Larger than life – Who is afraid of the Big Bad Russia? - Hungarian country report



The present study takes a novel approach to the understanding of Russian soft and sharp power in Hungary. Our analysis is part of a regional project, led by Political Capital Institute and funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, which explores vulnerability and resistance to hostile everyday Russian influence in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), focusing on horizontal, online “grassroots” communication between citizens. An explicit aim of the study was to leave behind the “elitist,” top-down approach of analyses of hybrid warfare, and instead investigate ordinary conversations taking place each day between citizens. This was accomplished by mapping 1.16 million spontaneous online conversations related to Russia in Hungary, and more than 3 million online messages in the three countries examined (Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic).

Executive Summary

  • The fact that 52% of Hungarians’ grassroots communication is anti-Russian, and most of the Hungarian perceptions and public opinion in the Hungarian media space are negative towards Moscow, is in line with Hungarians’ overwhelming and clear support for the EU, NATO or the West, as evinced by representative polls.
  • Thus, the results highlighted a public “resistance,” as well as certain mechanisms which seem to withstand the Hungarian government’s pro-Kremlin foreign policy, its overpowering dominance across the Hungarian media landscape and Russia’s sharp power directed at Hungarians.
  • Hungarian resilience can be explained by five major institutional and media-related factors:
    • The Hungarian discourse, comprised of 1.16 million messages, is produced by a small number of “core users.” Only 42,400 individuals influence the image of Russia in Hungary.
    • Most of the discussions about Russia, the Kremlin or Putin play out in independent media or social media platforms not controlled by the government, which affects the (anti-Kremlin) geopolitical orientations of the discussions.
    • Even in the pro-government media or pro-Russian media included in our research sample, a significant percentage of the posts or comments are anti-Russian. Thus, the pro-government or pro-Russian media are unable to fundamentally alter the grassroots communication related to centralised media campaigns, disinformation and propaganda articles.
    • While the Hungarian government may paint a positive picture of the bilateral relationship, the main discussion triggers of 1956, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and the illegal annexation of Crimea are unfavourable to Russia in terms of content, and even the most pro-government or pro-Russian communication cannot put a positive or believable spin on these to exonerate the Kremlin’s political and/or military aggressions. Moreover, these triggers tend to strengthen widespread societal narratives about Russia’s historical aggression against Hungary.
    • Finally, experiences topple even the best conspiracy theories or disinformation against the West. Hungarians do have first-hand experience with Western democracies: even the most conservative estimate puts the number of Hungarians who have migrated to the West since 2010 (and maintain regular contact with relatives in Hungary) at 200,000.
  • As a result, the almost 500 outlets of the Hungarian pro-government media landscape have not been able to produce an airtight media-bubble to date. The top-down elite communication of the Hungarian government on Russia still seems to fail on the grassroots level.
  • On the other hand, however, pro-Russian propaganda successfully reaches approximately 1.2-1.5 million people (51% of Fidesz’s voter base who clearly favour closer relations with Russia), and positive perceptions of Russian can tap into the 2.4-3.2 million geopolitically undecided populace, or those “on the fence.” Another problem is the lack of a clear symbolic or values-based definition of the West or Western institutions in the Hungarian public discourse, as opposed to Russia’s clear-cut and formidable perceptions, capable of Hungarian geopolitical attitudes.

The complete country report is available here (pdf, 1,152 KB).

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