On Thursday Viktor Orbán was at the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. There in Beregsurány, responding to a journalist’s question, he said that the key to solving the Russian-Ukrainian war is not in Hungary’s hands, but over there across the border, and all we can do is help those in need. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has arrived in the studio. Good morning.
In the course of eight days 140,000 people have arrived at Hungary’s border crossings. How do you see the Government’s role in this situation?
And more will come. What we’re seeing now is the beginning of a crisis, the beginning of this crisis. I’ve met refugees who have fled to Hungary, and I’ve spoken to many of them. Most of them are coming from the interior of Ukraine. Of course there are also Transcarpathian Hungarians and Transcarpathian Ukrainians. We know them well, because they are our own, they’re in an area neighbouring us. But very many people – more and more, both Ukrainians and citizens of third countries – are coming from the interior of Ukraine. Yesterday I met refugees who I think were students at the University of Kharkiv. I met Chinese people, Nigerians and Indians – and not two or three, but many of them. I’ll also be talking to the Prime Minister of India this afternoon, because we have an agreement with the countries concerned on bringing their students to Hungary. We’ll take them to Budapest, and from there they’ll fly home: so Indians to India, Nigerians to Nigeria, Chinese people to China. And then, if they want to come back later as students, they can come back to Hungary; but for now they’ll be going home. So the ones we see who aren’t Ukrainians or Hungarians aren’t staying in Hungary, but are going home. This is what we’re helping them to do. In short, I can say that at the moment Hungary is a refuge for these people: for Hungarians, for Ukrainians, and for third-country nationals. The Hungarian government has a great deal to do. There are the tasks related to national security, border defence, anticipating military developments, and preparing for them. Although many people are coming from far inside Ukraine, they’re also coming from the territory neighbouring us, which is Transcarpathia. And let’s not forget that not a single shell or rocket has hit Transcarpathia, so currently it’s not a theatre of operations. At the moment this is a very great advantage, because if it were to become the scene of conflict, the number of people coming from there would suddenly increase many times over. So we have national security tasks, and we have humanitarian tasks. We have to arrange the immediate future of the refugees coming here. It’s a little early to talk about statistics, but I look at data from the police, the disaster relief services and the immigration authorities, and I see that 70 to 80 per cent of the people coming here move on somewhere else. I’ve met many families who are being picked up by friends coming here for them from Poland, the Czech Republic or Austria. There are some with contacts in Hungary who are taking them from the border. At the moment we don’t need to worry about those people. There are others from third countries, who will be flown home. But then there are people who will stay here after the others have gone, who don’t just need to be given accommodation and food for a day, but who have nowhere to go, and will be with us for a while. And they need to be given accommodation, they need to be housed, and they need to be fed. Their children will need to go to school – not now, but in a month or two. The Ministry of Health has a very important task, because many of the people who are arriving haven’t been vaccinated, and need to be. We need to check what illnesses they have or don’t have, and they need to be treated immediately before they’re allowed to move on to other parts of the country. So all the state agencies need to work hard. But behind all this there’s the country and the many volunteers – whom I’ve also been meeting. Thank you for your work, we salute you! Many people are coming here from all over the country, not only sending help, but also coming as volunteers. I’ve even met volunteers from my own village who have come to help for a few hours or a few days. In fact they’re the supporting buttress behind the state organisations; because the state organisations do the work, but you also need humanity, and humanity can be provided by civil society organisations – especially church organisations, which are doing excellent work.
Are employers cooperating when people are looking for work? Are they getting information – perhaps at the help points – on what direction to take?
Well, we’ve also started negotiations with employers, so that those who are forced to stay with us for a shorter or longer period of time, depending on what the situation is at the end of the war, can find work while they’re here with us. We can offer those coming here the same benefits that we offer Hungarians: we can cover their expenses for three months. We give unemployed Hungarians benefits for three months, but after that period they either have to enter the labour market or sign on to a public works scheme. The same will be offered to foreigners coming here. So we’re taking everyone in, and treating them just as we treat ourselves. Naturally we’ll help them at the outset with accommodation and food, but after a while those who don’t move on but stay here will have to somehow occupy a place in our lives.
Have the European Commission and the institutions of the European Union indicated that they’re ready to contribute to the costs of the countries that are taking people in and helping refugees? There are many refugees in Poland, too. So far Hungary has taken in the second highest number of people.
Well, you can always rely on Brussels when it comes to talking. When it comes to taking action, then you can rely on the nation states. God knows what they’re doing in Brussels, what they’re waiting for, and when they’ll give money to anybody. If we were to wait for that, a serious situation would develop at the Hungarian border. We’re not waiting for anyone, especially not for them. This is a matter for us, this is our problem, which we must solve. And Hungary will solve it. If in the meantime they have the grace to wake up and give us some money, then we’ll be grateful. But we’ve been defending our southern border for years, and they haven’t given us a penny for the fence: they haven’t given Hungary a penny to deal with the migration pressure it’s facing. So it’s best to leave this, and say that we’ll take care of these problems.
Yes, but if humanitarian corridors are opened – as the warring sides agreed last night – it will mean that members of the civilian population will set out in larger numbers. These are people who have long wanted to leave, because clearly they can’t bear this war and are understandably afraid. Will we be able to receive them?
Of course! This is also what I always said before the war: it’s in our interest for there to be peace. We have a vested interest in the soonest possible negotiated settlement of this dispute – which on the one hand is about the neutrality of Ukraine, and on the other about the security guarantees demanded by the Russians. Because if it’s not settled through talks, then that leads to conflict. This conflict has already erupted, and it’s not just a conflict, but a real war. As we neighbour Ukraine, in this war we’re among those who stand to lose the most – after the Ukrainians themselves. This is because refugees will come here in very large numbers, and this will put pressure on our countries’ budgets: the budgets of the Poles, the Slovaks, the Hungarians and the Romanians. Sanctions will be introduced, and that’s happening now. It’s usually the neighbours that are the first to pay the price for sanctions. In this, too, we must have our wits about us. It’s no accident that Hungary has been pro-peace for all these years. Already after the war in Crimea we said that the Minsk agreements needed to be implemented as soon as possible, and that if they weren’t implemented the wound would become infected, in the end leading us into an even greater conflict. That’s where we’ve arrived at now. But it’s not Hungary’s task to deal with the great affairs of world politics. This hasn’t been cut to our measurements: the coat is too big for us. We’re able to help the big countries take a step or two forward when they stall from time to time. In the past few years we’ve tried, and we’ve done everything possible. This is what we’ve managed to do. With a large number of refugees, there’s no denying that the burden will be on the V4. So we must combine forces with the Poles, the Czechs and the Slovaks, and we must develop a joint V4 refugee policy. I think this will be more effective than waiting for Brussels.
You’ve already mentioned the Government’s national security tasks. In this context, one recalls that in 2016 Hungary launched a major – and much-criticised – developmental reform of our defence forces. It was ridiculed and declared to be unnecessary. Now it seems that in this regard Germany has suddenly woken up, with war in our immediate neighbourhood in Europe indicating that we really must pay attention to this. This confirms that the development of the Hungarian defence forces really has been worthwhile.
This German question could occupy all of the remaining time in our interview. So let me just say that something of great significance has happened over there. I think your listeners – or many of them – aren’t aware that this seemingly technical German announcement will redefine our future. We’ll be living in a different Europe. In a few years’ time all your listeners will see this, because what’s happening now is the rearming of Germany – something which has been banned up until now. Because of Germany’s role in World War II, since the war the German army has always been smaller than what was possible in terms of the German economy, and has always been smaller than what was necessary for Europe’s security. On the European continent the shortfall in German defence forces was made up for by the Americans. But there will be a new situation if Germany is rearmed. I won’t say any more on that now, if you don’t mind. Now, as regards the development of the Hungarian defence forces, a weak person will never get peace. If you want peace, you must have some strength. Your strength can come from two sources: your own strength and the strength of your allies. If you don’t have your own strength, you won’t have allies, because no one will risk their life and sacrifice their money to defend you if you’re not prepared to defend yourself. So anyone who says that NATO will defend us is wrong. NATO will defend us if we’re prepared to defend ourselves. This is why, a few years ago, we had to launch the development of our defence forces. Hungary is a Hungarian country, which means that there’s always debate about everything – even about things that shouldn’t be debated. So there was debate about this. But on this one needs to be firm, one needs to be rock-solid; because if one doesn’t start preparing in time for such a conflict, one won’t be able to make up for lost time later. The years that have been lost cannot be made up for later, because developing a military industry, developing an army, establishing its place in the mentality of a country doesn’t just take a year or two, but many long years. We started on time. It would have been better to start sooner, but everyone will remember that in 2010 people were drowning in foreign currency debt and there was huge unemployment; the country was broke, and we couldn’t solve everything at once. Pensions were low, wages were low, and the thirteenth month’s pension had been taken away. Before the rearmament or the reorganisation of the Hungarian army, many things needed to be done in order to make everyday life bearable for the people, and for everyone to finally have a job and a way forward. So we implemented a timetable. Rebuilding the army wasn’t the most important thing; the most important tasks were foreign currency debtors, pensions, salaries, families, birth rates, the family home creation allowance and reductions in household utility bills. Then, of course, migration came along and took another year or two out of our lives. But then, as soon as we were able to catch our breath, we started to develop our armed forces. We were subjected to heavy bombardment by the Opposition or the Left, but nonetheless we kept going, and we got somewhere – although we’re not yet fully prepared. A war or conflict in the neighbourhood is never welcome, but if it had come a few years later, we’d be more prepared than we are now. But we don’t look as bad now as we looked ten years ago. So now we’re strong enough to say that together with our allies we can guarantee Hungary’s security. Our security is as solid as concrete, so Hungary cannot come to harm. The only thing that could go wrong would be if we lost our senses and were drawn into this war; in that event there would be trouble. No kind of NATO would be able to protect us from our own folly and imbecility.
That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you about. On the first day you said that Hungary should stay out of this conflict. Then, on the second or third day, you said that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be drawn into this war. When one hears these two statements, there’s an intensification. Were you thinking of the experiences of the 20th century, or were you thinking of the Opposition making reckless statements?
Both. It’s no accident that I advise everyone involved in public life today to adopt what we call “strategic calm”. Well, we’re in a very difficult situation. We’re in a difficult situation politically, because there’s a war in a neighbouring country. There could be all sorts of outcomes, all sorts of possibilities could become reality in the future, and we need to think about them now. But we’re also in a very difficult situation emotionally: hundreds or thousands of people are dying every day, and people will continue to die for as long as the war lasts. So everyone’s feeling extremely upset, because people are moved, and everything that’s happening is heart-rending. One can argue about geopolitics and security, and I understand the arguments of the opposing sides; but underlying – or above – these arguments is the fact that people are dying. So in such a tense situation it’s easy to make mistakes. This is why I call for calm, for strategic calm. So one mustn’t make any rapid, hasty decisions without due consideration and deliberation, because that will lead to trouble. As I see it, the Left is on the side of war, even if they don’t know it; because what they say and what they want would drag us into war. Sending troops means being part of a war. Sending weapons means that whoever we supply may be happy; but whoever they use those weapons against will be our enemy for God knows how many years to come. Transporting weapons across Hungary towards, say, Transcarpathia, would turn a convoy passing through Transcarpathia into a military target in a place not yet affected by the war. This would mean that we’d have taken it there, we’d have provoked war in that area. We must be vigilant, we mustn’t talk nonsense, we mustn’t make nonsensical proposals, and we mustn’t try to please our Western friends with this or that statement. This isn’t the time for that. This is the time to stand up for Hungary’s interests. This isn’t the time to look at this conflict through American eyes, or through French or German eyes, but through Hungarian eyes. And from a Hungarian perspective, the most important thing in this conflict is the peace and security of the Hungarian people. To do this, we must stay out of the war, and therefore we must be able to resist the proposals or initiatives of the Left which would draw or push us into war: we must either ignore them or firmly oppose them.
Yes, the Left may just want to line up behind the progressive West, and – as you said – please their friends in the West. But at the same time there’s a campaign, and we’re having an election in a month’s time. And the strategy of the Opposition – time will tell whether this is right or wrong – is always to say the opposite of what the Government says. But perhaps they shouldn’t say things like claiming that a Hungarian plane carrying weapons to Ukraine has taken off, when in fact it’s a NATO military plane.
Something even more serious has happened. What has shocked me the most – so much that at first I couldn’t believe my ears – was the Left’s statement that the Hungarians in Transcarpathia are pro-Russian. This is a denunciation! And it’s not just any denunciation, but a denunciation of Hungarians in a time of war. Hungarians have had problems in Transcarpathia before. Now there’s a war, and we’re not bringing up those problems, we’re not rehashing them. The Ukrainians are fighting for their lives, and we’re not bringing up the grievances we have or haven’t suffered in the past, because that’s not possible now. We’re a consequential and intelligent country: we know when to talk, what to talk about, with what emphasis and how to talk. Now isn’t the time. But we still know that Hungarians in Transcarpathia have always had problems. And we also know that there are Ukrainian groups that have always been suspicious of Hungarians. Now, when a politician from Hungary says to the Ukrainians in Transcarpathia that the Hungarians who live near you are in fact pro-Russian, he’s putting those Hungarians in the most immediate danger. So sometimes one is at a loss for words, feeling astonishment at the stratospheric heights of irresponsibility that the Left can ascend to. So, as a matter of urgency, these things must stop. I understand that there’s a campaign and an election, but the point of the campaign is that at the end of it Hungary has a good government. But for that we need a country and people who can be governed. If we plunge the country into war, the election campaign won’t have achieved the goal of electing a good government for the benefit of the country, but will have destroyed the country’s hard-earned prospects. This is true in politics, and it’s true in the economy. So I’ve mapped out a very clear direction for the Government : when there’s a war during the election campaign, the first criterion for judging the situation is never the campaign, but always the national interest and the security of the Hungarian people. So this must be kept in mind. Then there will be an election, and the Hungarians are clever enough to arrange matters on 3 April as they see fit. That’s not the most important thing today. The most important thing is peace, security and staying out of this war.
Protecting the economy is very important, just as it was important and a priority during the pandemic. [Finance Minister] Mihály Varga has said that the Government is working on trying to somehow offset the economic consequences of the war. When will we know more details about this?
As the English say: in the fullness of time. But the facts are the following. There are immediate dangers and there are medium-term dangers. What are the immediate dangers? The immediate danger is that the West has decided to impose sanctions. We’ve always had an opinion on the usefulness or otherwise of a sanctions policy, but in war the most important thing is unity. So we haven’t tried to flaunt our wisdom by reiterating that the sanctions introduced during the Crimean crisis, for example, had the opposite effect, leading to this war now. We introduced sanctions against the Russians during the war in the Crimea, but this didn’t weaken them visibly, and had precisely the opposite effect. But that doesn’t matter now, because the West has decided to impose sanctions, and we’re part of the West. And since unity is important, we’ll live with this situation. But sanctions come at a price, because they’re a double-edged sword, and we’ll pay for them in the short term. The first thing that the Government has to work on is to try to mitigate the damage that’s directly caused by the sanctions. Once that’s done, it then needs to work on dealing with the difficulties of the economies that have been devastated by sanctions in the medium term. Right now, the immediate difficulty is Sberbank. It’s failed in Austria and it’s failed in Hungary. Companies and individuals have lost their money, it’s disappeared. Of course the Deposit Guarantee Fund will cover the deposits of private individuals up to a certain amount, but overall, depositors – especially companies – won’t get back a large part of their money. And obviously this hurts these companies, but it also hurts the Hungarian economy, because these are large sums of money and these are companies that contribute to the functioning of the Hungarian economy. The money that has now gone will be missed by the Hungarian economy, by investment, by development and by the workforce. The second immediate threat that we have to watch out for is the rise in energy prices: due to the sanctions, suddenly there’s a 50 to 60 per cent rise in energy prices across the whole of Europe. This is also the case in Hungary. We have to protect families by reducing bills, and also we have to protect them now. This costs money, and the Minister of Finance has to provide it. Our third problem is that the rise in energy prices accounts for 50 per cent of inflation in Europe: the devaluation of money and the rise in prices. Europe was struggling with high inflation anyway; but now the sanctions mean that this challenge, this danger, the danger of inflation, of high inflation, has increased by orders of magnitude. We also need to find a way to protect against that. Here, the Government is working with the Central Bank to find a way to do that. These are the immediate dangers. And then there are the medium-term dangers: that the performance of the whole European economy will be lower than everyone thought, and lower than it would have been without war, as it would have been higher without war than it will be with war. It follows from this that everything has to be recalculated: revenues, expenditure, plans and investments throughout Europe. And we’re part of this European economy, so we’ll have to do the same. But we don’t see that now, because its extent and the size and scope of the government instruments needed to remedy it will depend on when the war ends. What is certain is that the sooner the war ends, the fewer problems we’ll have. The longer the war drags on, the more trouble we’ll have to deal with. So it’s right for Hungary to be pro-peace: it’s right from a general human viewpoint, and it’s right from the viewpoint of Hungarian national interests. Of course, the Germans and the French – and the Irish there on their island in the sea – must also be suffering; but it’s those who are close to the war zone who suffer most. These are the Baltic states, the Poles, the Slovaks, the Hungarians and the Romanians. We’re suffering, and we’re suffering most – from both the war and the sanctions.
Yesterday, at the government briefing, we were pleased to hear that the Government has abolished most of the restrictive measures related to the pandemic. The mask mandate will end – although anyone who wants to wear one on public transport should feel free to do so.
Nothing is banned. I can tell you that we’ve conquered the fifth wave. If only we could deal with the war like that. The virus attacked Hungary in five big waves. Every time we managed to force it down, but it always rose up again. And now that we’ve laid it low for the fifth time, the experts – observing the measures taken by Western European countries – have said that we can afford to come out of the pandemic measures and life can return to normal. Except suddenly this isn’t normal, it’s war. But anyway, we’ll somehow return to the health conditions that existed before the pandemic. Everyone – all our experts, advisers, scientists and professors – is on the lookout to see if there will be a sixth wave, so that we can react at the first sign of it. For the time being the situation is rather encouraging, and it’s possible that the fifth wave was the last. But today no one can give any guarantees. We’ve certainly won a victory in this stage, and we can celebrate that. We’ve defeated the virus in the fifth wave as well.
As you see it, after this current crisis has come to an end, unfortunately the difficulties caused by the energy crisis and the war will present further challenges in the future
We won’t lack things to do. The Hungarian government won’t lack things to do in the coming weeks, or even in the coming years.
Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.