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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “Good Morning Hungary”

Katalin Nagy: As we’ve heard in the news, the only country in Europe where the pandemic situation is improving is Norway. The situation in our immediate neighbourhood – whether we look at Austria or Croatia – is deteriorating. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Is it possible that we might need further protective measures, restrictive measures? How do you see this?

Good morning. There will be a need for them. This was the most important item on the agenda of this week’s Cabinet meeting. We’ve established direct contact with the Austrians and the Croatians, because – with all due respect to your profession – in matters like this one can’t rely on news reports alone. Furthermore, the Croatians are trying to save their tourist season, and so they’re regularly sending us documents presenting their data; but these don’t look much better than the press reports. Compared with Hungary, the situation in most countries is deteriorating. So the point we made earlier – that the importation of infection poses the greatest threat to Hungary – is not only valid, but even more valid than it was before. It’s also true that it’s summer and people are on holiday; but soon it will be over and school will start, and what’s most important for families is for schools and kindergartens to be able to start work and their operations as normal. In the first phase of the pandemic, I saw that the changeover to online teaching was a success – perhaps even more successful than we expected; but we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into believing that it has no drawbacks. Because while there are different estimates, which we’re in the process of assessing, I think that more than one in ten students have simply disappeared from the system: they didn’t join in, and they didn’t attend – or only occasionally attended – online lessons. And with online teaching, today the disparities between our children are greater than when they were together in the classroom. When school starts again in September there will probably be greater differences in levels of knowledge within classes than there were before the start of the pandemic. So creating unified work within classes will be a major professional challenge for our teachers. I think they’ll be able to manage it, but it won’t be easy for them. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t look at online teaching like the trick in the old clown’s act, in which “another one” is always pulled out: if normal teaching doesn’t work, then we can pull another one out of our pocket, and it will be just as good as the earlier one. It isn’t just as good. I don’t want to say that there isn’t enormous potential for development, and perhaps at some point in the future it will be just as good, but here and now an education system based on personal interaction is better able to serve our educational and pedagogical goals than the online solution. That’s only a backup. So we should do everything we can to avoid forms of education other than the customary ones, and to protect teaching systems based on traditional classes and school attendance. For this we must do everything we can to prevent importation of the pandemic. We’ve made all kinds of decisions on this…

Will there be border closures, or will you just say that right now citizens shouldn’t travel abroad? Could we see a situation like that in Austria, France or Spain, where people are penalised for not wearing masks in the street or wherever they’re required to?

I think that first of all we should use our own experiences as the starting point. This is the most important thing. And then we should also look at the experiences of our brothers-in-law, the Austrians. This is what we’ve done so far, and this has been a successful modus operandi. We should remind ourselves that we have good reason to trust our own experiences, as after the outbreak of the infection – let’s say during the first phase – in Hungary we managed to save the lives of tens of thousands of people. And this is not a theoretical issue, as we’ve seen that countries in Western Europe were unable to save the lives of tens of thousands of people. Here we were able to. So our defence operation has been successful. We have knowledge about how to do this well, and even if at the time we had to get our act together within just a few days, we did after all gain useful experience. So we know precisely how we did it in March, how we started it all, and what worked. When we look forward to the period beyond September, first of all we will need to build on these experiences. While the modern world is bombarding us with hundreds of thousands of pieces of information, what’s most important is for us to be able to distinguish between what’s relevant and what isn’t. Naturally, the number of infections isn’t irrelevant: it’s good to know exactly how this virus spreads, and how we managed to stop it. But the essence, the most important and deciding factor is to save lives, to prevent deaths. So what I pay most attention to is the number of deaths. It’s possible to recover from this disease – it’s certainly not pleasant and the coronavirus infection inflicts suffering on patients, but very many people have recovered from it. We must continue to take very good care of our parents, our grandparents, the elderly: the people who could fall victim to the disease, who could not only be laid low by the disease, but could be killed by it. Because the lesson learned from the first containment period is that the most vulnerable people are the elderly. We must focus all our attention on them, as well as recognise the importance of kindergartens and schools. Secondly, we must act to prevent the reintroduction of the virus. In the summer we changed over to a new system, which you allowed me to explain here on the radio: red, yellow and green [classifications for countries as travel destinations], and so on. This was good, and that was all. I think that from September this system will no longer work. There are a few days of the summer holidays left, and I advise everyone who wants to see the sea, and has the opportunity to do so, to do it now; because from 1 September…

If they really must …

… from 1 September we’ll be in a new world. I’m not saying stop altogether, but the situation will be near enough like that. From when school starts on 1 September we won’t be able to continue the border-crossing system which the Operational Group has managed throughout the summer – quite well and skilfully, I think. Restrictions will be introduced. I don’t have the ability or the desire to interfere in Hungarians’ personal lifestyle choices, customs and holiday plans; but with due caution and respect I ask everyone not to make reservations or organise travel to countries south of us from September, and not to think of themselves as holidaymakers – because that will run counter to the protection measures at the borders.

We know the figures from yesterday, with the number of active infections increasing by forty-four. If this number increases, is the healthcare system capable of caring for these patients? We know that now there are around sixty or seventy people in hospital, and luckily only six or seven of them require assisted ventilation.

When the pandemic started, suddenly everyone – myself included – became an epidemiological scientist or professor: everyone immersed themselves in it, read about it and felt they knew everything about it. Of course in the end it turned out that they knew nothing, as is often the case in science: the more you read, the more you feel how little you know. So after I’d read the first few hundred pages about the nature of the pandemic, I was in the fortunate position of having almost unlimited access to the knowledge of every smart person in Hungary: everyone I called – virologists, researchers, professors, doctors, university lecturers – was at my disposal at a moment’s notice. I’m grateful to them for this. In this sphere – in the sphere of healthcare and medical science – the culture of serving the country and the nation is extremely strong. In my view, this is one of the preconditions for a successful defence operation. They’re not only good experts but people with hearts, who know what to do and how to behave in a situation like this. At times it’s been moving to see how they’ve tried to do everything possible to save people’s lives. So all this knowledge was available. And having drawn everything together, we concluded that this uncertain situation will continue until there’s a vaccine. We now have reports about a vaccine, about vaccines. I suspected that when the first vaccine appeared, the world wouldn’t be relieved: the world we live in today is so crazy that it wouldn’t be relieved. Instead of helping those who first reach the stage of getting close to a vaccine, or claim to have already got to the point of discovering a vaccine, competitors motivated by business considerations have immediately started attacking and criticising one another. We now know that there won’t be one vaccine but two, and everyone will recommend their own. So there will be a clamour like a market or a flea market. But whatever the situation, even this uproar tells us that the world is closer to discovering a vaccine than it was a few months ago. So there’s a good chance that a vaccine of some quality and efficacy offering some degree of protection will also be widely available. Hungary has put out feelers in every direction, just as we did in the spring. There are recurring political debates about whether our procurements were expedient, whether they were from the right places, whether they were technologically advanced enough, whether the price was right, and so on. I continue to say that if we’d had to pay three times as much for ventilators and protective equipment, we’d have paid it. Because – while we mustn’t abandon common sense altogether – when it comes to the lives of Hungarians we must do everything we possibly can. And so throughout March and April we built up a formidable stock of equipment needed in the battle against the virus. We’ll be able to use this in the autumn. So everyone in Hungary can sleep sound in the knowledge that all the necessary equipment is available. Furthermore László Palkovics and Miklós Kásler have cooperated outstandingly in devising a concept focused on how to develop our own production capacities, our own industrial capabilities, so that next time we won’t need to source equipment from elsewhere, but will as far as possible be able to manufacture the necessary supplies ourselves. In the production of ventilators, for instance, with our own machines we’re technologically in the world’s vanguard, and the time will come when we ourselves will be manufacturing and servicing every single ventilator, developed here at home in Hungary. The list goes on. So what I’m saying is that while waiting for the second wave of the pandemic the country has every reason to be far calmer and more composed than we were in March.

Yet people weren’t feeling calm when the GDP data for the second quarter was released last week. You yourself predicted, as did experts, that the second quarter figures – for April, May and June – would be very poor. In a European context we’re ranked somewhere in the middle, with a 13.5 per cent fall. Will we need further economic protection measures? Do you think that the measures you’ve implemented will be enough? They’ve already begun to bear fruit, because the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has just reported that as many as a million jobs have been saved, and the measures implemented have affected around 150,000 businesses. Or will another package be needed from September onwards?

What have we done so far? The guiding principle for what we’ve done so far is the protection of jobs. This is what I’ve said here earlier, and we won’t back down on this. We won’t abandon this goal, we shall defend this fortress, summed up thus: we shall create as many jobs as are destroyed by the virus. This was a defensive plan, an economy protection plan, and this was its name. Perhaps people remember it, and those affected are still enjoying its benefits today. We introduced a debt repayment moratorium enabling hundreds of thousands of families to use their funds to stabilise their financial situation, instead of making debt repayments. Businesses have also been able to retain employees, because they’ve escaped from pressure being imposed by the banks. Then we introduced the job protection plans, and also launched development plans delivering the promise of new jobs. This is what we’ve done so far. This is what we called a defence plan, an economy protection plan. Of course national holidays are holidays; but because one must also work, yesterday we held an economic policy meeting, attended by all the relevant ministers and experts. At that meeting I made an order, so to speak. Perhaps that’s a banal word for it – after all, I wasn’t ordering a spritzer at a bar on the corner: I asked them to prepare a plan with a major impact on the national economy. But let’s say that we submitted an order to our experts, to the entire team of Hungarian economic policy experts. We tasked them with collating, with drawing together, all the recommendations for the future that have been made over the past few weeks and months in ministerial and specialist meetings. Here we’re not talking about defensive plans any more, but about triggering growth. And we tasked them with using these recommendations in drawing up – by mid-September – a logical growth plan containing dozens of specific measures. We’ve completed our defence campaign, and we’ve saved jobs: today there are more jobs than there were in January – although there still aren’t as many as there were last June, because we always have more in the summer. And while we also have more to do in defence, the new task is the drawing up of a plan for growth. We need a two-year growth plan. We’ve made thorough preparations for this, because we’ve financed future investments by using some of the money intended for the defence operation. Hungarian investors have accessed funding totalling one hundred billion forints, and in 2021 they’ll be able to launch new projects created with the aid of these funds. But what matters is that by mid-September – according to my expectations – the two-year plan for managing the fourth quarter of 2020, next year and 2022 will have been through all necessary political and governmental decision-making forums.

This is the 20 August holiday weekend. This year’s celebration of the foundation of the Hungarian state is special, as this year is also the Year of Cohesion. In your ceremonial speech yesterday you said that once more there seems to be a divergence between the values of the East and those of the West, and here in Central Europe we must identify goals that are different from those of Western Europe. In this case, how can there be unity?

I’d like to remind people of what the Speaker of the House said so compellingly in Parliament on 4 June. He said that if you look at the history of Hungarian political thought, you will see that over the past 100 to 150 years the main orientation has been towards public law. The obvious reason for this is that within the Austro-Hungarian Empire the relations formed with the Habsburgs generated continuous legal debate; and naturally after the loss of territories – after Trianon – the country had to be reconfigured, which also raised issues fundamentally related to public law. Then came the different occupations which we needed to free ourselves from; these also resulted in politics centred on public law. This is the milieu in which I grew up. In the 1980s all we thought about was how to topple the communist regime and drive out the Soviets without loss of life or the need to kill anyone if possible: to have the chance to somehow use the force of constitutional law, of public law, to drive out the Soviets, overthrow the communists and have freedom and democracy. So over the past 100 to 150 years, the main orientation of Hungarian political thought has been towards public law. But there was another 850 years in which this wasn’t the case: when fundamentally we were able to think more in terms of great political issues, rather than the details of public law. Where is Hungary? How big is Hungary? How big is its population compared with our neighbours? How big a territory are we able to inhabit? How big a territory are we able to defend? Who poses a threat to us? Do our neighbours pose a threat to us? Can we come to an accommodation with them? What are the nearest large countries, and do those large countries want to step on our throats or not? Will we be able to avoid conflict with them, or – as we did with the Turks, for example – will we have to fight them? So Hungarian politics also had a geostrategic or geopolitical dimension, as it is elegantly expressed. This aspect became less important. Today we live in times when I think it is meaningful again, and I’d like to see a return to this way of thinking. It’s plain for everyone to see that Hungary is where the conquering Magyars founded it. The Germans, the Russians and the Turks are the big boys, and our relations with them are crucial – more important than any public law issue. Another key issue for us is our relationship with our neighbours, including with the Hungarians living in our territories which were annexed. This is not a public law issue, but in many respects it’s a question of political will, intentions and strength. What’s our relationship with them like? We’ve invested ten years – and I’ve invested an enormous amount of energy – in developing relations with our neighbours. In contrast with our neighbours’ policy over the past hundred years of seeking to isolate the Hungarians, we can say that they’re ready to cooperate with us. For this they had to change; but we ourselves also had to adopt different approaches. This is why today – in the year of the one hundredth anniversary of Trianon – we can say that we’ve never enjoyed such good relations with the Serbs, with whom we can also agree on strategic issues. We’ve never had such good relations with the Slovaks. These developments over the past ten years are fantastic, and they show that those who cooperate – or want to cooperate – with the Hungarians will find a way of doing so, and indeed will benefit as a result. So now I believe there’s a chance to embark on the process of building Central Europe. Therefore Central European peoples should not now do what they’ve done over the past 100 to 150 years: they should not think about where they can find their own larger protectors against one another, running either under the wing of the Germans or the Soviets, or knocking on the Sultan’s door. Instead of that we now have a chance to combine our forces, try to cooperate, try to organise ourselves, and – whilst naturally preserving our sovereignty – somehow arrange the fantastic life opportunities Central Europe embodies in terms of knowledge, spirit, energy and economic potential. For this we must accept that we’ll need a flagship; but this time we don’t need to seek one from outside, because there’s a flagship in Central Europe – it’s called Poland. This is a country of forty million undergoing fantastic development, a country with a major army, enormous economic potential and diversified interests spanning this region. If we skilfully configure our fleet and our troops around the Polish and are able to come to an agreement with them, then Central Europe will be much better equipped to protect its interests, we’ll be richer and we’ll develop faster than if we had sought external protectors. This is the dilemma, this is what I wanted to say at the commemoration on Saint Stephen’s Day: I sought to encourage my fellow citizens that they mustn’t be afraid to think in such broad terms, because for 850 years our forebears showed courage in doing exactly that.

One more brief question at the end of the interview. As a result of our policy for the nation, today national cohesion embraces well over a million additional Hungarian citizens: those in the Hungarian Diaspora or people of Hungarian ancestry living in neighbouring areas beyond our borders. At the same time, when we talk about national cohesion, it would be good to feel it in every aspect of life. For example, recently in the field of culture a vicious attack on cohesion was launched in a blog post by [former prime minister] Ferenc Gyurcsány : he sent a message to Attila Vidnyánszky, Director of the National Theatre, telling him that if the Orbán government is removed from power, he and people like him will be declared “outlaws”. What’s your view on this?

Why are we surprised? After all, they’re communists, aren’t they? This is what they did. When they came to power in Hungary they deprived people of everything they had. They drew up lists of “kulaks”. They purged the army of Horthy’s officers. In establishing their police force, they were the ones who abolished the earlier law enforcement agency, the gendarmerie – which was well-trained, and in my view of high quality. They were the ones who suppressed the intelligentsia. They crushed intellectual freedom. So why would we think that they’ve changed? It’s a fine Christian thought, and we shouldn’t abandon the idea that anyone can change – and naturally we should hope that this might happen. But I remember a remarkable, provocative statement made some time in 1989 by my erstwhile fellow fighter Miklós Tamás Gáspár, which sounded insulting to many: he said, “Once a communist thief, always a communist thief – and never a democrat.” I didn’t say this, and it wasn’t the national side that said this: the liberals said this about the communists. Since then, of course, the liberals and the communists have formed an alliance; and today young people say – and I have a good laugh when I hear it – that a liberal is simply a communist with a college degree. So this is where we stand. This is what they’ve said, they’ve said it because they mean it, and they’d do it if they could. The question is what we say to this. We open the Good Book and read that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword”.

Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.