Un­der­cover stings, fake sym­pa­this­ers and Or­bán’s se­cret war on mi­gra­tion

A third elec­tion vic­tory for the Hun­gar­ian prime min­is­ter last week­end came on the back of anti-for­eigner rhetoric stoked by the rul­ing party. Was there a hid­den strat­egy in play, with NGOs and a claimed Ge­orge Soros ‘plot’ as the tar­get?

The Observer - - World - Shaun Walker

One day in mid-Jan­uary, Balázs Dénes, the Hun­gar­ian ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of a Ber­lin­based NGO, trav­elled to Am­s­ter­dam to meet Ali Mah­moud Alra­bie, from a Bahraini com­pany called Orion Ven­tures Cap­i­tal. Alra­bie’s fund was in­ter­ested in sup­port­ing projects that helped refugees, he said, and paid for Dénes to fly to Am­s­ter­dam to dis­cuss po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tion. Alra­bie was a friendly, jovial in­ter­locu­tor and was keen to hear all about Dénes’s NGO, Civil Lib­er­ties Union for Europe.

Dénes tried to fol­low up the meet­ing with re­quests for more in­for­ma­tion. But Alra­bie did not re­spond. Soon af­ter, the web­site of Orion Ven­tures Cap­i­tal, which de­scribed the fund as a “lead­ing bou­tique in­vest­ment firm based in Bahrain”, stopped work­ing. The com­pany, ap­par­ently, does not ex­ist, and Alra­bie is al­most cer­tainly an in­vented per­sona.

Sub­se­quent events show that Dénes was one of many peo­ple tar­geted by what ap­pears to be a co­or­di­nated, ex­pen­sive and so­phis­ti­cated sting oper­a­tion. The fake meet­ings ap­par­ently had the aim of col­lect­ing com­pro­mis­ing ma­te­rial on Hun­gar­ian civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists, and feed­ing into the talk­ing points of the prime min­is­ter, Vik­tor Or­bán, who con­vinc­ingly won re-elec­tion for a third con­sec­u­tive term last Sun­day in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions.

Or­bán ran his cam­paign al­most ex­clu­sively on the threat posed to Hun­gary by mi­gra­tion. He has ac­cused the Hun­gar­ian-Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire and phi­lan­thropist Ge­orge Soros, a favoured bo­gey­man of rightwing gov­ern­ments across the world, of fo­ment­ing a plot to bring “tens of mil­lions” of mi­grants to Europe and erode its Chris­tian her­itage and na­tional bound­aries.

The sting oper­a­tion, which took place over sev­eral months in the leadup to the elec­tion, tar­geted a num­ber of in­di­vid­u­als who are, or were, em­ployed by Soros’s Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions (OSF), or else worked for or­gan­i­sa­tions that re­ceived grant money from the OSF, like Dénes.

It in­volved meet­ings in Lon­don, New York, Vienna and Am­s­ter­dam. Leaked, of­ten doc­tored, record­ings of the con­ver­sa­tions were im­me­di­ately jumped upon by Or­bán-friendly me­dia as proof of the ex­is­tence of a Soros plot against Hun­gary.

The Ob­server spoke to sev­eral peo­ple who had been tar­geted by com­pa­nies ap­par­ently all linked to the same un­der­cover oper­a­tion. Some of them did not wish to be named pub­licly, but all re­ported a sim­i­lar se­ries of events: an email ap­proach of­fer­ing an all-ex­penses-paid trip to meet an ap­par­ent sym­pa­thiser, fol­lowed by a meet­ing in which the in­ter­locu­tors were friendly, but asked bizarre and provoca­tive ques­tions.

Two weeks be­fore Dénes flew to Am­s­ter­dam, An­drás Siew­ert, who runs the Hun­gar­ian NGO Mi­gra­tion Aid, went to Vienna to meet Grig­ory Alek­san­drov, who claimed to be from a com­pany called Smart In­noTech that of­fered tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions to mi­gra­tion is­sues. Alek­san­drov, like Alra­bie, was chatty and in­quis­i­tive, and as well as of­fer­ing lu­cra­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties for col­lab­o­ra­tion asked nu­mer­ous ques­tions about the work of Mi­gra­tion Aid, and any po­lit­i­cal con­tacts it might have.

Al­though many of those who at­tended the meet­ings said they be­gan to be­come sus­pi­cious over the lines of ques­tion­ing, there was also an ap­pre­ci­a­tion that they were deal­ing with ex­pe­ri­enced de­cep­tion artists.

“These were hard­core pros who knew how to di­rect the con­ver­sa­tion,” said Dénes. The sham com­pa­nies in­volved had sharply de­signed web­sites, and their em­ploy­ees had Linkedin ac­counts. An­other per­son who at­tended a sim­i­lar meet­ing said they met an in­ter­locu­tor who spun a con­vinc­ing, emo­tional tale of how his own fam­ily had been sub­jected to po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion, which had spurred him to help refugees.

How­ever, the ques­tion­ing be­came in­creas­ingly pointed. Siew­ert said “Grig­ory Alek­san­drov” asked re­peated ques­tions about Mi­gra­tion Aid’s po­lit­i­cal links, as well as links to any Soros foun­da­tions. Siew­ert, un­like most of the other or­gan­i­sa­tions tar­geted, said he has never ap­plied for any ex­ter­nal money, in­clud­ing Soros money, and that Mi­gra­tion Aid re­lies on do­na­tions alone for its hu­man­i­tar­ian work.

Alek­san­drov then asked whether he might not con­sider or­gan­is­ing demon­stra­tions, rather than sim­ply dis­tribut­ing aid. He also of­fered tech­nol­ogy to set up a data­base of refugees wait­ing in the “tran­sit zone” along Hun­gary’s south­ern bor­der.

Siew­ert said Alek­san­drov had a clear Is­raeli ac­cent; Dénes said Alra­bie was “pale-skinned Mid­dle East­ern, prob­a­bly Is­raeli or Arab”. An­other per­son who at­tended a meet­ing in a Euro­pean city said the in­ter­locu­tor was “def­i­nitely Is­raeli”.

The first pub­lic sign of the sting came in mid-March, when an ar­ti­cle ap­peared in the Jerusalem Post quot­ing a record­ing of Dénes say­ing his work in­volved launch­ing pub­lic cam­paigns and mo­bil­is­ing EU coun­tries to lobby against as­pects of Hun­gar­ian leg­is­la­tion. There was no in­di­ca­tion in the ar­ti­cle of how the record­ing was ob­tained or made.

Al­most im­me­di­ately, there was a re­sponse from the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment, which seized on the Is­raeli ar­ti­cle as “proof” that the Soros net­work was lob­by­ing against Hun­gary in­ter­na­tion­ally. “The Ber­lin lieu­tenant has been caught red-handed,” wrote Or­bán’s spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, in a blog post. “How on earth is a so-called NGO en­gaged in politi-

cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing, and work­ing to in­flu­ence one gov­ern­ment us­ing the help of an­other gov­ern­ment? That’s com­pletely and fully against the law,” he later told the Ob­server.

Who­ever was do­ing the leak­ing then pro­vided other record­ings to a source much closer to the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment. Jour­nal­ist Zsolt Bayer, an as­so­ciate of Or­bán and found­ing mem­ber of his Fidesz party, wrote ar­ti­cles us­ing other leaked record­ings in the gov­ern­ment-friendly pa­per Mag­yar Idök.

Bayer posted au­dio from Siew­ert’s meet­ings with Alek­san­drov, as well as a heav­ily edited record­ing of Tra­cie Ah­ern, for­mer chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of Soros Fund Man­age­ment, who said there were “some­thing like 2,000 peo­ple” work­ing for OSF, dur­ing a meet­ing with an ap­par­ent sym­pa­thiser in New York. The fig­ure was meant for OSF glob­ally, but was spun by the Hun­gar­ian me­dia to be about em­ploy­ees in Hun­gary.

The fig­ure was im­me­di­ately seized on by Or­bán him­self, who said the gov­ern­ment knew the names of 2,000 mem­bers of the “Soros mer­ce­nary army” who were work­ing to “bring down the gov­ern­ment”.

Kovács said the idea that the record­ings were made as part of an un­der­cover sting oper­a­tion was a “cheap ar­gu­ment” and “fake news”. He de­nied any gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment in the af­fair. Bayer did not re­turn calls, and a source at the Jerusalem Post de­clined to say how the news­pa­per re­ceived the record­ing, though did say the pa­per had re­jected Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment re­quests to hand it over.

The so­phis­ti­cated oper­a­tion, span­ning mul­ti­ple coun­tries and in­volv­ing nu­mer­ous fake iden­ti­ties and com­pa­nies, matches the modus operandi of a num­ber of cor­po­rate in­tel­li­gence firms that have re­ceived neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity in re­cent months.

There are nu­mer­ous com­pa­nies who pro­vide sim­i­lar ser­vices, a cor­po­rate in­tel­li­gence source said, and there is no hard ev­i­dence about which com­pany or gov­ern­ment might be be­hind this par­tic­u­lar sting oper­a­tion.

While the trade­craft in­volved sug­gests op­er­a­tives with an in­tel­li­gence back­ground, the sting was not car­ried out flaw­lessly. Siew­ert said he was so sus­pi­cious when he re­ceived the ini­tial ap­proach from Alek­san­drov that he re­ported it to the Hun­gar­ian in­tel­li­gence ser­vice AH and in­formed it he thought he was be­ing set up.

In an in­ter­view at Mi­gra­tion Aid’s of­fice, an apart­ment in Bu­dapest’s sev­enth dis­trict, Siew­ert said Alek­san­drov raised sus­pi­cion be­cause his com­pany had lit­tle on­line foot­print, and he spelled his own sur­name in three dif­fer­ent ways in emails.

Due to his sus­pi­cions, Siew­ert se­cretly recorded the meet­ings him­self. Af­ter par­tial record­ings were re­leased by Hun­gar­ian me­dia, Siew­ert re­leased the full au­dio him­self, to show he said noth­ing un­to­ward. He also took clan­des­tine pho­tos of the man pre­tend­ing to be Alek­san­drov, and his fe­male as­sis­tant, which he posted on­line. Dénes said the man he met, Alra­bie, was a dif­fer­ent per­son to the man in Siew­ert’s pho­tographs.

Siew­ert was coy about re­veal­ing to what ex­tent the meet­ings he held with Alek­san­drov in Vienna were co­or­di­nated with the AH, but has made pub­lic a doc­u­ment show­ing he did, in­deed, re­port the ap­proach to the ser­vice prior to at­tend­ing the meet­ing. The doc­u­ment raises the in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­ity that part of Hun­gary’s in­tel­li­gence ap­pa­ra­tus was, or is, in­ves­ti­gat­ing a sting oper­a­tion that ap­pears to have been car­ried out with the aim of but­tress­ing the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment’s talk­ing points.

One of Or­bán’s ma­jor cam­paign prom­ises was to in­tro­duce a so-called “Stop Soros” leg­isla­tive pack­age tar­get­ing civil so­ci­ety, and on Tues­day the prime min­is­ter used a post-elec­tion press con­fer­ence to say that pass­ing the bill is a top pri­or­ity for the new gov­ern­ment. Keep­ing the anti-Soros rhetoric high, a gov­ern­ment-linked mag­a­zine last week pub­lished a list of so-called “Soros agents” ac­tive in­side Hun­gary, in­clud­ing jour­nal­ists and civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists.

The “Stop Soros” law, when passed, will sub­ject for­eign fund­ing for mi­gra­tion-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties to a 25% tax and will re­quire or­gan­i­sa­tions to un­dergo vet­ting to check if they are a na­tional se­cu­rity threat. “Af­ter the law is passed they’ll need ‘ev­i­dence’, and it’s quite pos­si­ble that they’ll use these record­ings for that pur­pose,” said Dénes.

Many of those who at­tended meet­ings be­came sus­pi­cious, but they were deal­ing with ex­pe­ri­enced de­cep­tion artists

Rex, Getty, Reuters

Vik­tor Or­bán, far left, at a polling sta­tion last Sun­day in Bu­dapest, be­low; his cam­paign bill­boards claimed Ge­orge Soros was try­ing to flood the coun­try with im­mi­grants, left.

Ge­orge Soros, be­low, has be­come the bo­gey­man of the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment.

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