Award 2015 Nominee
The secret life of Bela Kovacs
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For months I investigated the past of Jobbik EP-representative and suspected spy, Béla Kovács, and his Russian wife, Svetlana Istoshina, and by the end I had the feeling of being part of a spy movie: I stumbled on parallel marriages, secret Japanese and Austrian husbands and mysterious trips, and I also managed to loosen the tongues of several former KGB-agents. Kovács and his wife concealed facts about their lives that eventually revealed that the Russian secret service was one of the bonds holding the family in one piece. While breaking the spy story in the middle of the election campaign appeared to be a ploy by the government to compromise Jobbik, there is increasing evidence that Kovács and his wife are no small fry: the politician has been known to the KGB almost from the day he was born and in the 1980s the organization recruited him through his wife. His political career starting in the early 2000s must also have benefited the Russians.
Jobbik EP-representative, Béla Kovács, had a stunned expression on his face when, at one point in our discussion in his office in Strasbourg, I placed before him a copy of an article from a Japanese newspaper published 38 years earlier. The piece was about the marriage of a Japanese men and a young Soviet woman, with photos of the happy couple. “This is my wife”, the politician acknowledged and then we sank into silence lasting several minutes. Yet, I had the feeling that Béla was not so much stunned by the realization that he was not the only husband of his life, but rather that a family secrets had been revealed.
By that time I had been investigating the career and family background of the Jobbik politician and his Russian wife, Svetlana Istoshina, for quite some time and I asked for a meeting in Strasbourg to put the last mosaics of this extraordinary story in place. I had good reason to poke around; back in May, in the final stretch of the EP-election campaign Béla Kovács was accused of spying on European Union institutions. The waiver of his immunity was initiated at the time, although EP-representatives have yet to vote on the issue. It turned out that, in cooperation with a number of European secret services, intelligence services had the politician with close ties to Moscow in their scope since 2009. According to the Hungarian secret service, Kovács held secret meetings with Russian diplomats. If the allegations are confirmed, Kovács had the job of advancing Russian interests as an agent with influence.
An open book
Before the revelation of the spy case the politician’s name was barely known in Hungary, not surprising as he had never been featured on Jobbik campaign posters, hardly ever gave interviews, very little was known about his life and his CV was rather short. Despite his apparent insignificance, he is a party stalwart: thanks to him, over the years nationalist Jobbik became pro-Russian. However, his activities have reached beyond Hungary. At his initiative, the Alliance of European National Movements, an umbrella organization for several European far right parties, was established in 2009.
Kovács has never denied his close ties to Russia and his frequent trips to Moscow and, in fact, he brought these facts up in his own defense. As he put it, his life is an open book and he had never made a secret of meeting Russian diplomats here and there, but to describe it as spying is utter nonsense. “I have never been a member of the Hungarian or a foreign secret service, I have never cooperated with them and have never been contacted by them”, he said in May. At the time he also said that his Russian wife had never worked for the KGB.
However, Béla Kovács and his wife’s past hold a number of secret incidents and facts suggesting that the Soviet secret service, or the Committee of State Security (commonly known as the KGB) has been a common link in the couple’s life. The organization that has survived the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union alike, along with its networks, intelligence officers and agents. However, to learn more about these secrets, we have to go back as far as 1960.
The secrets of a Soviet military barracks
In the winter of 1960 C., a young girl living in the country, gave birth to a healthy baby boy. That infant was the fruit of a secret liaison, and the father was a Russian military officer serving in a Soviet base near the village. It was in everyone’s interest that the girl deliver the infant in the capital and, under pressure from the father, the young woman made the most painful decision a mother could make: she returned to the village alone and her newborn child was taken to a state-run orphanage.
Five months later, Béla Kovács Sr. and his wife, Erzsébet adopted the infant in a foster home in Budapest. While it was a secret adoption, caretakers in the foster home told them who the mother was and where she lived. Béla Kovács Sr. and his wife decided never to reveal the secret to their son named ‘Béla’ after his adoptive father.
Today, the barracks where Béla Kovács Jr.’s Russian father served in the military is all but deserted and ready for the wracking ball. Of the residential buildings on the property only the prefab buildings once housing commissioned officers had been renovated. I found C.’s home on the barracks grounds, in one of those block buildings. Instead of meeting C., her grandson let me understand he was perfectly aware who and what I was after, that I had been “nosing about them for quite some time”, and I’d be wise not to ask questions in the neighborhood.
Finding out what happened in that small Transdanubian village 50 years ago was made impossible not only by C.’s refusal to talk, but also the certificate itself that omits data concerning the father (see in the box, A curious birth certificate).
The foster parents
I had more luck with Béla Kovács’ foster father. I found the old man in his country house, and he was eager to talk. A long time ago he worked as a skilled worker in a state-run catering company, where he lost one of his fingers in an accident. He was forced to take a six-month sick leave and, when he returned to the company and failed to agree with the director about his compensation, he quit. He eventually found a job at the Diplomatic Corps Supply Directorate (DTEI), were had the job of renovating the homes of diplomats while they were on foreign assignments.
This was a confidential job; before being hired by DTEI each prospective employee was subjected to a background check to screen for Western spies. The foster father had no inkling he had been investigated. Soviet advisers were present in all important state organizations, so anything the Hungarian socialist intelligence knew about DTEI employees was also known by the KGB, provided the information held some relevance for them.
The job was considered confidential because sooner or later the majority of these employees were sent to foreign missions to help diplomats at Hungarian embassies as cleaners, superintendents or cooks. The Kovács family was no exception. In 1976 they were sent to Japan. At the Hungarian Embassy in Tokyo Béla Kovács Sr. became a superintendent, while his wife cooked for embassy employees and their son attended a high school.
The superintendent, Béla Kovács Sr. did not attract much attention; Hungarians living in Japan and maintaining regular contact with the Hungarian Embassy at the time didn’t remember his name despite my promptings. Yet he must have been familiar to a lot of people because he would open the gate to those coming to the embassy to take care of business during regular hours.
While in Tokyo Mr. and Mrs. Kovács barely left the embassy compound, while their adopted son had the entire world to discover: he attended a US-chartered high school, learned Japanese and English, made friends and met a lot of people. The parents didn’t keep the boy under close supervision and, as told by the father, “he left in the morning and returned in the evening”. They had no idea what he did and whom he met all day.
The father only learned that his son had a Russian girlfriend seven years his senior when the blonde Svetlana looked for his boyfriend at the embassy. When Béla Kovács Sr. asked her how she knew his son, the woman responded that they had met at school. By that time, Béla Kovács attended the American University in Tokyo. (As told by Béla Kovács, he and Svetlana met on a boat trip where they were assigned the same berth by an administrative mistake.)
The foster father knew little about his son’s girlfriend and, by his own admission, he learned what Svetlana actually did from a Hungarian intelligence officer working at the embassy just before returning to Hungary in 1980.
When the spy case broke in May, at one of his press conferences I asked Béla Kovács about his wife. The politicians said that he had met her in Japan in 1979. As a Soviet citizen, she ended up in Japan working as a hostess for a Russian-speaking television show produced by the Japanese Public Broadcasting Company. This was also his explanation why, despite being a Soviet citizen, she could live in Japan in the 1970s. Kovács kept insisting that he knows his wife perfectly and is absolutely certain that Svetlana had never worked for the KGB.
Six months later, when I visited Béla Kovács in his office in Strasbourg and asked him about his wife again, and essentially he said the same things. He also mentioned that he and Svetlana married in 1986 and, as an aside, he indicated that by that time the woman was an Austrian citizen. This was all the more intriguing because not long afterwards he said that Svetlana received Austrian citizenship in 1988, by which time both of them were in Austria and Svetlana’s Soviet passport had been revoked. (He said the same thing in an interview to ‘Alfahír’, a news program, back in May.) “At the time she had the opportunity to receive Austrian citizenship under a “simplified procedure”, Béla Kovács remembered the year 1988. I interjected by saying that just a minute ago he said his wife was an Austrian citizen already in 1986, to which he responded that after so much time he might mix up the years.
The newspaper article I put on Béla Kovács’ desk in his Strasbourg office was published in the summer of 1975 by the Japanese daily, Mainichi Shimbun. The piece was about a young couple, the happy marriage of 21-year-old Svetlana and a Japanese man, Omiya Massanori. At that time, a foreigner living in Japan was still considered highly unusual. Massanori and Svetlana married in 1975 and, according to the article, the woman met the Japanese man at a university in Moscow, and they married in Russia.
“After a cumbersome and lengthy process, as soon as she received her exit permit (Svetlana) left the Soviet Union to follow her husband who, devoted to his job, had returned to Japan earlier and patiently waited for his wife. The couple lives the life of newlyweds in Gamagori. Svetlana is still in school. While she had already managed to earn all the credits for a diploma, right now she is working on her thesis. As she devotes all her attention to her studies, learning Japanese has to take a back seat for the time being. Right now, Svetlana speaks not a word of Japanese and the couple communicates exclusivity in Russian. She barely leaves the apartment. In the morning, after her husband leaves for work, she spends her time studying. If she gets tired, she listens to Soviet music. She follows the same schedule day in and day out”, one reads in the local newspaper, the Gamaguri Shimbun, published 300 km from Tokyo in August 1975.
Similar to Béla Kovács, Massanori is also a man of some consequence: he is involved in nuclear science, and had also worked in Kazakhstan on the staff of an independent Japanese government organization, the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
By now I also have some questions for my wife, not only you”, is how Béla Kovács reacted to the Japanese article when we talked in his Strasbourg office. He admitted having been introduced to Omiya Massanori by his wife, but maintained he had had no idea they had been married. But married they were, and in fact in the legal sense they are married to this day. However, Svetlana had a third husband as well.
When, in the course of our conversation Béla Kovács claimed that Svetlana was an Austrian citizen already in1986, he told the truth by accident; indeed, the woman did not receive citizenship in 1988 as claimed by Kovács earlier in Alfahír. According to the woman’s acquaintances, in the mid-1980s she regularly used a passport made out to Svetlana Schön. In 1983 – four years after marrying and still living with Béla Kovács – she married an Austrian man, Mario Schön.
The jailbird Schön is known to Austrian underworld figures, and several veteran Hungarian gangsters I asked were also familiar with the name. His name also came up in a 1979 crime report; 20 years old at the time and living high on the hog, Schön was a member of a violent gang of burglars that, according to the police, “did not stop at anything”. The man married a number of East European women, for a compensation, of course. Schön lived with his wife only on paper. He was never seen in the company of Svetlana, and the Russian woman married the crime figure simply for the Austrian passport and the name. So, when Svetlana was granted Austrian citizenship in 1984, they divorced immediately and Schön promptly married a Polish woman for money. I was unable to ask him whether he knew that by marrying Svetlana he was actually doing business with the KGB; I found his grave in Vienna’s central cemetery. He had died two years earlier at age 51 in an accident.
In all likelihood, Schön was aware who Svetlana’s handlers were. In the years the Iron Curtain was in place, the KGB maintained a close contact with the Austrian underworld as well. Cooperation started in the 50s and 60s and involved primary smuggling. East-European intelligence services benefited from contact with several Vienna-based criminal gangs. In some cases, the Soviet secret service commissioned Austrian criminals to break into someone’s apartment, which carried fewer risks than sending in a Soviet agent.
The fact that Svetlana Istoshina was a KGB messenger was revealed to me by Béla Kovács’ foster father. Back in Tokyo, the father noted that his son’s girlfriend travels all over the world, something highly unusual for a Soviet citizen at the time. Eventually, not long before the family’s return to Hungary, a Hungarian secret agent working at the Tokyo embassy confirmed his suspicion. The agent also told him that his son’s future career is also in the hands of the Soviets; they would arrange for his son, already attending a university, to continue his studies in Russia.
Béla Kovács’ wife – under the name of Svetlana Omiya and Svetlana Schön – traveled a lot indeed, and was on the road almost all the time. From Tokyo she flew regularly to Western Europe, Scandinavia, as well as a number of Asian countries. These were expensive trips she could hardly have paid for with her salary. And Svetlana – contrary to Béla Kovács’ claims – was never employed by the Japanese Public Broadcasting Corporation, although she had worked in a pasta shop, a diner and a language school. Her parents living in the Soviet Union were not wealthy enough to pay for these expensive trips. These were financed by the KGB.
Secret service couriers had the job of delivering information, messages and other tools of the trade. Whenever possible, meetings were arranged in different places and, according to former KGB officers, in the 70s and 80s countries regularly visited by Svetlana were the favored destinations of these couriers.
To these missions the KGB sent only its most trusted people because, if necessary, they could be entrusted with other secret service operations as well. Béla Kovács’ wife needed foreign documents because in the 70s and 80s a traveling Soviet citizen would have raised suspicions. It was common practice for KGB couriers to acquirer foreign travel documents through a marriage of convenience.
Of course, one may ask that if Svetlana was a spy, why was she featured in Japanese newspapers, increasing the risk of future exposure. However, she is not the only Soviet spy showing up in Japanese media at the time. Living in Tokyo as a journalist, while in fact working for the KGB, Stanislav Levchenko and his wife were also featured in a Japanese television show as foreigners living in the island nation, without anyone suspecting their real profession. (Today Levchenko lives in the US, where he published an autobiography, On The Wrong Side, My life in KGB. The man defected in 1979 and spilled the beans: he delivered the names of recruited agents and KGB operatives working in Japan to the Americans, while a court in Russia sentenced him to death in absentia.)
These media appearances were useful for spies for these supported their cover stories, and in the case of Levchenko the claim that he was a journalist, while in fact he gathered intelligence for the KGB. In the case of Béla Kovács’ wife these stories were useful because, without fail, they described her as a quiet, reticent woman who never leaves home. In fact, as soon as she received documents made to the name of Svetlana Omiya, she was on the road practically all the time.
In the cold war years, Japan played an extremely important role for the KGB. In the 70s and 80s the island country was a haven for foreign intelligence agents, including Soviet operatives. In those years the average Soviet citizen was not allowed to travel abroad.
Consequently, a Soviet citizen living in Japan at the time worked either for the KGB, or the Soviet military intelligence, the GRU. Those who were not intelligence officer worked for the secret service either as agents or informers, the only exceptions being members of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee – it was revealed to me by Konstantin Preobrazhenskiy, when I asked him about those years. I contacted the 61-year-old man, also living in the US, because, similar to Levchenko and Béla Kovács’ wife, he was also stationed in Japan at the time as a KGB intelligence officer charged with recruiting Chinese citizens for Soviet intelligence.
During the cold war years Japan was a goldmine for the KGB. Through Soviet intelligence officers and their agents, Moscow acquired important economic, military and political secrets. Compared to the Soviets, Japanese counter intelligence was relatively weak, which was fully exploited by Moscow. In his memoirs Levchenko mentions that the KGB used stolen Japanese technology to monitor Japanese police communications from its Tokyo residential compound.
In his memoirs Levchenko also writes about an issue crucial to the Kovács-case: a spy is not simply a person acquiring secret information, espionage is a more complicated and complex profession. The KGB was at least as strong in the area of so-called active measures. Infiltrating political parties, founding and sponsoring organizations, influencing, bribing, compromising and blackmailing local opinion-makers, politicians and business leaders – these were all part of ‘active measures’.
The point is that the KGB was not satisfied with simply taking information from a country to strengthen the Soviet Union; it also wished to interfere with the internal affairs of the target country. When today Russia – through various channels – supports the European far right and spreads Russian propaganda in these circles is nothing but a new variation on the theme of active measures.
Béla Kovács and his foster parents returned from Japan to Hungary in 1980. While Kovács told me that he would’ve liked to finish his studies at the American University in Japan, he was not given that option and soon attended a university in Russia. After earning his diploma, he lived and worked in Hungary for a short time, and just before starting military service he married Svetlana in 1986. They left Hungary in 1988 and, according to Kovács, went directly to Austria. In an interesting coincidence, this was exactly the time when the winds of change were already palpable in the Soviet Union and the KGB recalled its agents operating in foreign countries.
The couple turns up in Hungary again in 2003, and by that time former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin rules Russia and sets the empire’s foreign-policy strategy. As told by Béla Kovács, in the interim 15 years he launched and managed a number of business ventures in Moscow and Tokyo. Be that as it may, he returned to Hungary in 2003 rather wealthy and, according to his foster father, a completely changed man. However, Béla Kovács Sr. also said that the changes had been apparent for quite some time and the fact that the son had learned they were not his natural parents may also have played a part.
From the point of the current spy case it is important to understand when and under what circumstances Kovács learned that the people he had believed to be his parents were not related to him by blood. It was far from unusual for the KGB to use such information to recruit people and thus strengthen their Russian identity. It is also no accident that when Parliament’s national security committee questioned Béla Kovács in May, the politician’s identity came up as well.
According to Hvg.hu, when he was asked about his national identity and commitment “he was frazzled at first and only said that » I’m a Hungarian citizen, I have only a Hungarian passport «, and after a brief pause he added: » and, of course, I have a Hungarian identity «.” This was also confirmed to the online news service, Index, by one of those present at the committee hearing.
When I talked to Béla Kovács’ foster father, the old man claimed: his son changed after having met Svetlana in Japan and, when he returned from the Soviet Union years later, “he was a completely different man, as if he had been turned inside out”. Of course, this can be attributed to the fact that Kovács, who earned a diploma in the meantime and speaks a number of languages, by now looks differently at his ordinary working-class parents, although his father referred not only to this but also to his son’s identity and his relationship to the Soviet Union when he talked about all this.
The foster father maintains they had never told their son he had been adopted, but – while no one knows by whom, why and from what source the information came from – the son was enlightened either in Japan or during his years in Moscow. He believes this explains the change in his son and their mutual alienation. In contrast, during our conversation in Strasbourg, Béla Kovács claimed that 10 years earlier his foster father in Hungary sent him a message telling him he was not his real father, something he had never suspected before.
Two years after returning to Hungary with his wife in 2003, Béla Kovács joined Jobbik. The same year he founded the party’s foreign affairs committee that he has been chairing ever since. The Jobbik leadership, most of them graduates of liberal arts colleges, welcomed that multilingual Kovács, who never made a secret of his excellent foreign contacts. His rapid rise in the party hierarchy was due in part to this and his generosity. There was a period when he made the largest private donations to Jobbik to the tune of several million forints. His lavish support for the party was acknowledged even by the party president, Gábor Vona.
Aside from his knowledge of foreign languages and extensive contacts, Kovács’ fast-track promotion within the party was also helped by his deep pocket. In this case no one asked where the money came from or what he had done in the past. Yet, there has always been an air of suspicion about him: due to his years spent in Moscow, he was simply referred to as KGBéla within the party. And the stranger coming from afar did not sit around idly. In the turmoil following the Őszöd speech, when Jobbik was on the ascent, he worked hard to bring his party closer to those with whom he had cultivated excellent relations: the Russian. In 2008, at his initiative party president, Gábor Vona, traveled with him to Moscow, and roughly this is the point in time when Jobbik’s pro-Russian foreign policy, lasting to this day, started. Kovács remembers this episode differently. According to him, it was Gábor Vona who wished to get closer to the Russians and he simply offered to act as an intermediary.
In the fall of 2009, at the initiative of Kovács the Alliance of European National Movements, an umbrella organization for European far right parties, was established with the declared objective of forming a faction in the European Parliament. Initially, Kovács acted as its treasurer and later as president of the organization, well past its prime. Before the break of the spy scandal, he took a position on the Russian/Ukrainian conflict in the international media. As part of an international team observing the referendum held in the Crimea he said that the “vote would be absolutely free and fair”.
Recently the Ukrainian parliament passed an act granting itself the power to introduce various sanctions against states, organizations and individuals that threaten the country’s national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and simultaneously banned Kovács from entering the country.
The coming end
When I talked to Béla Kovács in Strasbourg, he repeated he had never been in contact with any secret service, and his wife had not been either, adding that he knows her perfectly well. However, it appears he had no idea that the woman is still married to a Japanese man and also had an Austrian husband while they had already lived together.
Even if one assumes that Svetlana Istoshina managed to keep these details from him, how come Béla Kovács never wondered how Svetlana became an Austrian citizen? In the course of our conversations why did he say that before their marriage in 1986 his wife already had Austrian citizenship, while in the interview given after the spy case came to light he said that the woman became an Austrian citizen in 1988? Is it simply that after so many years his memory is failing him? Be that as it may, Kovács was a student of international relations at a prestigious Moscow University (IMO), has traveled extensively and has a thorough knowledge of the game of politics. Did he really believe that in the 1980s a woman from the Soviet Union could receive Austrian citizenship in a “simplified procedure”? If both were consumed by such ardent love for each other, how come he didn’t care why and how his beloved traveled the world over? Is it simply a coincidence that Svetlana’s Japanese husband also studied in a Russian university and, as a physicist, works in the nuclear field?
If the Hungarian counter intelligence is correct in claiming that, in cooperation with several West-European secret services, it has been tracking Béla Kovács since 2009 and has photographs to prove that the politician secretly met with diplomats actually on the payroll of the Russian secret service, then all these questions can be answered very simply.
Concurrently, it also means that in 2005, two years after Béla Kovács and his wife returned to Hungary from Russia, the Russian secret service infiltrated Jobbik.
(For the current article filling in the details of the life of Béla Kovács and his wife, I collected information from people close to the politician and his wife, from people who had once known the family, from both Hungarians and Russians living in Japan in the 1970s, from former Foreign Ministry employees, from experts familiar with the operation and past practices of the Russian and Hungarian secret services, including former KGB intelligence officers. I double-checked the information through several channels. In using Russian-language sources I was helped by my colleague and translator, Gergő Nyilas, and in the search for and translation of Japanese articles Kuniaki Ura, Kati Korodi, Dani Kiss, Tímea Tóth, Gábor Hiller and Gergő Rácz offered indispensable assistance.)