Zsolt Törőcsik: Despite the sanctions imposed on Russia, in recent days and weeks the conflict has deteriorated further. Both sides – the Russians and the Ukrainians – have intensified fighting on various fronts. Meanwhile inflation is hitting record highs across Europe, and there are already reports from many countries that ever more businesses will need to be bailed out in order to continue operating. Our guest in the studio is Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Good morning.
Well, one of the basic principles of Western policy recently has been to demand ever more sanctions against Russia in order to end the war. And it’s become an equally basic principle for ever more weapons to be sent to Ukraine, thereby prolonging the war. How are these two things compatible with each other?
In our minds they aren’t. In such a situation you have to stand on one foot or the other, and you have to decide what you want. Some people talk about winning the war. Others – including Hungary – talk about the need for an immediate ceasefire and then peace negotiations. I’ve been to Berlin, where this question has been raised several times – particularly the fact that we’re a freedom-fighting nation that took part in a war against the Soviet Union’s occupying troops in 1956; and it’s often asked why such a warlike, freedom-fighting nation is now on the side of peace. And I always remind them that Hungary doesn’t need to be told about the brutality of the Soviet army in the East, and about what it must be like to fight the Russians now. Because if you go out – now, 23 October is coming up – to Plot 301 [where victims of the reprisals after the 1956 Revolution are buried], you’ll realise what it was like; and you can even say that our Zelenskyy – the Hungarian prime minister at that time – was later executed. So we know what brutality is and what war is. But if you think about it, we didn’t fight in 1956 because we thought we were going to defeat the Soviet Union: we committed ourselves to a revolution and a fight for freedom in order to force a ceasefire and a peace agreement. We thought that a peace agreement – which was the armed resistance’s ultimate goal – could be reached, in which the Russians could agree with the West that we would be neutral, like Austria. So we hoped to achieve our freedom, the final act, in a peace negotiation. So to my mind peace negotiations are more or less in the same place as our logic from ‘56 and our fight for freedom, because somehow the big, the strong, the occupying power must be forced to give up its plans; and this can hardly be achieved by defeating it, by military victory, because the fight was against the Soviets back then, and against the Russians now. So we need peace negotiations. And in Europe there’s a peace camp, if I may put it like that, which follows this logic. The Holy Father is speaking up for peace. Kissinger is speaking up for peace. I’ve been in Germany, there’s a highly respected philosopher there called Habermas – a left-winger by the way, not from our political community – who’s saying the same thing. Now I see there are American Republicans, and important – even world-leading – businesspeople. My feeling is that calls for a ceasefire and then peace negotiations after a ceasefire are getting stronger. This would also bring economic relief, because as long as the war continues and the West continues to respond with sanctions, neither inflation nor energy prices will fall. So the path to fairer, healthier, more equitable prices and economic conditions runs through a ceasefire and peace.
At the same time, sanctions could be a means of forcing peace – if they weaken Russia.
We’ve seen good sanctions in the world – but not very many. If you look back through history, you can see that countries are cautious with sanctions, because only two or three out of ten work, and sometimes it hurts those imposing them more than those being subjected to them. In world history we’ve seen successful sanctions, but for that they have to be carefully worked out and well thought through; and one has to ensure that side effects from sanctions don’t have a greater and more destructive effect on those imposing the sanctions than on those being subjected to the sanctions. The problem now is that Brussels has… There’s a phrase for this that’s popular with football fans, which I won’t say; I’ll just say that Brussels has bungled. So these sanctions are badly designed. To start with, the energy sanction is dubious and problematic. Throughout world history, sanctions have been imposed by those in a dominant position. Now, in terms of energy, it’s doubtful whether we’re in a dominant position, because we’re the buyers and the Russians are the suppliers. So we’re used to seeing a giant imposing sanctions on a dwarf; but it’s unusual for an energy dwarf – which is us, the West – to impose sanctions on an energy giant. For six months we’ve been urging the European Commission to come up with a proposal for a price cut to accompany the sanctions. But it hasn’t done this, and so now we have sanction-induced inflation: we’re paying a sanction surcharge on energy because of the bad sanctions, we can’t compensate for the energy prices, the bad sanctions have caused the prices to go up, and we’re all paying the price.
Is such a price reduction proposal even on the agenda in the European Union? Because counter to this we can see that public statements at least point in the direction of Brussels trying to continue along the sanctions path: the gas price cap is constantly on the agenda, and the eighth package of sanctions already includes an oil price cap, from which Hungary has been exempted.
What Hungary is doing is that first of all we’re following the sanctions proposals on the table in detail, letter by letter. So we have our best people at the Foreign Ministry working on this. We’re looking at every single word to make sure that in the sanctions there are no obvious or hidden consequences that would impact Hungary negatively. And then, because there always are, when we find them – when we’ve managed to discover them – we’ll launch our own fight to ensure that the sanctions don’t extend to areas that aren’t good for us – or if they do, that they’ll be accompanied by compensation. But so far no compensation has been added, so the only battle tactic we have is to fight with bayonets fixed to exempt Hungary from the consequences of sanctions. If we cannot stop them, we must be exempted. And this is something that we’ve achieved so far: in every sanctions package we’ve been able to obtain relief from the effects of sanctions that would have a negative impact on the Hungarian energy market. In this way the sanctions packages didn’t have a major impact on us. The problem, however, is that we’re in a common European market. Hungary can exempt itself from certain negative consequences. For example, the West isn’t buying Russian oil, but we are: they’re switching their systems because they have coastlines and they can import energy, oil or liquefied natural gas by ship, but we can’t. But the truth is that if prices go up in Europe, they’ll drag Hungarian prices up with them. So the ultimate solution to high energy prices would be for the European Union to abandon this policy of sanctions. We’re a long way from that, so we still have a lot to fight for. But we’re not in a hopeless situation, given that the system of sanctions is one which has to be renewed every six months. Now the next time we’ll have one of these encounters will be sometime in November or December, and after that another six months later. So there’s an opportunity for the European Commission to come to its senses and correct the mistakes it’s made so far. There was also a summit of prime ministers in Prague last week, and there’s growing dissatisfaction there, so the tone that was previously only struck by Hungary is now becoming the norm. Everyone’s saying, “But that’s not what you promised!” I won’t say which leaders, but the leaders of major countries are saying, “You promised that the sanctions would hurt the Russians more than they hurt us. We don’t know exactly how much it hurts the Russians, but it’s certainly hurting us. You also promised that these sanctions would be reasonable. They’re not! And you also promised that this would bring us closer to ending the war; instead, the war is escalating.” So now Hungary isn’t the only one asking this question: What’s going on? And in whose interest are these things happening? Because while we’re cutting ourselves off from Russian energy, we’re importing energy from America. And if I compare American natural gas prices with the prices at which American gas is sold in Europe, I see a huge difference: energy is five to ten times cheaper in America than it is here, in Europe, where we buy it from them. So something’s not right here, and therefore we must also ask our American friends: What’s going on here, my dear friends? Who’s gaining from this? Because we Europeans are certainly losing, and we see that you’re gaining and the Russians are at least not losing. So the way this is all set up is that we Europeans can only lose.
Naturally one aspect is the question of prices and another is the question of security of supply. Meanwhile, of course, the Russians have made it clear that if there are price caps, they’ll stop supplying both oil and gas. And yet in recent weeks there have been explosions and leaks related to various oil and gas pipelines. How does this affect Hungary’s security of supply? Can gas and oil be guaranteed under all circumstances, even from the south?
Here we need to speak in strong tones. So what’s happened is that gas pipelines have been blown up and ruptured, and it’s a serious matter. The term I hear most often is sabotage, but at the prime minister’s summit I also said that in our view and under Hungarian law this is an act of terrorism. And if some state has a hand in this, then a terrorist state has carried it out or provided support for it. The reason we have to use such a strong tone is partly because we weren’t born yesterday, and because this didn’t happen at the end of the world, but in a location somewhere in the vicinity of Swedish-Danish territorial waters. So every square centimetre of space there is under constant surveillance. I won’t accept the excuse that it can’t be said what happened, who was there recently, and when they did what they did. We live in a world where even the windows in our homes are being looked through from satellites, so unless our curtains are drawn we must be alert in protecting our own privacy. So how, in the 21st century, couldn’t the movements needed to carry out such large terrorist acts be detected and recorded? A Hungarian finds that hard to believe. But anyway, it’s for the big boys to investigate the situation. What’s important for us – and this is why we have to speak in strong tones – is that the last large-capacity pipeline bringing gas from the south, bringing Russian gas from the south to Europe, and thus to Hungary, is the Turkish pipeline. The name of this refers to Türkiye, and we’re supplying Hungary through this pipeline. And I’ve made it clear that if someone blows it up or makes it inoperable, Hungary will regard that as a terrorist attack and will take action in response – as Serbia has earlier said it will, because the pipeline runs through their country.
We’ve already spoken about inflation, which is one of the effects or one of the consequences of this situation, and this is indeed breaking records throughout Europe – on an almost monthly basis. How long can we – especially families – keep up with this level of inflation, and how can the Government fight against it?
First we should understand that this is sanctions-induced inflation, and when we pay higher prices in the shops – whether for energy or food – we’re paying a sanctions surcharge. So if the European Union were to accept that we need to change the sanctions policy and, say, abolish, suspend or transform it, then very quickly – I think within a few days – the prices of certain products, including energy, would be halved at least. It’s important to understand that this high inflation isn’t caused by the laws of the market or the economy: this inflation has been introduced into the economy from outside, from the sphere of politics. If the bureaucrats in Brussels had been smarter politicians, if the bureaucrats in Brussels had been more prudent, we wouldn’t have this inflation today and we wouldn’t have these energy prices today. There are different calculations, but the international consensus is that energy prices are directly responsible for around 40 to 50 per cent of the current overall high price levels, and indirectly responsible for around 30 per cent. This also shows that a solution should be found there. The most important thing now, however, is that people shouldn’t sit back and tolerate such things. I’ve seen this before, if I may recall my own professional experience: when I was prime minister for the first time, in 1998, inflation was somewhere over 10 per cent – around 15 per cent – and we managed to halve it with a year and a half of hard work. And even in 2010 we somehow had inflation of around 5 to 6 per cent, and we brought it back down to almost zero. So the current government has experience of how to fight inflation. And the most important thing is not to tolerate it, not to simply watch it, not to resign oneself to it, but to fight inflation today, to take action. The Government has been dealing with this issue, and it’s dealing with it on a regular basis. I’ve now put this back on the agenda and have respectfully asked the Governor of the Central Bank and instructed the Finance Minister to ensure that inflation is halved – or at least halved – by the end of next year, and brought down to single figures, even if the international environment is pulling us in the opposite direction. This is a difficult technical question: If Hungary is in a high-inflation environment, is it possible to bring prices down in Hungary? There are limits and difficulties related to this, but we mustn’t give up. And so we must fight, we must fight against high prices. Because this is a torment for people and families: it destroys companies, it brings unemployment, and families have to live off the reserves they’ve built up over the last few years through their hard work. This is why the fight against inflation is really a series of measures to protect families. Action must be taken against speculators, because there are always speculators behind inflation. Every effort must be made to transform the sanctions policy, and it’s essential to prevent the imposition of further inflation-inducing sanctions. So we have options.
The National Consultation has also started, and the first questionnaires are being sent out today. Some themes have already been made public: there will be questions on sanctions affecting tourism, on nuclear energy and on natural gas supplies. What does the Government expect from the Consultation?
We’re in the midst of an international battle. Europe is increasingly dividing into two camps. One of these believes that sanctions should continue in their current form and with the same logic, and that this will deliver results. And then there is the other camp – including us – which argues that it’s absolutely imperative to change the sanctions policy, because we’re dying, it’s killing us. And I regularly raise this issue at the meeting of prime ministers, when I ask, “Madam President of the Commission, how long are we going to continue doing this? And has anyone calculated how much longer families can cope with this? And if the answer to how long we’re going to continue is in America, have we talked to our American friends? Have the big boys – the leaders of the big European countries and the leaders of the Commission – talked to the Americans about how long we’re going to do this, where the end of this is, what is to be endured, what the schedule is, what families, companies and so on can expect?” These are questions that need to be answered by those who are imposing the sanctions. If they can’t give us an answer, then they can’t expect us to even tacitly acknowledge these sanctions, and so we have to fight for exemptions at every turn. It’s very important that so far we’ve been able to stay out of the sanctions policy and have fought for exemptions. This means that the sanctions are plaguing us through indirect mechanisms, but if we hadn’t been able to exempt ourselves from sanctions, inflation would be higher than it is today: Hungarian energy prices would be higher, and indeed there wouldn’t be enough energy. But today Hungary has 48.5 per cent of its annual natural gas consumption in storage. So even if for some reason gas suddenly stopped coming, Hungary would still be able to operate without disruption for about six months. This fantastic achievement is essentially due to the work of the Foreign Minister, and in terms of energy security it puts us in the top three in Europe.
But on the subject of the National Consultation you also mentioned that this is somehow a big boys’ fight. So how can people’s opinions influence it?
An argument that tends to be decisive – though of course to make it work it has to be said again and again – is that the sanctions weren’t introduced democratically. No one was asked about them. These sanctions have been decided on by the bureaucrats in Brussels and the European elite, but nowhere in the whole of Europe have the people of any country been asked what they think about them. And for the time being, in Europe we still have democracy, and what people think matters. In this respect Hungary is leading the way, because we regularly ask the Hungarian people about the most difficult European questions, and we even involve them in the decisions. We did this on migration, on which we had to fight a big battle in Brussels and needed a democratic mandate from the Hungarian people; we did it on COVID, and we’re doing it now. So in Hungary our custom is to find the political means to create a majority or a full national consensus. The Government can then use this, and fight much more effectively in the battles in Brussels than if it didn’t have this in its hands or backing it up. For me this is very helpful: on the one hand, I can be sure that what the Government thinks is shared by the majority; and on the other hand, I have a tool in my hands enabling me to make it clear on the international stage that there’s a line that cannot be crossed, because the Hungarian people won’t accept it.
Youve just mentioned migration, and yesterday the EU’s coast and border defence agency Frontex said that in this respect the Balkan route is the most active: there was an increase of 170 per cent in the first nine months of this year. Last week you met the Serbian president and the Austrian chancellor and raised the idea of stopping migration at the Serbian-North Macedonian border. How could this be done?
First of all, we have to accept that border protection cannot be handled by Frontex, which is the name for the common European border protection agency. I certainly recognise its work, but if you look at it, Frontex isn’t a border defence body, but a travel agency. So it makes sure that migrants arriving at the borders are processed and treated humanely. Well, they virtually let them in! This isn’t what we need. What we need is to be able to use actual military force, physical force, to defend our borders against those crossing them illegally, because it’s a crime to cross a border illegally. And crossing a border unilaterally, without the consent of the state concerned, isn’t an act to be supported, but a violation of the boundaries of the law. In other words it must be punished; because if someone is free to walk in and out of our country without us knowing what’s happening, where they’re going and what they want, it poses an extremely serious security risk for us. This is why we have a fence on Hungary’s southern border, and this is why we have our border hunters there, whom – perhaps on behalf of us all – I’d like to most respectfully thank for their work. So we’ve prevented almost 200,000 attempts to cross Hungary borders illegally [this year]. That’s 200,000 criminal offences! And so far this year we’ve caught and prosecuted two thousand people smugglers – two thousand people smugglers! This shows that the figures from Frontex – the European border protection agency – are accurate: the pressure on the Balkan route is enormous. The figures are reminiscent of the great invasion, the migratory invasion wave of 2015. We can build up the fence, and we are increasing its height, and we can increase the numbers of our border guards and police officers – and we are increasing them. But the real solution would be for migrants not to pile up on the Serbian-Hungarian border, barging into our fence; it would be for us to be able to defend Serbia’s southern border, with this whole conflict and difficult situation focused more on the Macedonian-Serbian southern border. This is in everyone’s interest. For the Austrians, too, because anyone who somehow gets over the fence will sooner or later head for Austria. It’s also in our interest, because border defence requires a huge amount of energy, attention and money. And it’s also in the interest of the Serbs, because at the moment illegal migrants who can’t get into Hungary are remaining on Serbian territory. So the leaders of our three countries met precisely because our interests coincide, and we’d like to move the security line – which is currently on the Serbian-Hungarian border – southwards, to the Macedonian-Serbian border. We still have to negotiate, and soon I’ll be going to Belgrade for the next round of negotiations.
Can we expect any EU solution or help? Because all the experts – even those giving the most optimistic estimates – acknowledge that the migration pressure certainly won’t decrease in the near future. Once more there are reports from Brussels that some kind of solidarity mechanism could be placed on the agenda.
The term “solidarity mechanism” sounds girlishly mild, and one almost warms to it; but what it actually means is the sharing out of illegal border crossers among ourselves. So Hungary’s spending billions of forints – hundreds of billions – to defend its southern border; meanwhile other countries aren’t doing that, but they’ll collar a migrant, share him out and say that we’ll get some of him. That’s unacceptable! Obviously these distribution mechanisms – so benignly called “solidarity” – must be prevented at all costs. And up until now – from 2015 to now, which is more than seven years – I’ve always managed to prevent them, even though in debates and the international media I’ve sometimes received the same ratings as Beelzebub! But I don’t care, because no matter what they write, Hungary’s borders must be defended. There will be no refugee camps here, no migrants will come here, and we shall not be told from elsewhere who we will live alongside. Who lives in Hungary, who we Hungarians want to live alongside and who we don’t want to live alongside, is a decision that can only be made by the Hungarian people and the parliament and government they’ve elected.
In the past half an hour I’ve been asking Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about the Brussels sanctions, the National Consultation and illegal migration.