Zsolt Törőcsik: Exactly one year ago – at dawn on 24 February – Russian tanks made their way into Ukraine, marking the beginning of the war between those two countries that continues to this day. At the time few experts thought that, a year later, the outlines of a solution would still not be in sight, that the EU would be about to adopt its tenth sanctions package, and that the most modern Western heavy armour would be on its way to the battlefield. Over the past year, how has the situation in the world changed – including in Hungary? In the next few minutes I will ask Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about this. Good morning.
In your annual “state of the nation” speech you said – and according to press reports you also emphasised this in a parliamentary group meeting – that we must stay out of this war; but last Saturday you also said that we are part of NATO and the EU. Can we nevertheless stay out of the war? Meanwhile in an interview with a Hungarian newspaper a British historian has said that Europe will only be a great power if it can bear the sight of its sons and daughters returning home from a foreign country in coffins.
Among the characteristics that the Anglo-Saxons are well known for are their remorseless use of language and remorselessly logical thinking. As this subject has come up, I’ve also seen a paper that George Soros published back at the beginning of the post-communist collapse, in perhaps 1992 – 93, in which he wrote about how the Russians would have to be defeated sooner or later, and that from this point of view the end of the Cold War was only part of an unfinished project: that they would also have to be defeated militarily. And since the Western democracies would object to their citizens dying in a war in a distant land, it would have to be the Central Europeans who were sent in, thrown in, persuaded, utilised, in order – through the shedding of their blood and through their sacrifice – to defeat Russia. So this way of thinking, a recent example of which you’ve just quoted, isn’t alien to the Anglo-Saxon mentality. It’s very fortunate that Anglo-Saxon politics hasn’t embraced this idea so far, and that even today our allies – as the Anglo-Saxons are our allies, and we’re NATO members alongside them – are ambiguous about exactly what the war aims should be. Apart from the terrible losses suffered by the opposing sides, let’s say by humanity, apart from the death toll and the unimaginable assets being lost, in this war the greatest torment – the thing that makes it really difficult to manage the situation – is that it’s not clear what the war aims are. Moreover, it’s not clear on either side, with the opposing sides setting different war aims at different times. This also applies to Ukraine – which is defending its freedom, of course, as it’s been attacked and simply wants to undo the consequences of the aggression against it. Yet it’s not exactly clear what this means: whether or not the Ukrainians will eventually launch a military attack on Russian territory; how far they intend to push Russian troops back; whether or not the Crimean peninsula will be besieged, and so on. And in a war, when there’s a lack of clarity on its objectives, it’s very easy to get lost; because you have nothing against which to measure the decisions with which you’re making sacrifices at the expense of your own nation and your own citizens – as some of those who are sent to the battlefield for some purpose will also die there. And we need to know very clearly what that purpose is. Of course the Anglo-Saxons and the West will frame it in the ideological terms of right and wrong, and so on; but the concrete questions – of how far, up to which line, to which milestone and so on – are unclear. So the reason for being drawn in is not only that we in the West made a mistake – and it really was a mistake – when, instead of localising the conflict, we turned it into a pan-European war; but we also made the mistake of not clarifying for ourselves the limits of our assistance to Ukraine, and how far we’ll back the Ukrainians. Instead, we use the phrase that I read in every European Union document: that it will continue for “as long as it takes”, and however much it costs. It’s difficult to wage war like that. Now, you say that a year ago few people would have thought that this is where we would be. I’ll modestly raise my hand and say that this is exactly what the Hungarians said: that being in the situation I’ve just described, in a year’s time there would be many victims, the military situation wouldn’t be any easier, the objectives would remain unclear and we Europeans would keep drifting into war. The symbolic description of this is that at the beginning of the war the Germans, for example, said that they’d never send lethal weapons, so the Ukrainians should make do with helmets. Then came weapons, and now we’re at Leopard tanks – and the Anglo-Saxons are now pushing for fighter planes to be sent. I don’t want to take on the role of soothsayer, especially not that of a bearer of bad news, but the time isn’t far off when the Hungarian public will hear that there are proposals tabled for peacekeeping forces or some kind of military troops who will be needed in Ukraine. This will be the logical next step in the drift into war.
Meanwhile the head of a German defence company has said that Germany’s own defence has become vulnerable because of the assistance his country has given to Ukraine. And, talking about goals, we often hear the Western argument that the goal is that Russia shouldn’t threaten the Western powers, the West. And then in your state of the nation speech you said that against NATO Russia wouldn’t stand a chance.
Of course, if you know the figures – which is a must for people who are involved in politics – you can see how much Russia spends annually on, say, developing its armaments – even though you have to take into account the fact that what they say might not be completely true. It’s quite obvious that when I add up the military expenditure of the European NATO member countries in a given year, it’s orders of magnitude higher than that of Russia. And I can add to that the US, which is the biggest spender in the world, exceeding everyone else: China, everyone – even adding in the next countries on the list. So the reality is clear: if they attack NATO, no one in the world today – not just the Russians, but no one – has a chance of success. NATO is a defence alliance, and we’re committed to it. So if we’re attacked, we’re obliged to help one another. This is why Ukraine’s membership of NATO is problematic, and this is why NATO’s founding treaty rightly states that a country at war cannot be admitted to NATO: because it would bring war into the alliance, and the defence alliance immediately has to defend a member country if it’s at war. So NATO is a defence alliance, not a war alliance. There’s nothing in the NATO founding treaty – in the treaties signed with NATO, which I signed – that says that NATO has the right, and its member countries the obligation, to participate in military action or to launch military action attacking a country which is outside NATO. There’s no such thing. If such a situation arises, NATO withdraws, NATO doesn’t participate. NATO member countries can, if they wish, create such military alliances – war alliances – outside NATO, but they cannot drag in NATO members who don’t want to be involved. This is the essence of Hungary’s position, and I believe that Hungary’s position is based – in legal and moral terms – on the fact that NATO is a defence alliance, not a war alliance.
For practically a year, you and other members of the Government have been stressing the importance of peace. How far can the West go in putting pressure on Hungary to change its position? I ask this in part because the governing majority is submitting a declaration to Parliament, according to which the Parliament would also express its commitment to peace.
The Hungarian position is both morally and politically sound, and it’s also reasonable. Of course in Hungary, and everywhere else in the world, there’s a reflex – which is perhaps a natural human instinct – whereby people see a conflict like this and then either identify or sympathise with one side, and start supporting or cheering them on. In politics this approach is a bad counsellor, but it’s still a natural human thing, and policy makers always need to disassociate themselves from such a sense of personal involvement. This is especially true in this situation, when all sober calculations tell us that this war can’t be won: neither side can win it. So I don’t think that Russia can win the war. Although it’s unclear what exactly winning the war would mean, the amount of weapons, energy and money that the West is mobilising behind Ukraine is such that, by any human reckoning, winning an open military conflict against such a force is unlikely. And the reverse is also true: if anyone thinks that Russia – a nuclear power – can be beaten, then I think they’re wrong. So neither side can win this war; all that can happen is that the number of casualties will continue increasing by the hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands of people have died or suffered life-changing injuries. You might say that we, as humanity, are suffering terrible losses. So the commonsense position is to say “ceasefire”. One doesn’t even need to say, “Let’s agree to peace immediately”; because in order to have peace, you first have to negotiate. The views on what kind of peace might be acceptable to one side or the other are very far apart. We’re not naive, we can see that. And that’s why we need to negotiate – and perhaps we’ll need to negotiate at length. So my logic suggests that now the most important thing is not to talk about what kind of peace will emerge from the peace negotiations. We’ll see that in good time. The important thing now is that there should be a ceasefire. The essence of the Hungarian position is that a ceasefire must be achieved as soon as possible. We’re talking about Europe, because we live here, and we’re members of the EU and NATO. We don’t talk much about the world in general, but just now – just last night – the UN General Assembly had a debate and adopted a text marking the first anniversary of the war. Now that’s a pro-peace document. So it’s good for the Hungarians to see that we’re not isolated, and that we belong to the majority. So the majority of the world – the majority of the world’s countries – are saying what we’re saying: let there be a ceasefire, let’s avoid escalation, let there be no further spread of the war. Let there be a ceasefire, let the parties sit down, start negotiating, and come to an agreement at some point, if they can. But the most important thing is that no more people should die now, and that other countries shouldn’t be threatened by the horror, the risk, the danger of being drawn into this war against their will – and, through their involvement, sooner or later having to sacrifice not only money but also lives. We Hungarians are in that situation, by the way. For some reason, even in this country the public discourse on the war isn’t dominated by the fact that there’s a large Hungarian community in Transcarpathia, which is part of Ukraine and comprises around 150,000 to 200,000 of our compatriots. Some of them are even Hungarian citizens, and some of them have been conscripted. Men are being taken to the front, and they’re dying there. So while Hungary is being criticised – I mean in Brussels – and we’re being subjected to pressure, we’re the only country in the European Union that’s being forced to make sacrifices in human life – despite being neither Russian nor Ukrainian. And we’re losing Hungarians by the hundreds. We’re helping their families, we’re trying to keep track of exactly who’s dying and how they’re dying, their relation to the Hungarian state, and we’re trying to help the families and the orphans. Therefore we have knowledge of what’s happening on the front line, in the turmoil of life, in reality; and we number among the victims there. This is something that Brussels must respect. This is why I say that the Hungarians of Transcarpathia must receive more respect from Brussels and Washington – and indeed from Kyiv/Kiev.
As you’ve mentioned, Hungary is part of NATO; and at the moment Finland and Sweden would like to be part of NATO, and have asked to join the defence alliance. This request has still to be approved by the parliaments of two member countries – one of which is Hungary. This issue is said to have been a subject of debate in a meeting of the Fidesz parliamentary group. What concerns do MPs have, and can this matter be resolved?
Türkiye is also our ally, and therefore we need to listen to it – and because we’re closer to it than other NATO members we perhaps listen to it more attentively. It has serious objections. It has fewer objections to Finland, but more to Sweden, for the simple reason that in Sweden there are organisations – which call themselves NGOs – that work against Türkiye and that the Turkish legal system classifies as terrorist organisations. And the Turks don’t want there to be a NATO member country on whose territory there are Turkish groups that want to – and are able to – carry out acts of terrorism against Türkiye. And it’s asking for guarantees on this. Türkiye has not yet received these guarantees. So this is the situation. We also need to pay attention to the Turks, or in the end the whole process will come to a standstill. If there’s no solution to the Turkish problem, then enlargement will come to nothing. Now let’s look at it from the Hungarian perspective. Hungary joined NATO after the collapse of communism, so we’re not a founding member, but we’re a country that’s been accepted in. We could have been rejected, but we were accepted. I believe that this presents Hungary with a kind of moral obligation: if someone wants to be admitted to NATO, and this admission is something that doesn’t harm Hungary’s interests, and there’s no significant damage to Hungary’s national interest, then, if they want to join we should admit them – just as we were admitted. I think that this is correct behaviour in terms of logic, humanity and honour. This is why I’ve asked our parliamentary group to support Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership, and this is why the Government has submitted this proposal to Parliament, asking MPs to vote for it. But, between you and me, MPs aren’t very enthusiastic. Some of them say that this means there will be a direct border between Russia and Finland of more than one thousand kilometres; and, given the situation in Ukraine, the potential for war which that presents is great, so let’s think about whether or not it’s definitely right. So there is such a geopolitical consideration. I think there are convincing arguments against this counter-argument which explain why this risk can be accepted. This debate can be won. The other side says that we should have a word with these fine Finns and Swedes, because it’s not right for them to ask us to take them on board while they’re spreading blatant lies about Hungary, about the rule of law in Hungary, about democracy, about life here; how, this argument runs, can anyone want to be our ally in a military system while they’re shamelessly spreading lies about Hungary? So let’s stop for a friendly word and ask them how this can be. And it seems to me that Parliament is going in that direction. I’m one of those arguing for calm. I understand – and even agree with – our group’s view that not all is well, but I’d ask that at the end it should be made clear that while we support Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO in principle, we first need to have some serious discussions. These shouldn’t be between the governments, because that’s more part of our life; but it wouldn’t harm if there were some clarifying discussions between the parliaments, so that we’re not still receiving kicks when they come here asking us to take them on board. If they expect us to be fair to them, then they should also be fair to Hungary.
Returning to the war, in addition to supporting Ukraine the other tool the West has used is its sanctions policy, which was supposed to weaken Russia enough to end the war. We can see that this hasn’t happened yet, but the sanctions have had an impact: a tangible everyday impact in the form of inflation, which in Hungary exceeded 25 per cent in January and almost reached 26 per cent. In the light of this, do you think it’s feasible to achieve the single-digit rate of inflation that you’ve committed to achieving by the end of the year?
There are two questions within this question, so if you’ll allow me I’ll separate them in my answer. The first is, why have sanctions been imposed? This is a difficult question to answer. If we assume good faith, which isn’t easy in European politics, then we have to say that the pro-sanctions faction mean what they’ve said. From the outset Hungary has made it clear that this isn’t the right course of action – not only for philosophical or historical reasons, but also because we know the place of sanctions regimes in world history, and we know that generally they haven’t achieved much, and have backfired on those who imposed them, and have withered away after a while. In addition, a European sanctions regime against Russia causes immediate and direct damage to Hungary. So we’re not philosophising, we’re not talking about history, but we’re talking about gas, oil and nuclear energy here and now. Because the Member States of the EU are in a variety of situations: some have their own energy, their own energy sources, and others don’t; some have sea coasts, some don’t. Those which have neither their own energy nor a sea coast and have to import energy can only do so through pipelines: it’s fed in one end of the pipeline, and comes out the other end. And since Hungary has pipelines with one end in Russia, an energy sanction on Russia would kill the Hungarian economy in an instant. So it’s in our well-conceived national interest – in our crucial national interest – to prevent the sanctions regime from spreading to energy. We’re already paying a frightening price. Last year Hungary paid 4,000 billion forints more than it did a year earlier for the same amount of energy – due to the surge in energy prices caused by sanctions. So 4,000 billion forints is missing from our lives. It’s not easy for the Government to solve this, and Finance Minister Varga has to do some serious juggling; and for a longer-term solution, a lot of knowledge has to be gathered and mobilised by Minister Márton Nagy. But we’re making progress, and we’ll solve this. We’ll find the money, we’ll manage it, but one can’t help saying that this 4,000 billion forints would be better spent than giving it to those whom we have to buy energy from. There’s the situation of families, there are families that would know what to do with 4,000 billion forints. There are low-income groups in the labour market, local authorities, education, health, innovation and development; so this money could go elsewhere. This is now being taken away from us as the result of a bad decision in Brussels – and in a predictable way, because we said that this would happen, that this money would be taken out of the pockets of Hungarians, and that we’d be made to pay the price for the bad decision on sanctions. So this is a botched, badly planned, badly executed sanction, and we’ll be the ones suffering the consequences. The other question is why they’re doing it, if it isn’t simply a mistake – because if we knew in advance what would happen, we can’t rule out the possibility that someone else knew too. Although we Hungarians don’t have a bad opinion of our ability to foresee things and we consider ourselves clever and skilful, this doesn’t mean that no one else in the world has a brain. So we can assume that others also foresaw what we foresaw: that this would happen, that this would be the consequence. And this is where the speculators come in. We can assume that this isn’t simply a bad political decision that’s been misjudged, botched, badly planned – although in terms of planning one would expect more from a German. This is about some who have profited from it: some have speculated on sanctions and speculated on the consequences of sanctions. They knew that this would lead to an increase in energy prices, they knew that energy would have to be imported from America, they knew that LNG terminals would have to be built, and they mobilised a lot of money in advance, betting that energy prices would go up. And in essence they speculated against the interests of the people. And here we have George Soros and a number of large funds, financial funds, which are roaming the world looking for places to put their money, where it will yield the highest return. And when there are predictable situations, as has happened now because of the sanctions, this money appears and starts working against the people – for its own benefit and against the people. So the speculators have been making money hand over fist as a result of the European Union’s decision. And it takes a lot of faith – but let’s keep our faith – to believe that there was no collusion between the speculators and the decision-makers. After what happened, say, in Brussels during COVID with the procurement of vaccines, the presumption that there was no collusion is one that’s more than benign and indulgent to the Brussels bureaucrats. Can we now keep our promise that inflation will be in single digits by the end of the year? I think that we can bet on it, so I’d encourage everyone to bet on it, because if the betting shops open such bets, it’s worth doing so: the Hungarian government has already taken the measures and the twenty decisions that can and must be taken to tackle inflation. So although the patient is still sick and feverish, he’s already received the injection. So the injection to reduce the fever is circulating in the body, and – as is usually the case with illnesses – it will just take a little time for the medicine to take effect. I think it will be noticeable as early as some time in March. So the rate of price increases will slow down, and very soon we’ll be talking about the measures taken by the Government already having an impact. And if we haven’t miscalculated – and I think we’ve planned very carefully – the result of this slowdown in inflation will be that at the end of the year inflation will be in single digits, on a December-to-December basis.
Let’s talk about another case that has shocked the public recently. It emerged that a teaching assistant at a school in Budapest had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy, and even bragged about it on social media. Then, a few days later, another case related to the sexual abuse of a minor came to light. There are many ways of looking at these cases, but I think that the first and most important is the point of view of the child, of the minor. How can these cases be prevented, or counteracted more effectively?
Knowing Hungary as I do, there are few countries in the world that place as much importance on children as ours does. We’re a family-oriented nation, and somehow children have a special place in our hearts. Hearing the reactions that this paedophile case has provoked, I’m not at all surprised at what the Hungarians have been saying. Well, these are the sort of things they say – and indeed they really mean it. And if they could, they’d do what they say. This is because in Hungary, on the one hand children are sacred, and on the other hand we adults have expectations of one another. Because there are dangers in life, we consider it normal that it’s the job of adults to protect children, and that’s something that shouldn’t need to be discussed. There are all kinds of dangers, and who will protect children if not adults – and, most of all, their parents? So parents have a responsibility here. And anyone who deprives parents of the opportunity to determine and dictate the upbringing and safety of their children is violating society’s standards, society’s moral standards, which are the norm in Hungary. I too need to take action on this matter, and so I’m also incensed. And on this subject – to which I’ll be devoting my afternoon today – I honestly have to ask this question: Where were the adults? Where was the school principal? Where was the local education authority – the job of which is protecting children, looking after them? The fact that we have a perpetrator is one thing, but I think that at the end of the debates, stated in legal language, Hungarian society will sort this out through its self-defence reflex. Now, where are the people employed by the state, whose job it is to look after our children, to whom we entrust our children? We send our children to school to these people, believing that this is why they’re paid their salaries – and indeed that they don’t work because of their salaries, but because they’re teachers, and therefore probably also mentally grounded and sensitive people, whom we therefore trust. Where were they? And when I meet the Interior Minister today, I’ll say that I want a very clear answer on how this works. And I also expect every such case to be uncovered. So these are very distressing, very painful cases; but if we sweep them under the carpet, the number will increase. And the only way we can protect our children from gender ideology is to say in these specific cases, “See, fellow Hungarians, this is gender ideology, this isn’t a hoax. It’s not charming horseplay for boys dressed up as girls and girls dressed up as boys to go to school to sensitise our children. This isn’t trendy chatter, but a danger against which we must protect our children.” And the state has a duty here, because if it’s true that we love children as much as we do, then it follows that Hungary must be the country with the strictest child protection system in Europe.
In the past half hour I’ve been asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about the Russo-Ukrainian war, sanctions, inflation and child protection.