Katalin Nagy: This Tuesday the Hungarian prime minister was in Moscow for talks with President Putin of Russia. Of course the talks lasted a long time: at least five hours. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. What’s your assessment of the talks in Moscow? It was such a long table, we were afraid that you wouldn’t hear each other properly. Good morning.
Good morning. This meeting in Moscow did indeed have some special features. First of all, the situation itself was special. I’ve had thirteen meetings – sorry, twelve – with the Russian president, but never in such extraordinary circumstances. And this extraordinary quality wasn’t the result of Russian-Hungarian relations, because they’re fine, they are in good shape: it was because of the international situation, which – as we know from communist times – is constantly escalating. Recently it’s greatly escalated, and is still in quite a state of tension. Our aim was to conclude good agreements on Russian-Hungarian bilateral issues, which we’ve succeeded in doing, and I’ll be happy to say a few words about that if your listeners are interested. Yet the focus of international interest has primarily been on the military tension between Ukraine and Russia. Hungary isn’t a major player in world politics – such a situation is still a long way off, if it ever arrives; but we’re nevertheless members of NATO and the European Union, and so we’re part of this field of conflict. The Hungarian model for relations with Russia is completely different from the policy of most EU and NATO member states. According to the Hungarian model, we’re members of the EU, we’re members of NATO, but it’s also possible to develop very good and successful cooperation with the Russians.
Does anyone else think like this?
One or two other countries are trying to do this. For example, if you take a good look at the economic data for trade between Germany and Russia, you’ll see that love is in the air – or if not love, at least business. So in spite of bad relations, NATO tensions and sanctions, the German economy is going full speed ahead. And the Russians have built the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will allow Russian gas to be sold at a good price in Germany. Even though there are debates over whether it should be commissioned, the German intention is clear. But if you look at the French president, if you look at the French economic figures, you’ll see that they’re also striving for something like a Hungarian model – or a French model, to put it more modestly. This is working well. And when there are such problems, such tensions, coldness, such an ice age between East and West, then countries like Hungary are important, because we’re able to act as an icebreaker. Take a look at what’s going on: I’ve just been there, and I can see that the German chancellor will go there soon, and the French president will also go there soon. So I believe that if we want peace – and Hungary wants peace – and we want to reduce tensions, then we need a lot of negotiation. We’ll be negotiating with the Russians for a long time, and it’s Hungary that’s taken the first step in this direction. This is why, in all modesty, I said that this was also a peace mission. As you’ve said, the table was long: the Russian president is being well looked after. It’s not like Hungary, where the Prime Minister or the President sometimes just gets into a car, like I do, driving myself here and there, sometimes without bodyguards, visiting hospitals – even during a pandemic. In Russia the stakes are high; it’s a big military power, so during a pandemic there are special rules for the President. For example, when he receives a guest like me, he has to sit at the other end of a table that’s heaven knows how many metres long. At the press conference I said that I’d never sat at such a long table in all my life, but the distance between us was made up for by the length and depth of the meeting – which really was five hours long. It’s not easy to keep one’s wits about one for five hours, and that’s a challenge in itself: you have to concentrate and pay attention. And there were no assistants: it was just the interpreters and the two of us, so we were on our own. Nevertheless I made nine proposals, and in the end – without assistants, but after good preparation – we managed to agree on eight of them. The ninth was about the future, and we’ll deal with that later. So that was the Moscow visit. One has to do a lot of work in order to have good relations with Russia. We had bad relations with the Soviet Union. There were a number of reasons for that, which I don’t need to go into now, but that era is over; and now we’re trying to have a relationship with this new Russia that’s different from the one we had with the Soviet Union. Personally I’ve put a lot of work into this: thirteen years of work. And I see that it’s having an effect.
Eight out of nine seems a pretty good ratio. In a nutshell, what are they?
First of all, in order to be able to make proposals for cooperation with a country like Russia, you have to have some authority; and Hungary has authority. Although Hungarian radio listeners will more often be exposed to criticisms aimed at Hungary, the very fact that it’s thought to be worthwhile and important to criticise Hungary shows that our country has weight and authority. We shouldn’t get carried away: we need to keep in mind our country’s size, the performance of its economy, and the size of its army, as these are the truly immovable factors in any arena of international politics. But Hungary has authority because it has its own independent policy approach. Hungarian interests exist in the world, and this is particularly true in the economic sphere. Now everyone wants to bring investment, money and factories here. Under left-wing governments, the aim is always to take from us: they come here, buy our markets or our most important strategic companies, and take the profits out of the country. But that’s not the case today. Everyone wants to invest here, and they’re looking for cooperation; the biggest economies in the world are looking for cooperation with Hungary. For the last twelve years I’ve been working to gather friends for Hungary, and not enemies. And this has paid off, it’s created authority, and on certain issues we’ve even stood firm against Brussels: reductions in household utility bills, immigration and “gender” issues. These generate debate, but they also give Hungary authority, because there aren’t many who dare to stand up for their own citizens as consistently as Hungary stands up for the Hungarian people. Of course in terms of agreements the most important issue is energy. We’re working on breaking Hungary’s energy dependence. This is a big commitment, and I haven’t renounced it, but it will take time to achieve. Paks II [nuclear power plant expansion] was also one of the subjects in our talks. When its construction is complete, and our parallel solar power plant development programme – which is well on track – is realised, then by 2030 we’ll have reached the point at which no more than around 10 per cent of Hungary’s energy production for its operating needs will emit pollutants: the rest will no longer be from fossil sources. This could put us in first place in Europe. We’ll see what the situation is when we get there in 2030, but that’s a possibility. Although this may be mocked by the fine members of the Left, I always say that Hungary is already a climate champion. This is because the extent of the reduction in our emissions speaks for itself: we’re in the front rank; and if we go ahead with our plans, in ten years’ time we’ll be in first place. So Hungary is aiming for the title of climate champions; and we want to be climate champions without allowing the price of energy to rise. All this will happen in 2030, when we’ll be in the lead, but until then we have to keep the Hungarian energy system operating somehow. And the only way we can do that is with Russian gas. We have no raw materials of our own. We have some extractive capacity, exclusively gas, but it’s not enough. Due to geographical conditions, gas from other sources can only come in limited quantities. So-called LNG gas comes from America or Qatar to Croatian ports by ship, and we buy it, but the quantity is nowhere near what we need.
And it’s expensive, isn’t it?
How shall I put it? It varies, but it’s always more expensive than Russian gas, because the Russians didn’t start out in this business yesterday: they make sure that the gas coming from Russia is always cheaper than any alternative source for Europe.
But is it worth their while to supply us with up to a billion cubic metres more?
The situation now is that…
Are they also selling this cheaper?
…back in the autumn, we made a tactical move that should be written into the textbooks. Foreign Minister Szijjártó made an agreement with the Russians for them to supply 4.5 billion cubic metres of gas a year for fifteen years – what’s more, on a route that now bypasses Ukraine. So whatever happens in Ukraine, Hungary will still have gas; and now we’ve proposed an increase in this of one billion cubic metres. We’ve almost reached an agreement, but the Foreign Minister still has one or two laps to run. People aren’t really aware of this, because it’s more of a political trade secret, but when I first sat down with Péter Szijjártó a year and a half ago to discuss the idea of a new contract to replace the long-term Russian-Hungarian gas supply contract that was due to expire, he called the experts together. With one or two exceptions, everyone said that there was no need for such a contract. So, a year and a half ago, the international consensus was that there would be enough gas, and there was no need to conclude a long-term fixed-price contract, because supply would be high enough to make it possible to buy it cheaper on the market.
That’s not what we’re seeing now.
And when we asked them, most of them said that we didn’t need to enter into another fifteen-year contract. But then the Foreign Minister and I assessed the situation, and we saw that the argument was weak: it may have looked that way then, but the opposite could be true later. Back then the opposite couldn’t be ruled out. This is the situation we see now. If we didn’t have a long-term contract, we’d be like the West, where there’s no gas – or at least they’re using the last third of their stock, and sooner or later it will run out. So Western Europe is suffering from not having a long-term contract with Russia, not being able to buy enough gas and running out of reserves. It may get away with it this winter, but next winter will be a close call. In Hungary, on the other hand, 4.5 to 5.5 billion cubic metres of gas are guaranteed to flow in, it will be here and it can be used – whatever the future throws at us. And this is why we can continue to count on reductions in utility bills, which can be protected in this way. The reason I can tell the electorate that we can maintain the cuts in utility bills – even though the Left opposes them – is that there’s an economic basis for them: the long-term supply of Russian gas. If there’s Russian gas, there are reductions in utility bills.
Just briefly, have you agreed that the [Russian] Sputnik vaccine can be produced in Hungary?
We’re close to it, and both sides want it. It’s not a simple matter from a legal point of view. The prerequisite is that Minister [for Innovation and Technology] Palkovics can implement the Government’s decision, and that the first module, the first site of our vaccine factory in Debrecen, can start operating by the end of the year. The experience of the virus crisis has shown us that we need a factory capable of producing vaccines to be used in Hungary, and we’re building such a factory in Debrecen. I’m not only talking about the coronavirus; we also import a lot of the vaccines that we give to our children, and it would be better if we had security of supply and we could produce those vaccines in our own factory. This factory will be like that, and it will be able to produce them. And since we’re constructing it like a Lego set, we can always add new elements to it in order to meet changing market needs. And we see that around the world in the coming years there will be high demand for both Sputnik and Sputnik Light. Even today the demand is higher than the amount that the Russians are able to produce, and they’re looking for more production locations. And the Hungarian factory will be here, so if the situation continues like this and the Russians need this kind of help, then we can produce Sputnik here together with the Russians and sell it around the world. And we’ll continue to give Hungarians the opportunity to choose from a wide range of vaccines. The unique situation in Hungary is that, if they want to be vaccinated, Hungarians can choose from five, six or seven different vaccines. I think this is a great achievement, and I’d like to see it continue in the future.
When it’s made available, will Hungary be able to get deliveries of the Pfizer antiviral drug?
We’ll always be able to get it, because it can be purchased. The Americans are quite good at this: if there’s a gap in the market, they can build up capacity in no time and fill that gap. So I think we’ll be able to buy it. If Pfizer wants to manufacture vaccines in new locations in addition to its current factories we’ll also be able to manufacture them, but we don’t know about that yet. What we do know is that the European Union – quite rightly – would like to see European manufacturing capacity that, in a crisis like the one we’re in, would allow all the demand to be met by manufacturing within Europe. This is why they’re now looking at factories that can be included and integrated into a pan-European manufacturing network. A French person is in charge of organising this, we’ve applied to be involved in it, and we’ve proposed that Debrecen should be included in this manufacturing network.
As you’ve mentioned, the issue of energy security and maintenance of reductions in household utility bills are conditional on there being enough gas, because that’s the basis of Hungary’s sovereignty. This sovereignty could be threatened by the expected European Court of Justice ruling due in mid-February. Unfortunately the omens aren’t good, as the President of the Court – under pressure from the Brussels elite – has recommended that the Court should decide that, when it comes to the disbursement of money, “rule of law” considerations can be taken into account. How far do you see this extension of powers advancing in the institutions of the European Union?
As far as we allow it to. If the Member States tolerate it, it will be taken to the extreme. So let’s be under no illusions: there’s a layer of bureaucrats in Brussels – we’re talking about a great many people here, people with a great deal of influence – who in their minds have an image of Europe that most resembles the Holy Roman Empire. So they think in terms of a European empire. This isn’t a historical interview, but Europe has two traditions. It has a nation-state tradition; because when the Roman Empire collapsed, it was transformed by different tribes, differences were created, and from these differences national characters developed. And there’s another tradition which constantly strives for European unity within some kind of imperial framework, from the Holy Roman Empire to Napoleon, to give you examples – quite apart from the even worse memories we have of past German attempts. And it’s always been in the interest of us Hungarians for Europe not to organise itself as an empire. If it organises itself as an empire, then Hungarian independence will always be eroded and ruptured, and that will lead to problems. So for us the right concept is a Europe of nations. But Brussels takes a different view: it wants an empire, it wants to build a Brussels-style European empire which it calls “liberal democrat”. In order to do this it needs to take rights – as many rights as possible – away from the Member States. This is what it’s doing. There is a Founding Treaty which makes it clear which decisions we take together in Brussels and which fall within the exclusive remit of the nations; but through amendment by stealth – through court rulings, for example – national rights are constantly being shovelled into the territory of Brussels. I’ll give you an example. Now there’s a financial dispute over whether or not money can come to Hungary from the reconstruction fund. All of a sudden the Commission, which is at the heart of the empire-building project, says: “Of course, just amend your law on family rights and amend your education law, let LGBTQ activists into the schools, and don’t say that parents have the exclusive right to raise their children, including with regard to sex education; because if you continue with all that, if you don’t amend those laws, you won’t get any money.” The question now is whether Brussels has the opportunity to do this, whether it should be allowed to conduct this kind of blackmail. We don’t think it should. What they’re trying to do now is to use a court ruling to take away the rights of Hungarian parents, and transfer them to the Brussels bureaucrats. So we’re facing a difficult judgment – there’s no doubt about that. If a judge in Hungary were to announce in advance what decision he or she was going to make in an ongoing case, a jihad in the name of the rule of law would immediately be launched, and we’d immediately be attacked. But I don’t think that those aspects of the rule of law are important in Brussels. Over there, the judge gives interviews in which he talks in advance about the ruling that will be made in an ongoing case. And, as you’ve said, we know from this that it won’t be favourable to us. But this practice also harms the interests of other Member States, in addition to Hungary and Poland. So we have to work to keep Europe a free Europe, more Member States have to stand up and be counted, and we have to say that we won’t allow our national rights to be continuously eroded and smuggled into the imperial centre in Brussels. We’re fighting this battle with varying degrees of success. I count myself among the optimists. There have been better times, but there have been high tides and low tides. Now things are at a low ebb, they’re advancing against us with great force, and the Hungarian election is obviously a factor in this. They want Hungary to have a servile government: the kind of government which – as the Left says – would be the jackpot for Brussels. The Hungarian left openly says that their victory would be the jackpot for Brussels; we don’t want the jackpot to be won by Brussels, however, but by the Hungarian people. And for that we need the continuation of this national, Christian government which stands up for national interests.
Speaking of the election, there’s been a series of documents in the press in which, for example, the former director of the Open Society Foundation and a left-wing journalist who used to work for [the Hungarian website] Index have spoken about how NGOs determine who one Western journalist or another talks to when they want to write about Hungary. The situation is all the more difficult because they don’t understand Hungarian, they don’t speak Hungarian, they don’t read Hungarian; so they believe what they’re told. And in this way a distorted picture of Hungary is created in the Western media. We already suspected that this was how things happened, but now a left-wing journalist – and even the former director of the Open Society Foundation – have confirmed it. What’s your opinion on this?
From time to time they blurt out this and that, and sharp-witted people like us can piece together the disjointed sentences and see what’s going on. We understand it, we know what it’s about, but this doesn’t make much difference. Of course it annoys people, especially the average Hungarian citizen who works not eight hours a day but twelve, and whose work is successfully pulling the entire national economy out of trouble. Hungary really is a success story. We’re increasing the minimum wage by around 20 per cent this year. And as a historic recompense, we’re giving back to pensioners the thirteenth month’s pension that left-wing governments took away from them under Ferenc Gyurcsány’s premiership; we’re giving it back, even though today’s Left say that we shouldn’t. So there are things happening here that every Hungarian can be proud of. There’s the fact that people under 25 won’t pay income tax. Now in February young people will receive their first such salary, as part of a scheme which exists nowhere else in Europe, apart from Poland. So there are quite a few… Our family support system is unrivalled in Europe. So we have things to be proud of, and we are proud of them. The average Hungarian sees that things are moving forward. Of course nothing is ever perfect, everything could be done better. Of course governance can be better, and we’re not yet the best-governed country in the world. So everything can be done better, but on the whole everyone in Hungary can take at least one step forward every year. At a time like this – at a time of crisis, of mass population movement and global pandemic – this is a great achievement, and we want to be proud of it. And rightly so. Meanwhile all kinds of journalists come along, and, referring to their Hungarian pals, write all kinds of balderdash and varieties of fake news. And this annoys people. In this regard what they write about us matters, but it has no political significance. Because at the table – at the long table, and at the big round table in Brussels – that’s not what counts. It’s the facts that matter: how the Hungarian economy is performing, how we’re operating, how successful we are compared to others, and what results we can show. Those are the things that count – and our rights, that we stand up for these rights. What counts is that Hungary is a country that can’t be brushed aside, and that in joint decisions Hungarian interests can’t be ignored – just as Polish interests can’t be ignored. It’s possible to argue, it’s possible to attack, but it’s not possible to ignore and overlook the Poles and us. And in the end that’s what counts.
Yes, but now that we’re talking about the election, they’re not just arguing, but also attacking with repeated accusations. Every day they’re making accusations about things that they themselves are guilty of. But of course for a very long time, for more than a hundred years, the Left have been accusing their opponents of what they themselves are doing. Just one example: on a daily basis the opposition candidate for prime minister says that the Hungarian government is a thief stealing people’s money, while he doesn’t publicly reveal where he got 50 million forints to promote his own programme on social media. And, when prompted to reveal it, he says that it’s in the form of micro-donations; and so we’re left to decide whether or not we should believe this.
Yes, there are one or two things worth noting about the more serious part of this, which isn’t about the person but about the country. The first is that everyone can see that the country is being built, national wealth is growing, and that we’re achieving things that weren’t even being talked about earlier. For example, we can give back the tax paid by families with children, who have been particularly hard hit by the crisis. That money hasn’t been stolen: we’re giving it back. Things are being built. If what the Left is accusing the Government of were true, we wouldn’t be seeing these things happening before our eyes. When we ask people in surveys whether their personal lives have become easier or better in recent years, we get a huge positive response of 60 to 70 per cent. Indeed when it comes to prospects for the future in their personal lives, the results are the same. These indicators are themselves a refutation of what the Left says. For a country that’s developing so successfully and spectacularly, I think that these allegations, criticisms of corruption, theft and so on can’t be taken seriously. Of course there are always problems, and the prosecution service and the police must be alert to them. But Hungary’s moving forward, and countries that suffer from corruption don’t usually move forward, but backwards – like in Gyurcsány’s time, in the Gyurcsány era; because the most corrupt government in Hungary’s history was the left-wing government of the Gyurcsány-Bajnai era. On the other hand, as far as coarseness is concerned, the question of whether we should talk to each other like this always reminds me of what József Antall said in Parliament in the early 1990s: he said that in Hungarian politics the tradition is that if one person says that another is a villain, this simply means that he disagrees with him. This is our political culture…
We’ve just one minute left. The pandemic has been left almost to the end of our discussion, even though for the last two years we’ve more or less always started with it.
Yes, but perhaps it’s also symbolic for you to leave it until the end, because everyone feels the anxiety and great fear beginning to evaporate from the pandemic. We must be sensible, and I wouldn’t suggest uncorking the champagne, because the Omicron variant is still here. It’s true that it’s not causing as much trouble as the previous variants, but it is causing trouble. Vaccination is still important, but we have the vaccine and the virus is getting weaker. So overall this somehow makes the situation more bearable for people. This is why we’ve been able to extend the deadline for the immunity certificate until 1 May. Previously we thought that we’d only allow the immunity card to be used by those who have had their third vaccination. But as we see the situation, and as I see the international developments, with restrictions everywhere being lifted, this tighter restriction is not now justified. So we can keep the immunity card conditional on two vaccinations until 1 May.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.