How was the diplomatic feud between Ukraine and Hungary portrayed in and fuelled by the Russian disinformation networks?
The Hungarian government blocked Ukraine-NATO Commission meetings in 2017 and 2018 due to the much-debated education law adopted by the Rada in September 2017, limiting minority language usage in Ukrainian public education. These unilateral Hungarian steps were part of the latest arm-twisting in the diplomatic row between the two countries, with Hungary promising to “block” Ukraine’s further European integration efforts on all levels. While Hungarian concerns are based on legitimate human rights grounds, the overt Hungarian diplomatic reaction entailing mutual diplomatic expulsions plays right into the hands of the Kremlin’s geopolitical and disinformation efforts to destabilize Ukraine along ethnic lines and the East-West geographical divide.
It can be argued that the education law has its long-term rationale by providing ethnic minorities with the necessary language skills to succeed in Ukrainian society or that the new act can provide bilingual education without forcing minority students to become bilingual at a certain point of the educational system. Instead of arguments and consensus-seeking negotiations, the Hungarian government opted for all-out diplomatic war with Ukraine, promising to “block Ukraine’s European integration process” and “all initiatives that could be favourable to Ukraine at all possible forums and all international organisations, and primarily within the EU,” unlike other nations – like Poland or Romania – with significantly larger ethnic minorities living in Ukraine.
The Hungarian toughness benefited the Kremlin, which could claim that Ukraine does not meet European human rights standards and it launched a subsequent disinformation campaign on the issue. Moscow’s renewed disinformation campaign against Ukraine was emboldened by two features of the Hungarian domestic and foreign policy: the politically one-sided account of the problem at stake by the highly centralized Hungarian mainstream media almost exclusively controlled by the government and the well-known high-level diplomatic and economic relations between the Hungarian and Russian governments that prevent Hungarian diplomacy from voicing any critique of the Kremlin.
Active measures to fuel tensions between Hungary and Ukraine
The Kremlin’s alleged associates launched two violent attacks against the Hungarian minority living in Transcarpathia in February 2018. The Hungarian cultural association’s (KMKSZ) HQ in Uzhhorod was set on fire twice with petrol bombs, these attacks were later confirmed by both the Ukrainian and Polish authorities to have been committed by pro-Russian members of the Polish extremist Falanga group and perpetuators arriving from the Russian-occupied Transnistrian territory of Moldavia. The Hungarian government and parties were swift in their condemnation of Ukraine for not defending the Hungarian minority. Péter Szijjártó summoned Ukraine’s ambassador to Hungary over the attack while stating on the main state-owned M1 channel that:
“Extremist political views are gaining ground, (…) this is clear judging by the laws adopted by the Ukrainian parliament that severely limit the rights of minorities and by the members of the Transcarpathian Hungarian community being continuously intimidated.”
The Kremlin’s disinformation networks
The Russian disinformation campaign used several talking points from the Hungarian government’s communication. First, the Kremlin could claim, as stated above, via TASS that “Hungary’s response to Ukraine’s education law indicates it is “ill-conceived,” and it does not meet European human rights standards. Similarly, Russia Today quoted Péter Szijjártó about being “stabbed in the back” by Ukraine. RT by pointed to negative Hungarian, Polish, Moldovan and Romanian reactions to the law, while the article displayed a thumbnail link to another article titled “Ukrainian nationalists battle police outside court after anti-Maidan activists declared ‘not guilty,” which immediately linked the minority issue to alleged far-right radicalism in Ukraine. Subsequent articles of RT emphasized that Hungary is blocking Ukraine’s further European integration and that Péter Szijjártó summoned the Ukrainian ambassador in Budapest to protest against an anti-Hungarian extremist incident in Transcarpathia. Sputnik produced only one article in the time period under revision on the Hungarian veto of the NATO-Ukraine Committee meeting by directly linking the official Hungarian government statement and an official Chinese report on the matter to argue that:
“Ukraine’s intention to wipe away (sic!) the Russian language was the reason the Crimean peninsula declared independence.”
Network diagram: Russian and Pro-Russian Facebook and Twitter accounts spreading nine anti-Ukrainian narratives
Altogether, the Russian disinformation network spread nine anti-Russian narratives on the Hungarian-Ukrainian diplomatic conflict. Russia Today or RT (in turquoise) was the main media driver behind the social media campaign, as shown on the network diagram above, where the size of nodes corresponds to the number of relations or edges, and colours indicate different narrative/media subgroups in the dissemination network. Among the nine narratives listed, “Budapest vetoes the NATO summit” (N3 in purple) proved to be the most successful one shared by many media outlets, followed by the message that “the Duma considers the new law as a violation of the European Charter” (N8 in green). Adjacent narratives on “Ukrainian nationalist burning a Hungarian flag” (N4) or “Nationalist clashing with police in Chernomorsk to protest a court decision” (N5) supported the Hungarian argument that the real stake is the “survival” of the Hungarian minority. At the same time, the Kremlin’s disinformation cautiously avoided mentioning the two active measures staged by pro-Russian actors.
Although, Sputnik (in red) apparently took a backseat in the disinformation attack by pushing only two specific narratives, a 2018 February article reiterated the Hungarian demand to “suspend the implementation” of the new law in compliance with the Venice Commission’s recommendations (N2), while another article in August falsely claimed that “the Hungarian minority will be able to study in their native language only at the primary school level” and President Poroshenko is not making “any concession to Hungary” (N1) – in fact, minority students will receive bilingual education from fifth grade. Unfortunately, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó also fanned the flames of disinformation by lambasting the Ukrainian parliament for “violating the rights of Hungarians” (N7) in an interview given to RT in June 2018.
Legitimizing the military aggression in Crimea
The ultimate goal of Russian communication and disinformation proved to be the continuous legitimatization of the military aggression against Crimea and, by extension, against Eastern Ukraine. The language rights of the Russian minority living in Ukraine are presented as part of an international human rights violation scheme put forward by the Ukrainian government supported by far-right extremists to hurt all minorities of neighbouring countries and violate European human rights standards. These Ukrainian “human rights violations” are traced back to the “original sin” of suppressing Crimea that provoked Russia to rightfully intervene. An article presenting the Duma’s stance clearly stated that:
“Ukrainian authorities again provoke the same situation and recreate the same reasons that had become a starting point for the development of the conflict and the civil war in southeastern (sic!) Ukraine.”
As a result, the campaign has been successful in utilizing Hungary or Hungarian politicians’ statements to drive wedges between EU/NATO member states and Ukraine, who are otherwise in agreement on the fact of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the necessity of economic sanctions against the Russian government and military, oligarchic associates to contain the Kremlin’s aggression.
Lóránt Győri is a sociologist and political analyst, with a masters in social sciences from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, where he is currently working as a geopolitical analyst for the Political Capital think-tank on issues such as Russian soft power, disinformation, and populism in Europe.
Foto: Financial Times