A top adviser to Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban denounced a reported U.S. intelligence document that said Mr. Orban recently listed the United States as one of the top adversaries of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, dismissing it as “fake news.”
“Prime Minister Orban never said this thing. This is fake news,” Balazs Orban, the Hungarian leader’s political director said. The disclosure made headlines last week as media outlets worked through a trove of alleged U.S. intelligence documents that had been leaked on social media, reportedly by a young National Guard airman from Massachusetts.
In a wide-ranging interview this week with The Washington Times, Mr. Balazs Orban, who is not related to Prime Minister Orban, also rejected criticisms of new natural gas supply deals Budapest has signed with Russia, even as the Kremlin presses its nearly 15-month-old invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s top economic adviser, Oleg Ustenko, said the Orban government was underwriting the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, speaking last week shortly after a video circulated online purporting to show Russian soldiers carrying out the grisly execution of a Ukrainian soldier.
“If you’ve seen the video where Russians cut the head off a Ukrainian soldier — the Hungarians are paying for the knife,” Mr. Ustenko told Politico. “You have to be completely blind not to see what kinds of crimes you are sponsoring. Buying more gas from the Russians means you are giving them more capacity to escalate the war.”
Mr. Balazs Orban bristled at the comments, asserting that they “cannot be taken seriously.” He noted that Hungary has welcomed in large numbers of Ukrainian war refugees despite its continued energy relationship with the Kremlin, a relationship that has sparked sharp criticism from fellow members of the European Union.
“[This] is not how you talk about the international arena, about the country, which is actually hosting hundreds and hundreds of thousands of your own citizens as refugees and actually, through the European Union, [is] supporting the entire operation of the Ukrainian state, not from a military point of view but a civilian point of view,” the adviser said.
The rift underscores wider European tensions over the Ukraine war, and the precarious position occupied by Prime Minister Orban — a staunchly conservative Eastern European leader widely seen as having the closest relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin of any EU or NATO leader.
Hungary gets about 65% of its oil and 85% of its gas from Russia. In 2021, Budapest inked a 15-year agreement with Russian state energy giant Gazprom for the purchase of natural gas. The deal was thrown into question last year after Moscow invaded Ukraine and the EU and the Biden administration sought to sanction Russian energy exports as a way to shut down revenues for the war effort.
The Orban government initially rejected the sanctions but ultimately accepted them after negotiating a deal with the EU to allow oil imports to be delivered temporarily via the Russian Druzhba pipeline to Hungary and other landlocked EU countries. Budapest subsequently complained that the compromise was falling short of preventing an “energy emergency” of disruptions and skyrocketing prices across Europe.
Ukrainian officials are now calling on the European Union to intervene and find ways to block Hungary’s purchases of Russian energy, while some commentators maintain that any new Hungary-Russia energy deals, including one signed during a visit to Moscow this month by Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, must be approved by Brussels.
Asked whether the Russian deal needs EU approval, Mr. Balazs Orban responded: “No. This is about the energy security of Hungary.”
He added: “Politically, we are under heavy pressure. So if you’re following the articles and the politicians who are talking about that, they are obviously putting pressure on us to stop energy cooperation with Russia. But unfortunately, in this reality we have right now, it’s impossible to do it in the short term.”
Friction with Washington
Hungary’s sticky relationship with the European Union was on display long before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Many on the U.S. and European left have criticized the Hungarian prime minister since his nationalist, right-leaning Fidesz Party swept to power more than a decade ago. Mr. Orban’s critics accuse him of increasingly authoritarian rule and say his self-described “illiberal democracy” has resulted in the silencing of dissenting voices and the promotion of policies that hurt the marginalized.
But many American conservatives in particular see him as a champion of traditional values, an ally of former President Trump and a bulwark resisting the globalist ideology and bureaucratic overreach of left-leaning EU leaders in Brussels. The Conservative Political Action Committee, or C-PAC, held its annual meeting in Hungary in 2022 and is scheduled to hold another session in Budapest next month.
Mr. Balazs Orban said that while Hungary and the United States are “old friends and old allies,” he acknowledged that it is “not easy” in the current moment to be the friend of the United States.
“In Hungary, we have a very successful, clear-cut, conservative right-wing Christian government, which is operating quite well,” he said, adding that “obviously on a political level, we can work together in a much easier way with the Republicans.”
Friction between the Biden administration and the Orban government has burst into the open earlier this year, with the openly gay ambassador whom President Biden sent to Hungary faced a firestorm of criticism in Budapest. Pro-government media accused the diplomat of violating diplomatic protocols, meddling in the judiciary and undermining the country’s traditional values.
Ambassador David Pressman, a human rights lawyer who has headed the U.S. Embassy in Hungary since September, said the accusations are baseless and he was being targeted with personal attacks by media controlled by the Orban government.
A profile on Mr. Pressman published by The New York Times in February pointed specifically to PestiSracok, a pro-Orban news portal that has denounced the appointment of the ambassador as “an expert on LGBT rights” and “an obvious diplomatic provocation.”
Mr. Balazs Orban said Hungary has an open and ongoing “political debate with the U.S. Embassy and with the current U.S. administration.”
More broadly, he expressed frustration that the Biden administration is not calling for a cease-fire in Ukraine, but rather promoting a policy of continuing push for continued backing for Ukraine’s military as it presses to reclaim territory on the battlefield.
“This war is something that should be discussed in the United States in a different way,” he said, adding that the Orban government is focused on pushing for an end to the war. “We are always talking about the importance of peace and not the importance of continuation of the war.”
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a CIA assessment included among the U.S. intelligence documents leaked online said Prime Minister Orban had identified the United States as a top adversary during a private Fidesz Party strategy meeting.
Mr. Balazs Orban dismissed the revelation as “fake news,” a comment that reflects concern in Washington that the flood of leaks had been manipulated through a disinformation and influence operation run by a foreign adversary.
The FBI last week arrested a 21-year-old National Guard airman in connection with the leak case. But some intelligence sources have pointed to Russia as a potential behind-the-scenes actor that may have manipulated some of the leaked documents, as well as the private online channels where they first circulated.
Pressed on whether he believed the alleged spy document relating to Mr. Orban was itself a fake, or was somehow engineered or manipulated by an adversarial foreign actor, such as Russian intelligence, the adviser responded: “I have no idea.”
“We are a small country in the middle of Central Europe, so I’m pretty sure that all the big guys and big elephants in the room are present,” he said. “I don’t really understand what is going on. I was there, personally and I know that it’s fake, because [Prime Minister Orban] didn’t say that. He was talking about the obvious, you know, disagreement between the United States and Hungary, but this is something very different.”
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