Zsolt Törőcsik: According to a survey conducted by the Századvég Foundation in March, 91 per cent of Hungarians think that the Russo-Ukrainian war should be ended immediately and that the parties should be brought to the negotiating table. Despite this, recently a billboard and poster campaign has been launched with the support of the US Embassy in Budapest. The billboards and posters draw a parallel between current events in Ukraine and those of 1956 [in the anti-Soviet Hungarian Revolution], as they feature the slogan “Ruszkik, haza!” [Hungarian for “Russkies Go Home!”], and demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is our guest in the studio. Good morning.
After the launch of this poster campaign, the US Ambassador to Budapest held a press conference on Wednesday, in which he announced sanctions against the International Investment Bank [IIB] and its three leaders. The next day the Government announced that involvement in the Bank had become meaningless, and that Hungary would withdraw from it. How do you assess the developments of the last few days, and what do you think this affair is really about?
If you look at the facts, you’ll find that it’s not about sanctions on Hungary. I’ve looked at the list that the Americans – not the Embassy in Hungary, but Washington – have published, and there are 34 individuals on it. These individuals are alleged to have circumvented the sanctions that the United States has imposed on Russia. Among these 34 individuals there’s one Hungarian and there are others from the EU: there’s also a Cypriot, and I found an Austrian and a Liechtenstein citizen. This was clearly a US operation focusing essentially on financial professionals. We’ve never agreed with the sanctions, but we don’t deny the right of anyone – including the United States – to impose sanctions if it sees fit. We acknowledge them and we comply with them. The Bank itself is one that could have played a major role in the development of the economies of Central Europe. We weren’t the only ones to think so, because its founders included the Czechs, the Slovaks, Romania and Bulgaria. But since the outbreak of the war it had become clear that the Bank’s potential was diminishing, and that it couldn’t be relied on for serious, major development; and now that the Americans have imposed sanctions on it, they’ve actually wrecked it: it’s no longer able to operate and cannot fulfil its function. Yesterday within the Government we thoroughly discussed this matter and came to the conclusion that under these circumstances Hungary’s participation in the Bank’s future work had become meaningless; so we’ve withdrawn our delegates, and Hungary has left the International Investment Bank.
How does this whole story – from sanctions to the poster campaign and Hungary’s withdrawal from the IIB – affect US-Hungarian relations?
First of all, we have good relations with the Americans. If I think back to my history studies, we probably declared war on them once in our history: during that phase in World War II when our fortunes were in decline. I wouldn’t describe that as a successful diplomatic move, and we haven’t tried anything like that since. Indeed, we’ve done the opposite: we’ve tried to establish the closest possible friendly cooperation with the United States. And we’ve been successful in that. So America, the United States, is our friend and also an important ally – primarily from a military-political point of view, because we’re members of a common military and defence alliance. There are also philosophical similarities between our two peoples and countries. I think that the fundamental beliefs are the same: we also believe that in order for people to live in peace and prosperity, we need freedom and a market economy; America is also a Christian country, and even though in the debate over values it’s very divided, it’s a Christian country – and since Hungary is also a product of Christian culture, and Hungary wouldn’t exist without Christianity, this root system of values also brings us closer together. And then there are our economic relations, which are a success story. I don’t remember ever having seen as much investment in Hungary as there is from all the American companies working here today. I don’t remember there ever being as many Hungarians employed by American companies as are now employed by them, and their contribution to our exports – to the export of our products – has never been as high as it is now. The fact is that everything’s in place for us to have good and friendly relations. But we also need to recognise that America is not united. It used to be much more united, but today it’s a more divided country, with major party-political differences. There’s no point in denying the fact – because people can see it – that when there’s a Democrat president in the White House our relations are more difficult, and when there’s a Republican president they’re easier. The reason for this is that on fundamental issues in modern politics the Republican point of view is closer to the Hungarian government’s point of view and philosophy – for example on migration or anti-migration views, or on the gender issue and protection of the family. But it’s not our job to pick and choose among the actors in American political life. The American people decide on whom to give the highest position of power, and we will work with the government that the American people elect. And when they’ve elected their government, then that government sends its ambassador here. Now, in America ambassadors are typically political appointees, so we have to acknowledge that now we have an American ambassador who’s close to the Democratic Party. We have no say in this either: they can send whoever they want, and we must acknowledge that in Hungary the US Ambassador represents the views of the United States. It’s unusual for the American Embassy to conduct this representation of American opinion through posters and billboards in our streets. And it seems as if they’re behind the times, because I’ve seen this poster saying “Russkies Go Home!” – but we’ve already sent the Russkies home. I myself remember very well how this happened back in 1989. Just yesterday, or the day before, I saw in the news that the Russian soldier who was the last to leave Hungary has just died. God rest his soul! So we’ve sorted that out. Hungarians don’t need to be reminded of their own history, and we certainly don’t need to be encouraged to be vigilant about our security in relation to anyone – least of all in relation to Russia.
Yes, you’ve mentioned the differences on gender or on migration which exist within America and which exist between the American and Hungarian governments, and many people say that the position on the war is a difference that could cause – or could have caused – tensions to escalate.
Indeed, I think that you’ve touched on a sensitive point. Because of course there are these philosophical differences on migration and on gender and protection of the family, but more topical than these is the difference of opinion that exists today between Hungary and the United States on the issue of the war. The Hungarian people don’t support war, and consequently the Hungarian government doesn’t support it either. By contrast, the main supporters of the war are the Americans – the United States of America, to be precise. Obviously, we have completely different ways of thinking about the war. But my opinion is that Hungarian-American friendship must be able to withstand this difference of opinion. I understand the American position – I don’t accept it, but I understand it. Well, if you look at a map, there’s no safer place than America. It’s protected on both sides by oceans, by the Canadians above and by the Mexicans below. What’s more, it’s even set up a free trade system with them, and at some point in the 19th century it announced that America belongs to the Americans; in other words the United States has made it clear that it regards as enemies not only foreign powers on its borders, but also foreign powers approaching the borders of the continent. So it protects itself. It’s a safe place. I can’t say the same about the Carpathian Basin. So sitting over there in America the world looks very different, world political risks look different from how they look when one considers history as seen from Budapest, from – Heaven forbid – Sepsiszentgyörgy/Sfântu Gheorghe, from Kassa/Košice, or – to be more topical – from Beregszász/Berehove, say. So when Americans, for example, hear talk of an escalation of the war, envisaging a nuclear war, say, they know that they have a large arsenal and a deterrent force. When I hear talk of nuclear weapons, or of a Western European country exporting depleted uranium munitions to Ukraine, I think of Chernobyl. America or an American would never think of that; but we know that if something happens in Ukraine, then it’s best not to go out on the streets. So we know what happened back then [in 1986]. Or when people in America hear that someone has died on the Russo-Ukrainian front, they obviously sympathise, because it’s a loss; but it’s not the same feeling that we have, because I immediately wonder whether the person who died was a Hungarian from Transcarpathia. So we’re here in a neighbouring country. Everything that happens there becomes part of our lives the very same day. The perspective of the Americans is totally different. This is why I say that we’re justified in expecting the United States to acknowledge Hungary’s special situation, its proximity to Ukraine, and to understand that we’re therefore on the side of peace and want to remain there. I wouldn’t say that this capacity for understanding is strong, and so the United States hasn’t abandoned its plan, which in my usual style I could describe as pressing everyone – including Hungary – into a war alliance. But on several occasions I’ve made it clear – as has Hungarian diplomacy – that since the Hungarian will, the will of the Hungarian people, is obvious, and our knowledge of history is also sound, we won’t allow ourselves to be pressed and pushed into a war – whatever means our friends choose when trying to do that. We shall not supply weapons and we shall not take part in a conflict that is not our war.
You’ve said that the will of the Hungarian people is clear, and indeed opinion polls point in that direction. Can this consensus that exists in society also be created in domestic politics?
There was a chance for that, and I regularly try to achieve it. It’s a thankless role, but if you follow the parliamentary debates – I think the debates there are worthwhile, sometimes exciting and often entertaining – you’ll see that in interpellations and immediate questions I tend to try to find points of agreement in the dialogue with the opposition, with the Left. Our support is stable, especially on the issue of the war. So the Left, which is pro-war, enjoys the support of only a fraction of Hungarians, while the pro-peace, peace and security prioritizing position of the national side – let’s just say the Government’s position – is supported by the overwhelming majority in Hungary. But unity is always useful, and also beautiful and good; and on big issues the more that a country is in agreement, the stronger we are. So I regret the fact that the Left is pro-war and not in the Hungarian peace camp. And I also use opportunities in Parliament to present the Government’s position rather than to try to put them down, and certainly not to insult them – although the hour for immediate questions best resembles an hour of immediate insults. But I do try to create some kind of bridge, across which they can come into the pro-peace camp. This is why we tabled a motion in Parliament for a resolution confirming that Hungary does not want to and shall not participate in this war, that it shall not supply weapons, and that it calls on the international community to mobilise its energies to push for negotiations leading to a ceasefire and peace rather than to support the war. Now the Left hasn’t accepted this, it hasn’t crossed this bridge, and it hasn’t crossed over from the embankment of war to the embankment of peace. But hope springs eternal, so we’ll see.
It seems that for the time being Western Europe is also more on the embankment of war – at least judging by one of the documents leaked from the Pentagon, which states that combatants on the battlefield include special military forces from Western countries. And Germany, for example, has given Poland permission to send more MiG fighters to Ukraine. It would seem, therefore, that the way back, the way back to peace, is receding into the distance. How do you now assess the risk of further escalation?
With increasing pessimism. If we look back to our last conversation, maybe two weeks ago, let’s say that the situation was better then than it is now; and if we look back to our conversation before that, we can remember that it was even better back then. So every time we meet, we find ourselves having to talk about a deteriorating situation and increasing escalation. Just since our last meeting, there have been two important news items. The first is that the British – if I remember correctly it’s the British – want to deliver these depleted uranium shells to the Ukrainian front. These aren’t unknown munitions, of course, but it does bring us one step closer to the world of nuclear weapons. It isn’t yet a nuclear bomb, of course, but it’s something that brings into the war the specific characteristics of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. And this is what sends a shiver down one’s spine. The other news is that the Russians – perhaps in response – have deployed tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus. So the escalation of the war now shows absolutely clearly that we’ve reached the boundary of nuclear weapons. As I said last time, there’s no literary exaggeration in talking about the fear active within all of us that further escalation of the war may sooner or later involve the use of some form of nuclear weapon. So if there’s a world war, then there will be a nuclear war – and God save us from that! I don’t want to say that this could happen tomorrow morning, but the drift of events – the rhythm and direction of events – is pointing in that direction.
Yesterday Péter Szijjártó also spoke about the need to prevent the development of a spiral of crises across the world, which would not only affect the war. This is because in a globalised world we can see that the war can cause food shortages in some parts of the world and hinder the functioning of industrial supply chains in other areas. Can this be prevented?
Of course everything can be prevented, because the fact that these troubles have befallen us isn’t the result of divine decree, but human decisions causing conflicts. So if the world’s leaders act smartly, the world could be in a much better state than it’s in now. From this point of view, perhaps the French president’s visit to China can be seen as highly significant, because a different voice has emerged – one that’s not looking at where potential enemies are, but at where potential partners are. This is similar to the Hungarian way of thinking. We, too, consider the aim of foreign policy to be making friends. We don’t want to gather enemies, and we don’t want to provoke conflicts, but we want to gather friends, and we think that it’s good if as many countries in the world as possible have a direct interest in Hungary’s success. They’re trading with us, they’re investing, they’re cooperating, they’re negotiating, they’re engaging in diplomatic relations, and so on. And the French president’s comments on European strategic autonomy point in this direction. Because what does this mean? He says that intellectually Europe should, after all, act with greater self-respect. It’s demeaning to the European spirit to simply adopt the foreign policy of other countries. So, with a few thousand years of European history, here we’re adequately prepared and intellectually capable of acting in our own interests, without the need to copy the interests of others. And – not for the first time – he’s calling on us to do this work, this intellectual work, and to do it in relation to China. He’s saying that before we simply repeat the position or positions of American foreign policy, we should consider whether they coincide with Europe’s interests. And where they don’t coincide, let’s say so openly, let’s express that fact, let’s negotiate on it, and let’s create a situation in which Europe has a strategic alternative. I have to say that the French president is the only leader in Europe today who’s able to raise questions in a historical perspective. On the other hand, and to our disadvantage, today the President of France isn’t called de Gaulle, because then we could easily agree with him on almost everything. Although he’s a commendable president, President Macron doesn’t envisage the future of Europe in the way that we do. We believe in a Christian renaissance: we say that this continent was once great, it was once strong, we know that its strength sprang from Christianity and from Christian values and culture, and we should rediscover this path which we’ve deviated from. The French president says, “No, that’s the past, and a liberal Europe must be made competitive on a global scale.” But at least this is a debate in a dimension that has meaning, and that looks to the future; it’s not – pardon the expression – the kind of petty, reciprocally shoving, needling, prodding, sanctioning, and mutually obstructive European political environment that our continent is suffering so much from.
To return to the present and talk about the economic effects of the war and the sanctions, one of the most serious effects has been soaring inflation across Europe. In Hungary, the rate of monetary depreciation has been slowing – albeit gently – month by month since January, with the figure for March being 25.2 per cent. Does this mean that price caps can now be lifted? Two weeks ago you said that serious work – led by Márton Nagy – is being done to determine when, how and in how many steps this can be done.
Not yet, unfortunately. So, to your question about whether what’s been done so far in terms of reducing inflation is sufficient for removal of the price caps, I have to flatly answer that question by saying that it isn’t. What’s happened so far isn’t enough. There are some products – especially food products in the shops – for which there have been dramatic price reductions, with retailers competing to see who can attract more customers with cheaper prices. This is good, and in principle this is the point of competition, but unfortunately the spectrum or field for this is still narrow: it only applies to a few products. My hope is that in April the fall in inflation will be more noticeable, more general: not just for one product or group of products, but a broader fall in inflation in general. And I expect a definite fall in May and June. So, we have this vaccine, we call it anti-inflationary policy, which we’ve administered, and we’re waiting for it to take effect. It’s reassuring to see a fall of a few per cent or tenths of a percent, but unfortunately it’s very small. So inflation is too high, and the Government must continue to work on bringing inflation down. We’ve also set up a price monitoring system, we’ve brought in the various state authorities, with the competition authority and the consumer protection authority having roles to play. We have controls, we’re publishing the level of prices, and we’re trying to ensure that traders don’t try to make their best deals ever, but that there’s competition and that prices come down.
And in this respect can the Government expect help from Brussels? Earlier you said that the only things coming from there would be sanctions, but is the easing of sanctions on the agenda? Because we can see that in relation to this there’s growing dissatisfaction in the societies of other countries.
If you invite us here again, I don’t think there will be a breakthrough by the time of our next meeting. We’re not yet at the point at which European public opinion will force European leaders to change their position on the war and on sanctions policy. But the moment of truth will come, because what’s happening now is destroying Europe: it’s destroying its security, and it’s destroying its economy. In financial terms, Ukraine is essentially a non-existent country. There’s been such a dramatic drop in economic performance there – which is perfectly understandable because of the war – that it’s obvious that Ukraine cannot finance itself. The question is whether or not we will sustain Ukraine. And the moment that the Americans and Europe answer that question in the negative, then the war will be over, and a new situation will emerge. But for the time being this isn’t what’s happening; what’s happening now is that Hungarian taxpayers are among those supporting Ukraine with very large sums of money through the EU’s common budget. This is why it’s so bad for Hungarians when we see the Hungarian minority being targeted for persecution by the Ukrainian authorities, instead of being recognised and supported. Every day we hear increasingly bad news about the oppression of Hungarians living there, even though we Hungarians are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars – or hundreds of millions of euros – through the EU’s common budget to ensure that the Ukrainian state is able to function at all. We in Europe and Hungary are paying for Ukrainian pensions. We’re paying Ukrainians’ salaries. We’re sustaining their public administration, their healthcare service and their education system. We’re maintaining all of this, and it’s a huge financial burden: we’re talking about tens of billions of euros that are leaving the European economy, and it’s obvious that this cannot go on indefinitely.
In the past half hour I’ve been asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about the Russo-Ukrainian war, relations between Hungary and the United States, and further steps to bring down inflation.