NT: The government’s critics say that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is only friendly towards the European Union or Russia when he wants something from them – the rest of the time he is rather generous with his criticism – is that true?
ZsN: I think it would be a mistake to think that the Prime Minister criticises Russia, the EU or anybody else just because he loves to be critical. I can assure you that this is not the case. Rather his approach in a number of important issues is a bit different than that of some of his partners, and articulating this might sometimes sound like criticism. The actual events can prove or disprove his vision – just recently he might feel his approach to a number of issues has won approval – but it would certainly not be either kind or appropriate to question his right to articulate his views.
NT: The Prime Minister recently had cordial meetings in Brussels with President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy. Hungarian relations with the EU have often been strained since Fidesz came to power. Has there been a sea-change, and if so why, and why now?
ZsN: The most important reason is that we have achieved what we planned, and now we have arrived at a point where we wish to consolidate what we have achieved. We have been able to explain, more or less, the motivations behind all our measures to our European partners, and we have demonstrated that we are ready for a constructive and rational dialogue. The political debates in the European Parliament, those with legal relevance with the European Commission and economic questions all fall within the appropriate mechanisms of the EU as well. And democracy-related questions, unrelated to Community law have been tackled by the Council of Europe. I believe that this attitude of the Hungarian government, our openness to dialogue, was central to the kind of relationship you mention.
NT: Are you saying that you did not explain your policies properly in Brussels until now?
ZsN: You’re right, we didn’t. We had too much to explain all at once. And obviously we have made some mistakes as well. We had a huge workload at the beginning, and that was the reason why we couldn’t explain ourselves properly. Sometimes we had to correct ourselves, and demonstrate that all our measures were motivated by goodwill. But the thrust of the measures was that we had to reconstruct not just the Hungarian state itself, but many of its sub-structures, because the transformation in these fields begun in 1990 was not completed. These measures, these fundamental steps had to be taken.
The two thirds majority of Fidesz was vitally needed for the more democratic operation and the more effective state administration of Hungary in future.
NT: And the prize is the dropping of the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP). How confident are you that that will happen?
ZsN: We hope that we will be able to make it. We have been able to keep the deficit under 3 percent in the last two years. Our most recent decisions on cash-registers (to be connected directly to the National Tax and Customs Administration of Hungary – eds.) and electronic motorway fees will be enough to demonstrate that we will be able to keep the deficit under 3 percent this year. Then we will have two months to explain that the prospects for 2014 are also credible, to keep the deficit below 2.7 percent. If we can do this, there will be a very realistic chance that Hungary will be freed from the EDP in which we have been imprisoned since 2004.
NT: Hungary has won an improved offer from the EU cohesion and structural funds for the 2014–2020 period. You did this in alliance with other countries. Surely this is an example of what can be achieved when Hungary does not stand alone, against the world, but seeks like-minded allies?
ZsN: Hungary has never been against the world and, especially, not against Europe. What is more, we fight not only for ourselves. We fight for a Europe that is able to resist the different waves of crises. Europe needs a sustainable society that is able to run a competitive economy. We did our homework in this respect; in the course of two years we stabilised our economy – which is part of the European economies – and hopefully this year we will realise an economic breakthrough in the area of growth. However, you are right to notice that the understanding for our vision has been steadily growing recently throughout Europe. It’s a good idea to refer to those who co-operate with us in this respect as “like-minded allies”.
NT: Nevertheless, even together, this block of countries was not able to prevent a fall by ten per cent in the sum available. Would it be fair to say that Hungary and its allies can slow down, but not stop, the division of the EU into blocks of richer and poorer states?
ZsN: I would not express the situation in such dramatic terms. What happened was a deal among 27 member states, and we have to accept that several member states were unwilling to see the EU budget grow while their national budgets shrink.I fully agree, however, with the idea that we cannot build a stronger EU with less money, and I am also one hundred percent sure that an EU where cohesion is not strong enough, where the divergence between member states grows instead of diminishing, cannot win the race on the global scale. But we should see that cohesion policy remains one of the strongest policies of the EU which, if used well, can be the engine for poorer member states to catch up.
NT: The Prime Minister is fond of portraying the Hungarian economy under his leadership as a success story, while the European Union founders in heavy seas. Other European statesmen see the situation as rather the opposite. Which successes of your government have gained the most recognition in Brussels?
ZsN: I think it might be better to look at the exact numbers instead of producing different labels. Hungary has successfully reduced its public debt. Compared with the third quarter of 2011, Hungary registered the second largest decrease in the debt to GDP ratio at the end of the third quarter of 2012. Hungary successfully kept its budget deficit below 3 percent of GDP in 2011 and 2012. And the government is firmly committed to further reduce both public debt and the budgetary deficit. We expect that the excessive deficit procedure will be ended this year. Hungary recorded a current account surplus of 779.62 million euros in the third quarter of 2012. In addition Hungary has made major structural reforms (in the fields of employment and the labour market, in the pension system, in higher education and public administration). All this has made our economy one of the most competitive in Europe. We have a stable political and a recovering economic background. All this in the context of a crisis on a global scale! Not too many European states can show such a record.
NT: What does Hungary actually want from Russia today, and can it get it?
ZsN: Business based on mutual interest and respect, and we expect that we will achieve this.
NT: Not much has been made public about the Prime Minister’s visit to Russia, and about the actual substance of the talks between Mr Orbán and Mr Putin. What exactly was discussed? What agreements were reached?
ZsN: Mutual respect, and mutual interests – these were the two main aspects of our visit to Moscow. We demonstrated that Hungary is not held captive by any emotional antagonism vis-à-vis Russia. This was important for a post-Communist transitioncountry. We have tremendous mutual interests as well, especially in the field of energy. The strategic agreement on energy between Russia and Hungary will expire in 2014. We have started negotiations on that. Most Central European countries have been able to sign a strategic agreement for the next decades, especially on gas and oil. Nuclear energy also plays an important role in the Hungarian energy mix. Two new blocks will be built at Paks, and there is a parliamentary consensus in Hungary – all the parties support this.
The Russians show a very keen interest in the expansion of the Paks nuclear power station. We have made it clear that we want to keep it in Hungarian state hands, it will not be privatised. The expansion will be subject to open competition, and the Russians are welcome to participate. We want to make the tendering process as open and transparent as possible. Obviously other important energy questions like the Hungarian gas storage capacity, which is unique in Central Europe and crucial to the supply of the Western Balkans in particular were also discussed. We made it clear this capacity is open for anybody including the Russians. Economic relations do not just concern energy. We would like to deepen our trade relations and our financial relations. Hungarian agricultural products were rather widely distributed on the Russian market for decades. We would like to return to this point, and we had very good talks and have good perspectives in this regard.
NT: A key issue raised in the recent referendum on nuclear power in Bulgaria was that it increases dependence on Russia. Since the disaster at Fukushima, Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power and replace it with safer alternatives. Why can’t Hungary follow the German example?
ZsN: Of course we could, but that would not be in our interest because our circumstances are not comparable with those of Germany or Bulgaria. The Hungarian National Energy Strategy’s mid-term vision includes an electricity generation mix of nuclear, coal and renewables, with the aim of providing clean energy for consumers at an affordable price and of reducing our import dependence on fossil fuels. Nuclear energy is a very important part of Hungary’s power generation, as the power plant in Paks accounts for almost 40 percent of all electricity generated in the country. On 4 October 2012, the European Commission released the results of the so-called stress tests that followed the Fukushima incident. The results of the comprehensive risk and safety assessment showed that the Hungarian NPP at Paks is safe and well-prepared for any kind of foreseeable incidents. Meanwhile, the 1st unit of the Paks NPP received a service life extension license for another 20 years of operation at the end of 2012 – this is another proof of the excellent and safe state of the power plant. Furthermore, we are committed to realise the European climate and energy policy goals, including sustainability, but also guaranteeing the security of supply and competitiveness, bearing in mind that the liberalisation process has been initiated for the benefit of consumers, guaranteeing lower energy prices and a secure supply of energy; and emphasising that decisions on the general structure of electricity generation are in the competence of the member states.
NT: How does Hungarian policy towards Russia fit into its policy towards “the East” in general?
ZsN: We expect the same from all countries that are not our allies but are still important partners for us: business based on mutual interest, as I mentioned above. In the case of Russia the plan is a bit more ambitious than with others, because our history is different. But Hungary used to be under Turkish and Mongolian occupation, too, in the distant past. It is high time to start to overcome and go beyond historical controversies with Russia too. Future developments in our bilateral relations will show whether the time is already ripe for that.
NT: Is it realistic to expect significant investment – in these investment starved years – from the Middle East, China or anywhere else in South East Asia?
ZsN: I am convinced that it is realistic: there are plenty of potential investors in these regions. According to our foreign economy strategy we would like to attract such investments to our country which fit into our course of development and are in accordance with our political interests. Our experience is that there are companies in the regions you have just mentioned which are able and ready to offer such deals. And when we speak of the Middle East we include the Gulf region and Israel as well, of course. I am glad to say that our negotiations are bearing more and more fruit.
NT: When the Prime Minister described his people as “semi-Asian” – what did he actually mean? During his past political career, if I am not mistaken, he has used the word “Asian” to refer to Russian or Turkish invasions.
ZsN: The exact words the Prime Minister used were the following: “We Hungarians are a European nation commonly associated with an Asian background.” We have always been proud of our Asian heritage and relatives, and the success of that region nowadays makes such nostalgia even more popular in Hungary. Of course, the meaning of the words depends on their context. The deep European and Christian commitment of Hungary is not questioned by anyone.
NT: You have recently been involved in controversy over the fight of the Hungarian Székely (or Szekler) people in Romania for autonomy, and the right to fly their own flag. What is the dispute about, and might it not undermine good relations between Hungary and Romania?
ZsN: The central question is the safeguarding of the identity of national minorities and the use of historical regional symbols. Everywhere across Europe you will see people who are proud of their local and regional identity. Hopefully this issue will not undermine our good relations but it does not depend on us alone. We would like to have good relations with Romania and before 2012 this relationship functioned smoothly. Hungarian–Romanian relations have possibly never been as good as they were between 2010 and 2012. But since the new government in Romania entered into office we experience relative instability in the country, combined with a series of breaches of human rights, like the free use of minority language and symbols. Therefore we cannot say that everything is all right. But I do hope that these are temporary phenomena because the Romanian people do not expect anti-minority actions from their government. I could mention Slovakia here. We have plenty of divergences of opinion with that country, and yet we have still been able to start negotiating about them. We are doomed to return to cooperation in the spirit of strategic partnership.
NT: The Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlăţean has sharply criticised Hungary. Was it not a provocation for the Hungarian Parliament at the recent meeting of Hungarian deputies from across the Carpathian basin, to hoist the flag?
ZsN: The Székelys are a 600–700,000 strong Hungarian minority in Romania. They are an overwhelming majority in two counties, and in these places the communal flag of these communities is the Székely flag. It is hung alongside the European Union flag and the Romanian state flag. Unfortunately in the last couple of months, since November there have been legal cases and administrative measures in response. In certain places local governments have been penalised for flying the flag, there have been court decisions to ban its use in public places, and as a reaction Hungarian local governments (in Hungary) decided to show solidarity with the Székelys by hoisting their flag. And the Hungarian Parliament also showed solidarity in this way. The reaction of the Romanian authorities was strong. The provocation however came from their side, when they started to penalise and prohibit the use of the flag of the Hungarian community in Romania.
NT: What can Hungary do to resolve this dispute?
ZsN: We have been able to channel this hysteria into diplomatic dialogue, and the two Foreign Ministers had a substantial discussion on the matter. I also had the opportunity to talk to the Romanian Foreign Minister on the margins of the Foreign Affairs Council. We have agreed that we will continue a rational dialogue on this subject, how the symbols of national minorities and national communities can be used in public and in private. Obviously there are many other questions which relate to this. As I said, since the change of the government in Romania (in December 2012), the number of these human rights and minority rights related problems have grown. Let me refer to the establishment of the Hungarian faculty of the Medical University in Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureş), which was also blocked by the new Romanian government, despite the fact that the education law allows it. A block on the return of church property is also another issue which relates to the community rights of Hungarians in Romania. We hope that the new Romanian government will find the way back to where its predecessor stood. The Hungarian minority is a very stable component of bilateral relations. The rights of the minorities do not mean any danger for the security of the state. On the contrary, in Europe respect for human and minority rights is a stabilising factor for the state, for democracies, and on this basis we are ready to cooperate with Romania, as we have plenty of common interests. We are neighbours, and there is a great potential for cooperation between us.
NT: How do you decide whether your actions here in Budapest actually help the Hungarian minority in Romania or other neighbouring countries? When should you speak out, and when remain silent and leave it to the interest-representation bodies within each country?
ZsN: I believe that it is the job of the latter, predominantly. They have to stand up for their rights, and Hungary has a kind of backing role in this regard. That is why it is important to maintain our communication with these organisations, and that’s why we have the Hungarian Standing Conference. And it is with that aim in mind that the Carpathian Basin Hungarian Representatives regularly meet. This has to be a good mechanism. And those minorities and interest-representation bodies which work in the neighbouring countries have to stand up for their rights. They are the citizens and tax payers of those countries, so they have a right and obligation towards their own country. Hungary can help them, and that is what we are trying to supply them with.
NT: Have you now turned the corner with Romania? Are you moving towards a resolution of this difference of opinion with the Romanian government, or are you still heading into the storm?
ZsN: I believe we are coming out of the storm. In the foreseeable future, the Hungarian Foreign Minister will travel to Bucharest at the invitation of Titus Corlăţean. The visit will take place in the spring. [It took place since then, in early March (eds.).] We have a multi-faceted relationship with Romania, not just between Foreign Ministries, and we hope the dialogue will bring fruits soon.
NT: Hungary is also involved in a dispute with Slovakia about the right of ethnic Hungarians to claim Hungarian citizenship. Some forty Hungarians have been stripped of their Slovak citizenship so far. Do you think the various international and Slovak bodies dealing with this issue will solve it in favour of your government’s position?
ZsN: This is not a story about the Hungarian government or any other government, but simply about people. Also due to an increased level of integration nowadays, double citizenship is becoming more and more a common practice in Europe. And it is not encouraging to see elderly ladies prevented from acceding to national healthcare in their own hometown just because they apply for Hungarian citizenship. But the ice is already melting: our countries have entered into dialogue in order to solve the divergences around the citizenship issue. Of course, political dialogue alone does not solve the problem of individuals experiencing discrimination. But it opens the perspectives for solutions and I hope that the political elite and the people of Slovakia will understand: Hungary and the Hungarians in Slovakia are not their enemies. On the contrary, we represent great opportunities and prosperity for each another!
NT: You’ve just attended a meeting between President Ivan Gaşparovič of Slovakia and
President János Áder of Hungary. What was discussed?
ZsN: We have a nearly year-long relationship with the Fico cabinet. And we have a very positive experience, unlike with the previous Fico cabinet. This cooperation is based on stability and trust and dialogue, and I think it was high time that after nine years the Slovak President paid a visit to Hungary. We have identified our results; we have been very successful in the frames of cohesion cooperation, which resulted in a very good final outcome of the budgetary situation of Slovakia and Hungary, regarding the European financial framework. We have been able in the past one year to decide on crucial questions like the building of 20 border crossing bridges and roads, to exploit the advantages of the Schengen agreement to which we both belong. We have been able to touch on sensitive questions, for example the János Selye Hungarian University in Révkomárom (Komárno) in Slovakia, whose existence we are very glad about, and we have agreed that we will contribute to the development of that university in order to facilitate the accreditation, to make it a good university in Slovakia.
We also have some open questions which relate to dual citizenship. We hope there will be a change in that legislation. Actually 400 people altogether have lost their citizenship [Slovakia has outlawed dual citizenship – eds.], but only some thirty something are Hungarian. So the majority of the problem relates to British, German and American citizens.
We believe in our times that double citizenship in Europe and in the West is more or less the rule. We can respect the right of those countries to prohibit it, but sooner or later they will come under pressure from their own citizens to change something. We have established a working mechanism, the two Foreign Ministers have their representatives who are negotiating the possible amendment of the (Slovak) citizenship legislation, and we also have hopes in the field of education and the free use of the minority language. The two Presidents agreed that we will prepare a list of problems together in the foreseeable future. Hopefully on the basis of this list we will be able to gradually solve these open questions and continue in a positive spirit the good cooperation which exists between Hungary and Slovakia.