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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 27th April 2018 > THE NEW IRON CURTAIN

THE NEW IRON CURTAIN

The Kremlin has long tried to divide and conquer Europe. Now, in Hungary, its strategy is working
STRONGMEN Putin’s support of Orbán has been unprecedented in its scale and scope.
AKOS STILLER/BLOOMBERG/GETTY

ANALYSIS

THERE WAS A SPRING CHILL IN THE AIR on April 8, but tens of thousands crowded around the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary, waiting late into the night to hear their hero speak. When he finally emerged, around midnight, they were jubilant, “We have won,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared. “We have given ourselves a chance to defend Hungary.” Voters had just handed him a landslide victory, a historic third term in office and a supermajority in the parliament. Orbán had run a staunchly antiimmigrant campaign and denounced the European Union as an “empire.” And most voters had loved it. So did Russian President Vladimir Putin. For more than a decade, he has helped Orbán spread his divisive brand of anti-EU sentiment across the continent— a process that RT, the Russian state news agency, hailed as “the Orbánization of Europe.”

For years, Russia tried to weaken and divide the EU, supporting groups ranging from Catalan separatists in Spain to British Brexit activists. The Kremlin had offered loans to France’s National Front and used its propaganda channels to whip up fake news about the persecution of Russian minorities in the Baltics. According to Political Capital, a Budapestbased think tank, Russian-based trolls, Twitter bots and social media sock puppets have been put to work, boosting exaggerated stories of crimes by immigrants and “selling pro-Kremlin narratives within a tabloid, conspiracy package.” In the neighboring Czech Republic, the populist, pro-Moscow president, Milos Zeman, was re-elected in February after his pro-EU opponent, Jirí Drahos, fell victim to a concerted smear campaign accusing him of being a pedophile and a Communist collaborator. Most of the stories originated with some 30 Czech websites that Kremlin Watch, a unit run by the Prague-based European Values think tank, has linked to Moscow. The goal? To help pro-Putin sympathizers and sow doubt and discord across Europe, making it harder for Brussels to collectively punish Russian aggression in places such as Ukraine.

The Kremlin has tried to help many of Europe’s nationalist parties and politicians. But its support of Orbán has been unprecedented in its scale and scope. It has included not just propaganda but also sweetheart gas deals, multibillion-dollar loans, strategic investments and covert support for violent far-right hate groups. The payoff has been huge—at least for the Kremlin. Orbán has been a pro-Putin voice in Europe, even as the rest of the EU has recoiled from Moscow in the wake of its annexation of Crimea and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. The Hungarian leader has spoken out against sanctions on Russia and regularly welcomed Putin to Budapest at a time when other EU leaders were trying to condemn him. He’s also installed a Russian-style crony capitalist elite of oligarchs, used loyal businessmen to take over opposition news media and passed legislation to curb the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups. Most important for the Kremlin, Hungary has become the heart of a growing rebellion against the EU’s liberal democratic values, principles and rules. “The global rise of conservative nationalism…is the menace of our times,” says political economist Will Hutton of Hertford College, University of Oxford. “Europe is reacquainting itself with its darkest demons.”

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THE NEW IRON CURTAIN? For years, Russia has tried to weaken and divide the EU, supporting groups ranging from Catalan separatists in Spain to British Brexit activists. The Kremlin had offered loans to France’s National Front and used its propaganda channels to whip up fake news about the persecution of Russian minorities in the Baltics. According to Political Capital, a Budapest based think tank, Russian-based trolls, Twitter bots and social media sock puppets have been put to work, boosting exaggerated stories of crimes by immigrants and “selling pro-Kremlin narratives within a tabloid, conspiracy package.”