Zoltán Kozma: Welcome. We’re here in Budapest, in the Carmelite Monastery, where Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán is giving an exclusive interview to Pannon Television. Good afternoon.
Let’s start with the election. There will be an election in Serbia on Sunday. Seen from Budapest, what is at stake in this vote in relation to the Hungarian community in Serbia?
We are a people – the Hungarian people – whose fate is strongly influenced by every election, so for a Hungarian there’s no such thing as an insignificant election. This is also the case here in Hungary: the kind of government formed in the motherland influences the fate of the entire Hungarian community in the Carpathian Basin, and whether it’s possible for Hungarian communities living in our neighbouring states to elect leaders with sufficient weight to stand up for Hungarian interests. So every election is important. In connection with your election, with the election in Serbia, here in Hungary there’s a feeling that it’s a foregone conclusion, because the opposition has declared a boycott, and so on. I think this is dangerous. There’s the feeling that there couldn’t be a major problem; but I’ve been through the experience of losing an election because we thought it was in the bag, and that nothing could go wrong. This is when trouble usually strikes. So this is very important. It is with great respect that I ask the Hungarians of Vojvodina that without fail they go to the polls, support the Hungarian candidates, place their trust in them, and elect good leaders. Because good leaders over there are the precondition for partnership with the Government over here.
The Fidesz-KDNP government is supporting the VMSZ: the only party with a Hungarian party list in the election. Why?
Because in Délvidék the VMSZ is the only force among Hungarian organisations there with serious experience, a history, past achievements and authority. Of course I’ve seen that life in politics is not easy anywhere, and there is always some jostling and friction; but the VMSZ is able to unite Hungarians across the widest possible spectrum, and here, from Budapest, we must always support Hungarian unity.
Why is it important for there to be Hungarian self-determination within the minority existence, if I can call it that? I’m referring to the election now. Why is the strong representation of Hungarian interest important?
Well, we Hungarians have an inbuilt disadvantage, as we have no relatives. So we’re a cultural and linguistic island here in the middle of Europe. There are Latins, Slavs and Germans, but we are the only Hungarians. While for as long as the world exists there will always be Germanic, Latin and Slavic elements in some distribution, there will only be Hungarians for as long as we want there to be. And if our communities are absorbed, assimilated and merged, they will lose their Hungarian culture and the Hungarian language: we will simply disappear. I think that the world would be poorer without Hungarians, so we also owe it to the whole world to pursue our mission to preserve Hungarian culture. And that is what we represent. And we must also recognise that of course we can always have friends, but one’s relative is only someone with a blood tie; and so every single community that is lost is a loss of blood for Hungary. Therefore more than ten million people must unite, and every community must be cared for. Not a single Hungarian can be forsaken, every Hungarian is responsible for every other Hungarian, and if we have a choice and we are able, we must always help one another.
Let’s speak a little about Hungarian-Serbian relations, as several times in recent years it has been said that relations between Hungary and Serbia are at their peak. How will the current election, say, influence these relationships?
In a fundamental way. The fact is that Serbian-Hungarian relations have risen to their current high level over the past few years. Our history is a turbulent one. So now we’re not talking about the past, but if we’re talking about the future, we should recognise that it hasn’t been easy for these two peoples to live together – and especially not in Vojvodina. Effort, good intentions, trust and friendship have been needed to induce these two peoples to look on each other as friends and allies for the future. This thought has not ripened in every mind: not every Hungarian has this complete idea in their mind and soul, and neither has every Serb. Now there are people in government in Serbia who think and feel this way, and so it’s in our interest to always have our friends and potential allies in government in Serbia, with whom we can build a shared future. This has not always been the case, and will not always be the case. We must treasure the exceptional opportunity represented by the fact that in Belgrade now just such people are in government and in power. So I think it’s in our interest for Serbia to have a stable, balanced and strong government, with people who understand Hungarians and who know that if Serbs want a better future for themselves, they can achieve it in cooperation with Hungarians. And may there be Hungarians in government here who know that if we want a better future for Hungarians, we can achieve it together with the Serbs. The two peoples have shared strategic interests.
How much further can this relationship be developed? Can it go beyond what it is now?
Well, we need to prosper: every single alliance is worth as much as the extent to which people feel it in their daily lives. I think that the big step forward in Vojvodina – and this is my personal experience – is that hostilities have ceased and the two communities don’t look on each other with suspicion. This in itself is good, but one could live better, start more businesses, start even bigger businesses and earn more. So I’m saying that Hungarians and Serbs in Délvidék still have fine prospects and opportunities for a good life. So now the good relations established in politics must bring as many tangible benefits as possible to both Serbs and Hungarians. This is why it’s important for us here in Budapest to clearly recognise that we must not only focus on Vojvodina, but must look at the whole of Serbia. We also need to look to the Belgrade government, and Hungarian capital should not stop at the borders of Vojvodina, but seek to establish as many Serbian-Hungarian joint ventures as possible throughout Serbia – thus jointly profiting together with Serbian businesspeople there. So we must go further south than Délvidék. This is always what is said by President Vučić, who can take very great credit for the quality of current relations. He always says that. He doesn’t say it’s a requirement, but it can be understood that way.
It’s good for him.
Yes. He says that it’s right that the horizon of Hungarians doesn’t end in Vojvodina: that they should focus not only on the territories of Hungarian communities, but also consider the whole of Serbia as a partner. Yes, Hungarian capital should go further south than Délvidék, and look for partners there as well. And I also always tell him that it’s fine that we’re there, but you should also come to us here and use Serbian capital in Hungary to create as many companies and Hungarian-Serbian joint ventures in Hungary as possible, in order to unite and interweave the life of the two regions and the life of the two peoples.
This obviously requires trust between the two peoples, between regions or between businesspeople. What role does István Pásztor, say, play in building such trust?
Trust is not general, but always applies to specific people. So you, for example, can trust that I will answer your questions honestly, and I can trust that you are asking a question because you want to know my answer. So these are always interpersonal things, and without individuals there’s no trust. We need tried and tested individuals, because trust is something that Hungarians especially are looking for – but if it is not confirmed by everyday life it will be lost. Now the Hungarian government’s experience with István Pásztor has been that he’s always kept his word, he’s fulfilled all the agreements made with him, and we’ve done the same. So we have good reason to believe that the relationship between the Hungarian government and Hungarians in Serbia will be one of trust for as long as he is the leader of the Hungarians in Vojvodina.
There are several developments underway in Vojvodina, launched with capital from the kin state. How much will this election affect the outcome of these projects? This is a general question.
Sometimes one is up, sometimes down. I always tell the Serbs that in the eighties Serbia – then it was called Yugoslavia – was up, and Hungary was down. So for us they were the West. When I got married and looked at where my wife and I could go on our honeymoon, we went to Yugoslavia. And when one travelled from Szeged to Subotica/Szabadka, one felt that one had gone to a freer world, and that Yugoslavia – its Serbian part – was more developed than Hungary. So in history things change rapidly. And my opinion of a people is always that if they’ve already got somewhere, they’ll be able to get there a second time – and a third time, if need be. The Hungarian economy is now stronger than the Serbian economy, and the figures clearly show this; but this will not always be the case, because life is not unchanging. The situation will change, and the Serbs may become even stronger than Hungary is now. Incidentally, I also wish them all the strength possible. We need a strong Serbian economy. The greater the strength of our neighbours who are cooperating with us, the better we will fare. It’s not so complicated. It’s like family life: if my next-door neighbour’s property is well-kept, my neighbour is well-off and cooperative, then my own property will also be worth more. If it’s run down, if it’s neglected, if the house has gone to the dogs and my neighbour’s a drunk…
…then you don’t feel like going out into your garden…
…and my property will be worth less. So it’s in our interest to have neighbours with the characteristics that Serbia is increasingly displaying. The competitiveness of the Serbs should not be underestimated. I don’t need to tell you this. They are a fighting people, who will perform well, and they’ll be the defining country in the Balkans – or may already be that.
We started talking about economic development and the need for a stronger economy in Serbia. Hungary is also contributing to this, as economic development has started in Vojvodina. How do you view this?
I’m happy about this because – I repeat – political relations are important. But the really lasting support for the relationship between two peoples is the relationship that emerges through everyday life. If someone is on good terms with their neighbour, if they engage in joint enterprises, if they have shared sports associations, if they go to each other’s cultural events and even to each other’s churches, then somehow life will weave a web that can give people’s lives peace, security and serenity. In economic cooperation I always see more than money: I see the true fabric of life; and the stronger we weave it, the safer and happier we will live.
In recent months the coronavirus has not only dominated public discourse, but also everyone’s thinking. And after the coronavirus pandemic we don’t know where we are now. Yet having managed to open the Hungarian-Serbian border we’ve been the first or among the first in this regard.
What’s the message of this?
Well, we were first. And I have to say that it was contrary to the demands of the European Union: it was unprecedented for a European Union Member State – Hungary – to open its border with a country outside the European Union – Serbia – before all others.
Sorry, but with a country which very many countries have still not opened up to.
That’s right! I’ve no doubt that the negotiations with President Vučić were needed for this. I went to Belgrade to discuss this issue in person, we got the guarantees we needed, we were able to give Serbia the necessary health guarantees, and so we were able to come to a rapid agreement on this issue in person. I don’t want to stray from the field of Vojvodina politics into world politics, but I remain convinced that the European Union needs Serbia more than Serbia needs to be a member of the European Union. Serbia is a key state, and the European Union isn’t complete without Serbia. And to me opening this border and the trust that the European Union can show to Serbia will also contribute to the country’s soonest possible accession to the European Union.
Let’s stay with this topic for a while. How is this seen in other parts of Europe?
Badly, with suspicion and incomprehension. We need to understand that although we think Westerners are capable of understanding everything, this isn’t quite true. Unfortunately they have less understanding of our history and our world than they ought to have. This was clearly revealed with the issue of migration, in relation to which they’re pursuing a policy which endangers themselves. I think that anyone who allows millions of members of Muslim communities into their own country doesn’t realise what they’re doing, and doesn’t know the history of Central Europe. But if they read Hungarian history, say, or something about Serbian-Hungarian cooperation during the Balkan conflict and the Ottoman Empire, they could see the serious risks involved. So I think that if Europe wants security – and now I’m not just talking about the economy, although Serbia would also contribute economically to Europe, to the European Union – it’s clear that Europe’s security cannot be guaranteed without Serbia. So Serbia is a key country.
Let’s also talk about Serbian-Hungarian developments. There are several joint Serbian-Hungarian projects, including the Belgrade-Budapest rail link, or other infrastructure developments. How are they going?
Not badly. I’m still not satisfied, so I’m not celebrating yet. This Belgrade-Budapest rail link looks good, and it’s big enough to be seen with the naked eye: it’s not about small and medium-sized businesses working together, but it’s the size of a flagship project. The Hungarian part is moving a little slower than it should be, and the Serbs are moving faster than we are. So we have to get our act together. But we should also have a couple more, because this is as much a Chinese project as it is Serbian-Hungarian project. But I’m still looking for one or two Serbian-Hungarian projects of comparable size that will clearly prove to Serbs and Hungarians that we can cooperate on major issues, and also clearly prove to the European Union that Serbia is equal to such large projects, and we need to involve them in large-scale economic projects. So let’s look for more. We’re regularly discussing this with President Vučić, for example in energy or where there are spectacular…
…they’re also cooperating on the gas pipeline…
Yes. The gas pipeline is a serious project. When that’s complete and we can hand it over, we can stop for a moment and pat each other on the back. Because five years ago there were very few people in the world who thought we would see the day when gas would flow from Serbia not only to Hungary, but to the whole of Europe, with Serbia contributing to the security of Europe’s energy supply without requiring a supply of gas from Hungary. That day is not far off, it will come soon.
Let’s return for a while to the election. On past occasions, in past campaigns, you’ve campaigned in Vojvodina. You’ve not been able to come now due to other obligations. Why couldn’t you come?
The Speaker of Parliament and the Foreign Minister have been there, and I thought that one can have too much of a good thing, and that I’d go next time.
Right. What message do you have for the Hungarians of Vojvodina a few days before the vote?
We’ve just seen the anniversary of the peace that ended World War I, and thus also the anniversary of the Trianon peace diktat. This demanded quite a lot. We were able to and wanted to think in a historical perspective, and for Hungarians experience has made it clear that we need friends and allies. And Hungarians can only feel certain that something is theirs if they can protect it. For this we must stand up for ourselves, we must choose our leaders, and we must become a worthy partner in negotiations with the Serbs. There won’t be a carefree, happy and prosperous Hungarian community in Vojvodina without Hungarian self-organisation, self-knowledge and self-respect. So stand up for yourselves. You can count on Hungary. We’ve been in government for ten years. We’re somewhat ashamed, but the truth is that before 2010 Hungary was more of a stepmother than a motherland; but for the last ten years she has behaved like a mother. And I promise Hungarians in Vojvodina that in the future they can continue to count on Hungary as their mother, as a true motherland.
And the Hungarians of Vojvodina are always somewhere in the picture. Come to think of it, economic development came from there, perhaps the idea for citizenship came from there, and I think the one millionth new Hungarian citizen was also from Gunaras/Gunaroš.
I’ve been there.
I wanted to ask what kind of experiences you had there, as we’ve seen you with the family…
I sometimes go to Vojvodina, including to the football academy, which I try to support. Eating börek in Subotica is a must. There’s a fantastic synagogue there that we renovated together with the Serbs, and I went there for a superb concert. So I like to go to Subotica/Szabadka for cultural experiences too. And I love the Hungarians of Délvidék, so in Gunaras/Gunaroš I visited a farmer with a very nice family, from tiny tots to grandparents. What one receives is good, because they return the support, the devotion and encouragement I send from here. When I go there, the people there repay me this with interest. Down there people are rather reserved, so they don’t usually express their emotions at poetic length. But when I’m there among them we all know what it’s all about, we understand each other with a few words, or even none; because dreams cannot be confined.
Prime Minister, we look forward to seeing you again. We hope you can come next time. Thank you very much for the interview.