Hungary charges Jobbik MEP with spying on EU for Russia

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A Hungarian European Parliament member who belongs to the nationalist opposition Jobbik party has been charged with spying on European Union institutions for Russia, prosecutors said on Wednesday.

The charges against Bela Kovacs, which include using forged private documents, stem from an investigation dating from April 2014, when Hungarian authorities first reported the suspected espionage and filed for his immunity to be lifted.

“This was followed by declaring reasonable suspicion, the essence of which was that the member of parliament had been involved in espionage on behalf of a foreign state for its secret service,” the prosecutors said in a statement.

The foreign state in question was Russia, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office said.

Kovacs himself said the case against him was based on “fantasy” and added he looked forward to the court proceedings, where he expected to exonerate himself.

“I am very happy that we finally made it to this point and I can clear my name in court and put an end to this saga,” he told Reuters by phone.

No date has been announced for a trial.

The charges against Kovacs follow a probe by Hungarian prosecutors into the financial reporting practices of Jobbik, the strongest opposition party.

The issue of collusion with Russia is especially touchy in Hungary because Prime Minister Viktor Orban has also often been charged with having uncomfortably close ties with Moscow.

He struck a giant nuclear power deal with Russia, along with other major business deals, has criticized the EU embargo on Russia and meets annually with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, which is runaway favorite to win a third successive term in power, declined comment on Kovacs’s remarks.

For more than a decade in the 1980s and 1990s Kovacs lived in Moscow, a fact that he has never denied. He returned to Budapest in 2003 and two years later joined Jobbik, then a nascent political movement.

Asked about that path now, Kovacs said the stories that paint him as a spy “were strange to my eyes, too. All the red and green dossiers ... fantasy is boundless.”

Kovacs added that his case, which the Hungarian secret services first brought during the 2014 election season, was probably a political tool in the hands of the ruling Fidesz party used to deflect the stigma of association with Russia away from Fidesz onto Jobbik.

“I am almost positive this has a political relevance,” Kovacs said. “It is no coincidence that it was brought up before elections. Now the court dates will probably fall in the thick of the election campaign, and clearly will be used to attack my party.”

Kovacs told Reuters that he would quit Jobbik as of Wednesday to spare the party political smears, but said he would hold onto his MEP mandate until it expired in 2019.

The European Parliament lifted Kovacs’ immunity in the spy case after a lengthy process in October 2015.

Following a report by European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), Hungarian prosecutors also launched an investigation in 2015 against Kovacs over the fictitious employment of interns.

Kovacs and his associates are suspected of defrauding the European Parliament of funds worth 21,076 euros ($24,909.72) in total, Hungarian prosecutors said.

Kovacs also denies that charge but told Reuters he will repay that sum in the next couple of months.

($1 = 0.8461 euros)

Editing by Richard Balmforth