NGO with former spies and Russian connections targets state agencies, offers intelligence trainings
An NGO named Foundation for Understandable Security (Közérthető Biztonságért Alapítvány, KBA) cooperates with the Hungarian Ministry of Interior, organises conferences and internal training. All this despite the fact that its founder is an instructor of a Russian martial arts school, which is considered to be a front for the Russian secret services. The foundation also includes a member linked to the Russian state energy company Gazprom. According to official documents, the NGO has no assets, no expenses and no income, yet it has undertaken to provide ‘academic-level’ national security training for civilians.
There is a private security policy foundation that has so far attracted no media attention, despite its apparent influence on national security agencies and security training institutions. According to the website of the Central European Security Training and Research Centre, the Foundation for Public Security (KBA), registered in 2018, was founded to “develop long-term cooperation with the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of the Interior”, organising workshops for company executives, government officials and law enforcement leaders, and hosting events with high-ranking guests including the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State for the Paks nuclear power plant.
The KBA website (and its earlier versions available in the archive.org web-archive) lists Milton Friedman University (formerly Zsigmond Király University) as a partner, and says that they are willing to provide training for national security professionals from Switzerland to Ukraine, beyond Hungary and across the whole of the Central and Eastern European region.
Private intelligence training with former secret service members
Among the foundation’s directors are well-known names: the site lists as the former (from 2018 until 2020) and now honorary president of the foundation retired Hungarian Defense Force colonel Dr. Ferenc Kuti, who served in the Hungarian military mission to Iraq, and later became a lecturer at the National University of Public Service. He also worked for a long time in military counterintelligence:
in the 1990s, he was deputy head and later director of the Training Centre of the Military Security Office.
András Jenei is an energy policy expert and an member of the ‘Méltányosság’ policy analysis institute. Péter Wagner, a member of KBA’s board of trustees is researcher at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade. József Győrffy-Kiss, who is described on the site as a “consultant in criminal psychology and an expert in counter-attack”, is the “director responsible for strategic and operational affairs” at KBA. Publicly, Győrffy-Kiss is best known as a novelist, with several horror and thriller novels published under the pen name John Cure.
According to webpages archived at archive.org, KBA’s website has undergone changes since since its foundation in 2018. Last year, the main page featured a menu item called “Mercurius Academy”, which led to a page called KBA Mercurius Business Intelligence Academy. The academy, which also appears to have been a KBA project, is described as providing training in information security for NGOs, business, municipalities and public services.
“Our aim is to provide training for various organisations (civil, economic, municipal, public) to enable them to defend themselves effectively against malicious intent (…) Our trainers have served in specialised fields for decades in the defence of the nation, and their academic work is also noteworthy. They are recognized experts in their field: university professors, doctors of military science and candidates of military science,” they wrote.
Applications for their training courses were accepted via the KBA’s central email address and the academy’s adult education registration number was listed on the site.
Training undercover agents
On the KBA website, the name of the Mercurius Academy is no longer there, but is replaced by a project called ‘Mercurius Business Safety’, which organises ‘business safety workshops and lectures’ for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises – so there is no longer any mention of adult education courses for local authorities or public services, although the former adult education registration number is still there.
If we enter this number into the Adult Education Register, we find the foundation’s profile, The database also points out why it may have been necessary to change the name to “Business Training Academy” and refine the description: the KBA does not have an adult education licence, only a registration number.
According to the Adult Education Act, certain training (vocational training or part-time vocational training) may be provided by organisations without a licence, but training provided in whole or in part at the expense of the public purse may only be provided on the basis of a special licence (except for internal training and statutory education and training).
It is surprising in itself that an organisation, which is supposed to be linked to high-level public bodies, apparently advertised trainings without a licence.
It is just as odd that a supposedly non-profit foundation would advertise specifically business-related services. An earlier, since-deleted version of the website featured a presidential greeting that read:
“In 2021, we plan to launch two projects: first, the Mercurius Business Intelligence Academy, our training centre for business intelligence and information security training, unique in Central Europe, where we aim to train corporate security officers and public security officers for the corporate and government sectors.Our aim is to train our clients to develop professionals who are able to protect information assets, as well as carry out the necessary personnel security checks and risk analyses, in addition to their work, even undercover, within their organisation.”
According to Government Decree No. 303/2013 (31.VII.2013), similar activities are subject to national security control: security officer positions at NISZ National Infocommunication Ltd, the Ministry of Defence, the National Tax and Customs Administration and the National Consumer Protection Authority may only be held by professionals from national security bodies. In addition, the National Security Institute, which is part of the NSI, is responsible for the activities of the industrial security authority. It raises serious national security issues if such training has indeed taken place.
We have contacted the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of the Interior to ask about their cooperation with the KBA or the Mercurius Academy, and whether the foundation has received any public money. At the time of publication of this article, the ministries had not responded to our questions.
In cooperation with the Ministry of Interior
We have also contacted the KBA to ask about the foundation’s cooperation with public bodies. József Győrffy-Kiss, the founder of the Mercurius Academy, said that they had previously “seen a market opportunity” in training private intelligence officers, but in the end they did not launch such training.
“We thought it might be important to provide training in workshops for domestic businesses and employees of local governments and possibly state back offices, which would also help with some awareness to protect information assets. In the end, we very quickly abandoned the idea of giving such presentations to the public sector and did not initiate such contacts. That being said, we would like to launch a series of workshops on how to make domestic businesses more secure in the near future.”
The “very early abandonment” of the intelligence academy is contradicted by the fact that the Mercurius Academy and the security officer training were still advertised on the website of the foundation, which was founded in 2018, in July this year.
Győrffy-Kiss also told Átlátszó that they had established cooperation with the Ministry of Interior, but not with the Ministry of Defence.
“When we were founded, we did indeed give an important role to the development of long-term cooperation with the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of the Interior. We plan to organise a series of lectures on the importance of defence in the future. However, at the moment we are focusing on other societal roles, so we have not yet initiated cooperation with the Ministry of Defence,” he said.
The Ministry of Interior was approached this summer with the crime prevention programme “In Community, In Safety”, “where they welcomed our initiative and assured us of their professional support. Also, as our programme contributes to the realisation of the objectives of the Government Decision 1046/2020 (II.18.) adopting the National Strategy for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings 2020-2023, the Ministry of the Interior issued a “Letter of Support” to us to help organise our anti-trafficking prevention and awareness-raising crime prevention lectures in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg, Hajdu-Bihar and Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén counties”.
No assets, no income on paper
According to its website, the foundation has a wide range of activities: workshops, lectures, a Crime Prevention and Protection Information Service, and partners with public bodies. You would think that all this would cost a lot of money, but according to the KBA’s court reports (2018, 2019 and 2020), which are available online at the NGO Register, the foundation has not had a single forint of income or expenditure.
According to these accounts, the foundation does not have any cash reserves or fixed assets.
This can only be true if the Foundation carries out its activities (conferences, training, research) without any expenses, using premises and equipment provided free of charge and courtesy, without receiving any remuneration for its cooperation with public bodies, and with its experts and staff working pro bono. Including the foundation’s president, András Jenei, who lists running the KBA as his full-time job on his public LinkedIn profile.
József Győrffy-Kiss said that they have never applied for or received any state funding, but they are are planing to apply for national or EU funding to start a crime prevention and awareness raising programme against human trafficking. He said that so far, the costs of the foundation’s programmes have been covered by grants paid in by trustees. This, however, contradicts the reports published on birosag.hu, which show that the foundation had no income, with grants, membership fees, donations and other income all showing HUF 0.
Polish and Russian relations
KBA has also established links with international organisations: last year, it received a EUR 12,000 contract award for its participation in the EEA and Norway Funds’ project “Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation 2021”. The Foundation has also been a member of the Warsaw Security Forum Democracy Network since October 2021. (This Polish foundation is known, for example, for the “Knight of Freedom” award, most recently given to the Ukrainian people for their fight against Russian aggression, and was received by the President’s wife Olena Zelenska).
However, on an individual level, Russian links can also be detected. The director of the KBA, József Győrffy-Kiss, is a freelance writer, a non-commissioned officer in the Hungarian Defence Forces reserve, who studied international studies at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Nyíregyháza, a military studies course at the ZMNE, and a postgraduate course in national security at Milton Friedman University. He is an honorary member of the International Police Organisation, a member of the Hungarian Police Science Society (MRTT) and the National Security Section of the Hungarian Military Science Society (MHTT), and is clearly at home in the law enforcement circles in Hungary.
His Wikipedia profile also states this: “For nearly twenty years, his active recreation has been martial arts training, but lately he has also become increasingly immersed in the Russian martial art (Systema). He is currently one of the official Russian hand-to-hand combat experts working in our country.” With a little digging, a video from 2014 uploaded by the “Scouts Systema Training Group” (Fürkészek Systema Gyakorlócsoport) comes up. In its description, József Győrffy-Kiss is listed as an instructor of the Russian martial arts method.
Martial arts or a cover for the Russian secret service?
A network of training clubs promoting Systema as a martial art has been identified by several Western intelligence assessments and independent research as a front for the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU. In 2019, Alex Goldenberg, an analyst at the Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies disinformation, published a study on the Systema network at New York University, in which he wrote:
“There is more evidence that Systema is a tool of hybrid warfare by the Russian state.
The martial arts and the first martial arts clubs were founded by Mikhail Ryabko, a Soviet Special Forces officer who, according to his own account, learned martial arts as a child (aged 5!) from one of Stalin’s former bodyguards and then took part in several armed missions as a Special Forces officer (Spetsnaz). Now retired as a colonel in the Russian Armed Forces, Ryabko is still an advisor to the Russian Minister of Justice, according to the official Systema Network site.
During the Putin regime, Ryabko held a number of high-profile state posts, including Deputy Head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation, Assistant to the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation and member of the Board of Trustees for the Construction and Restoration of Russian Orthodox Churches and Monasteries.
The church connection is no coincidence, as Systema is promoted not only as a simple martial art but also as a philosophy of life, in which loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church plays an important role. “For those who are serious about studying the Systema, the website offers a number of Orthodox Christian book recommendations (…) those who want to fully immerse themselves in the Systema are encouraged to explore Russian Orthodox Christianity,” the study says.
It is worth noting that the current leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (known to Hungarian readers because he was protected from EU sanctions by Viktor Orban), also ascended to the high priestly throne from a state security line, having been an agent of the KGB in the Soviet period, according to archival sources.
To this day, Mikhail Ryabko is actively involved in building the Systema network, while at the same time protecting the brand: foreign Systema clubs can only be established with the approval of the Moscow or Canadian headquarters.
The latter is headed by Vladimir Vasiliev, another veteran of the Russian armed forces, who served in the GRU military intelligence service. In 2018, Ryabko also visited Budapest to hold a seminar in person.
With such a pedigree, it is not surprising that Systema schools are involved in the so-called active measures of the Russian services. According to European intelligence assessments, the Systema network specifically seeks to recruit members of the armed forces, police and judiciary, so that the Russian intelligence agents who run the network can gain influence in the organisations of hostile states. There are at least 63 Systema Clubs operating in Germany today, most of which are run by former Russian military intelligence personnel.
Of course, one does not become a Russian spy by attending a training course, but according to the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), “anyone who studies Systema and, as a German, also takes part in the Specnaz training course, will sooner or later come into contact with people we do not trust“. The study recalls a case of a 29-year-old police officer who tried to get a job with the BfV, but was caught in a national security screening after it was discovered that he had joined the Russian Orthodox Church after ‘martial arts’ training and had travelled several times to Moscow, where he had received training from active GRU officers.
Sanctioned Russian officer gave training to Hungarian police
A school of Systema present in Hungary is the so-called Siberian Cossack branch. This school was founded in 2009 by Andrei Karimov, together with Gyeynis Ryazov. According to systema.hu, the head of the school in Hungary is Sándor Sinkovics, who got acquainted with the Cossack martial art in 2009 in Siberia, “under authentic conditions”.
In his biography, Sinkovics writes that he was born in 1977 in “a former territory of Hungary, in Transcarpathia. In this way I became bilingual and grew up with the values of several cultures at the same time”. In an interview with Radio Juventus in 2014, he confirmed that his father served in the Soviet (later Russian) armed forces, which is how he became involved in martial arts.
The training team of the KBA founder József Győrffy-Kiss, the “Scouts”, was also promoted in 2015 by the Russian News (Orosz Hírek) website, the flagship of the Russian state disinformation machine in Hungary, with the wording as if the “Scouts” and the Russian News were one organisation. The article has since been taken down from oroszhirek.hu for some reason, but its Facebook share is still available.
Another Russian officer linked to the Cossack school (a reserve officer in the Russian Armed Forces), Dennis Ryauzov, is also a member of the Putin-supporting, Russian state-funded Night Wolves motorcycle band, whose members have held demonstrations in several countries in support of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and some of whose members took part in the invasion of Crimea as “volunteers” (or, in fact, as soldiers of the Russian special forces). As a result, the motorcycle club has been banned from Poland and several members have been placed on a sanctions list in the United States, including Ryazov.
However, Ryazov is not sanctioned by Hungary and has visited the country in person several times in recent years, where he has given training sessions on the methods of another Russian martial arts franchise that bears his name, Centra Volk.
There was already a minor scandal in 2015, when Átlátszó Oktatás reported that Ryazov had given training courses to Hungarian police officers at the Faculty of Police Science of the National University of Public Service. Later, HVG pointed out that Tibor Támcsu, the head of the Hungarian Centra Volk representation, also regularly gives presentations at the National University of Public Service, in the National Crime Prevention Council’s RE:action programme and at the request of the crime prevention department of the Budapest Police Headquarters (BRFK).
And now we have gone full circle: the National Crime Prevention Council, and more specifically its crime prevention strategy, is also referred to by the KBA. It says on its website that it has set up the Crime Prevention and Protection Information Service to plan and carry out crime prevention support operations and to conduct related research and analysis, with the aim of establishing long-term cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior and promoting the objectives set out in the National Crime Prevention Strategy.
In another interesting development, József Győrffy-Kiss, the KBA’s Director of Strategy and Operations, has a version of the Centra Volk emblem (a wolf’s head on a round shield with two crossed swords behind it) tattooed on his chest, visible on photos on the Facebook page of his pen name.
In an interview published by the Zrínyi Miklós National Defence University, József Győrffy-Kiss said that he originally wanted to apply for a degree course at the ZMNE, but “along the way it turned out that the course – which was the focus of my interest – was understandably only advertised for a closed group.” However, as a student of civilian higher education at Nyíregyháza College, he completed a course called Defence Fundamentals, also organised by ZMNE.
In the same interview, he also said that “for my future plans, I need not only to learn the Russian language and a comprehensive knowledge of international relations, but also military knowledge.”
József Győrffy-Kiss has also attended the Milton Friedman University’s National Security Analyst course, as one of the course instructors, Dr. József Kis-Benedek, confirmed to Átlátszó. Kis-Benedek said, “It is a civilian course, students do not have to undergo any screening. The training is not linked to national security services.” He also confirmed that “according to our records, József Győrffy-Kiss is a member of the National Security Section of the Hungarian Military Science Society. When joining the MHTT, the applicant must fill in a declaration form indicating the section in which he wishes to work. The MHTT does not carry out any screening as it is a social organisation.”
Before this story was published, we asked József Győrffy-Kiss about his relationship with Systema, but he did not reply. After the publication of the Hungarian version, Győrffy-Kiss claimed in an email that he severed his relationship with the Systema group in 2015: “The events in eastern Ukraine at the time played a role in my decision, as well as the fact that more and more extremists appeared in the practice group, with whom I did not want to associate,” he wrote. According to him, the group has now been disbanded, “but there were at least three or four Systema organisations in Hungary, completely independent of us, with strong Russian links.”
Failure of authorities, possible Russian influence
Dr. Lajos Rácz, retired colonel, associate professor and former senior staff member of the former Hungarian Military Intelligence Office (MK KFH) told Átlátszó that the KBA, especially the Mercurius Academy case, raises national security questions in several respects.
“From a national security point of view, it is a matter of concern that people well connected to the services, including former military reconnaissance and counterintelligence officers, are setting up a civilian ‘business intelligence academy’. It is no coincidence that the name of the Mercurius Business Intelligence Academy has been changed and the reference to covert activity removed from the website, but this has not solved the problem. I am not aware that the Academy’s activities have been investigated from a professional national security point of view, although this would have been justified.”
According to Lajos Rácz, “it is worrying that the boundaries between the official national security services and the private sphere are blurred through the KBA. We can see that at least one, but more likely several, individuals who have previously gained experience in the national security services have tried to teach sensitive professional skills (‘intelligence’) within the framework of a private organisation (foundation).”
Lajos Rácz said that several members of the KBA’s board of trustees may have questionable connections that could risk attracting the attention of foreign intelligence services or allowing sensitive information to fall into the wrong hands. József Győrffy-Kiss, as an instructor in the Systema martial arts system, may have a direct link to the Russian GRU. Dr. Ferenc Kuti, retired colonel, honorary chairman of the KBA Board of Trustees and founder of the Mercurius Business Intelligence Academy, was formerly a senior staff member of the Military Security Bureau.
András Jenei, president of KBA, may also have Russian connections. As Lajos Rácz said, the energy security expert is widely considered to be a lobbyist for Gazprom. Jenei previously worked as a consultant for TXM Oil and Gas Research Ltd. TXM was registered by Canada-based Falcon Oil & Gas Ltd. to drill exploratory wells to exploit the Mako gas field. After the company became unprofitable, it entered into an agreement with the Serbian company NIS, owned by Gazprom, which allowed the Serbian-Russian company to start drilling in Mako. Soon afterwards, Jenei began to appear at events as a representative of the Hungarian state, for example as an adviser to the Ministry of National Development.
Our interviewee added that Antal Bódi, listed on the KBA website as an IT and traffic security expert, is also a “strong secret-keeper”, as he has developed and operated several municipal and state information security systems, and is therefore well acquainted with their functioning. According to Antal Bódi’s CV, he was the strategic director of the government portal magyarorszag.hu, the developer of the eGAMES (eGoverment Assessment, Measuring and Evaluation System) service and the client gateway, and the IT security officer of NISZ National Infocommunication Service Provider Zrt.
“It should not be a problem in itself that former national security professionals are moving to the private sector after a career in the public sector. But the norm in other countries is that these professionals are vetted (given national security protection) by the services even after their ‘demobilisation’ or retirement. In the case of the KBA, we see that a foundation with a troubled financial and organisational background, with actors strongly embedded in the Hungarian ‘intelligence community’ (national security services), is also linked to state agencies, while at the same time it transfers sensitive national security knowledge and know-how to unchecked individuals who may be suspected of being under undue Russian influence. I believe that the failings of the national security services may have played a role in allowing this situation to develop.”
According to Lajos Rácz, the problem is systemic: while only vetted, on-duty national security officers (and officers) can apply for formal intelligence training at the National University of Public Service, this rigour is of little use if similar training is readily available at private universities and institutions, even from the same instructors. For example, retired Colonel József Kis-Benedek, who teaches the next generation of national security (intelligence and counterintelligence) officers at the state-run National University of Public Service, teaches national security (analytical) skills at the private institution Milton Friedman University to students who have not undergone any screening.
Written and translated by Zalán Zubor, the Hungarian version of this story is available here. Cover photo: István Szabó, State Secretary of the Ministry of Defence at a 2019 KBA event, screenshot, YouTube/amagyarhonvedseg.