Zsolt Törőcsik: Soon all the Western tanks promised to Ukraine will arrive in that war-torn country. Several countries have already offered fighter planes, and the British have sent munitions containing depleted uranium – about which there’s debate over whether or not they classify as nuclear weapons. Meanwhile on the battlefield we’re seeing movement on the fronts coming to a halt, and ever more people on both sides being killed in the fighting. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Good morning.
It’s been three weeks since we last spoke. Since then, do you see the West getting closer to being dragged into this war?
Since we last met there’s been a European Union summit of European heads of state and government. So I’ve not only seen or been seeing what’s happening with my own eyes, but I’ve also seen how they see it. And there’s no doubt that the war is getting bloodier and more brutal. We in Budapest or Hungary see it as natural that if a war becomes increasingly bloody and brutal, with the number of victims on both sides far exceeding 100,000, then it will somehow force people to stop, and lead those who have supported the war from outside to perhaps somehow submit to their natural human instincts and move towards peace. Well, I haven’t seen that kind of thinking. So I was sorry to have to say that the number of countries and leaders supporting peace rather than war had not increased at all. Even though the war is getting more brutal, even though it’s getting bloodier, the number of European leaders arguing for a ceasefire and for peace isn’t increasing. In the meantime, all our current knowledge – which is partly from personal experience and partly an opinion based on specialist surveys – suggests that ordinary Europeans are moving in the direction of peace. So, as tends to be the case, and as we saw in the first and second world wars, even if there’s initial enthusiasm for the real or perceived justice of a war, people increasingly call for a ceasefire and peace negotiations as the number of victims increases, the pain increases, and the losses increase. This process has begun in the world of Europe’s peoples. But this thinking hasn’t yet reached the level of the leaders, and so for the time being much of Europe remains pro-war and is supplying the Ukrainians with increasingly destructive hardware. Indeed – as you’ve said – at the very beginning, a year ago, we were debating whether it was permissible to send lethal weapons. The Hungarians said no, but even the Westerners hesitated. Now that’s no longer under debate. The question now is whether to send only tanks, whether to send planes, or whether to send this suspicious artillery shell containing nuclear elements. And, in the debate between European leaders, we’re getting close to the point at which it will be seen as legitimate, accepted and normal to consider whether or not the Member States of the European Union should send some form of peacekeeping troops. We’re close to that boundary, which was previously thought to be uncrossable.
Isn’t this phenomenon or this kind of Western situation appraisal what you described – when you spoke at the recent meeting of the Organization of Turkic States – as “war-induced psychosis” afflicting the West? How dangerous is this for Hungary?
The war is in a country neighbouring us, and so Hungarians find it worrying and dangerous. So our security is endangered. And since events are pointing towards an expansion of the conflict, this danger is constantly increasing, and the extent of the armed struggle is also increasing. Since decisions are being taken to deploy ever more and ever more powerful destructive weapons, and since the West is providing the Ukrainians with ever more modern weapons, I’m convinced that the threat of world war is not a literary exaggeration. When European and American leaders say that if this continues we could end up in a third world war, at first it sounds incredibly exaggerated; but where I work and where I see events, it’s a real danger at the moment.
What can Hungary do in this situation? For example, at the EU summit, a decision was taken on the joint procurement of ammunition. Hungary’s participating in this, and yet we aren’t supplying ammunition to Ukraine. At first glance, this may seem contradictory. Can this be resolved?
Of course! The question is how the Hungarian army will get its ammunition. From this perspective we aren’t interested in Ukraine, but in Hungary. And the question is how Hungary’s army can be supplied with ammunition more quickly and cheaply: by buying it separately or collectively. Our answer is that we should do it this way and that way. So for Hungary joint procurement of ammunition means cheaper and faster supplies for the Hungarian army.
At the meeting of the Organization of Turkic States, you also said that most of the world is on the side of peace. Does this have any significance for us, when the majority in Europe – as you yourself pointed out – doesn’t want peace, or would achieve it by means different from those advocated by Hungary or the part of the world that’s pro-peace?
Surprising as it may seem, it does matter. One tends to say – especially in a country the size of Hungary – that everyone minds their own business. What people on another continent think about Hungary, say, or what they think about a war in our neighbourhood or a European issue, is of little consequence. And this is usually true. Because – between ourselves – who cares, beyond being politely interested, what someone somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, or even over there in the middle of Asia thinks about a European issue? But now it’s different – partly because everyone senses that this conflict could escalate into a world war, in which case it could reach them. So this war is stressing our nervous system the most because it’s in our neighbourhood; but the others aren’t feeling relaxed either. On the other hand, the Western European position in support of the war is based on moral arguments: Western Europeans argue that we should support this war and Ukraine because it’s the right thing to do. And the world says “no”. This is why it’s very important that Europeans, we Europeans, should be constantly confronted with another explanation for the war in addition to our own explanation for the war: an explanation which says, “We understand that this is important to you, but what’s at stake here is world peace or a world war.” This other explanation says this to us: “You may even be right from a certain philosophical or moral point of view, but let’s compare that to the fact that it could put us here in Asia or even in Africa – who have nothing to do with this conflict – at risk. For example, if grain doesn’t come out from Ukraine and Russia, it could cause famine or increase the risk of famine. We understand that you have your own point of view, but so do we: we want to eat, we want to live, we don’t want war to come here. So accept that this is as strong a moral argument as yours is.” This is why the European explanation of the war runs into the wall of what’s experienced in the world. Everyone in Europe thinks that they should take a moral stand in favour of the war – with Hungary being the exception, because we think that we should take a moral stand in favour of peace. Meanwhile the world is more in agreement with the Hungarian position. So Hungary today, let’s say, is part of the world majority, or the global majority. In Europe our opinion puts us in the minority, while in the world as a whole we are part of the majority.
How much pressure is coming from the West for us to change this position? Because from time to time there are critical statements from EU officials – or even from leaders or senior officials of individual Member States.
Direct and indirect pressure, and blackmail, is a daily occurrence, and they want to press us into this war. At the same time, everyone feels that this is a matter of such gravity that it’s impossible to bypass the national parliament. So they can say this or that to me in Brussels or elsewhere, they can say whatever they like on the question of whether Hungary should take part in the war – and if so, in what form – or whether it should stay out of it; but there can be no doubt that there’s only one place where this can the indisputably decided: the Hungarian parliament. This is why it’s important that today the Hungarian parliament will adopt a resolution in which it will stand by its position in support of peace and demand a ceasefire. There’s another danger here, another trap which you journalists are the most likely to fall into – which is understandable, because it’s a subject of great intellectual speculation. This relates to the question of what kind of peace there should be, what kind of peace negotiations, what kind of framework, and what peace negotiations should be about. These are all exciting, speculative questions. The Hungarian position, however, is not for us to have a proposal on what kind of peace treaty should be concluded at the end of the negotiations. Our position is that there should be a ceasefire. So now we shouldn’t be talking about peace negotiations, but about a ceasefire. That should be the place at which the world arrives, and that is the place which should be arrived at by both Ukraine – which has been attacked – and Russia – which has launched the attack. There should be a ceasefire, so that no more people die; and if there’s a ceasefire, there will be a chance of working out a framework for peace negotiations. There’s never been a war after which peace was arrived at by someone suddenly producing the solution of the blue. The road to peace and the road to a peaceful settlement starts with a ceasefire. So first there must be a ceasefire, so that no more people die, no more bullets are fired, no more towns are destroyed, no more casualties mount and the suffering of civilians doesn’t deteriorate further. This must be the starting point. If we have that, if there’s a ceasefire, then after that anything can happen. So the breakthrough – and this is what Hungarian foreign policy is aiming for – will be a ceasefire. We need to convince others of this, and we need to supply ever more arguments to convince the warring parties that a ceasefire is in the interests of both of them.
You mentioned the pro-peace proposal which will be voted on in Parliament today. Almost all the left-wing parties have indicated that they have objections to the text. How much support do you expect?
The fact is that the position of the governing parties is clear, and the position of the Left is clear: the Left is pro-war. After a meaningful debate, this resolution could have been a good opportunity for them to abandon their pro-war position – let’s say in the interests of national unity – and join the peace camp which the governing parties represent. And in this debate I think they could have done this without losing face. There could have been calm and moderate discussion about the fact that, of course, everyone thought what they thought at the beginning, but that after the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, after so many being crippled, so many being orphaned and widowed, and so many towns being destroyed, we should think again. And now we’ve offered the Left the opportunity to move from a pro-war position to a pro-peace position, we’ve offered them the opportunity to side with the national interest linked to peace. They could have done that. I saw no signs of that in the debate, and we’ll see how they vote today.
Let’s also talk about economic issues, because the war has very serious economic consequences. You’ve mentioned how opinion in Western societies is changing, and during this war the whole of Europe has made very serious economic sacrifices. Allow me to quote two statements. One is from the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who said, “Some countries are finding it harder and harder to stand by sanctions, and I think that they’re financially exhausted.” The other is from the Slovakian head of state, Zuzana Čaputova, who said that Slovakia’s support for Ukraine was being exhausted, both morally and financially. Could these statements mark a turning point? Incidentally, we’re hearing more and more about an eleventh package of sanctions – and, as you’ve pointed out, at the EU summit you didn’t see any change, at least in the leaders’ positions.
From the beginning I’ve been straining every fibre to keep track of this. So, since the Russian attack, a great deal of my work has been devoted to following the actual events in the war and trying to understand the evolution of the thinking of colleagues, of Hungary’s neighbours and our fellow EU members. And I’m convinced – and this is based on observation, so I’m not speculating – that right at the beginning there were one or two countries, the Americans included, who knew exactly what they were doing. They stood at the edge of the well and looked down into it. And they knew how deep it was. And in spite of this they decided not to have a quick ceasefire and a peace talks. They didn’t say “let’s isolate the conflict, let’s localise it, let’s prevent it from spreading any further”. Instead they went into this war boldly, with pride, and assessing their own interests. There were a few such countries, but the great majority were not like that. And large countries were among those drifting into this conflict; they didn’t stand at the edge of the well, they didn’t look down into it, they didn’t fully understand that their first bad decision to start going down the well would force them to go all the way down to the bottom. The Germans were typical of those who wanted to stay out of this. I could see exactly how many decisions there were when the Germans wanted to stop, when they didn’t want to go any further – either in supplying arms or in supporting the war. And they were always pressed and pushed further, and they were swept in. So I think that there are many countries today – including most of the countries in the European Union – that didn’t want to be where they are today. And the truth is that not only did they not want to be there because it wasn’t advantageous for their national interests, but they saw that they would be endangering the whole of Europe. So the pro-war forces have endangered the entire European Union. If we ask ourselves why the European Union exists, what it’s for, what we expect from it, then we say that we expect two things from the European Union. Firstly, and this is why it was created, so that there can be lasting peace. So the EU must serve the cause of peace, ensuring that the danger of war is at a continuously low level – and that the danger’s reduced if it does arise. This is why we created the European Union. By contrast, the EU itself has now taken over the role of a leader. So the EU itself has become a pro-war system of institutions. The other thing that we expect from the European Union – that every European citizen expects from it – is to maintain the level of prosperity that’s already been achieved, or to progress still further. So we expect prosperity. In contrast with this, war plus sanctions is wrecking the European economy. So what’s happening isn’t just that one country or another has been dragged into the war against its will, but that the very existence of the European Union – its very meaning – is being called into question in the eyes of the people. This is because the two goals for which we maintain and finance it, for which we operate it and want it to exist – peace and prosperity – have both been abandoned. This is a completely new situation. This is why I think that we’ll hear more and more from the Member States about the emotional, moral and financial insolvency of the pro-war viewpoints. Because everyone feels that if Europe continues to weaken, if the shared trust in Europe continues to weaken like this, then – regardless of the war – this could have far-reaching consequences, and the entire European economy could be plunged into a deep and lasting crisis. Hungary must also face up to this, and so a considerable part of my work consists of trying to understand what dangers the European Union is bringing upon us, how we can avert these dangers, and how we can correct the mistakes being made by the EU – at least across the 93,000 square kilometres of Hungary’s territory.
We’ll talk about that in a moment. But with this level of exhaustion, which is both material and social exhaustion, how long can this current policy of sanctions and this situation be maintained? Meanwhile, leading Western European and American newspapers are also writing that the aim of weakening Russia with these sanctions is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve, because – as one major American newspaper has written – Russia has rebuilt its supply chains. And Bloomberg reports that not since 2016 had Russian diesel fuel exports been as high as they were at the beginning of this year.
There are conflicting reports. Anyone who speaks with confidence about the state of the Russian economy while striking just a single note on the keyboard is aggrandising themselves, and shouldn’t be believed. So there’s conflicting news. The reliability of the data from the Russian economy is – and always has been – questionable, because it’s a different kind of world from ours. At the same time, in a war you certainly cannot expect them to tell the truth about their economic difficulties, and I don’t think they will. Measuring the impact of sanctions is also a difficult task – not just in the case of Russia, but in general: wherever in the world sanctions have been imposed, it took years to measure and understand the mechanism of their impact – for example, assessing whether or not the sanctions against Iran were ultimately successful. When I look at Iran and its economic growth, I scratch my head. For years I’ve been hearing that Iran’s about to go bankrupt; but now I look at the figures, and it doesn’t look like it’s gone bankrupt in recent years. So it’s inherently difficult to judge the short- to medium-term consequences of sanctions. What’s more, there’s a saying about when people lie the most. We’re talking about human lives here, so this is a little out of place, but I’ll say it anyway. In politics the conventional wisdom is that people lie the most before elections, after fishing and during war. So, as they fight for their survival, you can’t expect the warring parties’ primary concern to be the provision of credible and accurate information to the outside world. Therefore I’d be cautious when assessing Russia’s economic situation. But my starting point, because I have a handle on it, is what I saw after 2015. Sanctions are not being imposed on Russia for the first time. This is the first time that the European Union has imposed sanctions on Russia in a way that affects the energy sector, and it’s pushed up inflation and has had a knock-on effect on the European economy. And now the correlation is absolutely obvious: when there’s war, there’s inflation. And if you react to war with sanctions, then inflation will go up even more, and this is the reason for the European Union’s sanctions-induced inflation. But I remember that when we imposed sanctions on Russia in 2015, although we weren’t enthusiastic about it at the time, at least it didn’t affect vital organs like the energy sector. And we imposed them. I also clearly remember that in 2015 we exported a lot of food to Russia, because it hadn’t built up its own food industry capacity: it had large energy revenues, which it used to buy the food that the Russian people needed. We introduced the sanctions. Three years later, and Russia had built up its own entire agricultural and food system. In those three years it had built them up to such an extent that if Hungary wanted to export products there today, it either wouldn’t succeed or it would find it much more difficult to succeed than before the introduction of the sanctions. So it’s a fatal mistake to underestimate the adaptability of a country – including a country as powerful as Russia. And I see the Russians adapting to the situation created by the European sanctions.
Speaking of inflation, it seems to have peaked in January. This is now the conclusion of ever more analysts and the Hungarian National Bank, and now it’s also apparent in the way that retail chains are advertising their promotions and cutting the prices of an ever-wider range of products. In this area does the Government still have work to do in order to achieve single-digit inflation by the end of the year?
Perhaps it was here on your programme that I first announced that the Hungarian government’s target for 2023 is to have single-digit inflation in Hungary by the end of the year. Inflation won’t fall on its own; it has to be brought down. It sounds a little folksy to say that it’s like picking corn in the autumn, but the process is indeed similar. So inflation has to be grabbed firmly and broken down. There’s internationally agreed knowledge on how to break the back of inflation. Of course no single method is applicable in every country, because we’re all different and there always have to be adaptations and interpretations in the context of any particular country. We’ve done that work. This is why I dare to tell you with the necessary confidence that the Hungarian government’s objective is to achieve single-digit inflation by the end of the year. I also said that we’ve administered the “vaccine”, that it will work, that it will protect the body from the disease, and that it will bring down the fever. The first swallows have appeared. Let’s leave it at that, because I don’t want to sound over-optimistic. Let’s simply say that the first swallows have appeared, and that now there’s competition between retailers and food chains over who can offer cheaper prices for which products. So anti-inflationary competition has emerged. I don’t want to talk too much about it, but there’s a huge amount of background work being done by consumer protection and competition authorities. We’re carrying out checks every day, we’re checking that the measures we’ve imposed are being complied with, and we aren’t allowing inflationary speculation to develop so that either traders or anyone else can try to make extra profit on inflation. We have the tools to prevent this. I’m not saying that we’ve been 100 per cent successful, but we’ve been very effective, and we’ll continue to be effective in the period ahead. The Government’s facing a serious professional challenge – let’s say an intellectual challenge. We still have price freezes, which are useful and help to reduce inflation, but at the same time they always cause disruptions in supply. Being an artificial intervention in the normal flow of trade, there’s no such thing as a price freeze that doesn’t have side effects. Therefore it’s a good thing for the number of these price freezes to be kept to a minimum, that they disappear from the system, and that we return to a normal economic situation. But this cannot be done while inflation is very high, because people cannot pay the prices – and this is important for essentials such as energy and food. We’ve been able to protect the system for reductions in household utility bills, and people will still be paying for energy at prices which are protected up to the level of average consumption. In terms of food, as inflation comes down we’ll remove the price caps that are still in place. Incidentally, the situation is similar for bank loans, on which we also have all kinds of protection mechanisms in place, which normally tend to cause disruption. So when inflation falls below a certain level we’ll have to take decisions at the appropriate pace to lift the safeguards that we’ve put in place precisely because of high inflation. Exactly when and how this should be done, in how many steps, in what stages, is a major project, and Márton Nagy’s ministry is working on it.
In the last half an hour I’ve been asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about the war, the pro-peace resolution, sanctions and the state of the Hungarian economy.