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Interview with Viktor Orbán in the Croatian weekly Glas Koncila

– Branimir Stanić, Ivan Tašev –

Christians in Croatia are looking forward to the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest in September and its accompanying events. We were very surprised when recently we learned from the media that Pope Francis didn’t want to meet you. Later it turned out that this was fake news. Could you tell us what actually happened?

The first lesson from this is that not even the Holy Father is protected against fake news. The Hungarian position was perfectly clear: the Holy Father is both the leader of a church and a head of state. As a head of state, he’s entitled to the highest respect, while if he comes to our country as the head of the Catholic Church, we’ll receive him with Christian humility. The Eucharistic Congress isn’t a Hungarian event, but an international one hosted by Hungary, which will also be attended by the Pope. Therefore it wasn’t entirely clear exactly what would happen in terms of protocol – if he was only visiting Hungary everything would be clear, but this is an international event. As for me, I’m a practitioner of the martial art known as politics, in which fights are a daily occurrence, day and night. Metaphorically speaking, when a tiny gap appears in one’s armour, it’s immediately aimed for. The fact that this is an international event with certain unresolved protocol questions revealed one such gap. It was then that anti-church and anti-Christian elements started aiming for that gap.

How could such a misunderstanding emerge at all?

There is indeed a difference between the Holy Father’s opinion on and approach to migration and the position of the Hungarian government. This is clear and there for the whole world to see. We’re strongly opposed to migration, while the Catholic Church has its own position. From this it’s very easy to fabricate a story which claims that the Holy Father and the Hungarian prime minister “don’t understand each other”, “don’t see eye to eye” and, eventually, “don’t want to meet either”. Yet it isn’t the fake news about the September meeting in Budapest that causes me the most disappointment. I especially regret not being able to attend the beatification of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, which will take place in Poland on that day of the Budapest Eucharistic Congress. We hold Polish Catholics in extremely high esteem.

This year we’ll be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the splendid visit to Hungary by Pope John Paul II. One will never forget his entreaty and prayer, in which he asked for the rebirth of Hungary after the years of dictatorship. In the intervening three decades has Hungary succeeded in being reborn?

Although many things have changed, we can’t yet talk about a rebirth. The ethos of the country has changed greatly: life is given a higher value, but it isn’t yet given the full respect it deserves. One can see that there’s interest in the message of the Church and God, but there are no mass conversions. I could say that a rebirth has not yet taken place, but we’re in much better shape than we were earlier, and the chances of rebirth are higher than they were thirty years ago. Hungary is still a secular state which seeks paths towards God, and seeks support on this journey. Redemption is an expression of freedom, and the Polish Pope also meant political redemption, bringing us redemption in a political sense as well. We believe that without the Polish Pope we would not have been able to rid ourselves of the communists. Whether we’re believers or not, we can respect the Polish Pope as a saint. Personally I have very much to thank him for; we met several times, and when talking to me he foretold important things. He always encouraged me. We felt his great and deep love for Hungarians.

How strong are pre-democratic structures in the areas of culture, education and the media in Hungary today?

In the Hungarian spirit there’s a general desire for things which are more important than one’s personal life and which stand above it. Hungarians usually look for this in three ways: in the family, in the nation, and in God. Conversion also usually occurs when these three worlds meet. This is a developing process. I can’t say that in this we’re hindered by pre-democratic forces: we can’t blame anyone else for this – it’s our responsibility. Naturally in Hungary there are atheists, anti-church forces and liberals who do all they can to prevent the spread of Christian values. They have their media, they’re well-organised, and they have strong non-governmental associations. We also have these on the conservative side, however: there are at least as many Christian media outlets as anti-Christian ones; our civil society organisations are at least as strong as theirs, and perhaps even stronger; and we hold the political positions, as we have a Christian government. So we can’t blame our opponents for the fact that this rebirth hasn’t yet taken place. The fault is within us, not within others.

The Eucharist is at the centre of the Pope’s visit to Hungary. Despite the fact that Calvinists and Catholics don’t relate to the Eucharist the same way, they share many Christian values. What do you think are the key values that could strengthen after the meeting with the Pope in September?

We Calvinists also have our church services and we also celebrate communion with bread and wine; but our liturgy is primarily an act of remembrance. I appreciate and understand the beauty of the Eucharist, however, because my wife is Catholic. In our culture, if the spouses belong to different denominations, children follow their parents, according to their sex. As a result, I have four Catholic daughters – which means that I live under the same roof as five Catholic women – and a Calvinist son. This is how Catholics and Calvinists live together in our family, in a community of love. Furthermore, one of my daughters married the son of a Greek Catholic priest. In our country, Catholics say “the problem is that the garment of Our Lord Jesus Christ was torn into pieces”. Many of us long for Christian unity. Naturally, I’m not only thinking of Western and Latin Christianity, but of the entirety, which also includes the Eastern Orthodox Church. Our message to the Holy Father will be that in Hungary Christianity isn’t a matter of choice, but of predestination: one needs no kind of argument for it, that’s how it is, that’s how it was ordained. The world that surrounds us is hostile to us all, both to you Catholics and to me and us Calvinists. Under way today is a cultural – I could say civilisational – struggle: here, happening here, is the struggle for Europe’s soul and future. It’s sometimes said that soldiers rarely argue about religion in the trenches, because they’re all under attack. Therefore today we need to pray for the unity of the whole of Christianity, including the Eastern Orthodox Church; because without cooperation we cannot keep Christianity in Europe. Allow me to give you an example that’s close to my heart. When we won the election, I still worked in the Parliament Building, my office was still there. I was preparing for my oath-taking and my first speech, and as I stepped out of my office door, a priest from Međugorje came up to me and said, “I’ve come to bless you before your oath-taking”. So take note: a Croatian priest from Međugorje came to a Calvinist Hungarian prime minister to bless him! We prayed together, and then I took my oath. So in the Christian world things like this happen, if only we let them happen.

You mentioned the soul of Europe, the spiritual struggle. Is politics today actually the material expression of a spiritual struggle being fought in the background?

Politics takes place on three levels at once. The first level is practical: it’s about questions of power, adopting budgets, appointing people, maintaining order. The second level is what I’d call “vision”, because every national community needs a vision: what will happen to the Hungarian people – not tomorrow morning, but in five, ten, twenty years’ time? Behind all this, however, there’s also a wider dimension: the realm of transcendence. We also live in that dimension, that’s also part of life. In Hungarian political theory this is referred to as the problem of the majority and truth. We could also put it this way: if someone has a majority, but fails to strive for what is true, what good is their majority? That’s just sacrilege. And if someone stands for truth, but fails to mobilise a majority for it, then how can they act in the name of truth? This is the key challenge for Christian politics in a democratic environment. Putting it in simpler terms, we no longer have sacred kings anointed by God, and so in democracy we must exist by bringing together the majority and truth. This is difficult, but it’s possible. Christian democratic politics also has a mandate in relation to Christian culture. First of all, Christianity created the free man. We must therefore primarily protect human dignity. Then Christianity created the Christian family. We must protect the notion of the Christian family. Furthermore, Christianity also created nations in this part of the world. If we Hungarians hadn’t followed Christianity for a thousand years, we would have disappeared. And therefore we must also protect the nation. But we must likewise protect our religious communities, the Church. In summary, our duty is not to protect religious beliefs, that’s the Church’s mission, but to protect the great achievements of Christian civilisation. And when I protect these, I not only fight with a sword, I don’t simply exercise power, but also arguments. The most beautiful thing about a politician’s job is that there’s no job description. I have my own definition. I believe that politics is a question of power, and power is the capacity for collective action. Political power creates collective action as political action – for example with elections, constitutions, and in other ways. We mustn’t forget about divine power, however, because collective action can be realised not only with political means, but also spiritually. In fact this is the duty of the Church and the servants of the Church: the Church realises collective action through spiritual leadership, while we do so through political means. When these two sides join forces, great results are achieved. Therefore we shall never accept the separation of church and state as it is interpreted in the West. Hungary’s Fundamental Law declares that church and state operate separately, which also makes cooperation possible.

But how do you explain the fact that all we ever hear is that Hungarian politics, which is so eager to promote Christian values, is stopping migrants at the border with a razor wire fence?

If Croatians want to understand us, they should just recall the thoughts and deeds of Miklós Zrínyi; if they want to locate us within their picture of the world, they should think about Hungarians in terms of Miklós Zrínyi. But let’s return to the issue of migration. Our philosophical position is that migration is a bad thing in ontological terms. It’s bad if one can’t stay and live in one’s own country, if one can’t find one’s personal happiness and calling there, and if, for whatever reason, one’s compelled to leave that territory – particularly if it’s due to circumstances beyond one’s control. It sometimes happens that someone is forced to leave their country because otherwise they’d be killed, enslaved, imprisoned or die of hunger. Such reasons are very possible. But even when someone leaves their home in such circumstances, the goal is for them to return later. Therefore if we want to help someone, rather than encouraging them to stay away from their home as long as possible, we must help them return as soon as they can. This is the position I personally represent, and this is also what I suggest to the European Union: European military action, economic action, and the creation of stable, normal living conditions in these regions. I believe that this position can also be defended in a Christian sense. You mentioned the razor wire fence. When tens of thousands of mostly young men in excellent physical condition appear at the Hungarian border, trampling across it in columns, and trampling on us if we try to stop them, we can no longer talk about migration, but about a violation of state sovereignty. This must be halted. No one can enter the territory of your country unless you first give them permission, and those who do so without such permission must be repelled. This is why we’re using the fence. We must also tell you that we’re convinced that migration is not happening in a spontaneous way, but in an organised way. In the West this is seen as a conspiracy theory; but all this is nonetheless happening in an organised way, based on political and business considerations. And as a consequence, we find large masses of Muslims on the European continent. I believe that those who don’t defend themselves won’t recognise their countries in twenty years’ time. This change will happen as a result of something imposed on them from outside. I believe that Miklós Zrínyi would know what to do in such a situation.

Has the pandemic slowed down this process?

I don’t see that the tide has turned. Anthropologically, the essence of the problem remains the same: the Western world’s “thought factories” continue to manufacture desires for people – desires telling them that it’s better to go somewhere else, that living conditions are better elsewhere, and that one has no obligation to one’s own country. I believe that the next decade will be dominated by pandemics and migration. All of this could have a serious – and perhaps fatal – impact on European Christian democracy.

How can you reconcile this position with the administration’s permission for a Chinese university to “migrate” to Hungary – a decision that recently led to demonstrations in your capital city? 

I believe it’s good for foreign universities to operate in a country; we have more than ten of them in Hungary. It’s desirable for us to also have an Eastern university. We’d be equally welcoming to a South Korean, Japanese or Chinese university. The Hungarian economy is export-oriented, meaning that we have to maintain business relations with the world. It’s a fact that the world economy’s centre of gravity is shifting towards the East, and therefore young Hungarians must be prepared to operate in both the Western and Eastern worlds. In this regard, I’d rather remove the issue of the university from the context of migration.

How much will it cost to swim against the dominant political current in Europe? 

If this were the Middle Ages, and I had to write some slogan on my flag that would best describe my work and philosophy, this is what it would be: “Only dead fish swim with the current.” If you swim with the multicultural trend of our times, you’ll lose everything that’s important in life. It’s also true that those who swim against the current give themselves a lot of problems. We’re paying a high price. Hungary is paying a high price for not being prepared to sign the Istanbul Convention and refusing to support Cold War politics in any way; we’re paying a high price for not joining the Westerners in kicking the Russian president on a daily basis, but instead giving him the respect that he’s entitled to; we’re paying a high price for defending the Christian family model and for the fact that over here there’s no place for LGBT madness; we’re paying a high price for our position on migration, and not accepting Brussels bureaucracy, but instead wanting to build Central European cooperation as a counterweight. So we’re truly paying a high price. If we didn’t pay that price and failed to represent our interests, perhaps we’d have a more comfortable life, but in the end we’d lose much more. It’s better for us to fight. I believe that’s what Zrínyi would do, too.

Doesn’t continuously acting like this cause you fear? Aren’t you afraid?

Anyone who’s afraid of political struggle would do well to choose a different line of work. But I’m afraid in the way that Christians are: of perdition. There are temptations and mistakes, but every day we must strengthen ourselves to avoid losing our way. The Hungarians say “I fear God”. One day we’ll all have to stand before God and give an account of ourselves. No one can avoid that.

Croatia was recently hit by a series of massive earthquakes. This generated a surprising wave of aid, within which we received special assistance from the Hungarian government, which is building a church and a school in Žažina. What prompted you to help us so swiftly and generously?

I’ve noticed that there’s a sense of seclusion in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. It seems as though you don’t yet believe that you’ll be successful, that you can only gain by cooperation, and that you’re strong enough to decide whom you open your door to – not only to people, but also to capital – and shape the fate and economic structure of your country. This feeling sometimes appears, even when others – other countries – do something good for you; the underlying thought seems to be that they must want something in return. I know this feeling, and it’s difficult to live like that. After the communist era we ourselves made a ton of mistakes. By the time we finally realised what was going on, we’d lost control of crucial national resources: the energy sector, the banking sector, the media. Foreigners had taken control of them – and not on the basis of an inherent planned logic: they simply took them away from us. For ten years now I’ve been working hard to regain control over what we shouldn’t have squandered in the first place. So I completely understand your life instinct. Whilst giving the highest regard to our respective national interests, we must finally understand that Central Europe is a community of fate. When a Central European country extends its hand, we should assume that it wants to help. When a great power extends its hand, we must indeed ask ourselves: “What do they want?” When a Croatian helps a Hungarian or a Hungarian a Croatian, or a Pole a Croatian, I don’t think such fears are justified. I believe that we in Central Europe are members of a community of fate. I’m not naive, we do have disputes, but in essence this is a community with a shared fate. It is only through cooperation that we can protect our basic interests against empires. I’m certain that if we join forces, we’ll be able to assert our interests much better in every political arena – including in the European Union. We simply misunderstand the situation if we believe that the French and the Germans will help us and will make decisions that benefit us, if we think that we’ll be better off by courting them. We can only do well if we’re able to demonstrate the collective strength of Central Europe. So in times of trouble we must help one another. This is what happened when the earthquakes struck. If the situation had been reversed you would have done the same.

Some media outlets in Croatia have drawn a link between the Hungarian assistance and resolution of the unrealised projects of the Hungarian corporation MOL – especially in the region affected by the earthquakes. Can you clarify this? 

This is baseless speculation. When we offer help we’re following our hearts, not our wallets. My position is as follows: there are free trade agreements, a single market, European regulations, and they’re all important; but every country belongs to its own people. Croatia belongs to the Croatian people, and what happens in Croatia is decided by the Croatian people. I expect and ask the leaders of neighbouring countries to tell me which sectors we’re welcome in and which ones we’re not welcome in. And I also ask their positions to be long-term ones, and to tell us simply, “Yes, in this sector you’re welcome, but not in that other one.” We’ll understand that, because that’s how we think ourselves. Hungary belongs to the Hungarian people. Our country has ten million inhabitants, we live from exports, we have trade relations with the whole world, we go everywhere, invest and trade; but we understand if someone says that there’s something they don’t want.

If the countries of Central Europe in this region decided to explore the opportunities inherent in what you call this community of fate, would that be supported by the whole of Europe and its central institutions? 

No, they’d strongly oppose it – and for two reasons, which we mustn’t confuse. The first reason is ideological: Westerners have decided that they want to live in a post-national and post-Christian world. And we respect that choice. But they want even more than that: they want us to also live like that. As a result, if some regional cooperation emerges which also extends to the protection of national, Christian cultures, it will immediately be met with ideological attacks. These are left-liberal attacks launched from Brussels, which are also linked to American liberal political and economic forces. What they want is for us to be free in the way they want us to be. Therefore they’re opposed to Central European cooperation, and see Polish-Hungarian cooperation, for instance, as something negative. The other reason is related to power; it’s about the Franco-German axis of power. The European Union is organised as an alliance of Member States which formally are all equal. But naturally size matters, facts matter, the two large countries form an axis, and essentially they want to assert their own will. Sometimes that will coincide with the interests of Central Europe, and at other times it clashes with them; sometimes it favours us, and at other times it doesn’t. For instance, the rules relating to Central Europeans working in Western European countries favour them, not us. They’d also like general European taxes which favour them, but not us. When it comes to the Horizon Europe education and research development fund, they take 90 per cent of the funds, and we have the rest. Of course sometimes these two countries come up with something which is good for us, too. But we shouldn’t be satisfied with just that. We must gain in strength so that we can assert our interests. The volume of trade between the countries of the V4 and Germany is now higher than that between Germany and France, and three times higher than that between Germany and Italy! The political influence we exert on Brussels isn’t yet comparable to our economic strength. If I were to raise what I’ve just said to a higher level, I could say that we Central Europeans stand up for nation states, which we want to preserve because we believe that democracy can only be realised within national boundaries. Instead of this, Western Europe wants an empire with its centre in Brussels. This, in reality, is the essence of our conflicting views of Europe.

We’re returning to the question of character. Is it easier or more difficult to cooperate with people who have strong characters?

In Europe people have faith in institutions, not in the leaders of institutions. This is the European Union’s way of thinking: a politician has a given task, which is simply to facilitate the functioning of institutions. That is what’s important. But who decides the direction? Who will say where the future lies, where the horizon will open up? In Western Europe there are structures – economic structures, media concentration, networks of civil society organisations – which can substitute for strong political leadership. In this way it’s possible to create strong power even with weak government. But in Croatia, Poland or Hungary we won’t prosper if we don’t have strong elected leaders – in fact we’ll lose our countries and be strangers in our own homelands.

Croatia is a young EU member, we still talk a great deal about values, about their protection and exchange with the rest of Europe. How do you see Croatia in this sense?

In 1990 our first prime minister after communism said this: “I’m Hungarian, therefore I’m European”. What this means is that Europe cannot be found in Brussels: Europe can be found in the national capitals – in Zagreb, for instance. That’s Europe. Therefore Brussels has no right to force anything on the Croatian people. Croatian national awareness is a valuable contribution to Europe. Your country is fantastic. Every part of it is wonderful – not only the sea, but the entire country. I think that your people are very diverse: the Croatians I meet on the islands have different characters from those in, say, Osijek [Eszék]. You know how to organise them into a shared country, and this is an important contribution to Europe. In addition to this, you’re excellent and passionate fighters, and Europe also needs that. You have a characteristically anti-communist approach. We’re anti-communist, too, and so believe that our anti-communism is a valuable contribution to the European Union. Ours developed against the Soviets, against international communism. You earned your sovereignty against a kind of communism that was different from that in Hungary. The fact that communism can also exist without Soviet occupation – within smaller, national boundaries – is a valuable experience, illustrating how dangerous it is. The Hungarians want Hungary to remain a Hungarian country. Croatia, too, can be a Croatian country. This depends on you alone.