ordo Iuris organization and dean of the Ordo Iuris Collegium Intermarium. Another notable follower of the Szczęśniak-run Viktor Orbán PL account is far-right influencer Marcin Rola, whose website, wRealu24.pl, was blocked in 2022 by the Polish internal security agency due to its penchant for spreading Russian propaganda. YouTube has also deleted all of Rola’s channels on the platform.
Nevertheless, Szczęśniak maintains that he is just an altruistic fan of Orbán and the Hungarian government who receives no financial compensation for his Polish social media activity. “I believe that this politician is a model worthy of emulation. He is able, thanks to his shrewdness, courage, eloquence and very clever play of various political interests, to achieve a position that surpasses the Polish one in political effectiveness,” he said of Viktor Orbán in our conversation.
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.
Konrad Szczygieł is an investigative journalist at FRONTSTORY.PL. Previously, he was a reporter at Superwizjer TVN and OKO.Press. Since 2016, he has worked with Fundacja Reporterów (Reporters Foundation). He was shortlisted for a Grand Press award (2016, 2021) and an Andrzej Woyciechowski award (2021). He is based in Warsaw.