The Cable

Hungary ‘Most Vulnerable’ in Central Europe to Russian Influence, Report Finds

As Visegrad Group foreign ministers meet with those from countries looking to enter the EU, a reminder that membership is not a silver bullet.


On Wednesday, foreign ministers of the Visegrad Group countries — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — met in Warsaw, joining six aspiring countries eager to discuss European Union enlargement to the east: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.

The Visegrad Group, though, makes for an odd sherpa for EU membership. Hungary and Poland are both currently fighting tooth and nail with Brussels. The Czech president openly advocates reversing EU policy toward Russia, and a rising far-right party in Slovakia threatens to move the country away from the West and toward Moscow.

Fitting, then, that just a day before the Warsaw meeting, the Bratislava-based think tank GLOBSEC Policy Institute released a “vulnerability index,” meant to detail just how vulnerable each country is to outside forces (namely, Russia) that seek to drag Central Eastern Europe away from the “EU-NATO framework.”

Hungary, the report found, is the most vulnerable to “hostile foreign influence,” followed by Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Warsaw may be a thorn in the EU’s side, but one thing it hasn’t done is cozy up to Moscow — quite the contrary. Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski blames Russia for the 2010 plane crash that killed his twin brother, who was then president.

The report breaks down the ways in which each country is subject to hostile foreign influence:

  • Hungary, ruled by the openly illiberal and pro-Russian Viktor Orban, who has said Russia proves no threat to the EU or NATO, is far and away the most politically susceptible.
  • However, Slovakia is where GLOBSEC feels public perceptions will be most easily swayed (and, indeed, the fascist People’s Party-Our Slovakia, which is openly pro-Russian, received roughly 8 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections last year).
  • The Czech Republic is rendered least vulnerable in terms of countermeasures the state has taken, the report found. The Czech Republic in 2015 concluded that Russia “fundamentally destabilizes European security architecture,” and the country established the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats. (But those efforts to fight Russian influence have been tempered by President Milos Zeman, who has tried to clip his own government’s wings.)
  • In an unexpected twist, Poland, though strongly anti-Russia, has the civil society deemed most vulnerable. This is because “the groups that appeal to anti-immigrant sentiments, Polish-Ukrainian history, or support the anti-Ukrainian demonstrations, have recently flourished in Poland.”

The report concludes with a series of recommendations, from rethinking national security to educating young people to be more media literate. Many similar recommendations litter other European efforts to deal with the hybrid threat, from Finland’s top-down attempt to blunt Russian influence to a new center formed by EU and NATO member countries meant to neuter Moscow’s destabilization efforts.

But as the Visegrad Group foreign ministers meet with countries eager to join the EU, one unstated recommendation could be gleaned from the report: Joining the European Union is not by itself enough to guarantee a pro-Western tilt, or enough to inoculate those countries against future Russian mischief.

Photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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